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The Estero

1988 Finalist, SPUR Short Fiction Award (from Western Writers of America)


The road climbs around a hill west of Tomales, passing the old Catholic Cemetery, then bordering a steeply sloping pasture where a dairyman dumps waste from his barn, where grass grows rapidly and dark all year round. During summer when I was a kid I used to walk there and examine the drainage ditch along the road beneath that slanted field; in it muddy offal rusted and split into sharply geometric designs — marvelous to me.

        A hundred yards farther southwest, the road crests and veers, and a narrower lane intersects from the right. This one follows the course of a brook and is densely lined by willows as it swoops down the hill's other side, dropping to the eucalyptus border of my uncle's farm where the small creek joins a much larger stream crossed by a wooden bridge. In fact, that one-lane road actually separates our house from our barn and corrals.

        The land flattens beyond what we still call Uncle Tony's farm, a wide valley opening into verdant fields dotted with dairy cows and clusters of shaggy sheep. It is in a hidden vale surrounded by rolling hills, one that tourists and even some locals never see.

        When they are here, they usually forget that our place is only four miles from the Pacific and little higher than sea level. The larger stream winding through our property — the Estero — reveals an oceanic link and it too was a source of wonder to my sister Suzie and me when we were small.

        It is called the Estero because its estuarial water ebbs and flows with the tides. During wet winters, it can swirl muddy brown, but most of the year it boasts no noticeable flow at at all, only a tidal pulsing; it is a sleepy, secret filament of the sea, its channel full of dark water that reveals at unpredictable times the primal surging of its source: vast phantom fish might bulge its surface, gulls might clatter to feast on minnows, an arrant sea lion might appear midstream in our pasture amidst feeding cattle, large brown astonished eyes meeting large brown astonished eyes.

        One time when we were kids my sister and I were fishing from the bridge when we noticed something surging up the Estero, a wake without a boat and traveling fast. “Hey, look!” I called, and as it slid directly beneath us, its watery shadow appeared as large as a calf. After it passed, small waves lapped the shore for several seconds. “What was that?” she asked.

        “I think it was a big giant shark.”

        Suzie stared at me for a prolonged moment, then began crying.

        Tony might think I'd committed some minor atrocity, old Manuel Gomes, my uncle's only employee, wandered over with his dog from the milking barn to see what was wrong. “Leetle one,” he assured my sister, “the beeg feesh no get you. He come up here for bath only.” He grinned with his brown teeth and we both smiled. “Yeah, up north pasture een the beeg pool, meester feesh wash hees feens and seeng a feesh song: tra-la-la-la!” He rolled his eyes and his voice grew high and hollow. Then he grinned once more, and while his hard old hand stroked Suzie's dark hair, his dog nuzzled her, wagging its ebony tail. She giggled, shark forgotten.

        Manuel was our favorite, mine and Suzie's. He had no family, only Shep — or “Shap” as he called him — not a shepherd at all despite his name, but a one-eyed labrador who spent as much time in the Estero as he did on land. The man and his pooch lived in a small cabin on the strange stream's bank across the road near the milking barn. He had worked for my uncle since way before I was born, since right after coming over from the Azores, and Manuel had been no kid then, Tony told me. Like his dog, he loved the Estero.

        “Een heem I catch salmons and beeg tunas weeth my peech-fork,” Manuel once revealed, nodding toward that dark vein of water. Like most local farmers, he harvested the Estero without benefit of rod or reel. he also didn't seem to know one fish form another: his tuna might be a catfish or a carp. “And many leetle feeshes, herreengs and anchov's. And beeg sturgeons: Ugly! Son a the beetch! I catch heem many times. Juan Battancourt that works for Dolcini, he say he see beeg whale sweem by the cows. Son a the Beetch! And weeth my own eyes I see the seals many times. Thees loco dog” — he nodded at Shep — “he theenk he ees one, a seal.” He scratched the ebony head and, I swear, Shep showed his white teeth in a smile, tail wagging.

        One spring day when Suzie was off with our mother, Manuel took me down the Estero all the way to the sea. He had built an old wooden boat that looked like a blunt canoe; it was barely large enough for Shep and the two of us, but we loaded it with lunch and shoved off just below the cabin and began slowly winding our way westward through lush pastures, sitting low on the currentless stream, high banks on both sides, our eyes at grass level. Every few minutes, it seemed, Manuel would say, “Look at heem!”—and point at a garter snake sliding through the water, at a long heron spiking minnows, at a turtle plopping into the stream from a snag — “Son a the beetch!”

        Above us and the estuarial pastures through which we traveled shrugged the hulking shoulders of coastal hills; as it neared the sea, the Estero sliced through increasingly steep country creating a deeper and narrower canyon. In places it appeared there could be no outlet, the hills folding so intimately, but an unexpected turn, a secret course, and the channel would bend on itself, slipping through to another small valley. As we approached the stream's mouth — not seeing or even hearing the surf, but smelling it in the strong, salty wind that resisted us — both Manual and I were forced to paddle hard to make any progress. Shep grinned into that zephyr, his pink tongue lolling.

        Finally the Estero swung wide around a treeless bluff and I began hearing the dark rumblings of what seemed distant waves. Only a moment later, to my surprise, we were gazing at the great blue Pacific bursting against the white sand of a small beach, at a churning expanse as open as freedom itself. It was low tide and the Estero appeared to be blocked by a sandbar, so it had formed a small, shallow lagoon on the beach. We pulled the boat ashore — Shep splashing and romping in that estuarial pond—then ate our lunch on the steep sand just beyond cresting breakers. Shep chased shorebirds and the shells Manuel occasionally threw for him. When we were about to return, lunch consumed, tide rising, a sleek dark head popped from the frothing water directly in front of us and for a moment, I stared at a sea lion staring at me. Then it was gone.“Did you see that?” I asked.

        “Son a the beetch! I see heem!” A moment later Shep was exploring the surf where the sea lion had appeared, his own sleek, dark head dipping under water, then popping up. “Looook, another seal!” laughed Manuel.

        When the frustrated pooch finally emerged, we all climbed back into Manuel's small boat and paddled home, strong ocean gusts now pushing us, while Shep faced backward, still grinning, tongue still lolling into the wind. “Loook at Shap,” said the old man with a wink. “Een hees dreams he ees a seal.” Then he reached over and scratched his dog's glistening black head.

        Manuel and I always intended to make that trip again, but never did. He grew older and I grew up. Shep-the-seal's snout and paws whitened. The old man and the old dog hobbled around the farm, both troubled by arthritis but both continuing their duties. They even looked alike, those two, Manuel's dark Portuguese complexion seeming to deepen as his hair whitened. Anyway, I finally finished my degree in husbandry at the university and returned to help Tony on the farm; since he had no other family, I was slated to eventually take it over.

        Suzie was away at college when the deluge occurred. It wasn't, and isn't for that matter, uncommon for coastal streams engorged with winter's heavy rain to flood these valleys; when storms clear, cattle wander through knee-deep water, feeding alongside egrets and gulls. But that year some of the highest tides on record coincided with profuse rains: a dangerous combination, since tides alone can overflow banks in these low-lying pastures. Combined, they were more than we could imagine.

        Uncle Tony, Manuel and I had sandbagged the cabin and the milking barn as a precaution, something we did virtually every winter. Our house sits on a hillock and had never been threatened by rising water. Then we had turned in, Manuel refusing to join us in the house: “Me and Shap no scara a the leetle rain. Son a the beetch!” He and his stoved-up old pooch had hobbled off to their lair and Uncle Tony had laughed, “He's a tough old bastard. Son a the beetch,” he winked, and we both laughed.

        When my uncle awoke the next morning about five, it was still dark and rain was pounding the roof. He usually allowed me to rise on my own, but that day he rousted me immediately. “Come look at this,” he insisted.

        He'd pulled on his clothes over the long johns he slept in all winter, and I did the same. He walked me to the front porch and in the darkness I saw what looked like a dark, moving mirror. Water was lapping at the porch and our entire valley appeared full: one vast lake. “What the hell!” I grunted.

        It was still dark and clouds hung heavily over us, but the rain had lightened to drizzle. “I never seen it like this before,” my uncle said.

        “Me either.”

        “We're gonna lose some stock for sure.”

        That's when I looked at him and said, “Manuel?”

        “Oh, Jesus. Let's get the flashlights.”

        The old man's abode was gone, and by the time we waded to the barn — water chest-deep and cold, footing treacherous — located Tony's bass boat, then got the outboard motor started, darkness had begun lifting, replaced by an eerie luminescence as brown and murky as the water that surged around us. Clouds still rolled above and we didn't know for certain which way to go since water wasn't flowing downstream — it wasn't flowing at all, just curling. We couldn't see the cabin anywhere in our valley, so I said, “Let's head for Dolcini's.”

        Tony pointed the boat's prow toward the coast and we headed west as rain once more increased. Near the bridge where Highway 1 crossed the Estero, we found the cabin wedged into a grove of eucalyptus, and Manuel was there clinging to the roof. While Tony held the boat steady, I managed to muscle the old man into it. He was stiff, his breath shallow and uneven, but he managed to gasp only, “Shap. Where ees he?” My eyes caught Tony's, but he shook his head. “We can't look for the dog,” he said. “We've gotta get Manuel to the doctor. He's in rough shape.”

        “Where ees he, Shap?” the old man repeated as we rushed him toward Tomales where a doctor could treat him, then send him to the hospital in Santa Rosa. Tony accompanied Manuel but I returned home and took the bass boat back to Dolcini's just before dark: no luck. That night I telephoned all the nearby places that still had lines up, but we never found any trace of Shep.

        The old one-lane bridge at our place was gone — it ended up on our lower pasture — so there was only one route to and from town when the water receded. We brought Manuel home in the pickup a week after the flood and moved him into our house. At first he did not speak no matter what we said to him, but after another day, he dressed and wandered from the house to the remains of the bridge where he stared at the brown water — tides were still running high — and spat into the stream.

        He remained there most of that day, and most of the next one. When he limped in for supper, I asked, gently, how things were going. For a minute he gazed at me then away. I didn't really expect a reply, but he fooled me. “I see heem there, Shap, sweemeeng weeth the other seals. he ees hoppy.”

        I knew he couldn't have seen Shep but it didn't matter. “That's great, Manuel,” I said.

        He smiled. “Shap.”

        The following day, we were still busy repairing damage done by the water, so my uncle and I didn't hover around Manuel, although we did try to keep an eye on him. But not close enough, for he somehow put his old canoe into the water and was paddling west when I noticed. Damn! Since I was in the process of pulling a mired cow from a bog with the tractor, I didn't need the added chore of chasing after him, but I had it. Tony was way to hell and gone up in the hills feeding hay to cattle on the upper slopes of our property, so there was no one else to pursue the old man.

        The canoe had disappeared. I knuckled the outboard down and roared off to catch him, but when I rounded that first bend I couldn't see his head moving over the pasture of the next wide valley as I had anticipated. A moment later, I knew why. I rounded another serpentine curve and there was the canoe with the old man lying in it like some ancient warrior consigned to the sea. His breath rattled and his eyes were open and glazed. I took off my jacket and covered him, then began tethering the two boats but almost immediately the ragged breathing stopped. I checked Manuel for a pulse but there was none, so I reached over and placed his hat on his face, sighed, then finished attaching the towline to the canoe.

        That accomplished, I sat for a moment before starting the engine, glancing from the old man's body at the pasture with winter grass flattened by the flood and at the hills ahead. I gazed far to the west where the Estero twisted through secret slopes toward the sea and was startled: I saw the water's surface briefly broken by the sleek black head of a sea lion, or thought I did. It was so far away that I couldn't be certain.

        I guess it's not important. It all happened a long time ago when I was a young buck. Now I'm hobbling around this place myself, with grandchildren visiting each summer and with a daughter and son-in-law planning to take over the dairy when I retire, which will be soon. Yeah, a long time ago, but if you climb that road out of Tomales today to the old Catholic Cemetery you can find where Manuel's body rests. I was one of the pallbearers and we placed him there in our family plot next to my dad. Uncle Tony's with him now, and my mother, and my wife. And that's where my bones will rest one day soon.

        But Shep isn't there. He's at sea with the other seals, and I'm sure Manuel's spirit is with him.

        And mine, my spirit is traveling its own Estero, swimming toward Shep and Manuel and the freedom of that secret sea beyond hills or memories or the salty wind of coastal canyons.


The Estero originally appeared in The Man Who Cultivated Fire and Other Stories [1987], Vol. XI in Capra Press' 'Back-to-Back' series; it was then republished in That Constant Coyote: California Stories [1990], which is still available from University of Nevada Press [Click Here!].

That Constant Coyote: California Stories was the winner in 1990 of the Josephine Miles National Literary Award from PEN Oakland.

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