What he told us was once there had been a whole different city here. People who sailed in from far away and lay down on the ground for days when their boats hit shore because they were so tired from pulling the sails as they ran south from the Pamlico Sound.
You couldn’t call it soil, he told us. They landed on sand. Packed tight like foundation and so they built upon this ground the highest buildings that man had ever seen. Buildings were fifty, one hundred stories tall. They overlooked the Cape Fear, they overlooked the ocean and you could see all the way to Hanover and even catch George II from his tower. If you wrote your friends and told them, you could see them waving as the sun moved west across the sky in the evenings. What he told us was that they dubbed the place New Hanover.
Boats kept landing and men kept throwing their bodies on the sand. They’d kiss it until their lips were chapped, hug it until their arms ran raw. They constructed towers and schools and soon elected each other to government positions to run the many needs. Some men barked orders, others worked hard. It was all for the betterment of the town, so no one complained. Children sprouted like dogwood blooms and soon took their buckets to the sand and built as well.
What he told us was that other men wanted New Hanover for themselves. They saw how the sand glimmered against the sun and the ocean reflection and that you could build such towers that would allow you to see your relatives and ancestors, and they tried to take it. But the townsfolk saw the invaders coming from their towers, and so looked to the children and their buckets in the sand, and they too followed suit. And in the Great War, the bullets could not shoot through the dunes the town had mounted. The shots from foreigners came and scattered, and the wind just blew the sand to form fence after fence and the town was saved. The townsfolk kneeled and thanked the Lord for the sand.
What he told us was that around this time the town noticed a change in the sand. It no longer stood strong, but rather spread underfoot. A heavy kick would send particles flying at your neighbor. The dunes had taken too much, perhaps, and the sand was now tired. The town pleaded with the Lord, but the sand began to take their towers. One story at a time, the towers sank into the ground. No one knew why.
The second time the invaders came, the town could not see far enough and was not prepared. They tried to fight them off with what they had, but it was the sand that had always protected them. And again, it was the sand that decided their fate. There were few battles, because the town sank into the ground and the old city of New Hanover was lost forever.
The invaders celebrated their victory on their knees, praising the Lord for the sand that had saved them. But there were no longer the towers they had longed for. The schools and the hospital and the city hall had all sunk as well. With no soil and no resources, they attempted to live with sand, but it was weak and blew away in the wind. What they could pack hard enough with water to last was ripped away by strong tides, and soon the sun burned them until they were but jerky and bones.
What he told us was that a third group of settlers came to New Hanover, bringing with them machines and raw materials foreign to the land. They poured concrete into the sand and over the bodies of those who had come before, solidifying the foundation for their great buildings. They had learned from towers and kept things short but expansive. They built banks and shopping malls to go with their schools. They built movies theaters and supermarkets next to their hospitals. These were great men, and they had constructed a great town. He and his generation, his friends had settled into this and made this for our parents, and in turn, for us. Everything that he had built was for the grandchildren, he said. Everything.
What he told us was the sand would take even this, for it now sucked everything down, even the concrete, even great men. A new tide was coming that would wash away what the sand left, and what he told us was that we were that tide, that he had never intended for his daughter to marry a man with such dark skin. Even the beach feels winter for a few months, he said.
He died and we put him into the ground, six feet of sand without a grain of soil in sight. What he never told us was the color of the faces who barked orders or the color of the hands who built those giant towers. What he never told us was what a whip was.
As we threw flowers onto the casket, my brother told me the sand will take him too. It takes everything. He will sink down past this settlement, past the invaders, and even past the men who named this place. He will sink through the earth for the sand does not want him. And when the tide comes to wash this place away, we will swim to the other end of the ocean.