By Lauran Strait
Wind whistles up and down Chincoteague beach. In the early afternoon, it is soft and playful as it gently brushes the tips of marsh grass and parts the way, opening paths to the shore. Gusts sway the grasses against each other like lovers slow-dancing, whispering sweet nothings.
Canadian geese preen. They dip and feed in shallow water, wet necks and heads glistening, their grunts a quiet conversation. At the edge of a stand of pine and myrtle, two deer step nervously from the shade, their ears four white slashes, exclamation points against the dark green of the trees. Measuring the distance between themselves and danger, they finally lower their heads and feed.
A mallard waddles from a stand of cattails, tops blown wide open oozing beige cotton into the wind. The duck swims out, his emerald head a jewel above the water. On the opposite shore, small turtles lie motionless, sunning black shells as dull as unpolished onyx. An occasional crab skitters clumsily, decorating the sand with wavy trough and peak patterns.
The sun slides lower and silhouettes a great blue heron standing still on chopstick-thin legs. Two horses arrive. The shaggy caramel in the lead, steadily clop-clopping against the wet sand, sniffs and exhales softly without breaking stride as she passes the heron. The second horse, dark coffee on sleek legs, steps into the marsh, lowers her magnificent head and sips. The wind teasing their manes and tails, the horses shake their heads, then drink again.
The ocean ebbs and flows without hinder, never conscious of the soughing wind or surrounding life. An oblivious devouring and renewal of all things, nature's way is as tranquil and timeless, as it is necessary and unstoppable.
On this winter day, except for the animals, almost no one is around.
Almost . . . .
Feeling the weariness of every one of her eighty-two years, she sat in her car most of the afternoon, watching the waning of the day's light as it played out across the water and sand. But with the coming of dusk, she walked barefoot over the dunes and through the reeds until she came to a flat stretch of beach. She waited there, lying on her side, gray hair swept carelessly across her face and the sand.
Her closed eyes almost were lost in the deep folds of wrinkles devouring her face. Tortuous blue veins long ago had won the battle with age spots for conquest of her body. Where once her skin was smooth and as unblemished as fine marble, now sparse white hairs, like weeds poking through asphalt, sprouted along the point of her receding chin. She had a fragility about her that seemed to boast of weakness, of a life of frivolous ease. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however. Although her wrists seemed too fragile for the work she had done since she was seventeen â€"- backbreaking, grueling hours tending houses and insuring the welfare and comfort of others and their children -â€" they never let her down. She had been strong. Alone in this world, she had done all that was required of her. And she had done it well. But that was a lifetime ago. Now nothing mattered except this one last thing.
The chill breeze as it whipped up grains of salt-scented grit tickled her cheek. She barely noticed. Instead, thoughts much like a winter's song lurked behind closed lids, filling her mind with non-stop music that clamored for all her attention. She listened enthralled, waiting for the coming of the night.
Tired. So tired. The wind gusted, then fell silent as if in reassuring agreement that it, too, was exhausted.
Near the beach, craggy skeletons of pine trees stab the sky like arthritic fingers reaching for the heavens. The intermittent rustle of bone-like branches rolls eerily across the bay.
The wind turns icy and blows harder across the walking paths, hurrying everything in its way, late afternoon turning to evening. Tans, beiges, and golds blend together, shimmering in the waning brightness. Yellow winter sun, cold fire against a tapestry of darkening blue, bathes the marsh in copper light. The stark white of slender egrets is startling against the ebony surface of the water.
Across the dunes, sea gulls dive, swoop and screech over the gray ocean; others hover motionless in the wind. The angle of light casts wind-sculpted sand in sharp relief. The beach seems as much in motion as the sea.
Waves crash against the shore, caps white. Wind rips the tops from each, whipping spray skyward. Sea oats shiver in the cold. Shadows lengthen slanting toward the ocean as day cedes slow control to night.
The sun creeping ever lower toward the west, the sky transforms from blue to aqua to yellow then orange to near black. Elsewhere, night falls, but at Chincoteague it steals upon the beach with barely a whisper, like a gentle, dark ruby-surf licking the sand, the last of the sun's fire extinguished as it touches the sea.
"I've waited so long," she whispered, her voice a rude interruption of nature's winter singing.
"I know," he said, his tone somber, almost sorrowful. "But these things take time. They can't be rushed." Approaching on feet that made no sound, he reached for her. "Ready?"
She sighed along with the wind, her fingers making lifeless contact. "Yes. Thank you." Her smile was lost in the enveloping darkness and then it was gone.
Cold blackness abounds, despite the glowing tangerine moon slowly rising from the horizon. Within minutes it appears as a fiery lump of coal that has grown nearly round. High overhead now, it reigns from a black throne, watching over little more than the sea.
The animals are gone. Stars spangle the sky, giving it depth from here to infinity.
The wind hushes its winter song and goes to sleep.
Reprinted from Atomic Petals Magazine.
Bio: A freelance writer and professional editor, Lauran Strait teaches Creative Writing and Editing to adults. She also facilitates two writers' workshops at the Viriginia Beach Adult Learning Center, and serves as the Columns Editor at Moondance Magazine . Recent online work is featured in Dog-Eared, The Gator Springs Gazette, Atomic Petals, and Retrozine. Her print work can be found in The Virginian Pilot and Whistling Shade Literary Review . One of her essays was read on an NPR affiliate station, on the literary talk show, Word By Word . She has fiction forthcoming in The Gator Springs Gazette and in NFG Magazine .