Autumn Requiem on the bay

Ila G. Phillips

October 07, 1993|By Ila G. Phillips

ALL around me was the look of autumn. Beyond my now-deserted patio lay the wind-swept pier, looking dull and gray above the chill water, while my empty rowboat tugged dejectedly at the tide with a slow, lapping sound.

Implicit with my use of her this year had been the recognition that it would have to be her last, her flaking green innards having lost their battle to relentless rotting. So now, past summer, my rowboat waited and fixed me with a remorseful eye, denied the same flight to freedom as the wild geese, honking ever southward along their flyways.

Before I became a thrall to the spell of the sea, my soul had been a captive to the beauty of the mountains, especially in autumn. As a child, swinging long, high arcs on my tree swing, I had imagined that my toes were actually touching the vermilion-topped peaks. But because I fell in love with the water when my own days were in their yellow leaf, that love took on all the characteristics of an Indian Summer romance: a blind devotion, tinged with a kind of sweet sadness over lost longings; a heightened awareness of the meaning of mortality.

When we went fishing, my small rowboat took on the crowded appearance of a New York City subway at rush hour, crammed with fishing poles forever getting tangled with the anchor rope, oars, gas tank, minnow box, boat cushions, Thermos, sunglasses, tackle box, boat bailer, even a burlap bag to be tied overboard, in which our fish could swim in brief but quite restricted freedom.

Fall fishing meant leaving the warm, sleepy comfort of the house with its smell of fresh-perked coffee to shiver in the splendor of the sunrise, shoulders hunched against the damp, as an early morning mist shrouded the shoreline, punctured occasionally by the friendly twinkle from the kitchen light of another early riser.

Our cove selected, the anchor swung and splashed, the boat then rocked comfortably, our floats bobbing crazily on the water in a euphoria of abandon to the tune of the breeze and the tide.

As the haze and the chill were dispelled by the sun, we would seem to laze on a sea of contentedness, the waves slapping against the boat with a drowsy, lulling sound. Far above, small puffs of white disported themselves against a fancy of blue, and tree reflections were distorted on a rippling glimmer of glass. In a nearby marina the masts of sailboats swayed in a ghostly dance to the accompaniment of wind chimes tied to one of them.

On shore, two weekend carpenters beat a tattoo with their hammers on a new roof, vying with the strident cries of gulls based briefly on the pilings of an abandoned pier. It was a time that was spun with pleasure.

But now, my rowboat served only as silent accuser and repository of summer memories.

"Well, you're just not safe anymore," I explained with an exasperation born largely of guilt. "You've already hung on long past your prime!"

A damp yellow leaf drifted slowly past my shoulder. All around me was the message of autumn and the insistent surge of the sea. Why did it seem to have the sound and feel of a Requiem?

Ila G. Phillips writes from Baltimore.

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