An urban legend retelling inspired by “Diana of the Dunes.”
Cassandra at Dawn
Cassandra watched as the white-crested waves crashed onto the shore. She and her family had come to this beach every year since she was two. It was the same every year: lazy days of swimming and ice cream and sunbathing. But this year, whispers of a ghostly apparition haunted their indolent days. They called her Diana of the Dunes. She wasn’t malicious, but haunted these waters nonetheless. Cassandra shivered at the thought of swimming alongside a ghost and turned back to the lake’s siren call. On this part of Lake Michigan, the sand was soft but as brown as dirt. She hated the sand, wishing she could go from grass to water with no in-between. She glanced back at her family, fixing her goggles. Her father was snoozing, her mother was reading a book, and her brother was building a sand castle. She turned her back to them and waded into crashing waves, tip-toeing over rocks as sharp as knives. Diving into the water, she fell into her swimming routine: five laps of freestyle, six laps of breaststroke, and seven laps of butterfly stroke.
After her first set of laps, her brain went from foggy and detached to alert and awake. When swimming, she felt like she could hold onto her life more tangibly than on land. She imagined webs forming between her fingers and toes, dragging the water with dexterity she couldn’t quite achieve. She pushed herself to hold her breath for longer and longer, picturing gills forming along the sides of her rib cage. Her lungs burned. She bit her lips, willing her mouth to stay closed–just one more lap until she could breathe again. With five yards left, her lips unwillingly parted, and lake water gushed into her mouth. Exploding out of the water, she spluttered and gulped down air. Her feet grappled for a sand bar to stand on. Still coughing, she looked back toward her family. They hadn’t noticed.
She removed her goggles and looked straight into the sun until her eyes burned as much as her lungs. When she turned her gaze back to the water, everything had a greenish hue, like a sepia photograph gone wrong. Far off into the horizon, sailboats bobbed, their masts swaying violently on the waves. Cassandra allowed those very waves to pick her feet up and down from the sand bar, like a buoy.
Above, the gulls circled, squawking their own complaints. She trailed them, watching them dip for food again and again, and then finally landing on the water. The closest one was a mere meter away. Cassandra wanted to swim out to it to say that they had more in common than not, despite the distracting physical attributes.
She was about to do just that, just to see what would happen, when bare flesh caught her eye. Her family had gotten to the lakeshore early enough this morning that no one else was on the beach with them. Therefore, Cassandra was the only swimmer for miles around. Except not. A nude woman, with hair and breasts to prove it, floated along the shoreline, face-up to that burning sun. She looked back to her family–her mother would surely notice this–but her eyes were still buried in her book.
When she looked back to the shoreline, there was no one to be seen. Cassandra was absolutely alone.
Cassandra at Dusk
It was cold that evening. Overhead, the moon casted its silvery shadow on their beach cottage and the surrounding sand dunes. Down below, sailboats bobbed, water lapped, and the lakeshore glistened in welcome. Cassandra gently closed the front door behind her, knowing that her family would still sleep even if she slammed it. The sand pulled at her feet as she slid down, down, down, giving into its omnivorous chafing.
She had wanted to return to the water this evening to do her laps again, to see if she could hold her breath for just a little longer. As if she could prove something. As if she could prove anything at all.
A cloud passed over the moon. She let the sand draw her toward the ebb and flow of the tide, liking the feeling of sand between her toes and underneath her toenails. Then the cloud passed, and the moon shone down on the water. The waves were rough that evening, but she didn’t let that dispel her. Inspired by the nude apparition from that morning, Cassandra casted her shirt and trousers just out of the reach of the waves and dove.
The water caressed her skin like a lover that she never had. She felt expansive in the silent darkness, a nymph on the water. She could hold her breath for two laps, five laps. She could hold her breath for as long as she wanted.
Except she couldn’t. And when her need to breathe drove her from the water once again, spluttering, she spied a ghostly figure jumping off the barge a half-mile away. It was the woman from earlier–Cassandra would swear it to God himself. In the light of the moon, the woman’s pale skin glowed. In the shallows, Cassandra stood, half-girl, half-fish. The water lapped at her ankles and yanked at her shins, and still she stood, watching the woman float and splash.
After the moon began its descent, the woman exited the water. Cassandra didn’t stop to think as she yanked her clothes over her still-damp skin and ran barefoot over the sand. The woman, still nude, walked casually back toward the dunes. Cassandra’s heart flip-flopped in her chest as she ran past her family’s cottage, past the neighboring cottage, and into the wild dunes of beyond. She had lost the woman minutes ago and was about to turn back when the moonlight beamed onto a small shack hiding behind a tree.
Cassandra hesitated, not knowing whether it was polite or not to investigate further. But her feet moved of their own accord, and she found herself staring into a driftwood shack with a sand floor and no woman, nude or clothed, to be seen.
Cassandra stepped across the threshold. The sand on the other side of the doorway drew her down, and she landed hard on her knees. In the light of the moon, that sand looked as white as bone. Cassandra cupped her hands into the floor and let it pour, cupped and poured. She liked the way it touched her arms and hands. Like a casual kiss. Then she spat into the sand, mixing it until it was more wet than dry. She took the mixture and spread it over her arms and hands, scrubbing until she rubbed away everything that made her Cassandra.
Cassandra in Between
The lake called to her. Against its primordial murkiness, her skin showed whiter than the sun, whiter than the moon. Slanting sails and sweeping gulls greeted her in an unspoken language, needing only the rhythms of the water to communicate with her. Talking didn’t matter now, anyway. She had a different name once. She had a new name now–she heard people whisper it as she passed. Diana of the Dunes.