Rustic North

Cape Cod National Seashore, MA

If you can make a fist to flex your bicep, you have a map of Cape Cod.

The Snail Trail leads to the most secluded beach, on the flat part of your hand, just below your knuckles. To get there, you must drive along the vein from your elbow to your wrist. You park beside the highway and walk for one mile through bramble and dunes, up and down the wave-shaped sands, before you hear the ocean inhale and sigh, inhale and sigh.

You pass a deep-cut crater of sand that you name the Sugar Bowl, and a ridge reamed with beach grass you dub The Green Upper Lip, and you can see that the only honest part of an explorer’s job was writing tiny poems on hand-drawn maps. When you reach the crest of the dune, you look out to the fog of the Atlantic, and search for a horizon that doesn’t exist. The sea is one great sky. The sky crashes above and below you, breathing slowly like a failing lung.

Three young girls run down the beach, each streaming a long tangle of hair. Their father, trailing behind them, sucks at the plastic umbilical on his CamelBak, then untangles himself from it. His daughters splash into the water and shout, “Oh, it is heavenly!” A little further down the shore, you hear this and go in up to your knees, until the chill shrinks your cartilage and wears at your joints. You retreat, noting that little girls think heaven is an ice palace.

The surf is laced with seaweed. The children splash, attempt to drown one another, and giggle. When they tire of that, you can see them sit at the edge of the surf and stuff sand into their bikini bottoms. This becomes a bitter contest. They call to their father—“Daddy! Daaaaaaaahdeeeee”—so shrilly, he runs through the water, certain that one is bleeding or has been stung by sea mucus. They insist that he judge The Second Annual Who Has the Biggest Contest. He mutters, “Not again,” as they shine winning smiles and point behind themselves, each angling for his vote. His answers are forever egalitarian. She has the roundest. Hers is the widest. This one’s droops the most.

They run into the waves, the sand weighing heavy in the crotches of their suits, which ride down and expose pale cheeks as they stumble into the ocean. They wash off and return to the foot of the path, where they begin stuffing sand into the tops of their swimsuits, forming uneven mounds on their flat chests. They insist their father take pictures.

As they cackle, a horsehead seal breaches the surface of the waves. His crunched snout and ink-colored skin glistens. He will pause and stare at you with human eyes, brutal intelligence peering from that face of slicked steel. He is so large and terrible and beautiful, such a master of the endless vast before you, so sleek and monstrous, that speech fails you.

You understand why the Scotts believed seals could shed their skins and become women. You see why tourists flock to Race Point Beach in August to watch hundreds of them flop across an offshore sandbar and bark in unison for an hour, like a deep sea choir. You realize how people can stand fascinated at the edge of the beach while the seals swim mesmerized at the edge of the water, and the people stare at the seals and the seals stare at the people who stare at the seals who stare at the people who stare at the seals who stare at the people who stare at the seals.

The seal regards you, bobbing and blinking with excellent posture. You hope he is your nautical twin, but think it’s more likely that he’s the reincarnation of Norman Mailer, with those winking eyes and that long elegant nose. You wonder where else in the world he swam before he followed a jet stream to the New England coast—the Baltics, the Arctic, and Orkney—or if he has lived in this corner of the Atlantic his entire life. He wonders what you eat (fish filets dipped in eggs and cornmeal and fried in oil), how you sleep (curled against a balled-up comforter, a phantom of someone you haven’t met), and where you go when you leave the beach (the grocery store, a movie theater, a small cottage named for a flower).

For a limitless minute he stares at you and you stare at him and he at you and you at him and he you and you him. Those eyes, so infinite, an internal galaxy you can access for an instant; he will never surface on the shore again for you, and even if he did, you would both wonder, “Is that the same one I saw last time?” You must try to drink him in. You squint and he squints back. He lets off a soft snort. You wipe your nose with your sleeve. You stare at him and he stares at you; you him, he you. Then, he slips back into the black water in an arc, plunging into the depth.

The children on shore do not see him. They are busy pointing out one another’s augmentative weaknesses and posing. Their father, his back to the beast, crouches down to snap pictures, groan with embarrassment, and judge. Yours are overflowing, yours jut out the most, yours are the pointiest. Then he has them empty their breasts back into the shore, a sacrifice to the animal they never saw, moments after he slinked into the deep.

You will feel your pulse skip in your wrists and know it is time to leave the beach. You will walk away from the water, which melts into land and sky, away from the creatures of the shore and the sea, inland, toward the beating vein of the highway.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.