Journal of Writing & Environment

I smell it before I see it, that faint stink of sewage and saltspray. Next comes the familiar murmur: The sea’s speech carried by a funneled breeze. I skim the sign first in English, then stutter slow in Chinese: Cheung Chau Tung Wan Beach, and between shop doors of shuttered steel the grey pavement falls away to faded sands. Beyond, a thin ribbon of white foam frills wintry waters. The sky is grey and the ocean is grey-green. I am home.

Fifteen years. It feels at least that long. I don’t go down to the beach yet. Instead, I walk over to the lifeguard station and gaze up at the bare metal pole. No one sits in the watchtower; no flag flies in the wind. In my mind’s eye I try to see that banner at mast once more, black fin set against blue and white, back when my seven-year-old self conjured life out of dark depths, willing into existence silent sharks in search of little feet to eat. Beneath moonlit skies I would run from sea to sand and back again, holding down the surge of thrill as dark waters washed up my knees, until all spilled over and I sprinted to safety, screaming in glee. Can’t catch me!

I try to find my old spot. Thirty paces out from the steps and twenty left used to place me dry above the lip of high tide. But things change. Instead, wet sand and surf threatens. Moving up a few feet, I throw down my baby-blue towel, kick off my lime flip-flops, and feel the grit of years against my soles, worry in between my toes. The sand is coarser than I recall. I am home, but I realize, perhaps for the first time since being back, that home may also be a place I have never been.

Nearby, a bicycle’s slumped frame is the lone sign of life on what was once a bustling stretch. The island’s dying, my grandfather lamented earlier when he took me out for morning dim sum. Tourists don’t come visit and youth have moved away, leaving behind us old bones. My grandfather looks old, is old, getting older all the time. Facing the end of possibility, he complains unceasingly of trifling matters. But I accept his thin and bitter vintage. Everyone learns the business of dying through living.

It is death that brought me back across the Pacific, pulled me back to this home place I had intended only to revisit in memory. My uncle and I were not especially close, but I had admired him from afar all my life as the prodigal son, the Swiss success, the kin mercurial. Brain tumors at forty-nine. Two kids, nine and twelve. There are no reasons, and even if there were, they would not suffice. Things are.

I dig hard into the sand, focusing on the raw sting of my hand instead of those behind my eyes. My mind slips back across the years. Does it still exist, that perfect shell I unearthed, then abandoned, half a lifetime ago? As I delve down I imagine it there, sheltered from scour and decay, remaining as I remember it, butter-yellow with even rings, imbued with deep purple hues, immaculate. But it’s not. I’m in the wrong place, years removed. The shell has long since melted into sand and sea, and there shall never be another one like it in all the world, in all the worlds, in all the expanse of time.

Deep in the wet salt depression I come across another shell, a wretched looking thing. A solitary barnacle erupts out of one side, forming a pale cancerous crater, and on the other, ragged rings thin and thick scar the mottled surface. I am about to pitch it into the waves when I realize that the shell is still sealed. Alive.

I squeeze my hand on the hard thing, and upon feeling its heft, bury it back in the sands. The wind picks up, cursing in sharp gusts, but I pay it no heed, having long ago grown accustomed to the chilled tongue of another home. Instead I lick warm salt from the corners of my mouth as the sea responds on my behalf, only slightly hurried. I sit and listen for what seems like a long time. No one comes back for the bicycle.