“On the Beach”

Nancy Hale

September 30, 2019 
The following is a story by Nancy Hale included in Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff. Nancy Hale was an American novelist and short-story writer. She received the O. Henry Award, a Benjamin Franklin magazine award, and the Henry H. Bellaman Foundation Award for fiction. She worked briefly as a painter in Boston, then moved to New York and was Assistant Editor at Vogue, a reporter for The New York Times, and a writer for The New Yorker.

They came to the beach early, in triumph at the perfect morning. It was as if, Mary thought, after all the rain and the two cold days, they had a vested interest in the weather, as though they had invented today themselves, and a great improvement it was.

Article continues below

She was sure Mac, her seven-year-old boy, felt just the same way, that the blue, crystal perfection of the morning was their private production, because they always felt the same way about everything. He was wandering off down the beach now, weaving up toward the dunes and down to the edge of the water, inspecting everything like a proprietor. Ever since he was a tiny baby, their instant sympathy had been astounding. He had used to look up even from his play pen, the light in his face reflecting her exact mood. It was wonderful to have one person in the world who felt along with you, without words, as though by an electric communication. MacNeil, her husband, was not so, she thought as she began to arrange herself for the morning on the sand; and she did not care if he was not, since one person in the world, her child, was always with her; it made it more interesting to have another member of your family quite different from you, introducing new and foreign matter into the sensitive blend that was the domestic atmosphere. Together she and Mac would absorb the new elements MacNeil brought home on weekends and come up with the identical laugh or the identical wrinkling of the nose. And it was not as if she could reproach herself for a minute with having tried to possess the child; it was not that at all; it was only that things took him as they took her, as though in parturition a whole strain of her own humor and tastes and imagination had not become separated from her, but ran through them both, side by side.

But today was a Wednesday, the middle of the week, and there was only the wide blue glittering morning to receive together. Taking her time, consciously enjoying each second of being alive, Mary spread out the big striped beach towel to lie on; set her beach bag and the canvas back-piece conveniently to one side; took out the bottle of baby oil. She sat down and spread oil all over herself until her skin gleamed. Then she lay down flat on her stomach facing the ocean, with her chin propped upon her hands, and looked out to sea. The life she felt so full of today seemed to flow like a stream out into the vaster water and on toward the edge of the world, the pale-blue horizon, whence it gently turned with the turn of the world and came back, still fluid, into herself again, in as unbroken a flow as the circulation of the blood.

How happy Mac is, she thought. She twisted her head to see him. He had settled down on the heap of glacial boulders at the end of the beach, and she thought he was sailing his boat in the rock-pool they called the Bathtub. She could see part of his tanned, smooth back, still plump with puppy fat, and part of his red jersey trunks. Without a break she turned back to the enormous blue in front of her.

And here face down beneath the sun, she thought. Two sandpipers stalked along the margin of the water. The morning was young and a blue haze hung lightly over the water. Far out on the water a sailboat sat, apparently motionless, but the sail did not flutter and after a time she realized it had moved along, in relation to the headland. The sun was so tranquil and hot that the heat seemed to her to purr; she could feel it scratching at the edges of her back. To feel the always coming on, the always rising of the night. And now at Kermanshah the. The night was a long, long time off, and this was morning, blue and virginal.

Article continues below

All at once the sailboat was no longer there. It must have moved, in the crystal timelessness of the day, beyond the headland, on into unseen waters. While she was here, still, as though forever, herself opposite the ocean that spread enormously over the curve of the globe, not falling away from it, forming a part of the roundness of this world until it met another shore, thousands of miles from here, another beach. She and the sea, and, somewhere comfortably near, her child. She wondered whether the sun had purred for him. All under her she felt the world, the globe, a round mass pursuing its course in space, wonderfully ordered, punctual as a chronometer. All things were in their places—the world going privately around, and going around the sun, and the sun participating in the galaxy, and the galaxy belonging in some vaster dance. Mary stretched out her hand and sifted the dry hot sand between her fingers. When I was little, she thought, I used to think of the world as ending at the horizon. Right here where I am was the center, and the stars were only there to look at.

But perhaps because of the scientific facts mixed in every bowl of oatmeal nowadays, Mac had apparently never felt that medieval, center-of-the-universe way. One day she had felt the sense of the globe upholding her in space so vividly that she had wanted to share it with him, and yet was conscientiously afraid of rupturing some concept more natural to childhood. She said, cautiously, “Did you ever think of the world being round underneath you?” They were walking home from the beach, on the narrow path between bayberries that scratched their legs. He looked back at his mother with surprise. “Of course. It is round underneath me.”

Everything hung together, the oceans did not fall off the world, the world did not desert the sun, and the sun danced in its appointed figure. And here face down beneath the sun. She stirred and turned her face sidewise upon her folded arms. This way she saw the ocean at an angle. Into her frame of vision slid a gull, coasting along the currents of the air high over . . .

At the same moment that she noticed the sound of the planes, she felt again that new, unpleasant jerk in all her nerves, like the jerk that pulls the sleeper back into consciousness in the early hours of the night.

She sat up, sharply, on the towel and peered at the three planes flying out to sea. At some distance behind the first plane could be seen a white object, somehow reminiscent of a hornet’s egg—which was the target which the planes, from the Navy base down the coast, towed out to sea on clear mornings to shoot at.

Article continues below

And she had seen them on many mornings before, so why, she thought, crossing her legs under her and following the planes with her eyes as they flew out into blue space, did she today feel this sick jerk, this dreadful sort of awakening, which was like a wound that altered the calm course of the blood?

Feeling disrupted and cheated she lay down again, and again let her eyes find the knife-edge of the horizon, now standing sharper and clearer out of the haze. And now face down, she began to recite to herself, like an incantation to restore something which was lost. But she could see it was not coming back, the life did not any longer flow out of her to the world’s edge freely; but remained hesitant, questioning, on the inside of her eyes. She rolled over on her back and shut her eyes to answer the question.

Well . . . the answer was not hard to find.

All things had fallen from her, her child, her love. This, she thought, was what the threat of extinction did to one.

They were playing bridge last weekend and before pivoting to new partners at the table, were talking about the H bomb and the new site in South Carolina for an installation.

“They’re not going to make the actual bombs there,” the other man said.

Article continues below

And then MacNeil dropped the thought.

“It’s the chain reaction I mind the idea of,” he remarked casually.

The others seemed to understand, but Mary had never heard of it.

“The what?” 

“It’s not so much the blowing us to pieces,” the other woman said in an explanatory way. “Civilization or anything, because I suppose we’d eventually build a new one. Maybe it would be a better one anyway. It’s the having the atmosphere gone.”

Article continues below

What?” Mary said. MacNeil took it up again.

“Nobody seems to be able to assure us that there might not be a chain reaction,” he said. He was beginning to shuffle the cards, and the other woman to deal. “To put it in an elementary way, if there was, the atmosphere surrounding the earth would ignite. Blow up.”

And it was when he said that, over the card table, that Mary had had the first of these jerks. It was not a conscious reaction at all. It was, on the contrary, like losing consciousness, at the same time that it was like being brought sharp awake out of the beginning of sleep. In fact, consciousness made her say only “How horrible!” The reaction was not connected with anything that was conscious; it belonged to her nerves and to the mysterious centers of life that were responsible for those miraculous reflexes that saved one from falling down when one lost balance, that made one throw out a hand and save one’s eyes.

Now she lay quite still with her head buried, waiting for the answer to her question to settle her, to settle whatever the sources were that could send up that awful, primeval jerk. If you know what a thing is, she explained to herself, you can accept it and go on from there. Now I know what the jerk came from. The idea of the end.

Not the end of me, or the end of civilization, or the end of man even, but the end. The isn’t any.

So the planes must have made the jerk come back because they are going to shoot at the target to practice hitting targets, and planes drop bombs on targets, and bombs can cause chain reactions. And chain reactions etcetera etcetera, and that’s the whole of it. The full circle of destruction. So let me get back to the living circle of the globe under me and its place in the eternal circles of space, please. Because the other has not been, is not, and perhaps never shall be.

She turned over again, cautiously and superstitiously, and took a small quick look at the horizon to see how things were.

They were all right. The life, the energy, of herself in this lovely and pristine morning now swelling to full noon, flowed out once more quite free toward the edge of the world, returned, and again drew out from her with the softly ebbing tide, like healthy blood. She drew a sigh, because it was all right, and her fancy began once more to play upon the sea.

The beaches are the edges of the sea. I lie on the edge of the sea, and beyond the sea are the beaches of the world, the broad white beaches and the stony shores, and the sinister beaches where the smugglers climb at night without lights.

The palm-bordered beaches of the lonely islands in the South Seas, Stevenson’s islands, Kon-Tiki’s islands, all alone in the Pacific. And the pink beaches of Bermuda where Miranda walked. And the beaches of the Carolinas where the pirates’ gold is somewhere buried still. All the beaches edge the sea and hold it down to earth like clamps along the thin outside, while the sea swings back and forth, clamped down at its edges only, hugging the globe, and the earth quakes at intervals and shudders, and the volcanoes spew up the earth’s insides in molten rivers, and the whole thing hangs together and nothing falls off.

Even the waterspouts, in the far-off tempests that only sailors see: they strain up from the world and meet the sky, but they come down again, and sometimes split a ship. But they come down.

A safe world. A safe, centered, maternal world that draws its own to it. I will not hear an objection to that, she thought. It is a safe world, and I love it, and it spins under me on itself as it also circles the sun, and the sun is always there . . .

Her eyes rested upon the stretches of water in peace.

She began to realize that she was hungry, and sat up to put her hand on the lunchbox, in her beach bag, that they brought down every good day. She brushed off the accumulation of sand crusted along her arms where she had flung them outside the towel.

She stood up and stretched. She became aware of how well her body felt, and how young she still was; she shivered a little and flexed her legs at the knee. She caught sight of Mac far down the beach digging, and called, “Hi! Mac, I’m going swimming.”

When he came back they proceeded down to the water with the delaying anticipation of a dog approaching its food, and felt the water with their toes. “Cold!” they both said at the same instant.

Mac held out his little finger crooked, and she linked hers with it.

They thought.

“What goes up the chimney?” he said.


“May your wishnmywish never be—broke!” he chanted as they pulled apart.

They walked into the water. Mac was brown all over except for the red postage stamp of his trunks. He kept turning his head and grinning at his mother, each time a little wave smacked against them. When the water reached his ribs under his outstretched arms, he suddenly shrieked and dived into the sea. Two steps farther she followed him in.

When they were cold from swimming they came out again into the now blazing sun of midday. They walked up the slopes of the beach toward their little encampment with the sand making boots around their feet and ankles.

“That heat,” Mac said. “It purrs like a cat, doesn’t it?”

“It certainly does,” she said, and laughed out loud because he had felt it, too.

They chased each other up the beach for a bit until they were partly dried off, and then settled themselves on the big towel and unfolded the little waxed-paper packages that contained hardboiled eggs, and crabmeat sandwiches and lettuce sandwiches. There was milk in a thermos bottle; peaches, and sugar cookies.

Something unseen and awful was stronger than her love for her child.

“We know how to enjoy the good things of life, don’t we, Mother,” Mac said, crumpling up his pieces of waxed paper and putting them back in the box. It was an expression his father used sometimes, and he looked like a small-size caricature of his father, with his light hair standing up in spikes.

“We sure do!” Mary said, and jumped up to shake the crumbs off her bathing suit; sitting down again, she leaned over and dusted crumbs off her child’s round, brown stomach. “Now for naps.”

She arranged the reclining canvas back-piece to cast a shadow on Mac’s face as he lay down on one side of the towel; then lay down herself beside him with her face buried in her folded arms.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight?” he said.

“I most certainly am,” she said, and sat up again.

She looked down for a minute at the round, tanned, glowing face and started to lean over to kiss the peach-bloom cheek.

There was a tearing, ripping sound in the heavens, a kind of whizzing like a length of silk being split. Mary sat up sharply.

Mac got up, too; he jumped to his feet with his head thrown back, peering up into the unbroken blue whence the piercing sound had come.

“Jets!” he cried  joyfully. “Pr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r……. ” and he began to imitate the sound of a machine gun, doubling himself over and holding an invisible gun to his hip.

The jerk came then, in her innermost, uncontrollable foundations. Sick, draining, both startling her out of the dream of the day and blacking consciousness, the jerk came and went. She sat quite still, letting the sensation pass.

“Weren’t they lovely jets?” the child said happily, lying down and lifting his face for his kiss.

But she felt no impulse to give it to him. He seemed too far to reach.

When she bent over anyway to kiss the round cheek, nothing went out to her child. All her life and her love seemed to shrink behind her eyes and mouth, gathering themselves around some other focus, as blood and fluids rush to a wound.

But the child was satisfied, and rolled over on his side, heaving a great sigh.

She started to lie down beside him, but her body did not want to stretch out. She felt the need of sitting up, hugging her knees, staring sightless at the sea. Something against nature had happened to her.

For a moment, there had been a clean break in the feeling which had always united her with Mac. Something unseen and awful was stronger than her love for her child. She had always known that there must someday be a break between them; when the break came, it would naturally come through his moving away from her, toward the world. But she had moved away from him. It had not been conscious. But it had been so.

What had divided them was not any ordinary fear, for love was stronger than fear, and in any real danger her first response would have been, she knew, toward Mac; like the time when he was four and fell off the pier and she had been in the water after him with no memory of having dived. But this was not a real danger. This was the danger of utter unreality, of the end of existence for everybody. And there it was: the unreal danger, present in the world. Ten years ago, even, a mother could have lain all summer on a beach with her child, and nothing under the canopy of the heavens could have come between them.

She moved, stiffly, and lay down on the towel beside the boy.  She propped her chin on her fists and stared out to sea. The life began to move out of her again, slowly, sluggishly, over the broad blue waste.

She thought of its deep strata, the green, the blue, the black layers underlying one another; and moving along the strata, and from one stratum into another, silently, the billion elemental creatures of the sea. And each of these was a center in itself, for itself, a cell or more of responses either reaching out like tentacles or shrinking in to the cell’s mysterious core. In her sadness and isolation, she felt she was, at bottom, no different from those silent creatures. She was dark, and alone, and unrelated. All things had fallen from her, her child, her love, and the day she had greeted with such triumph. This, she thought, was what the threat of extinction did to one.

She dropped her head down in her arms. To feel the always coming on, the always rising of the night . . .

She knew that the shock of those jerks would lessen and disappear for her. One could forget any danger that failed to happen. She would forget it, and forget the primitive, subhuman isolation it had brought her. Perhaps by tomorrow she would forget. It had been like exploring a region not meant for human eyes, something people were not supposed to know about.

“Mother,” Mac said.

“Yes, darling.”

“I’ve got something in my eye.”

She sat up. “Close your eyes,” she ordered.

“Don’t rub them. It’ll come out.”

She bent over him and again kissed his cheek; it was sweet-smelling with health, soft, and with the bloom of velvet on it.

She moved the canvas back-piece to cut off the sunshine that had begun to creep across his face, and went on looking down at the drowsy child, her love moving steadily across the deep water that separated their two existences.

Then she lay down again, relaxing, her cheek laid on her arm, and felt the sun burning her bare back. She looked athwart the broad sea that curved far, far away to the other side of the world, where another shore would meet it, and felt the heat of the sand coming up into her body through the towel. There was no sound anywhere, only the heat and the air and the water lying blue before her to the horizon, and gradually she began to imagine the world revolving underneath her in its predestined place, humming as it spun.



From Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale by Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff. Used with permission of the publisher, Library of America. All rights reserved.

More Story
“Lost Poem 4: RX”
A Poem by Camonghne Felix
The psych on duty in triage Asks me if I want to die, and I say Not at the moment, no, but stay Tuned. I can charm my way out Of...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.