Habit led me down to the rocks—habit and Shannon’s elation, which would have dragged us to roiled water if custom hadn’t. The waves had drawn more of a crowd than mid-October normally sees, along with the tropic air whorled up from the Caribbean. Swells rolled one upon another, deep-sea black and molten blue, wracking and colliding, wrecking on the train-car-sized bedrock fractures the glaciers had jumbled long ago. Realizing I should have stayed on the grassy lip near the lighthouse with the onlookers, I clenched Shan tight as the Atlantic shoved into crevices that taste salt maybe once a year. Bermuda was taking this hurricane, but the fetch reached here to Narragansett Bay.
“Easy, Shan,” I said, cinching her hip against my ribs with a forearm. “Easy.”
Her bare feet ached for wave-worn stone, upon which she usually skipped a few strides before hopping in place a dozen times, then repeat. With cobweb foam blowing all around and water channeling within yards before re-flushing to chaos, I sensed the crowd above wasn’t judging such child endangerment well, as I wasn’t. I headed north, hopping the pell-mell slabs as always, like a goat. The rock sheets rose higher in this direction, and I was sure I could let Shan down a bit—just enough, anyway, to slake those pining feet.
Like any condition, autism has its terminology. If malignant and metastasize, in situ and invasive, foist themselves upon the cancer-stricken, autism families speak their own tongue. Proprioceptive. Sensory Integration. In vivo. Self-Injurious. Circadian Rhythm, the light/dark gauge allowing most of us proper sleep patterns. Vestibular, or vestibules, the inner ear workings granting balance and a sense of place in the neurotypical. In the atypical, they’re primitively skewed, making Shan and others seem as wormholes, portals between one world and the next.
Unlike the gentler surf of most days, the ocean here was patternless. Normally the weaker sets spread over the lower table rock like whisked sheets. Now geysers soaked rocks thirty yards from breaking points, with foam motes snowing cedar boughs and rose tangles. Water thumped water then rock then water then more rock, lashing out then in then out, muting the day. With her jaw inches from my ear, I could hear Shan’s pinniped squeals, but doubted the assorted gulls—hunched below ragged turf chunks ten yards behind us where past storms had chewed away earth—could.
Finally, atop a steep rock sheet that led to a terraced second, I stepped to the plateau and stood. Even here water rushed to the base twenty feet below. Clenching her shirt, I let Shannon down.
All autism queries end the same: “Of course, we just don’t know.” As Shan hopped and skipped, ever on her toes, twisting soles into fine-grained rock, I knew as little about her predilections then as I did when they first exhibited.
“Their sensory intakes are off,” we’d been told. “At least to our understanding. They seek input in ways we either don’t or don’t realize we do. Toe-walking and a preference for bare feet seem to be a frequent manifestation of that. Of course, we just don’t know.”
We only knew our daughter hated shoes and adored commotion in any form—holiday malls or Newport’s summer streets to be sure, but nature-born turmoil most of all. Wrenching the shirt tighter, my free hand hovered above her shoulders like a shrike as I strode along with her back and forths, listening to gales ingest her high-pitched eruptions. Her hand-flaps usually match mood to tempo, and upon arresting each skip/hop sequence she bent at the waist to exalt the water with quaking hands.
Southward, toward the old lighthouse and bay mouth, the crowd swelled further. A few raincoat-laden arms pointed to mounting waves, but mostly people just stood, watching. In the brush behind us, just above the motionless gulls, a yellow-rumped warbler hopped from soil to willow, and then down again. Having skipped, flapped, and squealed for half an hour, Shan went through her paces, throttling from jubilation to restive contentment. A swell pushed ashore, soaking us, and lapping the salt from her upper lip, Shannon nudged against me, further deflating to contemplation.
Lord knows what we seek. Nestling Shan in my lap, I sat cross-legged. A wrack line wouldn’t show until the storm abated, but we watched what its future content tumbled around. Offshore kelp beds always contribute their ribbons and flakes, but here whole uprootings churned about like beastly cephalopods. Shards of jetsam, too, vanished and appeared—the torqued wires of ruined lobster pots, a lead line from a lost gillnet, half an outboard cowling, all mixed in with the lighter fare, the plastic bottles, the forks and spoons, nests of monofilament.
Among it all swirled the faunal waste. Blue mussels flecked the inner life of each wave, rolling with gravel, awaiting the doom of tautog lips, while three vertebrae—large, a seal, maybe a turtle—snagged on an old limb before all washed back out. A gray lump floated in a just-deposited pool below, its drenched feathers respiring up and down. It may have been a catbird, but the bigger storms will knock petrels in. I couldn’t tell and didn’t dare find out. Revolutions of wind banded around us, lifting even Shan’s wet, shorn locks.
As I rubbed her feet with my thumbs, the two of us simply sat as every onshore creature did—in silence. Occasionally we all do so, need to do so, every fish and fowl and living thing, to creep inside the maelstrom, toe the wormhole, to be still and be bestilled, to blow out the vestibules and hunker within the voice of God, attempting to balance ourselves among his own revolutions of solace and rage.