That July morning, I remember, was like any other, calm and opalescent before the heat of the fierce Georgia sun. I was 13: sunburned, shaggy-haired, a little aloof, and solitary. In winter I had to put on shoes and go to school like everyone else. But summers I lived by the sea, and my mind was empty and wild and free.
On this particular morning, I had tied my rowboat to the pilings of an old dock upriver from our village. There, sometimes, the striped sheepshead lurked in the still, green water. I was crouched, motionless as a stone, when a voice spoke suddenly above my head: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook, or his tongue with a cord which thou let test down?”
I looked up, startled, into a lean, pale face and a pair of the most remarkable eyes I had ever seen. It wasn’t a question of color; I’m not sure, now, what color they were. It was a combination of things: warmth, humor, interest, alertness. Intensity—that’s the word, I guess—and, underlying it all, a curious kind of mocking sadness. I believe I thought him old.
He saw how taken aback I was. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s a bit early in the morning for the Book of Job, isn’t it?” He nodded at the two or three fish in the boat. “Think you could teach me how to catch those?”
Ordinarily, I was wary of strangers, but anyone interested in fishing was hardly a stranger. I nodded, and he climbed down into the boat. “Perhaps we should introduce ourselves,” he said. “But then again, perhaps not. You’re a boy willing to teach, I’m a teacher willing to learn. That’s introduction enough. I’ll call you ‘Boy,’ and you call me ‘Sir.'”
Such talk sounded strange in my world of sun and salt water. But there was something so magnetic about the man, and so disarming about his smile, that I didn’t care.
I handed him a hand line and showed him how to bait his hooks with fiddler crabs. He kept losing baits, because he could not recognize a sheepshead’s stealthy tug, but he seemed content not to catch any thing. He told me he had rented one of the weathered bungalows behind the dock. “I needed to hide for a while,” he said. “Not from the police, or anything like that. Just from friends and relatives. So don’t tell anyone you’ve found me, will you?”
I was tempted to ask where he was from; there was a crispness in he way he spoke that was very different from the soft accents I was accustomed to. But I didn’t. He had said he was a teacher, though, and so I asked what he taught.
“In the school catalogue they call it English,” he said. “But I like to think of it as a course in magic—in the mystery and magic of words. Are you fond of words?”
I said that I had never thought much about them. I also pointed out that the tide was ebbing, that the current was too strong for more fishing, and that in any case it was time for breakfast.
“Of course,” he said, pulling in his line. “I’m a little forgetful about such things these days.” He eased himself back onto the dock with a little grimace, as if the effort cost him something. “Will you be back on the river later?”
I said that I would probably go casting for shrimp at low tide.
“Stop by,” he said. “We’ll talk about words for a while, and then perhaps you can show me how to catch shrimp.”
So began a most unlikely friendship, because I did go back. To this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because, for the first time, I had met an adult on terms that were in balance. In the realm of words and ideas, he might be the teacher. But in my own small universe of winds and tides and sea creatures, the wisdom belonged to me.
Almost every day after that, we’d go wherever the sea gods or my whim decreed. Sometimes up the silver creeks, where the terrapin skittered down the banks and the great blue herons stood like statues. Sometimes along the ocean dunes, fringed with graceful sea oats, where by night the great sea turtles crawled and by day the wild goats browsed. I showed him where the mullet swirled and where the flounder lay in cunning camouflage. I learned that he was incapable of much exertion; even pulling up the anchor seemed to exhaust him. But he never complained. And, all the time, talk flowed from him like a river.
Much of it I have forgotten now, but some comes back as clear and distinct as if it all happened yesterday, not decades ago. We might be sitting in a hollow of the dunes, watching the sun go down in a smear of crimson. “Words,” he’d say. “Just little black marks on paper. Just sounds in the empty air. But think of the power they have! They can make you laugh or cry, love or hate, fight or run away. They can heal or hurt. They even come to look and sound like what they mean. Angry looks angry on the page. Ugly sounds ugly when you say it. Here!” He would hand me a piece of shell. “Write a word that looks or sounds like what it means.”
I would stare helplessly at the sand.
“Oh,” he’d cry, “you’re being dense. There are so many! Like whisper…leaden…twilight…chime. Tell you what: when you go to bed tonight, think of five words that look like what they mean and five that sound like what they mean. Don’t go to sleep until you do!”
And I would try—but always fall asleep.
Or we might be anchored just off shore, casting into the surf for sea bass, our little bateau nosing over the rollers like a restless hound. “Rhythm,” he would say. “Life is full of it; words should have it, too. But you have to train your ear. Listen to the waves on a quiet night; you’ll pick up the cadence. Look at the patterns the wind makes in dry sand and you’ll see how syllables in a sentence should fall. Do you know what I mean?”
My conscious self didn’t know; but perhaps something deep inside me did. In any case, I listened.
I listened, too, when he read from the books he sometimes brought: Kipling, Conan Doyle, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Often he would stop and repeat a phrase or a line that pleased him. One day, in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, he found one: “And the great horse grimly neighed.” “Close your eyes,” he said to me, “and say that slowly, out loud.” I did. “How did it make you feel?” “It gives me the shivers,” I said truthfully. He was delighted.
But the magic that he taught was not confined to words; he had a way of generating in me an excitement about things I had always taken for granted. He might point to a bank of clouds. “What do you see there? Colors? That’s not enough. Look for towers and drawbridges. Look for dragons and griffins and strange and wonderful beasts.”
Or he might pick up an angry, claw-brandishing blue crab, holding it cautiously by the back flippers as I had taught him. “Pretend you’re this crab,” he’d say. “What do you see through those stalk-like eyes? What do you feel with those complicated legs? What goes on in your tiny brain? Try it for just five seconds. Stop being a boy. Be a crab!” And I would stare in amazement at the furious creature, feeling my comfortable identity lurch and sway under the impact of the idea.
So the days went by. Our excursions became less frequent, because he tired so easily. He brought two chairs down to the dock and some books, but he didn’t read much. He seemed content to watch me as I fished, or the circling gulls, or the slow river coiling past.
A sudden shadow fell across my life when my parents told me I was going to camp for two weeks. On the dock that afternoon I asked my friend if he would be there when I got back. “I hope so,” he said gently.
But he wasn’t. I remember standing on the sun-warmed planking of the old dock, staring at the shuttered bungalow and feeling a hollow sense of finality and loss. I ran to Jackson’s grocery store—where everyone knew everything—and asked where the schoolteacher had gone.
“He was sick, real sick,” Mrs. Jackson replied. “Doc phoned his relatives up north to come get him. He left something for you—he figured you’d be asking after him.”
She handed me a book. It was a slender volume of verse, Flame and Shadow, by someone I had never heard of: Sara Teasdale. The corner of one page was turned down, and there was a penciled star by one of the poems. I still have the book, with that poem, “On the Dunes.”
If there is any life when death is over,
These tawny beaches will know much of me,
I shall come back, as constant and as changeful
As the unchanging, many-colored sea.
If life was small, if it has made me scornful,
Forgive me; I shall straighten like a flame
In the great calm of death, and if you want me
Stand on the sea-ward dunes and call my name.
Well, I have never stood on the dunes and called his name. For one thing, I never knew it; for another, I’d be too self-conscious. And there are long stretches when I forget all about him. But sometimes—when the music or the magic in a phrase makes my skin tingle, or when I pick up an angry blue crab, or when I see a dragon in the flaming sky—sometimes I remember.