I woke at midnight to the sound of water. I stepped into the darkened hallway. My mother stood at the kitchen sink pouring a glass of water over the shriveled potted ivy on the windowsill. She looked rumpled in her yellow house dress, her hair flattened from her pillow. When she picked up the car keys, I stepped into the moonlit kitchen and asked, "Where are you going?"
"For a drive. I can't sleep."
"I'm coming with you," I said, half expecting her to say no. But this time she didn't object.
We drove south through town on Pasadena Avenue. Near Ted Peter's smokehouse the smell of wood and mackerel hung in the air. My father had loved to go there for potato salad and root beer. We passed the bowling alley where one night he'd tried to teach us how to bowl and we had laughed all night because the ball kept going in the gutter. He'd been buried a month now.
The road curved west over Corey Causeway. The drawbridge was up. The lights on the guard arm blinked yellow against the black sky. We waited as a boat passed and the drawbridge lowered. The night watchman raised the guard arm and waved us on.
Beyond the flat one-story motels of Gulf Boulevard lay a stretch of deserted beach lit by a half moon. A breeze from the gulf blew across the dunes and bent the sea oats toward land. Mom got an army blanket from the trunk and gave it to me to wrap around my shoulders. Then we walked.
The sand cooled the soles of our feet and chilled our skin despite the warm night air. Low tide had left bits of shells, fish bones and seaweed, scattered like shrapnel along the shore. Seagulls huddled in small clusters. A white heron flew down the beach. The sky was shot through with stars. It was confusing, that the world kept spinning.
We walked an hour before Mom would rest. "Let's sit here," she said. A beam of moonlight reflected on the waves and on her face. She spread the blanket and stretched out on half of it.
I sat down beside her. She seemed to fall asleep and so I curled in a little ball and closed my eyes, too.
When I woke, Mom was sitting up and staring at the sky. "We should go now." We started to stand.
We saw it at the same time, a large object moving in the surf, struggling to get out of the water. In the dark and half-submerged, it might have been driftwood, but it moved purposefully. We stood to get out of its way.
"In all my years —"
"What is it?"
"A sea turtle. It's coming ashore."
Small waves crashed over its back. It heaved forward, dragging pieces of seaweed and foam. It headed to a spot between the dunes and began digging in the sand.
Mom whispered, "This is her beach. They say that a turtle lays her eggs in the same place she was born."
The hole she dug was a yard wide and a foot deep.
"She'll lay her eggs and leave. If the raccoons don't get them, a few will survive. But not many."
Perfectly round eggs dropped from beneath her tail into the nest.
"Doesn't she stay?" I asked.
"No, she buries them and leaves.
"But who raises them?"
"No one. They hatch and crawl to the water."
"All alone?" I asked, but Mom wasn't listening.
The turtle, her eyes glazed with labor, never seemed to notice us. An hour later she'd laid more than sixty eggs. She kicked at the sand until they were covered. She headed back toward her watery home.
Mom stepped toward the turtle and placed the palm of her hand on her back. At first the creature didn't seem to notice the touch, but then she turned her head and sniffed the air between them. Mom followed the turtle into the shallow water.
As I waded behind her I watched the two of them. Years later I would come to understand how much these two were alike.
The tide was at its still point and stayed at knee level for a long way. A hundred yards from shore the ground beneath the surface gave way to underwater cliffs and currents. The turtle plunged into the gulf waters and swam away, leaving her offspring to survive or not, to find the sea or not.
"We should go," Mom said, turning back to shore.
I stood in the black water and waited to see if the turtle would surface one last time, and when she didn't I turned toward land. Morning grayed on the horizon. A breeze crossed the sky. On the beach, Mom shook the sand from the blanket and walked to the car.
Gale Massey is a freelance writer and a seventh-generation Floridian.