On a sunny Saturday in June, Dad takes me to my favorite beach. I should say it used to be my favorite beach, back when I could see the horseshoe-shaped bay and the craggy rocks growing up out of the sand like castle turrets on either side. Now, thanks to that bizarre infection with the unpronounceable name, all beaches are pretty much identical. And sunny Saturdays? They might as well be cloudy Tuesdays. With every year that goes by, my memories of sun shimmering on waves grow foggier, one shimmer and one wave at a time.
You might say I live in a world filled with nights, one after the other.
I still like the beach, though, especially on days like today. I think it must have something to do with how I sense the sun. The doctors tell me my brain reacts to it, but I don’t know whether that’s true or whether it’s another story they make up to lift my spirits, motivate me to get outside, get some fresh air, get on with life. What I do know is I love the feeling of my skin shining, as if the sun turns me into polished silver or bronze. Maybe gold, maybe platinum. Or the steel of a knight’s armor, glistening before the joust.
‘Can we build a sand castle?’ my sister squeaks in her little-girl voice.
Susan is eight now, the same age I was when I carefully placed my last flag on the last turret on the last castle I made.
‘Sure,’ I say, although I’d rather read my new book. I’m good at Braille – better than I thought I’d be nine years ago.
Susan must have heard me hesitate. ‘Please, Katie? It’ll be fun.’
I always loved building castles at the beach. I imagined miniature knights and squires, all made of smooth sand, galloping up toward the drawbridge on sturdy steeds while princesses and ladies-in-waiting giggled and gossiped from the parapets. I don’t love making castles so much anymore – my job these days is to pack bucket after bucket of sand, knowing I won’t see the final masterpiece. But I put the book aside and tell Susan I’ll help.
Susan and Dad work on the foundation; I know this because I’ve filled and tamped down four of the oblong molds, and that’s always the best way to start a sand castle. I reach over and ask Susan to put my hand on the base so I can feel what they’ve done so far.
She swats my hand away. ‘No, Kate! You’ll ruin it.’
‘I’ll be careful.’
‘That’s what you said the last time,’ Susan whines. ‘Daddy, tell Kate not to touch my castle!’
My castle. She has no idea how those two words sting.
Dad hushes her, saying it’s our castle, not just Susan’s, and places two round buckets next to my leg so I can find them easily. I wonder if he’s familiar with that old saying about actions speaking louder than words.
A few more buckets and Susan starts squealing. ‘Oh, it’s so pretty! Oh, Kate, I wish you could see it!’
I don’t bother telling her the only way I can see is with my hands. To my eyes, the castle might as well be made of black sand on a moonless night.
‘Hurry, Kate. We need another bucket,’ Susan says.
Dad laughs. ‘Come on, slowpoke.’ He means it to be funny.
I don’t see it that way. Ha ha. Good one, Kate.
Susan joins in. ‘Come on, slowpoke!’
The sun burns hotter on my face, but it isn’t really the sun that makes me flush. As I listen to Susan and Dad deciding how big to make the moat, and Susan offering to fill pails with water – ‘Kate can’t do that by herself,’ she chirps – I feel more like a forgotten rusted toy than a shiny silver star. I turn, burying my face in the beach towel, and wonder if tears will make me rust faster.
Something blocks the warmth on my arm, and I raise my head. It’s an old habit, looking up to see what I can’t see, but one I haven’t yet forgotten. ‘Dad?’ I say.
‘Yes, honey?’ Dad’s voice comes from the opposite direction. I’m pretty sure he has his back to me. Now I hear water sloshing into the castle moat and Susan skipping around in the sand, telling me how wonderful her castle is without really speaking to me at all.
‘Hi,’ a different voice says. He sounds about my age – not quite a man, but past the awkward squeaky stage of puberty. ‘How come you’re not helping with the sand castle?’
I shrug. The hardest part about being blind is having to tell people. No, that’s not true. The hardest part comes after you tell people – when you hear them say, Oh, I’m so sorry. That part sucks. But I tell the boy anyway, knowing he’ll leave. Hoping he’ll leave.
What does seeing have to do with building a sand castle? he says.
I feel warmth on my arm again and a few grains of sand scatter onto my feet. He must have knelt down. Well, I guess it sort of helps to know where you’re putting the sand, doesn’t it? Besides, what’s the point if I can’t see it when I’m finished?
He laughs. ‘Yeah, I guess it might as well be like painting on a black canvas with black paint. Sorry. Bad joke.’
‘Or building castles with black sand on a night with no moon,’ I say, and can’t help laughing myself.
We come up with a dozen different metaphors for sightlessness, each one sillier than the next. The funny part is, none of them bothers me.
‘So,’ he says, and I hear him scooping sand into one of the pails. ‘How about we build a crazy castle?’ He takes my hand and wraps my fingers around the handle of the pail. "’You start.’
‘Why not? Besides, who cares what it looks like? Even the best sand castles end up getting washed away when the tide comes in.’
In another ten minutes, I’m sitting in the center of four sandy turrets, patting them smooth while he replenishes our water supply.
‘You’re going to ruin it,’ Susan says.
Of course I will.
‘No, she won’t.’ It’s the boy’s voice again, speaking in my direction, not Susan’s. He shuffles away, kicking up fine grains of sand, comes back, plops clumps of wet sand around me. ‘Do the north wall first. That’s the direction you’re facing. Like this." I can feel him guiding my hands right and left until my fingertips graze the sides of the turrets. ‘Got it?’
‘Got it,’ I say. I wish my tone carried the same confidence as the words.
Susan sniffs, mumbles something under her breath about how I’ll screw everything up, and her voice trails off.
It must be at least an hour later, because the sun kisses my back now. ‘Well? What does it look like?’ I ask the boy.
‘It looks like a castle. With a princess sitting in it.’ He takes my right hand and carefully places it on one tower. ‘Here. That’s north-east. I put some crenulations on the parapet. Can you feel them?’
My fingers move up and down, snaking over the rises and falls. I imagine princesses and ladies-in-waiting waving delicate handkerchiefs as knights and squires approach the drawbridge. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I say, thinking the boy who built my castle must be some sort of medieval architecture genius.
‘We did a pretty good job. Maybe we can make another one next Saturday. If you’re here.’
‘I’ll be here. My name’s Kate, by the way.’ I feel a little stupid not even knowing his name.
‘I’m Hugo,’ he says, and I don’t need to see his smile. I can hear the shine in it, like the steel of a knight’s armor, glistening before the joust.
CHRISTINA DALCHER weaves words and mixes morphemes from her home in the American South. Recognitions include The Bath Flash Award’s Short List, nominations for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions, and second place in Bartleby Snopes’ Dialogue-Only Contest. Laura Bradford represents Christina’s novels, which feature a sassy and stubborn linguist with anger management issues. You can read additional short work here or follow Christina @CVDalcher