Sea, Sand, and Memories
Village of Santos Gemelos
Department of Asturias
A haven – that is what Isabela sought. Here on this strip of beach. A brief escape from her longings and fears, from a dreary household, from an uncaring husband. The steady sound of gentle waves offered solace from the horrors she had experienced just beyond in the open sea.
She reached down, curled her wrist and came up with a fistful of ocean water. In order to steady her hand, she kept her elbow tight against her body. Before it all dripped through her fingers, she lifted the water to her nose and sniffed its brine, its fishiness, secrets, and mysteries. She licked the drops that remained, along with the tiny, chewy bits of seaweed. Resisting the urge to swallow, she savored the salty taste on her tongue until it faded.
One moment the sea was a calm, stately beauty, the sunlight or moonlight plunging its depths and reflecting off its surface. A composed, flirtatious lady bedecked in layers of green and blue flecked with diamonds and rubies. But she could never trust this grand dame. The next moment, clouds might hide her loveliness. A wind could excite her. She may turn into a holy devil reaching up with all her force to pull down, capture, surround, kill.
All her life Isabela had observed this deceptive monster and once she nearly succumbed to its rages. During a confused moment, she wished fervently to lose herself in its blackness, to disappear in its depths. She wanted to join her father there. And the wounded sailor, Jules, who gave her a desperate kiss – her first kiss ever – before diving from her father’s sinking ship and disappearing. But it was Cornelius who pulled her back into the rowboat and into reality. Cornelius handed her a bucket. “Bail,” he bellowed. And bail she did while Cornelius pulled the oars and rowed. Hours later Isabela – a sodden creature in a tattered silk nightgown twisted around her limp body – arrived at the shore of a strange city. Guttural sounds of its language approached and receded as she regained consciousness. She came to love that city. Amsterdam. The city where she met Pieter.
“Mama, Mama, give me the cup, please. Pedro’s made a castle. I want to fill up the moat.”
“Not yet, Nelita,” Pedro said with older brother irritation. “I’m not finished. Mama. Come see. Here’s where the horsemen approach. They’re still far away, these soldiers. See, Mama?” Pedro placed his carved wooden toy figures on a sand path some distance from his miniature castle’s entrance. “You can tell how far away they are. When they look ahead, the path looks narrow. I made it that way. That’s perspective. Like you taught me, Mama.”
“Per. . . pec . . . tif,” Nelita struggled to repeat. She reached up to her mother. “Cup please, Mama?”
With their dark hair and eyes and their olive skin, her children looked thoroughly Spanish. They spoke no Dutch. They had never visited Amsterdam. Yet every day something in her life with them in this coastal village where she was born reminded Isabela of the eighteen months she spent in that city. Nearly a decade ago. So far north. So far away. So much a part of her.
Perspective. That one word sent her back in time to Pieter who placed a piece of charcoal between her fingers. She felt the warmth of his hand as he guided her drawing. The only art lesson she ever received.
“You can do it, Isabela. See how the canal gradually narrows the farther away from us it flows? Just below us it’s wide. If you draw the canal’s path as it moves away from you, it will become a trickle. Eventually, it will nearly disappear.”
But she must not dawdle in the past. Diego has stated that he will take Pedro on his first voyage – a celebration of his tenth birthday. There was no persuading him otherwise.
“He will follow the path of his grandfathers and father, Isabela. You think he’s still your little baby?”
Nightmares of the shipwreck pursued Isabela. The terror of losing her precious son to the sea overwhelmed her. She must find a way to protect her child.
“Time for the evening meal soon, my lovely children,” Isabela coaxed in her lilting way as she began to gather up toys. But Pedro was wading in the surf away from her.
“Mama, come see what I found,” he yelled.
“Show me another time, Pedro. We have to climb back up for the evening meal.”
“No, Mama, come here. I want to show you this.”
Isabela took Nelita’s hand and walked toward her son’s voice. He had gone much farther than she thought, to an area of the beach she wasn’t even aware of. She panicked when she couldn’t see him, although she had just heard him calling her a moment earlier. She began running.
At high tide, the cliff reached into the sea blocking off a section of a secluded cove. Isabela picked up Nelita and waded through the surf calling her son’s name. Her damp skirts and petticoats slowed her down. She spotted him waving, sitting in a small abandoned rowboat, tucked up against the bluff. Pedro had grabbed one of the oars and was pretending to row.
“Leave the boat as you found it, Pedro. Come on now,” she called to him.
Once they had sloshed their way back to their play area and were tidying up, Pedro warned, “Careful, Mama. Don’t destroy my castle. See how I built it? It has a moat all around. Five floors. Lookout towers on all sides. A flag made out of seaweed on top. A Spanish flag. My soldiers protect the castle, Mama.”
Pedro picked up two of the three-inch tall wooden soldiers. He gave voice to their increasingly threatening words as they warded off an unseen enemy.
“Don’t you come any closer. We will maim you. We will torture you. We will kill you. This castle belongs to OUR King.”
Isabela recoiled from her son’s violent utterances, but she understood that in part he was trying to fulfill the role of his often absent father, that he felt vulnerable growing up without a steady, male presence in his life. Already he was quite proficient with a sword.
“I’ll beat you to the top,” Pedro yelled down to his mother and sister.
Built into the cliff fifty years ago under the supervision of Isabela’s grandfather, the stone stairs had nearly been taken over by weeds that encroached from both sides. With one hand, Isabela guided Nelita. In the other she held a wooden bucket that contained the sandy soldiers and the few digging utensils she had borrowed from Cook’s kitchen.
“How many more steps, Mama?”
“Let’s count them together.”
“Uno. Dos. Tres.”
“Only three more, Nelita. Three. That’s a special number to you, isn’t it?”
“Three? Of course, Mama. I know that. I am THREE YEARS OLD!”
Nelita took a step upward and slipped on a patch of uneven moss dampened by yesterday’s downpour. As she felt a rivulet run down her leg and caught sight of a redness seeping through her ankle-length frock, she began to howl. Isabela dropped the bucket, which clanged down the stairs spilling soldiers. Scattered now they looked as if they had been injured or killed in battle. She half expected the miniatures to begin writhing in pain.
“OH, NO!” Pedro cried out when he turned to see what had happened.
He squeezed by his distressed sister and gathered up his soldiers.
“I’ll take charge of these,” he pronounced.
When Isabela and her children arrived at the top step, her mother-in-law, having heard Nelita’s wailing, stood looking down on them, hands on hips, lips pursed.
“What has happened now? I don’t know why you insist on taking the children down there, Isabela. They come back filthy, smelling of fish . . . and now hurt as well?”