“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.”
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
I see her now as I saw her then: a timid frame with a determined, far-off look. Despite the hordes of families with children, parents, dogs, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who all swarmed the banks earlier, this point in the day found the beach deserted except for her, not another living soul in sight. I was a part of those hordes. I’d come to the ocean with my family as we did every year. The same house. The same people. The same conversations. Every year the same. As the day ended, all the people in my family and other families migrated back into their homes for dinnertime, a little TV time, and bed time. This part of the day felt hectic and confining inside, so I often retreated to a solitary space in the open air. I breathed deeper once I’d absconded from the suffocating chores of the family. Inside there was the constant banter of someone needing something, the nagging of something needing done, but out here it was me and the waves. For the first time all day, I was alone and I sat silently staring off at the sea. Then I saw her. She walked down the dune towards the shore, simply, elegantly, purposefully. The sea spread before her, surging with solitude.
The clouds lining the horizon blocked the last of the sun’s rays from reaching the water. Wave after wave beat against the shore, endlessly repeating. Each wave crested further out, and the white foam stood starkly against the jade of the sea closer to land. Where they met, the fizzling-out foam lapped upon the wet sand, and as quickly as one wave pulled back, another beat forward, endlessly repeating. Beyond the crests rolled dark surges, casting shadows on the blackened body of water. The sky’s ever-darkening hue hemmed the ocean to the horizon as far as my eyes could see to the north and south. The sky kissed the ocean. The waves beat the sandy shoreline. The gusting wind made the summer evening felt more like an autumn night. The sand caressed her white feet. She stood absolutely alone, facing the sea. Something about her seemed familiar and yet so unknowable and unknown.
As if transfixed by the repetitious voice of the sea, she stood and stared, unmoving for what seemed like ages. A perfect statue of womanhood erected on the deserted shore. Her femininity, played out in her curls and curves, stood motionless, frozen in time and place. Her only shifting was due to the wind catching hold of the hem of her dress, wrapping it around her legs. Wisps of hair and bits of curls escaped their tight hold with help of the blustering gust. She paid neither the dress nor her hair any mind.
After standing so still, the simple movements of her hands made me catch my breath. She reached up and with great care took her burnt orange sunglasses off her head and tugged her ginger hair free from its binder. The breeze filled her long hair with a life of its own, dancing and swirling in a manner much too playful for her solemn stature. She folded up the glasses and set them on the cool sand at her feet.
Her blue and white striped dress hung to her feet, but revealed her freckled, sun kissed arms. The small stripes on the cotton reminded me of the French navy and seemed perfectly in tune with the nautical surroundings. With one graceful move, her straight back bent forward in a swan dive, and taking hold of the hem of her dress, she stood up again, raising the entire ensemble over her head of wild red hair and completely off her body. Again the breeze whirled. This time, she shivered slightly: it was the smallest of movements, and had I blinked, I would have missed this acknowledgement of the elements entirely. With her shoulders back, she stood taller. She took care to fold the dress in her hands and placed it next to the glasses at her feet. Her feet seemed further down in the shifting sand, rooting her to the spot. Shoulders squared, she faced the sea. Her eyes peered deeper, as if she was looking for some answer in the crashing current.
Not moving her eyes from the sea, one hand reached behind her and adeptly unhooked her bra. She liberated her body from her undergarments with continued grace, ease, and poise. Delicately, she folded them and added them to the pile of personal items at her feet.
She stood naked before the relentless current washing repeatedly before her. Standing bare in the open air, the breeze battered her and the waves beckoned her. Though the wind was cold, she did not bend or attempt to cover herself. She appeared taller and unabashed, less demure, since ridding herself of her clothes. She appeared completely at ease and at home in her skin. The elements added to her serenity.
Slowly and deliberately, her lips began to move. Soft words fell from her mouth and were cast out to sea by the deafening sound of the ocean’s lullaby. Her eyes steadfastly held their gaze. Her strong, tanned shoulders squared off in defiance with the immensity before her.
After several minutes of the wind beating her unencumbered body and dancing through her hair, she gently took a step, uprooting herself from the sand. I thought it a bit chilly for an evening swim, but stranger whims have taken place upon this deserted shore.
One foot in front of another, she walked straight, never blinking, holding a private staring contest with the ceaseless sea. Each step echoed of conviction. Her first foot pierced the surf without pause or a shudder at the chill. She walked on. The foamy wavelets circled up her legs as she moved deeper still. A crisp, blustery night for a swim: swimming alone at dusk never bodes well. Yet she resolutely walked on, marching deeper and deeper still.
The water reached her midsection, still warm from the day’s fading sun. That sensitive, naked skin proceeded, unyielding to the crests around her. Her hands reached out to each side as she fingertips traced the surface, rising and falling with each new wave she passed through. Deeper and deeper still, she walked on, her consistent rhythm matching the relentless syncopation of the waves. As the water approached her shoulders, her pace slowed; yet she did not swim. She remained upright. Eyes searching straight ahead, she did not look back but continued on and on.
“The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
Briefly the clouds that hemmed the horizon together parted. Brilliantly, the fading light of day crept through and revealed glimmering colors upon the ocean’s black canvass. The water gleamed with a million lights. I was overcome by the beauty of the golds and purples, illuminating the sky and mirrored so effortlessly upon the water. The fading light for a moment banished the darkness of dusk in one glorious display of the fiery sun setting behind the clouds on the horizon.
On the wind, I thought I heard words, softly spoken with certain resolve: Edna, Virginia, Ophelia, Maggie, Eustacia, Rosana, Maria. The cold softness of the refrain pulled my wayward eyes from the horizon, back to the water to look for the lonely swimmer.
I no longer saw her. I scanned further out. I looked back on shore. Her pile of clothes still lay neatly folded where she abandoned them. I moved my eyes up one side of the shore, surf, and sea, and down the other direction. She was nowhere to be seen. She was disappeared. Only her garments on the beach remained and the litany of names echoing in the air: Edna, Virginia, Ophelia, Maggie, Eustacia, Rosana, Maria, and now one more. Each beaten back by the endlessly repeating fading of the day. Each with a determined, far-off look and a resolution to be free.
Sitting staring at the sea, I longed to trace her steps, their steps, into the silence and solitude. I knew I’d not see her again, and sadness followed my seduction. Gone from my sight, but not diminished in me. Behind me, a voice from the house broke through my trance. I wrestled with the competing calls from the sea and from the children’s bedside. Like all moments, this moment had passed. Reluctantly, I stood up and walked back to the house. I hoped everyone was already in bed and the work of the day was done. Tomorrow, I’d seek the solitude. Always tomorrow.
Rachel Martin is an assistant professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Northern Virginia Community College, where she also coordinates the Writing Across the Curriculum program and the Writing Assistance Center. She received her Master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas. She has published in Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman: Essays on Comics, Poetry and Prose and written two entries for Women’s Rights: Reflections in Popular Culture. She is a self-proclaimed comic book geek, and her teaching interests encompass composition and creative writing, American literature, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and cultural studies.