Short Fiction: The Architect
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
Petey couldn't clearly remember the last time he had visited the seashore with his family. He had thought his hazy impressions of bright light, wind and sand were merely parts of a lingering, distant dream until his mother assured him otherwise: they had in fact gone to the beach about four or five years earlier. Which meant he had been around three years old when he had experienced the ocean. He also had hazy memories of a toy plastic fishing pole that came with a set of shiny hard fish: one blue, one yellow and one red. He wondered what had happened to these. He hadn't seen them for a long time and suspected Mom had donated them to a thrift shop when he let his guard down.
Petey also had vague memories of a loud, unremitting wind that roared in his ears, tore his hat off and flung sand in his eyes. But it was probably the sand he remembered the most vividly. The rough yet silky feel between his fingers, the seemingly endless expanse of it between himself and what he was told were the waves, the gritty sensation in his mouth. He didn't get close to the water that day, likely because it had been too cold and wild, so in a way he wasn't even certain what the ocean was. Over the following years, the word 'beach' simply meant 'sand' to him.
When it was announced the family was going to stay at the coast for a few days, Petey kept his excitement and misgivings to himself. As they entered the hotel room, the rest of the family switched on lights and dropped luggage on the floor while he ran to the balcony. There he gazed out wordlessly on the blue-gray, foam-crowned curlers that endlessly encroached on and retreated from the sand. The ocean was staggeringly vast, while the carpet of the shore between it and himself seemed much narrower than he recalled, more vulnerable.
“Hey, Petey! Let's go on down now. Mom and sis are waiting in the hall.” His father's voice sounded calm and rested, even after five hours of driving.
Petey joined him, hopping up and down eagerly. “I want a bucket and shovel set! I want to build a really big sandcastle!”
“Okay, buddy. I think there's a souvenir shop at the end of the street. Looks like they sell kites and beach buckets.”
They caught up with Mom and Emily, who weren't interested in joining them in the hunt for beach toys. Petey sensed that the offerings were too babyish for thirteen-year-old Emily, while Mom was anxious to be out in the fresh air after being in the car since before dawn. When Petey decided on a set containing the biggest variety of sand molds, he and Dad finally walked out onto the beach. They trudged leisurely towards where they could see the blankets and bags of snacks that Mom and Emily had left behind as markers for the family's base camp for the rest of the afternoon. They had become two indistinct figures among all the others heading for the surf.
As he walked, Petey paid close attention to the varying sensations and quality of the sand beneath his feet. When they arrived at the pile of the family’s supplies, Petey flopped down and and promptly began shoveling sand into one of the molds. When he tipped it over, it melted into nothingness. “It’s too dry. It won't stick.”
“Well, try closer to the water,” said Dad, watching as Petey went a few more yards then chose another, more promising, spot and began to dig. And dig. And dig. The sensation of sending his sharp new shovel into the damp grains was indescribably satisfying and relaxing. The color, texture and appearance echoed the neatly packed cups of brown sugar Mom measured out when she made chocolate chip cookies. He was so enraptured by the process, he forgot the precise plans for the sand city he had formed in his imagination. So the development became much more organic.
Petey became oblivious to the ocean, to the seagulls squabbling nearby over a potato chip bag the wind had driven along the shore. He dug damp sand, packed it into his molds, then tipped it out and smoothed it. Over and over again. He built the interior taller and taller, added windows and buttresses. He collected tiny smooth stones and pieces of driftwood for the construction of bridges and palisades. The size factor made no difference to his imagination as he pictured himself walking in the courtyard or along the battlements.
“Hey---where's Mom and Dad?”
Blinking, Petey looked up to see Emily and an unfamiliar girl about the same age as his sister looming over his work. He said reflexively, “Don't step on it!”
Emily rolled her eyes. “I'm not going to step on it. Where's Mom? My friend and me are going to hang out at the arcade.”
Petey's gut instinct told him that his sister wasn't so much interested in the games, as in any teen boys who might be at the arcade. He stared almost unseeing at her pudgy face smeared with blue raspberry popsicle and answered, “I don't know. I've been doing this.”
“Well, when you see her, tell her where I went.”
He grunted and returned to his important business. As the day waned, towers stretched even higher under his determined hand; he had become obsessed, a master of gaging the correct consistency required for the sand to hold the highest shapes, of smoothing without destroying, of adding tiny but impressively accurate details around windows and doors. Afternoon became evening. When the glorious structure was complete, he expanded his scope; beyond the castle walls, a city took shape. Neighborhoods, streets and a small, pebble-lined river grew ever outwards. More elaborate bridges spanned the river. On the outskirts, fields were delineated by minuscule fences of stones, planted with rows of dried sea grass. He had brought a few small toy cars with him, but when he set them down in the city, he decided they didn't belong. On some level, he recognized he wanted to work with only minerals and water and twigs.
“Looking good,” remarked Dad's voice unexpectedly.
Jolted from the creative dimension where he had been frolicking so intently, Petey sat back on his heels and looked up with a broad grin.“You really think so?”
“Yep, it's a great design. But you know what? It's time to pack up and leave it for now. We're going to dinner and then bed. You can come back tomorrow.”
The rest of the evening, Petey thought about the changes he would make to his city, the additions and expansions. In bed, he felt remnants of sand clinging to his legs, rubbing between himself and the smooth sheets. His exhausted imagination relived the sensation of the grains reforming themselves under his hand, stroke after stroke after stroke.
The following morning, as early as he could convince his parents to let him, he left the hotel room and ran to the place on the beach where his glorious city had arisen out of the sand. It was not there. In confusion, Petey ran back and forth along the beach, refusing to believe that the sodden, indistinct lumps were all that remained of his grand endeavor. It had to be a mistake, he had come to the wrong spot.
He saw a form advancing towards him against the rising sun, and struggled to hide his tears before his father arrived. Petey's voice trembled as he said, “I don't remember where it is.”
Dad waved his hand towards the lumpy mounds and trenches. “It's right there.”
The devastation on all sides was hard for Petey's mind to grasp. His face grew red. “That was so mean of them!”
Petey gulped. “Whoever wrecked it. They came in at night and just wrecked it all. I bet it was Emily and that stupid girl.”
Dad put his hand on his shoulder and massaged it gently. “No one wrecked it. It was the tide.”
“What's the tide?”
“It’s when the water comes in much farther towards the land. It happens every morning and every night. It smoothes out all the footprints so there's a nice, new beach for everyone to enjoy every day. There was a full moon last night, so it came up even higher.”
“But this wasn't stupid footprints. It was a city I built.”
Dad now crouched down to put his face before Petey’s. His deep brown eyes grew thoughtful as he said, “You know, Petey---it's not just the tide that knocks down the things we work so hard to build. All of our accomplishments in life can be wiped out. Our plans---sometimes even our friends and family. Anything can get washed away by bad planning, or bad luck, or even something big like a war or earthquake or a storm. But mostly, just by time itself. Nothing last forever."
Petey bit his lip. "This didn't even last one night!"
HIs father turned and studied the lumpy sand. "What was it you liked most about your city?”
“Well...the main tower, I guess. And the wall.”
“What was it about those you liked so much?”
Petey thought about the pleasing shapes, and the enchanting fantasy of being small enough to live within them. But that wasn’t what resonated most strongly within him. Without thinking, he blurted,“Building them!”
"Do you want to take a break and do something else today? Or do you want to start over?"
Petey glanced down the shore, where a few more people were starting to walk in the golden morning light. Dogs were barking and delightedly chasing gulls. It looked like it would be fun to explore the beach, but the scene could not compete with the vision that still gripped his imagination. He said, "I want to start over!"
“Well, now you have a chance to enjoy it all again.” The sun caressed the edge of Dad’s face as he smiled. “And because you learned so much about building the first time, you'll make it even better than the first one.”
Thinking intently for several moments, Petey watched as a second, even more magnificent city continued to arise in his mind's eye. “And I bet I can make this one strong enough that the tide won’t wreck it!”
Dad straightened and ruffled Petey’s hair affectionately. “Maybe.Get your tools, buddy,and get back to work.”