Jay and Emily were exactly like any other happy loving couple strolling Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf that cool and foggy night, except that they were desperately unhappy and not at all in love. In fact, each was privately certain that if something did not change soon, they would by night’s end throw themselves, in separate directions, into the surrounding blackwater ocean. Luckily, a different solution presented itself in the form of an ancient crone pushing a creaky wheeled cart and selling from it Italian ices: All the usual flavors plus “Exotic Oddities,” as advertised on the side in cheerful pink letters.
“Sheshells,” the crone replied, to a question none had asked. “Want a tasty ice?”
“No thanks,” said Jay. He was thirty-five, a failed amateur magician refusing on principle to admit defeat. To shore up his crumbling ego, he wore his cape at all times, also his top hat. For added effect, he sometimes employed a monocle. The top hat tended to get in the way during lovemaking, but as he and Emily had not been anywhere close to naked in each other’s presence for some weeks, this no long posed a problem.
“I’ve got every flavor,” said the crone. She was stooped, stout, and carried about her a distinct odor of public restrooms. “How about wild strawberry?”
“Why,” asked Emily, “did you say ‘seashells’?”
“Ah!” said the woman, and her rock-gray hair wobbled around on her scalp like a clinging hedgehog. “Truth to tell, I said ‘sheshells,’ because it is a little known fact that most humans, when reincarnated, end up as a grain of sand.”
Jay glanced at Emily, then out to the gray beaches, striped to a dim peachy orange by the spill of street lights and traffic. Mist and fog were busily swallowing the visible world in every conceivable direction. People become sand, thought Jay. Makes sense. That’s why there’s such an enormous amount of sand in the world.
All of two years older than Jay, Emily had lately left her job at a successful local clothier, The Territory Ahead, where she had spent her entire working career doing layout for the company’s outdoorsy catalogs. Unfortunately, she no longer believed in sending people, clothed or otherwise, into the wilderness. A landscape full of explorers was no longer a wilderness, and to promote that idea had begun to seem suspiciously criminal. Leaving had been an easy decision, especially with the company about to go belly-up, but the ramifications––spending more time than ever with Jay––now felt like a wilderness adventure of the Survivor kind.
The crone had fallen into step with Jay and Emily, and now they were nearly at the end of the pier. They passed a restaurant window through which they could see scores of chunky, fat-bodied crabs piled one atop the next, so packed together in their briny tank that they could not so much as wiggle their legs.
“I wouldn’t like,” Emily ventured, “to come back as a crab.”
“No reason that you should,” said the crone, “but there are alternatives aplenty. Since you’re about to throw yourself to your death anyway, may I suggest that maybe it would be better to be a sheshell.”
Emily shook her head without really knowing she was doing it. She had a habit of doing things she didn’t know about, and in fact it was exactly this habit, this purity of unconscious action, that had first attracted Jay. Lately, it had repelled him with equal if not greater force.
“I’ll turn you into a sheshell tonight, if you like,” said the crone. “No charge.”
“What about me?” demanded Jay.
“Can’t,” said the crone. “Only women get to be sheshells. As for ‘Seashells,’ well! Whoever came up with that, I’d like to know. The fact is, all the world’s shells begin life as desperately unhappy women.”
A fresh tatter of fog churned silently past, and he drew his cape tighter around his shoulders. It made him look skinny and mean, like a second-string vampire. “This,” he said, meaning everything, “is ridiculous.”
“Getting transformed into a shell,” grumped the crone, “is no more unusual than being cremated by strangers and having your ashes stuffed in some fancy urn. But either way, it’s not your decision, is it?”
Emily had the uncomfortable feeling that she ought to be objecting, that in the face of life suddenly veering left into darkness, she ought to have run screaming for the normalcy of all that had come before. Instead, she gave herself over to a cool and rational contemplation of terminating herself, then and there, and becoming a shell.
To the crone, she said, “I don’t think so,” but in a voice that whispered the opposite.
“Oh, admit it, my dear. You’re fantastically unhappy.”
“Shells don’t get made from people,” Emily said, but not with much conviction. “They get made, you know…”
The crone’s black-eyed smile was encouraging, to a point. “Made how?”
Jay withdrew his plastic Made In China magic wand and rapped it on the wharf’s metal railing. “Now see here,” he said. This line had been part of his magic act, but now, out of context, he had no idea what to say next, so he simply repeated himself––“Now see here!”––and tried his best to look stern.
Emily ignored him. She was peeved with herself for not knowing by rote how shells came to be, and now image after image of shells rolled and flounced through her mind. Each one arrived in full paint-box color, the entire lot whorled and contorted and spiraled, spiny and smooth and beautiful, every single specimen a wonderment.
I could be one of those, she thought. That could be me.
“Why exactly can’t men be shells?” Jay demanded, with the voice of a man who has finally realized that someone can really do what he has been trying all his life to achieve: magic. “What do we get to be?”
The crone fixed him with a mildly annoyed smirk. “I already told you: sand.”
“Just sand? She gets to be some fancy limpet or conch or something and I turn into sand?”
“Even shells,” murmured the crone, “wear down eventually.” She turned again to Emily. “Imagine: there you are, kissed by the surf, and some wandering beachcomber plucks you from the tides and holds you to his ear. This handsome rover thinks he hears the ocean, but really what he hears is you, your breath, your pulse. The wave-whispered romance of yourself.”
“Come now, my dear. It’s only life, after all.”
But this time, Emily turned away. It had felt good to luxuriate in the old woman’s particular brand of madness, but now it felt equally good, or better, to leave it behind.
“Jay,” she said, “let’s go.”
They went. They walked back along the pier, and as they walked, Emily removed Jay’s top hat and threw it in the ocean.
“Take off your cape,” she said, and he did so. The cape joined the hat in the foaming waves, and moments later, the wand and monocle also walked the plank.
“I don’t want to live with a failed magician,” said Emily, as she steered Jay off the landward tip of the pier and down toward the beach.
“I don’t want to be one,” said Jay, reveling in Emily’s sudden intentionality. “Do you want me to get a real job?”
They paused, their toes in the ocean. Neither remembered taking off their shoes, but there they were, dangling from their fingertips.
“We should both get jobs,” said Emily, “and we’re going to start collecting shells.”
Shells were hard to come by that night on the wide Santa Barbara beaches––the waves in that soft but restless harbor have long since crushed even the most beautiful of sad girls’ souls into simple, sandy grains––but they did find one, a fractured bivalve, and so began a collection that lasted them a shared and happy lifetime, for whenever they were troubled or depressed, feeling that their love had once more cracked, atrophied and fled, they would go and sit together in the study and stare, sometimes for hours, at the wondrous collection of seashells they’d amassed, and they would remember the night long, long ago when they were neither young nor old but definitively sad and in-between, and some days they thought perhaps that the crone’s visitation had been a dream, and on others they were certain it was not, but in either case they remembered, and sat quiet and humble in the knowledge that death, maybe-just-maybe, would reveal itself as nothing more frightful than a mute but lovely seaside recreation.
And to this day they continue, forcing and forging their love to its proper strength, surrounded by the hundreds of sad and lonely women they’ve gathered on their travels. It is, says Emily, a fitting memorial.
No, says Jay. It’s a testament.
Whatever, says Emily. Oh, Listen to this one. You can really hear her crying.
You hear your own pulse, the echo, says Jay.
And now his shoulder hurts, just a little, from the impact of his wife’s frail and aging fist.
Sorry. You’re right.
Mark Rigney’s recent work has appeared in Witness, Ascent, J Journal, Unlikely Story, and Betwixt. Upcoming work is scheduled for The Beloit Fiction Journal. His stage plays have been produced in twenty states plus Canada, with additional productions forthcoming.