This story is by Daniel Wier and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Sound Of A Sail, Catching The Wind
I used to live in a modest house on the beach. You know, one of those on stilts so that the water during storms wouldn’t wash it away. When I retired from teaching, at 65, I sold my “real” house and picked up this beach shack, a little two bedroom home built in 1967, for a surprisingly low price. I figured that if this house had lasted this long on the beach, it would last me until I finally checked out.
I even had dreams that my two sons would come by to visit more often, maybe send the grandkids to stay for a few nights every summer, but they were more accustomed to Disney World and cruises than creaky old beach shacks, and that never happened. Not even once.
No matter. I spent my days tinkering, I guess you could say. Every morning I’d wander the beach, a mile or more in either direction from my house, collecting little interesting (to me, anyway) bits of shells and other detritus, pieces of driftwood, and whatnot. Maybe drive to a city 15 minutes inland and buy replacement boards for the small deck on the seaward side house or the rickety stairs leading up to it, and boxes of those special screws that don’t turn to dust in the saltwater air. Turned that second bedroom into a sort of workshop, where I created whimsical works of art (that’s what I called them, anyway) out of the beach odds and ends. I put the bed I’d hoped that my grandkids would use in a corner.
Most days I’d drop by the Waffle House (where they knew me by name) and the local convenience store (where they knew me by beer type). Afternoons, I took to reading everything I’d never had time to read, and nights, watching old sitcoms with 2 or 3 craft guests from the convenience store.
My kids called every now and again, apparently just to let me know how my former wife was doing (I always listened politely), and brought the grandkids by maybe a couple of times a year, but only for one hour visits, and then they were off to other adventures. No matter.
My neighbor on the right owned about ten beach houses in a row, and rented them out to some insanely obnoxious people every weekend, but my neighbor on the left, in a beach house that made mine look luxurious, that person I never saw.
Until what was otherwise a typical morning near the end of summer. Instead of the usual stuff on the beach, there was a tree. Not a little tree, but a massive tree, longer than a school bus, with a diameter of no less than 15 feet. The beached end of the trunk – turned black by years in the sea – towered over the sand, but, most striking, a single branch of the tree, easily two feet thick, was pointed skyward, as tall as the tree was long, like the mast of an old sailing ship.
There were a few early risers on the beach with me, just gawking, that morning, but what eventually got my attention was the occupant of the house on my left, the one who I had never seen, much less met. Pale as bleached bones, leaning on a cane, no more substantial than a wet golden retriever, he stood on the beach in front of his little house. And he was smiling.
Fall came and went, as did a pretty ferocious storm (my neighbor on the right now has eight rentals available, last time I counted), but the tree didn’t budge, and, over time, became part of the landscape.
My neighbor on the left stayed busy with the tree, though. I saw him climbing under it, clinging rather improbably to the sides, even on top of it, every day. The tree never seemed to change, but he certainly did. He went from pale and frail to this lively little gremlin, scampering around it, tinkering, I guess you could say, turned by the sun to a color not too different from that of the wood.
One Tuesday morning, in late January, I went out to the beach, as usual. The huge tree on the beach had become an expected sight, but what was different this morning was that I located my neighbor, not on the tree trunk, but at the apex of the thick branch that still towered above the trunk. How he’d made it up there, I’ll never know, but he waved at me, smiled, and shimmied down as though he were climbing an unseen ladder. Maybe unseen ropes, in retrospect. He hopped down, landed effortlessly in the shallows, waded ashore, and, with a leathery, calloused hand extended, clapped me on the shoulder with the other hand. “Come with me. It’s not too late!” I shook his hand, smiled, and said nothing. Turns out I should have listened to him.
That night, in what was to be my last night at the beach house, I woke up to a sound that was like a pistol shot in my head. Or maybe the sound of a huge sail catching the wind. I looked out over my little deck, feeling oddly dizzy, to where the surf meets the beach, and saw only the sea. The tree was gone.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about that night. The “shot” I’d heard in my head was not canvas catching wind, but that of an artery breaking in my brain, and I’ve spent the past 10 years or so, mostly immobile, in increasingly crappy beds and increasingly smelly rooms. My two boys visit me occasionally, with the grandkids, but who wants to spend time with a sad invalid in a stinky room, especially when there’s no money left to inherit?
I have guilted them into sending me fifty bucks a week, so that I can order things online, but I don’t order much of anything. A kind nurse has been cashing these checks for me for a couple of years. My bank has a branch office next to the apartment complex where he lives. I sign the checks, and he brings me the money, no questions. I’ve offered to pay him, but he invariably says, “No, man! It makes you smile – God bless!” Of such is the kingdom of heaven populated.
I have the cash hidden in a Triscuits box at my bedside, and, now, as I write this, I have come to a decision. Because, good Lord, I am tired of lying in this bed. I’ve got about $5,000 dollars saved up. I’ll give half of that to the kind nurse, who’s working a night shift, and hope that he’ll wheel me out in the chair, past the blithely uncaring receptionist, and help me to crawl my way into the Uber I’ve called. I’ve promised that driver $2,500 in cash to take me 122 miles to the coast, to the beach where I used to live. Dump me off at that beach, and leave, thank you very much.
I’ll probably die there, when the tide comes in to cover me. Not my first choice of a way to go, but I am so tired. Then again, maybe, just maybe, I’ll see a massive tree trunk, riding that tide, another chance, even here at the very end. Perhaps I’ll see what my industrious gremlin of a neighbor had seen: An ancient ship of water blackened wood, with a mast reaching as much toward the heavens as it is reaching down for me, and an ethereal sail that looks more like starlight than canvas, catching the wind with a sound like a shot. “Come with me,” he had said. “It’s not too late!”
I hope he was right.