On Sundays the coastal beach is, to use a local expression, crowded as a hand-packed ice cream cone. There are retired cadres from the rest homes and big hotels up and down the shore, their bellies protruding, waving big rush fans and wearing zoris; there are students traveling on summer break who come in their shoes and socks, their faces dusty, their clothes collecting yellow sand, shouting it’s true the ocean is salty. There are the local girls draped in big brightly colored beach towels with their dark bronzed complexions and graceful figures. Kids stick their behinds in the air digging air defense shelters, heaping up sun ray peaks and giving sharp yells as they throw the sand all about. White volleyballs dance up and down like bait as young men’s supple, sturdy bodies spring into the air like leaping fish.
There are beautiful beaches all around Gulang island, but people customarily crowd along the three hundred meters of waterfront on the west side.
As you go further south, the soft-pack pop bottles and various wrappers become fewer, and when you reach the vicinity of the old fortress, only rarely do you catch the sound of other people. Because there isn’t much traffic, clumps of Artemisia grow along the sand bank like long eyelashes. Wild flowers hide among them.
Though the pillbox isn’t very old, it already has a patina. Actually, it was left only from the last civil war, a firing point in the panic retreat. The tide, ocean winds and sand banks have done their best to transform it, ornamenting it with oyster shells, clothing it in water-washed mosses, cutting and polishing its stone wall, making it gorgeous. Its patterns, moreover, have taken on a modern fell, approaching now the symbolists, now the impressionists, now the fauvists. As Su Shi had written: “viewed across, a mountain range; seen from the side, a peak.” In less than half a century, the fortress pillbox has swiftly dissolved to become part of the adjacent reef.
When the tide is out, you can sit on the stony ridge of the pillbox and gaze out to sea. I’ve heard this called “leaning on history to watch life,” the words of a third-rate philosopher who lives on the island. He’s since gone mad and published even more insightful philosophy, but he’s no longer read by anyone.
The reef stretches on and on; foam from the waves kicks up along it, then vanishes, throwing for an instant a sharp, snow-bright light.
A fishing pole calmly hangs out from the flat top of a sheer, dangerous rock.
The beach is like a young girl’s flesh, pure white and white flaw.
A pair of dark brown men’s plastic sandals have been left neatly side by side on the sand. Their heels are deeply worn, worn to an obvious slant. A big fellow who walked heavily. A broken spot on one of the arches has been heat-repaired, but the job was not skillfully done and the mend is crude.Leaning against this shoe is a pale yellow leather sandal, inlaid with metal, with a spike-thin high heel. It stands on tiptoe as if in the middle of a twirl. Another woman’s shoe has washed ahead a half step, one delicate strap has been swept aside and is swaying slightly. If the wind were a bit higher it would take off gracefully to become a slender, waterbird crying out over the waves. Close by is a pair of white plastic children’s shoes, their laces still tied, obviously shaken off by a pair of impatient little feet. One is upside-down on the sand, the other has been flung aside, leaving the artemisia to lovingly support it amidst its toothed foliage.
Soon the evening sun will sink into the reef, a tremendous wound, red enough to make one give up all hope. The last of the evening, reflected high above on the plume – like leaves of Iraqi date palms, gradually trickles down, is stopped by broad banana leaves, then gurgles down deep into the soil.
Vapor rises from pores in the sand.
A pale sand crab drills its way out from under the child’s shoe and clambers up a doorbolt – like the strap of the woman’s shoe. It threateningly lifts one translucent beetle leg to confront the evening sun. after a brief moment, unable to stand the great silence, the tiny crab disappears into its hole like a puff of smoke.
The fishing pole still hangs there, pointing straight toward the setting sun.
And then it is dusk. The light of the sky becomes purer and clearer. The last moments of the day are noble as martyrs, yet within reach.