by Danton Remoto
“This is the last time you’ll see the sea in our country,” his father told Cody as they walked on the milky-white sand in Bacacay. Cody noticed the sand grains beginning to cling to his toes.
He looked up. The sun was already high above the coconut trees. His ears were filled with the sibilant sound of the sea, the waves now rising, then crashing, on the shore. The water, he thought, was as blue as his mother’s ceramic bowl at home.
Cody nodded, then asked: “Dad, can I pick up shells over there?”
“Of course, you may,” his father answered. Cody only reached to his father’s belt. The older man messed up his hair, then added: “I’ll tell your sisters to join you later, okay?”
“Okay!” he said, “I’ll teach them how to make sandcastles.”
“Just don’t go near the water yet. We will swim later. All of you. Your Mom and I will join you later.”
Cody smiled. Then he walked away from his father. The sand was beginning to burn, and he saw a small cowrie shell with dots of pink on its belly. He put it in the pocket of his shorts. Then he walked on and saw another shell: a brown one as smooth and polished as his skin.
The sound of the sea filled his ears. The color of the sea alternated between blue and green. The horizon was as thin as a pencil. Cody walked on and picked up another shell with rib-like formations on its side. It was a violet shell. He even picked up fragments of shells: white as paper, like torn wings. They’re still shells, he thought, even if they’re now broken.
He walked on and on. Then he saw a bivalve shell, as yellow as the sun; an orange shell shaped like his grandmother’s wide-open fan; and another shell smaller than his fingernail, as blue as the sea. One or more broken shells, and then he had twelve. For the twelve months of the year, he thought, and then smiled. Feeling contented, he headed back to where he began walking.
Nicole, his older sister, and Alyssa, one year younger than him, were already running toward Cody.
Nicole was tall and clumsy, and she wore glasses. Alyssa was brilliant when she smiled.
Cody’s eyes were as large and round as marbles. They brightened when he saw his sisters. He held their hands, and they sat down on the sand.
“Let’s make sand castles now,” said Nicole.
“I’ll teach you how,” answered Cody.
“But I already know how!” Nicole shot back.
“Okay, I’ll just teach Alyssa then.”
“Sis,” Alyssa asked after a while, “are we going to see sand castles in America?”
“Only in Disneyland, if we visit Uncle Basil,” answered Nicole. Then she turned her back and began making her sandcastle.
Cody sat behind Alyssa. He put his palms behind the palms of his younger sister, then pushed her palms together, gathering sand, forming a small mound.
“This will be the wall,” he said as he patted sand together. Alyssa screamed with glee.
“And this is the tower,” he added, as a column of sand rose before them. “This is our window, and this is our door. Now all we need is a flag.”
Alyssa’s small eyes were filled with so much light. She smiled, revealing her baby teeth.
“I’m done, too,” said Nicole, showing them her tall and thin castle.
“Yes! Yes!” chorused the girls.
And so Cody dipped his hand into his pocket and put the shells slowly on the sand.
The small cowrie shell with dots of pink on its belly.
The brown one as smooth and polished as his skin.
The violet shell with rib-like formations on its side.
The bivalve shell as yellow as the sun.
The orange shell shaped like his grandmother’s wide-opened fan.
The shell smaller than his fingernail and as blue as the sea.
Then he also laid on the sand all the broken shells.
“Cody,” Alyssa broke the silence, “can I have one or two of these shells?”
“Okay,” Cody said, giving her the small cowrie shell with dots of pink on its belly and also the bivalve shell as yellow as the sun.
“Umm, Cody, umm, your sand castle is really nice,” Nicole began.
“I know,” Cody smiled, then waited.
“Can I also have some shells?”
He gave Nicole the violet shell with rib-like formations on its side, and also the brown shell colored like his skin.
“Thanks, Cody,” Nicole said, smiling brightly and wriggling her head.
“Now I get to keep these,” he said, picking up the shell smaller than his fingernail and as blue as the sea. He laid it down on the sand, then he picked up his other shell: the orange one shaped like his grandmother’s wide-opened fan, which she used during summer. He thought: I will put this orange shell on my windowsill in America, and this will always remind me of lola.
He also scooped the six broken shells. Then he held them gently in the cup of his hand.
But then something happened. They first heard rather than saw it: the roar of a big and mighty wave. When they looked to their left, it was already coming—a blue wave topped with white froth. It whooshed and rose and fell about them swiftly, suddenly. The children fell on the sand, cold and screaming. But the wave returned to the sea as quickly as it came.
The seawater stung Cody’s eyes. Through the mist of tears, he saw that their two sandcastles were gone. The shells, too, were all reclaimed by the sea. His sisters also saw what happened, and they began to cry.
But Cody stood up and held their hands. His two sisters also stood up, and he said, “They’re lost now, but we can look for other shells. We have time to pick them before Dad calls for us.”
And so the three young children walked again, their toes touching the sand white as milk. Sometimes they would bend down to pick a beautiful shell here, a broken one there—some gifts from the sea that would remind them of their last summer in their country.
This story is for my nieces and nephews who now live in the other side of the Pacific.
Danton R Remoto is the Head of School, English, and Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at University of Nottingham Malaysia. He took his PhD in English Studies (major in Creative Writing) at the University of the Philippines and did his Doctoral Enrichment Programme of Studies at Rutgers University on a Fulbright Fellowship. His works have also been published in the Philippines, the United States, and the United Kingdom as well as Hong Kong, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and Spain. His body of work is cited in The OxfordResearch Encyclopedia of Literatureand the Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing. He has published ten books in English, including the novel Riverrun.
Advice for the young writer:
Just read a lot, from the so-called masters of literature to the writers of your present generation. Keep a journal, preferably written, and write down what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Do not be discouraged if the writing does not go well in the beginning. Just keep on going at it. In the editing, please look at the shape of your writing again, its rhythm and pace, and do so by reading it aloud. If it sounds jagged or clunky, rewrite the part. The joy of the byline, or of seeing your name attached to a published work, is one of the true joys of a writer.