The tide waits for no man

In the 12th century, King Canute set his throne by the sea shore. A tiny wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet. “How dare you!” the English king shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey.”

Nice try, your highness.

Our oceans aren’t turning back. That’s clearer than ever, especially during our recent devastatingly high tides, which got me to thinking about old King Canute. I regularly walk by Brown’s Island, a lovely spot off Marblehead only accessible by foot at low tide. Yesterday as I was walking this route it was about an hour after low tide, and I knew from 40 years of watching from shore as well as anchoring in behind the island at high water, that access to the island on foot would end soon. So I was surprised to see a young couple cross the rapidly disappearing small piece of mudflat and head out to the island. They crossed, walked up and down the beach, then headed into the woods to explore. It being winter, I was sure that nine or so hours marooned on the island was not their intention. So I watched, hoping they’d come out of the woods very soon. Didn’t happen. I continued my walk along the shore, looking over my shoulder for the couple’s emergence. I walked for another 15 minutes and returned, heading back to my car. As I approached I saw the couple finally appear from the woods, seemingly without a care in the world. Again, they walked up and down the beach, arm-in-arm, stopping occasionally to pick up and examine stones. Not sure whether to be amused or worried, I waited for them to look toward shore. Finally, seemingly lost in each other’s gaze, they meandered down the beach to the point where they had crossed over to the island on the mudflat. Then they looked up. That’s odd? No mudflat. Only a world filled in by the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve seen folks trapped by the tide before. In almost every case, people act like dogs, walking back and forth along the water’s edge and then, with a shrug of finality that comes with the realization that, (a) they’re devoid of options, and (b) the water’s only going to get deeper, they simply step into the water and slog to shore, no doubt mindful of tides forevermore.

Still, all things considered, this couple’s journey had a happy ending.

As I drove home I thought of another ending, from “The Ledge,” one of the most heartbreaking short stories I’ve ever read. A fisherman, his young teenage son, his teen nephew and their dog, all go hunting for sea ducks early one Christmas morning. They take their lobster boat and skiff out to a tiny ledge, Devil’s Hump, near Brown Cow Island, on the Maine coast. They arrive midway through an incoming tide so they can land on the ledge, set up and have plenty of time for shooting. The fisherman knows what he’s doing. They will have about three hours before the ledge is completely submerged by the next high tide. He anchors the lobster boat a hundred yards off. They take the skiff ashore, slide it up the sloping rocks, set up for shooting, and become immersed in their duck hunting from the top of the ledge. They shoot some birds. The dog fetches some. The fisherman takes the skiff each time to pick up the other birds, returns, and pulls the skiff up on the ledge. But, the last time, he doesn’t pull it up far enough. The rising tide gets the better of the skiff; perhaps it’s lifted by a surge. It drifts away. The fisherman is the first to notice.

“ . . . unprepared for the sudden blaze that flashed upward inside him from belly to head. He was standing looking at the shelf where the skiff was . . . He gaped, seeing nothing but the flat shelf of rock. He whirled, started toward the boys, slipped, recovered himself, fetched a complete circle, and stared at the unimaginably empty shelf. Its emptiness made him feel as if everything he had done that day so far, his life so far, he had dreamed.”

They’re stranded. They shoot their guns to try to attract attention, but there’s no one around. The tide continues to rise. The ledge gets smaller and smaller. They all huddle at the highest point. The tide keeps coming. The dog swims away. Drowns. It begins to snow. Then darken. The tiny space left on the remaining piece of ledge shrinks to nothing. The nephew disappears in the whiteness and the sea. The fisherman jams his feet into a crevice in the rock, and tells his son to climb on his shoulders. The tide keeps coming. The fisherman loses all feeling in his legs, but continues to stand, stalwart, against the lapping waves and tide, as if commanding its cessation. But the tide, as it did with King Canute, acts the way it always has.

And life goes on.

Or not.

Dave Roper’s new novel, “Rounding the bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released in mid-June and is available from and Barnes and Noble.

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