So Many Chances
Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The
janitor's daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers,
never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her
bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of
being the janitor's daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be
nobody. Who's that? Nobody.
Dorotea's dad is fond of saying this: A man only gets so many
chances. He says it now, after dark, in Youngstown, Ohio, as he
sits on Dorotea's bed. And says this also: This is a real
opportunity for us. His hands open and close. He grabs at air.
Dorotea wonders about "us."
Shipbuilding, he says. A man only gets so many chances, he says.
We're moving. To the sea. To Maine. Place called Harpswell. Soon as
Shipbuilding? Dorotea asks.
Mama's all for it, he says. Least I think she is. Who wouldn't be
all for it?
Dorotea watches the door shut behind him and thinks that her
mother's never been all for anything. That her father has never
once owned, rented or mentioned any kind of boat.
She snatches up her world atlas. Studies the markless blue that
means Atlantic Ocean. Her eye traces ragged coastlines. Harpswell:
a tiny green finger pointing at blue. She tries to imagine ocean
and conjures petal-blue water packed with fish gill-to-gill.
Imagines herself transformed into Maine Dorotea, barefoot girl with
a coconut necklace. New house, new town, new life. Nueva Dorotea.
New Dorothy. She holds her breath, counts to twenty.
Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last
day of school. That afternoon. Like sneaking out of town. The
wood-paneled Wagoneer splashes across wet asphalt: Ohio,
Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, into New Hampshire. Her
father drives empty-eyed, knuckles white on the wheel. Her mother
sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above
her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed
as if bound in a hundred iron bands. As if crushing rocks in her
bony fists. Slicing a pepper on her lap. Passing back dry tortillas
painfully bound in plastic.
They see Portland at sunrise, after miles of pine bending over
blacktop. The sun leers up behind slabs of cloud the color of
Dorotea trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat.
The energy of a caged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a
dinner plate. Finally the highway bends and Casco Bay shines before
them. From across the bay the sun flings a trail of spangles to
her. She lowers her nose to the window frame, feels certain there
will be porpoises. Watches the glitter carefully for fins,
She glances at the back of her mother's neck to see if she notices,
if she feels it too, to see if her mother can be touched by a
shimmering expanse of sea. Her mother who hid under onions for four
days in a train car to Ohio. Who met her husband in a city built
over a swamp, cracked sidewalks, train whistles, slushy winter. Her
mother who made a home, who never left it. Who must be boiling at
the sight of unbounded water. Dorotea sees no sign that it is
Harpswell. Dorotea stands in the doorway of the rented house.
This threshold of paradise. The sea a misty backdrop behind
soft-rustling pines and coils of blackberry bush.
Her father stands in the tiny kitchen among shell ornaments hanging
by strings from cabinet knobs, faded bottles on the windowsill,
pushes up his glasses, opens and closes his fists. As if he
expected to find shipbuilding manuals, polished brass, portholes.
As if he hadn't figured on this part of it: this kitchen with
clamshells on the cabinets. Her mother stands in the living room
like a bolt balanced on end. Stares down at boxes, bags and
suitcases unloaded from the truck. Hair yarded into a big
Dorotea stretches her arms, stands on her toes. She takes off her
brown cardigan. Gulls screech in a wheel just past the pines, an
Her mother says, Ponte el sueter, Dorotea. No est·s en puesta
As if the sun here was a different sun altogether. Dorotea walks a
sandy path through brown grass to the sea. The path ends at rock,
rust-colored, crenellated, heaved up from the earth long ago. The
rock stretches into a haze at both ends. Nothing else but ocean and
wind-bent pines and morning fog. At the sea's lip she watches tiny
green waves flop onto a slick slope of rock, nudge forward a
receding ribbon of foam. Come, retreat. Come, retreat.
She turns and glimpses the small white house through the pine
trunks. Heavy-headed dandelions, sandy yard, paint flaking. The
house slumped and wet on its foundation. Her father talking in the
doorway, pointing at her mother, at the truck, at the rented house.
Arguing. Sees her father's hands open, close. Sees her mother climb
into the truck, slam the door, sit in the passenger's seat and
stare straight ahead. Her father retreats into the house.
Dorotea turns back, shades her eyes, sees the mist breaking. To her
left, a gliding green current, a river mouth. To the right, trees
lining the sea edge. Five hundred yards or so down the coast she
sees a rocky point.
She walks to it; her sneakers bend to steep rock. Occasionally she
has to step into the sea, water eddying around her knees, cold salt
stinging thighs. Sea mud sliding underfoot. A rag of mist descends
and she loses sight of the point. In a place the rock is steep and
she wades to get around it. The water rises above her waist, shocks
her belly. Finally the rock climbs back on an upslope, her feet dig
in, and she climbs up, mud in her fingers and salt drying already
on her skin, legs lifting her dripping out onto the shelf of rock.
The point still half-obscured in mist.
She shades her eyes, again takes in the ocean. Are there dolphins
out there? Sharks? Sailboats? She sees no sign of them. Of
anything. Is ocean merely rock and weed and water? Mud? She had not
expected emptiness, flittery light, a blotted horizon. Waves march
in from some obscure haze. For a terrifying moment she can imagine
herself the only organism on the planet. And she is about to go
Then she sees the fisherman. Just to her left. Wading. As if he
came from nowhere. From nothing. From the sea itself.
She watches him. Feels lucky to watch. The world peeled back and
left with only this vision. This silent flying wizardry. The rod
seems an extension of his arm, an extra and perfect appendage, his
shoulder pivoting, his bare brown chest, his legs tapering to
calves buried in the sea. So this is Maine, this is how it can be,
she thinks. This fisherman. This grace.
He rears back with his fishing rod and swings his line in great
unrolling loops, far behind, then far in front. When the line
unfurls so it is horizontal with the sea, he brings his rod tip
back, and the line shoots in the opposite direction, over the
rocks, almost to the trees, as if it surely must wrap around some
low branch, but before it can the fisherman flings it forward
again, out over the sea. Then slings it back. Each subsequent cast
longer, more desperately close to the trees. Finally, when it seems
his back cast is yards into the scrub, he shoots the line straight
out, over the wave tops, into the sea. Then he wedges the butt end
of his pole in his armpit and strips in the line with both hands.
Then casts again, those hypnotic loops of line swinging back and
forth like the wavebreak itself and finally shooting out over the
sea where it settles across the tiny swell. And strips it in
She stands on the rock, feels the packed rows of fossil beneath her
feet. Holds her breath. Counts to twenty. And then splashes from
her shelf of rock into the sea, her sneakers again on barnacle and
slippery weed. She walks a hundred yards, head up. Toward the
Turns out he's a boy, sixteen maybe. Skin like calf leather. A
string of small white shells on his throat. Looks at her through
brick-colored hair. Eyes like green medicine.
He says, Funny to be wearing a sweater on a morning like
Warm for a sweater.
He casts again. She watches the line, watches him feed it into the
cast from the neat coils floating around his ankles. Watches the
line swing back and forth and back and forth and finally shoot into
the sea. He strips it in, says, Tide's turned. Be coming in
Dorotea nods, not sure what this information means.
She asks, What kind of fishing pole is that? I've never seen a pole
Pole? Poles are for bait fishermen. This is a rod. A fly rod.
You don't fish with bait?
Bait, he says. No...Never bait. Bait makes it easy.
Makes what easy?
The fisherboy hauls in his line, casts again. This. Casting to
fish. A'course a striper or a blue will bite on a hunk of squid.
A'course a mackerel will take a bloodworm. What's that? It's a game
with the rules removed. No elegance.
Elegance. Dorotea considers this. Had no idea that elegance had
something to do with fishing. But watch him cast! See the mist tear
away from the pines.
The boy continues, Bait fishermen toss a herring out there, move it
around a bit. Drag in a striper. That's not fishing. That's
Oh. Dorotea struggles to understand the coarseness of
He hauls in his line, pinches the leader. Holds the fly in front of
Dorotea. White hair tied with neat wraps of thread to a steel hook.
A tiny painted wooden head. Two round eyes.
Is that a lure?
A streamer. Bucktail streamer. That white hair there's dyed buck's
Dorotea holds the fly gently in her palm. The neck wrapped with
perfect tiny wraps. Did you paint this? The eyes?
Sure. Tied the whole thing. He reaches in his pocket, removes a
paper bag. Pours its contents onto her palm. Dorotea sees three
more flies, yellow, blue, brown. Imagines how they must look in the
water, to a fish. Long and thin. Like little fish. Like a snack.
Perfect. Marvelous. Soft beauty lashed to sharp steel.
He is casting again, splashing down the coast.
Dorotea follows. The water higher on her shins than before.
Wait, she says. Your hooks. Your streamers.
You keep them, he says. I'll tie more.
She refuses. But does not take her eyes from them.
He casts. Sure, he says. A gift.
She shakes her head but puts them in her pocket. The wavebreak laps
her knees. She studies the sea, looks for signs of sealife. Fins
bending? Sea creatures leaping? She sees only the sun laying gold
coins across the waves, the ever-retreating fog. When she looks up
the fisherboy has nearly rounded the point. She splashes after.
Watches him cast. The waves sough as they collapse.
Hey, she says, there's fish out there, right? Or you wouldn't be
The boy smiles. Sure. It's the ocean.
Somehow, I thought there would be more. More stuff in the ocean.
More fish. Where I'm from there's nothing and I hoped that maybe
here there would be and I thought there was but now it just seems
huge and empty.
The boy turns to look at her. Laughs. Lets his line drop, bends and
reaches into the water at his feet. Digs into the mud, brings up a
Look here, he says.
In the dark clump Dorotea sees nothing at first. Mud clots
dripping. Shell fragments. Water droplets. Then she notices
microscopic movement, translucent flecks squirming. Hopping like
fleas. The boy shakes his hand. A tiny clam appears on his palm,
its foot half-clamped in the shell like a bitten tongue. Also a
snail clinging upside-down, its minute unicorn horn shell pointing
at the earth. And a tiny translucent crab. Some kind of eel
Dorotea pokes the mud with her finger. The boy laughs again, washes
his hand in the sea.
He casts. Says, You haven't been here before.
No. She looks out at the sea. Thinks of all the creatures that must
be under her feet. Thinks how much she has to learn. Looks at the
boy. Asks his name.
After dark Dorotea stands in her tiny new room and looks
around. She tacks a map to the wall. Sits on her sleeping bag and
traces the state of Maine with her eye. The land with its borders
and capitals and names. Her eye is drawn continually back to the
blue that stretches into the fringes.
A moth hurls itself at her window. In the trees outside insects
rasp and scream. Dorotea thinks she can hear the sea. She pulls the
bucktail streamers from her pocket to admire them.
Her father stands in the doorway, knocks softly on the door frame,
says hey, sits on the floor beside her. He looks caved in by
sleeplessness. His back and shoulders are round.
What do you think?
It's so new, Daddy. It'll take some time. To get used to it.
She doesn't talk to me.
She hardly ever talks to anybody. That's her way.
Her father slumps. Gestures with his chin towards the streamers in
Dorotea's hand. What are those?
Flies. For fishing. Streamers.
Oh. He does not bother to conceal that he is elsewhere.
I want to fly-fish, Daddy. Can I tomorrow?
Her father's hands open and close. His eyes are open but not
seeing. Sure, Dorotea. You can go fishing. Fishing. Claro que
The door closes behind him. Dorotea holds her breath. Counts to
twenty. Hears her dad inhaling slowly in the other room. As if each
breath taken summons barely enough courage to take the next.
She pulls on her brown cardigan, slides open her window and climbs
out. She stands in the wet yard. Exhales. The galaxy wheels above
bonfire is in a grove near the point. The wind is clean, the grass
drowned with dew. Clouds slide in ranks below the stars. Her
sneakers are soaked. Forest mulch clings to her cardigan. She
crouches in pine needles outside the circle of firelight, sees dark
figures shifting, their warped shadows thrown up into the pines.
They sit on logs, stumps. They laugh. She hears the clink of
She sees the boy among them, sitting on a log. His smile orange in
the firelight. His necklace white. He laughs, tips back a bottle.
She holds her breath a long time, almost a minute. She stands,
turns to go, steps on a stick and it snaps.
The laughter fades. She does not move.
Hey, the boy says. Dorothy?
Dorotea turns from the shadows, steps out into the firelight, walks
with her head down, sits next to the boy.
Dorothy. Everybody, this is Dorothy.
The firelit faces look at her, look away. Conversation starts up
Knew you'd come, the boy says.
Sure I did.
How did you know?
Just knew. Felt it. Like I told you, we have these fires every
night, just about. I said to myself, you just wait. The girl will
come. Dorothy will come. And here you are.
Did you catch anything today? After I saw you?
Got a few. I let them go.
My dad got hired at the ironworks. He designs the hulls of
Is that right?
Well, he will. He will do that.
He holds her hand and her palm is damp with sweat but she holds on
and they lock fingers and she can feel his strong hand, rough
fingertips. They sit like that a bit and she sits as still as she
can. They do not talk. The fire sends smoke high into the trees.
The stars wink and gutter. It feels nice being the daughter of a
Later he tries to kiss her. Leans across clumsily and his breath is
hot on her chin and she clamps her eyes shut. She thinks of her
mother, her tiny mother under onions in a train car. She pulls away
from the boy, stands and hurries home, head down, through the
low-bending pines. She climbs through her bedroom window. Takes off
her wet sneakers, hangs her brown cardigan. Listens for the ocean.
Thinks of eyes like green medicine. She boils inside.
the morning she drags her mother to the sea by the wrist. To
confront her with the sea dressed in fog. To show her that this
place is not empty. Wings of mist drag through the treetops. The
fog shreds everywhere; flashes of pure blue wink above. The sea
undressing. A wide-brimmed hat crammed over her mother's hair.
Gulls turn in a high noisy wheel above the gliding tide. Cormorants
dive for breakfast.
They stand on the rocks. Dorotea studies her mother, searches her
face for signs of change. Of awakening. Dorotea holds her breath.
Counts to twenty. Her mother stands closed and rigid.
Mentiras, her mother says. Your father doesn't know a thing about
ships. He worked as a janitor all his life. He lied to everybody.
Even himself. He'll be fired today, or tomorrow.
No, Mama. Daddy's smart. He'll find a way. He'll learn as he goes.
He has to. He saw a chance and took it. We'll make it. Lookit how
nice it is. Lookit this place.
Life can turn out a million ways, Dorotea. Her mother speaks
English like she is spitting rocks. But the one way life will not
turn out is the way you dream it. You can dream anything, but it's
never what will be. It's never the way it is. The only thing that
can't come true is your dream. Everything else...
She shuts her mouth, shrugs.
Dorotea looks at her wet sneakers. The leather is coming apart. She
clambers down the steep rocks, grabs hold of weed for balance.
Plunges her hand into the mud beneath the water. Holds it up.
Lookit, Mama. Lookit all the things that live here. In just one
Mother squints at her daughter. Her daughter holding ocean mud to
the sky like some offering.
And then through the mist a green canoe glides. A lone fisherman,
paddling, his rod across the stern. A fisherman with a white
necklace on his throat.
The boy stops in mid-paddle. His oar drips. He studies the two
figures on the rocks, the thin and brittle mother with a hand on
her hat like she is holding herself to the rock. And the girl, wet
to her waist, holding up part of the sea.
He raises his hand. Smiles. Shouts Dorotea's name.
sell fishing gear in the back of the hardware store in Bath. A
giant with a beard and huge round knees sits on a stool tying
leaders. Her father looks up at the rack of fishing rods, thumbs up
The giant says, I help you folks?
My daughter here would like a fishing pole.
The giant reaches into a cupboard, pulls out a Zebco all-in-one
spinning kit. Hands it to Dorotea, says, This'll be perfect for
just about anything you'd ever need. Comes with spinners and
Dorotea holds the package at arm's length, studies the reel, the
blunt two-piece rod. Chrome-plated guides. The plastic wrap. On the
tag a cartoon bass curls out of a cartoon pond to devour a
treble-hooked lure. Her dad puts his hand on her head, asks Dorotea
how she likes the looks of it.
She doesn't like the looks of it at all: it's blunt,
clumsy-looking. No coils of fly line. No elegance. She imagines
chunks of flesh glommed on her hook, her reel rusting, the boy
laughing at her.
Daddy, she says. I want a fly rod. This is for
The giant roars. Her father rubs his jaw.
giant rings up Dorotea's fly rod on a black cash register. His huge
fingers count change.
Don't know a single girl that fly-fishes, the giant says. Never
heard of girls fly-fishing, really. He says it kindly. Eyes on
Dorotea. Fingers like fat pink cigars.
I've flung a fly myself, he continues. I'm still learning it. I
suppose we're all still learning. You learn and learn and then you
die and you haven't learned half of it.
He shrugs his hilly shoulders, hands her father change.
You're new here. He talks only to Dorotea.
We just moved to Harpswell, she says. Daddy's working at Bath Iron
Works. He designs ships. It was his first day today.
The giant nods, glances down at her father. Her father's hands
We lived in Ohio, he mutters. I did hullwork on lake freighters.
Thought we'd come up here, give it a shot. A man only gets so many
chances is what I figure.
The giant offers another shrug. Smiles. Says to Dorotea, Maybe we
could fish together sometime. We could try down by Popham Beach.
They been getting into some nice cows down there. Schoolies race
the shallows at slack tide. Get one of those on your little rod
there and look out.
The giant smiles, sits back on his stool. Dorotea and her father
leave the store, drive past the ironworks, the shipyard and the
vast iron warehouses, a high chain-link fence, cranes swinging, a
green-hulled tug at dry dock dripping rust. From the top of Mill
Street Dorotea can see the Kennebec River rolling heavily into the
the evening Dorotea sits on her sleeping bag and fits her rod
together. Two pieces join together, screw on the plastic reel, feed
fly line through the guides. Tie on a leader.
Her dad in the door frame.
You like the rod, Dorotea?
It's beautiful, Daddy. Thank you.
You going to fish in the morning?
In the morning.
Your mother say anything?
Dorotea shakes her head. She thinks he will say more but he
After he leaves she holds her breath, takes her new fly rod, and
climbs out her window. She walks beneath the dark pines, feels her
way in the moonless night. She reaches the firelight, hears a
guitar and singing, sees the boy on his log. She crouches under the
pines and watches. Thinks of her father saying a man only gets so
many chances. Puts her hand in her pocket. Feels the three
streamers there, their hook points, their feathers. She shuts her
eyes. Her hands shake. A hook pricks her finger.
She stands, balks, turns around, walks to her left, to the ocean.
She clambers over rocks, shadows among shadows. Stands at the sea's
fringe, sucks a drop of blood from her fingertip. She has the
shakes. Holds her breath to fight them.
She holds the air in her lungs and stands very still and listens.
The silence of Harpswell rises up in her ear like a wave and breaks
into a rainbow of tiny sounds: an owl calling, the faint sound of
laughter at the bonfire, the pines creaking, cicadas screeching,
resting, screeching. Rodents rustling in blackberry brambles.
Pebbles clinking. Leaves shifting. Even clouds marching. And
beneath, the murmuring sea benched in fog. This is indeed a full
world, Dorotea. It overspills. She breathes, tastes the salty ocean
cycle of rot and birth. Takes up her rod and feeds the line
clumsily through the guides. Whips it behind her. It snags on
something. She turns.
The boy is there. His fingertips on her shoulders, the sleeves of
her cardigan. His eyes on hers.
mother stands in Dorotea's room in the dark. Her hands on her hips
like she is trying to crush her own pelvis. Her black shoes planted
firmly. Dorotea straddles the window frame, one leg in, one out.
Her fly rod half into her room. Her dew-soaked sneaker stuck all
over with pine needles.
I thought I told you not to see that boy.
Who called you Dorothy.
The boy in the canoe?
You know what boy.
You don't. You don't know him. I don't either.
Her mother stares. Her body quakes, tendons in her throat stand
out. Dorotea holds her breath. Holds it so long she feels
I wasn't with him, Mama. I was fishing. Or trying to. I got a
terrible tangle in my line. I wasn't with him.
I went out fishing.
then on Dorotea is imprisoned after dark. Her mother does it
herself: she screws long bolts into Dorotea's window, hammers it
shut. Dorotea's door locked at night. She stares at her maps.
The summer rolls forward in silence. The rented house cramped and
creaky. Every day her father leaves at dawn, comes home late.
Dinners are eaten silently. Her mother's face retreats inside
itself like a poked sea anemone. Silverware clinking, a platter on
the table. Beans with the life boiled out of them. Tortillas wrung
dry. Please pass the peppers, Mama. The house creaks. The pines
whisper. I went fishing today, Daddy. Found a lobster claw long as
my foot. Really.
Dorotea leaves the house just after her father does and she stays
out all day. Fishing. Telling herself she is fishing and not
looking for the boy. She tramps all the way to South Harpswell,
muddy-ankled, walking the sea edge, turning over shells, jabbing
anemones with sticks, learning the tiny tricks of shore life. Don't
squeeze a sea cucumber. Scallop shells break easily. Stone crabs
hide under driftwood. Check periwinkles for hermit crabs. Snails
stay tucked inside murex shells. Stepping on horseshoe crabs
doesn't do anybody any good. Barnacles are good traction. From a
hundred feet up a cormorant can hear you split open a sea clam and
will turn and dive and land and beg for it. The sea, Dorotea
learns, blooms. She learns and relearns it.
But mostly she fishes. Learning the knots, catching a barbed
streamer in her hair, crouching on driftwood to pull out windknots
or undo massive tangles of leader. Gets her line caught on
brambles, on branches, one time on a floating detergent bottle.
Learns to walk with her rod, guide it through brush, over rocks.
Didn't even know she needed a tippet. The cork handle on her rod
goes dark with salt and sweat. Her brown shoulders go the color of
old pennies. Her sneakers rot off her feet. She walks the sea's
edge barefoot, head up. This new Dorotea. This seaside
She catches nothing. She tries Popham Beach, the long faded spit of
sand there, the estuary at ebb tide, at slack tide. She casts from
rocky points, from a wooden dock; she wades to her neck and casts.
And nothing. Sees men in boats haul in twenty, thirty stripers.
Beautiful striped bass with charcoal stripes and translucent mouths
gasping. And nothing for her own streamer hooks but greenweed or
flotsam. And those awful tangles of leader; line wraps itself
around her ankles; knots from nowhere spoil her tippets.
Never a sign of the boy.
She sees fish out of the water, sturgeon leaping. Sees the ocean
violence. Sees a pack of bluefish snarl out of a wave, curl through
a panicked cloud of herring, drive half-bitten, quivering smelt
onto the sand. Sees a dead cod turn over white and fat in the
swash. Sees a tide-beached skate picked apart by gannets, an osprey
pluck a whiting from a wavetop.
One noon she hikes to where they light the bonfires. The sky is
gray and low, skimming the treetops. Rain plunks slow and warm. The
fire pit black and wet and flat. Beer bottles rolled up against
logs, standing on stumps. She walks out to the point, takes off her
sweater, wades into the sea. Waves lap at her neck. Her hair floats
beside her. She thinks of the boy, his hot breath. His rough
fingertips. Those green eyes gone black in the dark.
Daylong she talks to no one. Each time she rounds a bend, she prays
the boy will be there, enwombed in fog, casting, casting for fish,
casting for her. But there is only rock and weed and sometimes
boats trolling downriver. /p>
July night arrives, hangs heavier and wetter than any night Dorotea
can remember. The air heavy all day, waiting for a storm that won't
begin. The ocean pewter and flat. The horizon erased in a smear of
gray and the sky hung so low it seems to rest on top of the rented
house; any moment it might collapse the roof. Night comes but does
not break the heat.
Dorotea sits in her bedroom and sweats. She feels the sky
threatening to bury her.
Her father stands in the door frame. Sweat circles under his arms.
He used to get those when he mopped floors. Her dad the
Daddy it's hot.
Only thing for it is to wait.
Can't we get her to open the window? Just for tonight. I'll never
sleep. I'm sweating through my sleeping bag.
I don't know, Dorotea.
Please, Daddy. It's so hot.
Maybe we could leave the door open.
The window, Daddy. Mama's asleep. She'll never know. Just for
Her father breathes. His shoulders slumped, rounded. Comes back
with a screwdriver. Quietly unbolts the window, pries the nails
boy is not there.
Dorotea sweats outside the firelight. Pine needles stick to her
knees. Mosquitoes loop, alight, bite. She smears them on her skin.
The smoke from the bonfire rises into a windless sky. She holds her
breath so long that her eyes lose focus and her chest stings. She
goes over the soft smeary faces once more, orange firelit kids
around a bonfire on Harpswell Point. His face is not among them. He
She walks around to the point, a place she has learned so well, the
small and secret coves, a deep pool where she saw a white lobster
one morning. All the secrets she feels she owes to him. She knows
she will see him there, fishing and laughing that she wore her
sweater on the hottest night ever. He will be there and he will
show her things about the sea. He will lift this cargo that has
settled on her.
He is not on the point either.
She goes back to the bonfire, walks right to it, this
fourteen-year-old girl wound up and strong. The Harpswell kids
stare at her. She feels the heat of it. Smoke rolls into her eyes.
She says the boy's name.
He's gone, someone says. They look at her, then look away. They
stare at the fire.
Back to Boston. A week ago. His whole family went back.
He's summer people.
Dorotea walks away. She walks blind; pine boughs scrape her
face. She trips, falls into wet grass. Her knees grass-stained,
muddy, scratched. She comes to a gravel road. Her head is down. Her
insides churn. She passes driveways, a house with windows lit
television blue. A dog barks. She hears an owl. Turns down a paved
road. Passes a lumberyard. A part of her realizes she is lost. She
feels cold very far inside and the sky could not hang lower.
She walks and runs and she is barefoot and cannot shake the cold
inside and could not say which direction the ocean is. She walks a
mile, more maybe. The road turns from gravel to pavement. She sits
a while and shivers. An hour goes by, then another. The sky turns
pink. A truck rattles along the road, fenders sagging, one
headlight burned out. It slows beside her. A man in glasses leans
across, pushes open the door. She gets in, asks him to the
He lets her off at the high chain-link gate. Her legs are scratched
red and muddy, her hair hangs in clumps. Men in caps carry
lunchboxes, hurry past her; a Mercedes rolls by, tinted windows and
tires crunching gravel. She follows the men through the gate. There
is a sign that reads OFFICE. A fat man with a badge in a booth.
Beyond him a great corrugated warehouse, a crane swinging. Stacks
of culvert pipes on a barge.
She knocks on the man's window; he looks up from a clipboard.
My father, she says. Santiago San Juan. He forgot his lunch. I
would like to bring it to him.
The fat man pushes up his glasses, studies her, her brown and
scraped feet. Her shaking fingers. Looks down at the clipboard.
Flips through sheets. Glances through time cards.
What did you say the name was?
The fat man studies her again. And finally looks back at the
clipboard. San Juan, he says. Here he is. Dock C-Four. Around
She follows arrows to C-4, a concrete pier with a heavy crane
hanging above and bordered by boxcars in high stacks. Men in suits
and ties and hard hats walk past, rolled plans under their arms. A
beeping forklift wheels; the driver gives her a hard look.
She finds her father at the pier's edge by a big blue Dumpster,
where the river rolls past dirty. Stryofoam cups bob in the
current. Gulls screech around the Dumpster, a flurry of white and
gray feather. Her father wears tan and grimy coveralls. He holds a
broom. Waves it weakly at the gulls. The gulls scream, dive-bomb
He turns, sees her. Their eyes meet. He looks away.
Daddy. All this time. All these months. You said you were building
ships. She cannot say more. She shakes with cold. Stands beside
him. He leans on his broom. They watch the river roil out to sea.
They stand and Dorotea shivers and her father holds her and still
A destroyer is towed in from the horizon. A throbbing of the tug's
engines, behind it the quiet gray behemoth rolls a giant wake and
Dorotea sees the numbers painted on the sides and ship-sinking
cannons that look so calm and clean. Its hull is big as an
apartment building; she wonders how she could ever believe her
father could learn about something so big. How anyone could learn
about something so big.
Dorotea stays cold. She can't shake it and she gets sick. She
lies in her sleeping bag all day. Her fly rod leans against the
wall of her room. She can't look at it. The ocean in her ears makes
her sick. The whole world's turning makes her sick. She feels frost
creep up from somewhere between her legs and it climbs all the way
to her neck. She holds her breath as long as she can, and then
longer, until her vision goes splotchy, until at last a switch
inside she can't control throws itself and the air pours out and
back in and her vision straightens a bit.
She curls in her sleeping bag and shivers and dreams of winter
blowing in. The sea cement gray and the horizon burying the sun
before it ever gets a chance to get going. Nights winterlong. Stars
like the points of hooks. Snow creaking under her bare feet. In her
dream she crouches on Harpswell Point and watches the wind blow
down the wavetops. The boy is nowhere. There is nobody anywhere, no
birds, no fish. The fish have fled, left the river, darted into the
widening sea in schools. The ocean and river emptied. The rocks
scoured of limpets, barnacles, weed. There are horrible tangles of
lines around her ankles, thick ropes, coiled spider webs. She
becomes a fish flailing in a net. She becomes her father. His whole
world a nasty tangle.
Her mother is there when she wakes. She brings Dorotea hot water.
Her mother now a fraction softer with this role to play. Her mother
with Dorotea back, still half-believing her husband is somehow
managing to design hulls of ships. Dorotea looks at her mother by
her side, at the tight and narrow cords in her mother's neck.
Dorotea has cords like that in her own neck. She lies half-asleep
and listens to her mother move through the house, hears her wash
pans in the sink.
Early August. A knock on the door at dawn. A rapping so loud
and out of place that Dorotea jumps from her sleeping bag. She is
at the door before her mother has left the kitchen. Heat crackling
inside her. She squints into the morning. A massive figure in the
door frame. The giant from the hardware store. In his giant hand a
sleek fly rod.
His voice is so loud the tiny house can't hold it. Morning,
morning, he booms. Thought you might like to do a bit of fishing
this morning. If you have the time.
He looks only at Dorotea and Dorotea stands in her sleeping clothes
and smells the giant who smells like sea and pine. Her mother peers
out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel.
walk along Popham Beach, the giant's huge strides eating up yards.
She half-jogs to keep up. The day blue and true all the way to the
horizon. They wade out to fish side by side. Dorotea feels the
ocean tugging at her legs. The giant fishes with a cigarette
bobbing from his lip. Occasionally watches her cast, smiles at her
tangles, praises her when she lays it out nicely.
The giant fishes ugly. His line does not dance beautifully; he does
not bother with the false casting the boy did. He just flings it
back once, then sends it singing over the wavetops. Strips it in
with one giant pink hand. Casts again.
Fishing is about time, he tells Dorotea. It's about how much time
you can keep your line in the water. Can't catch fish if your line
isn't in the water.
They fish until noon and catch nothing and they sit on a piece of
driftwood. The giant has raisins in a plastic bag and they eat
those. She asks him questions and he answers and she feels the sun
straight overhead touch a spot inside her.
In the afternoon the giant begins to catch striped bass, one after
another, his line shooting way out there, and each time his rod tip
bends into a steep parabola and he fights the fish in and knocks
one over the head with a rock and puts it in a plastic shopping bag
and leaves it on the beach.
In the evening Dorotea stands beside him and watches the giant gut
his striper, his quick belly cut, loops of viscera swinging into
the surf. This is Maine, too, she thinks, this fisherman cleaning a
fish on the sand and she realizes that new or old she is Dorotea,
will always be Dorotea, that there are still plenty of chances left
in this world.
the giant leaves with his fish, he looks at Dorotea and smiles and
tells her she is a fine fisherwoman and wishes her luck. Buena
suerte, he says, which is funny because he sounds like a giant
gringo from Maine when he says it, but it is nice all the
Dorotea casts still and the horizon slowly fixes itself down around
the sun. Her arm burns from the effort, but she is making nice
casts now, she is laying it out there, presenting her streamer like
the giant showed her, and she is reading the water too, seeing how
a fish might sit in a cove, hole up. She watches for passing bait
fish or the birds that might be feeding on them. Her arm goes
leaden. Her legs numb. Her legs feel more connected to the ocean
than to her.
The sunset, a furnace of light, paints the clouds with color. And
it sends, too, submerged wedges of light into the cove where
Dorotea strips in her streamer and for a miraculous moment she sees
her streamer flit through a haft of blue and that is when a striped
bass takes it.
The fish is strong and she fights it and her rod bends more than
she ever imagined it could and she swallows panic by slowly walking
the fish backward to the beach. The fish thrashes, fights her
treachery. Dorotea clings. Feels its strength come through the
line. Such noble fight. Such fighting for its life. She fights
When finally she lands it, she drags it gasping and flopping onto
the sand and stands over it and works the hook out of its mouth.
This big striped translucent fish in the near-dark. She pinches it
by the lower jaw, holds it up and stares into its big unintelligent
She cradles the fish in her arms and wades out into the sea. To her
shoulders. Takes a deep breath, holds it in her lungs. She holds
the fish beside her. Feels its muscles, its packed columns of
flesh. Feels her own muscles, sore and ragged and strong. She
lowers herself into the sea. Counts to twenty. Lets the fish
Excerpted from THE SHELL COLLECTOR © Copyright 2002 by
Anthony Doerr. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Books, an
imprint of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.
The Shell Collector
- Genres: Short Stories
- paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
- ISBN-10: 0142002968
- ISBN-13: 9780142002964