On the Beach

The last of them walk the beach as if they’ve become human kindling.
Only the weak waves speak, faintly slapping in an injured muffle, as if they are thirty, too.
Bloated, like a too-yellow sumo, the sun broods overhead, refusing to bat a lash.
The youngest of them thinks, The sand is oven-hot. How much longer? When can we eat? What will we eat?
The oldest of them wonders, Where are the gulls? Why no clouds? How can I possibly save the young one?
They slog for miles or centuries.
The predator sun wants them dead, same as all the others that came before.
In the distance, another body has washed up on the shore, only when they get there, it’s not.
Instead, a rowboat. Empty. With oars and two jugs of water.
They swallow and swallow and swallow, and as ridiculous as it is, the water tastes like hope.
There’s only room for eight.
The oldest of them flips his hand, Go.
As they push off, he waves and smiles for the first time in years.

*

The sun, so fierce that it hates itself, watches the last group slog down the beach, each of them, even the youngest, no more than scarecrows.
In an hour, two will be dead. In an hour, another. Then another. Another. All of them.
The sun wonders, How did I become this way? Where is my cousin, the moon? Why am I so bloated, yet thirsty?
The rag-tag group below erupts in disobedient joy.
What they’ve found is not a corpse, but a boat.
Eight fill it.
An old man waves as they shove free from the electric sand.
As they drift, the sun feels its face smile, which shades the sky, which sends the boat sailing, which makes the sun grin once more, as the waves carry hope on her shoulders, into the orange-gray sea.

*

The gull has never felt so alone. Or thirsty. Dizzy. Uncertain.
It loops and loops away from the sun, though the sun only seems to scoot closer, like a blazing magnet.
The gull has not seen humans for months, yet, what?
Single-file, like a jagged line of ants inching along, a troop of them move below on the scorched beach.
The gull wants to caw or mew, but its throat is bone-dry.
Instead it swings downward, through each sheet of blistered sky, landing on a piece of nearby driftwood.
They’ve found a boat. A boat!
The gull watches them load in, except for the old man.
The gull wants to nudge him with its beak, wants to caw caw caw, but she’s the interloper here.
So she waits until they’re seaward before lifting off to join them.

9 Comments

  1. Andrea Marcusa

    Hi Len,
    I love how you have written this simple story from three points of view. Particularly the sun, which really provides a wonderful POV and injects a different emotion into this story. I love the bird, too. The writing is poetic and many of your lines are memorable. “..the water tastes like hope.” “..the waves carry hope on her shoulders.” “like a jagged line of ants.” This language does so much to enrich the story. I am wondering if you can try this also from the old man’s POV. He is the only traveler who isn’t lumped into the group because he chooses to stay behind. If may be interesting for you to explore and may yield more story. Also, how would the first section read as a collective we? It may even expand and deepen this already important story all the more. Thanks for this, Andrea

    • Sarah Freligh

      I was thinking about a straight “we” too for the opening segment, would be intriguing to see how that shakes out.

  2. Sarah Freligh

    Len, this is such a sonic feast that I had to read it out loud and twice! The sounds bounces you get from alliteration and assonance, the anthimeria!: the “weak waves . . . slapping in an injured muffle,” good god, muffle, I love that! And “Bloated, like a too-yellow sumo,” I read that one again and again because it’s so delicious. Everywhere, throughout this, something to quote, something to savor.

    I’m loving, too, the shift in point of view, from the collective of the first segment to the sun and finally to that gull, and in doing so a shift in perspective each time so that we end up getting a true panorama of the scene. I’m loving, too, how each segment ends up with the old man and because of that, I started thinking how the order in which we see him might be the key to the narrative trajectory of the piece as a whole, i.e., how each glimpse subverts and/or adds to our understanding of the old man, and how he feels at being left behind. So I don’t know–maybe start with the sun, go to the gull and then to the people on the beach, in that way ending with “he waves and smiles for the first time in years.” Such a lovely image, and such a surprise, a revelation, really.

    So beautiful to read.

  3. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Len, the old man… his story… love all you have going on. I’d hone in on him?

  4. David O'Connor

    Len. Have you read The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea about migrants crossing the desert? There is a description of death by dehydration that will never leave me, and you have tapped into that here with the minimal but necessary images to paint a human against nature tale that tugs the soul. I think this is a thread worth pulling, tug away, it’s so good!

  5. Anita Brienza

    Len, I loved the three versions! What a great collection of viewpoints you’ve offered here. Thanks for this smart read.

    I wanted to call out a few remarkable phrases that I know will stick with me:
    “human kindling”
    “injured muffle”
    “the water tastes like hope”
    “so fierce that it hates itself”
    “sheet of blistered sky”

  6. Koss Just Koss

    Hey Len. I’m late to the party and all the smarty people said it, but this piece in its shifting views and perfect details is so powerful. The beginning use of “them” is distancing and adds to the worry, dread, and intrigue while reading it. So smart. And I love that the sun can have a point of view. And why shouldn’t it? Wonderfully strange.

  7. Francine Witte

    I love the beautiful poetic language that is such a hallmark of all your writing. The different points of view work so well here. This is rich and lush and stunning. Lines like the predator sun wants them dead, the hopelessness, the gull watching. Amazing.

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