The Shift of the Sea
Richmond Hill, Canada
2018, High School, Prose
The sun hung high over the horizon, washing the ocean in rays of golden light. Scattered along the coast were bustling crowds and bright colors and busy stalls, buzzing with activity and noise and life. But far, far away—down by the water’s edge and huddled amidst a shallow outcrop of rocks—lay a small cottage, unkempt and dilapidated. It led towards a rickety pier, at the end of which sat an old man on a chair.
He stared out at the water, motionless as an ocean without breeze, eyes crinkled and brows furrowed with deep, grooved lines. The air around him was still, heavy, solemn.
An hour passed, or perhaps six—for the old man, mere hours were trivial fleeting things, much like the breaking and ebbing of the waves. It was not until the child spoke that the old man’s filmy eyes finally noticed the little girl standing in front of him.
He stared, mildly startled. She was barefoot, her clothes caked with sand, a tin pail in her hand.
What was she doing here? It had been a long, long time since one of her kind had last approached him so directly.
“…Hello,” he replied, his gravelly voice hoarse from disuse.
She stared at him, eyes large, guileless, and with a spark of curiosity. “I’m Cassie. What’s your name?”
The old man paused, considering her words with faint, tired amusement. “Ah… I have gone by many names, child. All quite whimsical, quite fleeting… most, washed away by time.”
The girl scrunched up her nose. “Are you bigger than ninety-two? My great-grandpa is ninety-two. I’m seven and a half.”
He pondered this—his age, of course, something that he no longer bothered to count. “How old is the sea?” he asked wryly. “I am old, child, older than you can imagine.”
The little girl fell silent.
“You’re like my great-grandpa,” she said. “He always sits by himself, too, for hours and hours.” She cocked her head to the side, knitting her eyebrows. “Aren’t you lonely?”
Images flashed through his mind. Memories of vibrant coral reefs, seas teeming with fish, magnificent beasts with sharp fins and great maws.
…But they were only memories. The old man’s heart hung heavy once more; the brief wave of nostalgia already washing out of reach, receding again into the depths of his mind.
Remembering his audience, he focused back onto the little girl. “Lonely… my companions number in the billions, albeit scattered far and wide. Though,” he added with a tinge of bitterness, “their numbers dwindle and grow more distant with each year that passes.”
“Billions?” The girl gaped at him, awed. “Really?”
“Then why do you always sit here by yourself?”
He gave a deep sigh, breath mingling with the cool, ocean air. “This is my home,” he said, tired. “I alone watch over this realm of sea and foam.”
She peered over his shoulder at the decrepit hut up the beach behind him. “That’s your home?” she asked, grimacing. “But it’s so terrible!”
His shoulders hunched even lower, and a crashing wave sent a spray of saltwater misting over the pier. He didn’t need to look behind him to be reminded of the state his cottage was in. He knew, knew better than anyone. Of the pitch-black oil stains splattered on the wooden panels, of the fragments of plastic and metal littering the sides, of the shriveled husks of flora where fresh life once grew.
A silence fell over the two companions. The girl bit her lip, seeming to realize she had spoken a touch too brashly. “M’sorry,” she muttered, darting a glance at him from under her eyelashes.
“…Do not be,” he said finally. “You are not wrong, child.” He stared past her at the water that was sparkling with the glow of the setting sun. “Unkempt though it may be, I am… content here.”
The girl crinkled her brow. “‘Content’? Does that mean ‘happy’? But…” She gave him a scrutinizing look, eyeing the deep lines on his face and his hunched, withdrawn figure. “You look sad.”
He paused, vaguely taken aback.
He gazed out at the ocean horizon, feeling the evening sun on his skin, hearing the murmuring of the waves. As it had always been, as early as he could remember—the ocean was breathtaking in its beauty. He was content here, was he not? It was his realm. It was his home. It was him.
And yet… something was undeniably missing. Had been missing, for centuries. Slowly, near imperceptibly, the beauty of this magnificent expanse of blue—its depths which had once seemed so invincible, so resilient—had been eroded by the shifting waters of time and change.
He could never be unhappy so long as the ocean flowed freely. But, he realized, with a growing frown and a creeping weariness, neither was he truly happy. He had not been, not for many long centuries; not while watching his waters grow sharp with acid, his corals white with bleaching, his seas murky with debris.
“The currents of change flow rapidly in this new millennium,” he said at last. He looked back and the water, and his eyes grew distant. “I once believed that I would never change. That I would stay young, strong, joyful… that the ocean would stay young, strong, joyful.” Another wave crashed against the pier, higher this time. “But time is a powerful force of change—humans, even more so.”
The girl tilted her head. “You mean, the ocean was different, before?”
Without waiting for an answer, she flopped down onto the deck in a cross-legged position, plopping her small pail down beside her. She stared up at the old man in rapt, anticipative attention.
The old man looked at her, and his expression softened by a fraction. “It was once magnificent, child. Even more beautiful than today; more beautiful than you could imagine.”
Memories of rolling sands and murmuring waves played across the back of his mind, so vivid that his breath caught. He exhaled, the sharp taste of salt on his tongue. Closing his eyes, he let himself sink into his memories once more, and the words came easily.
“Imagine pure, azure waters, for leagues upon leagues. Imagine days of wild wrath, followed by days of tranquil calm. Imagine a realm where the fish teemed, the gulls cried, the dolphins sang, all in a vibrant aggregation of all things great and small.”
“But… not anymore?”
With a heavy expression, he opened his eyes. The images in his mind immediately flickered and faded, trickling away like the last grains of sand in an hourglass.
Despite the creak in his bones and the heaviness in his body, the old man turned, reaching behind him to grasp something that was hanging on the back of his chair. The girl stretched out her neck, following his movements with curiosity.
He opened his wrinkled, calloused hands to reveal a small object of twine and driftwood. “A wind chime, once—back when I was young, and the ocean carefree.” He exhaled, tired. “The seashells that once gave it its music are long gone, cracked and lost to time. All things change, child, and not always for the better.”
The girl frowned, quiet. She reached out and took the broken wind chime into her small hands, a troubled look on her face as she fingered the frayed twine.
“This, I fear, will one day be my fate as well.” He turned, gazing down at the waves receding on the shore. “Change, and humanity, are currents that flow stronger than any tide.” Hardly a second later, another wave crashed down into the sand. “And even I cannot stop the tides themselves.”
The girl looked up from her tinkering and shook her head violently, her eyes burning with an intensity that took the old man by surprise. “That’s not true! In school we learned about a big city floating on the water, and they builded huge walls that stopped the waves from coming inside! I bet you could fix things, too, if you tried really hard.”
A ghost of a smile flickered across the old man’s face. “Ah… yes, I had nearly forgotten how creative your kind can be.” His eyes turned downcast. “But I cannot even preserve a simple cottage; what can one person truly accomplish?”
The girl stopped her fiddling, dumped out the shells and pebbles in her tin pail, and stood up.
He waited with faint curiosity and detached amusement as the girl ran past him down the rickety pier. In a flash, she was back. Silently, she held up her pail for him to see. It was filled with scraps of broken plastic and metal.
“See? I cleaned up the spot beside your door.” She stared at him defiantly.
The old man stared back. For a few moments, he lay wordless at the child in front of him who had so boldly challenged his complaints.
And then, for the first time in what felt like years, his harsh, lined face softened into a smile.
“Perhaps there is some truth to your words.”
The girl nodded, letting the pail fall back down to her side. “The ocean sounds like it used to be way nicer—but don’t worry, I’ll help you make it nice again.” She reached down to her feet, grabbing something and handing it over to the old man, her eyes set in firm determination. “I promise.”
The old man looked down at his hands, and for the second time in so many moments, another smile crossed his lips.
“Oh! Sorry, it’s late now. I have to go home,” the girl confessed. She looked up hopefully. “Can I come back tomorrow? I can help you clean your house,” she offered.
The old man smiled. “Of course, child.”
She gave him a bright grin in return. Just as she moved to leave, she paused. “You know,” she said, “my mum said not to talk to you. She said you were strange, and that strange means dangerous. But she’s wrong—you’re really nice.”
And with a wave of her hand and a smile, she ran off down the pier.
“Cassandra! What on earth were you doing? Your father and I were worried sick! And why is your pail full of garbage, darling? I thought you had a lovely collection of shells!”
“Sorry, mum. I made a new friend! His house is really dirty, so I helped him clean it up a little. And he didn’t have any shells, so I gave him some of mine.”
Like every evening for as long as the old man could remember, he watched the sunset from his battered seat on the pier.
But unlike every other evening, this evening’s sunset did not imbue the old man with a sense of loss or fatigue. Instead, he felt a strange, alien sensation—hope.
As the ocean wind danced through his long, knotted white hair, the old man closed his eyes, and smiled.
The gentle breeze and tranquil waters ensured that the tinkling of seashells on a wind chime could be heard long into the night.
Climate change is that ever-present shadow that looms over us all—dominating the radio, flooding our TVs. I feel sad. That the once stately glaciers that crowned our poles are now nothing but a sliver of their former selves. I feel afraid. That our cities are sinking into the ocean, that hurricanes are ravaging our countryside, that droughts grow stronger every year. I feel frustrated. That, despite all the evidence, despite all the charts and statistics and proof, still there are those in powerful positions who refuse to take initiative in this fight. I feel ... optimistic. Despite everything—despite the setbacks, delays, self-imposed obstacles—we are making progress. Laws passed, accords made, new technologies innovated. Still, I want to draw attention to our world’s drastic changes—in particular, the changes in our oceans. While we may barely see a difference, to someone who has seen the ocean in all its glory—a thousand years ago, ten thousand years ago—they would look at the state of our oceans today, and mourn.