'Yesterday, it was like fire on glass," says Mary Etta of the sunrise we missed. We had missed them all. We joked that Lynne and I were frequently heading to bed just about the time Mary and Mary Etta were getting up.
This early morning there is no sun to see. Dark, gray-blue clouds hover near the horizon. The surf is churning almost under the cabin, foamy whitecaps swirling in all directions. A strong, gusty breeze has set the wind chimes in chaotic and clamorous motion, and the palm trees are rustling and clapping in response. I'm sitting wrapped in a blanket. A fire spits sparks in the fireplace, and the smell of corn-and-apple fritters wafts in my direction. It is a smorgasbord for the senses, and I can't remember when I ever felt so peaceful.
"It was a week," I say to myself, lamenting that in a couple of hours we will be headed off of Hunting Island, South Carolina, and back home. It was the first of what would become an annual celebration of friendship. The dolphins had danced for us. Pelicans had swooped into the lagoon across the way, while raccoons were up to mischief in the driveway.
Deer were our guardian angels. They quietly ate the corn and leftovers we put outside for them, remaining calm under our gaze. Seven of them emerged noiselessly from the woods at twilight one night-seven sets of tall ears against a bright scarlet sky.
Beyond our gaze, island creatures had fallen into a February rhythm. Hibernating alligators, dug deep into the mud, listened to their hearts beat once every seven minutes. Loggerhead turtles rested up for spring, when thousands of their young would hatch and move toward water, guided by the light of the horizon. The babies would all emerge within 24 hours of one another and help each other along, but still only two or three out of every thousand would survive.
Life is tenuous at best. We remembered that at meals. We prayed for Steve, who had died of AIDS, and Joanne and Ginny, who were losing their battles with cancer. We brought into our midst the presence of hospice patients and abused women and sick children. Joy and pain-that uneasy mix. Mary Etta reminded us that Steve had said as he lay dying, "Heaven is very wonderful-or nothing....I think it's wonderful." He had smiled.
If it is wonderful, it must be something like this week. The senses can hardly take it in: the quiet beauty of palmetto fans in bright sunlight, of sturdy oaks draped with Spanish moss; the conversations of cedar waxwings, and cardinals, and warblers chattering high in stately pines; the pungent smells of camphor, wax myrtle, and bay laurel; the colorful clusters of red and blue berries on branches against an azure sky.
We tried to rival nature in the beauty and diversity of what we set before one another. We shared our poetry and music by the fire, and ate feasts heretofore unimagined: crepes with cream cheese and strawberries, pasta brimming with fresh shrimp, a mountain of crabs just pulled from the bay.
We reveled in the isolation and never felt lonely. One afternoon, three old black women appeared, sitting on overturned buckets with fishing poles dangling in the lagoon. We exchanged slices of life, like old friends might share slices of pie. Fay struck up a silent conversation with the one who was deaf. And then they were gone, our only other human companions on their way in an old station wagon back to the mainland.
We collected treasures along the way. The porch filled up with sand dollars and seashells, pebbles and pine cones bigger than our fists. Our hearts filled up with rare and delightful sights: a bald eagle perched high in a tree, and a great blue heron standing like a sentry in the marsh; two otters playing Follow the Leader at sunset, and an almost-full moon making a silver path across dark ocean waves; a perfect starfish lying on the beach's white sand.
We drank it all in, and then gave back our thanks. We prayed and sang, shared bread and wine by firelight. We listened to each other talk about our lives-about job changes and retirement, 50th birthdays and painful transitions-resting in the knowledge that we were cradled in the palm of God, caressed by wind and warmth.
We read books and crocheted and let Lynne give us waltzing lessons. We heard folktales around the fire one night. We laughed when Susanne got caught in a tree at high tide. We walked the beach forever.
About mid-week the black-headed, ducklike birds appeared; thousands of them for as far as the eye could see-so many and so thick that they seemed to form an island at sea. Mary and Mary Etta went for the binoculars, and we all took a turn looking. "Lesser scaups," we were told later, a variety of diving duck.
They bobbed in the surf. And every once in a while, as if on cue, one would stick its head under the water, and then another, and another, all down the line. It was a duck's version of "The Wave," the gathered fans applauding a generous and talented God. The scaups laughed in their ducklike way and shouted noisily to the skies in a racket of gratitude, as if to say, "Life is good!"
Yes! Good indeed! Thank you.
JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina.