The snowfall doesn’t usually begin in December in Cape St. Claire. Usually, it holds itself off until January when the snow is dry powder and sticks to the tops of cars parked in their uphill driveways. February, in particular, is known for its creation of gleaming white stacks, heady packed-in shine that leaves children and their parents stranded in their homes, the same cars secured by their emergency brakes and buried for days at a time. Families in February are left feeding fire into their woodstoves, waiting and watching through their bay windows to see if the weight of the white will make the power lines sag into dainty slips and snap.
It doesn’t usually snow in early December when the moisture is still being hacked out of the autumn season, the rains damp and humid, the moon rising violet early in the mornings when those same children walk to school, their parents packing plastic lunch boxes and scraping slight morning frost from the car windows.
No, it doesn’t usually snow this time of the year, but this early December, the snow fell, and that fact is never forgotten by one of these children.
An album came out in the fall and the child cannot stop listening. They are blind to the insight of whether the music is considered new or popular to the public at large. No other children they know listen to the album but the CD has been diligently downloaded onto an MP3 player, each track ripped and synced. When the child listens to the lyrics of those songs, abstractions that have never previously been voiced in their spirit bubble up to the surface. They bubble so profoundly that some quiet evenings the child wakes in the middle of the night for reasons unknown and stumbles out of bed to pour a cup of Sprite. When the light in the kitchen is flicked on, mice scatter to their desolate corners beneath the oven and the sink. The child walks on tiptoes, pours a full two-liter with unsteady force. Moments such as these inspire the song titles in the child’s mind; as they watch fizz disintegrate in the plastic cup they think, When You Were Young you saw mice, When You Were Young you wandered here in the night.
The children of the neighborhood all find their way to the community beach. There is a veranda on a hill overlooking the seaside with a plaque commemorating the donor of the structure, something the children don’t understand at such an age. But they do understand walking solemnly to the plaque, running their fingers over the ridges of the letters in the name, the numbers in the dates of life and death. They understand a person who experienced a moment of significance at this beach granted them the veranda with the large wooden slabs for seats that overlook the Magothy River, maroon paint still crisp. The view from the seats looks out upon the water where at this time of year, crabs burrow deep into the silken mud. Come to think of it, many children of Cape St. Claire, whether they crack crab bodies and pull out their lungs in the summertime or not, do not know the nature of the crab in December. The children find later in their lives that at this time of year, the crab buries itself at a forty-five degree angle in that mud with only the eyes and the tips of the shell visible, waiting. This is not considered a hibernation. The crab simply waits. It feels through the shell, can breathe and eat and thrive without a single bone. It does not need to be told when to come up into the warming but it always, always will.
That December day the snow fell in wet sheets, one would think it was rain if it wasn’t sticking to the slabs of the veranda on the beach, Gibson Island hazy and obscured in the view to the north. Come to think of it, these children have not seen a map of their homeland yet. They cannot decipher the direction in which their seaside neighborhood swivels and winds, they do not know what is north and south. Most of these children will not grasp this skill of direction until they drive tractor trailers or lay sprinkler pipe, til they commute into downtown Annapolis to answer telephones in medical offices or wind through the rivers collecting silt for the state. Most will learn direction by those means yet will only truly understand when the technology becomes available to do so. They will sit astounded, lumps catching in their throats, when they see that small beach with the widest sunsets, their world encompassed on a website that anyone could find if they so chose. To a visitor, this community beach could be a tourist attraction, a sight seen and diligently, easily, crossed off of a list.
On that day the child feels an urge when they look out their bay window with the thin panes, so thin they could be false glass made of sugar, and decides they will take their music with them to the beach, they will shield the rudimentary MP3 player from the cold and the wind and plug the ten dollar headphones deep into the flesh of their ear canals. They will burrow their thick hair into a hand-me-down hat, wrap a scarf thrice around the neck, shoulder on a bulky coat in ugly colors and hurry out the back door.
The leaves have fallen; this is the first sign of the winter. The trees were not entirely naked before the storm but now with the wind and the wet, the last of the decaying leaf carcasses shake free from stubborn branches. That gust rushes like breaths and the child cannot hear their music over the howl, it is so distracting that the earbuds are popped from the left and the right canal, one by one, wrapped around an index finger and transferred to a pocket.
To the beach from the child’s house is a hill. A long, steep hill that leaves one feeling gleeful when they run down, their momentum shocking, the power of the body coming into full force. This is the hill in which the children will grasp the first tendrils of the understanding of free will, where they will evaluate that there is a direct opposition between believing things will sort themselves in the ways in which they are meant and the concept of choosing one’s own path, of making their own mistakes. Traversing this mental realm is not insignificant, it is very real, and the children will wear handmade necklaces and break in every pair of new shoes climbing back up that hill. As they get older, it will always seem no matter where they go they are forever climbing up that same hill.
On this winter day, the child has already traversed and acknowledged the path of free will. They wonder whether they were meant to see the beach in the snow or whether they chose to do so. The street is quiet beyond the howls, it is a weekday and schools are closed, parents at work. Most children are warm and inside their homes, the glass on the exterior of the houses this child passes fogging up by the breath of all they cannot see. The sky is graying, churning, but it does not strike fear.
The hill opens into a flat winding road with multiple options leading to that beach. One option presented includes a slim ridge of a street, a drainage pit to either side. Another route ensures a wider lane, mailbox flags dotted upstanding and alert along the ranch homes to the right. The field to the left of the wide lane is underutilized, doesn’t serve as parking or a playground or land in which the children play. The children only utilize this field and the perimeter of pine trees when the summertime comes and they must run from the beach at night when police arrive crackling over megaphones that the children must leave now for fear of an arrest. The children scatter in the summer out of the sand and through a neighbor’s backyard into this open field, the stars above an anchor, the flat land a bet to be made. One night the children will trip in the field and fall one behind the other and wait, stuff their fists into their mouths, hearts pounding into the dewy grass, gases slipping from their bodies while the police flashlights scan the land. The children are never discovered, they are left to wipe the dirt off their jeans and wander back up the hill they came from.
The wide flat lane veers to the left and within a block the entrance to the beach comes into view. In recent years to ensure encroachers outside of Cape St. Claire do not take advantage of the waterways, a picnic table is set up and visitors must check in, state their name, address, and point a finger in the direction of their home. The children, though unaffected, were annoyed by this practice as it seemed a barrier to enjoying what was rightfully theirs. This practice easily slipped away when the organizers realized they were inquisitors upon children who did not need to be asked where they came from.
On this December morning the front gates to the beach are unlocked and opened wide–someone has been here to ensure the water accessible, even in the snow. As the child traverses the threshold and the river comes into view, they realize the water is navy, nearly black, reflecting the sky above. The wind beats harder, the ugly coat now zipped all the way to right beneath the chin, the cotton bottoms of the fleece-lined sweatpants soaking up the mud below, puddled rain flicking up against the back of the ugly coat with each step. Still, the child doesn’t care, and it enters their mind as they make their way downhill onto the sand that this is a privileged view, this water. No matter what the child will grow to see they are cognizant of the fact that a snowy beach is a rare sight, a delicacy, and the child begins to wander westward along the beach to the channel that merges into a watershed, the homes downriver strategically aligned away from view or pleasure.
There are a few homes along the river moving westward towards the channel. They are set back, smooth cordgrass separating them from the sea. The grass grows tall during the summer months, so tall that it towers over bodies until cut low in the fall. For many years the children are unsure of the name of that vegetation yet always recall the pricks of the spires against their skin, the sight of them shifting back and forth in the breeze. On this December day shells are washed up on the beach and mottled with mud, sand still visible despite the snow, the current weak but consistent, pulsing onward, a timid splash before recoil. The child continues until the long plane of the levee is visible, the wooden structure built to carve the river.
The engineer of this feat was thoughtful, provided a ladder along the interior of the channel as an offering of swimming, cannonballs run the depth of ten feet. If a child jumped in and stretched upon arrival, let themselves sink with enough determination, their toes could graze the smooth mud of the unspoiled bottom, no shells or broken glass slicing back. There is a walkway into the river along the levee following the length of the channel only wide enough for one individual to walk at a time, the wooden path a foot wide. The children know to walk single file along the planks into the river, away from the boulders that strengthen the structure closer inland. It is out there, in the middle of the sunrise, sunset, stars and sky that the children gain their first insight into vastness. When one walks out on a typical day all voices from the shore cease, the breeze a soft hush. Even on an occurrence such as this December day, the end of the channel will prove to be the most quiet, albeit the most dangerous, to traverse towards. On that day, This River Is not Wild as the child’s favorite song from that album suggests. Therefore, a person must make up for that missing Wild, must be brazen and walk feet first, head first, heart first, into the unknown.
The wind doesn’t feel as intimidating as the child thought it would when they balance on the walkway, one foot in front of the other, to the end of the wooden planks. The river slaps the interior walls of the channel, the water bouncing upwards yet not high enough to intimidate the integrity of the structure. Halfway down the walkway the child turns to evaluate the shore. From here, the snow looks speckled along the beach, only settling in patches atop the boulders, disintegrating immediately into the sand. The vegetation is faintly sprinkled, the howl settling now, just as the child knew it would. The end is near, only a few steps away, and the child extends their arms to the left and the right to steady themselves, grabs ahold of the thick wooden banister at the end of the walkway. If it had a bulb attached to the top it could function as a stout lighthouse. The child surmises that maybe the purpose of the thick banister, so thick two arms couldn’t meet when they wrapped around it, was simply to insert a breadth of wood deep into the earth below to ensure that the channel would remain for years to come, no matter how the river shifted and changed. Upon the conclusion of the walk the child scrapes their boots against the planks, kicks off the excess gray snow from the edges into the water below, slowly descends down onto the walkway, turns, and steadies their back against the wooden post to face the shore. There is not another soul in sight to witness this December day, the day the Cape St. Claire beach saw the first snow of the season.
The children of Cape St. Claire do not know what will happen to this beach, as most are dreaming of the world beyond it. They dream of large looming establishments, what can be made with concrete. The children dream of interesting cities, places with more to see than a polluted riverside beach. They yearn for other faces, people who they do not already know, people that they cannot point out their childhood homes along the journey to the grocery store or the pharmacy on the main road. Some of the children will consider this beach an enterlude into the grander stages of life, life polished bright to bling, and those children grow into men who believe themselves capable of being kings because this was so little land to rule. The children do not decipher it yet but will one day conjure an innate sense of faith because this world has delivered it to them, an assurance that though mistakes can and will be made, they can always find their way back to this channel and, if they look north, Gibson Island will still be there, just far enough that it requires a boat to the middle of the Magothy River.
The child overlooking the channel from this moment forth will play a game of numbers, will try to remember each age and the symbols within their world that can always be associated with that number, and this beach is where the child begins counting. While others may wish to be kings, this child simply wishes to remember. When the child grows old enough, when they move beyond the cravable cities and waterways and find themselves in desert plains, they will wonder to themselves, why do I keep counting? One day after the counting has started but before the land shifts beneath them, this child will enter a boat for their first time and find themselves in the middle of the Magothy River. They will see the channel they have only observed from the sandy edges and they will know that there are many ways to see the same thing. It is that knowledge that keeps the memory of the winter day in December so fervent, so wild in the mind: it will keep looking more beautiful, more plump, more spacious and beating and giving with the passing of time, the dim hum of the waves splashing along the edges of their memory.
On this day, when the child finally stands to endure the journey back to their own shadowy home, it is the light they will remember most: the sky ceasing to darken, the earth turning upwards to meet them.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Karen Fischer is a writer in transit and graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Creative Nonfiction. Her previous publications include Ghost City Press, The Fix, South Loop Review and others. She blogs about the act of being in transit at Roam Curious.