When We Lived by the Sea by Andrew Bertaina
Back then, we lived within walking distance of the sea. At night, after dinner and a glass of cheap wine, we’d walk down the sand dusted streets on our way to the water. The streets were serpentine and dark, and you could smell the sea as you walked down them, as if it was not you approaching the sea, but the sea approaching you. The cars along the way had rusted wheel wells and thin trails of salt on the windshield. At one time, we were deeply in love. The streets dead ended, and you walked through a copse of eucalyptus, across the thin line of railroad tracks and down a dusty path, lined by iceberg plants. Beyond that was a sandstone cliff and a solitary dead tree, keeping watch over the water. We’d often stand silently, watching the pale green water make its way to shore.
The top of the ocean is often placid, less like an ocean and more like an oil painting. Though some days the wind made small white caps on the water, splashing against the rocky outcroppings where seals sometimes lie mid-day. But even at its most active the surface of the ocean bears very little resemblance to the riot of action below—the schools of fish, pods of dolphins, the crabs, seals, sea stars, anemones and on and on and ad infinitum because God didn’t rest until the seventh day. On that day, the horizon held a patch of low-lying clouds the color of tattered overalls, rimmed in pink. We were so lonely together.
Down by the green and blue water three children were playing, filling buckets with water and sand, sometimes pouring the water over themselves, and, at other times, pouring it over the sand castle. I said to her that children are strange sometimes, as we well know, working against their own good without seeming to realize it, blind or indifferent to the destruction they are inflicting on their creation. In the wind, my eyes blurred.
The children splashed water on one another as we watched. We watched because someone should watch them, down there by the water, with the light draining from the sky. We had eaten dinner, though dessert awaited, and we felt we could spare the time. The sea induced silence, and we welcomed it. We’d been fighting for months. After a while, to pass the time, we named the children. The oldest was a boy with red hair, and we called him David, which was the name of my older brother. He kept taking pails of water from the ocean and splashing the two smaller ones, surprising them, and their little backs arched and they laughed uproariously or started to cry and begged him to stop, such being the ways of children.
The middle child, though really we were basing it mostly on height, was a thin little girl, who had short sandy blond hair cropped at her neck. We call her Madeline after a character from a children’s book that our daughter so loved. She was collecting shells of all sizes and affixing them to the exterior of the sand castle, meticulously, slowly. She was careful and yet indignant and wild when the water splashed her. She reacted like a cat, her back arching, and sometimes, Madeline chased her older brother, her fists balled as if she was going to squash him like an ant, but he danced away and back toward the water, and she returned to the shells, to the castle, to the work at hand.
The youngest was a small boy, barely more than a toddler, with sandy brown hair that curled behind his ears. We called him Andrew, which was my name once, when I was very young. The littlest boy put his foot in the moat created by the water, watched his foot sink into the sand with intensity and delight. He walked towards the ocean, picked up a stick and experimentally swung it at the ground. A seagull flew overhead, passing on its strangely mournful cry. The bird and its cry, repeated as it is, time and again on every beach, should not have such a meaningful and lonely cry, but it does. Go listen to it right now. It might break you.
Soon enough, the sky turned pink and gold. The clouds made a frame for the sun to perch in and the sea lay there, aimless, sparkling, and deepening in color, a faint kind of blue. We started talking to one another of the years that have passed, all the years that we’ve lived by the water, and watched the sunset and the ocean without ever finding any meaning. Though it seems to both of us, emblematic of beginning and endings, alphas and omegas, surely this water and light must mean something?
Down by the water, David had mostly tired of throwing water on the other children. He lay on his back, his small stomach rising and falling rapidly. The sun had almost entirely set. The water was now deep and blue black. One of us thought they saw a dolphin fin, but we couldn’t be sure. The little red-haired boy rose and walked toward the water with his red bucket. His siblings were lying on towels, giggling at some joke that we could not hear from the cliffs above.
As the boy leaned down in the water of the Pacific, a wave knocked him down and carried him out. For a while, we watched his red bucket, tossed and passed along the shore. The bucket moved down the shore in the direction of the small current, away from us. We waited for the ocean to give back the boy, or for the boy to escape the ocean. Nothing happened, and soon it was pitch black. We sat in that dark huddled together, waiting for what was to come.
Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans, Sierra Nevada Review, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.
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