“She’s a quicksilver girl…A lover of the world,” so go the Steve Miller Band’s lyric to a song that was popular when I entered college. Quicksilver is mercury; I am mercurial. When I research the word a bit further, I find the Philadelphia Historical Society:
“An antiquated custom, which at one time was popular both in Europe and the United States, was the search for individuals who had drowned by using ‘quicksilver,’ an archaic term for the element mercury.” It turns out the Mark Twain depicts using this method for finding a drowned body in Huck Finn. The article provides several further examples of this “powerful superstition” using a loaf of bread, hollowed out a bit to allow for a glob of mercury, placed upon water where someone had drowned. The bread would reportedly float in the spot where the drowned person lay awaiting discovery.
Writing can change direction unexpectedly. This post intended to be about a personality trait, mine, as a “quicksilver girl,” a person whose birth month metal is mercury. Instead I find myself thinking about drowning, the double-edged sword of water. Two veteran clam-diggers were swept away by a “sneaker wave” a couple of weeks ago. They had set out as usual bucket and shovels in hand, separated once they arrived on the beach, and turned their backs on the ocean so intent in their pursuit of the buried mollusks. My mother’s admonitions guiding our independent life on the beach before she watched us head down the path were two: Stay off of the logs, no matter how solid; waves make matchsticks of them, and DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN.
Perched here on a cliff above the Pacific safe inside my four walls, a usually wide swath of sand and dunes separating me from the edge of sea, the waves look harmless. Nonetheless, as a young child the wanton whoosh of water, the renegade that broke the pattern, that rogue, periodically haunted my nightmares, pinning me against a cliff, or sweeping me off my feet. I harbor a healthy respect for the ocean, for wide rushing rivers, for floods. “Water” as Tom Robbins declares in the opening to Still Life with Woodpecker, is the “ace of the elements.”
My son embraced surfing as his sport, and soon I stopped thinking I could control any part of his relationship with the ocean. His ocean, the Atlantic, seemed tamer than the one I’d grown up with, and as he gained confidence widening his boundaries, visiting new breaks, staring steeper faces in the eye, I lived an “as if” life…as if everything would be okay. When he shared his college admission essay with me, after he’d submitted it without my scrutiny, I read an extended metaphor: his life and a wave.
When my neighbor’s son drowns, the crabbing boat he has worked on with his dad since he was 10 flipped by heavy seas, the boat has barely passed beyond the arms of the jetty. His mom and dad and younger brother can look out from their front window these 16 years after and still see the spot. On that day, heavy fog and deep water troughs obscured it. They never found his body, and as his mother watched and walked the beach for any trace, she told me as time passed, she was glad the sea had held him. For her, he was still wholly him elsewhere. There is no bread, no alchemy, that will return him to her.
5 thoughts on “Quicksilver”
Your reflections flow as a tide as well. Thanks for sharing these connections across your life and into others. Water is a powerful element, as you have shown.
A poignant reflection, with a lingering effect. Thank you.
Wow, this was a really thoughtful slice. I can see that the ocean plays a big part in your life, and the stories you told connected without being exactly the same. They showed different sides of life by the water.
A sad, but beautiful tribute to those lost to the sea.
Such a powerfully written reflection on the ocean waves. Your writing pulled me in and swept me along with the waves you describe.