Last light

It’s late afternoon on a winter Saturday, and I’ve taken my children to the beach for an hour of fresh air, an hour of running around and tossing beach stones into the water before the day is gone. What light we’ll get today in the northwestern corner of the country has already crested and is retreating now, the bright silver of the sky draining into the sea, glissing the water a slick, near-white that in another few minutes will go pewter, midnight-blue, black.

The longer I live here, the more the short winter days affect me. In the autumn, I anticipate with a low-grade anxiety the coming darkness. By mid-winter, it’s as if I’ve spent months living underground. I picture myself emerging sometime in the spring, blinking the scales of winter-shadow from my eyes, trying to remember how to see again in the light.

Last winter, a friend suggested I try a therapy lamp. “It helps,” she said, and I nodded, polite, though I knew I’d never get used to bathing myself in artificial sunshine. I needed to find another way.

What I’ve found since then is this: afternoons on the beach. There’s not much more light here, but what I’ve discovered on these winter beach trips is that there’s a certain beauty present only when the light is failing. This beauty is more fleeting than the glorious show Puget Sound and the Olympic and Cascade mountains put on daily in the summer months, when it’s hard to turn in any direction here in the Pacific Northwest and not experience the physical wonder of the place. Winter beauty here is fragile, tenuous, fine as the mist that so often clouds the view on these short days. And witnessing it requires a more acute attention to detail. And longing, I think, too. Witnessing beauty in the shadows requires me to acknowledge my own longing for that beauty, in the same way finding peace in the midst of grief requires acknowledgment of the grief.

On the beach today, I walk beside my kids, searching the rocky shore for wishing stones. We read about these in a novel we shared over several bedtime story sessions a couple of years ago, and now the three of us can’t help ourselves when we’re at the beach—we fill our pockets, we stuff our palms, and then, before we head home again, we hurl every white-ringed stone into the water in a flurry of wishes released. Luckily, our favorite beach is peppered with wishing stones, and the tide keeps churning them up again, no matter how many times we collect all we can find and fling them into the sea.

I open my hand now and show my daughter what I’ve found. She counts: one-two-three-four. She touches each stone with her pointer finger, then chooses one—a rock the size of a robin’s egg, colored the dark grey of the bottom of a thunderhead cloud just before a storm. The white wing of the wish loops the smaller end of the stone like a crown.

“Toss it in,” I say.

I watch my girl carry it in her closed fist to the water’s edge. The bubbled lip of a wave washes up and wets the toe of her rubber boot, then falls away again. With each wave, there’s the pleasant clacking sound of the little beach pebbles rubbing together, shifting under the water’s movement. The wind gusts and ruffles the rainbow-colored hem of my daughter’s dress at her long-johned knees. This wind smells sharp, salty, dark as the depths of the Sound. It’s a good smell. To me, it smells like home.

“Here I go!” my girl hollers, and she winds back and hucks her stone out over the water’s surface. It arcs up, and we both lift our eyes to watch it sail. When it lands, the rough edges of the water swallow it.

“Mama,” she says, running to my side, “want to know my wish?”

There’s barely any light left on the horizon. The creamy spill of the last lit clouds is sliding, sliding behind the Olympic Range. The orangey spots of streetlamps and the yellow squares of restaurant and apartment windows in town are flaring behind us, up the hill from the beach. It’s dusk.

“We should head home,” I say. I take her hand and motion down the beach to my son, who sees me and gallops toward us with his funny, pre-adolescent colt’s body, all long-limb and happy energy. Both children are pink-cheeked with the chill and the salt-chap of the wind here.

“But, Mama,” my girl says again as we clamber over white-washed driftwood logs and help each other over the cement sea-wall to the parking lot.

“You can tell me if you want to,” I say.

She pauses, and grins, sly look on her face. “No. I changed my mind. I’m keeping it my secret. My secret with the beach.”

“Okay,” I say. “I think that’s a good choice. Beach secrets are the best.”

We climb into our car and crank up the heater, all of us sated for the evening, full of salt-smell and winter-wind and just enough light to last until tomorrow.

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of three collections of short fiction–What We Do With the Wreckage (winner of the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press in October 2018), Swimming With Strangers (Chronicle Books, 2008), and This Life She’s Chosen (Chronicle Books, 2005). She is the recipient of a PEN/O. Henry Prize for fiction and a 2016 Jack Straw Writers Program fellowship, among other honors. Her fiction and essays have been widely published in journals and anthologies. She teaches high school at The Attic Learning Community in Woodinville, WA and lives near Puget Sound with her family.

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