Sandy Feet by Kristin Darell (Prescott)

First published in Kindling: A Writer's Edit Anthology

Writer's Edit Press, 2014

ISBN-10 : 0994165501 / ISBN-13 : 978-0994165503

The sand wiggles up the concrete ramp at North Narrabeen beach, whipped by the wind and beckoning me to play. Unpredictable but accommodating, the grains give way with a tiny squeak each time my foot pushes down. I hear giggles behind me and I pause, sneaking a look back to see my daughter's blonde pigtails swinging as their owner animates a story for her daddy.

‘Shhh,’ he whispers, raising a finger to his lips. With a conspiratorial smile they huddle as his tanned hand points to the pied cormorants stretched out to dry in the fading afternoon sun. I smile as the scene reassures me and I finally give myself permission to turn my back and, shoes in hand, follow the pathway prepared by the sand.

I wander for twenty metres or so south, stopping at the base of the dunes. The sand is warm, but not uncomfortable. Turning towards the water, I sink down. The slope makes a perfect armchair and I wiggle my feet as the grains surround them like cosy slippers.

Footprints litter the beach. Thousands of imprints, with stories to match. Two pairs, side by side, tell of a couple who walked arm in arm, swimming in each other’s eyes. I see the chaos of well-beaten tracks around sandcastles, laboured over by little hands and big hearts, but it’s a set of tiny footprints that captures my attention. I see the tide beginning to creep in, eager to erase the day’s history and prepare a clean slate for a new day with new stories. But there is one tale that still waits to be shared. A picture forms in my mind as I rake my fingers through the sand. Kneeling with her hands cupped high, I see a little girl release the grains and watch them fall like sparkling rain. She’s also connecting. Two green eyes look around, twinkling with kindness and the right amount of mischief. Then she's up. I see the path of her soft feet as they jump and skip. One footprint is barely there as she passes by as light as sea-mist. The next is deeper. I imagine her laughter as she spins, hands flung out in total abandon. Another skip and her toes leave their mark, then another and another as her arms start swinging in time with her red hair as she heads towards the water.

The crashing of the waves is like a ticking clock, counting down, moving closer to the little girl, but not too close yet. I can still see where she stopped, turning. For a moment she is still, her footprints side by side and angled back towards where I am sitting. Was her mother here, waiting in the shade as I was, perhaps nursing a restless child? I imagine a similar moment where I waved to my little girl as she played on the shore. The girl's face relaxes into a smile. Of course her mother was looking. With confidence restored, her staccato mind moves quickly on. She sees a flash in her peripheral vision and darts over, bending to scoop up a tiny, silver shell. She squeals in delight, making the sand shift with joy. She likes its little gift. The depression deepens as she holds the shell up, showing it off to the sun and investigating every silvery speck. She has a big decision to make - a fairy boat or a fairy plane? A plane for sure. One, two, three, she's on the move again. 

 

The crash of another wave makes me turn my head away for a second. The ocean is getting restless. I look back along the beach and find the place she paused. She didn't stop for long. Zigzag, zigzag, her steps spread out, winding their way up and down as she picks up speed, racing off to find some fairy friends to play with. I feel a strange tightening in my chest as I follow her tracks with my eyes.

‘Stop,’ I want to call out, ‘don't go too far,’ but there's just silence, broken by the now strangely soothing rumble of the waves.

 

The ocean’s strategy has changed as it grows impatient. The breeze is cool on my face, especially with my eyes closed. The seconds slip by into minutes. I'm so tired from sleepless nights pacing the kitchen, begging my baby’s small eyes to close and I imagine the red haired girl's mother knows the feeling. Suddenly, an errant wind whips up the previously gentle sand, stinging my cheek like a wake-up slap.

My eyes snap open and I quickly look back along the beach, but I can't see her. How did the little red-haired girl disappear so fast? I scan the sand where I left her zigzagging with her plane, then back. No tiny footprints returned to this place. I feel the stirrings of panic. My eyes dart back and forward, past the couples and sandcastles. Why did her mother let her go so far? But I can't blame her for falling victim to nature's lullaby, just as I had.

My instinct tells me to run and search but then I see them. There are large depressions in the sand where her mother must have stood, casually scanning for a head of red curls. My heart rate picks up and I feel her fear as seconds turned to minutes without a sighting. Extending forward from me is a deep trench carved in the sand. It tells a story of its own. From the dunes to the water and back, it cuts a channel deep and tormented, still radiating a mother's fear. On the breeze I can hear the echoes of her frantic cries but the name is lost as the wind whips at the edges of towels, beating the sand like a call to arms.

Glued to my seat, I’m powerless and yet unable to look away. 

 

‘Follow her,’ I want to yell, but I know there is nothing left now but shadows.

 

Breaking free of the channel, I see more deep footprints, staggering along the beach.

My eyes dart towards the ocean where the waves are creeping higher. This time the water fans out and my heart sinks as I watch it sweep away the last prints left by the mother in search of her lost little girl. Time is running out.

Around me the shadows are deepening. I shiver and wrap my arms around my body, digging my feet deeper into the sand, seeking long departed warmth. My heart is also cold with fear as my mind skims the possible endings to my unfinished story. I have to know.

The sand gathers around me, more gentle this time. It waits for my decision, as the waves crash higher and faster. My legs are cold now and stiff as I push myself up, my decision made. No longer just an observer, the sand sticks to my hands, urging me forward. I move towards the water and the first tiny footprints, barely there. Here is the place the red haired girl had spun, arms flung out. I was like that little girl once. A few more steps and I hear the echo of her joy as the light revealed her treasure. I look closer at the sand, bending as she did. The shell's mark is just an indent blurred by tiny fingers, but preserved by the loving sand for me.

Zigzag, zigzag, the footprints widen as I follow her path up and down the beach. Suddenly the sand stops my feet and spins me, turning my back to the ocean. The sun loved the girl too and with its last rays it sends me a clue. Up by the dunes I see a flash. I glance down and let out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding. Leading away from my feet are two sets of footprints, previously hidden by the rise and fall of the beach.

At last I can see her again. Distracted from her southerly course, the child wanders towards the friendly dunes in search of a home for her treasure. Surrounded by golden mountains, she finds her fairy world and builds a castle of her own, crowning it with her silver shell.

Larger footprints run parallel to her path and beside the castle I see a deep, wide imprint. A loving mother, terrified of what might have been, falls to her knees holding both her babies close. Tired from her adventure, the little girl climbs on her mother's back, her red curls making a comforting scarf as she rests her head. That's why no small footprints had returned. I turn back to the north and I can see them now. Deep tracks in the sand, evenly spaced back to where the story started.

 

I walk towards the fairy castle with the sparkling shell still on top. As I stand, remembering, I hear the sounds of giggling whispers and squeaking steps behind me, but I don't dare ruin my gift. Instead, I wait with a smile. Tiny warm arms catch my legs and I laugh, pretending surprise, but feeling relief. The arms loosen and I feel the tickle of blonde pigtails brush pass. Now another little girl is squealing as she delights in the discovery of a silver shell glowing in the twilight.

 

I look back along the beach. Its story told, the sand finally releases the ocean and it sweeps up and across the grains. As the water recedes, I see they're all gone. The families with their spades, the couples with the ocean in their eyes, the baby, the mother and the red-haired little girl. All that's left is a clean slate waiting for more footprints in the sand.