It was another beautiful day in Santa Cruz. Actually, no one is sure what a bad day in Santa Cruz would look like. In Santa Cruz, in fog, or rain, or wind, or when swells run twelve feet high and fishing boats bounce like a bobber on a line, or most of all, in delightful, sunny weather that nukes shoulders and noses to crisps—not one day exists that isn’t beautiful. This day was one of the sunny ones, but Mr. Anthony Herman was not interested in the sun drenched beaches, the tide-pools, or the waves, nor did he care that his nose was rapidly reaching glow-in-the-dark capacity.
What interested Mr. Anthony Herman was all the bikini-clad teenagers. Mind you, his interest was not lascivious or peccable. It was paternal. His interest in each girl faded as soon as he determined she was not Jennifer Herman, sixteen, last seen heading over the ridge to “go explore the tide pools.” She was now an hour late.
He didn’t look back, knowing that Stella, his wife, would only try to implore him to ‘wait up,’, or ‘don’t be angry,’ or ‘come back here right now.’ She would take their daughter’s part whenever she defied his edicts. Pausing at the top of the low, rocky ridge, Tony swept the extensive beach and tide-pool complex, seeking vainly the blue-eyed, leggy blonde, clad in a yellow and lime-green, flowery bikini. First he examined the beach area, where, strange as it seemed to him, nearly a third of the young girls were blonde, leggy, and dressed in yellow or lime-green bikinis. None, however, moved like his daughter did, striding purposefully, long blonde curls bouncing with every step forward into her future without the fear that always paralyzed her mother. At least she had got her determination from his side of the family. But the stubbornness? Definitely that came from her mother.
His glare next swept the tide-pool area. It took but a moment. Only one person was crawling about among the pools, presently accessible by a particularly low tide. He neither noticed the scarcity of salt water not gave the lone figure more than a glance. The person was male, so of no interest to him. Just as Stella was struggling over the last few feet toward the top of the ridge, Tony plunged down the other side, eager to reach the beach.
“Tony,” Stella vainly expostulated. Already he was half-way down the other side and gaining momentum as he went. She sat down on a large knob of sandstone, puffing for breath. With a desultory wave of the cigarette clenched in her fist, she gave up hope of reasoning with the man she had married. Lately he had seemed like a different person, especially when it came to the subject of Jennifer. Stella’s breathing subsided, and she took a long pull on the cigarette, holding the comforting smoke within her for several seconds, then slowly exhaling, letting go of hope along with the smoke.
A wisp of Stella’s smoke swirled through Sirauk’s olfactory senses. The sleek gull’s eyelids opened. He spread his black wings and lifted off the ridge, uttering a harsh “cow auk” in the direction of the smoker, not knowing that his protest had failed to register with the offender. Now that he was airborne, other more primal urges seized Sirauk’s attention. With a subtle shifting of his primaries, he swung into a new flight trajectory to bring him over the exposed tidal pools. Perhaps there would be a nice sculpin or a tasty crab in one of the smaller pools, easy prey for a gull like Sirauk.
Swooping down, Sirauk soared over the outer pools, studying the offerings below him. Suddenly, before him a human form rose up. “Cow auk,” he shrieked, soaring easily up and over the creature. “Cow auk,” he muttered as he rose high over the beach. He sped out over the waves, then dropped to settle on the ocean. Turning his head, he probed among his feathers with his red beak. Gathering oil from his glands, he settled down to some preening. He was really not all that hungry—yet.
Amanda Skillings was not the image most people had in mind when the term ‘bird watcher” was used. Unlike the caricatures of cartoonists, she was not old, being just past her twentieth birthday. Nor was she dowdy, having the slim physique most people associate with fashion models. Nor was she frumpily dressed, as she wore the ubiquitous bikini and had received more than her fair share of masculine attention as she had moved along the beach. Nor was she a housewife. Instead, she was single, a biology major at the nearby University of California Santa Cruz, and a dorm mate to three young coeds. In fact, the only thing she shared in common with the common caricatures of bird watchers was that she was female—and this was the most uncommon thing she shared with her fellow fraternity of bird watchers.
Unlike the other young women on the beach that day, Amanda had not come in search of masculine attention, for she carried a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Guide to the Western Birds in one hand, a pencil and sketch book in the other, and wore a pair of binoculars about her neck. Already she had listed thirty-five species among the notes and drawings that were rapidly filling the pages of her sketchbook.
At this moment she was watching the delightful scurrying of a small flock of sanderlings. She loved the contradictions of these tiny birds—their bodies motionless and their legs a blur as they raced after the receding waves, snatching up tiny tidbits, then whirling about to race ahead of the next wave’s pursuit until, at last, the water receded and the whole thing started over. Amanda could watch this unceasing activity forever and not be bored.
It was just as the sanderlings turned again to race back after the receding wave, that Amanda sensed the gull lift off and swoop down toward the tide-pools. She swung her binoculars into action, swiftly centering the gull in the lens and adjusting her sweep to the speed of the gull’s flight.
“Larus Hermanni,” she exalted in such excited tones that Tony, storming past her, swung around to see if she was speaking to him. A moment later, he plunged on with his mission.
Amanda kept her glasses on the gull until it settled on the water. Now it was only visible when it crested each incoming swell, and even then, it was too far away to make observation worthwhile. She paused to make a brief note in her sketchbook, glanced once more in the gull’s direction, and saw it crest another swell. Then she moved on. She hadn’t even noticed the boy among the tide-pools.
Had Amanda set up a spotting scope on the top of the ridge, she could have glimpsed the simple laboratory on the other side of Monterey Bay where lusty Edward “Doc” Ricketts had studied the various tide-pool creatures that lived along the Pacific coast of California—amid his avid pursuit of anyone wearing a skirt. His research of the creatures of the littoral zones led to his seminal book, Between Pacific Tides. His research among the young ladies of Monterey lead to John Steinbeck’s seminal book, Cannery Row.
Had Amanda talked to her biology professors, they could have told her about their colleague, the very Presbyterian Dr. Jack Calvin. Dr. Calvin had done field studies in these very tide-pools. Here, dressed in suit and tie, he had stood above the water line, refusing to get wet as he gave directions to his graduate students doing all the grunt work. Her professors could have told her how Dr. Calvin edited the second edition of Doc Ricketts’ book, keeping it alive for a second generation of Marine biologists.
Had Amanda attended Stanford, she could have sat in Dr. Joel Hedgpeth’s marine biology classes and learned from one of the men who had done that grunt work for Dr. Calvin. Dr. Hedgpeth had edited the third edition of Between Pacific Tides, introducing it to a third generation of tide-poolers. But Amanda was not interested in marine biology. She had given her heart to the hawks and all their feathered brethren.
Thus Amanda didn’t know that these three imminent biologists had all agreed that hermit crabs had such low brain functions that they operated entirely from instinct, being incapable of thought. While the boy in the tide-pools took interest in this theory, Oureey took no interest in it at all. But then, Oureey was only a hermit crab, and thus she was unable to take any interest in any idea at all. Without understanding, she was driven to find food, to find cast off turban shells she could appropriate, to find a mate, and to vanish inside her shell at the least disturbance of any type.
Thus she did not remember, so she could not plan. Oureey didn’t remember how, an hour earlier, a sudden dark shadow had covered the pool. Oureey couldn’t recall vanishing into her shell. She couldn’t recall the splash as the water was disturbed by the entrance of a foreign object. Oureey had no way to express the terror that overwhelmed her by the unnatural disturbance of the pool—which was her world even though she didn’t know it. She had hunkered down within the Black Turban shell until she forgot she was afraid. She had crawled out of her shell, oh, so slowly. But as no danger lurked, without thought, she peacefully returned to the pursuits that drove her. Thus had passed a very pleasant hour, although she didn’t know anything about pleasure or time.
This time, the shadow came suddenly. Two foreign objects plunged into the pool. Whoosh. Oureey squeezed back into her shell. Waves rocked her about, but she hugged tight to the safety of the shell. Slowly the rocking ceased. Still, Oureey hunkered down. Her hunger re-awakened, she finally, cautiously, crawled forward.
Again, the danger had passed, although Oureey had no memory of it. Once more, without thought, she returned to her searches.
Beyond the tide-pools, perched on the top of the sandstone cliffs that overlooked Natural Bridges State Park, Tom Abbott saw the boy fall. The boy had been crawling along a narrow rim of rock that divided two pools. He had paused to search one pool, and Tom had patiently watched the boy’s searching. Tom was a most patient man, for he had watched and waited for an hour already. A few more minutes didn’t matter.
Then the boy turned to search the other pool, lost his footing, and slipped headfirst toward the water. He thrust out his arms, plunging them into the water until they lodged against rock, halting his fall with his face just inches from a cold baptism.
Tom watched with interest as the boy remained in his awkward position. Ripples roiled the pool’s surface, ripples cause by the thrust of his arms into the pool to stop his fall. Tom waited along with the boy as the ripples slowly dissipated.
Abruptly, the boy sat up. His head slewed around like an owl’s. He scanned the nearby ridge, the beach, and around to the backside of the pools. He didn’t look up the cliff side where Tom watched. But Tom sat among the tall grasses that grew on the ridge tops, so he did not fear discovery. Suddenly, the boy stood, attempting the impossible—trying to run while slowly sauntering.
Up on the cliffs, wild laughter rang out, but the boy did not hear it for the roar of the waves, the shouts of the happy throngs on the beach, and the “auks” of seagulls swallowed up Tom’s mirth. “That’s one to tell the guys,” Tom chortled.
Lewis hurried from the tide-pools, his feelings verging toward sheer panic. He kept glancing about as he hurried toward the near ridge, looking for the murderer he feared. He saw a young woman standing near the end of the ridge, staring down at something with a pair of binoculars, and chose to ignore her. Ahead of him, climbing the ridge, was a large, overweight man dragging a petulant teenage girl by the arm. She was arguing with him, but the man said nothing, although his red face spoke eloquently. Lewis ignored them.
Lewis hurried up the ridge, feeling so young and vulnerable for all his twelve years. All he cared about was getting back to his family. He wanted to hide, to take cover, to shelter within the love and care of his family. Most of all, he wanted to forget what he had seen in the pool. Yet his mind wasn’t cooperating. Again and again, the thing flashed into his mind, rich in detail and so scary at the same time.
He had slipped on the rock, plunging forward toward the pool. He had stuck out his hands, finding flat enough rock to halt his fall. He had stirred up ripples in that act, turning the pool into a blurry, turbid window. Then the ripples had cleared.
He plunged down the other side of the ridge. Below was the beach where he had often body surfed. Beyond were the sea stacks and the two beautiful rock bridges that culminated the far ridge. He ignored them all now. Off to the left was the picnic area. There was his mother, his father, and his much older brother—the only remnants of safety and civility left him because of what lay in that pool—what had lain between his hands and just inches from his face.
He hurried past a group playing volleyball. He looked behind himself to make sure no one was following him. No one was. He trotted past the church youth group playing beach football. Then he slowed to a walk.
By the time he reached his family, the worst of his fears began subsiding. He plopped down in their midst.
“Have a good walk?”
“Sure,” he told his mother.
“How were the tide-pools?”
“Fine,” he lied to his father.
Inside he was screaming. He wanted to let everything spill out. He wanted to run to the park ranger’s office and tell them everything. Yet he knew, he just knew they wouldn’t believe him. Yet it was real. He had seen it. He had hung between water and sky, held by his arms and maintained by surprise. He had stared at it from a closer distance than any he had used to stare at the human anatomy books he was always checking out of the library. He dreamed of being a doctor. He read anything he could find on first aid, anatomy, and medicine. And he had memorized the shapes of every internal organ of the human body. He knew what he had seen. He just didn’t know how it could have gotten into the tide pool.
He had once seen a dead seal, killed by sharks. He knew there was no way such a thing could naturally have been stripped from the body of a seal or a sea lion, then wash ashore into a tide pool, and survive the battering waves, to lie so perfect and pristine, awaiting his discovery. That left him with one other alternative—it was human. Yet how had it appeared in the tide-pool?
He puzzled it over, paying no attention when the angry man, the sullen wife, and the argumentative daughter walked past, heading for the parking lot. His brother noticed the young woman bird watching as she walked down the beach. Suddenly his brother felt the need to do a little more body surfing. But the boy was oblivious to her passing.
When the time came to leave, he had still said nothing of what he had seen. He knew that it was now too late to say anything. If they would not have believed him three hours ago when he first came back, why would they believe him now, after waiting so long? He knew he would carry this incident with his through the years, sharing it with no one, forced to relive it periodically. He carried his secret with him to the car, treasuring it up in his heart during the short ride home, pondering over it as he lay in bed that night.
The setting sun hovered over the ocean, streaking the water’s crests blood red. The tide was turning. Each incoming wave ran higher up the sand toward the waiting tide-pools. The foghorn from distant Lighthouse Point was the only human element to disturb Sirauk, but he was too busy seeking beach-hoppers among the washed up seaweeds to notice the disturbance.
Oureey moved along a crevice in her pool. She was finding a wealth of edible flotsam. Unknown to her, a wave was sweeping up the beach, reaching hungrily for the pool that was her home.
The wave splashed over the rock barrier, swelling the pool into a frothy brew of foam, orts of seaweed, and grains of sand. A sculpin flashed out of a crevice to seize an edible fleck, then vanished back into the crevice. Palm Tree Kelp swirled amid the receding water. Oureey slipped into her shell. A neon red nudibranch clung to the rocky bottom, riding out the wave side by side with a Gum Boot Chiton.
A foreign object was caught up by the wave, dashed against the far rim of the pool, and then dragged back against the nearer rim. The force of the retreating water battered it against the rock. At last the force dissipated and the thing floated back into the midst of the pool. So it would be treated again and again, until its shape would crumble and the thing would become organic molecules. For days to come, the object would nourish the denizens of the pool. Oureey would welcome the end result without ever understanding. Sirauk would fly over, but see nothing for himself.
But in a bedroom in Cupertino, a young boy would dream that night, and in his dreams he would hear himself screaming although no actual sound passed his lips as he dreamed. There, in his dream, he suddenly discovered he was falling into a tide pool, unable to stop himself. And in the center of the tide pool, he found himself plunging into a pristine human brain.
(This story idea came from a real experience. In working out the story, I suggest the whole thing was a prank–anatomy students of the bay area are famous for just such pranks. But I really don’t know how that brain got in that pool.)