MUSIC IN THE TIDE Isaac Dayno
As the man ran, his mind wandered and he thought of the last snowfall, thick and heavy, that made him doubt if spring would ever reach this far north. He thought about how it had stopped snowing last week, but knew the ground would remain frozen and the last of the snow banks would not melt until mid May. He thought about running and how it kept him sane, kept him functioning; the constant movement lulled his thoughts and quieted his worries. He thought about meditation. He thought about meditation in motion. He thought about the distant mountains of March, rising purple and bruised, that cried out self-pityingly, as if they should have been warm and green by now. He thought about the poetry of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman’s beard. He thought about his girlfriend and the way her hair shimmered on a late summer night. He thought about how dark it was, even in March. He thought about Daylight Savings Time. Even in his focused mind, he still did completely understand how it worked.
He thought about the universe and the new moon they had discovered orbiting Pluto. He wondered if anyone cared. He thought about his trip to Greece, sleeping out on the beaches by the Aegean Sea and watching the moonrise, blood red. He thought about the word moonset. He had never heard anyone use the word moonset before. Was it actually a word? A car passed the man and he thought about the old golden retriever sitting in the passenger’s seat. Did dogs wear seatbelts? He thought about his girlfriend again and her hair and her nervous tic of picking her fingernails. He thought about the last time he had cried – his grandmother’s funeral. He thought about what it was like to die, what it was like to live and everything in between. He thought about the last snowfall, thick and heavy, and he doubted if spring would ever reach this far north. It might, he thought, in time.
The woman leaned against the glass, staring into the mass of water that was but inches from her upturned face. The aquariumâ€™s large tank was filled with a pale light that played softly across the observation portal. A turtle swam past the glass and she followed its path through the bright water. The woman, who some would still consider a girl, was not long out of university. Her black hair was curled behind her head in a tight ponytail and her cheekbones were high and delicate. Her eyes were red and wet. The skin on the inner and outermost part of her eyes was damp with repeated tears. Her younger and only brother had died earlier in the week and she nursed his memory with a deep sorrow. His death, though not sudden, had nonetheless caused her grief beyond knowing. She had come to the aquarium, to this very tank, to remember. It was her brotherâ€™s favorite place, or at least had been when he was young. She remembered taking him to the aquarium after school every afternoon, watching as he pressed his heart shaped face against the thick glass.
There, underwater, it had felt like all eternity might pass them by as the fish swam the same circle after circle around the tank, wearing grooves in the water. She had always taken care of her brother, steered him across busy streets and navigated him through crowded subway cars. She remembered the lyrical pattern of his voice, like the gentle light that danced across the walls of the tank. The last time he had spoken to her, he had been drowsy with medication. She had tucked him in and held his hand through the night. A flash of gold lit the glass as the school of fish rounded the end of the tank and swam into the light. They followed their established path and continued on in their circle. The woman considered that the fish might be infinite. Wiping her face, she gathered her things and left the room.
Looking down, he saw the dirt was more sand than soil. The red grains clouded the tips of his shoes and stained the leather the color of dried blood. The dusty plains expanded on either side of the young manâ€™s field of vision, fading into the rusted hills of the desert. The last village was three miles behind, the next some miles ahead. The reservation was centered on the old river, which now ran dry half the year. He was without water and he did not care. A cold wind stirred in the West, blowing the dirt around him into small storms. He could have lifted his scarred hand to cover his face, but he did not feel the cold sand in his hair. He heard the pounding of horses and knew it was only in his mind. The sound increased to a frantic drumming and the man remembered the horses of his ancestors, painted and undying. He often heard the beat of hooves, the whisper of horse breath, and the sigh of memory when the wind was cold and came from the north.
Turning away from the bloodied clouds, the man stopped and inspected the ground that lay before him. A carcass of something long dead had thrown itself across the dirt. The ossified tracks of coyotes and carrion cavorted in the petrified mud, carving the earth into twisted and convulsing patterns. The carcass had once been a wild horse. The hide, sunbleached and faded, bore familiar configurations; a stripe of yellow ochre and dark tanned eddies spun across the wasted skin. The hammering of hooves sounded loud above the rising wind. Flashes of memory and things that had been and that which had not flared in his mind. Painted horses galloped in the windborne sand and sank back into the earth. The man paused and then continued across the desert.
The woods opened to a high mountain clearing, filled with August goldenrod. The grasses shifted in the cool sunlight and a bright breeze lifted the scent of the little alpine flowers into the sky. The girl paused for a moment, her mouth forming the words of a Swiss rhyme. She plucked a spike of goldenrod and pushed the tall grasses aside as she made her way to the center of the clearing. Tall spruce blocked out the sun on the edges of the field and the girl was careful to stay in the weak warmth of the highland sun. Bending downward, the girl watched as ants scurried between the blades of high grass. She laughed, amused at the secret workings of the insects. She followed the steady line of ants until she came to the small rise of dirt they had quarried from the earth. Ant after ant streamed into the hole, leaving her alone in the sunlight. She wondered where the ants were going as they plunged into the darkness
of their tunnels. Curious, she broke a stalk of grass in two and inserted the longer piece into the hole. After a few seconds the girl withdrew her instrument to find several ants crawling down its length. Again, she placed the stalk into the ant mound and twirled it around. By this time, the ant colony had begun to suspect foul play and swarmed the attacking stalk. The small forms circled in confusion, crawling over each other as instinct drove them forward. Watching the mess of insects from above, the girl began to tire of playing god. She turned her face toward the line of trees on the other side of the clearing and felt again the desire to keep moving. Directing her attention back to the ants, she brought her foot down upon the mound and ground it into the dirt. The girl ran into the trees on the far side of the clearing as the anthill returned to the earth.
The man watched as his grandchildren leapt over chairs, spun through the living room and exploded out into the backyard, leaving a mess of paper plates and plastic cups in their wake. Pieces of birthday cake, purple and white, lay scattered here and there on the carpet. And although the other children had returned to their parents, he could still smell their chaos and the sweet emptiness of their thoughts. A balloon dog popped under his weight as the old man shuffled through the mess that had once been the living room. Ignoring the shouts and playful screams of the children outside, the old man slowly made his way down the flights of stairs that led to the basement. He retrieved his pipe, artfully hidden in a cupboard behind a tin of cloves, as he walked through the kitchen. He stuffed the pipe into his jacket pocket and continued on his way to the basement. A large, Army-issued chest took up one corner of the underground room. As his grandchildren would recall when thinking of their childhood, the chest was always locked and never opened. The old man unhooked the lock and lifted the metal covering from the chest. Inside, packed like organs, were the remains of war. Three long and darkly elegant swords peeked out from their leather
wrappings. The swords would not have fit in the chest if they had not been positioned diagonally, bisecting the contents of the box. Among a collection of old news clippings were badges of valor in a velvet-lined case, but these remained unopened. The man plunged his hand into the depths of the chest and retrieved a smaller box with yet another lock. He opened this and took out a collection of old wartime photos. Faded with wear and age and littered with a consistent set of thumbprints, the photographs had begun to wane into dust. And yet the man held tightly to each, delicately tracing two sets of worn faces with his finger. The faces belonged to two young men. It struck the old man how ignorant those faces could be, unaware of all that might befall them in the battles to come. The man on the right, blond and smiling, had taken a bullet to the stomach two months later. The old man laid his finger on the young manâ€™s face and closed his eyes. He heard the screen door slam and his eldest son herding the children back into the house. He held on for one more moment and then locked it all away.
The rental house she and her husband had leased for the holiday was a strange place to invite relatives. Pictures of a foreign family in intimate moments – piled together after a football game in the backyard, slumped over the couch some rainy Sunday – decorated the walls. She felt like a stranger in the house, which of course she was. They had chosen the rental because of its proximity to the deep-set lake that carved through the mountains. The surface of the water was blurred, the only recognizable reflection being that of the hulking mass of the hills. The emptiness of the place comforted her; somewhere in the close forest and frozen ground she became insignificant. She looked over at her infant son, babbling and shrieking at the carpet. He had been born healthy and strong. Large for his age, he was already expanding quickly out of his new clothes. It was his first Christmas and she had asked her husband if they could slip him just a bit of dinner. He was not a dog, her husband had said.
Her husband’s family began pulling into the driveway, their large Mercedes SUV’s digging deep ditches into the driveway. She greeted them with a cool hug and a kiss and discussed the baby in a perfunctory tone. They complimented her on the house; strange, considering it was hers until only Monday. She retreated back into the kitchen as the relatives began to fill the house, and then as the kitchen flooded, she moved to watching her son nap in his room. Every so often his baby hands would clench and unclench, exploring new muscular pathways. For the most part, however, he lay facedown and motionless on his blanket. She remembered reading The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school, swearing to herself that Daisy’s fate would not be her own. She would not grow up to be a fool, a pretty little fool. But as much as she had skirted objectification, she could not help catching her reflection in the glittering ornaments of the Christmas tree. She held a hand out to her son and he took her finger, squeezing it slowly in his sleep.
The car sped along the mountain road, curving over the ribbons of pavement. Large boulders had fallen from the rocky crags above and the road bent as to avoid the piles of rubble. It was autumn and the tall, greybarked trees were flowering auburn, red and gold. The boy held his face a few inches from the glass, just far enough to keep his breath from fogging up the car window. He gazed out at the colors that ignited as the October sun set them aflame. Blazing leaves spun through the air and the car continued up the high road. When his brother had left for college, the boy had anticipated some sort of regret at his going, some feeling of remorse. Weeks had passed, however, and as the only child at home his parents treated him like the firstborn, the highborn. He had gradually crept into his brotherâ€™s larger room; storing old clothes in his empty draws and putting
old textbooks away on his unused shelves. And although he loved his brother more than he knew, he had tried his best, perhaps unconsciously, to obliterate his memory from the house. And then the emptiness set in. He had wondered how it would be when his brother left him to his parents and his own glories. After some months, it was like a Sunday afternoon in mid-March. He looked back to the spinning colors outside the window. An excitement pulsed through him as he an end to the vacancy in his heart. The sun fell on his hopeful, upturned face and he knew all would be well. His own path was laid before him, even if he took his steps blind and unevenly. The leaves exploded in the sunlight as the world hurtled comfortably by.
She felt the sun browning her neck, warming the skin behind her ears and extending to every part of her body. Riding down the Cyprus-studded hill on her rented bicycle, the woman looked back at her husband behind her. For twenty-five years they had lived beside one another, learning to love each one anotherâ€™s faults and eccentricities. They had fallen in love on a cycling trip in Colorado almost thirty years ago. Her husband, ever the romantic, had suggested a bike tour of Tuscany for their anniversary in remembrance of how they had met. Cycling across the countryside, the two discussed their beautiful children, the tree house her husband had built in the back yard, how she had done most of the wooing on their first bicycle trip so many years ago and the good fortune they had shared thus far in life.
They paused at a small farm on the road to buy bread, cheese, olives and olive oil. The wine she had stored in the picnic basket attached to the back of her bicycle was warm, but it did not deter them from enjoying it more than both of them could remember enjoying a glass of wine. Laughing as she wheeled past olive trees and fields of wheat, the woman leaned over and whispered romantically into her husbandâ€™s ear. He laughed too, recalling a time when he might have blushed at such forwardness. Such is time.
The waves broke against the rocks, shattering like so many pieces of glass. Roaring and mewing, tyrannical and soft, the water receded back into the tide. An old man hobbled across the beach, leaving three imprints in his wake. The heavy cane he carried did little to ease the passage across the rough sand and rock. The man reached the old set of stairs that led up to his small cabin overlooking the ocean and pulled himself up one step at after another. He breathed uneasily, lamenting his sole company was the flocking birds that obeyed only the wind. Sitting in his oversized chair that sat out over the surging tide, the man closed his eyes. He remembered his childhood spent in the farms and hills of a far away place. He remembered selling ice creams as a young man, pedaling his stand across cities and rivers and states. And he remembered his life as it was now: empty, save the changing weather of the sea.
It had been a good life, he decided. He could not imagine living it any other way. Even his worst choices left no regrets. It could not have been different. It would have always led to this, to this chair overlooking the approaching sea, to this moment of memory. He heard a distant strain of music in the tide and remembered a lullaby his mother would sing to him before she had died. His mother had never had a beautiful voice, she herself readily admitted so, but she had sung this song beautifully. The lilting notes of the tide eased the old man and he forgot his thoughts and his memory and heard only the song his mother had sang so long ago. And led by the music of mothers and oceans, the old man passed into death.
The boats slid through the water on their way to the finish line. Coxswains crowing, oars slapping the river, the sounds of the race hovered over the banks. Spectators crowded the edges of the riverbank, dodging bouts of rain. Among them, a girl turned her face upward to the grey skies and hoped for rain. She had always loved the rain â€“ loved the way it puddled into pools and caught reflections of tree branches and bits of sky, loved how it stormed down paved streets after a heavy downpour, loved the cold showers of November. While others looked for sun, she hoped for rain. The ground was muddy where many feet had trampled the grass to such an extent it was doubtful it would ever grow back the same. The girl stood with her shoes cold and wet and ruined, hoping more rain would come. There could never be enough rain in this world, she thought. A commotion caught her attention and she turned away from the river and toward the road.
The red of ambulance lights mixed with the blue of police and the world was lit in a soft purple. Sirens announced another tragedy to the world, but the girl had already returned to the boats racing along the water. The colors of the oars, indicating to which university each boat belonged, were lost on the girl. She would not have been able to decode the patterns even if she could have seen them. In the darkness of her mind, the girl could visualize only the gentle rustling of rain and falling of raindrops. She interpreted her entire existence through a screen of falling water. The blackness began to press upon her and the girl felt as if she could reach out and touch the confines of her world. Though the river bobbed with boats and bystanders cheered loudly, it was silent in her sensory gloom. And as the walls squeezed tighter and closer around her, the girl raised her face to breathe and felt a raindrop on her forehead. The darkness faded, leaving only the rich grey of falling rain.