When the sun descends from the top of the sky to the place we cannot see beyond the horizon, its glare is greater than human eyes can withstand. Its light reflects off the sea, magnificent and blinding. Glorious is the golden orb, relentless in its course across the sky and down, down to its resting place beyond our discernment. Tears roll copiously down the face of one who chooses to look into the sun. God told Moses man could not see His face and live. God did not say if man could choose to see it and die.
There is a small island tucked against the Aegean where mountain and sea are separated only by a narrow stretch of sand. Trees bend like old women dancing, their branches like arms held high, their shapes sculpted by winds that whip across the island in the afternoons. Generations of them have grown to sway with the wind, rather than break. Plants in shades of green and brown emerge amidst the ragged landscape, a harsh, dry contrast to the slick turquoise of the sea. The mountain rises as deity, immobile and impermeable, but the sea is even greater in its fluidity and grace.
A young woman called Zenia approaches the beach. Late afternoon sun lights her face and she averts her gaze, stepping carefully off the wooden walkway that leads from the fishing village behind the mountain. She has visited the beach each day since her arrival on the island, but her fascination with its contradictions remains. Zenia is drawn to the pine trees that grow amidst the rock of the tall mountain, which in turn spreads into pure white sand in some places and limestone in others. Within the rocky crevices are entire communities of animals and plants, rare and indigenous. They are a universe unto themselves. Some of the birds are transitory—they migrate between Africa and Europe, resting at this in-between place. Zenia loves these birds. She feels safe amid the surprising range of living things on the island—as though any creature, no matter how rare or unexpected, is welcomed, indeed honored, in this garden.
On this day, Zenia edges her way toward the point where sand merges into sea. She curls her toes around the damp sand, feeling the gentle suction of her feet pulling up, away from the moist beach. Her footprints appear, disappear, reappear. Magical.
As she walks across the beach, the sandy grains between her toes fascinate her. She becomes absorbed in the tickle that turns into an irritant. If she leaves the sand there, it will cause tiny abrasions. Just as the wetness of the sea permeates the sand, the sand pervades Zenia’s body, connecting her in some cellular way to the expanse around her.
An abrupt sound draws Zenia’s attention from the sand and she looks up, squinting against the sun. Small wings cut across the unmarred sky, their glossy black against powder blue in a paint stroke so magnificent that Zenia’s eyes fill. She watches a gull arc across the sky and then beyond her sight. She tries not to blink against the streaming sun, struggles to hold onto the fleeting image. Fly, she thinks. Soar. The bird is gone. Fly.
Zenia begins to cry, then swipes at her tears. The gull’s grace moves her, awakens her own desire, but for what? She clenches her jaw. This pit of wanting, this failure to identify her own yearning, propels her. She shakes her fists in the air.
Back home, she was a small-town schoolteacher. For a time, she insisted she was a loner, and content. But seekers are never satisfied with contentment, and Zenia’s unease expanded to a fully realized hunger. She had to go. This, despite the imploring of her aged parents, whom she loved, and a kind young man whom she declined to marry. This, despite the tears of her students, who loved her for the way she learned the heart of each child. A driven soul may appear generous and loving on the outside, but on the inside, may need to be part of something bigger, something beyond the constraints of a particular time, and place, and lifetime. Zenia is such a soul.
The wind starts to pick up, as it does in late afternoons on the island, and Zenia tells herself that her salty tears are caused by its bite. She sniffs hard and quickens her pace, walking firmly into the wind, the sea on her left side, her hair blowing across her face. To her right, the leaves of the trees rustle, their branches bowing in readiness for the coming windstorm. She watches the swell of the seawater, its lapping becoming more insistent. The power of raw wind suddenly eclipses the brilliance of the clear sky and sea, and Zenia feels her mind spin as she observes the paradox of beauty and danger. Now a part of something much bigger than herself, Zenia sways with the brittle wind. She loses her balance, falls onto the sand, and cries out—a harsh, howl-like sound. She closes her eyes, protecting them from the particles of sand. Lying on the beach, she feels a chill as the cool dampness of the ground seeps through the thin cotton of her flowered sundress. Zenia wraps her arms around herself and begins to hum a long-forgotten tune that echoes the call of the wind. She feels rather than hears the minor chords in her silent song.
Zenia turns toward the noise and tries to sit taller, but the strong wind pushes her back.
“Who—where are you?” Zenia calls. Her voice is swallowed up in the rush of air around her, sounding distant even to herself. She raises an arm to shield her eyes.
She spits out sand that has flown into her mouth. The melody inside her plays on through the wind, its sound ringing against her ears. She catches sight of a black dot in the sky and again sees a gull flying above the swirling wind. She feels certain it is the same gull as before, that it has come especially for her.
“Hah!” she hears again. The call is deep, discordant. The sun, relentless in its descent, continues to burn down through the wind, and Zenia feels sweat prickle her forehead and drip across goose bumps that cover her legs.
In the space of a moment, the wind begins to lessen. Zenia is able to sit up. She moves in slow motion, resisting the wind. The gull swoops lower toward Zenia and then flies up again, and back down, and then back up. It repeats the circle three times.
Are you calling me? Zenia wonders.
The gull dips lower. Up close, Zenia can see the bird is not black, but charcoal and white with black markings. As she examines it, she stands and brushes the remaining sand from her body. She feels stiff and damp, but the intensity of the sun promises to dry her out and warm her quickly. Again, the gull dips lower and flies away. She watches, laughs, points at the gull.
Zenia decides to follow the bird. The sand widens and narrows at various points, curving toward and away from the sea, and Zenia winds her way through its labyrinth. She runs along the path, feeling the vibration of her feet pounding against the packed sand at the water’s edge. With little warning, the beach narrows further and bumps up against the rocky terrain of the mountainside. Zenia slows to avoid falling and loses sight of the gull. Looking up, she scans a sky that has deepened from a powdery blue to a shade once removed from the azure of the sea.
She continues slowly along the mountainous side of the beach until she finds a crevice large enough to hold her. It seems a good place to stop, and Zenia settles in, wriggling up against the cool stone, scraping her elbows and knees against small jutting pieces. She closes her eyes and inhales, relaxing her shoulders against the rock and finding an indentation to cradle her head. From her seated position, the smell of damp earth mixes with the salt from the sea, creating an atmosphere of timelessness and permanence. She breathes in deeply. More, she tells herself. She begins to feel a slow burn inside her chest, and colors stream behind her eyelids. Buttery yellow swirls around indigo and black. The movement of the colors reminds her of the wind, and she waltzes in her mind, stepping forward and back, up, down and around. Pinks and purples join the rainbow, and Zenia feels herself smile on the inside. She breathes in, then out, holding the exhale, playing. An old man appears at her shoulder—she is happy to see him. Shall we dance? She giggles to herself. Who are you? She turns to get a better look, but his image floats past her and then vanishes. Zenia tries not to reach for the man. Again, the colors wave behind her eyelids. Her lungs ache for air, but still, she postpones the inhale until her mind drifts away, away from the hard, cool stone against her back, away from the sharp points that stick here and there in her rocky cocoon. Something like sleepiness sets in at the top of her head and travels down her body and out through her limbs, heavy at first, then lighter and tingling. She longs for the drift, the travel to another place. Finally, her body takes over, its demand for oxygen too compelling to fight. She opens her mouth, allows air to rush in, and finds her mind returning to its present moment. A sense of lightheadedness remains.
The melody she was humming earlier returns. Its deeper notes echo in her mind, heavy bass notes scaling up into higher tones, whirling inside her head, inside the rock. The notes resonate with familiarity—the low tone of her lover’s voice? The soft croon of a mother’s lullaby?—and fade into the harmonious background. A cymbal chimes, and the notes take on a childlike quality, repeating again and again, teasing. The music lifts higher, and images appear. Here is Zenia, seven years old, walking through the school playground during recess. Faceless children jump rope, push one another on swings, bounce a ball. Their voices call out to one another. Little Zenia walks alone, amidst and apart from the others, her humming a steady vibration against the sound of the children’s voices. As she passes, small groups open their circles to her, but she keeps walking, fully absorbed in her own rhythm. Big Zenia notices her chest feels heavy. She feels sadness, loneliness, for this child who wanders alone. But Little Zenia’s face is placid. She does not seem sad to stroll through the playground. The older Zenia knows in a flash that this is the difference between being lonely and being alone. She watches her young self drift past the other children, a small smile lifting at the corners of her mouth. Little Zenia circles around and then upward, away from the playground, into the sky.
The music in her head quiets. Zenia’s eyes remain closed, and the voices of the children on the playground become the voices of her students calling to her. Miss Zee, they say, we love you. Miss Zee, stay here with us. At first, Zenia feels sorry for disappointing them, but soon she is angry. Do not claim me! You don’t own me! I won’t be contained by you, even though you love me. Even though I love you! She squeezes her eyes more tightly, but it’s too late. Her thoughts have overtaken her. The reality of her emotions, of the life she left, still grips. She reaches her hand out to ground herself in her rocky bed, moving into body and out of mind. It is hard to create this shift, but she concentrates on the cold of the stone around her. Go back, she urges wordlessly, back, and she reenters the windstorm that encircled and embraced her just a short time ago. She remembers how it felt to be wrapped up in the sand and the chaos that came before the calm, before the mysterious gull led her to the path that led her to her place within the rock. Zenia tries to hold onto the calm, but instead finds her mind wrapping itself around the chaos that preceded it. Why am I here? she ponders. Why here, so far from home? Cloistered in this mountain? Alone on a deserted beach?
Where is here? The question bubbles up in her mind, and then dissipates.
You’re here to connect, she tells herself. You are here to find something bigger than before. You are alone but not lonely.
But the more she tries to let go, the harder she clenches. Everything pulls in and up—her shoulders to her ears, her fingers into fists, her belly up into her chest. Zenia feels her legs tighten, muscles taut, preparing to spring. The chronic clenching—this is what she hates. This is what she had hoped to escape. Here on the island, she thought she would let go. She thought she would surrender. She hoped she could, by relinquishing her ordinary life, rise up to join something more extraordinary, more magnificent. Something divine.
Again, Zenia closes her eyes and tries to regulate her breathing. Who am I? she asks herself. She repeats the words again and again, who am I, who am I, who am I, until the syllables run together and sound like one word. Whooameye, whooameye, whoo—
Zenia opens her eyes with a start at the sound. She bends forward and listens, holding her breath so she can hear.
She uncurls herself, crawls out from her cocoon, and blinks at the brightness outside the rock.
The gull circles again, diving closer to Zenia and then pulling away.
“You’re back!” Zenia is gleeful. “Are you talking to me?” Her voice echoes in her ears.
Are you talking to me?
“Who are you?” asks Zenia.
Who are you? Who are you?
The gull turns a graceful circle and lands on the sand. It stands very still and looks sideways at Zenia.
“Hello?” Zenia whispers.
The bird is close enough for Zenia to examine it—the red spot on its bill and the ring around its eye, its yellow legs, a burst of color against white feathers. You’re beautiful, Zenia thinks.
The gull turns its head away. There is something in the bird’s elegance that reminds Zenia of her old mother, whose grace lies within the lovely creases of her face, whose entire story can be read in her deep mahogany eyes. She thinks of her mother’s soft skin and reaches up to touch her own cheek.
The gull continues to look away, and Zenia feels left out. She is homesick, although she is not sure where home is.
“You’re beautiful,” she says. “That ring around your eye—those markings—do all the gulls have that?”
Each is beautiful, she hears. Unique. And all are one.
Zenia is puzzled.
The gull turns its head away and walks a few steps, then lifts off into the air. As it rises, words form in Zenia’s mind. Each and All. Beautiful. One.
“Wait,” Zenia calls, the tiniest of insights flashing through her mind before disappearing.
The gull continues to fly, and Zenia begins to jog, then run. She pursues the gull, running with unsteady legs on wet sand. The gull arches over the water and Zenia follows, pushing her whole body into the sea. She starts to swim, pulling one arm strongly over the other, fighting the drenched heaviness of the cotton dress that bunches around her waist and clings to the back of her thighs. She raises her head above the water, trying to watch the gull, but the rapidly setting sun burns directly into her eyes, and she has to close them. She slows her swimming and treads water for a moment, then dives beneath the surface to clear her head. Through the haze of the water, she looks around, lost for a moment in the world of undersea creatures. Plants twist gently, and fish pass by in brilliant schools of color. Zenia is briefly distracted from her search, drawn to the mysteries of the sea, until finally, she feels her head start to lighten, remembers her quest, and rises to the surface. Breathing heavily, she looks skyward, hoping for another glimpse of the gull. She pulls out again, swimming as hard as she can.
We’re all beautiful. Unique. One. One with what? Zenia listens to the questions race around and around in her mind until the words lose their meaning. She swims further and further out.
You must still be here, she insists, calling silently, desperately, to the gull. Where are you?
Zenia looks back to the beach and sees that she is a long, long way from shore. I will stay and wait, she thinks. The gull will return.
A small movement on the beach catches her eye. She squints to make out the shape. A fisherman’s wife, bathing at the end of the day? A worker from the village? She can’t tell. The figure waves two arms toward her.
“Come in,” she thinks she hears. “You’re too far out. Come in, come in.”
Zenia turns back to the horizon and sees the last gentle curve of the sun. It perches on top of the sea, bobbing gently, its glimmer calling to her.
She turns again to the beach. The figure isn’t standing there anymore. She looks to the shoreline, to the place where sea merges into sand. The stranger has entered the water, is swimming toward her.
Above her, the gull cries out.
Zenia wraps her arms around herself and treads water with shivering legs. She yearns to follow the gull, but she is afraid. What can it mean to be pulled so firmly toward the unknown? The swimmer is still so far away but draws nearer, steadily nearer. No, Zenia thinks. Don’t come any closer. I need more time.
Zenia looks up to the gull, and back at the swimmer. Her stomach aches, and a chill spreads through her body.
In a moment that spans time present and time future, Zenia takes a deep breath, and swims.