On the Beach

A. P. Howell

June 3rd 2022

The beach of our youth has disappeared. I remember the contours of the shoreline, the rock formations, the sound of the tide. The best places to find cod and shrimp. The best places to sunbathe. The best places to meet for trysts with a handsome young man: trysts that were supposed to happen once or twice or three times, trysts that were supposed to be stories to sing to my granddaughters, but had instead turned into my life, decades spent with the young man turned grown and then old. And now, gone, rendered to ashes.

I hold the box in hands gone bony and wrinkled. The funeral home called it an urn and sold it at an inflated price, but it is a box made of paper. Biodegradable, to honor the wishes of the ecologically-minded, and no matter the pointlessness of such gestures at this late date.

I am by no means the only one who left, but mating for life is easier said than done. It takes the right sort of man—the best sort of man—but also a patience I had not been sure I possessed. I buried my own skin, and in the early years we always returned to this beach: a matter of sentiment, but also a test. Knowing one can return is either an irresistible temptation or a comfort that makes an actual return unnecessary. My feelings ultimately fell into the latter category.

And so the visits grew more rare. The waters continued to rise; the storms grew worse; the oceans grew warmer. He built levees—he was an engineer, a problem-solver, and never stopped working even though he knew he would never be able to affect a solution, not the big sort of solution we all desperately needed. If I can make it just a bit better for a few people, that’s something. Such a sweet sentiment, such a sweet man (how I miss him! How I will always miss him! Perhaps I should regret those decades with him, but I cannot) but so very naïve. I did my best to have the big arguments, to influence the people who mattered most. It was romantic, in the beginning, to think that I might save my home by leaving it. That, too, was naïve.

I stand in water up to my calves. The waves snag my skirt, paste it to my legs, weigh it down with salt. I am alone, which is appropriate. I still have friends—I may still have family beneath the waves or walking on land—but some things must be done alone. He and I became a unit, the best part of one another. Now that I have lost him, the rest seems of little importance.

Perhaps this is simply the natural sort of depression one feels following a death. But the water is warm on my skin, despite the lateness of the season. The sky boils with angry clouds and the seabirds are few and silent. I am the only mammal in sight. Mammals may have won an evolutionary round as the dinosaurs choked, but I doubt we will win the next one—the current one. I suppose the beetles will do well; crocodiles and sharks are persistent. And crabs, of course. Crabs will survive, or else reappear.

As an old woman, I can take comfort from such thoughts. I have lost very nearly all that I can lose. News of tsunamis and the latest extinction have lost their immediacy.

I walk farther into the sea. Given some time, the box will degrade, releasing ashes and bits of bone into the water. It is such a very small box. I do not know why that bothers me, but it does.

The water laps at my crotch. My nerves should tingle with cold and I should wonder when the first snow will fall. But the land and sea are not the land and sea of my youth. I had to use a map to find this place, could not simply rely upon my memory because all the landmarks have changed. So I have built an image in my head, the picture of the map overlaid with my memories. The old sunning-rocks, the place where babies would waddle under watchful eyes, the place where I met a handsome young man.

The place where I buried my skin.

All those places are submerged now, but I can make a good guess as to where they are. I never came back for my skin, even as sea levels rose. I was committed to my life on land and fearing for the fate of the skin seemed superstitious. But now, with so many things gone, I think I would like to touch it again. I think I would like to wear it and swim properly once more.

Maybe it has been carried out to sea or drowned of its magic. These days, one cannot rely upon traditional expectations. I may not find it, but the potential for disappointment does not worry me.

I am done with worrying. I have lived my life, I have returned to my home and, wrapped in my skin or not, I will go as far into the sea as possible.

Author Bio: A. P. Howell lives with her spouse and two kids, near a city or near a lake. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Underland Arcana, Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles, In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror (Tenebrous Press), and the multimedia anthology Los Suelos, CA (Surface Dwellers Studios). She can be found online at aphowell.com or tweeting @APHowell

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