The Tide

Photo by Kendra Pappas

Photo by Kendra Pappas

The family huddled together at the edge of the water. The son was watching how each person walked, the differences in their gaits exaggerated by the wet sand. In order to do this, he lagged behind a little, and in placing himself outside of the group, realized he was able to give up the pretense of nodding along as his mother spoke, instead listening to the chanting rhythm of her voice as it mingled with the less defined melodies of her sister and their husbands.

Her footsteps and voice seemed the most natural to him. He often found himself, when meeting other children, comparing them to who he believed his mother had once been, and although this bothered him a little, he was more disappointed at how badly he matched up with this figure than the fact that he had created it. While his mother walked more heavily on the front of her feet, he and his father stomped along on the outsides of theirs, and dug their heels into the sand at the start of each step. Little pools of saltwater and displaced sand fleas pushed up into the dents this left behind.

The light friction of the grains against his bare soles grated equally against his mind, and he gazed out at the waves more longingly than before. Swimming would spare him the irritation now, but his mother’s anger if he ran into the ocean would be an embarrassment to him around his cousins. Ever since last summer, none of them wanted anything to do with him.

So be it, he thought angrily, kicking the beach in front of him so that stinging flecks of wet sand flew at the ankles of the adults in front of him. He imagined what it would be like to be one of those tiny particulates, spending years in one spot, under the bleaching of the sun and the beating of the waves, and then to suddenly fly, shoved into motion, a tiny missile headed to an unknown planet of perfect feet and musical gossip. The spattering of sand falling back to Earth sounded like a thousand tiny fireworks, and it took a moment for him to hear the less riveting sound of his mother admonishing him.

He wasn’t sure what she said, not because he hadn’t heard the words, but because his feet still itched, and he kept scraping them against his shins. There was a pause, so he nodded, and his mother swiveled back to his aunt gratefully, muttering something that made him try to walk more quietly.

He watched the water come closer to greet him, then run back, calling this way, this way! His mother wanted him to play when invited, but there was a wildness to the ocean–it was not the sort of creature that had backyard potlucks and rode its bikes to the pool every time school was dismissed. He had never swum in the ocean, but he knew that it was not like the community pool, where even with goggles his eyes stung, and where there wasn’t any place he could duck his head without ending up in a lane of entitled retirees, or someone’s basketball game, or under the slide.  The ocean could make room for him if he only dove now...

More and more perfect footprints separated him from the silhouettes that swayed themselves smaller and smaller into the horizon, eroding until they were just specks, like the sand that was starting to give him a rash. This way!

He watched bits of foam burrow into the shore. There were other bubbles, too–the tiniest of clams yawning their pale pink yawns in unison. He dug one out to hold it between two fingers, barely bigger than his smallest knuckle. It gasped for water, so he tiptoed to the shallowest spot, and dipped it beneath the warm and salty tide. He left his hand basking in the gentle current even after the clam had wriggled past his grip, feeling how the water lapped against his wrist, softening his goosebumps and making the light hair on his arms stick to his skin. It washed the sand off his ankles, so he lifted each foot, first his right, then his left, to cleanse them as well. 

Two humble waves converged in a confused V of sudden synergy that barreled at him before he could move aside, soaking the edge of his shorts, and leaving a thin white line across the top he knew would be difficult to wash out. Panic sent the blood running out of his skin as the large wave rushed back to sea, making him pale as the exposed beige sand, a thousand stranded clams from here to the end of the world. He stared at the salt crystallizing as though it were an interesting species he had just now discovered, wondering if this is what diamonds forming would look like to an immortal being. The figures on the beach were gone, ascending the dusty path that led to their cars. 

He stepped farther into the water, continuing until it reached his waist, and he could no longer jump over every swell. This way! He remembered the summer before, and how whenever he got this far out he would be called back, his cousins continuing on without him. He took another step, molding the sand with his foot. A brown-winged bird with a thin beak bobbed on the water ahead of him. This way!

He followed it.

His feet left the sand, and when the swell had set them back down, they pushed off, kicking into the sea. He grinned and a slap from the water filled his mouth with the taste of sodium and algae. He spat and shook his head, treading water. Mouth closed, he dove.

The sky was dark and brooding, and each star was joshing the others that it could make the darkness laugh first. The boy resurfaced, panting. He looked up for a moment, feeling the pulse of the ocean carry him with it, then, slowly, he made his way back to the shore.  

Ilex (15) says, “I don’t know why I like to write, or, more to the point, if I do at all. I write because I talk until my throat gets sore, and then I still have words left. If I didn't write, I'd probably implode. That, or buy a new trachea.” She thanks her Creative Writing teacher, Ms. Dana Vigner, for helping her improve her craft. 

Ilex Altholff