My family — parents, siblings, spouses, everybody’s kids — have been going to the same beach together for nearly 30 years, and it was on one of those first trips that my youngest brother told us about grunions.
Because I am tragically lacking in the Essential Fish 411 department, he brought me up to speed. Grunions, he explained, are tiny fish that mate on the sandy shores of Southern California. If you walk along the beach at night when they’re running, you can find thousands of grunions making out like teenagers in the moonlight—sighing and moaning and accidentally bumping their noses together when attempting an awkward kiss.
This all sounded frankly suspicious to me. Really? I asked my brother. Are you sure “grunion” isn’t just another word for “snipe”?
You remember snipe hunts, don’t you? Somebody hands you a bag at a slumber party and tells you to go find some snipes in the neighbor’s bushes, which you do until the neighbor shows up on his front porch wearing grumpy-old-man pajama bottoms and yells at you to get off his lawn. Which of course you do because neighbors in grumpy-old-man pajama bottoms are reliably scary. Meanwhile everyone else is next door having a good laugh at your expense. Hahahahaha!
So yeah. That’s what I figured grunions were. Snipes.
Still, year after year I went out on the beach at midnight with my brother and his kids, looking for the elusive grunions.
And then one night, there they were, sliding out of the ocean’s foam and onto the slick sand. Grunions! Grunions! Grunions! Miles and miles of them, storming the seashore like tiny Marines mounting an invasion of epic proportions. First they would secure their location on the beach. And then they would take over the city, after which they would move onto the capital in Sacramento and assume control over the entire state of California ATTENTION, HUMANS OF CALIFORNIA! THE GRUNIONS ARE IN CHARGE NOW! IT IS FUTILE TO RESIST.
My nephews — all of them little boys still — went crazy at the sight of all those tiny fish. They charged into the waves like David Hasselhoff and grabbed handfuls of them — laughing as the fish slipped through their fingers and back into the salty water, stuffing the rest into the pockets of their shorts.
I even barehanded a few myself and felt them flip against the hollow of my hand before I released them. It was an awesome feeling, actually — like I was some big old crazypants grizzly bear spearing myself some salmon. Except that my salmon were only 2 inches long. But whatever.
Anyway. It was a memorable evening. And I could officially remove “grunions” from the List of Things I Don’t Believe in Anymore. Grunions are real, people. They exist. I haven’t seen the grunions run since that evening, although I always visit the beach after dark in hopes I’ll see them again. I walked along the familiar shore again just last week hoping for a glimpse of them, glistening silver with the moon on their backs.
I didn’t see them. Sometimes I doubt I ever will again.
But what I did see were the ghosts of who we used to be. My brother. Me. And especially his sons who are now turning into men. I could see those boys leap into the mighty yawn of the Pacific Ocean and hear them shriek with remembered laughter as night water splashed up to greet them.
Their hands squirming with strange lovely treasure.
Ann Cannon can be reached at email@example.com.