It’s not really the ocean, it’s the sound. When the highway runs out in my grandmother’s town what you hit is the flat sound. Really it’s my grandfather’s town. My grandmother grew up even further out. In a town that is named after cedars though all the trees are junipers. It’s where you catch the ferry to Ocracoke or you can. Now most people drive down the Virginia way. This is North Carolina. These are islands in the water between the coastline and the Outer Banks. But now there are bridges and nobody thinks of them as floating things or at least I don’t. Basically it’s just marsh.
There were never bridges. For a long time there were never bridges. A lot of babies were born in skiffs during storms, their umbilical cords cut with rusty pocketknives. Or at least my grandmother’s grandmother was born that way. That’s what I’ve been told. She was also the only child, all the others died. Her mother died, too, one of the dead babies took her mother with it, and then she had to be the mother and it made her bitter because she was beautiful and weren’t there better things for a beautiful girl to do than clean shrimp all day. That’s what I think.
The WPA built the bridges during the depression. There are seven bridges. You have to go across all seven before you get to hard land, mainland. The WPA put food other than shrimp on the table and made everybody a Democrat. I have written that sentence maybe a dozen times. It’s not a lie, but I’m tired of it. Maybe I’m tired of all these stories or of being told anything. The tap water tastes salty. After a day or so your fingers swell.
Also the storms started getting names. Like Floyd. The storms are actually hurricanes. If a hurricane is truly bad, the name is retired. Floyd is retired. Cleaning shrimp is both peeling and deveining. The vein is a black squiggle ripped out with a red tool. After Floyd there was a red tide. Hog-waste ponds flooded into rivers and rivers flooded into the sound and the sound flooded into the ocean. Twenty-five million gallons of pig shit. Estimated.
They used to live on Hog Island, everybody who lives on Cedar Island. I doubt there were many pigs. That’s why they’ve always been poor or it’s one reason. Because you can’t grow or have anything on sand ground. Before that they lived on some other island. They are sure it had a name. Before that they have no idea. Probably they were shipwrecked. Of course I want to think they were pirates. I’m sure they were indentured servants. But at least they were indentured servants who knew enough to jump. Probably they got caught in a storm and everybody got thrown overboard through no choice of their own.
When my grandmother was twelve she moved in with the family who owned the fish house to be their live-in maid. When she was seventeen she married my grandfather. She only has one lung. The other one was left in Germany. My grandfather was in the Air Force there as a car mechanic. When my grandmother was in the hospital he went into Munich and bought her two fur stoles. When I was seventeen she gave them to me because now men would be taking me out to supper. Sometimes I try but I honestly do not understand how to wear them. My grandmother was also beautiful. I’m supposed to be like her. She told me once that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth and I would never be like her at all. This is also about vanity but I don’t know how exactly.
Recently my mother tried to go over to Hog Island with my aunt. It was abandoned during a storm and supposedly the houses, the church, the store, the school are all still standing. Maybe there are forks and knives still in drawers. My mother and my aunt didn’t make it past the shore. They had to retreat back to my uncle’s boat. The mosquitoes ran them off. Now they are the area’s main predator. They are motherfucking vampires, the mosquitoes. The last time I was down there I left covered in red welts. When I was a little girl I loved the smell of Off. It killed the bugs. It made me feel high. This is not about me. When my mother was a little girl she loved the smell of DDT. She used to ride her bike behind the mosquito-killing truck. I’ve told her a million times that this explains everything.
I guess it doesn’t explain anything. Apparently the daughters of mothers exposed to toxic levels of DDT could have a hard time getting pregnant, which is fine with me. Maybe I should thank her. Having babies is a vain thing. The red tide makes the shellfish toxic. It may or may not have anything to do with the hog waste. It could be coincidence. The red tide is definitely too many algae in bloom. The algae suck all the oxygen and suffocate the fish and the shellfish eat their shit. It is not just shrimp. Also it is oysters. To open an oyster you twist your knife in the muscle that is its hinge. Down there you can only buy a bushel of oysters in months with an ‘r’ in them. Up here, in New York, you can get anything, anytime.
Rh disease kills babies. Sometimes it kills the mother too but rarely. Sometimes the babies live for a few years or a few decades but they are always sick. The first baby is always fine. It is only all the babies that come after. It’s when the mother has negative blood and the baby has positive and of course the mother’s body creates antibodies to kill the baby. To me that is logical. There is probably a greater concentration of people with AB-negative blood on Cedar Island than anywhere else on Earth. I just made that up. But it’s true that I have many relatives who are harassed by blood banks. They are the rarest type and there is never enough. Now there’s a shot for it. An antidote. Along with the pill the vaccine for Rh was one of the medical miracles of the 1960s. It almost always works. The babies almost always live. Not that they always died. For example my grandmother has a younger brother. He was born the same year as my mother or maybe the year after and he is still alive. He was a complete surprise.
To me it is irrelevant. Because I was firstborn and so was my mother and so was my grandmother and so was my great-grandmother and so was my great-great grandmother and prior to that memory is completely unstable. In prior years they were always on the verge of being wiped out completely. Or we were or I was.
On all the islands where nobody lives any more are wild Spanish horses that are all ribs. Therefore they were pirates after all. They came flying black flags with horses and gold and for some reason they decided to stay. It is contingent anyway. It’s not true and it’s not false. A contingent proposition depends on the facts in its sentences. Facts are always changing like stories. Words are repeated and they lead to other words and suddenly that is everything that came before you, which is history. History is a bunch of facts and also it is babies. Probably is a truer word than absolutely.
That photo should be captioned: ‘The day my grandmother found out she was pregnant with my mother or so I’ve been told.’ It had to be 1952 because that’s just math.
Feature photograph by NOAA Photo Library
In-text photograph courtesy of Katherine Faw Morris