Once upon a time there was a girl. She went one day to the sea, as she had gone since babyhood, wriggling her bare toes in the sand, revelling in the wind and spray that whirled her tangled curls into a frothing, frenzied cloak.
Then she saw the shells. She saw them as she had never before seen them, and of their sudden, overwhelming beauty mingling with the sea was born in her tremulous gaze a vision. She threw herself onto the sand, and began almost absently, shell by shell, to strive to give it form. And ever it eluded her; it slid chuckling from her fingers, yet it burned furiously in her eyes. Torment and ecstasy … hope and despair, longing and loathing… locked by the very irrevocability, the very starkness of their opposition, in unceasing battle, each following upon the other’s hem, wisp-like, insidiously all the while, until it strangled the other.
Wretchedness such as she had never before known ripped at her, making each ragged breath a struggle against her heaving, aching chest. Her fingers faltered and her head drooped, her sobs stormy despite the resolutely bitten lips. Never, never could she make it; however she laboured she could never give substance the essence, the sweet richness of fleeting shadow.
The warmth of fingers on her shoulder made her start. Through a tearful mist she saw a smile emerging from a sheet of wrinkles spread taut over sunken bones, and wizened brown hands moving delicately among the shells.
She returned the smile with a small, lopsided one of her own, and began gingerly to finger one edge of a spiralling shell …
She was working feverishly, oblivious to the wonder in the old, wise eyes, the curiosity of children and the disdain of their elders. It was no longer her mind or heart that willed the form, but the murmur of the sea seeping into the trembling of her fingers. The shells were moulded to its least tug, the design altered to suit every pettish plaint, each discontented mutter.
At long last it was done. She felt no sense of fulfilment or happiness, but only a great weariness, and an ardent desire for sleep cheered with dreams of anything and everything but the sea … She slept, but it was tranquil, dreamless sleep, deep and refreshing.
And when she woke again, she looked stunned upon her handiwork, and then at her sandy fingers, scarcely daring to believe. But still the sea called to her, demanded something of her – she fidgeted and fretted, trying to shut it out, but it only grew more clamorous, more insistent…
“No!” She snarled through clenched teeth. She would not throw it to the ravenous waves. Sooner would she stamp it back into the earth – No! Not that either!
It was hers. She would keep it forever. It would be her treasure, her precious … never, ever could she fling it to the ruthless battering of the waves…it was hers, and hers alone. The sea had provided the inspiration, yes, but that did not mean it owned her masterpiece…
She would keep it, and show it only to those who loved her and whom she loved. She gathered the weed-rotted plank on which it rested, and began to run, away, away, away from the sea.
They all gathered around her, exclaiming, praising, making suggestions. Her parents, her brothers and sisters … those she loved and those who loved her. She grinned proudly, her eyes shining, and bleak despair crept into her heart, choking her… The secret of the shells was nothing to them. They cared for the neatness of the design, the symmetry and variety of pattern, seeing in them the same cosy, reassuring prettiness as an ornamental vase or a chintz cushion. They did not hear the song of the sea in every curve, did not recognise the inexorable, unappeasable savagery in the soft, soothing ripples. The storms of wrath lurking within dulcet lullabies the menacing discord of long-decayed bones, the thirst and the wild hunger of the blue depths – they did not see these things. It was just a stack of shells to them, albeit a charmingly arranged one. And it would always be thus. The sun and sand would deafen them and deaden them to the call of the Sea, the imperious, alluring, fascinating cry that would brook no denial.
She was being ridiculous. With a toss of her curls she dismissed her errant thoughts. The thing was hers; she would take it back with her, and show it to all her friends as well, and everyone else. She spoke her intention aloud, and it was instantly acclaimed. The plank was declared too weak and exposed a base; instead a box was procured, and they all began to help her transfer it.
They laughed and talked as they worked. Many times she missed a subtle twist or nuance, and only corrected the error when the others reminded her of it. The waves wept chagrined reproaches in her ears, but she was dead to them. She would acknowledge no will then but her own.
But they too had wills, and voices, and fingers which moved rapidly, dislodging what they would and replacing it as they pleased. Mutilating it.
The grin became a scowl; the flush in her cheeks was now one of rage. She wanted to cry out her indignation, to guard it and cherish it as a lioness does her hapless cubs. She stood sulky and silent, battling her own headstrong self that bucked at the merest suspicion of another hand on the reins.
They made it stronger, better, added, undeniably, to the beauty and variety of its patterns. It was, under their thoughtful pruning, acquiring polish, sophistication, and – And she hated it. It was no longer the absurd, wilful outpouring of the fire running amok within her; instead of the rangy, dishevelled grace of the vagabond it had the smirking sleekness of a Siamese cat, cleaning its whiskers with insufferable complacence.
She turned and ran. The others were enjoying themselves so much they scarcely even stopped to shrug. She would come back in a while, as she always did. Only the old woman stared after her … In a way, she did understand. But what she understood she did not say. Not even to herself.
The girl threw herself into the sand, letting its hard grains grate against her scalding tears. She lay quite still. And the tears filled her eyes, one by one, and dripped onto her sand-coated cheekbones, streaking them with wavering rivulets. She tried to stay them, but they would not be denied. Neither would they expend themselves in a single stormy rush as they had always done before. One by one they rolled out, and with them, imperceptibly, all her fury. Numb, exhausted again as she had been when she had first fashioned it, she tried to summon sleep.
It would not come. Instead, thought stamped its way in, trampling over her lacerated, wincing mind, hectoring and chivvying it, its many shrill tongues lashing out with a ruthlessness that would have deadened the steel of a gladiator.
‘Call of the Sea’ – hah! Stuff and nonsense, childish imaginings worthy of a toddler with her first ‘Teddy’ … What were the shells but a child’s playthings? It was she and not they who had been doltish. They had indulged her fancy, consenting to join in her folly; for which, instead of being grateful, she wanted to throttle them!
She got up, wiping her face carefully to remove as much as she could of the tell-tale traces of tears, and went back. They had already finished with it and had drifted back to the sea, laughing and splashing and enjoying themselves tremendously.
“Come on!” They urged her. “Join in! It’s so much fun!”
She grinned. “Sure!”
She got up, and in doing so knocked the box slightly askew. Idly almost her fingers strayed back, pushed aside the lid…
She shut it abruptly, clenching her quivering fists, her teeth digging so hard into her under lip they tormented its translucent pinkness deep crimson. Still the wave surged through her pulse; her sobbing breath rose and fell to the rhythm of the sea. She was losing herself again…she would not. She would dam it. Dam and damn and be rid of it forever. Dam the tempest within her heart, her soul… She clutched at the sand, the shells, the sea itself…
But it crushed all her barriers, crumpled and crushed and trampled them and bore her away on its cruel, buffeting waves. Yet it was not mere assault from without that had availed against the citadel; the traitor who had thrown wide the doors of her fortress was within her – within her very marrow…
She flung her glorious mane loose of its messy bun, and bounded forward with an exultant cry, arms outstretched, eyes blazing in a blistering agony that was wreathed around frenzied joy. They laughed negligently, pityingly at her heartache over the pathetic little heap she had amassed. The sea could have it. The whole world could have it if it wanted it. Who cared?
The sea was within her, just as she was within it. It would call to her always whether she would or no…and each time it would sink its ravening tentacles deeper into her yielding flesh, siphon out her very life-blood and pour them into the shells to lend them lustre.
The others… she heard their jovial shouts, and felt a pang of envy. They did not understand because they could not. They could sing and dance and hoot in the very waves if they pleased. The call of the sea was hers and hers alone. Her joy and her torment. Exquisite madness; ecstatic misery… It was her destiny, her doom, her dungeon – her life itself.
“Come on!” They beckoned again. “Honestly, you’ll love it! At least check it out!”
She nodded and smiled reassuringly at them. “In a minute. You guys go on, don’t worry about me.” And then she knelt upon the sand and began to pile shells anew.