I watch my sister dig a moat. She is unbothered by the sand encrusting her legs, her torso, her arms. She spears her plastic shovel into the sand over and over, tossing it aside and getting in with her hands when the spade isn’t working fast enough. The moat is being dug around a crumbling tower, poor in construction because none of us wanted to help, really. It is more of a mound of wet sand than a castle, lopsided and distinct only from a single seashell, a near-perfect sand-dollar, placed on top.
My sister is five and I am seventeen. She was an accident, but we call her a miracle.
Every now and again, I hear her calling to me, beckoning me to aid her in her doomed fight against the ocean. I pretend not to hear, or I offer a half-hearted wave and a thumbs-up, hoping that placates her so I don’t have to join in. After a while, she stops calling, but she never stops digging.
The surf fills her moat, over and over. The water rushes in and she shrieks with displeasure as it leaves the moat a little shallower, a little more reclaimed with each pass. She buckets out the water. If she is lucky, she’ll get a few minutes’ head-start before the next wave strong enough to reach her. But as the sun dips lower and the wind feels cooler, those breaks are ever more brief.
My sister was born with cerebral palsy. She may live to benefit from the free senior beach pass, or she may die before college. Despite the doctor visits, we aren’t sure how severe it is yet. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
She performs this ritual every time we visit the beach. She must remember how it will end, with the remnants of her castle as a mushy, indistinguishable mound and with her in fitful tears. Yet the castle is still built, the moat is still dug, and the watery siege is still fought to the bitter end.
Now, the moat is more often flooded than dry. It is the beginning of the end. Her flower-shaped yellow bucket is no match for the tide. I picture myself leaping up, my father and mother behind me, buckets in hand, joining her. Together, we would keep the ocean at bay, deepen the moat, raise the gate, guard the turrets. As the moon rose overhead, the tide would be diverted around one lone sand castle, protected by its tireless family of sentries. But I stay on my towel.
Finally, a curling wave crashes. This is it. My sister sees it, too. She stands in front of her lumpy creation, skinny arms outstretched against the coming onslaught. She screams a guttural war-cry. But it is no use. The foamy surf floods the moat and storms the castle, collapsing the tower back into the sand, all in the span of a few seconds. My sister looks back at where her castle once stood. She picks up the sand-dollar and drops to her knees.
As I watch, she starts to cry.
Evelyn Maguire is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Overheard, and was a fiction finalist for the 49th New Millennium Writing Awards. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in North American Review, The Foundationalist, and Sink Hollow.