Little Shell Girl
This story is dedicated to the memory of my sister, Grace, who died suddenly last year and will always be young in my heart.
One spring day, many years ago, a woman in a blue-green dress stood at the top of a bluff looking out over the ocean. She was an insubstantial-looking woman, impossibly old, her silvery hair long and curly-wild. She often stood at this spot, a few meters from Old South Light. People who lived near the bluff hardly noticed her anymore. Like the ever-present gulls whose plaintive cries filled the air, the woman had become a fixture of this sea shore, especially in May, always alone, her eyes always scanning the waves.
On this particular day, a much younger woman approached, watched her for a moment, then sat on the cast iron bench that stood a few feet back from the cliff edge. A dark-haired woman in a curiously out-of-style dress, she might have reminded many people of an elementary school teacher they’d had, or of a friend’s mother when they were a child. The old woman glanced at her—another tourist visiting the old light house, she decided—then turned away; what she was looking for would be out in the water.
But today, for some reason, perhaps a friendly air about the visitor, she felt like talking. She turned back toward the younger woman and waved her arm in a broad, sweeping motion toward the sea, encompassing miles of ocean, as she said, in her crack-ling rasp,
“Have you ever looked out over the water and thought —just for a moment—that you saw someone bobbing in the waves, just beyond the surf? You shake your head and tell yourself, there’s no one out there. It’s just my imagination. Well, it might be real. Let me tell you a true story.
The younger woman smiled and motioned for her to sit next to her on the bench, but the old woman shook her head and turned her attention back to the sea.
It started long ago, before I was even born, the gray-haired woman said.
It was a time of vast spaces—of lowlands that stretched through tall grasses—boggy de-pressions alive with snakes and frogs, and highlands like this one that rose and rose, till they turned and drove down to the sea, disappearing into a green mist, like the mist we see before us.
Both women gazed off over the water.
Tiny human settlements clustered here and there at shoreline estuaries, the inhabitants making their living fishing or trading with inland folk for grains and cloth in exchange for their treasures from the sea. It was a time when people feared the ocean, yet lived in harmony with it, reveling in its serenity on calm, clear days like today, and hunkering down in fear when storms rode in. They were sure, in those days, that in the seas dwelt strange and unknown creatures—from giant squids and monstrous whales to tiny, diaphanous beings that defied description.
One year, a great storm raged for three days, and when the wind and rain subsided, a huge mound of debris lay across the shore road. In the pile of debris was a sea creature: she had been treading water a few meters off shore, watching the goings-on of land creatures rushing about to tie down their boats and lobster pots. Suddenly, she’d been captured by the waves, tossed about for many hours, and then, just as she despaired of life, was deposited onto land along with great strands of kelp, dead and gasping fish, battered crustaceans and broken bits of trees. There, exhausted by her ordeal, the creature fell into a deep sleep, and slept through the night.
At that, the old woman wobbled, as if dizzy.
Come and sit with me, the younger woman said, a catch in her voice, again motioning for the speaker to join her on the bench.
Well, it is a long story, the old woman said. And she joined the newcomer, taking a mo-ment or two to settle in, then she continued, her eyes still focused on the ocean. Where was I? Oh yes. Late the next morning, the sea creature awoke, totally disoriented, and felt the vibrations of someone’s approach.
It so happened that a man was riding his horse along the shore road at that moment, lead-ing a donkey burdened with lumpy packs of goods. Although the sea creature didn’t understand these things, the man was an itinerant tinker by trade. He traveled between settlements, fixing leaky pots and pocket watches, sharpening knives and repairing broken lockets for settlers many miles to the north and south.
The tinker was accustomed to spending most of his days alone, but he was not a lonely man. He enjoyed equally the quiet of long stretches of road with its hum of insects and birds busy about their days, as well as the noisy welcome he received when he came to a town needing his services.
Usually, the man carried his tools and wares in his wagon, but for the two previous days, a summer cyclone had raged, its winds tearing great trees from their roots and strewing branches everywhere.
The debris blocked most roads, and when he dared a foray out, he’d been forced to leave behind his wagon and most of his supplies. Instead, he packed a few tools and inventory onto a pack animal he borrowed for the journey.
Now, midway to his destination, he paused. Even the horse and donkey would not be able to make their way through the huge mound of sea weed and tree branches that lay across the road, and the woods near the road were dense.
The sea creature watched as the large man-creature dismounted from one of the four leg-ged animals and approached her, his steps heavy on the soft earth. Trembling with fear, she looked around, wondering how to escape. Would it eat her? Make her its slave? She panicked. What direction would take her back to the sea?
“Now what have we here, in this tangle?” the land creature said. He was tall, with great orange whiskers, dark overalls and heavy brown boots, but his voice was soft.
She was unable to speak.
“I am Malcolm,” he said, patting his chest. “Do you have a name? Are you hurt?” She said nothing, but her look of panic needed no language.
Malcolm guessed that the woman—for she looked like a young woman—was dazed and confused from being lost in the storm. And as the woman wriggled free of the kelp, the man made another observation. “Why, what has happened with your clothing?” he asked. For the creature was naked.
With every question, she looked beseechingly at him and would only shake her head.
“Don’t worry. We can make do with some of mine,” the man said. He walked back to the four-legged beast and gathered up some sheets of soft material.
The air was cool and breezy, and she shivered. Although she was unconcerned about her nakedness, she allowed him to dress her in a long shirt, then wrap her in another layer of thicker, soft fabric, which felt comforting. The man then made a fire and brought her close to it. His hands touched her softly, giving her a reassuring pat as he sat her on a fallen log. She closed her eyes and experienced the radiated heat of the flames. So hot, so dry, she feared her skin might crack; she moved back. She had seen bonfires on beaches; so this was how it felt.
The man watched her. She bore no gashes or wounds other than a few scrapes, and she seemed unharmed by her ordeal, whatever it had been. And then she looked up at him and looked into his eyes, and he gasped. Her irises formed spirals, like the spirals of a nautilus; their blue and green drew him in till he could scarcely breath. He shook his head and drew back.
He went back to his task of road clearing, and as he and his horse dragged heavy debris from the road, he looked up from time to time and saw the creature, looking so alone and fragile that he determined he would have to help her. When the day grew dark, he settled her into his blankets and lay next to her to keep her warm. In the morning, he helped her onto “Old Tom,” as he referred to his horse, and they started up his journey again.
“You’ll have to hold on to me,” Malcolm said, “I have only one horse and I need the donkey to carry my gear. The next town sits at a ferry crossing over a great river. It’s no more than a day’s ride from here.
There will be women there who can look after you better than I can. Maybe they can help you find your family.”
The creature nodded blankly, then looked around at the trees and brush that lined the road. Birds flew overhead, chirping and chattering. A deer and her fawn stood silently at the edge of the woods. These and other land wonders the sea creature saw and smiled. And so, their journey passed quietly.
No one in town knew the woman. The shopkeeper’s wife took her into her home, helped her wash and gave her some of her old clothes. She and the minister’s wife tried to discover her name, family, where she was from. But the woman was mute and—most perplexing of all—she seemed unused to washcloths and soap, nor did she understand how to fasten her clothing. They scolded her and tsk-tsked her immodesty and she submitted to being dressed. But she refused to wear the shoes they gave her. When Malcolm finished his business concerns and came to see how she was doing, she let out a sob and ran to his side, kissing his hand and indicating she wanted him to take her with him. So he did.
Weeks passed. The tinker made his deliveries and bought the woman more clothing and soft Indian moccasins in the next large town. Eventually their travels brought them back to his wagon and they set off together on his normal route.
He found her to be a calm woman; she smiled and bobbed a silent thank you for every-thing he did for her and soon mastered how to make a fire and fix coffee. When she showed a curiosity for his work, he began teaching her how to help him. Noting her dark hair and complex-ion, and trying to make sense of her unfamiliarity with women’s clothing, he guessed that she might be an Indian, the sole survivor of a ship that had foundered in the storm. So he named his new companion Lahari, the Indian name for foamy ocean wave.
Gradually, they made their way through the small towns of his route, traveling south for the winter months. To forestall the inevitable gossip that would follow them—a single man and young woman traveling together—he told townspeople and settlers that they were married, and that his wife was a tribal woman and a mute. The explanation was accepted without question; some people he’d been trading with for years even gave them wedding presents—a pretty teapot, a small knit blanket. And over time they became man and wife in more than name
Sometimes the pair traveled inland, through small towns along rivers. When they did, La-hari would grow anxious, shaking her hands and pointing back toward the sea. They came to find a sign language that worked for them for most things. She also began to speak a little, managing words that mattered to her—ocean, water, fish, bird, Malcolm. At times they traveled along great, tall cliffs that greeted the sea, where thousands of nesting sea birds cawed and shrieked and circled overhead from sunrise to sunset.
There, Lahari seemed happiest.
In those days people seldom sat on beaches, but if Malcolm had business near a small beachside town, Lahari would sit for hours on the sand, or waded in and splashed in the water while she waited for him to conduct his business. She began to gather shells and, using paints that Malcolm kept in his tool kit, she learned to paint tiny figures onto the shells—colorful fish, seagulls, strands of seaweed. They’d sell them to children for a penny at the next town.
The old woman got up and looked off into the waves. I always loved sea shells, little mira-cles of curves, she said, then began to pace, glancing back at her audience only briefly from time to time.
Shelley was their little miracle, entering the world before Malcolm even realized that
Lahari was with child. When Lahari’s belly grew, she had guessed that she carried a babe, but was fearful. Would the child be like her, or like Malcolm? One warm May afternoon, when he went out to meet appointments he had made to sharpen knives, she stayed back at their campsite, rubbing her belly and signing discomfort. When her water broke, she intuited what was happen-ing. Labor among her people was brief and without serious discomfort, and she labored for less than an hour to deliver a baby girl.
Malcolm returned as soon as he could that evening, thinking she was ill. Instead, he found her holding an infant, wrapped in a small blanket. They named their little girl Shelley—that is, Malcolm did, and Lahari smiled her approval. And as the child grew, Laharai began to speak more and more, mastering spoken language alongside her child.
A nomadic life was no way to raise a child, Malcolm decided. There was a cottage with an attached shop for sale in a coastal town midway along his route. The shop could be his work area, where he could take in repairs and do knife sharpening. He would still have to travel from time to time, but he and Lahari would have a home. And, most importantly for Lahari, the house featured a view of the ocean.
Lahari delighted in feathering their seaside nest. For Shelley’s room, instead of the usual teddy bears and ABCs, Lahari painted a border of clams and scallops, all golden, lively curves. On her dresser they placed a large glass tank, its water populated by tiny sea horses and sparkling small fish; along the bottom, a hermit crab in his borrowed nautilus shell.
Lahari also began working with Malcolm in his shop. She could speak almost as well as anyone now, although she had not mastered reading. While he soldered pots and repaired lamps, she began making fantastic animals, birds and fish made from glued-together shells; families of hollow conch, and crowned conch with spikes outstretched like stars, rough coral exteriors giving way to pearlescent pink interiors. A glass-cutter’s widow offered Malcolm her husband’s tools and shop scraps in trade for repairing her gutters, and soon Lahari used the man’s bits of stained glass to form sun catchers. Over time, her blue-green seascapes filled the kitchen windows of most of the homes in nearby towns, and her stained-glass creations of fantastic fish and sea birds earned her some modest renown.
As little Shelley grew old enough to understand the connection between her name and the shells that surrounded her, she took delight in the game, working alongside her mother to glue together her own sea creatures, like mussel-shell mermaids and scallop-shell sea serpents, and adding them to the figurine collection on her shelf.
Her father liked to hold a large conch shell to his ear and tell little Shelley, “I hear the sound of the ocean. I hear the sounds of the universe. Listen. It’s calling you.”
“What’s it saying?” she would demand.
“That you are the princess of the seas, and fantastical sea creatures are your servants. Just call them and from the four corners of the earth, they will come to do your bidding.”
“Oh, Papa.” And she would squeal with delight!
Lahari and Malcolm were never blessed with another child, so they made this one their world. They loved taking their little girl to the beach. But she seldom spent much time with the other children there, running and screeching. She preferred solo play, digging or making sand castles with her bucket and shovel. Sometimes, she would stand right at the water’s edge, waves lapping at her legs, and stare off into the waves, as if someone, or something, was calling her.
Malcolm and Lahari worried about her. Bathers thrashing in the incoming tide looked dangerously close to Shelley, and strangers’ eyes seemed to focus threateningly on the girl’s budding young body.
But the child loved the sea and sought it out, so they continued to take her. At home, she would sit on a favorite armchair, legs tucked under her, and stare out the win-dow for hours at the ever-changing seascape. Even her eyes were blue-green, “the color of the ocean,” her father would say.
But it was more than that. Like her mother, Shelley’s eyes were mesmerizing. The irises formed spirals, like the nautilus shells the child loved—hypnotic blue and green that could draw anyone who met her into their depths. And after each contact with the sea, the eyes became more aquatic.
For her twelfth birthday, her parents gave Shelley a gold nautilus charm, made from a thin slice of a real nautilus shell that Lahari had cut—oh so carefully—in her studio, about an inch in diameter and as thin as a grain of sand. A jeweler friend had gold-plated it and adorned it with a small bit of red coral at the heart of the spiral. Shelley’s eyes widened with delight when she saw it, and she asked them to place it around her neck immediately. She wore the charm eve-rywhere from that moment on.
The glint of the shell seemed to add a glow to Shelley’s auburn hair—neither as dark as her mother’s nor as fair as Malcolm’s—as if her body drew from it a golden sap. The charm’s sensuous curves, glistening in the faintest light, beckoned seductively to viewers to follow the circle to its ultimate, to infinity. In town, at outdoor markets, women often stared openly, even stopped her mother to say, “The child. The shell. It’s magic.” Total strangers would follow them down the street and stop them to say, “What a beautiful charm! And the child!”
To this, her parents would mumble, “It’s the sea. We all feel the call of the sea.” And then they’d hurry Shelley home, aware that something beyond them was at work.
Like her daughter, Lahari, too, was transfixed by the sea. She often day-dreamed about her home, before the day she met Malcolm. She was of an air-breathing species not unlike the dolphin, and had been part of an extended family group, living off kelp and small crustaceans, as did the sperm whale, another sea mammal she sometimes swam with. She hadn’t meant to leave her family, but once she was swept onto land in the storm, she’d been drawn in by the novelties of walking on land, fire, eating cooked food. And Malcolm was so sweet, she found herself un-willing to leave him. Then, once little Shelley came along…
Lahari once thought she caught a glimpse of her mother one day, bobbing in the waves about a league offshore. After that, she often found herself searching the water’s surface for an-other sighting.
Malcolm sometimes caught her standing at the window, looking out over the water. She had never explained where she came from or how she had ended up on the road that day of their meeting. She had never spoken of any family, despite his many pleas to know more about her, and he had eventually stopped asking. He had wandered the tinker’s road for over a decade be-fore he met her, never dreaming he could one day have a wife and home. He counted his bless-ings and didn’t push for answers.
And then, one day, Lahari again saw her mother offshore. And her sister. She was sure it was them, watching her. She waved at them, and they waved back, then dove into the water and were not seen again. Could they be looking for her still, she wondered?
That evening, Shelley in bed asleep, Lahari came to Malcolm in tears. “I need to talk,” Lahari said. “I miss my home. I miss my mother and sisters.” And with that, she began sobbing. Malcolm put his arms around her, and she allowed herself to be comforted. “I must go home to visit,” she finally said, when she could speak.
“Shelley and I will come with you,” Malcolm said. “She can meet her relatives.”
“No. I must go alone,” Lahari said. “That is why this is so difficult. Where I am going, you cannot follow.”
“Will you leave us forever? Or do you plan to return? What am I to tell Shelley?”
They embraced and finally, Lahari told him about her world. They talked till dawn.
Shelley was thirteen when Lahari disappeared. There had been a big storm, and Malcolm let everyone—even Shelly—assume she had been lost to the waves. The child stood by her father at the memorial service and cried the right amount of tears. But when the tears stopped, she didn’t come back to the living. She became very quiet. She refused to go to school.
The old woman dabbed her eyes—I don’t think the girl ever forgave her father for that.
He didn’t tell her? The young woman asked.
The old woman shook her head.
“Will Mamma ever come back, or will the sea take me, too, Papa?” Shelley would ask from her favorite chair by the window. And her father would hug her, trying to cajole her back to the living. But the child even refused to eat; she became thinner and thinner.
Malcolm watched Shelley move through the house, her auburn curls shining in the faintest of lights.
Over the winter months, when the sun’s rays shone almost horizontally, it seemed the child’s curls emitted the light, like the rays of the sun at dawn. When the sun caught her spiral blue-green eyes, he choked with sorrow at the loss of Lahari. He had built a life revolving around his wife and child. And now, with Lahari gone, Shelley was all he had left. He feared he might lose her, too.
Spring arrived, and Shelley was no better. He set out to convince the child of how much he needed her to live. One warm, May day, he took her to the beach to tell her again the story of how he and Lahari had met and the true story of her disappearance.
It was sunny, but most of the boardwalk concessions that had been built over the past few years were still closed for the winter. Sea gulls shrieked, complaining about the lack of easy meals, forced to fish, instead of living from boardwalk trashcans. Father and daughter walked slowly through the deserted boardwalk. Hand in hand, not talking, they smelled the salt and sensed their desolation.
Two derelict men were huddled by a boarded-up amusement booth. As the father and daughter passed, the men stared at Shelley’s neck, where the nautilus charm glinted in the cold spring sun. A rat scuttled though some newspapers. The man and girl shivered and headed down to the sandy beach. They tried wading, but the water was icy, so they hunkered down against the warming, dry sand, and watched numbly as the waves obliterated their footprints.
Shelley had found an unbroken shell while they were walking and now held it up to her ear.
Her eyes grew bright. “It’s Mamma!” she burst out. “It’s Mamma. She’s calling me. She wants me to dance for her. She misses me.” And she ran down the beach, twirling and sparkling in the oblique rays of the spring sun.
Her father cried after her, “Please, Shelley. Please come back.” He watched as she ran up onto the boardwalk. When she kept going, he got up and followed her.
As Shelley ran through the closed booths, one of the derelict men who had felt the lure of the sparkling gold at the child’s neck, grabbed the young girl, broke the charm from her neck and ran off.
Shelley leaped up and ran after him, catching him around the knees, tripping him. “My Mamma gave me that necklace,” she sobbed as they fell against the pier, precariously close to the edge. “That’s my Mamma’s necklace.”
As her father ran toward them, the man turned on Malcolm’s darling child and hit her fiercely against the temple with a hard metal object he held in his hand, knocking her off the boardwalk into the shallow water many feet below. He looked up at the stunned father who had not yet caught up with them, and then he ran away, the small gold charm and its chain left to fall through the boardwalk’s gaps into the water below, near the child. The tide was coming in, and as the waves crashed down, they poured over the child’s still form, which rolled and somersault-ed in the swirling water.
Malcolm ran around the end of the pier and onto the sand, trying to reach his daughter, hoping to pull her to safety. As he drew near, he gasped. There was Lahari. She was swimming near where Shelley had gone under. Her head stood above the water for a moment, their eyes locked, then she dove in, and a moment later Shelley’s form was held above the waves. As Mal-colm drew near, wading in as deep as he dared, four shimmering, aqua-colored creatures—their blue-gold opalescence glowing with supernatural light—took the child into their arms and carried her off on the crest of the rising waves.
“We will take care of her now,” Lahari said. “I promise I’ll bring her back if I can.” And she followed the creatures into the waves.
When Shelley came to, she was lying on a bed of kelp, her mother at her side. “I am here, you are safe. You will live with me for a while, little one,” Lahari said.
“Mamma!” Shelley cried and hugged her. “But Papa,” she protested. “He’ll be so wor-ried.”
“He’ll be all right,” Lahari said. “Before I left, he agreed that you could come and visit me one day. Come, let me show you the wonders of my home.”
“And we can go back?”
“Of course,” Lahari said.
Shelley was amazed as her mother brought her to see all sort of sights—castles and caves, sea creatures, large and small. She met aunts who sang with mesmerizing voices and cousins who swam and danced to the music. She learned the ways of porpoises and dolphins, and how to avoid sharks.
Mostly, she swam effortlessly, often allowing herself to float at the surface in the slow coastal current.
The old woman paused here, and the younger one spoke up. But go on, she said. When the girl returned home, what happened? How was Malcolm?
Did I say the girl returned to live on land? The old woman said. She turned to stare at her questioner.
She did return, but I hadn’t told you that yet.
I’m just so intrigued, I guess I assumed.
Well, you assumed correctly, the old woman said, and continued her tale.
Poor Malcolm had never really recovered from this second loss. Every May he went to the place where he’d lost her and traced her last steps. Or he’d hike up to the light house for a better view of the sea and scan the horizon. As the years went by, rain or sun, cold or warm, Malcolm made his pilgrimage to the sea and stood and stared into the water for hours.
And then, one year, a young girl came up to him, dripping wet, wearing an old-fashioned dress and a mass of auburn curls. She looked so much like Shelley he began to tremble. But twenty or more years had passed since that terrible day. He was an old man, and Shelley would be a mature woman by now.
“Papa?” the girl asked. “Papa, what happened to you? You look so old.”
“Shelley? Can it be you? You were gone so long.” Malcolm fell to his knees on the sand, keening.
Shelley stooped to comfort him. “Only a few days. Mamma said she’d bring me back in a few days. And this morning she said it was time. She’s out there, just off shore, watching to make sure you came to get me.”
Malcolm turned to see what Shelley was pointing to and made out Lahari bobbing on the waves. Her arm rose, waved, then disappeared. And the old man and his young daughter walked slowly back to their cottage by the sea.
Within weeks, it was as if Shelley had never been away. They traveled south in the win-ters and went on shell gathering expeditions along beaches. They cooked together, laughing as they experimented with countless fish recipes. And Shelley learned to work alongside her father in their studio. She saw that her mother’s stained-glass designs were being copied by less skilled artisans in towns all along the sea shore and set out to master the craft. By the time she was an adult, she was an admired artisan. She never married, making a home for her father. But she nev-er saw her mother again.
And here, the young woman listening to the story let out a sob. How could a woman aban-don her child? And her husband? How could she ever forgive herself?
The old woman only shook her head.
Some say that for many years the old man and his daughter made a pilgrimage every May to that beach and stood for hours looking out over the waves. Townspeople said that one year they laughed and jumped and pointed to something out in the water. When they left that day, they were smiling and hugging one another. And then there came a time when the daughter came alone to the sea shore, older now, still watching the waves.
The old woman turned then and asked her listener,
When you stand at the ocean shore, like you are doing today, do you ever see something bobbing on the water? You tell yourself that it was probably just a bit of seaweed, or some driftwood. It could be a seal or sea otter. But I do so hope it might be Lahari and the rest of my family. My mother never did have a very good sense of time, but I hope that one day, she’ll come to take me home. And with that, the old woman choked back a gurgled cry, overcome with emotion.
It IS you! But you are so old! the young woman said, leaping up and helping the old woman back to the bench. Then she gazed down at the crying woman and the two sets of mesmer-izing blue-green eyes met.
Hush, little one, the young woman said. Lahari is here. Mamma is here, she said, wrapping her arms around the crying old woman, caressing her softly, her arms as soft as strands of kelp. Look, I brought your necklace. I found it buried in the sand beneath that dock. The gold is still perfect. She unhooked the clasp and draped the chain around the old woman’s neck. The nautilus charm sparkled in the sun.
Come, Lahari said. It’s time for us both to go home.
At that moment, a pair of gulls cried and dove into the waves.
Katherine Flannery Dering lives and works in the rolling, wooded hills of New York's Hudson Valley. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Cordella, Share Journal, and Goatsmilk, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of feminist fables, of which Little Shell Girl is one. She received an MFA from Manhattanville College.
You can find her on Facebook as Katherine Flannery Dering, author, and on Twitter as @Katforwomen. Her website is www.katherineflannerydering.com, and it includes links to some of her publications.