by Christine Wang
Issue: Ricercari (Summer 2012)
“Dad, before dawn tomorrow, we will find one hundred seashells to add to my collection, okay?”
“Exactly one hundred?”
“Yep, not a single seashell less.”
As that naïve declaration echoed faintly in his mind, his fingers twitched, still reaching out to pick up a broken seashell, what should’ve been left as a memory long ago. That entire day, years ago, he had ran around with her in the hot sand, shouting triumphantly over the crash of the breaking waves as they each found their own choice of seashells. They would compare treasures and tease each other about their find, but most of the time he would let her win the mock argument and she would grin as she tossed the seashell into their cracked, red buckets. Now, as the sunny day fades into bitter nostalgia, he sits alone on the cold sand and blinks away the tears welling in his eyes. He clenches his fists and furiously rubs his eyes, but the voices return as sharp as they have been every night when he finally dares to remember.
“Come here! The water is warm, I promise!”
“Kiddo, we only have eighty-seven seashells and the sun is going down.”
She rolled her eyes at him from the water, but he only smiled gently back. Exasperated, she tried again.
“Really now? Don’t be a scaredy-cat!”
He laughed and walked closer to the foamy edge of the water. She pouted, using all the charm of her thirteen years, and finally he nodded, agreeing to get changed and swim with her.
“Thanks, Dad! Oh, but can you put away the seashells first? I mean, you’re going to the house anyways and I don’t want something to happen to them like it did last time. Remember?”
He nodded again, but before he turned around to retrieve the bucket he nervously watched her swim a few feet farther from shore.
“Hey, sweetie, I know you can swim and all, but stay close to shore, okay?”
She did a couple flips in the water, as if to boast of her superior swimming skills, and shot a playful glare at him.
“Stop being so protective, it’s seriously not cool, Dad.”
He put his hands assertively on his hip, without smiling back, and she sighed as she swam a few feet closer to shore.
Satisfied, he turned, heels digging into the sand. But as he walked up towards their private beach house, his thoughts were still on his daughter playing in the water. As he got closer to the house, he turned back and saw that she had swam much farther than she promised.
Knowing that it was too far for her to hear him, his heart fluttered with a moment of panic, but as he watched her floating on her back like a cheerful sea otter he realized that his fear was irrational. She had played on the very same beach since she was two years old and now that she was much older it was time to let her take care of herself for a few minutes.
With his back facing her disappearing form, the wind howling in his ears and the sea birds screeching as they circled above him, he left her alone. He let his thoughts wander for a moment onto the hot sand under his feet, the worry that the buckets of seashells would slip out of his grasp, the irritating sensation of sand in his eyes, but most of all the potential consequences of the decision to leave her unprotected. With these thoughts, he decided that, regardless of her swimming ability, it was best to hurry back.
It wasn’t until he had come back from putting the seashells away and saw her cold, lifeless body gradually sinking, her pastel dress billowing in murky water just below the surface, did he realize the reality of the consequences.
For all the years that have passed, time has been kind to him and allowed his wounds to heal. Yet sometimes, like now, as the memory escapes his barriers and slowly wanders back into his consciousness, there is an overwhelming nausea that comes with it. With one fluid motion he clutches his head, the dull ache settling back in. As the haunting image of her pastel dress ghosts back into his peripheral vision, his heavy arms fall to his sides and he leans his head back against empty air. Unwelcome thoughts flood his mind and perhaps it was from the too-familiar smell of the ocean, but his stomach seems to curl up into itself, protesting any idea of movement.
As he sits on the beach, the same way he did every night, tears trickle down the contours of his wrinkles. He can barely fight the hazy pain long enough to notice anything, but occasionally he looks up to see, but not process, the progress of the sunset, perhaps only as a reminder of time. The sun hangs low on the horizon, rosy with the glow of a playful farewell. As he watches the sun teasing him as it vanishes, he clenches his fists, bitter to the beautiful sight. The next morning the youthful sun would rise, expecting a day of glory and renewal, but would only be greeted by regret and anguish, just as it was every day since his daughters death.
The quiet glow of the sunset and the whispering of waves as they lick the sandy shores soothe him, but in a very twisted way. Perhaps it is masochistic, but watching the sea douses salt on his wounds, extinguishing the fire of guilt but only causing more damage to his soul.
A sheen of salty sea mist envelopes him as he sits on the fine sand, mesmerized by the lonely silhouette of his own fading shadow.
As he sits, his toes curl around the grains of gold and his hands softly finger a broken seashell. As the sea breeze washes his sandy hair and breathes coolly down his neck, a salty droplet drips down his cheek. The seashell falls out of his hands, but he doesn’t retrieve it.
Looking up, he watches the setting sun being tucked into bed by low clouds on the horizon. He inhales and exhales a few jagged breaths, struggling to control his thoughts as droplets of sea mist soak into his skin. Tomorrow morning the rosy sun will rise again to a new day.
He stands up slowly and, unsteadily, he takes a few steps towards the ocean until the frothy sea foam kisses his bare toes. The salty droplets that wet his face sparkle in the last glimmers of sunlight. As the sun slips into the embrace of night, his last tear falls onto the broken seashell that still rests on the sand, leaving him with dry eyes to witness the dawn of a new day.