Elemental Changes

by Sarah Midkiff

Cast upon the shoreline

Pushed and pulled from the sea

Is a myriad of baubles

And tangled up debris

Janet walks slowly along the beach, kicking through the accumulation of crushed shell and marine discards. She watches the foam-edged wave roll up to tickle over her feet as her mind washes over memories of her mother swiping her bare toes. The old broom bristles always made her squeal but the softness of the wave feels more like her mother’s hands, gently smoothing across her forehead to move the bangs. She always wanted to look into my eyes, even during the teenage years when the makeup made her cringe.

Over the white-capped horizon, familiar shrimp boats float along with a crowd of seagulls calling and circling the lowered booms. They look like a press conference of feathered reporters, an unwelcome mess of noise and agitation. Janet recalls an afternoon on a nearby fishing pier, years ago, with her newly arrived baby cuddled into a carrier sitting beside her. Laughing with her young husband as another hook comes up empty, she’d turned, distracted for a moment. She remembers her disgust as she looked back over to see the puddle of white and grey discard settling into her baby’s ear. Her immediate ferocious anger and outraged helplessness makes her stop and smile now, years later.

She drops down and begins to sift through the beach’s sandy mixture, trying to picture the sea creatures that made these shells. She can recognize bits of coral and broken angel-wing mollusks. The one world man has never fully explored, and its clues and mysteries appear with each wave offering a carpet of dredged oceanic tailings she sinks her bare knees into.

Spiraled shells whisper their tales

Of deep, dark, ocean floors

And aqua currents that move like air

Through skies of algae hair

She finds a piece of opaque sea glass. It’s an old piece of bottle, its intention unrecognizable now. Her father’s passing this week has brought her here today. She needs to explore the long stretch of empty beach just as she tries to wander through her years of memories and process the death of this man.  She gazes at the glass lying in her palm. Its edges are gone, eroded by sand and the grinding pull of many tides. The soft glass reminds her of her father’s graying face over the last several weeks, its familiar edges disappearing into an old man she didn’t even recognize. 

She remembers his hands working in the soil as a steaming cup of coffee always sat close by. It had never occurred to her as a young girl that coffee would be an inappropriate choice in the sweltering sun. She’d never recognized either, as a child, the need for ice and coke with her Daddy’s cup always tasting different during the long trips back and forth between parents. She had realized, years back, why she’d sat on the porch with her suitcase tucked in close beside her and watched the sun go down. She remembers her mother’s frustration calling her and her sister into bed.

He wasn’t ever a very good father; I wonder why he’s always meant so much to me?

Driftwood, porous and weather beaten

Is scattered among the dunes

Bewildered by the elements

Captured by sand, too soon

Janet figures the fact that she knew her father, and his history and stories, is some consolation to a person in life. At least the searching for an outline of where or who she came from has never been unresolved. She tucks the piece of softened glass into her pocket that makes three found so far for the day. She lifts her head and lets a salty spray merge with the distilled grief of her tears into nature’s always present arms. 

Her heart is joined with the waves’ steady rhythm as her mind settles on the image of her father’s face that is sharp in her mind. Not the man in the hospital bed, but the laughing face turned up into the sun as they turned soil into a magical place. It was a world where things grew and produced nutritious meals and kept life moving forward.  Where coffee grew cold even in the hot sun, and she shared a piece of that sunshine, tucked into her heart for a darker day, such as today. It would be enough.

This place, where foam and sand collide

Reminds me of my life

A treasure here, a story there

Lays tossed upon my mind

She shuffles along her lonely shore watching the pelicans rise and fall along the skyline. They dive like torpedoes into the bay, catching the mullet no one else wants except for bait. She discarded her shoes moments after arriving and the cool sand and salty breeze are a comfort she knew would be here. She’s grown up, wrapped in this particular elemental table, and it’s a part of her very fiber. She knows someday she’ll join it and become the mixture beneath her feet, or local soil adding to the diets of people joined in community here. 

I better get to the grocery store for Mom. Janet needs to pick up butter and eggs and whipping cream to replace items used by the groups of grieving friends and relatives still needing to be fed. Her mother will want at least one of those items to fix dinner in a few hours. She’s glad she came today. It would’ve probably been strange if she hadn’t. She smiles picturing her anxious little beach looking for her, sitting with a sandy suitcase as the sun sets without her arrival. She could never disappoint the one friend who always soothes and readjusts her life lenses to see the importance of who she is.  And, who always welcomes her, as she is.

Janet decides to stay a moment…or two…longer. She’s in her own prayer closet of wide blue worlds above and circling around her. She sits among the shells, as her own broken soul is softened and comforted by the grinding of grief, and saline tears wash and cleanse with the tide going out. It moves this way, along with time, constant and changing, like life. And, like death. 

The breeze blows a warm, briny tune

Begging of me, “Come and dance!”

I sit, embedded into the sand

Refusing my partner,

I refuse the chance

And simply bide my time

Knowing what glory is to come

At peace with what I cannot see

 I stay because I am, for now

Merely mortal and merely me