By Beth Shelburne
THIS IS FOR YOU, HE SAYS, dropping the wet, glistening shell into my open palm like a coin. I look up from my towel, the water billowing behind him, a silver sequin sheet under a tangerine sunset. He is a 50-year-old man and a tousled boy, smiling at me before turning to walk back down the sloping sand to the foamy surf. I see the shell in my hand is perfectly intact, not a blemish or wound or defect on its creamy surface, a cylindrical coil the size of my thumb, ivory with brown wraparound markings like an ancient script. I close my salty fingers around it and carry it home in my purse.
The shell is now clean and dry. It sits on my desk next to papers and files and stray pens and a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution, given to me by a prosecutor who sent an innocent man to death row. I often pick up the shell and hold it while I’m thinking. Sometimes I bring it to my lips, smooth and cool, thin as fine china. More than once, I kiss it. It is a piece of art, the one we always seek. He curated this for me, plucked from the mixed shimmer of broken pieces before the watery hand pulled them back, tumbling out to sea.
I learn my shell is called a lettered olive. I find it in an online database of various shells with names like lion’s paw, baby’s ear, and paper fig. There, about halfway through the index is a photo of my shell’s twin, only lighter in coloration, but most certainly a match in shape, form, glossy beauty. I spend half an hour reading about the lettered olive, the state shell of South Carolina, home to a fast-moving predatory sea snail named the Olivia Sayana. A speedy snail, a creature that defies its own stereotype.
I want to say more about my lettered olive, but I’m pancaked at my notebook, unable to capture the magnitude of this gift, that moment, and his four words that now play like an anthem. Ideas and feelings and concepts rush at me too fast and hard, like the crashing waves that brought my shell to me. I’m not blocked, I’m flooded. I pull Gift from the Sea off the shelf and read it again. She swoons over the channeled whelk, the moon shell, the argonaut, but doesn’t mention my lettered olive and I am glad. I agree with her that one cannot collect all the shells, only a few, and they are more beautiful that way.
He didn’t dig, he accepted what the water offered. An empty shell, the living animal recently gone, the shell’s shiny intactness a sign that the vacated house hadn’t yet been battered by weeks or months or years of rolling water and sand. When I hold my shell, I run the fleshiest middle of my thumb over its pointed spire. The layers whirl inward, but the outermost piece, thick as a toenail, extends slightly, creating a tiny open door. How does nature engineer such an elegant object, equal parts beauty and function? It feels like it holds a secret, something just for me.
In an article titled “The Symbolic Seashell,” the writer argues the shells we collect can reveal deep truths. They are what some scientists call mnemoactive objects, physical triggers of rich sensory memories. I pick up my shell and salt cuts the air, sun warms my shoulders, periwinkle sky spreads vast and wide and I hear the four words he said over and over, a rhythmic tide. This is for you. This is for you. This shell, this life, this love, this earth, every grain of sand. The mountain of time passed and the peaks and valleys that lay before us. Everything and nothing and all the things at the same time. Safety. Justice. The surety of being alive right now while the world around us is dying. It is almost too much to bear.
Colonists and native Americans made jewelry with the lettered olive, but I don’t want to wear mine. I want to protect it and know it. I want to write about it, but I fear my words lack form. What is it that I want to say? The silliness, the cliché of attaching sentimentality to a seashell heckles me. I write about difficult things- pain and loss and crime and punishment, yet a seashell the size of a tootsie roll leaves me flummoxed and spent at the page. Is my shell a muse, a symbol, or just a souvenir? I write past the critic snickering in the corner and my hand eventually connects words to meaning; the importance of what we leave behind, and how readily we give to those we love, including ourselves. This also, is for me.
That moment lives in the shell, an anchor, a portal, an opening. I see his body standing before me, a body I know well, have been next to a long time. He is wet and sandy and reaches for me. I open my hand and catch the shell as it falls from his smile, backlit by a magenta sky. The waves keep time, and his eyes are the sun, the same smile that knew me from across a room decades ago. This is for you, he says, giving me the best that he was given. I adore it, more than the patent red kitten heels he surprised me with on my thirty-fifth birthday. It is worth nothing and everything. It is his heart, his time, our life together, these words on the page. It is a balm to loneliness, a present of presence in a frightened world that urges me to hold it close, just not too tightly, and keep it always.
Beth Shelburne is a journalist and writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. Her narrative journalism and essays have been published by The Los Angeles Times, The Bitter Southerner, The Daily Beast and Facing South. She has also published fiction and poetry in Beyond Words Literary Journal and Poetry Online and her flash fiction was recently selected for the fifth print anthology by Reflex Fiction. Beth was a 2019 Writing for Justice Fellow with Pen America and has done extensive reporting on Alabama prisons.