The dune was taller, more fixed, more permanent than the others. Its arms formed an almost complete circle, a broad hollow that opened onto the woods that bordered the beach. Snake grass grew along the dune’s crest, creeping even some ways down its sides, trapping earth in its roots and supporting small trees that sprouted like bristles down its spine. Along one arm, as it approached the woods, three larger cedars had taken hold in the thin earth so that they cast their shadows into the hollow of the dune, further and further as the sun declined in the afternoon.
Below the tufting snake grass and the creeping sand plants and the tenacious cedars, there was a strip of clean white sand, like a band, below which the sand darkened suddenly, became mixed with larger pebbles, bits of driftwood, decaying leaves and grass. This dark, earthy sand ran along the bottom of the dune, melding, at the tips of its arms, with the vegetation on its crest, so that the white sand between them formed a smooth curve, arching broadly where the dune itself was broad and narrowing to nothing as the dune’s arms descended to meet the level sand, as they curved to form a hollow between them.
In this rounded hollow pooled the creek that marked the border between beach and woods before breaking for the lake, circuitously, weaving through the dunes, cutting and recutting its banks daily. The pool in the hollow, in the almost round arms of the dune, seemed perfect to me, fed with enough fresh water that it smelled clean and looked clear, but slow enough that water plants grew along its edges and fingerlings played among the branches that had been carried this far by the momentum of the stream and then been caught by the slowness of the pool, as the water gathered itself toward the lake.
I came to this place daily, to the rounded arms and the broad hollow and the gathering pool and the cedars casting their shadows into the heat of the afternoon. The curve of the white sand, in the place where it was first shaded by the cedars and where I could see the stream curling around the far arm of the dune, became to me a refuge. It was a place between places, between beach and forest, between earth and sky, between sand and water, between sun and shade, and so it was also a place of solitude, because it was not a place at all, because it was only between places.
I felt that the solitude of the dune was somehow necessary to it, so my habitual visits were habitually solitary. I would approach most often from the beach, following the bed of the stream toward the forest, exploring the new path that it had carved through the sand since last I had walked it. The water, coming from the hollow to which I was going, seemed always to have something of its memory with it, so that I came with a feeling of expectation, an expectation already fulfilled before I even reached its fulfilment, a knowing in advance, like a taste of something familiar in the air. For me, the familiar taste was of silence and aloneness, and the stream bore it, since it too had passed alone through that place, had found no one there to hear its whispering or to welcome its visitation, and so it spoke to me as it passed, promised me the smell of cedar in the afternoon sun, covenanted that a blue pool was waiting for me in a hollow of dark earth below an arc of white sand.
Only once did the stream break its covenant with me, betray the promise that it made of a silent and sacred hollow. Once, as the stream approached the fixed and permanent dune, its circling and hollowed arms, there appeared a path in the sand, its trajectory gradually nearing that of the stream until they ran side by side, two sets of footprints, a purposeful path, moving unerringly toward the dune that held the pool in the hollow between its arms. I paused in the stream, in the midst of its still whispered assurances, and I looked to where the path in the sand had climbed the dune, crushing a patch of snake grass on its crest, before disappearing beyond it. The line of the dune seemed stark. The green of its trees and grass stood against the deeper shade of the forest behind it, a border that had been violated.
I cannot now recall my emotions in that moment. My memories return to me only the sight of the dune grown huge in my imagination, sacred and inviolable, and yet violated. The dune, the barrier, seems to have been entirely saturated, overexposed by recollection, leaving nothing but its solidity and its impossible violation, one laid paradoxically over the other.
I climbed the dune on my hands and knees, felt the sun, standing very high in the sky, weighing very heavily on my back and head. I followed the path, the traces in the sand, raised my head above the crest where the snake grass had been broken. In the hollow, a couple was lying on the dune, on the white strip of sand in the middle of the dune, lying almost across from where the three tall cedars had just began to advance their shadows toward the pool.
The woman lay on her back, her eyes closed, her hair disarranged, strands covering her face, left undisturbed where the occasional breeze had placed them. On her bathing suit there were embroidered butterflies, orange and green, blue and yellow, one perched on each breast, so that the arm she had thrown over her eyes seemed to ward against them as much as the sun.
Her lover lay on his side, close to her. His skin was white, not delicately but sickly white, so that even the white sand seemed dark where it clung to him. He had raised himself on one elbow, leaning his head on his hand, and the darkness of his hair hung starkly against the whiteness of his hand and of his body and of the sand. He was almost absent in his whiteness, as if only his hair and his black shorts were keeping him from disappearing altogether.
With his free hand, he was fondling the woman beside him, though his body hid this mostly from me, and he was saying something softly to her, something that needed to be said softly despite their seclusion. The woman responded neither to his touch or to his voice, not moving even to brush away the hair that was increasingly covering her face. She seemed impassive, not from languor, but from indifference, even as he became increasingly insistent, pulling roughly at her flesh, misshaping her butterfly breasts, half-encircling her neck, then returning his hand swiftly beyond my sight.
She gave no recognition of his touch, neither moving nor speaking, though his hand was importunate, unremitting. Then, abruptly, violently, he rolled himself onto her, removing neither his clothes nor hers, fumbling between them, his eyes closed, his hips thrusting convulsively forward. The woman’s head tilted sharply backward, her only outward acknowledgement of his assault on her unsurrendered aloneness, her unrelinquished silence. She remained otherwise unmoved, her hand still thrown across her face, now seeming to ward against him rather than the butterflies or the sun. Even her eyes lay motionless beneath their closed lids.
He fell forward onto her, so that his face was pressed to the sand as he thrust against her, white grains blending with his white skin, marking his dark hair and lashes. His pale lips moved silently, his words as absent as he was, pale, translucent, and insubstantial words. Perhaps, I thought, his flesh is as insubstantial as his words. Perhaps she is not indifferent, just unaware of his too ephemeral, too incorporeal, too tenuous touch. Perhaps her separateness and her silence and her stillness simply do not recognize him.
When he had finished, he raised himself on his hands above her, his face turned from hers. He adjusted their clothing awkwardly and rolled away from her, leaving a space of white sand between them. He raised his arm across his eyes, unconsciously mimicking his lover, and they lay in this way, their poses and their immobility exactly parallel, and his stillness erased still further the line between his skin and the sand.