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Taylor stood atop the cliff of Guethary. The hill's curved ascent formed an immense sound baffle so that the ocean roared at him from all sides. Below him the narrow cobblestone lane snaked between red-roofed Basque houses to the medieval harbor. Further out to sea, the cliff's natural enclosure had been extended into great stone arms. These protective walls rose twenty feet above the ocean's surface and narrowed the harbor mouth. Today the surf was so mammoth each inside wave crashed over the walls and bathed the stone in foam. A mist rose from the skirmish of water against rock, drifting like earthbound clouds. Taylor Knox breathed the salt-laden air and knew a piercing regret over having been brought to this magnificent realm on such an impossible quest.
A trio of doll-sized surfers began the paddle through the harbor entrance and out into the wash. The outside break was gigantic. Even from this height, Taylor knew that he was staring at the biggest waves he had ever seen. It was one thing to dream about surfing the behemoths of the Basque country. It was another thing entirely to have no excuse for not paddling out.
"Puts the old gut in a right twist, that." Kenny Dean was a Brit who had migrated from London to Devon by way of Australia's Gold Coast. "First time I caught sight of the heavies out there, I felt the old fear factor grab my throat like a noose." He clapped Taylor on the shoulder. "Cheer up, Yank. It's a lot worse than it looks."
Red Harris moved up to Taylor's other side. "I don't see how that's possible."
"Get yourself down to sea level; things will look different, believe you me." Kenny sounded vastly satisfied with the prospect. "Eyeball to eyeball, these beasties have a way of positively clearing the mind."
There were a lot of people watching, but fewer than two dozen surfers in the water. Taylor stood in a tiny park on a cliffside promontory, surrounded by surfers from around the globe-Japan, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, California, New Zealand, France, Australia. Knights in neoprene armor, drawn by the prospect of battling the mythical dragons in their deep blue realm.
"Time to motivate," Kenny urged. "It doesn't get better with the waiting."
The three of them suited up and started down the cobblestone lane. The alley was shadowed by the close-set Basque houses, all of them whitewashed and asymmetrical. The Basque considered their village architecture a gesture of both unity and defiance. The bright red roofs shone in the sunlight like brilliant steps clambering up the Pyrenees cliffside.
They rounded the final corner and halted. The blue sky and light offshore wind were mocked by rumbling thunder. All the gaily colored Basque fishing boats were in harbor today. Late August and early September marked the first of the big Arctic howlers, lows deeper than hurricane eyes and storms broad as Greenland. Two thousand miles north, a tempest was sending out waterborne mountains. For the past three days, as Taylor and his traveling buddies had made their way south from the Normandy ferry port, all the French surf shops and surfers' hostels had meteorological charts tacked to their front doors. Forget the tourist brochures and their photos of placid Riviera waters. This was France's other face. The Basque locals still called the Bay of Biscay by its medieval name, the Bone Coast.
The water was jewellike beyond the harbor walls, flattening between sets until the sea became a vivid reflection of the sky's brilliant blue. Then the next set stacked up like liquid corduroy, and the first wave struck the harbor walls. The sound of water upon stone was a great booming wrath. The wash drenched the stone in white, then retreated. The boats were tucked up tight against the cliff walls, as far from the harbor mouth as possible. Even so, they rocked like bathtub toys.
And this was the inside wave.
The next wave hissed over the rock beach as Taylor launched himself into the sea. The retracting wave sucked him out fast. By his third stroke he was already halfway to the harbor mouth. The barrier rocks were big as cars, the stone arms they formed thirty feet thick. When the next breaking wave poured across in foamy whitewash, Taylor felt the thunder in his chest. The retreating wave drew him out and through the wall and into the inside break.
Once through the harbor entrance, Taylor passed into a deepwater channel. He had never paddled so hard in his life. The central channel remained calm, save for miniature whirlpools spun by the crashing waves. To either side, the furious torrent boomed over the harbor rocks.
Taylor pulled over the last of the set waves and entered a calm interlude. The sea mocked him with placid serenity, impersonal in its power. Taylor's two companions drew up to either side, puffing from both the paddle and the realm they had entered.
Ahead, the channel broadened. Taylor could see the stream spread out like rippling underwater fingers. The tidal suction lessened, but further out the set waves formed long unbroken walls. Which meant timing for the final outside push was a matter of survival.
The world's seventh-deepest ocean basin was only twenty miles off the Basque coast. The entire coastline was shaped like cupped hands four hundred miles wide, forming the Bay of Biscay. The bay was aimed straight north, which meant that when the great Arctic storms created their mammoth surges, the Basque coast became crowned by the largest and thickest waves in the North Atlantic. From the second week in August to the last of November, seldom did a week pass without at least one day of waves over twenty feet.
The next set arrived. To either side of Taylor's deepwater perch, the inside waves jacked up twice his height. Call them twelve feet. A bodyboarder took off and screamed his way down the face, flying so fast he skipped like a Styrofoam rock over the surface. Then the wave's lip came down like a blue-crystal fist and hammered the bodyboarder into liquid oblivion.
Taylor turned shoreward. The harbor mouth looked miniscule from here. He could actually see the wash suck through, a great hush of water. The only way in was to face the lineup, catch a wave, and surf it away from the port. To the north, a hardscrabble beach formed the only safe exit. As another set wave rose and broke to either side, Taylor watched three surfers clamber over the rocks and stumble up a path that meandered along the cliffside. He tracked further up to the cliffside park, full of watchers. Beyond them, a group of older locals stood beneath the plantain shade trees and observed both the surfers and a game of pelota.
Taylor focused on the cliffside scene and did his best to ignore the raging fury to either side. He was living a dream. Of course he was afraid. But he would not let that fear defeat him. He would ignore how the surfers stumbled in abject exhaustion as they mounted the cliffside path. He would think instead of the green and purple mountains, the golden drifting mist, the beauty of this day.
Taylor found himself recalling the lessons he had studied back in Iona. The Scottish monk's voice became intensely audible. The old man could have been seated there beside him, sharing this day of crystal blue. The monk's name was Brother Jonah, and he had known his own time in the whale's gullet, though he had never told Taylor the entire story. Only that God had been forced to seal Jonah inside his greatest fear to gain his attention. The monk was stunted and twisted like the shoreline cedars of St. Augustine, Taylor's home. But Jonah's eyes were as vivid as this day, and his voice held such gentle passion he could speak to Taylor about things Taylor had spent a lifetime ignoring. And Taylor had listened. He listened still.
When the sea quieted once more, he was ready.
The paddle from the safe channel to the outside lineup was over a quarter of a mile. Taylor grunted deep and heavy in his chest with each downstroke. There were six of them paddling now, joined by three surfers returning from the last set.
Taylor was the first to spot the long dark line. He gave up enough breath to shout, "Incoming!"
They all accelerated. The time for holding back was gone. Taylor could hear the others panting with the effort and the fear. Eyeball to eyeball, Kenny had said. The next set was a rising dark shadow separating sea from sky. Mentally there was no room for anything more than the next deep stroke, the next breath, the next glimpse of the distance yet to cover.
In the outside lineup, two surfers peeled away and began paddling south, toward the channel. Taylor heard Red groan. He agreed with the sentiment but could not spare the breath. There was only one reason surfers in the lineup would move over. The peak, the highest portion of the wave and the first to break, was aimed for the channel. Straight at them.
The wave was so large Taylor could not tell how far he had yet to travel. It was already the largest wave he had ever seen up close, and still it was seventy-five yards away, perhaps more. Taylor's shoulder tendons popped with each stroke. The wave was sweeping grandly toward him, a mobile crag with a face so clean and pure it caught the sunlight and blinded him. Taylor squinted against the glare and began the climb up the wave's face. Up and up and up, rising so fast now his gut swooped. The wave's leading edge began to feather just as he crested the peak. To his right one of the waiting surfers paddled furiously and made it over the ledge and disappeared.
To his other side, Red crested the ledge and leaned back, panting hard as he pushed himself to a seated position
Taylor caught sight of what lay ahead and screamed, "Don't stop!"
Beside him Kenny shouted as well, but the words were lost to the thunder and the spray from the wave crashing behind them. Ahead rose a wave larger than the first. The larger the wave, the further out it broke. They were not safe yet.
Taylor pushed beyond his limits. He had to make it over. His chest was on fire. He did not have enough air left for a long holddown. And being caught inside on a wave this size would mean a trip to the bottom. Surfers had a term for the area in front of a large wave. They called it the impact zone.
He clawed his way up the face. Blinded by the spray, he was too afraid of what might lie further on to stop. Which was good. Because the third wave was largest of all, so huge even the surfers further out were pushing for the horizon.
Midway up the third face, Taylor knew he could not make it over.
His mind in panic mode, Taylor did the only thing he knew to do. The last thing he wanted was to let go of his only flotation, his only source of steady breath. But there was still more than ten feet of face to claw up, and already the lip was shattering like glass as the wave began its inexorable descent. So he slid off his board, gripped the tail, and stabbed the board with all his might through the wave.
He felt the wave grip him and knew he was going over. Falling away, descending into the maelstrom of a twenty-five-foot monster. Taylor was struggling to draw a final gasping breath when the leash connecting his ankle to the board snapped taut. His board was through the wave and out the other side. At the last possible moment, it plucked him up and away to safety.
Taylor came up gasping, shaking the water from his eyes, clambering onto his board and paddling even before he could see. Then he stopped.
Ahead of him was only calm and blue and sea.
He had to lock his gut muscles to halt his trembling. To his right, a trio of locals chatted easily in French, as though it were just another day at the café. One man laughed and plowed a surfer's trail with a flat hand.
Kenny's voice sounded as shaky as Taylor felt. "Red didn't make it."
Taylor looked back. Far, far to shore, a little figure pulled himself out of the whitewash. The passing set had littered the sea with a froth so thick Red was turned hoary white, his entire body lathered with foam. But he was moving. A good sign.
Thankfully, the next set was long in coming. They sat and watched as Red paddled toward them. His arms were so weary he could scarcely raise his hands clear of the water. When he arrived, he straddled his board and sat trembling, breathing through a throat made raspy by swallowing seawater.
"All right, mate?" Kenny asked.
Red gulped a breath and managed, "Should've never stopped."
Kenny pretended not to notice the man's state. "If ever you catch a wave early in a set, best make ruddy sure to ride it far enough over to miss getting hammered by the others."
There was nothing to be gained from rushing. Taylor sat through the next set. He studied the other surfers, saw how they watched for waves coming from both the north and the northwest. He saw how the northwest sets were larger, but the right walls sectioned and often closed out, a sure trip to the impact zone. He studied the locals' takeoff positions, how they stationed themselves, the way they aimed either for the channel or the far reaches of the beachside where the inside waves lacked serious power. He read the sea as carefully as he could, drawing from an ocean-drenched life. He paddled for one wave he did not intend to take, measuring the draw up the face. The larger the wave, the more water rushed up the face, pulling the surfer off the back. Going for a big wave meant total commitment. Aggression and power and determination so focused it bordered on rage were required to make it over the ledge. Fear was a far worse killer than the wave itself.
When the next set arrived, Taylor moved for position. He was closest to the peak and thus in the spot to claim the first wave. Two of the French guys backed off when they saw him going. There was one heartstopping moment when he saw the pit for the first time, lost in shadows far below. The wave had not yet started to break, but already he could hear the bellow, or perhaps it was just his heart. His mind screamed to pull out, push away, drop to safety. Taylor yelled back, shouting so hard his voice went falsetto, using all the air in his lungs to shove the fear aside. To either side the lip began to feather. The chasm below hunched and opened, the wave ledged, and Taylor was over and falling.
The big-wave gun was twice as heavy as the surfboard he used in Florida, and as steady as a table. Taylor rose to his feet and almost tumbled when the board did not give as he was accustomed. His arms did a gull-like swing; he shifted back and steadied into proper balance. His descent was so smooth he was down below eye level before he could actually accept the fact that he had caught his first monster.
Then he screamed again.
The crashing thunder drowned out everything. This was a singular moment, one between him and the ocean and the wave. The windless water was so calm he glided as on air. He reached and touched the wave's face, trailing one hand along the wall. He drew himself closer still, leaning into the mobile force. The wave was a mountain; he was tucked inside the very depths. And he never wanted this moment to end. Never.
The wall by his face began to bow slightly. Taylor felt a visceral awareness, born of this adrenaline-drenched intimacy. The Guethary break rarely formed the liquid tunnels called tubes. Instead the leading edge tumbled into a great freight train of noise and froth. Taylor could sense the foaming maw edge ever closer. High overhead, the wave's leading edge raced ahead in warning. He risked being shut down, trapped, hammered. Taylor crouched and drew his board up the now vertical face, adding the speed of constant descent. He remained untouched by all but the spray.
The spray. It roared out in a puffing blast, punched forward by the bellowing wave. Taylor was blinded. He shook his eyes clear. He was encased in a watery realm. Up ahead was blue sea and mirror sparkles and sunlight. Around him was a different universe entirely, one of power and speed and liquid cannonades and impossible balance. He wanted to shout, but his throat was clenched by an ecstasy as tight as real pain.
Too soon it was over. Too soon. He crouched lower and lower to maintain his flight as long as the wave would allow. Finally the wave spun him into a farewell funnel. He straightened and stood there an instant longer, hands gripping the sky and the moment. Far in the distance, other figures raised their arms and hooted. He fell into the water, wishing he could make eternal what was already gone.
Taylor caught a second wave. And a third. After the fourth wave, the paddle out caused stabbing pains in his shoulders and arms. When he came upright on his board and the adrenaline surge from the last wave and the race for safety diminished, his body could not shake off the water's chill. He hungered for more, but to stay out when he was growing so fatigued meant risking serious injury.
He sat through the next set, just reveling in the day. The sun caught each wave and transformed it into a peak of burnished gold. As the wave fell, the feathering lip sent back a sheet of spray that formed earthbound rainbows. The cliffside was packed now with families. Old men leaned and pointed at the breaking waves with their canes. Mothers pushed strollers; young lovers ate sorbet and took in the spectacle. It was an utterly French scene, flavored with the Basque spices of explosive nature and craggy cliffs and Monet's sunlight.
The day's final wave was the largest Taylor had ever ridden. He made long sweeping turns, flying from crest to pit and back again. He rode with his back to the face now, headed for the northern beach. When the inside segment started to form up, the entire wave crested together. A closeout was something to avoid at all costs here. He had no idea what the bottom was like, but he suspected the same boulders that littered the beach were also underwater. He flipped off the back of the wave and slipped onto his board, pointed seaward.
He came up in the eerie calm between sets. It was tempting to remain where he was and not sever the aquatic umbilical cord tying him to the day. But he knew the calm was a myth. The ocean was not tranquil. The force was merely gathering for the next eruption. He flipped his board around and headed toward shore.
That was when Taylor saw the attacker.
Where the surfer's path jinked in its climb up the cliffside, a rock ledge jutted seaward. The shooter tried to mask himself behind a stunted pine. But the tree was too small, and the shooter's position left half his body exposed. The rifle barrel looked as big as a cannon.
The first shot ripped open the water not three feet from him. The boom rolled down just as the man pumped the bolt action.
Taylor dove hard for the bottom.
The second bullet struck his board. He heard the crack of fiberglass exploding above his head. The bottom was lost beneath a cloud of silt dislodged by the waves. He found the seabed by colliding with a rock the size of a van. Taylor grabbed a handhold and listened to three more deadly chimes plunking overhead.
He had to get to shore. His board was demolished. The next set was coming. The attacker would be waiting for him. And he was running out of air.
Taylor felt the world shift slightly. Just a gentle tug about his body, scarcely enough to pull at his position clutching the rock. But he knew what it signaled. His time was up.
He reached for his ankle and released the leash connecting him to the remnants of his board. Using the rock as a base, he kicked off shoreward. The seabed came up fast here. He skirted another rock, then made for the surface.
He exploded into the shooter's view, gasping hard. Thankfully the shooter was searching over to his right, where the board bobbed in four pieces. Taylor grabbed two quick lungfuls and a single glimpse of the next incoming set. Then he dove, chased by another bullet.
The next wave tumbled him like he was caught in a gritty washing machine. Taylor smacked an underwater boulder so hard his arm went numb. But when the wave passed, he was able to twist about and find the bottom and stand. His head emerged through the froth. He was in neck-deep water. The next wave bore down with teeth of salt and foam. He could not afford a glance behind. The shooter would just have to wait his turn. He gulped air and ducked, gripping the nearest rock with his good arm.
The wave dislodged Taylor and shoved him shoreward. The next collision punched the air from his chest. When he came up again, he knew something wasn't right. Taking a breath stabbed him hard. He glanced shoreward and was cheered to see locals leaning over the cliffside edge and pointing down at the shooter's perch. A glance seaward was also reassuring, for riding the next wave in was Kenny, the Englishman. He was aiming straight for Taylor, but his gaze was on the shooter. As Taylor ducked under the incoming wave, he decided Kenny's arrival was both good and bad. Good, because it gave the shooter more to think about.
Bad, because Kenny seemed unsurprised by the shooter. Which meant he was on to Taylor and his mission.
Taylor tried to wedge himself between two smallish rocks. But the wave was too much for him in his present state. The wash dislodged him and tumbled him further inland. His head struck a stone. He felt a blinding pain and saw a sweeping wash of stars. The last sound Taylor heard was the music of bullets drilling into the water about him. His final thought was how sad it seemed to finally want to learn, only to have it all come too late.
Then he was struck yet again, and the entire world went away for good.
Posted May 15, 2005
'Elixer' is one of the best mystery novels I have read in a long time. The action keeps a steady pace, but does not sacrifice some great character development. The hero is very believable, and the settings are exciting. One criticism is that the author is a bit simplistic in his perspective of the pharmaceutical industry, which I have worked in. However, this is more than compensated for by an excellent characterization of the fascinating Basque country of France and Spain. Overall, this is a superb read.
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