July 12, 2011 15 Comments
The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father. “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.
“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.
“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”
The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean. Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans. The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease. The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar. Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off. The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.
“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.
“Of North Dakota?”
“Yeah. The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth. The wind screams there, too.”
The boy looked toward the sky. A seagull hovered overhead. He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them. Some fought over fish carcasses. Others pecked at their grey and white feathers. Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean. “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave. They’re saying, ‘Go! Go!’” the boy said.
“You think they don’t want us here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they don’t care.”
The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean. His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand. The ocean grew louder. The gulls grew more insistent: “Go! Go!” they called.
Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father. The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over. He stumbled backward and caught himself. The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.
“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea. The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered. It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.
A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”
“It’s angrier than home.”
“Yeah, and the sun is different. At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in. When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in. And the fields smell like summer.”
“And what happens here?”
“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light. It spits it right back up at the sky. But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams. And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”
“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.
“You’re right. It does smell good.”
The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock. The boy leaned on his father and did the same. He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him. He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.
His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand. Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach. Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave. The boy jumped, then laughed. He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.
They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us. It’s not angry.”
“You’re right. But it could break us so easily.”
The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean. “Now I get it,” the boy said. “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”
“That sounds right.”
The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.