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A day off on Nantucket

Mary Bergman

Last Friday afternoon, when I should have been at work, I went scalloping. Six days of rain had finally relented, giving way to a bluebird sky. It didn’t take much convincing on my part.

For years, I have scalloped with equipment that isn’t up to par — a rusty basket borrowed from someone and never returned, neoprene waders purchased at a yard sale, and an unwieldy pushrake. I’ve envied the divers, sleek in their wetsuits who disappear into the sea, save for a red flag that marks their location, bobbing above the surface. Their hauls are always the most impressive.

I don’t yet have a wet suit, but I am part seal and very stubborn when it comes to aquatic matters. The sun beating down, I felt like I could do anything! I even let the high schoolers behind the counter at the dive shop talk me into a new snorkel and mask set. We zipped from store to store in search of a dwindling supply of scalloping gear, my companions half dressed in their wetsuits already. Neoprene arms dangling by their sides, they looked a bit like they were shedding exoskeletons. Nearby, a wedding party posed for a photographer under the compass rose at Gardiner’s Corner, the light already disappearing behind the tall buildings on Main Street.

They looked beautiful, but I wouldn’t trade places with them. Not while the tide was in our favor and the wind had quieted.

I am not a good fisherman, so I am grateful to those who keep inviting me out anyway. I can usually find the places where the scallops are not hiding. There was one year where the scallops covered the seabed like a cobblestone road out in Polpis, a memory of abundance I continue to cling to. Every fisherman is, at heart, a storyteller, so I’ll keep going out even if I only return with a handful of scallops. A good story is really what I’m angling for.

This time, I was distracted by the view of the island from the shoreline, swimming in front of huge houses and wondering how they got built. I got sidetracked observing the biggest whelks I have ever seen. The snorkel allowed me to keep swimming, never having to come up for air, until finally, finally, there was an enormous scallop, its blue eyes blinking back at me.

(I have wondered what scallops think, if they think at all, when they are scooped by seagulls, just before being dropped from great heights onto hard surfaces. Do they get one last look at their watery home, a strange new vantage point, soaring high above a parking lot?)

Thrilled that I had would be able to contribute at least one scallop of legal size to this feast, I dove down and chased after the creature, who made good use of their propulsion system and nearly jetted away. I think those diving googles aught to come with a warning — objects in water appear larger than they are — the scallop was still of good size but not nearly as large as I had first believed.

On the shore, I watched as others emerged from the water, looking every bit the super hero in their slick wetsuits and heavy, chattering bags of scallops. I had missed being on the beach with others — fall and winter are full of lonely, windy walks along the barren landscape. A few couples stood around and exchanged recipes, a man opened his catch right at the beach and ate some of the little gems raw. My work is documenting the island’s history, and here it was, unfolding around me. What a great day at the office!