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The Rågbjerg Mile by Jensen Beach

The straight of Skagerrak and the Kattegat Sea meet and form a distinct line reaching northeastward from the tip of Skagen in Denmark to the southwest coast of Sweden. Here there are turbulent waves and strong, unpredictable currents. Odd is thinking about these currents as he takes his first steps into the frigid water. It is September, too cold to swim. But there is a girl in the water. She is approximately fifteen meters out, though Odd knows that distance is difficult to determine across water. He does not know how the girl got out in the water. He knows only that a man who has said that he is the girl’s father is standing on the beach, waving his arms over his head and shouting into the fog. Odd does not normally do these sorts of things. Before he was in the water and before he had come to Skagen and then out here to the very tip of Grenen, the sandy whip of land that reaches up between the seas, Odd visited the Rågbjerg Mile, some fifteen kilometers southwest from the city of Skagen on Route 40 to where the Rågbjerg Mile has migrated roughly half way across the peninsula of Skagen. The Rågbjerg Mile is the largest migrating sand dune in Northern Europe. Odd came to plant his feet on moving ground. The dune moves steadily from west to east at a pace of eighteen meters per year. Apart from the rolling tops of the dunes and the long grasses that grow irregularly from them, there was not much to see at Rågbjerg Mile. There was a squat wooden post carved from a thick log that was, Odd was certain, not native to this part of Denmark. On the post, there was a small, clear plastic box that held numerous pamphlets about the various birds that passed through Rågbjerg Mile on their annual migration. Odd read briefly about the Eurasian Golden Plover, before folding the pamphlet and placing it in his back pocket. Apart from that, there was only a light breeze and the marshy trail of sand behind the dune, stretching back toward Skagerrak. On a placard near the parking lot on his way out, Odd read that the Rågbjerg Mile formed in Skagerrak three hundred years ago. From Rågbjerg Mile, Odd travelled north to the northernmost point of Denmark. Here, a little less than an hour before he got in the water to rescue her, he saw a girl standing at the water’s edge. She repeatedly walked to the water’s edge and then backed away from it slowly. Behind the girl, safely away from the water, a man stood with his arms crossed and watched the girl. There were only a handful of people on Grenen, which is a vast flat of white sand, and so Odd was aware of their presence. It was growing foggy and cold. The man was and still is (he did not attempt to go in after the girl) wearing a bright green jacket and pants. The girl, before she removed them and walked calmly into the water, was wearing a gray sweater and a pair of blue jeans. Odd, who does not normally notice these sorts of things, noticed this day because at his hotel in Copenhagen in the morning he was unsure of what sorts of clothing to pack for his two-day trip up to Skagen and back. He chose one pair of jeans, a thin fleece jacket and two short-sleeved shirts. In town he was fine, but here, out on Grenen, before he took his clothes off to go in after the girl, he was cold even in his fleece. His clothes are now strewn about the beach and he is in the water, a handful of meters from the shore, swimming more or less along the line between the two seas. The girl is drowning. When he reaches her, she lets her head dip beneath the surface and Odd must reach for her beneath the surface. He grabs hold of her shoulder and pulls the girl upward and wraps his left arm under her arms, careful to keep her head above the water.
     She is heavy in his arm. She is not moving. She is fifteen, maybe sixteen—Odd guesses this by shape and feel of her body against his. She is soft like women he has held before, but there is a child-like delicateness he does not recognize. Her body makes him think of a bird. He holds her against his side with his left arm, reaches with his right. He kicks his feet together with every reach. He thinks of swimming lessons as a child. Pick the apple, put it in your basket. Pick the apple, put it in your basket. Reach, pull, reach, pull, scissor your legs. Some waves reach above Odd’s head, splashing over him and causing him to gasp for air, clear his wet hair from his eyes with a shake of his head. Repeat. There is a pattern here, Odd thinks, and if he could remove himself from the water and the waves, he might uncover its rhythms and shape. On shore, a small crowd has gathered. Odd sees that two or three men have waded out into the water toward him and the girl. Odd pushes toward them. The Rågbjerg Mile is on the move, even now as Odd approaches. The wind he feels on his right check and rushing over his head is the same wind that is lifting the sand of the dune, relentlessly pushing it forward, moving the land from west to east and back to the sea.

Jensen Beach is a graduate of the MFA program at UMass Amherst. His stories have appeared or will soon in American Short Fiction, The Collagist, Fifty-Two Stories, Ninth Letter, Sou’wester, Witness and the Best of the Web 2010. HIs first book, a collection of stories called For out of the Heart Proceed, is forthcoming in 2012 from Dark Sky Books. He lives in Massachusetts with his family.