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The Water’s Edge

by Edward Ahern

The old woman crouched at the wet edge of the ocean beach, her thighs resting on her calves, staring out at the waves. Sophie knew the visitors to her beach by sight if not by conversation, and wondered who the woman was.

Sophie sat cross-legged on a beach towel thirty yards up-dune, admiring the woman’s ability to squat without shifting. In Sophie’s experience, few women remained limber enough in middle age to hold that posture.

Offshore wind this morning, making the waves behave themselves. Wonder how she found this spot, not many people know how to get here. Shifting patches of sunlight and cloud shadings on the water, water the color of shark skin, which suits my mood.

Sophie got up slowly and stepped toward the beach, sand still cool from the night. She angled down to the surf line on the woman’s right, then walked along the wave edges toward her, letting the woman see her approach.

“Mind some company?”

The woman studied Sophie. “Not in your case. Sit, please.”

Sophie planted her backside on the damp sand, feeling salt water seep into her shorts and underwear. “Aren’t you afraid a rogue wave will wash over you?”

The woman shrugged. “I’d rather be wet than desiccated. You’re devoted to this beach, aren’t you?”

“How did you know? Almost every day except for the winter, and even then once or twice a week. I seem able to think well here, or maybe it’s the reverse, I’m able to not think about a lot of things here.”

The woman scooped a handful of camp sand and let it dribble slowly through her fingers. The action was ceremonious, as though she were casting runes. “Yes, you come here often. Did you ever wonder why persons are so drawn to the sea shore? Why they tolerate hot sand burning their feet, and swimming through other people’s washed off sun tan lotion, and becoming hosts for sand fleas, only to stare at featureless sand and empty horizons?”

Sophie paused. The woman didn’t appear demented, and had asked her question in a tone that demanded a serious answer.

“I don’t know, maybe to associate with friends, get a tan, go for a swim?”

The woman gave a half smile. “As well ask the lemming why the cliff seems attractive. You’re drawn here because it’s one of few possibilities you haven’t altered. Cities are stone cairns, fields are tilled, even the forests are planted and pruned.

“But you’re right to a degree, Sophie. Humanity thinks it comes to the three cornered junction of air and water and sand just to play. And they leave without realizing that they treasure the experience because they can’t distort this place into a human concoction. That no matter how hard they dig or thrash, sand and water fill in and remain unaltered.”

The woman’s daft, but in an interesting way. I wonder if there’s a beach equivalent to desert mirages or opium dreams? “I never thought of it that way. I do like the beach more when it’s empty of other people, present company excepted.”

The woman gestured and the nearest wave seemed to skitter. “Here’s another way to perceive it. The water and sand are in their nature formless. But the sand is the shattered bones of mountains and living things. And the water holds the liquid essence of all that has ever lived, leached from the ground and tumbled down into the sea. You sit on a featureless cemetery that in turn germinated your life.”

Whoa. Pull her back before she tries to inter me in that cemetery. “That’s more profound than I can handle. Coming to the shore just keeps me somehow at peace.”

“But you’re not at peace any more, are you? This has become merely your refuge. You’re not meditating, you’re hiding.”

She’s a wicked little driftwood witch, isn’t she? “Just some man trouble I’m trying to work out.”

The woman’s gray-amber, disheveled hair was the color of the shell shards that littered the beach. She stared at the water as she spoke. “You visit this beach like a faithful woman attends services, without expectation or relief. And because you ask for nothing, I give you these small truths. Ralph has not one other woman but two. He services you from indolence and need. You stay with him because of the false memory of a lie. Loneliness is purer than anguish, Sophie, and more fulfilling. Throw him out.”

“How dare you... How did you... I’m leaving now.”

Sophie stiff-strode back up the beach embankment to her towel. When she turned around, the woman was gone. She was alone again, and it felt right.

Copyright © 2016 by Edward Ahern

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