The Beachcomber drifts across the sandy spit. Barefoot prints, plover-like, trace a zigzag path on the sand. She is waif-thin, in a frayed sundress that was once yellow. She does not fill the dress; there is room for the wind to luff and flap within.
She steps gingerly over a pile of new-arrived debris. Hidden behind everyday sticks she finds a rounded piece. She kneels and pulls it from the grasp of the sand.
It is a wooden Buddha. It is worn, the features almost erased by the sea. Around its neck, a small bell, which makes a small sound when it moves. She wonders how far it had come to meet her on this beach.
The eyes still appear serene. They have seen the Path and behold it still. The rest has smoothed away, unneeded. Just the abstract of body and head, a Zen brushstroke.
She wants only the bell, but it is firmly attached. She tugs. It resists. She shrugs, carries them both with her, the small bell tinkling brightly in the wind.
The tide has finished its deliveries, is retreating from the rocks and pools. It does this twice each day, and she follows. It is never boring, never the same tide twice. It brings her offerings. She turns them over, looking. Some she keeps. One day it might bring her a thing she seeks. She hopes she knows it when it arrives.
The wind curls through her mind. One grain at a time it picks away at memories, wears grooves in her thoughts. Like the tumbling droplets of spray, the thoughts follow those grooves to the same destinations, time after time.
Farther up the beach, a figure sits. He has built a driftwood fire. The waves measure the moments he has spent there. The pile of wood measures the time he might remain.
Her path takes her closer, in short shorebird excursions. The next brittlestar, the next jellyfish fragment, the next vacant sand dollar is more often closer to the fire than not.
He watches her approach until she is too close to pretend not to see him. She stops and looks. Less than a stare, just an acknowledgement that he occupies a point on the beach in front of her. She holds indifference about herself as a cloak: There is a man-shape sitting by a fire-dance. Both have occurred many times before on her beach.
Only the wind has anything to say at first. Then he speaks. "What did the waves bring today?"
She holds out the statue. "Only this. It is not what I was looking for."
"Don't look too hard for what's not there. You might miss what is."
That breaks through the indifference, just a little. She sees a square face, kind, framed wind-blown in redbrown hair. He is broad, big handed. He sits with the stillness of a strong man, while the fire fidgets in front of him. He reaches out and takes the statue from her. He looks at it from several sides, stopping to look into the eyes for a time, as she had.
"It came from Japan," he says. "The tsunami swept entire towns into the sea last year. The current carried the debris all the way here. Things started washing ashore this week."
"The sea washes everything away," she says, looking past him at the waves. She seems to be looking at something not there. "It leaves other things in their place, like a magpie."
"What are you looking for?"
She wrinkles her forehead, thinking. "I ... don't remember. I think I will know when I see it."
"Aren't you cold? That wind is chilly."
"Yes ... I don't notice so much any more."
"Come here and warm up."
He indicates a place beside him. To his surprise, she instead sits on his lap. He puts his arms around her.
"You're freezing! You'll catch your death out here!"
She giggles. "No ... I won't."
He unzips his jacket and folds it around her. Her skin is chill against his. She stands, hikes up her short dress, unconcerned that she wears nothing underneath. She straddles his lap facing him. He wraps the jacket around her again.
"Do you live around here? How old are you?"
"I forget ... I was eighteen once ... It seems so long ago."
He is conscious of her body pressed against his chest. Stiff nipples are twin beacons touching him, though warning of shoals or promising harbor he cannot tell. He does not intend to react, but tides do not regard intention.
"Why do you sit on the beach today?" she asks. She rocks back and forth on his lap, the moon to his tide.
"My editor wants a short story set on the coast. I came down to get the feel of ocean, fill my head with the sounds of the waves and the seabirds and the scent of spray and kelp."
"Do you have a story yet?"
He indicates a notebook, weighted by a rock while the breeze fingers the corners of the pages. "Nothing yet."
"Don't look too hard for what's not there. You might miss what is."
"Very nice. May I use that?"
"If you find it on the beach, you may take it."
He has been hoping she would not notice his growing reef, though she is already aground on it. He starts as he feels her cold hands drawing him out of his pants. He had not felt her undoing the fastenings and sliding down the zipper.
"I do not wish to take advantage of you."
She shushes him. "You cannot. No one can." She lifts up and sighs down on his mast, holding him in her cold salty ocean. "You promised to warm me."
Even here she is cold. She is wet and slippery and tightly welcoming, but cold. It is strangely exciting, adding an extra feeling to a familiar act.
She moves with the waves. Each wave rolls in, unhurriedly, unstoppably. It builds in deep water, moving toward shore. It begins to curl over as it nears, toppling over itself, ending in a playful splash. It pulls sucking back, drawing everything out to sea to start again. Any piece of driftwood caught in the surf can only ride the storm.
He runs his hands over her cool flanks. The dress is loose. Nothing stops his hands as they roam. Her hips and waist are narrow beneath his hands, her ribs a hilly terrain. As a wave draws back, he is able to move his hands to the front and cover her breasts. They curve very gently, hills that rise but little over the plain. He lets the nipples wander over the palms of his hands.
He bends to kiss her, but she turns her head and looks out over his shoulder, detached. She continues to rock, slowly, in time with the waves.
He is no stranger to this act, but always before it was faster, more urgent. Words like thrusting or pounding described it. This was new, this moving with the waves. They break slowly and regularly, three marking off a minute. Each breaks higher, a rising tide.
She remains detached. Her head is on his shoulder. She wears a small vague smile, which he cannot see. Her eyes are fixed in the distance, though on what none can say.
His tide finally crests. He feels an upwelling tumescence, the pull of the moon calling all creatures to the tidal pools of mother ocean. The waves of two storms move into phase to become one, double all previous ones. He pours his single-cell swimmers into her, warming her at last.
He is spent, and dazed. She stands up, leaving him exposed, damp and glistening in the chill wind. She retrieves the buddha, and tugs at the bell. Mechanically, he takes it, pries the clasp open with a pocket knife. She takes the silver sounds in her hand and turns, leaving him with the wooden statue.
She leaves, not looking back. Nor does the wind come when it is called.
He feels an odd sense that he has lost something.
She makes her way down the beach to her special place. Under the bluffs, there is a secluded sandy grotto, away from the wind. At the back, there is a narrow cave where she keeps her treasures. She will take the silver bell there.
There is someone in her grotto. There are two lovers, entwined within a beach blanket. This is a well-hidden spot. No one has found it since a time ... a time she cannot remember clearly. She hides herself and watches.
The lovers are kissing. They are still dressed, though the boy has a hand on the girl's breast. They are at that stage where they fumble tentatively, unsure what the other will let them do. It is clear enough to their watcher what each one wants. Shreds of promises to save the last step for marriage, tatters of questions of whether this is the right person, scraps of fear of what might happen nine months hence are submerging in the intoxication of scent and touch and desire. The time for calling halt, for setting boundaries, is nearly past.
And now it passes, as the boy unbuttons the girl's shirt. His hand finds new territory to explore. A new expanse of warm skin unfolds between belt and bra, dimpled by the surprise of her navel in the center.
He traces the line of her bra, hoping to disguise as caress the search for the secret latch to this unfamiliar harness. Impatient with his fumbling, she reaches up after his second circumnavigation and unsnaps the catch. It is a front snap, selected earlier in the day in case it might be needed.
Emboldened by this active collaboration, he reaches inside to touch her breast for the first time. He receives the hand-filling revelation of soft roundness punctuated by the rubber nub of her nipple. He pushes shirt and blanket aside to watch this treasure crinkle and stiffen in the chill air.
Among the rocks, the waifish girl watches. She raises a hand to her own breast, envying the more generous curves of the other. She has lain here like that once, hasn't she? Waiting in anticipation as another lowered his lips to her aching nipples, to lave them with a warm tongue in the cool breeze, as the boy was now doing? She could still feel the weight on her thighs, the increasingly urgent male and female movements. The face above her was not this baby-faced boy, however. It was older, perhaps, but shadowed. She could not see it clearly.
On the blanket, the girl makes the final call. She reaches for the boy's zipper and lowers it. They have rounded second and are going all the way home. They now perform the charmingly awkward pas de deux of removing someone else's jeans for the first time. They have thrown off the blanket now and finish in the tableaux of girl reclining, breasts open to the sky, legs wanton, boy kneeling between as she reaches to cup his rampant desire.
As the girl guides the boy home the waif closes her eyes, feeling adrift in time. She hears the girl cry out and feels herself the sharp tearing of the first thrust. Her lover had been shorter but thicker. She imagines that his intrusion had hurt more than this boy's. She hears murmurs of concern and reassurance from the beach blanket, but not her memory.
Small motions ease the way, easing the pain into pleasure, then into delight. A rhythm is established, telegraphed from couple to watcher by the girl's small chirps of excitement. The waif sinks to her knees in the sand, overcome by the welcome assault. Is she linked to their minds and bodies or to her own memories? She topples onto her back, feeling the scratch of wiry chest hair on her breasts and sharp chin stubble against her cheek.
It's over too soon. Most first times are. Skill and artistry can come later, to keep it fresh. For now it is all unbearably new, and that is sufficient. The couple reaches their completion, taking the waif with them. She falls cut-string limp, listening to their panting, feeling the fingers curl around her neck...
But no, this does not end that way. They are talking, saying the things that all lovers say their first time. But the girl adds, "It was creepy. I felt like we were being watched the whole time. Wasn't Lilly Drake killed somewhere on this beach ten years ago?"
The boy is sure that the killer hasn't been hanging around for ten years, waiting.
"But they never found him, did they? I heard she had been meeting someone secretly. She wouldn't even tell her friends who it was. She had a locket. She said it had his name in it, but she never showed anyone and they never found it."
The waif hears a silver sound. The small bell rolls in the wind. She picks it up to put with the rest of her treasures.
She climbs to the small cave and squirms to the back. The sliver bell goes with the others, all small, all metal. She has coins, earrings, watches, and spoons. She hesitates. A memory is nudging her. She picks up each one and examines it. Then she sees one more glint, among the bones on the floor.
She takes this piece outside, and places it near the cave. She pushes a rock, which clatters to the ground.
The couple are startled. It appears that erosion has picked away the last bit of sand holding a rock from its downward journey, and it has joined a meeting of friends at the base of the bluff. Revealed behind it, they see a gleam.
Naked, they scramble over the sand and stones to retrieve the piece of polished metal.
"It's a locket! It says Lilly inside it. We should take it to the police."
The boy inspects it. "I don't think so. Look at the other name. Jack Darrow."
The girl looks blank. He amplifies, "Chief of Police Darrow. I think we should take this to Judge Harker. He'll know what to do."
They return to their clothes, shaking the sand out before donning them. The waif walks away.
The man is still sitting beside his fire. It is burning low now, and he has not moved to replenish it. The figure in the yellow dress reappears, and walks towards him, this time in a straight line.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" he greets her.
"I did. Thank you for your advice. Did you?"
He looks her over. "I might have."
"Let's go someplace warm. I'll tell you my story."
He kicks sand over the embers, takes her hand and leads her towards the path. Her yellow dress flaps in the wind. By the time they reach the top of the dune, he holds an empty dress. He looks back, and sees only his footprints in the sand.
He feels an odd sense that he has found something. He sits beside the trail, opens his notebook, and begins to write:
The Beachcomber drifts across the sandy spit. Barefoot prints, plover-like, trace a zigzag path on the sand. She is waif-thin, in a frayed sundress that was once yellow. She does not fill the dress; there is room for the wind to luff and flap within...