"Welcome home," Anne muttered to herself and saluted as she turned onto the coast highway in the van she rented just hours earlier at the airport.
She thought about the tone of her simple salutation. Anxious, apprehensive, admonishing as if to a child, she wondered? No, not the latter. She was not a child, but a forty-year-old woman, a wife and mother. But was she acting like one, she smiled, when her true home was back in Boston? Perhaps she should be there now in these days before Christmas–wrapping gifts and making plans for the holiday.
But she was here thousands of miles away for only one reason: to see Sam.
It had been over twenty years since she and Sam Banks said their goodbyes. She said his name aloud. It sounded so strange, this name from the past, this name that would not let her rest. The sound of his murmured name reminded her of its quiet and constant iteration...over and over in her head...for so many years. How many more years could she have gone on masquerading the feelings this name invoked?
When her husband Frank asked her what she wanted most for Christmas this year, she spoke the words without thinking, the words held back for so long. "I want to go home for just a day." The home to which she alluded was on another coast, a gorgeous coast, a place far removed from her present home in the big city. It was a rugged and desolate region of land.
She waited for Frank’s puzzled face, his raised eyebrow, a gentle reprimand. It never came. A few days later he handed her a ticket, wrapped in a red bow. With a hug, he said, "Go, and do what you must. I’ll be here and take charge."
As she drove down the coast of the semi-deserted December highway in the drizzle, she had second thoughts. She should’ve changed her mind right then and stayed, she thought, and the three of them—Frank and Anne and their daughter-- would be listening to Christmas music, wrapping the last of the presents, and toying with the final decorations on the tree. She blinked her eyes briefly and saw her family now without her, gathered near the cozy warmth of the fire, in the dim and festive-glowed living room, the colored lights strung haphazardly about the walls. She saw her daughter Jenny’s face beaming, eyes aglow with eagerness and exhilaration.
Instead, Anne was miles away on a another coast, staring out at hundreds of seabirds riding the thermal air currents high over the rocky cliffs of the Northwest. Falling, rising, floating, she watched them, spellbound, as they spread their wings to full capacity and played, suspending themselves in mid-air, not able to make any forward momentum.
Just as she was at this very moment, playing in time and space.
Anne slowed and leaned to peer up at the seabirds through the front window of the van. She turned off the road and parked, then closed her eyes and clutched the wheel for a long minute or two.
Stepping out, she walked up a winding pathway that led to the windblown grassy bluff out toward the headland. Once there, she surveyed the majesty of the scene before her. Below were more birds, thousands, like white raindrops swirling over the once-familiar picture-postcard sand drifts and dunes which rippled and stretched for miles, fronting the adjacent thick timberland peninsula.
After more than two decades she was back at this most rugged section of the Oregon Coast. It greeted her like an old friend, primping and boasting its subdued grandiosity, as if to remind her of all that she had missed. And Anne saw its powerful beauty like she never had before.
Anne felt her senses besieged. In the mist the salt air was suddenly swept with the sweet aroma of fragrant blossoms. Her eyes dallied over the pink and purple wild flowers and deep rooted shrubs and bushes that led the way up to the highest bluffs, jutting out over a wild and churning sea. As if on cue, she heard and saw in her mind’s eye the herds of sea lions and their pups carousing on the rocks in the grotto below. Anne smiled and closed her eyes, seeing them frolic in the splashes of wild ocean as it surged in and out of the caves.
Suddenly hedging, she started to turn and walk back to her car. Then in mid- motion she stopped and once again looked out to the sea. How far should she take it? There was still time to turn around and take the evening flight back. But the flame so long flickering was burning bright. There had never been any way to put it out. Especially now.
Year after year it smoldered, haunting her with what if? What if she had stayed behind and made a life here with Sam? Would she be happy now? Or peaceful with her lot in womanhood. Or would her heart nag still, restless and agitated, as in her youth when her heart drove her away?
Anne left Sam in that youth, right after high school, a dauntless, self-assured young woman with stars in her eyes, college-bound with scholarship in hand. She promised Sam she’d return from Boston a fully-degreed teacher. Sam’s sadness showed, she supposed he knew he might never see her again. His face also showed he fully understood his destiny to stay behind: the eldest, he was chosen to carry on in the family business.
How quickly the two decades passed. And how quickly the strangeness overtook her former optimism now that she was just minutes from seeing him again. Anne knew he was divorced and had a teenage son for whom he retained custody and was raising in the same beach house where he grew up at North Point.
She recalled her hands shaking the day she was alone at home and phoned him to announce her visit. His voice broke when he first heard hers and for a few moments the two spoke awkwardly, stumbling over their words.
Anne listened as he talked, feeling almost a shared pride in his son, Michael. "A great kid. Solid. Strong with values and a good heart," Sam told her. "I’ve always wanted you to meet him."
She closed her eyes as he spoke, hearing his voice, this wraith from the past. He sounded different and she wondered how he looked after all these years. Did he think of her, she wondered? Did he remember the whimsical times they shared, walking hand-in-hand along secret pathways--running, playing ball, picnicking and sharing secrets and ambitions along the miles of isolated beaches?
Guilt stabbed at her briefly when she thought of her kind and thoughtful husband, Frank, a man she loved. He was a successful young attorney who had courted her while Anne was a student at the university in Boston. They married soon after Anne graduated. After waiting ten years, they had their only child, a daughter named Jenny.
At first, when Frank proposed, she thought of Sam waiting for her back on the coast and the promise she made to return. But by then he was so far removed from what she was and was to become since leaving North Point. Anne was moving up at a fast furious pace.
Sam called each day to ask when she was coming home. She resented his voice grown increasingly colorless, as she made her empty assurances. The calls ceased. At that time, Sam was a boy compared to her intended, the teen-aged vows made on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, immature and frivolous and naive. Not as serious as her new life, nor marriage.
After graduation, Anne began teaching second grade. She and Frank thrived in the community with good careers and friends. So happy were they that Anne vowed to coax her parents into following, no matter how long it took. Eventually they did and settled in a small town outside of Boston. Anne’s life’s plans had taken a detour. She found herself walking along a new and different pathway.
Although her life was busy and full, she found Sam creeping into her thoughts, always with her more and more over the years--his smile, grey eyes, wavy black hair. Five years passed, ten, then fifteen. As she grew older, she began to daydream--to yearn for the boyish charm that she once ridiculed. At odd moments she could hear his voice as if he were in the room, and even awaken at night after all this time and feel the tender warmth of his arms.
Instead of diminishing over time, Sam’s image became more well-defined. It bullied her, scoffing at her attempts to ignore and dismiss his existence. His reality had been pushing its way forward to the front line of her thoughts and she was powerless to block it.
She had to see him again—just once—to stop the longing that seemed to overpower her with each passing day. It didn’t matter that she was a good wife- a good mother- a good teacher. Time was her enemy. She still missed him. It hurt.
Her recurrent memory was the evenings at dusk at Point Lighthouse. They would lounge on their backs on the lush grass beneath the old jutting structure, staring up at the tower and its vagabond beacon and talk for hours into the night.
"Listen," Sam would whisper in the dark of the night. And she would strain to hear that faint moaning passing over them from the miles of drifting sand below. "Like angels singing," Sam would tell her, "a chorus just for us in the wind and sand."
This thrilling and eerie phenomena was common knowledge and variously described. The worst of these explanations was the scientific one of echoes and whistles that Sam and Anne would laugh at, the combination of weather, humidity and wind. However, the windsongs of the sands were legendary and chronicled for many centuries from explorers and poets, to scientists and naturalists.
But Anne secretly never heard the ballad, only pretended to hear, to reassure Sam. She remembered feeling cheated as he’d hum along with it and whispered, "Hear it? Hear it?" And she would say, "Yes, yes."
She would strain to hear even a slight vibration of this famous song that others claimed the wind carried from the dunes, but it was useless. "You must believe," her mother would assure her. "You can’t will it to happen. It will come to you when you least expect it. When the gift arrives, it will never leave you. It will be with you always."
Anne sat down on the long grasses and closed her eyes. The winter drafts whipped about and her hair flew wildly about her face. She inhaled the crisp coastal sea air and let her mind wander back in time. To the beginning.
She and Sam were fourteen when they swore they would forever be best friends. Anne remembered this solemn pact solidified with a hug-and-a-half and the two rings they exchanged, made from rolled aluminum foil. While other teenagers in the area traveled in groups, Samuel Banks and Anne Campbell were inseparable. Nothing could have kept them apart.
On lazy summer days, the two spent hours at Sam’s beach house listening to records, playing their favorite songs over and over. They would eat pistachio nuts as they sat side-by-side on the front porch, cracking open the shells. Their fingers were forever stained red after eating handfuls of the salted nuts. By the end of the afternoon, empty bottles of cola and piles of discarded shells were scattered about them.
On summer nights they ran barefoot across the wet sand, chasing the evening tide, their bodies often weak from skipping and jumping, breathless from laughter. Then, they would collapse, laying on their backs on cold sand at the water’s edge. As the night sea crept over their exhausted forms, it drenched them, causing them to sputter and squeal. Innocent fun, Anne knew, but much more: an invisible bond between them that kept them close. Sacred and privileged.
They never ridiculed each other or their individual dreams. Sam could tell her anything almost by just thinking it. The same was true of her. Their friendship grew with an intensity so strong, neither could fathom a life apart from the other. Was it real love, Anne wondered? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she cherished each moment they spent together.
At seventeen, their relationship changed as they matured into young adults, both blossoming strong and winsome. Sam’s eyes were a deeper grey, the color of the winter sea. He stood well above Anne now, hovering over her head, she thought sometimes as if blocking intrusions from the outside world. Their teasing, their flirtatious bantering evolved into a raw chemistry that connected them, bouncing back and forth between their youthful souls.
Anne found herself blushing when Sam put his arms around her for the first time as mature bodied adults and held her tightly. She tried to picture their lives together as adults.
"When you return from school, we’ll build our beach house," he promised. "Then have a dozen kids running free over these miles of white sand."
On her eighteenth birthday Sam gave her a silver heart with their names engraved on the back which she wore on a chain. Their kisses were lingering now, truthful and passionate.
Anne remembered that day she stood on the bluff at the lighthouse waiting for Sam with the letter of acceptance to college in Boston. They sat close together looking out at the vast body of water before them, watching the blankets of white foam roll in to shore around the jagged rocks.
He would not stand in her way, he told her, and hoped the time would pass by quickly, then said, "Congratulations," and kissed her cheek.
"You know I’ll be back," she assured him, turning from his red eyes and gazing back over the Pacific.
"Goodbye and hello again," she said out loud, now standing on that same bluff, the Point Lighthouse in the distance. She began towards it, hearing her heart pound, rehearsing what had been rehearsed countless times. "Oh, hi, Sam, do you remember our foil rings? Our hug-and-a-half? Or have I alone grown up silly and sentimental?"
Then, she saw him—the lone figure standing near the lighthouse, tossing stones off the cliff to the water below. A youth of fourteen, with black wavy hair, and she knew even at that distance his eyes were grey like the December sea. His movements mesmerized her, called her back, to a boy maneuvering into the self—assured posture of a man-to-be, in the very same spot on the grass under the beacon. She stared at this fraternal form, whose manner and movements were like her own, long ago.
She dared not move forward lest she jar that sacred vision of youth. She was frozen as she feasted on the boy’s presence and prayed that he would not turn and see her. For if he did and walked away, she would wail at the broken spell. She took a deep breath and cried inaudibly at her breach in time. It looked and felt the same.
Tears flowed, her eyes unblinking.
From the side she sensed someone approaching, making his way up the trail from the beach house. The adult figure continued nearer, but Anne would not turn to it. Instead she kept her eyes on the boy, drinking in his timeless picture. Until the boy turned, and cried out, "Dad!" And waved his hand at the approaching adult.
As the figure approached, Anne stepped back in shock.
"Hey!" she heard him call, but she would not look, instead she stepped further back, two steps for his every one.
She would not look at his face, the face of a ghost. Ghosts were invisible, invisible they should stay.
Her eyes still remained on the boy as the boy approached the man.
Then, she turned on her heels and ran back, down the winding dirt trails towards her car.
The voice called her name. She ignored it. Soon its echo lost strength as she made her way away from the bluff. Anne reached her car and sat inside, trying to catch her breath. The voice was gone. It was quiet. The waves were calm, frothing peacefully under the setting sun.
Her eyes were dry, her head clear. And then...she heard it, the sound coming from the sea of drifting sand. It was a whistle, a moan- a chorus of faint violins. It played to the dusk, and to the flat grey Oregon sky that was streaked with blue and yellow remnants from the sun’s farewell glare.
Anne sat silent, drinking in the wind’s serenade.
"Merry Christmas to me," she breathed, grateful for the season’s first gift.
It was the gift of the song and the gift of her past and she had captured it all. Now, so fresh in her mind she could put the past to rest, where it belonged: in a special place in her heart.
Anne turned the car around and headed back. The wind serenade followed, carrying with it the mystical refrain from the dunes. For centuries it had played for others and now it had found Anne. It would stay with her now... forever, in song and in spirit.