Over the years I have lost things that meant a lot to me, and after hope faded despaired of their recovery. Eventually I think of them less frequently, like old lovers, or the summers of my childhood.
The catalog of the lost includes a silver pillbox that belonged to my friend Robert J. Stierhem, who has been dead 30 years; the original page-proofs of the poetry book I wrote that was published in 1976, and until tonight a story I wrote while visiting my dear sister-in-law Emily Dale one Thanksgiving in Mexico a few years back.
The hard drive containing the story crashed and was replaced long ago. I was cleaning out old e-mail in my computer tonight, and was amazed to find the story attached to an e-mail to a former colleague who had asked to read it. I was sure it was gone forever.
In celebration of the magic of finding what once was lost, and in dedication to the memory of what is lost, here is a newly edited version.
The Boy and the Beach
The sea grumbled as it met the land, rolling rocks of endless variety in the last feet before the blue water smacked at the white sand. The sun beat against his skin. He worried about burning. Waves of heat rose from the beach.
The sea had tried to swallow him. The last wave pulled, bellowing his T-shirt into a sea anchor, his pockets full of wet gravity that tugged at his waist and hips.
He had been terrified. The fear made it hard to think, hard to move. When he dragged himself out, across the band of wet sand studded with small wave-rounded rocks and bits of coral, shelter was his first concern.
The boy held to the thought like flotation. Shelter. All the stories he had ever read said so. Shelter and water, then food.
He must have slept then, exhausted by the terror in the wave more than the effort to escape it. The sun was past noon when he woke. His lips tasted of salt. He was thirsty.
As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes he saw that the beach held treasure. Driftwood beams that might have come from ocean-spanning ships lay tangled among fine traceries of twigs that could be woven into something to protect him from the sun and the wind. Eventually an actual hut might arise. He smiled.
He set himself to work. He walked along the beach, gathering driftwood from among the wrack along the tide line. The fear receded as he immersed himself in the choices scattered amid the pieces of wood. His mind recorded shapes in the sand. A piece of broken glass still sharp, a blue rubber strap from swim goggles or a mask, an empty plastic bottle. All might later prove useful. Gulls and pelicans called in the wind.
He slowly began to believe the beach could provide everything he would need to survive.
There were palm trees in the distance. There might be coconuts. Maybe some had fallen. He could not imagine climbing a palm, although a book he had once read contained a watercolor illustration of a boy about his age ascending one.
There had been a lagoon with a sailboat at anchor in the drawing. A dinghy was beached against the shore. A blonde woman, maybe the climbing boy’s mother, stood at the sailboat’s stern watching him. The woman and the sailboat were both very beautiful. She wore a blue scarf in her hair and a worried look on her face.
If palm stalks and leaves had fallen with the nuts, the trees would roof his shelter, feed him and give him drink. Among the flotsam he had crawled through to escape the horror of the wave there were the bones of fish and the broken bodies of crustaceans. There would be a way, later, to catch them alive. He could eat them raw until he found a way to make fire.
He had a memory that would not surface. He had been sitting, reading in a library so air-conditioned he had been chilled and had buttoned his sweater. He liked it there and often thought the authors would be his friends if he could meet them. That is why he always tried to remember their names and the titles. The book held a cave and a shipwreck, even a way to make gunpowder, and a long, long time all alone before happy rescue. He shivered at the memory. But there had been something about digging deep down into the sand and a way to create a filter, his shirt might do, to get water to drink. Maybe if he tried not to remember, he would. That is what his father always said when he could not bring a thought back.
There was a way to make fire in the book too. A string and a thing like a bow spun round a pointed stick against a log, and blowing on the tinder the sharp stick spun in. He could build that too! Had it been Mr. Verne? Was it in Mysterious Island? No, that had a big river. It wasn’t in Robinson Crusoe. Mr. Defoe’s island had been blessed with a stream. These thoughts rode in his mind with the sound of the waves as he gathered the sticks.
He carried them to a spot alongside a lone and gigantic rock, almost twice his height and black like night. It was speckled too; star-like with what he thought might be bits of marble or quartz. He sorted each armload as he toiled. Here piles of sticks that could be woven into bits of wall, there larger pieces that later could be pounded upright to support his wall. He had seen strands of old line and bits of netting along the shore, detritus from fishing fleets that he could use to tie it all together.
Afternoon was fast slipping by. What time did dark come? He wanted to sleep inside the shelter he was making. There might be wild things. Why else did all the books demand shelter?
There had to be wild things. The fear rose, cold in his throat. He hurried with the next armload of wood.
He wondered how far off the fishing boats might be, and how he might signal. After shelter, water and food, they always talked about a way to signal for rescue from passing ships or airplanes. For as long as he could remember everything he had ever read spoke of bonfires by night, from how far away they could be seen, especially if you built them on a hill, and ways to make them smoke as signal by day. All the pages he knew cried H E L P to him in letters spelled out in sticks against the white sand.
There would be a way. The fear, which had almost swallowed him in the wave, receded farther. The piles of sticks grew, as the shelter took shape in his imagination.
The birds called more often as evening seemed to creep closer. The wind began to die away. He started to build, pushing sticks into the ground. He worked faster.
He ran to the water’s edge and found a rock to use as a sledge. He hammered at the sticks until he was satisfied they would hold. Weaving the bits of net and torn rope and slender twigs took longer.
Would there be time? The birds called louder, sounding as if they were calling a name.
“Sam? Sammy! Come son, it is almost dark. You can work on your fort again tomorrow. We’ll be on holiday all the week,” the boy’s mother said.
“Here, I brought you some juice, you must be parched, and you’ve been playing all afternoon.” They walked, holding hands, toward the dinghy. Her fingers were cool against his skin.
Copyright 2011, David Hipschman