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The Dolphin and the Painted Desert - A Fairy Tale of Sorts
There was once a girl who loved two things above all else. The first was the ocean. She loved its scent, the feel of its salt against her skin, and the way the sand always followed her home to rest beneath her sheets and between her floorboards. From her home in Gloucester, she had only to walk a few blocks from her home to visit the beach. There, among the cast-away homes of small sea creatures and remnants of hooks and twine she would walk for hours, collecting small shells and tidbits of driftwood, sanded by the currents to resemble an old man’s beard or the hull of a ship.
But although the ocean filled her days with pleasant breezes, and her nights with dreams of drifting slowly away from the edges of the world in tiny wooden boats, she had another love, and that was painting. She had filled dozens of sketchbooks with charcoal renderings of forgotten objects littering the shore, and could often be seen lugging an easel and paints down the street to the beach. There she would sketch for hours, listening to the sound of the surf, trying to capture just so the sky that seemed to change from one minute to the next. But on other days, she brought only a towel, slung over her shoulders, while she filled her pockets with multi-colored pebbles still dotted with green flecks of algae. It was on one of these lazy afternoons that she met him, the boy who would change the course of her life.
She had gone swimming, leaving behind her towel, soft cotton T-shirt, and the shorts with pockets bulging, fishy-smelling and heavy. The water was warm that day, though the surf was picking up a bit. As she dove under the waves, surfacing dolphin-like on the other side of the swell to shake the water from her hair and salt from her eyes, the boy wandered down onto the beach. He seemed arid, pulling the moisture from the air and leaving a wake of dryness behind him like some kind of miniature weather system blown off-course. He watched the girl, the way the sunlight winked off her hair at him, wild in the waves, her long limbs gracefully parting the water and disappearing in a faint echo of a splash and a trail of bubbles. He saw her abandoned towel resting on the rippled sand between a clump of stranded seaweed and the carcass of a jellyfish, and picked it up. It smelled faintly like apples, and was dusted with sand that would not let go. He walked up the beach a bit, wandering, watching the girl cavorting around the waves.
When she finally emerged, wet hair tousled by the wind and goose bumps on her sun-kissed skin, he waited nearby, holding the stolen towel. She headed to the spot on the beach where her clothes awaited, then looked around, perplexed. The day was hot but the wind felt cold on her damp skin. No sight of her towel, though the clothes were right where she had left them, and she did not want to put them on, damp as she was. Soon she saw the boy, standing nearby, laughing and holding the accosted towel. As beautiful as he had found her sea-nymphing about, so was he to her, and as the towel was returned, laughter rang out across the beach. The men on the boats heard it, a faint buzz on the edge of the wind that carrying the secret knowledge that a princess would soon be leaving.
And leave she did, though not immediately. At first the summer stretched on, alternating fierce heat with cool ocean breezes, while the two played on the shore, collecting shells, walking and talking for hours, cooling their passion with an occasional dip in the murky waters of the northern Atlantic. He watched her sketch and paint, for hours, enraptured, and told her all about his life back in Flagstaff. Though his world was filled with sand, like hers, the only water was pumped in by the miracles of modern technology, to make grassy lawns bloom in the midst of desert wasteland. It was flat like the ocean, but waterless, a prehistoric sea-bed long since gone dry. The rock formations bloomed out of the soil like petrified trees, pink and yellow and brown, he told her while they watched the sun sink into the waves.
Eventually came the inevitable fall, the leaves began to put on their gowns of red and gold, and the boy had to return home. The girl had now come to love three thing, and one of them so much that she was content to let go of whatever she must to keep it close. And so she followed him off to that strange waterless land, no matter her sadness on leaving her home.
She thought she would be happy in her new home. She had always wanted for adventure, though her paintings of gulls and stormy skies were to be replaced with cacti and the Painted Desert, and her lover’s face as he napped on the sofa. She was excited to create charcoal renditions of the interplay of shadow and light, instead of her old works full with the swirling colors of the ocean. She had brought little with her, hoping to create a new life; there were only her clothes and a suitcase full of art supplies to check into the baggage hold on the plane. But here, in a land with unforgiving sun and a dry heat that scorched the water from her cells and burnt her already tan skin, only the clothes wound were unpacked. Her art drifted away from her, slowly, the way the salty smell faded from her clothing a little more each time it was washed. Eventually, the only salt that could be found was in the tears that slowly dripped down into her ears at night as she lay in bed, flat on her back, motionless, and silently aching for the feel of the waves rocking her to sleep.
Except for her loneliness in the night, she was happy for a while. Though the pages of her sketchbook remained empty, she was busy with him, her new life, seeing all there was to see and doing everything there was to do. As time went by, however, the happy couple began to argue. She stopped wanting to leave the small apartment, preferring to stay at home in the blessed air-conditioning. He began to grate on her nerves, and their small trifles became epic blowouts, lasting all night and into the morning. Where at first the low buildings and prickly vegetation had been a source of wonder for her, they now appeared stilted and dull. Everything seemed flat, contained, predictable. She loved him, she told herself that, but she couldn’t be happy, and worse, she couldn’t seem to find it in her to paint, though he suggested she try time and time again.
She begged him to take a trip with her, back to the ocean, or even to the woods, but he claimed to be too busy with work, and told her she was just homesickness, that it would soon go away. She explained to him that she needed to see the ocean again, to see the plane of it slanting away into the horizon, with nothing in the way of her and that distant view. She wanted to feel the promise of distance, to see the world spreading away from her into the sky. He took her out of the city, into the desert, but it only made her lonelier. It was a vast emptiness dead and hard, without the rocking, and feeling of life just below the surface that she had come to love.
One night, while he slept, she tiptoed through the house, puttering with this and that. It was hot. So hot even the air-conditioner, which admittedly had seen better days, couldn’t keep up. She couldn’t sleep, and felt too restless to try. She dragged her case of art supplies out of the front hall closet, thinking to perhaps have a go at a sketch or two. Feeling bored, and uninspired, she simply stared at the blank page, thinking about the mess in the close she had had to dig through just to find it.
Deciding to first clean the closet, and perhaps clear her mind, she set to work sorting through the boxes of junk that had been collecting there. In the back, under the jackets that they rarely ever used and were mainly for the off chance of a trip to a colder climate, she found a small brown shoebox. It seemed to emit a vague scent of familiarity, and she opened it unsure of what she would find. Inside was a jumbled mass of shells and driftwood, dusty with sand still stuck to their edges.
She recognized some of the shells, they were ones that had found together, on the beach, as they strolled along falling in love. She put one to her ear, and it whispered an echo of that girl she had been, aimlessly searching the sand for some overlooked treasure, happy. Some of the sand flaked off into her palm. It felt different than the sand here, grainier, but smoother somehow. She put the box in a drawer in her dresser, quietly, so as not to wake him, and then returned to her sketchbook. To her surprise, a picture flowed out of her, not of cacti but of the ocean, still and glassy. She drew the fishing boats there that she had loved, and a quiet sun, half hidden behind billowing clouds, the promise of a cool breeze. She finished the picture, and then started another, and another.
In the morning, when he awoke, she was still sitting in the living room, painting furiously. She informed him that she planned to return home, just for a visit, she said. She missed her family, needed a visit, just for a few days and would be back soon. Though the proposal sounded reasonable, he felt an irrational simmering dread. Was she leaving him, their life? Would she really come back? He wanted her in his world now, though he had once loved the ocean in her, her wonderment at it down to the smallest detail. It was the reason he had taken the box of shells, useless, and something of a relic, across the continent, to remind him. He knew in his heart he couldn’t keep her away, though he couldn’t rid himself of a nagging apprension of the thought of her leaving. Something felt wrong to him, though he couldn't say just what it was.
While they waited for her plane to start boarding, he warned her to be careful, to stay out of the ocean. It was early May, and the water was cold and temperamental this time of year, no matter the warming of the air. She became a bit offended; she had grown up on the ocean, and could read the tides. She knew when it was safe and when it wasn’t, she wasn’t a child, she told him. The plane arrived and she kissed him goodbye with the promise of a happy return the next week.
Once home, she exuberantly reunited with her family, spending the rest of the day at home. The next morning she walked off alone to the ocean, sketchbook in hand. The salty air and moist breezes felt invigorating after the interminable heat. It was a warm day for early spring, hot almost, even compared to the stifling Arizona heat, and she walked barefoot along the beach, feeling the sand slip under her heels and catch between her toes. Back in Flagstaff you couldn’t walk barefoot, usually, the ground was too hot and scorched right through your skin. She hadn’t realized how much she missed that, walking barefoot. Reaching the water’s edge, she dipped a toe in, shocked by the icy chill but strangely elated. The beach was empty, quite empty, and only a few boats way out on the horizon, small specks bobbling on the surface. Caught up in the freedom of a deserted beach, save for one lone seagull looking on disinterestedly from a nearby rock, she stripped down to her underwear, and charged into the icy swell. The cold tingled against her bare skin, then instantly numbed her. It knocked the breath right out of her, but she kept going, pushing against the waves until her feet no longer touched the pebbled bottom.
The gull watched from his perch. The figure of the girl slowly moved away from the shore, dipping under the water and resurfacing, like she had that fateful day the past summer. After a few moments he lost sight of her, seeing only the small spray from one wave colliding into the next, and the sun glittering brightly off the surface. Out ahead, past the spot where the waves broke against the beach to rush against the shore, topped with white foam and roaring, the swell was gentle and fluid. The gulled watched a dolphin break the surface of the water. It playfully flipped itself into the air, seeming to hang there, suspended in the weak spring sunlight. Then, in an instant, with a graceful arc and flick of it’s tail, the dolphin slipped back into the water without even a splash, and disappeared from sight.