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Volume 19, Issue 1: Flotsam


Nathan Wilson

I am good with a bucket. I will defeat the ocean.

The goal is not detail. I don't want a sand castle with gothic lines and toothpick-etched windows. I want something big enough to sit in. A foxhole. I won't retreat up to the safe sand, well above the highest tide. I will carve out my legacy here, straddling the wash point where the foam sizzles and the sand crabs burrow. I will do it while the tide rises. And the tide is always rising. Everyday it rocks back on its heel to build momentum, to get another run, and everyday, it crawls, slipping, up the beach.
The ocean can never forget the Flood. It has tasted mountains. Waking and sleeping, it chews.
I dig trenches, canals, drainage points, and pile up u-shaped dikes that I can afford to lose. Let them go. They are quickly replaced. For now, they break the foam-blow and send the wash around the foxhole.
My son is unappreciative. The prodigal. He digs for sand crabs. He even finds them. A daughter sits up high on the beach, beside her mother. She likes sand. Dry sand. And she ignores the ocean. The youngest, thick and unintimidated, likes hugging dogs, and grabbing cats. She is always walking, happy, toward the water. She will not be distracted by a sand stronghold, or crabs, or trucks and shovels. She wants only to pet the breakers.
I am alone, building this inheritance, this sand bench inside a foxhole. They would rather eat with pigs.
My wife isn't helpful. She wants me to chase children. But the waves wait on no man.
Not far from here, there is a house, on an island, that was once a peninsula. Beside it, the bones of lighthouse lie bare, like the ribs of a whale. The house, shattered and hollow, has been inherited by elephant seals, and they will keep it until the ocean robs even them.
I will be washed away. I will be battered and picked at. I will stoop and sag. My skin will be stretched and folded and eventually pounded into sand. Decay will catch me. But for now, until the day I lose, I will win. I will pack my body's walls with strength it cannot keep. I will eat and drink. And when the tide is out, rocking back, I will close my eyes and rest my bones.
If I had quickcrete, I would use it. Who could stop me? Lifeguards? I don't see any, and if they're around, they're probably more worried about people drowning than they are about concrete-laced castles.
But even the quickest of concretes couldn't help me. The ocean wouldn't care. A couple hundred stiffening pounds would mean nothing to it. I could park my truck here, and it would be gone in the morning. The waves might just bend it in half and leave it hanging on the cliff. Or, if they were in the right mood, they could pull it out to the kelp beds and give it to a needy family of leopard sharks.
One time, I did leave a mark on this beach. A dent beside a rock. The rock was connected to a spur, and the spur, buried beneath the sand, to the cliff. I dug my foxhole beside it, canaled and diked, and diligently maintained. In the morning, the sand was dimpled where I'd labored. And I was proud.
My daughters are too small to sit in this gift to them. I grab two older nieces and my son. The three, safe behind sand walls, laugh and taunt the ocean. The foam breaks on the outer dike and wraps around my creation. The walls hold. The children yell. The water rolls away.
The three are bouncing, waiting. They want another one. They want destruction.
So do I.
I will beat the ocean. But only by being beaten. I've lived inside sand walls—we all do— and they are always torn away. Generations, people, black and white ancestors with forgotten names and forgotten graves, have broken the waves and been broken.
Not long ago, a woman called to me at church.
"I wanted to show you," she said. "I knew you'd like this." She lifted her hat and I saw the head the doctors had shaved and the curving line where they'd split her skull. I hugged her and she said goodbye. She'd already picked her box.
The waves come. They tear through the walls and erase the dikes. The three children jump up and run, falling with laughter.
This is how it is. It is my turn to be the wall, to lie down and break the foam. I will dig and scrape and yell and curse the ocean. But I want those waves to come while the children laugh. And when they grind my sand, I will leave more than a dimple behind me. I will leave others, laughing others, impatient for their turn to be the wall.
They are good with buckets. They will defeat the ocean.

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