I don’t look at the Baltic Sea. Its crashing lull of waves. The sound carried on a cold, June wind that threatens to bite the plastic bag from my hand. Although this sea is saltwater, the air doesn’t smell like it. The scent is Lake Superior, more than 4,000 miles from where I am now in Poland. My mind tries to negotiate this paradox as my feet negotiate chunks of concrete and rock. Following me is my husband, but my determination to find the perfect spot precludes any backward glances to see how far behind he is.
Past an abandoned construction site, coarse sand stretches the length of the shoreline and vanishes in the curve of a feline’s arched back. It is here in this tiny refuge from development and curious eyes that I stop and turn around to see that my husband is close by. As he approaches, I take note of the wind’s feral nature moving around him, past him, rushing to arrive somewhere – a destination to which we are not privy – and I imagine his face, if he were to remain still long enough, polished smooth like granite from the waves of wind. These same waves that push my hair to veil and unveil my face. These same waves that ripple my jacket and the plastic bag, sounding like the three of hearts clothes-pinned to a bike’s wheel spoke.
With my back to the sea, I dig a hole in the sand next to a large rock. My husband joins me, and we gather more rocks to put around this sunken altar. When we finish, I reach into the bag and pull out four white tea candles taken from the hallway closet and my letter to Molly written yesterday on a faded park bench next to our home in Warsaw. After I lay these candles and letter around the altar, I take out a small patch of dark, brown fur and place it in the middle. Not ashes as I had thought when my 17 year-old cat was dying from cancer. Polish law doesn’t allow the return of ashes, the vet told us, so he offered to shave some of Molly’s fur.
I light the candles, but the flames flicker and go. My husband and I pull more rocks from the sand and stack them on top of the others. The candles lit once more, we share memories of my cat. Her love for humans and food. Her fascination with water. Her good-natured disposition that eased her travel from Minnesota to Poland nine months earlier. What remains unspoken is Molly’s last few months with us.
We pull our jackets tighter. Lake Superior-like waves crest.
I put the items back in the bag except for the letter, which I burn. All those emotions blazing, smoking, turning charred wisps of black. I pour sand over them, but the wind claims a few and those wisps swirl in front of me like a dust devil ascending.
We walk to the sea’s edge. Using our bodies as a shield from the wind, I take out a paper-made boat and place Molly’s fur in it. My husband puts his finger on top like one does on a knot before tying the bow and places the boat on the water. He lets go and so does the fur, scattering like the proverbial ashes. The boat languishes near shore. This isn’t what I had thought, either. Molly’s burial boat was to float away from me on placid waters, propelled by a motherly breeze.
When I had told my American coworker I was visiting the Baltic Sea, he replied that it was like looking out at Lake Michigan. I don’t have much experience with that lake, but I have plenty with Lake Superior. As a little girl, I would stand on the shore willing my mind to see land on the other side. I never could. But those waves. A gathering storm of iron blue exhortations peaking in a fury of foam hastening toward me only to diffuse in mock supplication at my feet. The frighteningly cold beauty of the lake calmed me then as it does now.
I touch the sea and shiver. Lake Superior cold.
I cry about Molly. How she comforted me when I needed comforting. How I hoped I had comforted her when she needed it. Yesterday, I cradled her warm, lifeless body after the vet had euthanized her. Her fur soft and full despite the illness. I wanted, needed to believe that she was alive but then, my husband held her, and her head rolled lifelessly to one side. That fossilizing moment moved me toward letting her go; otherwise, I would have wondered if the vet had made a mistake when he put his stethoscope to her heart and announced her “gone.” What if her heartbeat were so faint like a clock wrapped in a warm blanket – a trick used to soothe motherless kittens – that the stethoscope’s diaphragm couldn’t detect it? Molly would have been placed into a biohazard bag for pick-up at the end of the day, and she would have woken up panicked and unable to breath. I might have unknowingly sent my cat to a tortuous death. Yet, maybe I did do this by not having her euthanized sooner.
Walking along the shore, I scoop up sand, searching for amber to take with me as a remembrance of this day. Again, I think about being a little girl at Lake Superior but this time looking for agates. Over a billion years ago, lava flows in iron-rich areas formed these gemstones. Amber has a story, too. The Baltic Sea was once a coniferous forest, and resin from the trees became trapped under sediment and solidified into amber.
Sometimes an agate is found with an inclusion, but an amber inclusion is extraordinary. An injured tree’s resin oozing like a salve over its wound hermetically sealing living plants and insects in its path. I have seen pictures of these – the exquisite fine detail of life and death preserved.
I cup my hand under the sand one last time, watching it sift between my fingers until only a fine layer covers my skin. Foamy remnants of a receding wave stretch like a web before me. I stand and arch my back and then look across the sea to make out land on the other side.
Jill Boyles’ work has appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Ilanot Review, and Calliope Magazine, among other publications. She holds an MFA and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. She’s currently working on a novel. Her Web site is jillboyles.com.