By Sophie Uhlarik
As our small aircraft descended, my spirits did nothing but rise. My face hovered centimeters from the window, my rapid breathing fogged up the glass as I watched the tiny, yet lush and lively crescent of a sandbar come into view. The salty sea air had already infiltrated the plane, but I was used to it, having lived on Nova Scotia’s coast for the short fourteen years of my life.
The slate-blue skies churned restlessly above the island, giving it a sense of mystique and independence from the rest of the province. Excitement and fear battled for my attention as we approached. Of course, I wouldn’t live there forever, firstly, all good things must end, but moreover there weren’t more than twenty-five people permitted to live on the island at a time. Even so, a few years would be enough to experience the wonder of Sable Island. So many books I’d read, stimulating my imagination, so many times I’d laid awake hoping I could be the next Zoe Lucas. The games I’d played with my plastic model horses back home.
I felt a pang of sorrow as a memory I recognized all too well flashed through my mind, clouding my vision with the only thing missing. Her voice still rang in my head. All her life she’d wanted to visit Sable Island. What she wouldn’t have given to be here with me, inhaling that island air and watching the breathtakingly beautiful wild horses gallop across the fields of Starry False Solomon’s-seal or playing in the sand dunes with boundless energy. If only she’d found a way to continue her war against cancer for another year.
My father must have seen my change in expression because I felt his hand on my shoulder a moment later. He said nothing, but I didn’t expect him to. My mother was the only one in the family who’d spoken much in the first place, but after her passing, father had stopped communicating completely. I grabbed a sleeve of my hoodie and wiped my face with it, not surprised to find it soaked afterward. My father then took that hand and squeezed it gently before pointing out the window.
We were about to land, close enough that I could practically feel the sand sinking beneath my feet and the wind whipping my long hair into my face.
Turning my head, I let out a quiet gasp. The seals that had been only clumps of dots on the shores before had focused into individuals to the point where I could see differences in color and size. Seabirds used the swirling air currents to guide them around and above us. A few kinds I recognized, Terns, Gulls, the rare Ipswich Sparrow. I felt some of my old anticipation and thrill return.
A mere minute or so later, we landed on the beach. We’re here. Sable Island.
No time to wrap my mind around the unimaginable situation though, the crew was already out aiding father with our sparse luggage and I understood that I was expected to help as well. I fetched our shared suitcase and my backpack filled with personal items while my father carried an immeasurable quantity of hefty scientific instruments. A guide led us to our residence.
Our house was on the smaller side but otherwise much nicer than I’d expected it to be. With a homey, cottage-by-the-sea feel which helped it fit in.
We also happened to share it with a few other people, but they mostly kept away from me. Consequently, I spent most of my time exploring the island alone.
Out in the sea . . .
There’s a sand-covered moon . . .
I often found myself singing as I traversed the grassy dunes. The birds and horses didn’t seem to mind my sand-paper vocal cords.
Where secrets lay waiting . . .
Beyond the next dune . . .
A nearby stallion raised his head and pricked his ears at me. I’ve never ridden a horse, due to the fact that they thoroughly frighten me, but I maintained a fascination for them and I did appreciate their presence on Sable Island. He was a perfect chestnut, with four white socks and a white blaze that took over most of his face. I glanced around to see if there were other horses, but it appeared to be just him. A bachelor stallion, maybe. When my gaze drifted back to him, however, there was a girl at his side. Pale, she was. Translucent, even. Like half her molecules were missing. But the stallion reacted to her gentle stroking all the same. He nipped the pocket of her dress playfully. After some time, he bent down onto his knees, a position I’ve rarely seen horses do, and helped her up onto his back. Her mouth opened in a carefree laugh, but no audible sound came out.
The stallion stepped up to his feet, and she patted his neck lovingly before tapping her heels to his barrel. He snorted softly, then shifted into a rolling canter, carrying her away over the dunes until I couldn’t see them anymore. I felt a pang of loneliness just then. It soon turned into a wave, washing over me and dragging me down with it like the high tides do in the summer. The summers where I used to dance and frolic in the water with my parents.
Staggering over the crest of a hill I was on, I searched for the two, but found only the chestnut stallion, walking over to a small freshwater pond without a girl, like it had never happened.
I ran back to the house, knowing my father was either there or at the research station, desperate to tell him about the girl. All lights were out in the residence, though, so I scurried down the slope to the station. My father was conveniently located just outside the building with some kind of monitor. Having said that, as I approached him, he held up a hand, not looking up from whatever he was doing. I took the cue and walked past him down to the shoreline, kicking a stone well-polished by the tide along the way. My disappointment eased a little when I remembered the possibility of seeing the seals.
I reached my destination, but found that the seals weren’t currently hauled out on that section of the island. I still walked onto the beach, scaring the life out of a lone gull who’d been peacefully napping on a driftwood log. Squawking at me angrily, he took off into the wind, leaving me alone with the sand dunes and the waves. I placed my shoes on the gull’s log before dipping one toe gingerly into the water. It was cool, sending shivers down my spine, but not cold enough to shoo me away. I waded in up to my knees, grateful I’d worn shorts that day, when the water stirred in a strange way just to the left of me. The lapping waves parted around something, but after peering into the water, I discovered that there was nothing in the ocean’s way. With great hesitation, I lowered my hand, but the moment my fingertips grazed the ocean’s surface, the ripples moved away and then proceeded towards the beach until they met the sand. Footprints appeared, walking away at first, then turning back to me and halting at the edge of the water, only meters away. The background shivered just slightly, as if glitching, then stopped, and the footsteps in the sand slowly faded into nothingness.
My curiosity snagged. My mind crowded with the girl, the girl, the girl, until (with a multitude of ungraceful splashing) I exited the water and made an attempt to follow the direction of the tracks.
Alas, I couldn’t follow a trail that wasn’t there. Looking up, I became aware that it was already nearing dusk. My stomach clenched and growled, just to remind me: solving mysteries could wait until tomorrow.
Running outside, I was greeted with the most beautiful day on the island so far.
The sun was bright, leaving the sky an expanse of cloudless aquamarine, overflowing with birds. Beneath me, the rippling grass mimicked the glittering, white-capped waves just off the shore. The sea breeze was strong that day. Not enough to knock me off balance, just to make my hair look really cool.
So, I began the day by retracing yesterday’s steps. First finding the band of horses I’d passed, then the gull’s log. I made up my mind to pursue east, to Sable’s tip. As I trudged on, shrubs gave way to scrappy greenery which gave way to sparse, yellow blades of sand-grass. As I neared the end of the island, the only living thing in sight were the grey seals, bathing in the blazing summer sun. I was ten seconds away from turning back when something finally caught my eye. Behind one of the dunes was the skeleton of a ship. Its old, barnacle-encrusted planks appeared to form the uncanny structure of a rib cage. It was in terrible condition, missing most of its hull and stern. Moreover, its wood had long been bleached white from so many days out in the sun.
Knowing Sable’s reputation as the Graveyard of the Atlantic was one thing, encountering proof was quite another entirely. I made a good effort to contain my excitement at such a find.
It soon loomed over my head, casting a dark shadow over me that made the air feel five degrees colder. I lifted my hand to brush one of its planks, surprised by how smooth it felt beneath my fingers, and got lost in thought. I was brought back to the real world by a small, wispy voice echoing through the boat’s corpse. I might have jumped a meter into the air, but my body had an entirely different plan, and stayed, paralyzed, in the sand. That gave my eyes time to catch sight of a pretty little girl in what would be the bow of the ship. She was humming something, and it only took a moment for me to recognize the song as the one I’d sung earlier. The one my mother had sung for me. Nonetheless, she disappeared as soon as the song ended.
I opened the door to our house quite late in the day, for the sun was already half hidden by the edge of the sea. The clouds were a violent red that made everything their light touched an inky silhouette.
My father wasn’t in the kitchen when I entered. The house’s ever-so-comforting golden luminescence dimmed a little when I realized that there wasn’t a soul around. I walked up the creaking wooden steps to the sleeping-quarters only to find that the other adults we shared the house with weren’t present. My heart fell even before I rounded the corner to the last bedroom. The open suitcase, unmade bed, and absence of the laptop that normally lived on his desk told me everything. Walking over to my mattress on the floor, something flickered across my vision. With further inspection, it turned out to be a note, written in familiar impeccable handwriting.
I apologize, but I’m really busy today. However, I promise I will be home before morning. Go to bed and I’ll wake you when I return. Remember to turn out the lights. And put out the fire in the woodstove. Sleep well.
A tear unfortunately made it all the way down my face before I wiped it away vehemently. It took awhile to turn off every light in the house, but after I completed the task, a slightly eerie, yet bewitchingly beautiful shaft of moonlight danced across my room from the window. Another incredible gift from Sable.
My mattress caught me reassuringly as I plopped down onto it, and I spent an uncertain amount of time just… staring out the window at the moon. Everything it touched turned ghostly and silver, like looking at a photo through a monotone filter. It reminded me of how the island was also kind of a moon, and right now, the two were meeting.
Then suddenly, there she was. Looking back at me from outside with her delicate, doll-like hands laid gently on the windowsill. Her long, silky hair was completely undisturbed by the wind seething through the grassy hills. My mouth parted, just a little, but I stopped myself from uttering a word in the fear of scaring her away. A moment passed before she lifted a hand and beckoned me outside. A small gesture, but along with the incredible scenery, I had no choice but to obey. Praying as I ran downstairs that she wouldn’t be gone when I opened the door, I had my breath stolen from me. Though the island was blanketed in this eerie light, a group of horses – standing together, backs against the wind, with their long, thick tails twined together – were still visible and life-like.
I stepped outside, and saw the girl maybe twenty meters ahead, walking down to the shore in her light way. Her feet never really touched the ground.
I stumbled to keep up, running over sand dunes in my socks, until I found her where the island met the sea. She was sitting with her toes dabbling in the salty water, hugging her knees like a child, but after a closer look, I identified that she was probably my age.
Sitting down beside her, one of my broken pieces clicked back into place. The sea reflected in her eyes made them my color. My mother’s color.
Tears stung my eyes but didn’t fall.
I was just grateful.
In the end, she’d gotten what she’d always wanted. To be a cancerless little girl, and more importantly, to be here.
I stayed with her for many hours, but never seemed to tire. Later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. My father sat down beside me, and I leaned into his warmth. I still don’t know if my father ever saw the girl, or if so, knew who she really was, but neither of us removed our eyes from the crashing waves that night.
Thus we stayed like this until the sun peeked out over the edge of the horizon and night faded away. Birds began to chirp again, their calls ringing out across the island and muffled hoofbeats could be heard drumming across the sand. Seals left the water for the promise of heat and a good spot to sunbathe the day away, and the tips of Sable’s only tree were touched with gold. Both surprisingly and not, as the day commenced, I felt at home on the shores of Sable Island.
By Sophie Uhlarik © 2023
Age 14, Grade 8, Five Bridges Junior High, Hubley, Nova Scotia
Sable in Words 2023
Youth Writing Contest, 14-17 age group
Sable Island Institute