When the Tide Goes Out

When the ocean begins its slow retreats back to its old forts just shy of the sand bar, she comes out to claim back as much of the beach as she can get her hands on. She comes like clockwork as soon as the seas give that one last push to swallow the world up into its watery mouth before it falls back in defeat.

When I was young I thought it was her that pushed the oceans back, that the waters trembled in her presence, and if I paid close enough attention I could learn her magic. I searched the entire beach for a bamboo stick just like hers, but not finding a one I settled for some flimsy piece of reed I fought to pull up from the sand dunes by our beach house. I would borrow my mother's floppy straw hat since it looked a little like the one she wore and I would kick off my shoes so my toes could feel the sand between them just like her toes did. Then I would watch, careful not to get to close so not to disturb the magic she was weaving, mimicking her movements all the while.

When she finally caught me in my quest to learn her power, she laughed richly and fully, but not in any mean sort of way; it was just like the way she laughed at the ocean, more with it than anything else. What had done me in on that day was the fact I was trying so hard to get her motions just right that I didn't notice the tides had began their march back up the shore and her attention was no longer for the sand alone. I had just finished what I believed to be a perfect jab and swirling of the sand with my reed when I looked up and found her no longer off in the distance at all, but sitting and examining some of the futile squiggles my practices had yielded. I was shocked, my sea witch, my great magic worker, my secret heart's desire was there right next to me. She was much closer than she had ever been before, close enough to see the freckles on her nose and arms that I had took from a distance as ancient runes. I could not move and in that stillness she looked straight at me and laughed that laugh of hers that I only tried to imitate in the sanctity of my own bathroom, so to preserve the sacredness I believed it to hold.

When she finished with her laugh, she looked straight at me again and I nearly fell over with the shock of it all just then sinking in. She was smiling and leaning her shoulder on her long bamboo stick, one hand holding her floppy straw hat on to her head so that the wind wouldn't blow it away. And there I was, her funhouse reflection, trying so hard to be just like her, to be her really. For a while we just stared at each other, her with her warm smile and me with my slack jawed awe I could not stop from showing. Then she spoke and I really did fall over that time. I had never in all my extensive watching of her heard her voice other that that wonderful laugh of hers and before that moment I had begun to believe that laughter was just the language she spoke and everyone else was just mimicking her as one would mimic a dog's bark or a cat's meow. So you can believe my utter shock in hearing her ask me my name in a voice that was not unlike my mother's or my Aunt Claire's yet somehow completely different as well.

When I fell over, she laughed again and that laughter brought a smile to my face for the first time. As she laughed she offered me her hand to help me up off the sand. I almost didn't take it, but her smile bid me to grasp on firm and tight to my dream of a dream. I was significantly shorter than her then, so she had to stoop down low to keep looking me straight in the eyes. And then, with her hand still rapped tightly around mine, she spoke again.

"I'm Nora and I see that you like to draw, so do I."

When I didn't answer her, she smiled patiently and lead my over to what I thought was her holy ground. To my surprise it was not runes and spells she was creating, but an entirely different kind of magic that I had not even dreamed of. The great expanse of sand that I had seen her work so tirelessly over was covered completely with images and picture so beautiful and wonderful that I let out a loud gasp. She led me around her sand world and answered all my questions on what everything was and how she made everything so real. And I laughed, along side her, richly and fully yet entirely my own for what felt like the first time in my very short life.

When we finally came to the water's edge, I noticed that the sea was still coming in, mounting an attack on all her artwork, swallowing them down bit by bit as it inched along. I nearly cried out, but Nora wouldn't let me. She looked deep into my eyes for what felt like forever and then turned me so I could look hard out over the ocean.

She said calmly, "Don't fret kid; I made them, all of them for the sea. She is a great mother of a thing and all the time we take from her and give back to her spoiled goods and fill her up which our own bad fortune. So much so that I think sometimes she needs something good and un-taking to make up for it all. We all need that some times. Why should she be any different?"

When she finished, she kept looking hard out over the ocean and I stood there with her, filled up with the truth of her words. I didn't really understand them at the time, I was too young to even phantom a great sea mother of a thing like she did or even pollution for that matter, but her voice made sense to me like only a voice like hers can. So I couldn't even think of crying for the loss of her drawings. For a while we just stood there, hands held tight and staring into the ocean as the tide came and swept around our ankles, until my mom called out worried and the spell was broken. Nora smiled then and led me back to my mother, letting me use her tall bamboo rod as a walking stick the entire way.

When we reached my mother, I tried to give the stick back to Nora, but she wouldn't take it. Instead she bent down low again to look me straight in the eyes so I knew that she really meant what she said.

"You bring it tomorrow kid, when the tide goes out I'll be here same as always and you can give it to me then. For right now you need it more than I do, so you can practice, that reed you're using now just won't do the trick." Then she stood and gave my mom a warm, yet more adult smile and introduced herself. For a while they conversed over my head, about polite things strangers talk about together, but I really wasn't paying much attention to them. My full attention was for my gift, the magic staff I had coveted for so long that summer. It no longer was a wizard's staff, but it had lost none of its magic with me.

When the two of them were finished with their pleasantries, Nora waved me goodbye as she made her way to the parking lot that the public used. My mom smiled down at me and led me back to our summer house as the sun was starting to go down and the air was getting colder. I followed obediently, leaning heavily on the bamboo rod the whole way.

When my mother tucked me in that night I dreamed of the ocean as a great mother of a thing holding all Nora's drawings up to the space beside her heart and crying with the joy they brought her. Along side all Nora's drawing were a few of my own squiggles that I only knew were mine as you can know in a dream. The great mother of the sea loved them too, just as much as she loved Nora's and told me so and hugged me tight in her big wet arms. The next day I came when the tides went out and for each day after for the rest of the summer.

When I came back each year, Nora was there to teach me. And I would learn and watch her as I did before only understanding a little better each time what exactly she was trying to tell me. On some days, Nora would draw the great masterpieces from memory, talking adamantly about Leonardo and Pablo like they were old friends of her. Other days she only wanted to draw Snoopy flying off with Woodstock on his doghouse and getting into all kinds of crazy adventures explaining them all in vivid detail as if she were actually there in the doghouse with them. Yet there were always some days yet summer where she would not talk at all, staring long and hard out over the sea and only draw the face of a man I had never met, but I now know by heart.

When I was older, I knew Nora didn't scare the sea away. She had taught me about tides and how the moon pulls on the earth to create its ebb and flow. She had taught me about how sand was made and how to hear the ocean when I'm far away. She taught me about all the animals and plants of the sea, and about pollution too. But most importantly she taught me how to draw, how to give back to the great sea mother of a thing just a little bit of life.

Now as I stand with the tide coming in around my ankles just like we were on that first day so long ago and I open the plain jar the minister gave me at the end of the service and let the wind take Nora away, to carried her ashes straight to the heart of the great sea mother, where I know she would be at home. I pick up the bamboo rod, the same one she had given me and drew without crying, her face in the wet pact sand before the tide could swallow it up. Then I stare out hard and long over the sea without saying a word.