Jane Passerine found the egg in the surf. It was shaped like a bird’s egg, but big, about a foot long, and reddish brown in color, so it must have been exposed to iron when it fossilized. The breaking waves frothed around it, deepening its redness and making the surface glisten, but they were also tumbling the egg about, and she knew from experience that if she didn’t get it above high water mark soon, the tide would carry it away.
Jane took off her sneakers, set them down on the sand, and rolled up her jeans. Not that she wasn’t damp already. The coastal fog was especially thick this morning, more like a sharp drizzle. The horizon was lost somewhere inside it, as were the tops of the shoreline cliffs. Everything close up was damp with spray and fog, and the rocks were slippery.
A big wave swallowed the egg and tumbled it toward the sea bed. Jane ran after the egg, ready to lunge for it, but the water retreated, dropping the egg but churning up sand as it streamed back into the ocean. The last of the flow carved a v-shaped groove in the sand at the base of the fossil.
Before another wave could come, Jane grabbed the egg and staggered toward land. The thing was heavy, and she stumbled, dropped it. It thunked onto the sand but missed her bare feet, for which she was thankful.
As it lay there dripping, she took a closer look. What kind of egg was it? The surface was smooth but not polished. Not like it had been rolling around in the ocean. Not weathered, either, so it couldn’t have been exposed on land for long.
Was it an egg at all? Maybe she was fooling herself, and it was just an egg shaped rock. It was awfully clean for a fossil: they usually had bits of matrix stuck to them.
She rolled it over. The bottom looked as much like an egg as the top did.
Jane stood up and studied the cliff face for a break in the vegetation, any sign of recent erosion. When she found fossils on the beach, that was where they came from: the cliffs. Sometimes you could see more poking out, ready to fall. But the blooming masses of yellow and pink and white and sage green that clung to the rock showed no breaks. Maybe the egg had fallen from higher up, in the fog.
A cold tongue of water licked her heels and she turned just in time to see her shoes floating away.
“Oh no you don’t,” she said, chasing the wave.
If she went home barefoot again, her daughter would roll her eyes and say, “Mom, did you lose another pair of sneakers?” and her Dad would say, “Jesus Christ,” and she didn’t want to hear either of them.
“I’m thirty-two years old today. I can lose a pair of sneakers if I want to,” she muttered, grabbing them as a second wave lifted them high and threatened to drag them under.
Jane stood shaking water off her shoes while the wave broke and swirled around her ankles. She felt the pull of it, the erosion of sand from beneath her feet, until she was standing on wet sand with two grooves running from each foot toward the ocean, just like the fossil, just like every rock and every stick of driftwood or strand of seaweed on shore.
A breeze made her glad of her windbreaker. The mist on the water swirled like dancing ghosts, and through their obscuring movement she could make out the shore’s curve, the rocky outcrop reaching into the Pacific, but nothing beyond.
Jane shifted both sneakers to her left hand and with her right wiped away the accumulation of mist and spray dripping into her eyes. Another wave hit, splashing her legs and wetting the bottom of her jeans.
A typical July morning on Big Sur.
She turned and walked back to the egg.
The waves were gaining on it, so she tossed her shoes higher up the beach and rolled the egg toward them. Being an egg, it wouldn’t roll in a straight line, but kept trying to veer in a circle. A useful trait if you nest on a cliff, but she could see it was going to make it hard to get the thing home. That, plus its weight.
What nests on a cliff besides a bird? And what bird was ever big enough to lay this egg?
Jane sat beside the egg, brushed sand off her foot and, keeping it in the air, reached for a sneaker. As she was putting it on, a tall, thin figure took shape in the mist.
A man was running toward her. She recognized him from his gait: her neighbor from a couple of houses down the shore. Not that she knew his name.
He’d moved in about two years ago, and she saw him running on the beach most mornings when she was out for a walk. He had floppy, sandy hair, a thin nose with a bump on the bridge, and a runner’s tense mouth. His eyes had a far away expression, as though his mind was somewhere else. He tripped a lot.
When he’d first moved in, they’d passed each other on the beach and she had smiled and nodded. He’d nodded back and kept on going. Every day after that, if they passed on the beach, they’d each smile and he’d keep on going.
After a year of this, Jane decided it was time to break off the relationship or move it to another level. When they passed, she said, “Hi.”
It broke his stride, that was for sure. He looked really startled, blushed, said, “Hi,” and kept on going. That was how things had been for the past year, and she didn’t see any likelihood of their changing, so when he ran by she nodded briefly and reached for her other sneaker.
“Is that a dinosaur egg?” he said.
Jane dropped the sneaker.
He’d stopped just the other side of her and was staring at the egg.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s not shaped like a dinosaur egg. They’re more cylindrical, but rounded at the ends.”
“Oh,” he said, and kept on running.
By the time we reach retirement age we may have a whole conversation, she thought. She put her other sneaker on and said to the egg, “You’d be a lot easier to roll if you were a dinosaur egg.”
But it was a cute egg. There was something appealing about it. She didn’t know why she felt that way, since it was a hunk of fossil who knew how many million years old, but if this egg were a puppy in the pound, it would be the one you brought home.
Jane set about moving the egg. She rolled it along the sand until its wobbly, crazy, random-directedness grew so annoying she had to carry it awhile. Then, when it got so heavy rolling seemed like a good idea again, she dropped it and took a rest.
The sun was getting stronger, the fog thinning. Brooklyn would have gotten herself breakfast by now. She knew if mom was late getting back from the beach, mom had probably found a fossil, and Brooklyn would rather fix her own breakfast than help lug the thing home. Always nice when your kid shows initiative, even if it’s for the wrong reasons.
Jane got up, took off her windbreaker, and tied its sleeves around her waist. She resumed rolling the egg. After three more cycles of roll, carry, rest, she had reached her steps and was resting with a real need of it. Her arms trembled and her breath came hard. The thing was heavy.
She was thinking about the seventeen steps to her workshop when the neighbor came into sight on his way back home. She could never carry it up the whole flight. She’d have to do it a step at a time, resting it on each step.
As he was about to pass her, he stopped and said, “Do you want me to carry it up for you?”
Two sentences in one day. Things were really speeding up here. Too bad he’d waited two years: he was cute, but she had a boyfriend now.
“Sure. Thanks,” Jane said.
He picked up the egg. “Whoa, this is heavy as a rock.”
“It pretty much is a rock. All the cells have been replaced by minerals.”
She let him go up the stairs first, which she immediately realized was a mistake. If she’d gone first and he dropped the egg, gravity would be her friend, but this way … “How’re you doing?” she said.
“Fine,” he said, his voice strained. “How many steps are there?”
“Seventeen. You can just put it down if it’s too heavy.”
“I’m fine,” he grunted.
At the top, she hurried ahead to open the studio door for him. He was a little red in the face, but not breathing too heavily. All that running must be doing his cardiovascular system good.
“Where do you want it?” he said as he walked past while she held the door.
“The doorway at the far end of the room goes to my dad’s fossil workshop. It’d be great if you could put it in there.”
“Let me rest for a minute.”
She winced as he set the egg down on the corner pocket of a partially disassembled billiard table. At least she hadn’t refinished it yet.
“Nice table. What kind of wood is this?” he said, running his hand along the surface.
“Bird’s-eye maple with rosewood inlay.”
He looked at the gaping hole where the playing surface should have been. “What happened to the middle?”
“I’m restoring it. I restore billiard tables. It’s what I do,” she said, waving a hand to indicate the big workroom with labeled pieces of disassembled tables stacked on shelves or stored in bins. She was working on three orders, and those three tables sat on the floor in various stages of reconstruction. Beyond them, the double glass sliding door she’d put in gave a view of thinning mist and an increasingly sunlit ocean.
“Cool. You do that for a living?” he said with sudden interest.
“I knew a guy in Vermont who restored furniture. He had a big vat of paint stripper, and he’d lower the whole piece of furniture in.”
“That would take the veneer off,” Jane said, horrified.
“Saved a lot of time. Isn’t there supposed to be slate on top?”
“I told you, I’m restoring the table.”
“But I don’t see any slate around.”
“It’s in the basement. It’s heavy. I’m afraid if I store it up here it’ll fall straight through the floor.”
“Makes sense,” he said, nodding happily.
Jane was thinking she’d liked him better before he started to talk. “Are you thinking of going into the furniture restoration business?”
“Why are you asking so many questions?”
“I’m a writer.”
Oh, does that ever explain a lot, Jane thought. “Television or movies? Did you write anything I’ve seen?”
“I’m Gus Shearwater.” He paused, and seemed disappointed when she didn’t recognize the name. “So where do you want the egg?”
“Gus, I’m sure everybody in the industry knows who you are, but nobody outside the business knows who the writers are.”
“Augustus Shearwater. I wrote a novel.”
“Are you telling me you’re here because you wrote a novel? Everybody who owns property in Big Sur is either here because they made a lot of money and bought a house, or because their family has lived here for generations and they inherited one. My family has been here for generations, but you moved in a couple of years ago. A writer in California with enough money to buy into this real estate market? Please. Movies or television?”
“Television. Nobody else read the novel, either. And it was ten years ago. You’re not much for small talk, are you?”
“No, I like that.”
“Jesus Christ,” said a loud voice in the fossil room.
“That’s my Dad,” Jane said. “He’d like to meet you.”
“He doesn’t sound like he’d like to meet me.”
“No, he would. He’ll be happy about the egg.” As Gus picked up the egg and Jane led the way, she added, “He’s got M.S.”
Dad was at his workbench, chipping matrix from a trilobite fossil with his good hand. When they came in, he set down the dental pick he was using and turned his wheelchair to face them. He listed a little to the left, his weaker side, and she wanted to straighten him up, but he wouldn’t like that in front of company.
“Hi, Dad. Look what we brought. Isn’t it great?” she said as Gus set the fossil down on the workbench.
“Yeah,” said Dad.
“I think it’s a fossil egg, but I’m not sure. We’ll have to do some research.”
Gus was looking around bemusedly at the lab equipment, the trays of matrix encrusted orthocera and brachiopods and trilobites waiting to be prepared, the dinosaur femur on the back table. His gaze came to rest on dad’s pride and joy, a complete Smilodon skull from the La Brea tar pit.
“What a great place you have,” Gus said.
“Dad, this is Gus Shearwater, our neighbor. He runs on the beach every morning,” said Jane.
“Yeah,” said Dad.
“Gus, this is my father, Frank Passerine.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Passerine.”
“Yeah,” said Frank, shaking the hand Gus offered him.
“You can call him Frank. And I’m Jane.”
“How long have you been doing this?” Gus said to Frank.
“Yeah,” said Frank.
“Did Brooklyn get off to Trinny’s okay?” Jane said.
“Yeah,” said Frank.
“Good. I have to get to work, but I’m going to make coffee first. Would either of you like some?”
“Sure. I have work to do, too, but sure,” said Gus.
“Yeah,” said Frank.
“I’ll bring you some cookies, Dad,” said Jane.
Frank turned his wheelchair to face the workbench. As Jane was leaving the room, Gus following her, Frank said, “Yeah, yeah.”
He pointed. “Yeah.”
The egg was blocking the light from his table lamp.
Jane said, “It must have rolled.” She moved the egg out of the light and wedged a ruler under it to keep it in place.
“Yeah,” said Frank.
“You’re welcome,” said Jane.
She led Gus downstairs to the kitchen, a big, stone walled room with a fireplace at one end, a cooking area at the other, and a large trestle table in between. It was a basement level room, but since the house was set into a hillside, it had an ocean view along its entire length. Of course, what was visible was still mostly fog.
“In case you’re still wondering, I store the slate in there. That’s also where I park the car,” Jane said, pointing to a door in the windowless internal wall.
“This building must have quite a history,” Gus said.
“I’m sure it does. I don’t know a whole lot of it. My family always lived here, but they weren’t journal keepers. I do know that my great-great grandfather built it as a lumber mill,” Jane said, making the coffee.
“He did?” Gus said, trying to see through the fog beyond the window.
“If you’re looking for the mouth of a river, forget it.”
“But how did he get the logs…”
“He had the idea to dispense with a river and use the tide to get them to the mill.”
“The tide does bring a lot of things ashore here.”
“Did it bring the logs?”
“Brought them close. Then it turned and took them right out again. Wreaked havoc with shipping. Coffee’s ready,” Jane said, and poured him a mug.”
“Thanks,” said Gus, accepting the coffee but looking completely confused. “How was he going to power a mill with no river?”
“Tide. He dammed a ravine you can see out that window when you can see anything, and put in a lock at the ocean end. Used the incoming tide to power a water wheel, kept the water in the ravine and at low tide let it flow out and power the wheel again.”
“That sounds clever. Did it work?”
“I’m not sure. I think so, but even if it did, he had no way to get the lumber here.”
“Are you making this up?”
“I’m telling you the story as it was told to me. That’s all I know. Fortunately for us all, he was an accomplished carpenter and builder and that kept my ancestors from starving and made it possible for me to be here.”
Gus smiled and sipped his coffee. “Good story.”
Jane got a metal tray from the cabinet and set it on the counter. As she opened a box of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies, she said, “So. When you’re running on the beach in the morning, are you thinking about the story you’re writing?”
“Yes. How do you know?”
“My mom was a writer. I recognize the symptoms. Cookie?”
“Yeah,” Frank shouted from upstairs.
Jane put the box of cookies on the tray and went to the doorway. “I’ll be right there, Dad. I’m fixing it now.”
“Is yeah all he can say?” said Gus.
“That and Jesus Christ. But he manages to get a variety of meanings into them,” Jane said, filling a mug with coffee.
“I’m coming, Dad!”
“It must be so frustrating.”
Stirring sugar and cream into Frank’s coffee, Jane said, “If he gets frustrated, all he has to do is wheel himself over to the computer and type in whatever he wants to say. But he’d rather yell.”
Jane took the tray upstairs. When she got there, her dad quietly said, “Yeah,” and pointed to the egg. It had rolled under the lamp and was blocking his light again.
“How did that happen? Never mind, I’ll take care of it.”
She set the snack tray on the workbench where Frank could reach it, then picked up the egg with both hands and lowered it to the floor. “There. That should keep it out of your way.”
“Yeah,” Frank said uncertainly, looking at the egg.
“I brought you Mallomars,” said Jane.