Another Memorial Day Weekend
“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color."
— W. S. Merwin
The Sanderlings are gone, north, with the marbled godwits whose feathers always make me think bark, grain, wood on the wing. I miss the Sanderlings, their wheeling feet, their foam-dodging and sand-pricking, their constant hunger. We’re halfway through a Memorial Day weekend, Sunday, and the sun is on its way home from morning worship, somber clouds giving way to that ringing blue. I smile—to miss, is to remember.
Walking with my husband, we’re beyond the teenagers tossing Frisbees to dogs and the women on horses now lost in the spray of distance. We have the shore all to ourselves. We’re surrounded by open and far, the horizon stretching west into some stranger’s sleep. Ni hao ma?, I whisper, my little bit of Mandarin, how are you today? We thrive in our temporary solitude, my husband down by the water, and I, barefoot in the wrack. Vast is easy to be in, if someone you love is nearby.
We arrived at slack tide, and now the surf is slipping closer. The beach is a wet mirror. The Pacific curls soft and slow, a tongue sliding cool over a lip, again and again. Some days the world watches itself, pleased, and this is one of those days.
My gait is clumsy, feet unsteadied by sand and piles of driftwood. A halo of dirt arcs each toenail, a dark crescent beneath the pale keratin, ah, a reverse eclipse.
My mind flashes back to last Sunday. I stood on my deck around dinnertime with a sheet of white paper bearing a single, pencil-sized hole in the center, focusing the crude image of a near-full eclipse onto the back of a cardboard, cat-food box. A fledgling physicist, I was trying to glimpse an annular eclipse. Through the doorway, I asked my tiger-tailed cat, is this how Einstein started? He rumbled and rubbed the screen. The faint scent of tuna spiced the air, my clothing static, alive, with cat hair. A Stellar’s jay landed on the box, squawking, before veering away, realizing, cat! As the day lost its luster, and despite encroaching fog, for a few moments there it was: the black plate, the toenail of light.
Now, kicking away a knot of dried eel grass, I glance down at my feet, count the ten ridged nails. If I were another animal, they’d be hooves or claws. Then I lift my binoculars to scan for Sanderlings. The spring has sprung and the grass riz, oh lost Bronx poet, I wonder where them birdies is. Long gone. After months of scuttling this stretch of beach on their toes, a blur, now they’ve flown to the Arctic, to some avian memory of romance on the tundra. How like the moon they are, feathers of white light, migrating around the globe, then the darkening plumage, breeding, their own new phase. At the right angle, one wing could blot out the sun.
My husband whistles, pointing at the ground. When I reach him, it is a pair of wings still holding to a breastbone—what’s left of a Common murre. He lifts the wings into the air, spreads them, and for a moment, I see the murre floating in the surf, then diving, those wings flying through liquid blue, pumping the bird 150 feet deep after fish. The bird was on the wing, the wing was on the bird, now absurd, only wings and no bird. We nestle the wings back in the sand, measure them, tag them, write about them on a data sheet for a seabird research project (COASST) that we are a part of.
What are wings without a bird? What is a silver box of ash, shards of bone, without a voice—that box at home on my dresser? Sensory input to stimulate our synapses. This was a murre, that my mother-in-law, sweet Rosie. Moments pass, a lifetime, in increments of memory.
We head for the mouth of the Mad River, which has been eating its way north again, when I notice a patch of color shimmering in wet sand, reflecting what? I look up, find among random clouds something I’ve never seen. One ledge of sky is layered in a full spectrum of colors then brushed, smudged. Red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, purple. Not a rainbow, not an aurora borealis. What?
Have you ever walked completely in wonder, eyes up, feet navigating brainlessly? I have to keep looking; surely this elegant mirage will suddenly drain away. The colors float, clouds slink by, and still the lovely abstraction above me. Mouth no doubt hanging open, I sit on the temporary bank of the Mad, and let all that light in. My cones, the eyes' color-seekers, must be ecstatic.
“Let’s head back,” my husband says. We splash along in the tide, glancing down for dazzling stones to pilfer, then up until the colors finally fade, just the sea’s usual ceiling of cirrostratus and an incoming clot of fog.
Ahead of us are our friends, Gary and Lauren and their shiny, black dog, Enzo. They volunteer with the same seabird research program, and today Enzo is practicing his skill at finding dead birds. He trots along in a zig-zag—nose, eyes, ears all competing for his attention—until scent, a protrusion of feathers and bone in a hump of sand, send him in a new direction. When he finds the bird, he settles down beside it, and waits for Lauren with her pocket of treats.
“A sundog,” Gary offers, “at least that’s what I call it.” I look down at Enzo, who perpetually smiles, a drape of tongue dangling to one side. Enzo you are a sundog indeed. But it’s not Enzo that Gary means; it’s that wing of color that had spread over us. A quick Google on my iPhone, which I rarely do on the beach, and I read ‘sundog’ and its scientific equivalent, ‘parhelion,’ Greek for ‘beside the sun.’ The colors are the magic of ice, clouds, and photons all at a certain angle to the earth, appearing beside the sun. The color patch is a companion at the sun’s side, a sundog.
Enzo finds another bird, a murre again—wings, a foot, a head that has to be untwisted from inside its neck so we can stretch the caliper atop its bill. We examine it, photograph it, record it. My husband and Gary chat and walk. I tag along with Lauren, talking and tossing balls for Enzo. I keep peeking up for that sundog, still vivid in my mind. Where did you go?