Sacred Heart

– John MacKenna

He sits in his car. It’s late in the afternoon and the last of the autumn light is being wrung from the heavens, dribbling down onto the flaky, rusted stubble of a long, wide field. He watches an old crow flail jadedly across the dull September sky, in search of its rookery, and he thinks of his young daughter running carelessly along the sprawling summer beach, her sun-bleached hair flying like a thousand short kite strings in the brightness.

And he remembers the shadow of a gull on the warm summer sand.

“Look,” his daughter says. “Look, there’s a bird under the sand.”
“That’s a sand gull,” he says.
“What’s a sand gull?”
“It’s a magic bird. It can fly on the sand or under the sand. You can see it but, if you try to touch it, it isn’t there.”
She looks at him quizzically.
“See,” he says, pointing to the circling shadow.
His daughter watches the silhouette darken and lighten as the bird swoops and rises unseen above her head.
“What does he eat?” she asks.
“He eats the wind.”
“Does he?”
“Yes.”
“Why don’t we see him every day?”
“Because he appears only to children who are very good and even then just once in a blue moon.”
She throws him that look again.
“The moon’s not blue.”
“Sometimes it is.”
“I never saw it blue.”
“Do you remember the first night we were in America?”
“Yes.”
“Do you remember the moon when we came out of the airport building?”
“Yes.”
“Do you remember what colour it was?”
“Orange.”
“See. You’d never seen an orange moon before that but there it was. And you’ve never seen a blue moon but you will.”
“Tonight?”
He shrugged. “You never know. It’ll be there when you least expect it and when you most need it.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re full of questions,” he laughs, swinging his daughter high into the air, twirling her above the sand and sea, throwing her into the sunny sky and catching her as she falls screaming with laughter.

And out of nowhere, as it always comes, the memory. He is dancing with his wife, her head against his chest, her body warm against his own, her hands light on his shoulders, his arms around her waist, the music moving them in some slowed-down version of a waltz, and he shivers in the burning sun and looks at his daughter and he feels a desperate, surging need to know that she will have happiness in her life.

“The sand gull is gone,” the little girl says.
“It’ll be back.”
“Will it?”
“Of course. It always comes back to good girls. Always.”
She smiles and he hugs her and puts her back down in the warm shallows of the Atlantic water.
“You know the way you write in your little book every night?”
He nods.
“Why do you do that?”
“I’m keeping a diary of our holiday.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s special – just you and me.”
“Are you keeping it to read to Mum when we get home?”
“No but I could.”
“What does it say?”
“Lots of things.”
“Like?”
“Like about what we do each day, about the sea and the weather and where we’ve been and things I’ve been thinking and tonight I’ll write about the sand gull.”
“Will you read it to me tonight?”
“Okay.”
“Will you read it to me every night?”
“Yes, okay.”
“Promise?”
“Promise.”

They paddle on, the sunlight surging over them like a reassurance.

“Don’t forget to look for the sand dollars,” he says and they lower their heads and walk slowly, eyes scanning the shining sand for the elusive shells.

That night, as he tucks his daughter into bed in her air-conditioned room, she reminds him of his promise to read from his diary.

“I haven’t written today’s entry yet.”
“Well read me what you wrote for the other days.”
“It’ll be boring.”
“I’ll tell you if I’m bored.”
He goes into his room and returns with a notebook.
“Is that your diary?”
“Yes.”

His daughter settles herself against the soft pillow and waits.

“This is from the first day.”

She nods. He clears his throat.

“The heat when we came out of the airport building was like a wall. We’d been warned but I wasn’t expecting it.”
“That’s silly, it wasn’t a wall,” his daughter says. “It was just hot. If it was a wall, we wouldn’t have been able to get out, unless it fell, and if it fell it might have squished us.”
“Told you it’d bore you,” he says.
“Read more. I’ll see.”
“I like the way the houses here are built into the woods. When they build, they use the landscape; they don’t clear everything. They knock as few trees as possible and then they put up the timber frames and block-build around them. As we drove down from the airport, coming through the tobacco fields, the skies opened and we had a glorious thunderstorm.”

He pauses.

“That’s ok. I kind of like that. Read me something about the beach. About us at the beach.”

He leafs through the pages of the notebook

“Ok, here’s something, but you may not understand it. There are several houses strung along the beach, straight out of ‘Summer of ’42’.That’s a film, there were houses in it like the houses along the beach.”
“I think I know what you mean. You don’t have to explain everything. I’ll stop you if I want to ask you something.”
“Yes, Miss,” he smiles.
“Now go on.”
“The heat on the beach is intense but the breeze makes it manageable. I’ve been careful that L doesn’t get burned.”
“L. That’s me. Why didn’t you write Lynn?”
“I was writing fast. I was tired.”
“Oh, ok. Go on then.”
“The only things that are annoying on the beach are the jets from the airfield down the coast. They come in loud and low and really should be farther out to sea.”

He notices her nod gravely.

“It’s just that kind of stuff.”
“Well, why don’t you write more interesting things, like about the sand gulls and the sand dollars and stuff. You can write them before I go to bed and then read them to me and I’ll tell you what I think.”
“That sounds like a very good idea.”
“Now,” his daughter says. “I’m tired.”

She reaches up, wraps her hands around his neck and kisses his cheek.

“Goodnight, Daddy.”
“Goodnight, sweetheart. I love you.”
“And I love you.”

She turns, nesting her head in the pillow, closes her eyes and smiles.

In the morning they go body-boarding in the shallows but, his daughter is terrified by the sound of the breaking waves and he takes her back to the swimming pool near the apartment and that night writes his diary entry while she’s in the bath and reads it to her as he tucks her in.

“I miss trees here – deciduous trees. The sea is pleasant when it’s warm but it’s too changeable. Trees change, too, but differently, more slowly. And they have the sound of the sea in their leaves. The sea is not so constant, regular yes but capable of great unpredictability and viciousness and the power to swallow. In the forest the change is more gradual, leaves fall, trees fall but there’s a peacefulness and a smell of growth not threat. And saplings, leaves unfolding, flowers, even the smell of cut wood.”

“I’m sorry that you miss the trees,” his daughter says.
“That’s okay. I’ll get back to them.”
“And I miss Mum sometimes.”
“That’s good, too, and you’ll get back to her soon.”

Later, he sits in the tarn of light from the reading lamp. Outside, beyond his glassed reflection, the sky flares and fades with distant lightning above the rumbling sea. He turns a page of Lifting the Latch and reads of Stow and Adlestrop and Oxford. The names are freshly beautiful in the American heat. He remembers them as villages and cities emerging from the English summer haze and he catches his own slight smile in the mirroring glass.

His daughter is playing in the shallows of the sea. Another young girl, more or less her own age, is playing with her. Together they build a sand dam and giggle as the surging ripples eat the walls away so that they can start again, a foot closer to the high watermark.

He stands with the girl’s father.

“They give the impression that they’ve known each other for ever,” the man says.
“Yes.”
“I’m Ken, by the way.”
“Al,” he says and proffers a hand.
“Vacationing?”
“Yes. For three weeks.”
“Couldn’t have chosen a more remarkably picturesque place.”
“No.”
“Been coming here since I was a kid myself.”
“You’re lucky.”
“Yeah, I guess I am, blessed with the good fortune of being born in the land of the true and the home of the brave and the beautiful.”

The girls move again, hunkering in the warm, slow water.

“By the way,” the man says. “My daughter’s given name is Melissa.”
“And this is Lynn.”
“You’re European?”
“Yes.”
“English?”
“Irish.”

Ken nods and smiles.

“Always appreciated here.”
“Thank you.”

They stand together, watching the children play.

He watches his daughter building sand castles in the rising morning heat. He lifts a piece of driftwood from the beach and carries it to her.

“Sand only.” She waves him away.

He smiles and runs his fingers along the bleached and faded timber. He thinks about how the sea wears everything to a smoothness – shells, stones, timber, wire and glass. How, by the time they wash up here, every jagged rim has been robbed of its roughness and its edge.

“Homogenised,” he says out loud but his daughter appears not to hear him.

Back in the apartment, making sandwiches for their lunch, he turns on the radio. Judy Collins is singing Jerusalem. He stands transfixed while Blake’s words pour over him.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Later, at that time where day and night begin to merge, he walks with his daughter on the orange sand and they find a long scarf of seaweed.

“What’s that?” his daughter asks.
“It’s a small sea dragon,” he says, lifting the golden green ridges in his hands.

His daughter looks at him, searching for a give-away twist of the mouth but, finding none, she returns her gaze to the puckered shape that rests against her father’s arm.

“It’s sleeping,” he says quietly.
“Can it make fire?”
“Not the sea dragon. Fire and water don’t mix. Do you want to touch it?”

The girl is uncertain.

“It won’t bite,” he says.

She lays an uneasy hand against the slippery seaweed.

“It’s soft.”
“Yes.”
“And it won’t bite me?”
“No.”

Again, she touches the spongy, wet crests.

“Would you like to put it back into the sea? That’s where it belongs.”
“All right.”

Gently he drapes the ribbon of seaweed across her palms and she carries it down to the murky sea and lays it delicately in the small waves. Together they watch it blend into the dark water, retreating with the receding waves until it disappears into the wide Atlantic.

“You’re a lucky girl.”
“Why?”
“You’ve seen a sand gull and a sea dragon. Some people live their whole lives and never see either.”
“Do they?”
“Yes, they do,” he says and realises the night has fallen. “Time for us to head for home.”
“Will we be able to find home?” the girl asks, suddenly aware of the darkness.
“Yes, we will. We’ll follow the lights.”

Feeling the sand crabs scuttle across his feet, he swings his daughter onto his shoulder, turns his back on the black, uncertain water and moves towards the distant, lighted windows.

He is sitting at the table, writing about the sand crabs, when the telephone rings.

He considers not answering but he knows it will ring and ring, every two or three minutes until he does.

“Hello.”
“Hello. Al?” His wife’s voice from halfway across the world.
“How are you?”
“Fine. How’s Lynn?”
“She’s really well. She’s sleeping.”
“At this hour? Is she sick?”
“It’s midnight here.”
“Oh yes, of course.”

Silence spans the thousands of miles.

“When will you bring her back?”
“Sorry?”
“When will you bring Lynn back to me?”
“Why are you asking this? You know when we’re back,” he says quietly, forcing himself to be calm.
“I know nothing. Who’s there with you?”
“Lynn. She’s sleeping, like I said.”
“Why are you whispering? There’s someone in the apartment, isn’t there?”
“There is no one else here. I was sitting alone writing my diary. Lynn is sleeping.”
“Put her on to me.”
“She’s asleep.”
“There’s someone else there.”
“There is no one else here, just the pair of us, as you and I agreed, Lynn and me, for three weeks. That’s it. No one else.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Are you feeding her properly?”
“Yes. She’s eating really well. Lots of fresh air, lots of good food, lots of sleep.”
“And you’re putting her suncream on?”
“Yes.”
“Factor fifty.”
“Yes.”

Another silence and he imagines the waves rolling over the buried telephone cables.

“You realise how much the legal fees are going to be?” his wife asks.
“I’ll pay them. All of them.”
“You realise this is an act of gross selfishness?”
“Yes.”
“And I don’t believe there’s no one else there. I don’t believe there isn’t someone else.”

He scratches his forehead and sighs very quietly.

“We’ll talk about it when Lynn and I get home. Back,” he corrects himself. “I’ll have Lynn ring you tomorrow at one; that’ll be eight in the morning your time.”
“Will you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And there’s no one else there?”
“No one.”
“You said once you’d die for me.”
“I almost did.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I know. Me too. We’ll ring you at eight in the morning, ok?”
“Ok. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.”

They sit in a bright, clean restaurant and a smiling waitress comes and stands at their table.

“This young lady will have a burger and fries and a Sprite. And I’ll have…could I just have a large salad?”
“My daddy is a vegetarian,” his daughter says.
“Is he, honey?”
“Yes. He was a vegetarian before I was born. Weren’t you?”

He nods an embarrassed nod.

“This lady is busy, Lynn. She doesn’t need my life story.”
“We saw a sea dragon last night on the beach and we put it back in the sea.”
“Well, ain’t you the lucky girl. Been here all my life and I can’t say I’ve seen one yet.”
“My daddy said I was lucky, too.”
“Your daddy’s right.”
“And we saw a sand gull one day.”
“Wow. You’re blessed!”
“Lynn,” he says, “the lady is busy.”
“Are you busy?”
“Not so I can’t hear about sea dragons and sand gulls,” she smiles a warm smile. “But I’d better bring your Sprite or you’re gonna run dry and then you won’t be able to keep me entertained with your stories.”

The little girl giggles.

“And coffee for your dad?”
“Thank you.”

Later, they go to SafariLand but he finds he doesn’t have the $25 they need to get in. The woman at the admission booth looks at the $19 he counts out and shrugs and listens to his explanation about having left his money in his other jeans.

“Sorry, honey. No mon, no fun.”

They walk slowly to the car.

“We’ll come back another day.”

Across the hedges and fences they can see the water slide and the rides he promised he’d bring Lynn on. He knows she’s upset but she doesn’t cry.

When they get back to the apartment, they play chess in the afternoon heat and, as the sun begins to sink, they go down to the pool and his daughter takes her first, tentative strokes and he remembers the day she first walked.

Later still, they ramble to the edge of the woods and watch the fireflies do their flame dance and they catch one in a jar and bring it back to the apartment and when his daughter falls asleep he opens the jar and releases the fly into the darkness that’s beginning to blow a storm.

They spend most of the following day at the pool. His daughter is frightened by the rolling breakers on the beach, by the pounding of the waves after the previous night’s slow gale. Only in the early evening, when the sky is clear and the heat is clean and the sea has calmed do they go walking on the beach.

Mostly, they have it to themselves. Five hundred yards ahead of them the surfers skim to a standstill and then turn and paddle out again, in search of a last few breaking waves, reminders of the previous night’s turmoil.

He watches his daughter scrutinize the sea, nervous of whatever violence it still might hold. He inspects the pieces of flotsam and jetsam on the sand: a broken, plastic fish box; three battered kerosene cans; a plank of yellow wood; dead fish, their mouths wide open in a series of silent cries, and what looks like a human heart.

For a moment, he cannot believe what he’s seeing. His daughter has wandered ahead, dragging a piece of timber from the shallows; she is writing her name in the sand. A giant L and a tiny y and two ill-fitting ‘n’s.

Bending he looks more closely and, yes, as far as he can tell, it is a human heart. He feels his own heart pound in his chest, its every throb a punch against his ribs. What to do: lift it and take it with him to the apartment? What then, call the police? Explain why he had moved it from its resting place.

“See my name?” his daughter calls.
“Yes, I see. That’s very good.”

He walks to where she’s standing, hoping that when he turns there will be no heart on the sand.

“Will I write your name?”
“Yes, do. Can you spell it?”
“Course. Silly.”

She drags the piece of timber through the damp sand, slowly carving the two letters.”

“And mum’s?”
“Yes.”

Again, she sets about the task, her tongue between her teeth, concentrating hard, working her way through the eight letters of her mother’s name.

“Now,” she says, standing back.
“That’s wonderful. You’ve done a great job.”

His daughter nods and hands him the piece of timber.

“Can we go back now? I’m hungry.”
“Of course.”

He steers her away from the waterline, away from the dark heart resting on the shore.

“Let’s see if we can find a sand dollar on the way back.”

He sticks the piece of timber into the sand, well above the high watermark, an indicator for the morrow. For now, there is nothing he can do. He doesn’t want to bring the heart to his daughter’s attention, doesn’t want to frighten her with this macabre gift from the sea.

That night he dreams the dream again. He sees himself, the second youngest man at the long table, hardly more than a boy. This is all he ever dreams. The reverie never takes him beyond this point and on to the other, darker days that followed. Instead, he sits with the others and someone begins to sing a soft song. He knows this bit of the dream has come from elsewhere, from another time and place, when they would sing together. It comes from one of the nights at a desert campfire or an evening in winter when they were crowded into one room in someone’s house. But, in this dream, the singing happens at the long table. It starts at the other end, Andrew’s voice running like a low, slow river beneath the conversation, gradually making its way into the ears of the listeners, stopping their speech until the song can run freely, without the word-rocks getting in its way, until each of them picks it up and feels the lightness of its beauty begin to lift them. Always the same dream and the same song that seems about to explode, to drive them from their seats and lead them smiling through the marshalled, silent streets outside. Forever, he sits waiting for someone else to rise; he waits to follow, he knows he will not lead. But the song never quite reaches that pinnacle. Instead, it fades away, the words becoming sparser, the silent gaps expanding to fill the moments between those words until, at last, there is only the silence, and the room is as it was that night, full of fear and indecision. And then he wakes, as he always does, his body a berg of perspiring skin, his hair dripping sweat into his open eyes.

Outside, he hears thunder rising and falling, catches the sheets of lighting through the window of his room and hears the wind begin to rise.

The following morning, he leaves his daughter with her new-found friend, Melissa, and Melissa’s mother at the pool and jogs to the point where the timber marker still skewers the warm sand. His stomach is churning, bile rising in his throat. He tries to remember how far above the tidemark the heart was resting. He wishes it gone but he needs to be sure, needs to go back. If it is still there, he has no idea what he’ll do. Chances are the tide or a scavenging gull will have lifted it, yet it doesn’t matter if the heart is there or gone. What matters is the fact that it was there.
The sea is calm, the tide retreating steadily. And, indeed, the heart has disappeared. He walks fifty yards in each direction, scanning the sand and the shallows but no sign of it remains. The surge of the sea or some wandering foragers have done their work and there is no longer what Ken might call a situation requiring resolution.

Standing in the shallows, Al vomits, the clear water diluting the green liquid, sucking it out into the deeper waves and the open ocean beyond.

That afternoon they drive to SafariLand. To his relief, the woman at the box office is not the woman who turned them away. Inside, the park is virtually empty. He counts five people on the paths between the rides.

“Right,” he says. “Where would you like to start – water slide, roundabout, bumper cars, dinosaur, elephant swing?”
“Can we do them all?”
“We can do them all. We have all afternoon. Twice if you like.”

She laughs.

“Really?”
“Really.”
“Mum would love this, wouldn’t she?”
“She would.”
“Can we come here some time with her?”
“Let’s hope we can.”

And now he sits in his car. It is late in the afternoon and the last of the autumn light is being tightly wrung from the heavens, dribbling down onto the flaky, rusted stubble of a long, wide field. He watches an old crow flail jadedly across the dull September sky, in search of its rookery, and he thinks of his daughter running carelessly along the sprawling summer paths of the amusement park, her sun-bleached hair flying like a thousand short kite strings in the brightness.

And he remembers the shadow of a gull on the warm summer sand.

And the sacred hearts of those he loved and lost.