Wreckers Along the Shore

A fisherman reels slowly. Between casts, he wants time. Time to sit still, time for a sunbeam to catch his face. Therefore, a good cast travels far—a great one, far and straight. When aimed perpendicular to the shoreline and cast far enough, the bait lands in North African waters, just short of the Mediterranean’s mouth. Reeled along the Atlantic’s greatest width, the bait swims home to the Outer Banks of North Carolina—a narrow string of islands with a dense history of pirates and entrepreneurs: European privateers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Blackbeard. And wreckers—men who wished quietly for shipwreck, the death of many.

If ships at a distance carry every man’s wish aboard, a lantern bobbing to the long gait of a Banker pony may be mistaken for another vessel’s light and clear water ahead. Approaching this false light, a ship crashes into a shoal—the hull is breached. A wrecker lights his pipe and listens for the shouting of men. But the ship is too far. He hears only the normal crashing of waves, fine sand gusting around and between his feet, the faintest splintering of a mast. In the morning, crates and heavy sacks will float ashore, form stepping stones along the shore. The wrecker’s pony stands still, its sighs hazy in the oil’s light. In the mid-1500s, a Spanish galleon driven ashore is thought to have graced the Outer Banks with a population of mustang—the more impressive ancestor of the now docile Banker pony.

The wrecker finds a nearly drowned man gasping ashore. He takes a knife from a towel and leans the blade into the man’s pale throat. The Banker starts.

A wrecker’s livelihood depends upon unlikely sighting followed by unlikely capture—a low probability of success on any given night. While no sailor worth his salt should be fooled by a dim lantern, sheer odds call for the infrequent win. Infrequency doesn’t soften the terrible prospect of success. If the past is read in a sentence or two, acts of destruction or creation are packed tight—a hull becomes a coffin. Daily rituals that take up a lifetime are forgotten quickly and completely—a good steed trotting beneath you, the tune you always whistle, replacing the kerosene of a lantern every hour, night after night.

But this morning, on the shore of Nagshead, a beach town in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the scene is only:

A fisherman reeling slowly, a teal lawn chair slumped beneath him. The chair’s salt-stained fabric kisses the sand. A hollow white tube planted firmly in the ground, a brown-bagged sandwich, a jar of nightcrawlers. My grandfather and I walk toward the fisherman. If mornings by the sea are for retrieving the past in broken bits (sea glass, shells, bottled messages), then this morning, my grandfather does well. My grandfather looks down at me. He tells me he has a sister he last saw sixty years ago, the night he left his home in North Korea. He was a boy and was told to run away—that way—the setting sun to his right.

By now, my grandfather must realize that his own mother is dead. Filial piety is planted deep in my gut, so I pray her grave is marked—the ground once nourished by her body is one of the few places I want to search for; if some day, this is possible.

Thinking of my grandfather’s sister and imagining her handsome face, I believe that she is alive—an awful thing to tell my grandfather, who often dreams of her. Life seems either fragile or impossibly durable, and my grandfather’s life attests to both extremes. I don’t know anything about my great aunt beyond her existence. If she’s like my grandfather, she’s alive. Her children and grandchildren might look like me, an almost meaningless thing to say.

The fisherman bites into his sandwich. He removes the crust, and gulls begin to flock. He feeds them. From the fisherman’s perspective, two figures approach, and one is taller.

My grandfather bends in half to pick up a shell. He holds it to his eye. In color and shape, this shell is ordinary. But its ridges, smooth and regular, are memorable. I compare them to the sloping mountains my mother and grandmother have described of their birthplace—old, and therefore, gentle, always green. I don’t know—I’ve only been once, and to the city. These mountains and their gentleness are as real to me as visions of a wrecker, that mythical demon-man.

Yet somewhere, a light does call. Daily occurrences remind me of mountains I’ve never seen. Knuckles on hands to reference a cut along a fish’s belly, on feet pressed hard against a wall. Rolling waves drawn flat in blue crayon or actual ones carrying bales of hay from the horizon—a recurring dream of mine. A herd of mustangs or Bankers grazing, the polls of their powerful necks. The protruding vertebrae of my grandfather’s curled spine as he leans over the cold floor of a gym locker room. He steps into the left opening of his underwear. I now know my grandfather’s courage—it travels far without losing tension. Guiding his right foot, my grandfather stands.

The North Carolina sun is just like any other—bright as it comes out of the sea.

John believes the anglers in his life may be angels. If you’re down to catch stripers or blues in New Haven, e-mail him at john.e.lee@yale.edu, mind the ‘e’. It stands for 의민 or Euimin.

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