Poem – FOOTPRINTS (By Brian T. Marshall)
Brian T. Marshall
I spotted them on my third day there. A question mark in the sand.
First off a little background. I was never supposed to be there alone, walking on that beach. But Karen had decided, two weeks shy of departure, that we weren’t a couple anymore. And no, I don’t want your sympathy, it happens all the time, and compared to any real disaster, a car wreck or diagnosis, it’s hardly worth a blink.
Still, along with the usual crap, the regrets and recriminations, it left me with a problem. Do I stay or do I go? Once, back in college, I’d decided to head north, thumb my way up 101, only to discover that traveling alone wasn’t what I’d imagined. That being in a place where nobody knew you felt less like life, and more like death. But there was the money I stood to lose, cancelling that close to the date, and the time I’d already blocked off, and the longer I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. A big fuck-off wrapped up with a bow. Who needs you anyway?
On the flight over, I got mildly sloshed. Drinking for two, not one. The eyes of the flight attendant flitting right past me as if I wasn’t there. And then, once we’d touched down, all of us bleeding out into the terminal, lining up for our luggage, it really started to hit. I was somewhere else. All along, I’d been pushing for the Greek Isles—clean light and chilled retsina—but Karen, she’d insisted on not being a tourist, opting instead for a tiny republic on the east coast of Africa, a place I still couldn’t pronounce. The night-dark skin of the taxi drivers. Air so thick it came out of a jar. And over it all a sweet, pungent stink, like fruit that had started to spoil.
I let my driver pick the place. A room was a room was a room. Over-tipped him as we arrived, earning a big flash of teeth. Like him, the woman spoke good English, asked how long I’d be staying there, and seemed surprised when I merely shrugged back, admitting I wasn’t sure. As for the view from room 206, it needed no translation. An alley, a brick wall, a truck on blocks. Moonlight catching on broken glass.
It took me two days to scout out the town. To establish a routine. That compulsion every animal feels when confronted with new turf. For better or worse the place had no draws, no attractions or destinations, which meant I earned my share of keen looks, a white man with nothing to do. The very next morning I found a quiet spot where they served a decent breakfast. Another place, two blocks over, where afternoons meant a bottle or three of the local lager, sweat beading on the glass. And in between there was always the market, or an hour or two in the square, a dusty expanse of dying grass shaded by what looked like banyans.
And then, of course, there’s the beach.
For me it had always been the Pacific. The only coast I knew. And so this new thing, this whole other ocean, it took a while to get used to. For one thing there’s the color. A tired, washed-out grey. Like you’re seeing the tail-end of something, a curtain lowered after the show. And the waves, the breakers, seem tired somehow, they’re just going through the motions, an endless climb up a long steep hill, one step after another. Dinghies anchored just past the swell. Piled fish-nets, swarming with flies. Even the men, working since dawn, seem immune to time’s slow passage. Knowing themselves as quietly insubstantial as the waves that lap at their feet.
The town, it turns out, is near the southern end of an immense, sweeping bay, and with nothing better to do one morning, I set out to test my legs. Once past the row of fishing camps, the country opens up, thick stands of brush, the occasional road, pounded soil as red as rust. For the most part I stick to the beach itself, the firm sand at water’s edge, finally tucking my shoes in a bush for retrieval on my trip back. Wet granules, like sugar, that cling to my toes. My shadow spilling before me. Just for a moment, it all feels right, like being there’s not a mistake, and I wonder if one day I’ll have to thank Karen, instead of wishing her dead.
A day slips by. Then two, then three. Only to find that, even more than the bitter coffee, or that first sip of beer at dusk, it’s these walks along the coast that come to define my stay. That give my life some purpose. On my first trek, I spot a sand dollar. On my second, a piece of sea-glass. But it’s not until my third hike north that the true prize is offered up.
What stands out first is their sudden appearance. The way they pop out of nowhere. As if whoever had left them behind simply fell out of the sky. And then there’s their size, much smaller than mine, which means they must have been cast by a woman or child. But what’s most striking is how they’re not matched. How one of them, the one on the left, seems malformed somehow. Defective. Following along, I reach a spot where whoever they belonged to must have grown careless, strayed a little too close to the surf, and the impression left in the wet sand is even clearer, more distinct. And then I realize what’s missing. That whoever I’m pursuing only has one big toe.
Tantalized, I scurry forward. Like a dog hot on the scent. Wondering if what I’m seeing is a birth defect, or courtesy of some shark. Either way, with the tide near its low point, the footprints must be recent. And yet when I look up to scan the horizon, the beach is deserted, like always. Which is probably a good thing. Sometimes as I sit there, on my bench in the square, a flock of young beggars will find me, and if one has a defect, a flaw of some kind, I feel compelled to give him more. So do I really need yet another cripple, nagging away at my conscience? No, of course not. And yet here I am. Back bent, nose forward, squinting into the wind. Determined to follow this meandering track, wherever it may lead.
It’s hard to say how much ground we cover. A few hundred yards, give or take. And then, just like that, there are no more footprints, leaving the sand undisturbed. I come to a halt. Perform a three-sixty. Might even scratch my head. Already I’m at it, wracking my brain, trying to conjure up some explanation. A boat, shallow-hulled, hugging the shore, spiriting my friend away. Or no, more like that old Indian trick, retreating in your own footprints to throw off a pursuer. But why? What would be the point? And backwards or forward, this way or that, both ends of the trail lead nowhere. Leaving only a question behind: where the hell did they go?
Later on, over beer, I ponder this trick. Like worrying away at a tooth. That nagging buzz, circling your ear, as you lie awake at night. Every day, every moment, we see countless things, things that don’t make sense, that cry out for an explanation, and yet we’re too busy, too distracted, to give them a second thought. Only now I have the time. More time than I know what to do with. Which means, once again, I’m left to thank Karen for giving me what I needed. For leaving my life so barren, so empty, I can spot where God missed a stitch.
I endure six hours of not-quite-sleep, then hurry my way through breakfast. Find myself on the beach so early half the boats haven’t yet made it back. They probably wonder, the few people there, why I’m studying them so intently. Why my eyes seem to hug the ground, as if searching for some clue. Fine. Let them wonder. Heading north, I scour the sand, a fierce sun perched to my right, with a second orb, its reflection, its twin, winking back from the shallow water. I must be walking faster this morning, a stride instead of a stroll, and pretty soon I’ve reached my first milestone, the ruins of an old fishing shack, reverting back into dust. But still no footprints.
And then, just like that, I spot them, twenty feet down the beach. A trail of breadcrumbs, left behind, or a slender strand of string. And maybe it’s my imagination, but the prints seem different this time around. Still small, still misshapen, but the imprint itself is altered; deeper at the front end, near the toes, and shallower at the heels. Meaning, perhaps, that whoever left them was running. Sprinting. Or no. The pattern, the rhythm, first shallow then deep, is too uneven, too playful. So let’s make that skipping instead. And as soon as I think of that word, skipping, I can see her in my head. A girl, maybe eight or nine. Kinked hair and beanstalk limbs. With some kind of shawl clutched in her hands, stretched tight above her head, as if she’s hoping to snare the wind, to float off past the horizon.
I pause. Blink. The girl is gone. Only the footprints remain.
Now I’m the one who’s running. A clumsy, ugly thing. Breath rasping through my shopworn lungs, knees creaking with each lunge. As if to taunt me, the prints dance ahead, twisting and weaving along, burning through a dozen steps where I barely manage one. How does she do it, I ask myself, half cripple that she is. What could inspire her, a victim, to skirt across the sands?
Maybe all my questions blind me. Maybe I’m just out-of-breath. I’ve probably gone a dozen yards before I finally stop. Realize that she’s done it again. That there are no more footprints to follow.
Day three. I’ve asked the woman to wake me early, a good hour before the dawn. Just in time to catch them rumbling off, trucks headed for the capital. I snag a packed bus at the corner, the only white man there, the eyes of the workers, the shop boys and maids, staring at this pale apparition. It’s a five-block walk from the stop to the beach. The air is cool and fragrant. That stillness, like a breath held tight, that comes before the sunrise.
The sand is dotted here and there with a half-dozen flickering campfires. Men sipping tea, and warming their bones, and readying themselves for the day. As for me, I’ve already decided to wait by the shack, weathered slats and scattered palm fronds, hoping it’ll provide some cover, like a hunter tucked in his blind. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I really expect to find anything, to catch her at her game. Because, I’ve decided, none of this is real. Not the girl, not the footprints, not even myself, the same self that knows it’s a fiction. The tree that didn’t fall in the forest, not not making a sound.
Gradually, the sky starts to color. Light seeps back into the world. A hush of hope, of anticipation, at the place where the sun will rise. This will be, I belatedly note, the first time I’ve ever seen it. A sun rising, not setting, over the ocean. Which should make this whole farce worth it, no matter what finally happens.
I reach the shack. Settle down in the sand. At some point, I must nod off. Only realize that I’ve been asleep in the instant I snap awake.
Laughter. Childish laughter. Bells pealing, but rendered small. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sound so sweet. So impossible to resist. Sitting up, I rub my eyes, eager to find its source, then spot her in the narrow band where sand gives way to sea. She’s even smaller than I suspected. As fragile as a bird. And instead of holding the rag I’d envisioned, she’s hanging onto a length of rope, the same coarse strands of braided fiber the men use for their nets. As I watch, she snaps it once. The knotted end leaps in the air. Another laugh, even more raucous, a surrender to delight.
And then, somehow, she feels my gaze. The doll’s head whips around. Two small stones, dark and gleaming, bore into my own. She doesn’t look frightened, not in the least. More like angry, or aggrieved. As if by being clever, getting there early, I’d broken some kind of rule. A second or two of hesitation. Each option carefully weighed. Then, with a shrug, an air of dismissal, she scampers off into the surf.
Without even thinking, I cry out. A voice that’s not my own. If she’s brought bells, I’ve stuffed them with cotton, melted them back down to dross. Hearing that, hearing my offense, she retreats even further, the water almost reaching her chest. A thing so tiny, so insubstantial, one good wave could knock her down.
Before that can happen, I stand up. Take a few halting steps. Tell my face to deliver the message: I am friend, not foe. And maybe, just maybe, it’s working, because at least she’s stopped backing away. Seems content to wait me out, this oaf from another world. So why does the oaf feel tricked instead? As if some trap has sprung? As if she knows I have to follow, follow her into the surf.
The first wave grazes my ankle. The second one hits me mid-thigh. Seeing my approach, she paddles off further, bobbing aloft with each swell. Despite all my walks, my coy flirtations, I haven’t risked it yet, taken my chances with the waves, dared to face the currents. Which must be why the tug I feel, that horrible, blind hunger, catches me off-guard. One second the sand is there, at my feet. The next I’m floating free. Turning to find the shore pull away, like a film run in reverse. So. Not just a tide. A rip tide. One of those things they warn you about, but that I’ve never yet had to face.
Don’t panic, you moron. That’s what they say. You’ll only wear yourself out. So instead just lie back, keep your head above water, and see where the journey takes you. Kind of like life itself. And the girl? The girl, of course, is nowhere in sight. She’s pulled her vanishing act. Sucked down to her doom, a watery grave, or maybe just back up on shore. In search of her next victim.
For a good long while I float along, gradually drifting northward, until, at last, I can feel a shift, a recalibration of the currents. Testing it, I start to paddle, aiming again for the shore. My feet plunging downwards, desperately searching, hoping to find solid ground.
And finding something else.
“So. You have a good trip?”
I turn away from the window. See a stranger’s smiling face.
“Not good, not bad,” I tell him. “More like interesting.”
He motions down towards my left leg. The plastic boot I’m wearing.
“And what’s that about?” he wonders. “Do I even want to know?”
I see a footprint, one toe missing. Hear a burst of girlish laughter.
“Like I said, it was interesting.”