The flies emerge from the salt-drenched mud of the northeastern coast. Though they do not swarm, like a plague of locusts they descend on the sinners and the saints of the salt marsh. Unlike locusts, they draw blood. Their bite is a shock of pain; it feels like a glimmering needle boring a hole through tense, anxious muscle. You can feel the dread, feel the weight of these flies when they land like a cold penny placed on your skin.
If you were to study them in a laboratory, you would call them tabanus nigrovittatus. If you were my aunt, spotting one and obliterating it with a calculated smack! of your hand, smearing someone else’s blood on your palm, you would spit an insult at the crumpled corpse, your words more venomous with your thick Boston accent: “Ya beggah!”
If you were the average townie or beach-goer in Ipswich, Massachusetts, you would call them greenheads. With their protruding, brilliant green eyes, they look like emerald arrowheads as they hunt their prey. Their prey seems to bear their punishment well and with humor. On the marsh, locals sell greenhead t-shirts. Greenhead ice cream. Countless pieces of merchandise for countless gallons of blood lost to the little beggars over the ages, countless quarter-sized welts left on exposed skin. They seem at peace with their curse.
I grew up content with the biting realities of the salt marsh. My childhood was marked by summers spent on the shore, and could be counted off in seasons of greenheads, for though the flies plague the marshes of the east coast, they only prowl for a month. When the full moon of July rises above the tides, they crawl out of the marsh to do the devil’s work. After a month of terror, they disappear with the full moon of August, leaving the skies at peace. Then the ocean is the only thing that bites, the salt water gnawing at the scabs and welts left by the flies.
My mother’s maiden name is Hills, though I think her family is misnamed. They have lived on the coast of Massachusetts for generations, where the only remarkable hills are the sand dunes on the beach.
My grandmother raised all six of her children in the same house where her mother raised her, in a little town on the marsh called Ipswich. The town is close enough to Boston that all of my relatives have accents due to sheer proximity. In Ipswich, a town famous for its clams, you can taste the bite of salt air with each inhalation. Years ago, perhaps when my mother was young, men would stand along the beach, men with high rubber boots, men who clawed at the shore and pried clams from the sand.
My mother doesn’t care for clams, but she does care for the beach. Her parents brought her there as a child, to the small beach on the Neck, a tiny peninsula of marshland. At high tide, the Neck is nothing but rocks, but at low tide you can walk out to the sand, maybe touch the boats anchored farther out. The Neck is not a beautiful place. The dead things wash up there, the half-eaten crabs, the big, ugly clamshells. The water is frigid even in the summertime, pinpricks on your feet and legs.
My father grew up in Ipswich, too. His accent will sneak back when he talks about growing up, but he spent his childhood playing baseball across from a cow pasture rather than chasing gulls and making sandcastles. He doesn’t love the ocean like my Hills family. When dragged along, he will wear his socks and sneakers in the sand, something my mother and I find sacrilegious. Our love of the beach is some of our only common ground, in fact. She finds my sense of humor mean, and her emotional decision-making makes me cringe. When we argue, I grit my teeth and she draws her mouth as thin as the edge of a razor clam. I may be more like my father, with my brutal honesty and my love of a challenge, but at least when it comes to the beach, I can stand with solidarity with my mother, with our toes wriggling into the sand.
My grandmother did not look like someone who would love nature. She would putter around her house, her police radio in the kitchen blaring lines of code, and the hundred and fifty year old floorboards would wince as she made her way around. She kept the TV blasting Judge Judy or Fox News. Either way, constant screaming hurled from the speakers. She was no naturalist, either. Weeds grew up around her flower boxes and strangled the chrysanthemums. She harbored a great resentment for the tomcat my aunt gave her. She rarely left the house.
At the beach, however, she was different. She wore sunglasses and carefully pinned her hair into a scarf, looking like an old movie star might while cruising in a convertible. Like the handmaiden to a queen, I would bring a chair out for her, testing it to make sure it was stable before she sat in it. Despite her pale skin, she never wore sunblock and she never burned. She never brought a book to read, but instead she would stare off into the distance, her eyes obscured by her sunglasses. She sat straight up in her chair. Like the guardian of the beach, she would watch over the all children who played in the sand and in the sea, and that plastic chair was her throne of sorts. If displeased, she would lean forward and purse her lips. Her eyes always scanned the horizon, looking out at the ships as they passed.
That wind was her wind, those waves her waves. In these moments, she was contented, majestic. She always knew which phase the moon was in—a wrinkled, nautical Artemis. It wouldn’t surprise me if she knew the tides, too, that the moon pulled her along with them.
I can imagine my grandfather wearing a grey fedora. I never met him, for he died before I was born, but I imagine him as still handsome from the army, and I imagine him at the beach. Maybe the wind is strong enough to keep the greenheads away. Maybe my grandmother is sitting in a beach chair, looking out over her domain. But he’s not at the beach, not really; he’s in his car. It’s the blue station wagon with wood panels on the side. It’s a sky blue, but the sky isn’t blue right now; the sun is setting, pink and red clouds above. “Red skies at night, sailor’s delight,” he might think to himself. He’s listening to the Red Sox game on the radio, and maybe he turns to adjust the dial.
Maybe he’s watching my mother, who is only six or so, splash around in the water. I imagine her sitting in the shallows, picking up fistfuls of sand and feeling the grains run loose through her fingers. She’s not swimming. She was the last of six children, so he never got around to teaching her how. He taught the older kids and must have lost interest as time went on.
Or maybe my grandfather isn’t watching her. Maybe he’s leaning against the door, his mouth taut, drumming his fingertips on the dashboard. Maybe the windows are rolled up so that the sea breeze cannot ruffle his hair. He never liked the beach much.
Now I am fourteen, and I am in the passenger seat of my mother’s parked car. We’re in Ipswich, so of course we’re up the Neck. My feet, dusted with sand, are propped on the dashboard, and I’m waiting for my mother to tell me to put them down. Instead, she’s looking out towards the ocean. The ball game is on, and AM static spits from the speakers. The score is tied. She is very quiet. The sun is just now beginning to descend, and there’s a faint little daytime moon in the sky, blending in with the blue.
I think my sister is falling asleep in the backseat. I’m weary in a sunbaked way, and I grow tired of being stationary. I look at my mother expectantly, and she says, “Grampy used to do this, you know.”
And she looks like she wants to be quiet, so I look back to the ocean and listen to the ball game. As I sit still, I can feel the waves still pushing and pulling me. On the radio, someone strikes out, and my mother sighs and backs out of the parking lot, and the greenheads tap against the rolled-up windows.
I am on vacation with my aunt, and we are roaring down the causeway to a small fishing town, because she cannot imagine being anywhere else. It’s on the ring of the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s more mudflats and sand than the rocks of the Neck, but the sharp smell of the marsh is the same.
I can barely hear her over the wind blasting through the open windows of the car, our hair whipping like typhoons around our heads. She has blue eyes like my grandmother and the same nose as my mother, but she speaks with an urgent ferocity all of her own. I can only catch bits and pieces, but I know she tells me, “Some people are just edge people. They just have to be on a coast.”
Like a vein, the highway leads to a small patch of civilization in a sea of marsh grass, planted on the coast like a kiss. The road cuts across the not-quite-land, not-quite ocean on its path to the town.
This is an assault to the senses. There are no trees to spare us from the sunlight that burns our eyes, and I am almost blinded by the yellow-green of the rippling grass. The wind pouring through the windows is saturated by the stench of low tide and the decaying laughing gulls that have been struck by cars. I squint my eyes and grin and think about how marsh grass is the prettiest thing in the world.
“And we,” my aunt tells me, “are edge people.”
Lakes are tricksters, I think, with their calm waves only disturbed by shiny, bug-like jet skis skipping across the surface. Things may look calm, but it’s all a trap. The lake will gobble you up like a spider. It will lure you inside and will hold you tight. When it loves you, it will fill your lungs with itself and drag you to its depths. An ocean will challenge you, but the salt in its water will keep you afloat.
Micayla didn’t know this. She’s my best friend, but she’s not an edge person. She had never even seen the ocean before. She lives in Michigan, and they’ve got some Great Lakes there, and she’s pretty fond of them, but that’s not the same. I took her to the barrier island that protects that little Chesapeake fishing town, to the beach. I thought she would like the sea; she is small, but she loves things that are mighty because she knows she stands among them. It was July, but I could feel the temperature drop as the winds stirred the sand. Micayla leapt into the sea as the waves lunged forward like a rabid beast, whitecaps as its bared teeth, slinging frothy sea foam from drawn-back lips.
She screamed. I don’t know if she screamed out of joy or out of panic. She only weighed about ninety pounds, after all, and the force of the waves could have sent her flying. But, oh, what a feeling to be confronted with something so much bigger than yourself, to root your feet in the sand and stay fighting. You can feel the salt stick to your skin, clump up your hair, you can feel the numbing throb, and when you lay down to sleep that night, you can feel the pull of the ocean still in your veins.
I chased after her, feet barely sinking in to the sand the waves had packed tight, and we laughed, but the storm rolled in soon afterward. The temperature plunged, the wind became enraged, the sky began to seethe black. I wish we didn’t have to leave. That temperature drop boiled something in my blood. That wind that whipped my hair made me grin. The relentless crashing of the waves was what kept my heart beating. In this moment, everything felt right. Yes, that discomfort is what makes you strong, gives you something you can fight against.
My mother never learned to swim, so she could not teach me. I taught myself. I don’t swim in the ocean, however. I know better. Instead, I love to explore tidal pools and comb the beach, rarely walking out more than ankle-deep in the water.
I pushed my luck once, walking in the shallows in the marsh, and the mud started to devour me like quicksand. As I struggled to get free, the mud pulled off my shoes and gobbled them up. Broken sea shells, like loose fangs embedded in the slop, tore my bare feet bloody as I struggled. I danced from foot to foot, trying to pull myself out, but every time I moved an inch, the broken pieces sliced into my foot, leaving deep gashes on the arch, cuts biting into the flesh. As blood leaked into the muddy water, the salt poured into the wounds, making the shards of razor clams seem even sharper.
I was able to break free of its grasp, but now I’m hyperaware. If I step on even a pebble, I feel my heart jump and my breath stops in my throat and I panic, shuddering, and leap out of the water. Now every bump in the sand is like a bite from a viper.
All of this panic, and only from a few pieces of shell. I think about riptides pulling you under, of sharks and jellyfish and stingrays and what would happen if things were worse than broken shells. I think about how the ocean can destroy anything. If you let it, it the salt will corrode away metal, rot away wood, liquefy skin. I think about mighty ships struck down by the seas and dissected into driftwood.
Instead, I linger on the edges, combing the beach for seashells or scampering across the rocks. I see a challenge: how to enjoy something that wants to kill you. It’s a game, I think. A game of fear. I know I could never win, and this is why I keep my distance from the water. I’m a good swimmer, a strong swimmer, but I keep to the shore. I play with the ocean, not in it. I am content to dance around the edges, content to taunt, at least for now.
Across the channel, you can see Plum Island from the Neck. Plumb Island is a beautiful barrier island, a sparkling oasis in a desert of salt. It’s a wildlife refuge, beautifully undeveloped. It’s a peaceful place of horizontal lines: the mainland on one side, the horizon of the sea on the other, the slivers of sandbars, and the lines of the flat, sandy beach. The sand is purple, purple and sparkly like sand in a fantasy world. You would find a broken clamshell at the Neck, but at Plum Island you would find the sand dollars and conch shells. When they visit, people find driftwood and build little lean-tos and shacks on the shore, hanging seaweed as decoration, a vacation home for the afternoon. Perhaps it’s a people refuge, too.
It’s low tide. There are tidal pools on the point, where the tides have pushed boulders into a pile, but most of the island is fine sand. I walk out on the mud flats with my aunt, careful where I step. It seems pretty, but perhaps the sun is a bit too harsh for pretty. The greenheads are bad today, and I have to stop to brush them off my legs. I think about how I would much rather climb the rocks than comb the mudflats; there’s no sense of adventure in the calm. Perhaps as payback for boredom, I feel something beneath my foot, and I shudder and jump aside, feeling my lungs involuntarily take in air
Sure, Plum Island is beautiful, but in a way that always reminds you of the ugly things. Just across the channel, after all, you can see the Neck. I think I prefer the Neck. In its ugly, the ocean is not trying to lie, and I love that. I love the stench of the low tide and the mud flats and the harshness of the sun and the way the salt wears away at everything. I love the rocks that I scramble over and slip and scratch myself on—barnacles are the mold of the ocean, but their edges feel like molars when you scrape against them. Wires of grass whip into your skin. The ugly of the salt marsh is truthful.
I drive to the beach in the middle of the night. I get out of my car and don’t need a flashlight because the moon is full, hanging above the horizon like a lantern. A will-o’-the-wisp guiding me to the danger like a moth to a flame. I can see the details in the dunes, lines like a topographical map. I am drawn to the water’s edge, and everything is so quiet, except for the white noise of the cold wind’s rushing scream in my ears and the droning rhythm of the waves. I drive out there because it’s a blue moon, the second full moon in the month, and it looks beautiful as it is reflected, chopped into pieces in the upset water. No greenheads tonight. The wind drives them away, leaving the beach serene, and in this moment, it feels I am the only ugly thing there.
I take my shoes off and dig my toes into the cool sand. I decide to wade in. My heart pounds. The beach is empty. If something were to happen, if I fell and got dragged under, I know nobody could help me. But it calls to me like a siren’s song. I walk slowly, gently, calmly into the water, as if I’m hunting the reflection of the moon. My feet glide on the smooth sand, and I feel it rushing between my toes. I’m up to my knees now, feeling the water numb my skin, and I feel peaceful. I stop and feel the breath in my lungs. I look out at the horizon. This is not how I expected to feel, confronting my fears. I wonder if this is the same peace my grandmother felt, looking out over the same sea.
Sarah Boudreau is a recent graduate of Young Harris College, where she received her BA in creative writing.