I was walking out in Madaket, the westernmost end of Nantucket, a few nights ago, when I noticed everything was golden. The sky, of course, with the sun’s last lingering rays. But the beach grass, too, is going to seed. I’m sure it was just yesterday that the grass was a bright, spring green. Now each strand is streaked with golden highlights.
And the sand is golden. It captures dozens of footprints and tire tracks, the “S” of a slithering snake, and compass circles left by blades of golden grass spun by the wind. It will hold onto these memories until the next downpour, when the sandy slate is washed clean.
I walk down the harbor side towards where the water is deeper and warmer. In winter, kite-surfers catch the outer edges of storm systems in this safe harbor, but now it is quiet. A few plastic patio chairs are arranged on the beach around a glass-top table. One chair faces the table, the other two are flipped over, either by the wind or by an angry house guest. On the table is a board game, already in play. But there’s no one on the beach except for two men digging clams a quarter mile away. And me, and the seagulls.
There used to be big dunes out here, an old islander told me. Children used to jump off them, turning somersaults in the air before landing. The dunes shielded nude bathers at sunset. There’s little trace of those dunes. Now you can see clear across to Esther Island, formed by the hurricane that shares the same name. On this night, you can see all the way to Tuckernuck. I wave towards Martha’s Vineyard.
The plovers have ceded the narrowest passageway between the harbor side and oceanside, so I follow the path over to the southern shore. I’m cautious about swimming alone in the ocean now, after getting caught in a riptide a few weeks ago. Instead, I stand in the shallows and let the waves hip-check me. I lean into them with all my weight, and they still knock me off my feet. Why wouldn’t they push me over? These waves have swallowed houses whole.
Back on the road, a line of cars is getting ready to drive out to the westernmost point to catch the sunset. Men and women and children kneel by the tires of their trucks, slowly letting the air out, bringing the tire pressure down to the proper PSI. It sounds like the hissing of a hundred snakes, all getting ready to strike.
The plovers are out, dashing along the edge of the waves, tapping out a sandy message in Morse code. You could spend your whole life trying to decipher it. They trill out a little tune; a revving engine answers back. The truck passes with the bumper sticker PIPING PLOVERS TASTE LIKE CHICKEN. I’m glad the plovers can’t read. Another says IT USED TO BE NICER ON NANTUCKET. I bet the plovers would agree.
It seems out here, there is at once too much sand and not enough. Some houses stand on pilings, their knobby legs exposed to the ocean. Others are nearly enveloped by sand, mountains of the stuff rising to the window boxes. It all depends which way the wind was blowing that winter.
On this end of the island, and on the eastern side, there are houses with carved wooden quarterboards that read Breaking Away, Slip Sliding Away, Bluff Edge, and House of Cards. They feel less like names and more like prophecies.