drift up and down Bonita Beach in sinking light. Heads bowed,
bodies lap back and forth as if they were Gulf of Mexico waves
weaving in at high tide, sun braided to sea. These ~ the winter people
hoping to escape the North's deepening cold for the advertised winters
of longer lives. Exchanging white snow for sand and shell trails
at surf-line, the shell-seekers' hair glows, snow-like, in Southern sun.
A woman ventures forth from rented cottage, 1950s throwback
its owner intends to burn. She walks to join the shell-seekers,
in a glance sees sun mirrored gold like fire in cottage window,
her lover's face phoenix-like in its glass web.
On bright beach the shell-seekers drift, heads bowed. Woman
bows her head with its long silvering hair, one thick strand
braided like sea and sun ~ hears ocean systole and diastole,
back and forth of high tide waves, winds of Earth's circling
playing the Gulf of Mexico, wild water drum. If she could bring
ear near enough to the shell-seekers' hearts, to her own heart,
she would hear the same. Above her birds not as mythical
as phoenixes, yet equally beautiful, surf the wind ~
terns, pelicans, laughing gulls ~ while at water line white egrets,
slaughtered close to extinction for ladies' hat plumes, pluck
out tiny sea hearts for their evening meal.
The shell-seekers weave around each other's sea-bodies, bowing
further to collect emptied conchs, whelks, scallops, moon snails ~
and cochinas who, when still inhabited, pirouette into wet sand
in a bejewelled dance ~ when emptied leave tiny shells
lapsed out into butterfly wings. The woman had read Calusa Indians
left vast shell mounds scattered up and down this peninsula of flowers ~
and silent shell mounds of their own bodies to Spanish conquistadors.
She remembers the shell mounds of her mother and father, grandmothers
and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, left to the endless conquistadors
of death. Cancers and heart attacks. Diabetes and strokes. War wounds
and suicides. And broken minds, hearts, waves washing out.
The woman and other shell-seekers breathe in fish smells
and salt sting of high tide, lift eyes like shells just long enough
to glimpse what someday must come when they no longer can flee
the Northern winters. Men, women, smile in the camaraderie of those
who seek shells, sun-revived flesh burnished as skin of Calusas
who centuries ago sought the same shells here. Nearly naked
the shell-seekers lilt, "What beauties!" ~ pretending to mean
what they cup in their hands. High tide surges in. Sun
ebbs behind wavering horizon. Woman meanders
back to cottage where lover lit a lone candle
in window earlier blazed to fire-gold ~ in embered
darkening welcoming woman, Aphrodite, Calusa queens
and all shell-like beauties back.