Letters in the Sand

by Emma Guthrie

Sometimes, days pass like sand. They trickle, second by second, the grains of time falling as if through human fingers, dry with summer heat and lined with toil, cementing in our past like glass. When I look back on those parched January days, I almost fancy myself looking out of a window, onto another world.

In those days, life was care-free. It sparkled like the ocean at high noon, or the full moon on a clear night. My best friend Katy and I were down in the surf every morning at dawn, wetsuits clinging to bodies still sandy from the day before, foamy waves chilling our toes. We lived for catching waves, for damp hair and salt-crusted eyelashes, nothing obstructing the blue, watery horizon but our mums yelling across the beach at lunchtime, and school slowly approaching as the summer weeks waned.

Katy was always a better surfer than me. She would laugh as she pulled me back onto my board, assuring me, “that wave was a ripper, May!” before executing perfect snaps, more to spray me with salty water than to show off. But I also remember the little things, things that didn’t just make her Katy Smith, the perfect surfer girl who won every competition, who showed up to school late with damp hair and still managed As. My Katy always had a messy room, she could steal all the flakes out of a box of Favourites in five seconds flat, and she would pick the ham out of her mum’s sandwiches and feed them to me because she “couldn’t stand the sliminess.” We did everything together, choosing matching bathers and carving our names in the wet sand for the tide to wash away, although mostly I would just follow her lead. She was better than me at most things, but I didn’t care, because I got to cheer her on all the way. I only had one thing to hold over her head, and that was I could run faster. Every morning I would challenge her to a race across the beach.

I challenged her that morning, just like every other morning. She rolled her eyes at me, but grudgingly accepted, just like every other morning. And I won, just like every other morning. Funny, how the days that change your life can start off no different to any other.

“Ha!” I exclaimed as I jumped over the first wave and belly-flopped onto my board. “May Summer defends her title!”

“Only because I let you,” Katy grinned, “I basically walked that.” But she was puffing, so I splashed salty water across her face and grinned back. “Liar.” She pressed her hand to her chest in mock offense, but I’d already paddled out to the line-up in order to avoid her retaliating splash.

There were only two other people on the waves that day, and Katy didn’t miss the opportunity to show off. Even when my fingers became wrinkled prunes, my ankle band scratchy from the salt, Katy wasn’t tired. She joined me at the line-up, sunburn starting to show on her freckled face.

“Your nose is going red.” I teased. Katy grinned. “Wanna do something exciting?”

“As long as said excitement includes fetching ice-cream from your freezer? I’m all in!” I replied. Katy raised her eyes to the sky and laughed. “Alright, then. Chocolate please!” She stayed on the water while I dragged my board up the beach and ran across the scorching sand to her house. Ice-cream was the only sure way to tempt her off the waves.

They say you remember your hardest days in perfect clarity. I don’t. My last hours with Katy were just like any other, the horizon of time hiding the future behind a perfect blue curtain, so clear and promising that I didn’t even try to remember the way her nose peeled with sunburn, or the way she laughed at my terrible jokes. I wish I had known, and collected those pieces of her, scraps to hold close and patch her back together in my head in the darkest moments.

What I do remember if this: I was eating raspberry ice-cream when I heard her scream. Faint, travelling across the scalding sand, the southern wind catching and tossing her voice out of my grasp. I thought it was a seagull, but it was too high, to sustained. Even when I realized it was human, I was sure it couldn’t be Katy, couldn’t be the girl with the surest sea-legs I had ever known. Only when I ran down to the gate, the one that lets onto the beach, and saw her flailing did I believe it. Only then did I remember the warnings we always ignored: beware of the rips.

My mouth stained red and suddenly sickly sweet, my scream joined hers in the impish wind.

A second. One blink. A lifetime.

I didn’t know how to mourn Katy, at first. A funeral seemed too droll, too melancholy, too far away from the beach, her second home, although tiny oceans carved their way damply down all our cheeks.

It took a while for me to visit the beach again, though I went to her house more than once, just to lean on her rusty gate and stare at the delicate, foam-crested waves lapping against the shore, caressing the sand with watery murmurs. When I finally opened it, stepping onto soft sand, it felt odd, like I was stepping into someone else’s home without having been invited. I walked slowly down to the line where the wet sand met the dry, and just sat there letting the wind play with my strangely clean hair and the soft sand trickle through my spread hands.

It hit me then. All of a sudden, at once a ray of sunshine and salt water on an open wound, as if Katy was sitting in the sand next to me, grinning in her audacious way, asking me, “Wanna do something exciting?”

Before I knew it, I was carving her name in swirls and curves into the dampened sand in freestyle letters, all different sizes, chaotic and beautiful just like Katy. I stood back to examine my work.

Just right.

The sun was at its peak, and the high tide would soon come in to smooth her away. It seemed right, somehow. I could let her go, washed away. Home.

She continues to inspire me, even in the most unlikely moments of every day. Every sea breeze brings me memories of her, ebbing and flowing like waves on the sands of time.