For thousands of years, the Atlantic Ocean has beat against the beach of my childhood, its watery fingers stealing more and more of the soft silted sand, grabbing at the estuaries and creeks of the South Carolina Lowcountry, leaving us with the detritus of old forests, battered dunes, and bleeding loss.
But the shore remains, the sand itself testament to survival; the remnants of large rocks crushed into grains of sand. Just as our family has dared to claim ownership of a parcel of shoreline and ocean for generations, our house defying the elements of nature. Strong winds buffet the sea oats and tall dune grasses, tossing sand and sea birds where it will, winding my sister’s golden hair into sunlit spirals of silk until it becomes the only good memory I have of her; the only memory I allowed myself to keep. But the wind pushes on; pushes at the shoreline, at our old house, and at me. Yet somehow, we remain.
I hadn’t been back to McClellanville for almost ten years; ten years while I tried to forget the sting of salt water in my eyes, the slippery feel of the tide pulling the sand out from under my feet. Of being underwater and not able to breathe as water rolled over me, cascaded around me in a watery rug, sucking the air from my lungs. And the feel of my mother’s hands slowly letting me go.
I parked my rental car on the driveway of crushed rock and shells, and left the radio on, not yet ready to hear the ocean again. The white clapboard house, owned by my mother’s family ever since the Revolution, had changed little. Only on closer inspection did I begin to see my sister’s artistic hand. The once solid green porch swing now sported a leopard’s spots and the front walk and porch were covered with brightly hued flowers, their garish blooms radiant and mocking as if they knew they had once been outlawed by our grandfather. Blatant beauty and bright colors were once a sin to him, regardless of the fact that the Creator he worshipped had also created them.
A tire swing hung from the ancient oak tree in the front yard, its frantic movements evidence of recent occupation. Reluctantly, I turned off the radio and took my key from the ignition before exiting the car. I glanced around, hoping to catch sight of Gil, the nine-year-old nephew I had never seen, but only the empty yard and the distant sound of the ocean greeted me. I glanced up at the windows on the right side above the porch roof as a shadow seemed to pass behind the glass. I stared at them for a long time, wondering if it had been the passing of a cloud reflected in the glass and remembering my sister sneaking out of her window onto the roof, then shimmying down the drainpipe that ran from the roof to the front porch.
I’d never tattled on her. Looking back, I suppose that even then I’d known that her self-destructive behavior would simply find a more dangerous outlet. Watching her run off the first time into the darkened yard with a shadow boy, I had felt the final snap of the invisible cord that had attached us since my birth. It had first started to fray on the day our mother died and we’d been sent to live with her father. We were given separate rooms, and my sister had become a beautiful stranger who regarded me with silent eyes and weeping shoulders. My grief for my mother and my sister found no succor with our grandfather whose only recourse during times of trouble was his Bible. But it never occurred to me to question the reason for my grief; according to my mother, we Maitlands were meant to suffer. It’s what happens, she once explained, when a man curses God. His children, his children’s children, and their children would be cursed. From what I have seen of this family, I would have to agree that she was right.
Slowly I walked to the back of the house, a swarm of gnats following like persistent memories, down to the gravel path that led to the dunes, and finally beyond them, the Atlantic Ocean. I stopped on the old railroad tie that marked the end of the path and turned my face to the wind, stilling the first panic at the smell of salt water. I clenched my eyes, and when I opened them again, I saw Diana. She sat on an old Adirondack chair with her feet in the surf, swaddled in a quilt despite the pressing heat of the mid-afternoon sun. She wore her hair loose, its color not diminished by time or the miles of asphalt that had separated us for so long. Miles and years become suddenly invisible when you find yourself back where you started from, as if you’ve learned nothing and you are once again the person you once were.
She was watching a sailboat as it headed out into deeper water, triangular sails full and bright white. Two sailors, a man and a woman in bright yellow windbreakers, stood in the cockpit, their faces turned into the wind. I moved through the cloying sand so that I stood behind my sister, not speaking.
“Do you remember how it feels?” She spoke without looking at me, her words deceptively soft.
I watched the sailboat bobbing on the waves as if nodding, the woman moving to adjust a sail. I could almost feel the sleek teak beneath my feet, the damp crispness of the white sails through my fingers. Hear the rushing water beneath the bow and the wind blessing my face. “No,” I said. “I don’t remember at all.”
She faced me for the first time, the old familiar sneer darkening her once beautiful face. I had never been able to lie to her; although she was three years older, we had been as twins, inseparable as if we had shared our mother’s womb; felt the rhythm of our mother’s heart at the same time. Maybe we had known, in that dark corner of heaven our preacher grandfather said babies came from, that being born into our family would require an ally.
I have since published seven award-winning novels, and three more books are scheduled: The Memory of Water (March 2008), The House on Tradd Street (November 2000) and a third as yet untitled book set in Savannah, Georgia will be out in May 2009.
While growing up, I lived in London, England and am a graduate of the American School in London. I currently live in sunny Georgia with my husband and two children. When not writing, I spend my time reading, singing, scrapbooking, carpooling children and avoiding cooking.”
You can visit Karen’s website at www.karen-white.com.
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