Nina Quigley lives in Donegal and writes poetry and fiction. Her poems have appeared in HU and Poetry Ireland Review. Her Lapwing poetry pamphlet, ‘Legacy’, was published in 2001. That year, she was selected to read at Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.
Indian summer. It’s a high day, the tall sky cerulean, and complicated with elaborate, high-toned cloud. No wind. The windmills are still, and gleam sharp and white against the purple hills on the far shore. A day of intense heat, then suddenly its absence, that sends the children cing helter- skelter down the beach screaming, “The darkness is coming! The darkness is coming!” to escape the swooping wing of shadow that chases them down, consuming the hot sand. They take refuge, cowering in frantically-dug boltholes in the sand, till the darkness lifts and all is light again and laughter.
The tide is in, the water languid and warm, yet cooling to bare feet and sun-browned legs beneath rolled up jeans and high-clutched dresses. Gently hostage to the music and shifting mathematics of the sea (arcs, angles, wavy lines) the children revel in the ridged sand soft, yet bumpy under their toes, intent on foraging for treasures of marine life, crabs, sea anemones, starfish. There’s stuff galore on the beach for the taking, the makings of constructions and installations to harness the imagination. There’s no end to materials raw from ocean buffettings and ripe for building and ornamentation. Shells, feathers, bone-white driftwood, string, rope, netting, sea glass ceramics, bottles, seaweed and cans.
They’ve made camp beside a long and elegant, tide-bleached tree trunk some way down the beach from the untidy straggle of day-trippers. Whole extended families are here with their raggle-taggle accumulations of hampers, grills, umbrellas and wind breakers. After a fortnight of relentless rains, the late heat wave has restored their faith in the concept summer holiday, and they’ve deserted the back-to-school frenzy of the city to come and make the most of it. Meanwhile, bums on smooth sun-warmed wood, the children paddle down the perilous Orinoco, mindful at all times of the menace that lurks just below the surface of the river, waiting to maul their tender, sacrificial limbs. Piranhas, crocodiles, alligators. The boy keeps a sharp lookout for hostile, hidden eyes watching from the dense forest that towers silently over them on both sides of the river. But abruptly they tire of this game and decide to make better use of the tree trunk when the youngest girl, the athletic one, pipes up “Let’s practise tight-rope walking.”
The tree trunk is very long and lies part-buried in the sand, wavelike almost in its posture, a long, slow dip into the sand followed by a sharp rise, ending in final dip. The children take to this new activity with relish, and, after some initial slips and lost footings, they quickly become adept, braving the passage with eyes closed, backwards even, or at a run culminating in glamorous, soaring finales. It’s a great game, and soon they’re exhausted and dying of thirst. With syncopated, staccato glugs, they make quick work of the water in their bottles, and are ready to get down to the main business of the day, the construction of a castle, complete with keep, battlements, moat, drawbridge, gun emplacements and sheltering palisade. The boy has learned about palisades at school, how they afforded the ancients much-needed safety from attack by enemies, wild animals and dreaded mythical monsters.
Soon the children are happily collaborating, engrossed in digging, building and decorating. There’s some dissent over thorny issues. Should they use sticks or feathers for canons? Should the bailey have a walled garden with trees? Should they dig a tunnel from under the keep to the outside world to allow access to food and water in the event of a siege? But there are no outright fights. They make thrilling solitary expeditions far from camp in both directions down the beach over dunes and rocks in search of materials, the age old freedom of the lone adventurer tugging at their loins.
The sun has dipped low in the sky by the time their work is done. The castle stands there complete and majestic in all its detailed glory. A salty hunger is making its presence known in their bellies and they decide it’s time to go home. They put on their sandals and gather up their bottles and fleeces. Tired but happy, they head on home down the beach. From the top of the dunes, they look back for one last taste of the wonder that they’ve made. Their hearts grow big in their chests. The castle stands small but perfect, and resolute against the incoming tide.
© 2020 Nina Quigley