Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
I still dream about the ocean, waves capped with foam, the whispered poetry of high tide, pools filled with brine-crusted treasures. I dream about storms and faces. A roar of thunder wakes me to a cold sweat and an empty room, and I try to fall back asleep. I try to dream of something else, but the sea never fails to roll into my mind and drown my thoughts until another storm brews.
My uncle and I lived on a private beach in South Carolina for a long time, and I fell in love with the scenery almost immediately. For the first couple of months, I was enrolled in a nearby public school, but sitting still wasn’t really something I was good at. The world was so much bigger than the four walls of that classroom. The anxiety of a world passing me by, a brand of worry normally reserved for twenty-somethings or prematurely balding men in their forties, overwhelmed me to such a degree that I was taken out of school altogether.
To my dismay though, the time that I had previously spent in the classroom was not replaced with excursions on the Atlantic. When I asked why I couldn’t at least ride with him, my uncle would just say that fishing boats were dangerous even without kids running around. So, I wandered through my days alone, barefoot on the winding shores of the Atlantic. The portion of the beach where our little bungalow rested was technically private, but the occasional pedestrian would ghost their way onto the sand, unbothered or unaware of their trespassing.
From the attic window, I would watch them: men, women, and the occasional teenager. I wondered where they came from and where they were going once they left, and I would try to muster some courage from time to time to talk to them. I always stopped short at the door though. I always felt like I would be bothering them.
One evening, after Uncle had left, I spied some lights over by the dune behind us. In the grass and reeds, a boy and a girl sat talking in the glow of a lantern. They were young, but the two drank from the same type of beer cans that we had in our fridge. My heart slipped its paces excitedly. I scurried into the kitchen and snapped one of the frosty cylinders from its plastic collar. Returning to my window, I perched myself on a couch cushion upon the floor and opened my drink. When I spied a glance back to the couple, I notice they had stripped off all their clothes and discarded them onto the sand.
They rolled on top of one another in ways that seemed so alien to me at the time, and I felt a guilty fear wriggling in my chest. Tears warped my vision as I placed the can to my mouth. The smell was almost as foul as the taste, but I’m not one to let things spoil. I finished the contents and averted my eyes to my feet, only to find myself wandering a peek back to the dune. When they finished, they laid there for a long while, naked in each other’s arms.
That longing, that compulsion to make myself known struck me harder than it ever had before. I was heavy inside, like my heart was full of pebbles. The two left after an hour or so, and I whisked out of the house and up the dune once their light had faded completely into the distance. The dry, scrubby grass around their spot had been flattened in an almost perfect circle. There, amidst their abandoned cans and foil wrappers that sported the words “ultra-thin,” I hugged my knees to my chin and stared at the moon. I felt like one of the gulls or small sea birds that scuttle through the tides and build their nests in the very same grasses. I was bigger than them, though, and so much smaller.
It was that night that I first dreamed of the sea. I stood on the shoreline watching the waves roll stars into coiling swells of sidereal glitter. The breeze caught the crests of the water and threw mist into the air and onto my face. From the water breached a figure dressed in a fine, black suit. His flesh was swollen and pale, and open fissures left from nibbling fish speckled his face and hands. A strange, starfish-like creature slept between his teeth. The body drifted up the beach until the crown of his head rested right at my toes, and I wondered where he had come from.
I woke up the next morning on the front porch, yawning as the sun squinted just above the horizon. Three yards from the house, about halfway up the beach lay the suited man. The sea breeze slipped a string of my hair between my pursed lips, and I stood to my feet.
The beach was empty, save for the man and I. After a slow approach, I stood over him for a long while and stared into his cloudy eyes. I thought that he must have been a nice person before; he looked that way at least. One would think that such a thing would stink more, but this was surprisingly not the case. He smelled of scaled fish or maybe snow crab, which is not an entirely unpleasant aroma to some. The musk saturated his clothes like cologne. I sat beside him and watched the sun grow into a full, luminous orb. The light was warm against my skin, and shutting my eyes, I slipped my hand into his for just a while.
Sweat was beginning to grow on my nose when I finally opened my eyes, and I watched as a hermit crab tittered from his pants pocket. Patting sand from my legs, I headed inside for a drink. Once my glass was full, I stood at the side window and watched the man some more. I wanted to keep him there, honestly; let him sleep for as long as he liked. I fully intended to, but a flight of gulls had found him and had begun pecking at the buttons on his coat.
Rushing out, I shooed away the birds. A couple of the stubborn ones waited until I was right up on them before fluttering a safe distance away. The pack stayed close enough to swoop in again, just in case I left him unattended; they are a bothersome kind. Obviously, he wasn’t safe to be left alone.
His shoes scooped into the sand like trowels as I tried to drag him farther up the beach until they both popped off, glossy toes peeking out from the sand. The gulls raced to the shoes and plucked at the laces until their knots slipped loose. When I just couldn’t pull him any farther, I began to dig a small trench with my bare hands. It was shallow, but once he was covered in sand, he blended right into the landscape. I wanted to return his shoes to him before he was completely buried, but the seagulls had already made away with them and were squawking mockingly over the water.
Staring at the distant thieves, a bright flicker of light caught me in the eye. I blocked the beam with a closed palm then peaked around my arm. In the sand, not too far from where the shoes had once been, was a reflective sheet no larger than a note card. I rose and fished it from the sand.
A mint tin.
The back had been rubbed bare and shiny, but the front still sported embossed letters and crisp blue and white paint. “Curiously strong!” the tin announced, and I opened it like an oyster shucker looking for pearls. There were, of course, no pearls. There was nothing, nothing but a few dots of rust, but that was fine enough. I didn’t actually expect there to be any candies left over, but I wondered if they had been his. Perhaps the container had fallen from his coat. I wondered if he had eaten its contents and kept the tin. If so, for what reason? Perhaps if they had been gobbled up by a lucky eel that just happened to pass him by. It was also entirely possible that it had not been his at all and had settled on the beach during high tide. They were all fun thoughts, but I chose to settle on the first. I also chose to keep the tin for safe keeping.
I never expected to fill it up so quickly, and I dreamed of the sea every night after that. Sometimes, I dreamed of men and women far off the coast, drifting in open waters. I dreamed of great creatures with gleaming, bulbous eyes, watching them bob along the surface just above. I dreamed of hands with pale flesh tightly wrapped around gaunt fingers that reached from black fissures on the sea floor. I dreamed of bodies washing ashore, and when I awoke, there they lay.
Each one I buried, and each one left me with a small trinket that I kept in my little tin of treasures. The sea brought me new faces almost every morning, sometimes as many as three at a time. After the first couple, I began digging their beds with a shovel instead of my hands, which I had worn down until the skin was so raw that it looked like I was wearing pink gloves.
My dreams came like nightly postcards to tell me of a friend’s quickly approaching arrival. There were times when these letters told me that plans had changed, and I would not be visited by that particular sender. Some were more vivid, more descriptive than others.
“Sorry to alarm you, but I have sunken to the sea floor. I may be very late. Pardon the inconvenience. Sincerely: a woman in a low-cut dress.”
“I regret to inform you that I have been swallowed whole. Always: the boy with glasses.”
“To whom it may concern, my body has fallen into a crag, and my present company leaves a lot to be desired. I expect that I won’t be able to depart before I have been picked clean, if I am able to leave at all. Wishing you well: a pile of bones.”
Those never came, but when I dreamed of them sloshing on shore, I always found them the next morning, cold and still. This business had kept me so occupied that I nearly screamed the day I saw a jeep come cresting over the grassy dune one evening, disrupting the routine that had given me so much joy for over two months. A woman in a skirt climbed from the vehicle, holding black heels with a hooked finger as she marched through the sand. Somehow, she knew my name, and she yelled for me over a violent wind that warned of an approaching storm.
I learned later that her name was Charlie, and she was full of questions. She wanted to know where Uncle was and if I had seen him recently. I told her that he hadn’t been home in months, a fact that surprised me as much as it did her. Honestly, I didn’t realize how long it had been until that point. She and I sat inside for a long while. She looked through our cabinets and closets; she seemed worried about something. Eventually, she stopped asking so many questions and told me to pack some clothes into a backpack.
I didn’t protest too much. Charlie wouldn’t answer questions, which seemed pretty unfair at the time. I asked her if she was taking me away, but all she would say is, “We can talk about that in the car.” I asked her if my dad had really tried to kill my mom. Again, she said we could discuss it in the car, but when I hopped in the back seat with her, I didn’t feel like talking anymore. Charlie tried to ask more questions as a man in a suit drove us away from the beach. She would try to touch my head or my hand, but I shrank away.
At some point on our drive, I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the window glass, and I had a dream. This time, I dreamed of wind, angry wind. Wind that clawed across the beach with invisible talons. It splashed from the water and tore off the roof from the bungalow. It pounced down onto the dune and peeled away sand like sheets from a bed. The longer the storm raged the more it revealed on the beach, wiping away the earthen lids on a hundred shallow graves. Rogue waves climbed into the air before crashing down, greedily grabbing the bodies as it receded.
Then, as another pillar of water fell upon the shore, the sea gave up one last gift. A familiar likeness, dressed in yellow, rubber waders rolled along the beach like a rag-doll. The force of the wave buried his head completely into the sand. Another wave crashed against the body, and the neck snapped as his torso rolled in the wake.
I woke up at that moment to a clatter. I was lying in an empty room on a couch padded with stiff cushions. Buzzing fluorescent light flickered above, and a heavy rain roared outside, cascading over several small windows beside me. I craned my neck to find a rusted mint tin lying open on the floor, its contents littering the area around me. I scooped up the treasures and placed them one by one back into their chest. When it was full again, I closed it, held it tightly to my chest, and shut my eyes. I didn’t know if I would be able to fall asleep again, but soon I could hear the cries of gulls.
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