Immortal Footprints

Immortal Footprints
(As originally published in the 1989 MWP STI Anthology)
Rus VanWestervelt

(Note: This original piece, drafted and revised no fewer than seven times while I was a Fellow in what was then called the STI, or Summer Teacher Institute, is followed by my revision made 20 years later. I feel that the message I was trying to convey in this piece as a 24-year-old served as my foundation for the way I teach writing. However, the writing itself is, simply put, just plain awful in some places. Now, at the age of 43, I have walked the path of revision yet again, but it was important to me that I not change the meaning of the original message. I hope the two decades of writing and teaching that have passed since this story was first published have given me the wisdom to retain the core of the piece while refining my voice. Enjoy.)

Two long, hand-held shadows strolled the sandy, isolated beaches against a backdrop of pastels that painted the dawning horizon. A steady, gentle breeze lapped the waves to the shore, smoothing the sand with each ebb and flow. The water was cold but refreshing to the couple’s bare feet. They walked without a destiny, only to enjoy each step and cherish each other’s heart-felt love. White gulls followed the couple, sometimes stopping to peck beneath their soft footprints in the moist sand. The gulls’ cries entangled with the waves’ gentle surges on to the beach, and a wistful breeze sifted through the sounds at soft, sporadic times. Only nature’s melodies filled the fresh, morning air.
These walks for the young couple were common. Almost every day, they would ventue on to the bay’s beaches to “suck the marrow” out of life’s somewhat arthritic bones, crippled by a people spending their lifetimes scraping helplessly at the impenetrable bones, never realizing how accessible the marrow really is.
This couple lived for today, lived for nature, and lived for God. During their many walks, they would sometimes talk of past philosophies, future generations, or their simple love for each other. This walk was no different.
As the sun made its ascent into the brightening sky, he spoke the first words of the day.
“Have you ever thought about the generations that have trodded over these ageless grains of sand, just like you and me, and who they were? Did they think like us? did they dream like us? Did they love like us?”
She tightened her grip around his gentle hand and moved a bit closer to him. Their shadows were now united as it continued to grow smaller with the sun’s rising. She lowered he head to study the smooth sand. Taking a small breath, she gave her reply.
“I only think about them when I think about our future. We know that our time on Earth is limited, and we must treasure what we have today. Ninety years ago, a couple our age could have taken a similar walk on these same sands, and I don’t doubt that they equally shared our dreams and cherished a devotion like ours. . . .Sometimes I want to know more, though. I want to know about these couples. I almost wish that the grains of sand could tell us about those walks generations ago. Then we could treasure their happiness as well as our own. . . .We could celebrate in knowing—for sure—that we aren’t alone.”
“Well, I’m sure that we’re not alone,” he replied. “But it really would help to hear it from their own hearts.”
They walked in silence for another ten minutes, at times wrapped in each other’s arms. They still thought about the sand’s agelessness, the washed-away footprints of long-dead lovers, and the fate of their own lives.
Coming to a large piece of beached driftwood, they sat together, sifting their fingers through the small, broken shells that covered the shore.
“Find anything yet?” he asked matter of factly.
“Two teeth. Not much else.”
Another five minutes passed as they collected more fossils. The sharks’ teeth were over 20 million years old, yet their shape was polished by the ocean’s nurturing currents. Even in the strongest of storms, the teeth endured nature’s worst beating.
She turned away from the shells and dimmed her eyes over the bay. Tiny triangles danced on the horizon as the early sailors became lost in their own paradise, and a trickle of motorboats raced across the water, spraying the their sounds through the air, causing gulls to scatter throughout the sky.
“These fossils,” she whispered, “ are millions of years old, yet we know more about them than we do about the couples that crossed these very sands less than a century ago. Why is it that these sharks have left their mark on this Earth so easily, while we struggle to share feelings with our own race? From this tooth we can learn so much, but little can we learn from footprints washed away.”
He moved closer to her and comforted her with a gentle hug. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed deeply as he offered his own feelings.
“We’re appreciating something that had no desire to ‘leave his mark’ and tell us a little about his life. Nonetheless, the shark has left us something unique and tangible that we can take with us. Maybe we need to create our own ‘teeth’ to share with the centuries ahead of us after we’re long gone. Our footprints will be washed away, and memories will die with the passing of friends.
“But words. . . .words can tell the unborn about today, about the rising sun, about our newly-laid footprints, and about our solitary shadow. Thoreau had no idea that Walden Pond would be turned into a political piggybank. . .people flocking to the shores at five dollars each. Blaring radios and odorous concession stands commercializing nature’s beauty. But thanks to his words, we can really appreciate what he saw, what he felt; he left his footprints immortalized in his words.
“Perhaps our shore won’t be the same in centuries to follow, but if we immortalize our own footprints and our own thoughts for the generations to come, they’ll share a memory of our past and live life a bit closer to these immortal grains of sand.”
A faint smile warmed her face as she looked up to catch his eyes. She kissed him gently on the cheek and turned to the bay. The sun whitened the sky as it sprayed sparkles across the glistening waves, while sailboats continued to enjoy the early fall breeze. Somewhere, a child’s laughter came echoing over the liquid plane, and the cacophony of motorboats hummed through the air.
She turned to face him, uniting their shadows once again.
“C’mon, we’ve got some footprints to immortalize.”
And hand in hand, they walked slowly across the ageless grains of sand, ready to share their memories with generations to come.

Immortal Footprints
(As revised in 2008)Rus VanWestervelt

Even now, twenty years later, I cannot believe that you are gone.
How many times have I rolled over in bed to wrap my arm around you, scoop you and pull you closer into me, only to find cold pillows, the crisp, cool sheets reminding me all over again that you aren’t here.
The kisses I used to give you in your soft hair, lingering long enough to let you hear my words unspoken
 I love you, I love you, I love you
no longer linger but drift into the early-morning stillness of sorrow.
Even now, twenty years later, I cannot believe that you are gone.

*    *    *

I went ahead and did the unthinkable the other day. That box—you remember the one, with your hand-sketches of horses lacquered on to make that whole box shine like it was wearing the treasure on the outside that was supposed to be on the inside?—I went up in the attic and found it. Brought it down to the kitchen counter. Tried to open it, but couldn’t.
The cold marble burned the palms of my hands as I made a phantom wrap around the box. You really did a nice job with this one, I meant to tell you. Maybe that’s why you kept it for yourself. Your special box with your special things that made you and me so, well, so special to each other.
That night before you died—I know you remember. We were on the Chesapeake shore by Fairhaven Cliffs, when the full moon made our shadows one, just like on those morning walks we would always take at low tide looking for sharks’ teeth, fossils from 20 million years ago. Even though we walked hand in hand that night, your focus was on the sand, deeper down, really, looking for that one thing that had eluded you all these years.
“You’re not going to find one,” I offered.
You stopped walking, kissed me gently on the cheek, and smiled. How the moon made your hazel eyes shine—it stole my breath. I thought loving you any more than at that moment was impossible. You can’t make a perfect moment more perfect, no matter how desperately you might try, I thought.
“We’ll see about that,” you replied, before smiling again and turning back to the sand just in front of us.
“It’s destiny,” you said. “I need it for our box.”

*    *    *

The box remained on the cold marble counter for three days, two full days longer than the only other time I did the unthinkable. That was thirteen years ago when I thought it was the right thing to do on our ten-year anniversary. On that day, I took the box down with me to the Cliffs, along with the charcoal-checkered blanket and the basket with the wine glasses.
For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to bring that bottle of St. Clement we never had the chance to open.
You always liked to call this ritual our “Romance on the Cliffs.” But it wasn’t the same, of course. I don’t really know what I was thinking. After I took the care to spread out the blanket (right by Miller’s Log, which was still there, by the way), I found myself immediately overwhelmed with sorrow in the stillness of the afternoon. I decided to take a long walk along the shore to clear my head, but every so often I would look back at the single line of footprints in the sand. There were never two shadows that could merge into one, either.
It was the second most lonely moment in my life.
When I got back to the blanket, I opened the picnic basket and removed your beautiful box. It seemed so heavy in my hands, though. Too heavy to bear. I turned suddenly, overwhelmed for a second time, and ran clumsily toward the brackish waters, waving the box over my head, crying your name into the vast expanse of the Chesapeake. But the waves stole my screams. They rushed into me with some kind of hunger, some kind of careless aggression that made me stop and realize that this was just not what you wanted. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
None of the endings were the way we planned them, though.
I cradled your beautiful box, shielded it from the salty spray of the hungry waves, and walked back to the blanket, the basket, and the unopened bottle of St. Clement. Back home, I returned everything back to its original place—the wine, the blanket, the basket, your beautiful box. And that’s the way they stayed, until three days ago.

*    *    *

Two more days passed, and the beautiful box remained on the cold marble counter, untouched. I hardly glanced at it, to be honest. I made myself busy with other matters, contriving convenient rationalizations why I had no time to bother with it and open it and blush in foolish embarrassment for being so dramatic about a few silly items that probably mean nothing to me. Nothing at all. Not now, anyway.
But what I also realized was that these same rationalizations stopped me from climbing back into the attic and putting it away, out of sight, out of mind for another 7 or 10 or 13 years.
It was like we both knew that I was never going to take it back to the attic. And so there it remained, on the cold marble counter, for another three days.

*    *    *

On the ninth night, I could not sleep. Every turn, every breath became a whisper to you, a stretch across the sheets to see if all of this had been a terrible, terrible dream. It wasn’t, of course. The sheets remained cold and crisp, and my whispers slipped into the dark stillness, as they did every other night.
I pulled myself out of bed, opened the door, and walked down the hallway to the bathroom. A third Ambien ought to do the trick, I thought. But when I approached the doorway to the bathroom, I heard a creak downstairs. It was faint, barely discernible, but distinct.
I recognized it immediately as the creak of your beautiful box when it opens, a sound I had not heard since the early morning hours on the day you died.
I stopped and waited, hoping to hear it again. But there was nothing.
I decided to go downstairs and check it out anyway. Maybe a door wasn’t completely closed; maybe I was just being a little oversensitive. This time of year makes me that way, for some reason.
I checked the front door first, and that was shut tight. Then the doors to the basement, the second bedroom, and then just past the kitchen and out to the back porch.
All of them: Shut. Tight.
Whatever it was, it came from somewhere inside the house. I started my way back to the stairs, when I glanced into the kitchen. A single overhead light shone a beam on your beautiful box, and I stopped, smiled at how the light hit it just right. I wanted you to see how beautiful it really looked. I’m not sure if you ever got that chance.
It was then, right there that I knew I couldn’t pass it by anymore. I walked into the kitchen, put my palms on the cold marble, and moved them toward the beautiful box.
I lifted it gently from the cold marble. In my hands, it didn’t feel as heavy as I had remembered it.
“This is for you,” I whispered. And I cradled the beautiful box in my hands, brought it to my lips, and gave it a gentle kiss.
“This is for us.”
I placed the box down on the cold marble counter, took a deep breath, and released the small silver latch in the front.
I placed my thumbs on the front rim of the lid and tried to open it, but the years of heat and humidity in the attic caused the lacquer to seal it shut. It was like trying to open a coffin that had been buried for twenty years.
I tried again, and with a little determination I was able to free the left corner. Just like that, the seal was broken. The lid was free, and a small creak slid from the hinges as I lifted the top of your beautiful box.

*    *    *

The unthinkable. This. All of it—the early morning hour, the beautiful box, you gone. Me, the one making the lid creak, making it (you) cry to me as I opened it. All of it seemed too much to bear. And yet, the energy was unmistakable. The creaks and cries I heard were filled with something more. A command, I felt, even a plea to do something.
It was like that morning I asked you to marry me. This felt as right as that moment. Only this time, you weren’t here, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
I closed my eyes, counted to five. I took a deep breath, let it linger for a moment inside of me, and then released it. With it came a sudden rush of emotions, where all our walks on the beach, all our footprints in the sand became one memory, a whirl of love and sand and salt and us, together again.

Keeping the beautiful box in sight, I slipped into the dining room and retrieved the bottle of St. Clement from the wine stand and the picnic basket from the adjacent corner. I removed both glasses, opened the bottle of wine, and filled each halfway to the rim. I love you, I said, and our glasses clinked with a gentle kiss before I took the first sip. It was a fine bouquet, followed by a split-second refreshing hint of chocolate that always made you smile.
Now I smiled. We were together again, at last.

*    *    *

Five items were inside your beautiful box.  The first was a picture of us at our first cabin in Solomon’s Island. Mom captured us on the side porch by that magnificent Oak. We didn’t have time to pose, and you always said that’s why it was your favorite picture. The way we leaned into each other: strong, supportive, fully present. Love, you said, was everywhere in that little 4 x 6 print.
The second item was a baggie filled with small white shells, each with a date written on the inside in fine black ink. I never knew you kept a shell from each of our walks along the shore.
Under the shells were two pieces of paper. The first was folded in half, with a heart Crayoned in red scribbles on the front. I didn’t have to open that one. It was the first time I told you I loved you, a note left on the windshield of your car the morning after our first trip to the beach. One of the petals from the rose I left with it slipped from the corner of the note in my hand, and I gently placed it on the cold marble counter next to your glass.
I was about to open the other piece of paper when I noticed the fifth item. I picked it up immediately and held it in the palm of my hand. A little warm, I thought, with a sudden energy I could not explain. When I wrapped my fingers around it, the tip pricked my palm, and I felt a drop of blood trickle down my wrist.
I took another sip of the St. Clement, allowed the faint hint of chocolate to come and go, and unfolded the second piece of paper.
It was your last journal entry, a single page torn from your daybook just before you died.
Tonight, I fell in love with you all over again. When we both saw the white tip of that Megalodon tooth shining in the moonlight on our walk back to the blanket, it made me think of all of the other couples who had walked on this beach, hand in hand like us, making moonlit shadows melt into one as our footprints told the story of our journey together.
But I also thought of those loves, those stories untold. I can only guess that they were like you and me. They must have been, right? How is anyone to know, though?
And what about when we’re gone? Who will know of our walks? Our love?
It’s like Chessie likes to take them with her at every high tide, washing over our footprints, our memories, and carrying them away like they never happened.
That’s not right. Lovers like us need to know we were here. People who have lost love—they need to know, too. They need to hold on to that belief that there’s still hope. There’s still love out there. They need to know that even the angriest of high tides recede, and we are all given the chance to leave footprints in the sand, hold hands in the moonlight, have our shadows become one. They all need to know that.
Tomorrow I’ll start writing those stories. I’ll start making those footprints immortal, and I’m beginning with the stories inside this box.
I love you. I love us. I love everything we’ve been blessed to have together. I want everyone to know that. I want everyone to have the chance to believe in it.

I can’t wait to fall in love with you all over again tomorrow.

I cried, this time harder than when you left me in your sleep, and I clutched the letter, banged my fist on the cold marble counter, and wished for you to be with me. Here, in our kitchen, with your beautiful box, with me and with all our beautiful memories, now and forever.
When the sobbing stopped, and then when the tears finally dried on my cheeks, I took the last sip of wine, left the note open on the cold marble counter, and opened my hand. The drop of blood had stained the white tip of the tooth in a beautiful swirl that reminded me of a tide receding, where the residual waters licked at the virgin beach, an invitation for new footprints, I thought. New hand-held shadows melting into one.
I placed the tooth by your glass, where the light from above spilled over it a ripple of beautiful reds from the wine untouched.
From the center drawer I found a plain ballpoint pen and turned over your journal entry. At the top of the page I carefully wrote

Immortal Footprints

and signed our names below it.
I looked at the beautiful box, our precious items, the wine, the note, and felt your smile radiate through me. You did fall in love with me all over again, after all. As I have with you, and as I will continue to do, every day until we are finally together again.
I filled my glass, turned back to the journal entry, and resumed writing.

Two long, hand-held shadows strolled the sandy, isolated beaches against a backdrop of pastels that painted the dawning horizon. . . .

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