I race across the dark sand toward the distant sound of surf. It is not yet dawn, and today I’m after a junonia—Sanibel Island’s rarest seashell. I have heard that one in every ten thousand visitors finds one, and the lucky finders get their picture in the local paper.
My feet claw and drag at the sand, but the harder I run, the more I seem to sink back into it. I’m already panting with the exertion, but in the darkness, I have the feeling that I’m not actually getting anywhere. The surf is slowly getting louder, but that could be no more than a virtual effect: somebody somewhere is amping up the volume. I wonder whether I would pay the hefty rental price of a condo if I knew that all I was getting was virtual reality. Then again, how would one ever really know the difference?
Minutes—eons?—later, the vast dark bulk of the ocean lies before me. I wonder what would happen if a tsunami were to suddenly appear and sweep me away, like all of those people in Japan. Nobody would see me or hear my cries. I turn on my flashlight and train it on the dark waves. I picture myself desperately sinking beneath them, one arm barely extending above the water, faintly illuminated by a distant search light that has arrived too late.
“You’re being morbid,” I think.
I turn eastward and walk along the high tide mark, weaving my flashlight from side to side. I pass a common cockle shell and the remains of several pen shells, those fragile monstrosities that no one I know bothers collecting. Beyond these are the usual flotsam of broken pieces of shells that are the night’s only harvest. Meager rations, these.
I wander on, stooping to pick up a banded tulip, its tapered spindle shape intact but showing signs of wear. I toss it back onto the beach. I spot a broken nutmeg, that rare, rotund shell that has a delicate, almost sculpted beauty when whole. I pass a discarded aluminum beer can, the bottom of a Styrofoam cup, a large fragment of a conch. I hear Bob Dylan intoning, “Everything Is Broken.” Like my life, I reflect. Three divorces. Three still angry ex-wives. A string of children whom I rarely see.
A long stretch of barren sand ensues, then a small pile of shells. I paw through it and pull out a cruddy jingle shell and a drab olive, like a cylinder that tapers to a point on one end. I toss them into my bag, which still feels empty. I toss in a couple of larger cockle shells and give the bag a shake. There is a comforting clink, even though I know that I’m kidding myself. None of these shells is really a keeper.
The beach stretches on, empty. I plod on through the resistant sand.
Suddenly, up ahead, my flashlight illuminates the bright white of an angel wing, with its broad, delicate prominence. I run to scoop it up before the next wave reclaims it. Clutching the prize in my hand, I examine it under the light. It is clean and firm, a lovely shell. I turn it over. Part of the tip is missing. I toss it back onto the beach, singing, “Everything Is Broken.”
I recall another shell I had found, like a finely beaded little golden top. It was on this very beach after a storm, when every wave seemed to wash up some exciting find. The shell was flawless except for one odd horizontal notch near the opening, about half a centimeter long, as if a laser had cut through the outer layer of the shell. Odd way of breaking, I had thought, as I tossed it back into the waves.
Prompted by curiosity, I had looked it up later in the guidebook, only to learn that the notch is part of the shell’s natural formation. I had tossed away a rare collection-grade slit shell—and the only one I had ever found.
How many other things had I thrown away, as though of no worth?
The first streak of dawn is now visible. It brings to mind the first morning that I ran along the beach at Mumbay, when the dawning light revealed the huddled forms of hundreds of people in the twilight up ahead. They were evidently clamming in the expanse of beach exposed by low tide, for I knew that there was a fishing village nearby. I ran closer. They didn’t seem to be digging, though. No, they were praying. I had often observed Hindus in early morning prayer outdoors. I was almost upon them before I noticed their squatting naked buttocks. I realized with a shock what I had no doubt been running in.
“Story of my life,” I think.
I walk on. After a storm, this part of the beach can be covered with shells, but today there is almost nothing. I recall another fine murex shell I had once found here, with a long delicate tail. While I was cleaning it later at home, the shell had slipped through my wet fingers. I had made a grab for it—almost catching it—, and then another grab, which sent it flying beyond my reach. Then, in a vivid slow motion sequence, I had watched the shell fall and heard a voice yelling “Nooooo!” as the tail hit the floor, shattering upon impact.
Where is that junonia anyway?
I glance up. Pink-tinged clouds have appeared. I become aware of the sea-evoking cries of the gulls, of the gentle caress of the ocean breeze, of the waves engaged in their eternal dance with the sands of the beach, of the sandpipers scurrying up and down after each receding wave. On the edge of the horizon, the rising sun forms a golden path over the dark waves.