Home PageArchivesVolume no. 5Issue 3Fiction: Tom Cantwell

Dunes

Tom Cantwell

 

Through the blonde hair waving in her face, Savanna thinks she can see Wayne’s chest rise under his T-shirt as he steps away from the fire. It could be a trick of the wind blowing down the beach, the big green “O” on his shirt flapping like a talking mouth, but the curve of Wayne’s smile confirms it—he’s proud of his fire. But then, who isn’t proud of his fire? Wayne must have been looking forward to this for a while, at least since he asked for paper instead of plastic at the Safeway back in Florence, where he also bought a pack of lighters. Savanna gives him his moment, returning his smile and watching the flames. He doesn’t know it because he hasn’t asked her about Oregon Wilderness Leadership, where she worked with at-risk teens before subbing, but she can make fire with a bow drill set, basically by rubbing sticks together.

At the Safeway, Wayne took charge, not asking what food or drink to buy, just talking about the wrestlers he coaches at South Eugene and dropping things in his basket—hot dogs, buns, and a six-pack of IPA. Savanna went along, happy to let him call the shots, but now she wishes they had chosen something more adventurous, more romantic—a bottle of wine and a salmon fillet with lemon slices wrapped in tin foil.

Wayne pokes around the driftwood pile. “There’s some good roasting sticks over here,” he says, testing the bend of a thin, sun-bleached branch until it breaks in his hands.

Savanna drifts over and brushes her arm against his, but Wayne keeps searching for a better stick. She edges away to look for her own, remembering their first kiss a few weeks ago, not long after the school year started. They were sitting up on Spencer Butte, the sun setting, and she had thought, If you are going to kiss me, now would be a good time. She had brushed against his arm then, hoping he wasn’t one of those guys who needed the girl to make the first move, or God forbid, ask if he could kiss her now. She had turned to him, but he was already swooping in and their noses collided before their lips touched. They laughed and tried again, but the kiss was too conscious now, both trying to get it just right. Luckily, the sunset had given them something else to focus on.

Savanna pulls a branch from the tangle and turns to check the sun, blocking its glare with a sideways thumb and noting its distance above the horizon. Maybe half an hour before it drops beneath the Pacific, where a wave out on the break catches golden light and briefly turns translucent before crashing into foam. They hiked to the beach an hour ago, the wind and waves calming steadily as the day cooled, not a cloud in the sky. They have the beach to themselves, just a handful of gulls dancing and squawking along the surf, the single light of a fishing boat chugging south a mile offshore. Savanna runs her thumb and forefinger along the smoothness of the weathered branch, which bends but doesn’t break. She pulls her six-inch Gerber blade from her daypack and turns to the fire to sharpen the roasting point.

Wayne’s eyes widen as he tips his bottle. “All right then,” he says, wiping his mouth. “I see you’re prepared.”

“Always,” Savanna smiles. She’d love to be the damsel in distress, but it’s just not in her blood. Her father’s line is Welsh, her mother’s Norwegian, and both parents passed along their big bones. In middle school and high school, she tried to hide her size and stay invisible at the edge of the crowd. Sports would have been good, but her parents never pushed them. She got good grades, could have gotten better grades, but feared getting labeled a nerd. Grant Lowry caught her drawing an imaginary planet in freshman English and asked if she came from there, which cracked up half the class.

At a senior party, finally settled in with a few friends, she watched how the girls got just drunk enough to lose their inhibitions and let guys start grinding on them. She tried that at the next party, but drank too much and ended up in the hedges with Kevin Sloan, a football player with a square head and sloppy kisses. His big hands went right for her pants, yanking until she felt cold air between her legs, hedge leaves poking her ass, and she instinctively threw a right that left Kevin Sloan with a black eye to explain Monday morning. He spun his own version of the story and Savanna became invisible again, wondering if she should have just let him do it.

She’s always thought that she would have fit better in the Scandinavian homeland of her mother’s ancestors. In college, where she had a few boyfriends but nothing she’d consider true love, she barely got hit on as a cocktail waitress. While a slender coworker pocketing handfuls of cash actually complained about all the attention, Savanna imagined working in a Viking alehouse with long benches, drunken men celebrating a successful raid, their big meaty hands grabbing her big meaty ass. She imagined a bearded warrior with a drumstick reaching for her breast, playfully smacking him away, or wrestling the drumstick out of his greasy grip and slapping him across the face with it.

She watches Wayne squat to lay a log on the fire and appreciates his sneakers so firmly rooted in the sand. She first saw him in the South Eugene gym playing hoops with his students before class. The kids had looked more serious, intent on getting some kind of revenge on their teacher or coach, but Wayne just smiled when they got the better of him. She doubted he gave them his best, and when she saw no ring on his finger, she flashed on him as a father, letting his own kids get the better of him.

She just wishes he were a little taller. Seeing their reflection in a mirror at the mall had made her cringe, how she edged him out in height. Luckily, he’d been checking his cell phone, which he does a lot, and which she tries not to take personally. They ran into his students piling out of a photo booth, and he took their razzing like a man. Savanna took them up on a dare to get their own photos taken. She knew one of the kids from subbing, and the pictures turned out good. She does have a pretty smile, snaggletooth and all.

“What happened to those photo booth pictures?” she asks.

Wayne looks up from the fire. “Don’t you have them?”

She shakes her head and drinks. They look at the fire. They’ve had sex twice so far, both times drunk, and both times she faked it. She wants this to work, wants Wayne to get her off, and she’s hoping their first overnight trip will do the trick. A hotel room waits back in Florence. Before they end up in bed, they’ll probably hit a bar or stop at the Safeway for another six-pack. Savanna hasn’t taken her pill yet today. She appreciates the fire, how like the first sunset it gives them something to focus on.

Savanna checks the sun and says, “We better bust out those wieners.”

§

They do kiss when the sun goes down, and it isn’t bad. Savanna can see it leading to more right there beside the fire, but a cold wind blows up her back where his hand has reached, and they still have to hike back across the dunes to his car. She lets the kiss end naturally and turns with him to face the sea, where something large and yellow tumbles in on the crashing waves, now grey in the twilight.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“Probably a fishing buoy or something.”

“Let’s check it out.” Savanna stands up and starts walking down to the surf.

“We need to get going.”

“Real quick. Go ahead and get our stuff together. Put out the fire.”

She strides down to the open beach, savoring the sand beneath her toes even though it’s cold, and the white surf makes her think of White Ocean Storm, the OWL earth name of her best friend, Maya. It’s an interesting earth name, given Maya’s dark Latina skin and her inland hometown of Ashland, but Savanna likes it better than her own earth name, Moonlight Snow Song. The shortened Moonlight works, but still isn’t as good as what Maya tagged her with the day they met at OWL: Cinci, after her hometown. They became Moonlight and Ocean out in the field, but they’re back to Cinci and Maya now. Savanna moved to Eugene because of Maya, but with Maya ready to give birth any day, Savanna worries about their lives going in different directions.

She makes out the yellow object in the surf, a children’s toy, a big square tic-tac-toe board like the ones affixed to playground sets. X and O panels spin when pounded by the next set of waves. Savanna rolls up her jeans to wade in and retrieve it. The frigid water shocks her feet as she grabs the board, vaguely aware of foreign lettering. Wayne waits above the waterline with his hands out to help, but the board is lighter than it looks. The borders are accented with anime-style cartoon characters and Asian writing.

“Drop it!” Wayne says, backing away.

“What? Why?” Savanna lets the board fall in the wet sand.

“It’s from the tsunami,” he says. “Japan. The nuclear reactor.” He backs farther away. “It’s probably got radiation all over it.”

Savanna steps back and looks to the horizon, as if expecting to see the islands of Japan. “That’s a long way,” she says. “Wouldn’t it have washed off by now?”

“That stuff lasts like a thousand years,” Wayne says. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“We can’t just leave it here.”

“Sure we can. The Coast Guard will get it. You can call someone. Come on.”

Savanna’s father teaches science and might know enough about it. She checks her cell phone, but gets no service. The board looks in decent shape considering its journey, tiny barnacles and a light green film colonizing its underside. Savanna wonders if children actually played with the toy, if it came from someone’s house, and what happened to that house? What happened to those children? Savanna scans the beach and the waves, but sees no other debris. She didn’t follow the news about the tsunami, probably out in the field when it happened, but she suddenly feels linked to the other side of the world. She wants to keep the board and give it new life, clear the radiation levels with the university and give it to Maya’s baby, then get it back from Maya when she has a baby.

She’s curious to see how Wayne will react about the board. “I’m sure it’s fine,” she says. “I can’t just leave it here.”

“Suit yourself,” Wayne says, turning. “Just keep it away from me.” He plods up to their spot at the edge of the dunes and kicks sand on the fire.

§

Savanna uses the barnacles to grip the tic-tac-toe board as she follows Wayne up and down the dunes in the gathering dark. If it fits in his car, if he lets her put it in his car, neither of which is certain, she’ll take it home. Otherwise, she’ll leave it at the trailhead. It’s bulky but light enough, and she’s stubborn enough.

She thinks Wayne has strayed off course on their way back to the parking lot. She prepares to say something just as they top the crest of a large dune and see a thin sliver of moon rising over the distant line of Douglas fir. Following the imaginary line from the top of the crescent to the bottom, Savanna sees that they have veered too far south.

“Look at that,” she says. Something about the astronomical alignment, maybe the timing of sunset and moonrise, makes the moon appear three-dimensional, the crescent clearly a bright slice of a darker sphere. Wayne stops. Early stars sparkle in the vast purple dome of the sky.

“How about those last beers?” Savanna asks.

They haven’t said much since leaving the beach, just trudged up and down the dunes. The expanse of white sand gives off its own subtle glow beneath their feet. From this vantage point, their ears fill with wind and the pounding surf. Each time they drop, the surf recedes and the wind disappears. A briny smell wafts off the tic-tac-toe board, which Savanna sets to the side.

“Okay,” Wayne says.

The trip was his idea, reserving the hotel room and driving out to the coast. He’d played a Dixie Chicks album on the way, Savanna wondering if he liked them or was just trying to impress her, flattered by that possibility but also wishing he’d man up and play what he liked. When he told her the name of the place they’d be hiking, Honeyman State Park, she’d paused a moment, thinking he said Honeymoon. There had been a freshwater lake flush against a sloping wall of sand where kids rode sleds into the water. Wayne took her hand and climbed to the top of a dune at least a hundred feet high, then pointed west to the ocean, just visible across several miles of rolling dunes dotted with yellow beach grass and scraggly trees. He said he’d wanted to make the cross-country trek to the beach since he was a kid. When Savanna was a kid, she and her parents had driven this stretch of coast on a summer road trip from Ohio.

“You know that book “Dune?” she asks. Wayne shakes his head and sits down to open the beers. “It was a movie with Sting and Kyle MacLachlan?” Wayne hands her a beer. “Well, I’m pretty sure the guy who wrote it got the idea from coming here, something about writing an article about the dunes swallowing everything up.”

Savanna’s parents are science-fiction geeks. A replica of the Starship Enterprise hangs in their study, where framed photographs show her mom and dad dressed as characters for sci-fi conventions: Uhura and Spock, Leia and Obi-Wan. Little Savanna appears in a couple as Yoda and an Ewok. She remembers them stopping at a pullout somewhere along here to look at the dunes, her mother telling her about “Dune” and its author. They found it in an old bookstore and Savanna read it the whole way home.

“It’s about a whole planet like this,” she says, looking out over the dunes and up at the moon. “Can you imagine?”

Wayne grunts and drinks. “It’s getting cold,” he says.

Savanna feels great. She can’t resist. “How about a game of tic-tac-toe?”

She can just make out his head turning sharply in the darkness.

“I’ll turn them for you,” she says, fishing through her pack for the mini-flashlight hooked to her keys. “You can go first.” She reaches for the board, hesitates, then props it up in the sand and pokes the panels to clear the game.

“X in the upper left,” Wayne says.

They play to a draw three times in a row.

§

An hour later, her mini-light useless against the black envelope of night, Savanna follows the shadows of Wayne’s legs churning through the white sand. She has allowed him to get lost, like she did with the teens at OWL, their real personalities revealed under stress. Savanna feels guilty, knows she should just let the relationship do its own thing, but she doesn’t have time to watch another one fizzle out.

He’s heading in a good enough general direction, east toward the crescent moon, which is now an arm’s length above the trees. They’ll eventually reach the highway, but the location of Polaris confirms that they’ve strayed well south of the parking lot. Ten minutes later, Wayne finally stops at the crest of a dune. “Where the fuck are we?”

Savanna laughs.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s a joke I remember. You ever heard of the Fugawi Indian tribe?” She waits a beat and says, “They’re a nomadic tribe, always wandering, and every night their chief stands on a big hill, raises his arms, and says, ‘We’re the Fugawi!’”

“That’s not funny,” Wayne says, checking his cell phone.

“It was in middle school,” she says. “You’re not Native American, are you?”

“No.” His brow furrows in the dim light of the phone, which he growls at and pockets.

“Sorry anyway. But we’re fine. I think we’re just too far south. Let’s take a break.” She drops the tic-tac-toe board and flops onto the cool, soft sand.

Wayne remains standing. “Every time we top one of these bastards, I think we’ll see something. There must be lights at that campground by the lake, right?”

Savanna lies back, using her hands to cradle her head. “I see something,” she says. “Look at these lights.”

Stars fill the heavens, the sky just popping, the Milky Way already visible. Savanna rolls her head left and right to take it all in. It’s like a planetarium show. Satellites follow orbits. Shooting stars any minute now. Free wishes. Savanna loves how the darkness sharpens her senses. She can tell from Wayne’s sigh that he’s about to plop down, which he does. She can smell the nervous sweat on him.

“It’s too bad we don’t have more beers,” she says, just making small talk. The thought isn’t sincere. Out in the wilderness with OWL, with everybody sober, she came to appreciate undiluted moments like this, when the universe smacks you in the face and says, Look at this! Isn’t this awesome? Some of her best times at OWL were night hikes, like walking into another world that had always been there. The primal dark offered new ways to cut to the chase. Savanna saw badass girls turn into princesses pretty quick.

“Once we get out of here, we can get some,” Wayne says. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Relax. Lay back and look at this.”

Wayne remains sitting.

Savanna waits for a shooting star. There’s a Ray Bradbury story she likes thinking about when watching the night sky. If Wayne would just lie beside her, she would share it with him. In the story, astronauts in a space crash drift apart and lose contact until the last two guys get in an argument, one making the other realize he hasn’t done anything in life. Then, it shifts to a kid on earth looking up, waiting for a sign, and sure enough, he sees a shooting star, the astronaut blazing upon entering the atmosphere.

“We should just stay out here all night and sleep under the stars,” she says.

“What? It’s cold.”

“We can light another fire,” she says. “Right here.” It’s cruel of her, but she’s having fun with him now.

“We burned all the paper,” he says.

“We don’t need paper.” She swings her arm through the sand like a snow angel, fingers like a rake, and lifts a small twig that she pokes him with.

Wayne snorts.

It reminds her of the snort the skinny mud man made at the Oregon Country Fair. In his loincloth at the primitive skills booth, with his long hair and beard, he hawked fire while showing how to make it with a bow drill set. When he asked for volunteers, Savanna shared a secret smile with Maya, whose growing belly had been painted like a psychedelic Easter egg. The mud man expected people to fail. He tried to correct Savanna at least three times, snorting like Wayne, but his materials were dryer than anything she’d worked with. A minute later, she had a coal in a sage bundle that she blew up in her palms. The crowd awed and clapped. Savanna curtseyed in her sundress, set the fire in the ring, and walked on without a word. She did it with such flair that she forgot about Maya and had to wait for her down the path.

“Even without a fire,” she says, “we’d be fine. We could carve out a little sand cave, like snow camping. We could burrow together and cuddle up for warmth.”

Savanna reaches out to pull him closer, but Wayne doesn’t budge, as immovable as his wrestlers, and what she really wants is for him to just take her already, channel some of that pent-up frustration into better use. Angry sex isn’t all bad. Half angry and half-drunk might be better than all drunk. She might even get off, but nobody ever takes her, not like in the movies and trashy romances she secretly reads. She tries to imagine his body above her own, outlined against the stars, but her thoughts go back to Shifting Coyote Shadow.

The rotation he returned after tracking down a runner, nursing a sprained ankle and still messed up over family stuff, Savanna had been there for Coyote. Really there for Coyote. Underneath him, under the dappled leaves of a white alder, but even surrounded by so much wilderness, there was nothing wild about their sex. Coyote was more like a sad puppy that she couldn’t bear to see suffer. It was sympathy sex, and when he didn’t show any extra interest the next rotation, she let it go and didn’t talk to him the following rotation, even though she had plenty to say. She remembers the sunlight through the leaves and the wood smoke on the bed of clothes they made.

“You should meet my brother,” Wayne says.

“What?”

“He’s kind of a camping nut. At least he used to be. Spent a whole semester of college living in the woods.”

“Cool.”

“Crazy,” Wayne says.

She waits for him to continue, maybe ask the next logical thing, like if she has siblings. She doesn’t. Her mother couldn’t conceive again, accepted the natural order, and didn’t try harder. Her parents heaped their love on their only daughter and showed Savanna the world, even Africa, where they’d met in the Peace Corps. They’ve taught almost thirty years at the same Cincinnati middle school, just a couple of years from retirement now, and they’re ready to buy an RV and spend more time in Oregon, which makes Savanna happy. She was a rare exception at OWL, not coming from a broken home.

Wayne fidgets and flicks his lighter on and off. Savanna loses her buzz. She sits up, disoriented and dizzy from the quick movement, eyes adjusting to the landscape after staring into the glittering night. The dunes give off their dull glow, the vast bowl of sand like a crater. For a moment, Savanna feels far away from the earth. She might be on the moon, or that planet from “Dune.” She feels light in the belly, something rising and building like a rocket on a launch pad, and she blasts a whoop into the night.

“Shit!” Wayne says, jumping to his feet. “Don’t do that.”

Savanna smiles. She wishes Maya could see this, Maya with her bulging belly. Her whoop would have followed within seconds, her baby in there listening. Savanna imagines the baby stirring inside Maya’s belly, the star child from the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” She tries to imagine being pregnant, but flashes backwards instead of forward, beyond her one mistake to that Viking vision, long blonde braids swinging down over swollen breasts, gripping her man’s big hand, and growling up at the gods.

While Wayne pees in the sand at the end of the dune, Savanna finds her pill case in her pack. She was lax with them when she made the mistake with Coyote, and she paid for it with an abortion that no one knows about, not even Maya. She hasn’t missed a day since, though lately she’s played a what-if game with herself. What if she doesn’t take her pill today and Wayne gets her pregnant? They don’t stand a chance as a couple, but he’d probably be a decent enough father from a distance. He’s hinted that his family has money, so that wouldn’t be a problem. What if Savanna were to raise the baby with Maya, if Maya ever divorces her loser husband?

Wayne zips up and starts walking back, kicking sand as he approaches.

Savanna gathers saliva in her mouth and pops the pill from its case. She’s not giving up just yet. That’s not how her parents raised her. She swallows the pill and springs to her feet, ready for that beer.

“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go!”

She picks up the tic-tac-toe board and leaps from the top of the dune, letting the soft sand slow her descent in giant downhill steps. Wayne follows and keeps trudging from the bottom, striking out in the wrong direction again. But he was right about the board. No point taking chances. She drops to her knees and begins digging into the leeward slope of the dune.

“What are you doing?” Wayne asks.

She keeps digging, slow-going at first with the dry sand sliding down to replace whatever she removes, but soon, she gets into the wet stuff that holds its shape. She digs until she’s formed a cavity large enough to crawl into, a burial chamber.

“What are you doing?”

She picks up the tic-tac-toe board and gently sets it inside. Using her mini-light, she pokes the panels to clear the game. She closes her eyes, imagines a Japanese child swept out to sea, imagines a healthy baby latched to her breast, and pounds the top of the cavity with both hands, triggering an avalanche of sand that swallows the board. By the time the sand settles with a final swish, the dune is no different than when she started digging. Savanna wonders if anyone will find it, maybe a future archeologist or alien race, hopefully equipped with radiation sensors.

She looks up at the stars, waiting for her wish.
 

Cantwell PicTom Cantwell holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. His fiction has appeared in Whitefish Review and is forthcoming in Weber—The Contemporary West. He lives in Eugene, Ore., with his wife and two children.

Leave a Reply