Sunday, August 4, 2013

“A Bucket of Clams” by Suzanne Burchell


All I wanted to do that summer day was to surprise my Nan with a bucket of fresh dug clams. Nan loved nothing better than rinsing the mud off clams and boiling them on the wood stove in a bucket of sea water. We would shuck the clams when their shells opened in the steamy pot after they cooled off.

Nan would take the bowl of fresh clams and she would make the best chowder in all the world. Sometimes we just melted butter and would eat them with our fingers fresh out of the shell right there in the kitchen dripping butter and slurping the little suckers back.

Other times we would wait for night and put the clams in a copper pot over a drift wood fire on the beach. I heard the grownups say that there was a baby in every bucket of clams. For a long time I thought they meant that they boiled babies and this made me sad. When I got older I realized what they really meant about how the babies came from a bucket of clams.

It was blueberry season and all the grownups had all geared up to go to the fields to pick the berries for jams and pies. They would be gone all afternoon. I was allergic to black fly bites. The last time I went scooping my eyes swelled shut and my neck went stiff for a week from the bites. The flies would be bad today with this scorching sun and not a breeze. I was some glad to be able to stay home. So the grownups left me home and Nan said not to go out of the door yard.

They had barely left the yard and were scarce out of sight when the great idea to surprise my Nan came to mind. The tide was out and the clams were just waiting for me to come and get them. So I got the fork, digging boots and the clam bucket and headed for the beach down the road past Grant’s General store and past the old wharf. 

Boy would Nan ever like a bucket full up with fresh Fundy clams. I knew that the best digging place was just beyond the sand bar in the harbour.

Sure enough the tide was out as far as it could go. I left my knapsack on the beach and headed out past the wharf. Some trawlers sitting on the sandy bottom tied up to the wharf sitting waiting for the next tide before they went out for scallops or lobster. No one was around, not even a tourist.

Out I went across the mud flat. The sand and mud sucked at my boots so the going was slow. Twice I stepped right out of the boots. Finally I passed the sand bar and caught sight of all the little squirt holes that showed me where the clams were hiding under the mud. When I stepped close to the holes they would shoot water right out.

There were hundreds of holes so I got digging. The fork went into the mud real smooth and exposed the shells of the clams. I snatched them one by one, proud as could be to be doing this all by myself. My bucket filled fast.

The sun beat down on my neck and soon I was hot and tired from digging and bending so much and hauling the bucket. I sat right down in the mud wishing I had not left my knapsack with a drink in it on the shore. It was too far to go and get it. What was I thinking to do that?

There was no breeze just summer heat that made me real sleepy. I stuck the fork in the mud and stretched out beside the bucket for a wee nap right there in the mud. Maybe I’ll dig a few more in a little while. The bucket was not that heavy or full yet.

What woke me was a salty taste and water in my ears. My hair was soaking wet and so were my clothes. The water was about six inches deep already. The tide had turned and I could hear its roar coming in. The fork had floated away and my bucket had tipped over letting loose the clams in the water. I knew how fast the thirty-two feet of water could come so I started hiking back to shore empty bucket in hand fast as I could.

The going was slow. In no time the water was up to my waist so I let go of the bucket. The water covering my boots sucked them away when I tried to run. In a few minutes the water was up to my waist and I was not even half way to shore making no head way at all. A wind had picked up making waves that slapped at me and sprayed stinging briny water into my eyes.

How many times had I laughed at tourists running from the tide when they had gone out too far and tried to get back to shore? How many times had I laughed when their gear had been washed away by the tide water? No laughing now as the tide came up to my neck.

My Uncle Walter and I had sat in his truck last summer and watched some tourists in their tent scramble out when the waves came in. We sat and just howled, ’cause we had tried to warn them in the afternoon not to camp there. They just said this is was not our beach and they would camp wherever they wanted. They were so rude we did not tell them why they could not camp there ’cause Fundy has the highest tides in the world. Served them right.

I did not know how to swim. I never learned ’cause the water was too cold to stay in long enough even in summer. Only the crazy tourists went in swimming. I think it was because they drove so far that they wanted their money’s worth. They always screamed from the cold but they stayed in until they were blue. We thought they were ‘some’ nutty.

As I grew colder I thought of the two brothers who drowned this winter when they went to check their lobster traps in the pools out on the bay at low tide in January. They got stuck way out when their ATV would not start. Neither were swimmers. They never did find their bodies. The tide got them.

They found their boots on the bottom of the bay and the ATV when the tide went out. People said they died real fast from hypo something. They could not swim either but it would not have saved them anyway ’cause it was too cold. It made me wonder how long it was going to take for me to die.

I thrashed around swallowing mouthful after mouthful of salty water. Then I remembered the tourist who would float on her back for hours. She did not seem to mind the cold. Dead man’s float she called it. I put my arms out and threw my head back and let my legs and feet float up. I was so cold I could hardly feel them.

Out the side of my eye I could see the cape and lighthouse come into view. I was floating out to sea in a strong current that would take me to the Dory Rips where the three incoming tides meet. I would be a goner in those whirlpools and six-foot waves. Would the sharks eat me, I wondered.

The frigid water bit right through to my bones. I did not fancy the idea of dying that day and never being found.

I just wanted to hug my Nan one more time. I told God I was sorry for being bad and could He help me now?  I promised I would be good forever and always do what I was told. I prayed like crazy over and over. I told God I was sorry for laughing at the tourists when their tent floated away.

The roar of the Dory rips grew louder. What a way to die being sucked into a whirlpool and drowning and me only ten years old. Then came a tiny vibration in the water. It must be a shark coming to get me was all I could think. The vibration turned into a sound of an engine. I lifted my head to see what it was and went under.

When I came up voice hollered, “There she is boys.” 

There was a splash and someone shouting, “Hang in there little girl.”

 Two arms wrapped around me and began to swim me toward the boat. It was young Captain Danny who had dived off his lobster trawler to save me. On board they wrapped me in blankets and made me drink hot tea. I shivered and cried and threw up all at once.

Seems the new school teacher was beach combing looking for sea glass when he spotted my knapsack where I had left it on the beach. Lucky for me the tide did not come up that far to take away the knapsack. The teacher put two and two together ’cause he had heard they were looking for me. They had to wait for enough water to come in to float the trawler.

 Captain Danny smiled at me but he was crying. He told me it just wasn’t my time to go. His daughter, Sara, was in my same grade.

The lobster boat tied up at the wharf where I could see my Nan waiting with a bunch of other villagers and the Minister. No one was talking. She had a soggy hanky in her hand. I climbed up onto the wharf and walked toward my Nan.

All Nan said was, “Did you have a full bucket, dear?”

Suzanne Burchell retired from teaching secondary school drama after 38 years but continues to lecturer in Drama in Education at Brock University. She is developing a new profession as a story teller in Ontario after having a lengthy time of story-telling in the summer in her homeland of Nova Scotia. “A Bucket of Clams” was previously published on CommuterLit.

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