The Shiny Sea
She held my hand and made me feel something. There was electricity that passed from her grasp into mine. Her mocha-brown locks bounced all over her face as she skipped across the sand. She was free. She was as light as the breeze. Her only care was making the castle with the colorful buckets that were scattered across the white sand.
“Sit! Sit!” She exclaimed. Her smile and big eyes brightened with the sun passing through the clouds.
“Here, you take the pink one, and I’ll have the purple one.” She told me. I nodded kindly as she began scooping sand into each pale.
“So, Dakota, have you ever built a sandcastle before?” She was playing with the sand in her hands as she told me, “Many times.” She paused for a moment. “I come here all the time at night.”
I was slightly surprised to hear that. “Oh really? Who do you come here at night with?” I was now helping roll sand into tiny cupcakes for her.
“I come by myself. No one knows.” My gaze froze on the tide. I felt my face frown as I turned away without her seeing my expression.
“Sweetheart, is this something that happens every night?” I turned back around as Dakota began to dig slower as she spoke.
“I don’t come every night. But I go out my window and meet my friend here.” I was beginning to doubt any of this was real.
“Dakota, can you tell me who your friend is?” I awaited her response, suspended forever in the space that was ours and the sea.
“She lives in the trees.”
I looked up at the 15-foot palms that swayed in the breeze. They were everywhere. They must have gone on for miles.
But this was all sounding like a typical make-believe story. The precious kind children tell their mom or dad before they go off to sleep. Except I wasn’t either of those. I was the nanny that had been hired only a month ago. My job was to take care of Dakota, to watch after her, to keep her safe. But these secrets that were pouring out of her were making me question my responsibility. Was I supposed to notify her mother? Or text her father from 1700 miles away? What would either of them say? Or do? Just as I was playing ping-pong over my options, Dakota stood up and said, “I’ll be back, she’s calling for me!” And like lightning, she was gone.
I had to think fast. The winds were picking up and I knew the forecast had called for a storm. I watched as her blue-jean overalls disappeared into the jungle and realized my legs hadn’t moved. I shot up and called after her, “Dakota! Dakota! Wait!” But all I could hear was the wind rustling the palm leaves and the distant pitter-patter of her sandals.
I was beginning to panic as I ran quickly and thought about how out of shape I was, when I nearly tripped right over her. She was standing against the base of a short palmetto humming to herself. I was unsure if I should interrupt, so I took a seat on the nearest rock and just watched her. She began dancing with someone or something invisible. Swaying from side to side the way a princess in a ballroom does, she stopped in front of me. “Would you like to dance with my friend? She’s sad.” Her eyes were a deep brown now and the pained look on her face made my mouth quiver.
I swallowed hard. “Why is she sad, Dakota?”
She looked down at her shoes, “No one sees her.”
With the rolling sound of thunder above our heads, I realized she wasn’t talking about her friend. I reached out to hold her hand, rubbing my thumb softly against her small fingers.
“Who doesn’t see you, Dakota?” It wasn’t more than a few seconds before she was wiping the tears from her eyes. “Nobody loves me.” And just like that my eyes filled with the same tears. This poor young girl that I had been asked to look after was feeling the same way I had felt many times in my life. It didn’t seem fair. A six-year-old girl should not feel unloved.
“Why are you crying?” She asked me.
“I’m just very sad. I think you are loved more than you know. Your parents love you and I love you, too.” She reached around my neck and gave me the biggest hug I had ever received. We both held onto each other, making more tears fall out as we squeezed tighter.
We were connecting. This is what she needed. It was what I needed.
As we got up and strolled back laughing at silly things, and kicking around small pebbles, I looked up and realized everything was still. Even the tide was eerily calm. Dakota skipped over to the wet sand and picked up a shell. Holding it out she came back to me and said, “Here. It’s from the water. Shiny things come from there all the time. You have to keep this one safe.” I smiled and bent down so that I could look her right in her eyes.
“You know what else is shiny that I need to keep safe?”
“You.” She threw her head back in laughter and that giggle still echoes in the air, forty years later. Whenever I stare out into the horizon of any shiny sea, I see Dakota, and the purity of a small child that lives inside us all.