My feet sink into the surface of the shore, the sensation of thousands of grains shifting beneath my weight strangely relaxing. I wiggle my toes, massaging the cold, damp sand around and further disturbing the perfection of its smooth surface. The water rushes up with a sound akin to that of a mother’s call, familiar and comforting in its embrace, and as it washes up over my ankles soaking the cuffs of my rolled-up jeans, the earth beneath me shifts and I sink deeper into the ground. The wave withdraws back to the safety of the ocean and in its wake all the imperfections I’ve dug into the sand disappear, mended by the gentle caress of the water. The sun dips down into the horizon, the first of its body disappearing beneath the waves far off in the distance, and what remains is like a drop of food colouring in a glass of water, the dyes spreading out across the sky as the light is soaked up by the mass of clouds, reflecting into a beautiful blend of purple and yellow and orange shades. The water is cold, not so much that it is uncomfortable to stand in, but enough that the beach is almost empty, even more so now that the sun is setting.
The nearest of my neighbours are to my left, close enough that I can see them but far enough that they are out of reach, a memory in passing as I look over my shoulder. It is a young couple, lying on a beach towel, in one another’s arms as they stare out over the sunset. They are quiet, the kind of quiet that takes years of being together to master, the kind of quiet that resides in comfort rather than awkward pauses, the kind of quiet that is not passed with the panicked attempts at an attempt to revive a dying conversation but rather which calmly buries it in passing and moves on to the next one, hand in hand and heads touching, silent in their understanding of one another. I look back at them and smile, my eyes welling with tears. A single drop escapes, rolling down my cheek and hanging briefly on the ridge of my chin. I bow my head in a kind of nod, and the drop falls, caught up in a rising wave and carried back to sea, lost among the millions of other stories like it, becoming part of something more, something greater than itself.
I turn my head to my right, where a single mother and her two young children, a boy and a girl, play at the water’s edge. They are well away from where I stand, their figures little more than blurs of movement in the distance. Even so, their delighted laughter carries across the beach as they skip in and out of the waves in the shallows, the water just above their ankles. The mother chases her children playfully, their shrieks of joy punctuating a symphony of seagull cries and the soft roar of the ocean meeting the land.
She looks up suddenly in my direction, standing up straight and tall. Her children pay no mind, continuing their game with one another as they run circles around her still figure. Though I know she cannot see me, I still feel my heart flutter as a chill runs through my body. I smile, and now the tears flow freely, and I know what must be done. I stare a moment longer, the wind tugging at my clothes, picking up particles of sand that sting against my skin. And then I raise my arm, and I wave. She stares a moment longer, and then, though I cannot see it, she raises her arm too.
The wind is picking up now, and I feel my body break down, becoming a part of the whole. I bring my hand up in front of my face, and watch as it turns to sand, falling through the air and scattering in the wind, lost among the dunes. No, not lost.
I look back behind me, at the footprints I’ve left behind, and I smile. But the last thing I see is what lies ahead, the footprints that will go on without me. She has returned her attention to the children, their voices reaching me in more ways than one. Though it feels like they are miles away, I still feel as though I am right there with them. My smile is the last thing to go, suspended in the air for a moment, and then whisked away with all the rest, carried far and long over the horizon.