You can buy yourself a wind current now. You can give it your name like you can to a star. You pay what the price is and they send you white paper. You can frame the certificate for everyone to see.
She introduces herself as Ky and asks if a tour is planned for the day.
They’ve already left, says the boy at the counter. Low tide will be just after twelve today so they had to go at nine to be back in good time.
Where is it they’ve gone? she says.
To the sandbanks, says the boy. There are seals that bask there. It’s mostly the common and sometimes the grey. They lie on the sand when the sea is out but it isn’t because they’re lazy or tired. They do it for the vitamins they get from the sun rays. Anyway, we’ll have a tour on land at high tide because that’s when more of the birds come in closer.
She isn’t here for seals or birds.
I wanted to see the Eastern Beacon, she says.
The boy slides forward a laminated map and routes a fingernail over the markings. You go over the bridge when you come out of here, he says. Climb up the steps of the dike and walk east and you’ll be able to see it before too long. If you want to go right up to it as well, you’ll have to take the path through the foreland. That’s just here, below the dike. There’s only the one path because that section’s protected. You can’t go past the red painted posts along the edges.
Protected, she repeats, although apparently not out loud. Instead she tells the boy that she will need someone to take her. My eyesight isn’t good, she says.
The boy has a paperclip clamped to his sleeve. Only half of the loop is showing. He doesn’t ask how she’s come this far or suggest that she could put on her glasses. She knows that these are bulky through the pocket of her shirt.
If you wait for the tour to come back I can show you. I can’t just lock up here and leave, he says. When my colleague’s here I’ll take my lunch break and come with you.
She tells him she has no problem with waiting.
She stands at the foot of the dike and pictures the path that starts on the other side. She thinks of footprints that by now will have faded from it. She remembers the trail through the foreland from the postcards. The ground nests were mentioned, but not the red posts. Protection can mean all sorts of things.
She turns as she hears voices and steps aside as a group moves busily past. She counts cameras and binoculars hanging on wide straps. These items are delicate and complex in their detail, but outside they look brazen and crude. They shine like slugs where they catch the light.
This is evidently the sandbank party. Some of them stop to wash mud from their feet. When they finish, at a distance, she follows them back in.
Why the Eastern Beacon, if you don’t mind me asking? says the boy as they cross the bridge together. Is it only the Eastern Beacon? he says. Is that the only thing you came for?
Yes, she says at first, and then: Or no, it’s not the only thing.
You might know this all already then. Just tell me if you do, says the boy. It was a navigation marker once, first put up in 1635, and showed ships that there was land nearby before the electric lighthouses came in. The shape was important too because it told them exactly which land it was. There are others built differently all along the coast and islands here. There’s the Northern Beacon further out here, too, and sometimes you can even see the closest one on the mainland. It’s more pointed, like a rocket, with a tiny sort of globe on top. You can’t see it today though, even with all the sun.
She stops and he slows beside him too. They have been walking along on the dike but she hasn’t once turned to look across the flats.
But maybe you saw it yourself on the way here. Did you go past on the boat? he asks.
Yes, she says. I saw that one, I think.
He nods. Well, on we go, he says.
Listen, she says. I’m going to need your help.
She thinks of walking to school with her eyes closed, daring to know how far she could get without having to open them to check. There were only puddles and stones to avoid then and they could be forgotten in the orange lid-blankness. She had tried it once in the city years later, and realised then how terrified she must be there, and how strange it was that she’d had to blind herself to realise.
The scarf works well to bind them this time. In any case she feels no urge to cheat. She couldn’t have asked for a better guide, her hand on the slope of his shoulder and his movements unhurried and smooth. She finds a deep satisfaction in the correspondence of the curve she forecast on the map and the one that spreads out below the rubber in her shoes. If only all she ever had to be were a rhythm like this.
Why did you decide to work out here? she asks.
For the birds, he says. It’s pretty good experience if it’s what you want to get into. We do the official count every two weeks and then the breeding survey in the spring. We don’t do any ringing though, so I’ll have to go somewhere else for that.
And there’s always two of you here at a time? she says.
Yes, he says. Jakob’s as obsessed with it all as I am. You have to be really, or else you’d go mad.
You’re probably right, she says. It must get lonely.
Not if you’ve got what you need here, like I said, he says.
Whenever there is silence between them, her thoughts are on the photographs she has in the bag. One is of a bearded man. She’d had to search hard to track it down. The second is one of herself and a friend.
I don’t know much about birds myself, she says. I told you, I came for the Eastern Beacon. But I’ve heard they can help you with understanding other things. When they fly in, for instance, from wherever it’s warmer, you think of that behind them and all that’s still to come. They can fly non-stop but they don’t count the miles. They don’t see the land and the water they’ve crossed unless they’re directly above it in that moment. Or maybe they do. In some sense they must or they wouldn’t know how to get back every year. You think about people and ways to leave and what you know about each other, she says.
The boy stops. No, he says. No. It isn’t like that. You have to see them for what they are. It’s biology and physics and that’s all it is. If you come here and you don’t know that, you can try to turn it into something else but you just go mad with it, like I said. A girl who was working here last year did. She disappeared. She just walked out onto the mudflats and vanished. They said she’d been waiting for someone, he says.
Everything happens too quickly, too fiercely. She takes the blindfold off and looks up.
This is it, says the boy. The new Eastern Beacon.
This is it, she says. Thank you.
Cyclone Kyrill hit it nine years ago. Then they rebuilt it a few years later, he says. It’s twenty-five metres, just like before, and the design of it is exactly the same.
I know, she says. I know all that. Though of course it isn’t the same at all.
She ought properly to have started over Newfoundland, somewhere up high in a netting of cloud. Then Wooferton, Byley, Kentish Town. Kirrlach, Strausberg, Oosterhout, Staphorst, Roubaix, Halle, Katowice, Vestec. But this was where she was needed most.
She opens her bag and takes out the file with the postcards and the photographs.
This is the man whose name they gave it. It was a retirement gift from his family, she says. They donated the money before it even happened. They just wanted him to hear his name on the radio. But it broke things too, and hurt people. I suppose they hadn’t expected that.
Do you know this man? What does it matter to you? says the boy.
I don’t know him really, she says. I just read about it. I just know what it’s like to destroy something that was strong.
Here it is standing like an arrogant tombstone. She knows she was too afraid and ashamed. She folds away the unanswered postcards with their poems on the beauty of flight and tides.
Here it is standing and not even creaking.
About the Contributor
Han Smith is a writer, reader, translator, sort-of-teacher and definite learner, currently quite interested in hiding places, tides and unbodying. Published/commissioned by Spread the Word, the European Poetry Festival, Litro Magazine and Liars’ League, and shortlisted for the 2018 Mslexia Novella Award.
Atemschaukel / The Hunger Angel - Herta Müller
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda