There was hardly a breath of wind on the beach, and the trees stood still and silent, knowing, as trees do, that something was coming. They’d guarded this shore long enough to know, and the older trees, the ones with centuries of sentry duty, hushed the young ones, the saplings, who wanted to whip their young limbs around, and dance under the stars. The ocean hushed them all in its own, inimitable way - the relentless melancholy of it was reassuring, heaving sigh after sigh as it fell upon the shore and dragged itself back to the depths again. There was no birdsong. No birds.
The creature - the woman? - appeared from the gently breaking waves, and the trees shuddered to see her, susurrating softly, whispering to each other to bear witness, to watch the figure on the beach as she journeyed towards them. She thrust her hand out of the surf and clawed it into the slick garlands of seaweed that fringed the sandy expanse of the moon-drenched beach. She grasped each slippery rope like a lifeline, pulling herself out of the water as it lapped and bubbled around her, leaving the heartbeat of the ocean behind though she yearned for it, and it, her. She creaked as she moved, like rusted metal, hoisting herself up the beach with her long, grasping fingers. She remembered her sisters and her mother and her mother’s mother, and how they’d all made this journey too, and how she was the last of them to crawl up from the depths to this shore, the last to grasp this seaweed, the last to plunge her hands into cool, wet sand, the last to drag herself, creaking and grinding, to the powdery sand beyond. She finally came to a stop where the sand was bone dry, pink and gleaming in the glittery, moonlit night. She shone too, wet and dripping still from a life beneath the waves.
The trees looked on with interest. They knew, of course, what would happen, but it was a rare event, and one worth witnessing. The very oldest tree on the shoreline recognised her face from a dream or another life. She never looked back at the trees, so the tree never found out if she recognised him too.
She looked out at the water; tried to count the ripples. She saw colours in the flashes of silver topped ocean than the human eye could never have seen. Her eyes, attuned to darkness and deepest blues, were overwhelmed with the vibrancy of her last moments. The moon was brighter than she’d ever seen it. It was so beautiful that it hurt to look at it. She heard her name whispered softly by the tide. She heard it in the breeze too, in the trees. Her hair dried for the first time. She touched it with her aching, swollen fingers, and tried to remember the feel of it wet. It seemed like so long ago she was in the water. She remembered swimming so deep she thought she might black out, and she remembered sun drenched afternoons below the surface, where the water came alive with warmth and flashing, golden colour.
Her sister left her for this place decades ago, or centuries, or days? She doesn’t know what time means on dry land because underwater it’s endless, blue or deeper blue. Time underwater is the turn of the tide, the heartbeats, the space between storms, time is what turns calves into whales. She remembers a sister who began to creak and rattle and take strange, gasping breaths, and her sister knew it was time, but didn’t know how to tell her - this one, this last one. Her sister had been left too, by the sister before her, and the one before her, there were many - and their mother. All had peeled away, dropped from their family tree like overripe fruit. She’d resented them, hated them for leaving her out there, alone with the current. Then she’d missed them, as she swam alone through the emptiest parts of the ocean. Had they felt this pain? Every moment feeling like the eternity between waves, before the surf crashes, like there’s something on the tip of her tongue that she can’t remember, or taste, or spit out. She feels her limbs aching with the pressure of the ocean. Where once she felt weightless in the blue, now every heartbeat is an effort, every gasp is a gasp closer to the end. She’s lived a long time, and never felt the pain she feels today, climbing up this beach.
When she was young (how young?) (younger) her mother grew old in front of her. All at once vines wrapped round her pale body and tugged at her skin until it was thin and papery. Dark blue veins spidered her limbs and her lips grew thin and cold. She was gone the next day, a ghost on this same beach, her long life scattered across the sand like footprints, ready to be washed away by the next high tide. She felt age bloom inside her, growing over her bones like moss.
She longs for the ocean. It reaches for her, again and again, bubbling up to kiss the seaweed before tipping backwards into itself. Her body feels brittle. She feels a breeze rattle through her. She wishes she was fluid again, a blur of movement beneath the waves.
She unearths her hands from the sandy graves they’d dug for themselves, and she lies back, listening to the heartbeat, sinking into the sand, finally dragging her eyes away from the ocean. She looks up at the stars, which she knows by heart, like her sisters did, like her mother did. They twinkle in their familiar way, beckoning her, hushing her, telling her to forget about the sea, forget about the waves and the tide and the heartbeat, heartbeat, heartbeat. She’s never seen stars from shore. They should be dimmer, but they burn with an incandescent glow.
The sentinel trees are the only witnesses as she takes a final, shuddering gasp, still staring up at the velvet sky, and sinks, nothing but sea foam, into the sand.