He followed the fog to the beach, quickening his steps, oblivious to the pack on his back or the throbbing in his knee.
Only when the first cold gust washed over him did he slow down, laughing at the sky, then slipped the straps from his shoulders, easing it to the sand. He pulled the shirt plastered to his back free and wrung the moisture from the bandana that was around his head.
The endless whiteness always surprised him, swallowing so much light and sound.
He dragged the bag to where the dampness started, close to the debris line.
Inhaling deeply, he breathed the salt and mist and clusters of rotting seaweed and broken shells and crustaceans.
He could never tire of the thumping of the waves, crashing in the distance.
Scanning to his left and to his right, through shards of mist, he followed the hollowed backs of fir and spruce, silhouetted on the rugged shoulders of land, high above him, jutting into the ocean, submitting to the wind.
Not far, having accepted his presence, a colony of sandpipers scurried on short stick-legs, chasing the remnants of each wave, pecking in the shallow foam, mottled wings tucked to their sides, running crisscross after the bellwether.
The tripod with instruments went up in record time, but the one stake kept coming undone, not gripping in the moist sand. Cussing, he dropped to his knees, readjusting the anchor line, and driving the stake with renewed enthusiasm into a different spot, behind a strand of Beach Primrose.
Only when she cleared her throat did he notice his visitor—her pony-tail dripping down the back of her diving suit. He squinted, still on his knees, testing the sturdiness of the line.
“What are you doing?” She readjusted her hold on the surfboard.
“On your beach?”
The knotted brow softened. “That too.” She pointed at the stake hammer in his hands.
“I’m anchoring my tripod.”
This time she let the board slip to the sand and crossed her arms, widening her stance. “And I’m the Little Mermaid.”
Laughing, he used the hammer as a crutch to get to his feet, favouring his right knee, brushing sand from his hands and knees. He met her dark pupils. “Pleasure making your acquaintance, Miss Mermaid . . . I’m studying the fog.”
“The fog? We know where it comes from.”
He nodded as he turned a few dials and adjusted the one sensor. “We’re worried it’s getting less. I’m a botanist. Biologist.”
The restless little shorebirds darted in their direction to escape a freak wave, seemingly unconcerned by the two humans.
“At least you have the blessing of the sandpipers. And they’re not easy to make friends.”
Bowing, he put his hands together. “I’m honoured.”
For a moment only, a shadow passed his eyes, and when she looked closer, the sorrow had shifted.
“Then it’s settled. A friend of the Pipers is a friend of mine.” A dimple appeared in her cheek as she smiled.
“You’re handing me the keys to the city just like that?”
Pursing her lips, she scooped up her board. “Meteorologists have never been found guilty of war crimes—”
“Oh . . . Either way, welcome to my beach.” She spun on her heels and waved, calling over her shoulder, “See you tomorrow, Mr. Botanist!”
Over the next week, having set up his monitoring tripod at different spots along the stretched-out beach, Adam would return the enthused wave of the mermaid-lady with her board, drifting through shifting fog, either entering or leaving the waves. Sometimes, when he was nearby, she would stop by and watch him work, offering quips of wisdom.
Early mornings, with most of the fog having drifted inland, the eastern skies behind the evergreen giants barely awash with rose and daffodil, he would recognize her colourful suit, leading a troop of female surfers into the ocean.
She never waved when she was with her students.
That morning, the sun a hand-width above the tree-line, as Adam packed his gear away, a shadow fell over him in the sand, down on one knee.
Smiling, he shielded his eyes against the glare, watching her silhouette. “Good morning, Missy. You ignored my wave this morning. Visibility was over one kilometre.”
She laughed, kicking at the sand. “I was with my class.”
“I know, and I’m just an old guy.”
“It’s not that.”
“I get it. It’ll be embarrassing introducing your friends to a botanist nerd with grey hair and gadgets.”
She stepped closer, putting out her hand, pulling him to his feet. “I didn’t want to share you with them . . .” Crimson crept up her neck as she let go of his hand. “What I mean is . . . I think it’s exotically grand—what you do, who you are.”
“Thank you.” He took her hand and shook it. “Adam Brown.”
She returned the firm handshake. “Julie Johnson.” She noticed the ochre specs in his pupils and lingering melancholy.
While Adam hoisted the pack on his back, Julie scooped up her surfboard and fell in pace next to him, keeping to herself.
High above them a gull dipped and dived, calling to its mate.
With a bounce, she accelerated her pace to keep up. “Why does fog smell?”
He shrugged. “It’s a life giver—filled with sustenance.”
She laughed. “You always have an answer ready . . .” She stopped, making him turn. “Would you . . . Could I interest you in a coffee?”
“I would have loved too, but I can’t. I have to get back home.”
It was five days before he saw her again; she was in shorts and sandals, studying the sandpipers, scurrying in the shallows.
He waved her closer.
For a moment she hesitated then walked over to him pushing a fire-engine-red wheelchair, equipped with fat tires, ideal for the sand.
“Julie, I want you to meet Marjorie, my wife.”
Julie stepped closer and clasped the hands of the woman with slanted legs in both of hers. As she squeezed the bony fingers, she read the unnamable sorrow in the couple’s eyes, their brave smiles in spite.
Thank you for reading!
Sandpiper was also published on medium.com
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Image by the author - Sandpipers on the pacific coast.