BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
by James Callan
 
PENNY’S JOYFUL STRIDE hammered footprints into the foam. Skipping, singing, she bounced along the shore, her mother in tow, labouring to keep the family dog from tugging at its leash, from chasing the sandpipers that dotted the long, white strand. Far ahead, Penny frolicked with a gleeful sense of freedom, a sensation lent to her by the sound of crashing waves, the scent of brine, and a certain distance between her and her mother.

Loath to break her steady pace, she nearly ignored the light graze of her toe upon an unrevealed item. But something compelled Penny to stop, to cease her movements and her song. Squatting among the surf, she pawed at the wet sand, unearthing a treasure from the sea, an ocean dweller vacated to land on the swell of a full-moon tide. Freshly excavated, she cradled a large conch in her cupped, small hands. It was gorgeous, pink and glistening, yet strange and sickly, like warm sushi ginger discarded to bake on a sun-scorched rock. It should have smelled like salt, like the ocean from where it came. But even at arms’ length, it stunk like rot. It reeked of death.

Nearby, a group of sandpipers roused to attention, shifting focus to Penny’s dog as it came rushing through the layers of foam. Tongue lolling, eyes bright with simple canine joy, Oscar barked at the small, feathered shapes that shrunk with distance as they escaped his cunning. The chunky black Labrador splashed, pouncing on rippled waves, dragging his leash behind him. Penny’s mother jogged to catch the wilful animal, to reach her daughter who was engrossed in the study of an object that glistened orange like an alien orb.

Oscar sniffed the air and bared its teeth, growling with menace. The keen scent of the wolf not far removed from his ancestry, the Labrador’s olfactory receptors went wild with the pungent smell of something caustic, something foul and unwelcome. His sense of smell guided him away from the sea, back to land, and straight towards Penny, who had never seen her dog act so aggressive, the gleam of his long teeth or the sharp predator focus in his usually dull brown eyes. The fire in Oscar’s wolfish gaze was startling, the savagery in each unchecked bark alarming.

‘Down, you brute!’ Having finally caught up, Penny’s mother swatted at Oscar, pushing the heavyset dog away from her daughter. Labouring to catch her breath, she forced out her commands in long, ragged exhales. ‘Down, Oscar! Down! Get down!’ Reaching for the dog’s leash, which was soaked and sandy, she gripped it firmly, tugging back as hard as she could.

Penny cradled the conch to her chest and backed away. She had seen it: Oscar had become a demon. As if possessed, he had eyes aflame, molten and focused, trained on her precious bauble that the ocean had delivered to her by good fortune—perhaps fate.

‘Crazy mutt!’ Penny’s mother shouted, angry, then laughing, relieved the frantic episode had come to an end. Oscar whimpered, his ears flat to his head, seeming to have calmed. He stared in Penny’s direction, but not at the young girl herself. His canine gaze was zeroed in on the strange, pink shell that stunk like an open grave. His predator growl was directed at the great conch unearthed from the wet sand, the unsavoury seashell that had washed up on a portentous tide.

Penny’s mother turned to her daughter and smiled, observing the shell cradled in her small hands. ‘A conch,’ she pointed out. ‘A rather large one. And beautiful too.’

Unprovoked, Penny glared at her mother. ‘It’s mine!’ she shouted without a shred of kindness. ‘It’s mine, and no one else’s.’

Her mother chuckled. ‘I don’t think Oscar got the memo.’

Penny scowled, clutching the conch tight to her chest, wishing to be far away from her mother, miles away from her dog, leagues out to sea, fathoms deep, away from all sun-kissed strands and green, dry lands. She wished to abandon her legs, to trade in her dull skin for shimmering scales, her feet for streamline fins. She took a breath and longed to be rid of her lungs, to expunge the air within them, to dip her head and neck beneath the waves and oxygenate her blood by way of newly minted gills.

Penny’s mother glimpsed apprehension in her daughter, a misplaced fear that did not become the bold and happy child that she knew so well and loved. She offered the young girl a reassuring smile. ‘Did you know,’ she said as warm and amicably as she could muster, ‘that you can hear the ocean in the heart of a conch?’

‘Really?’

Penny lifted the great conch near to her head but recoiled at the noxious odour that overpowered her senses. She willed a tolerance to its hideous effects and once more raised the shell close. Faintly, she deciphered a distant hum, a high-pitched note from within. The volume held for a moment, then grew, resonating with disharmony, like an untrained orchestra failing to tune its many instruments. It became louder, unbearable, then stopped.

Suddenly, there was no sound left in all of the world around her. Even the ocean waves, the sandpipers and Oscar, the very wind in the air—all went silent. Then, in the breadth of that all-encompassing quiet, a voice whispered as if transmitted straight into her brain. A thick, bubbly voice, low and menacing, like thunder in a storm, yet somehow also subtle, distant and airy. It spoke, unsettling words—cold, horrific words—on the foul breath of an ominous oration.

The message came, impossibly, from the inner chamber of the conch: ‘Beneath the waves there is a bed where only dead things lay their heads to rest. There is a featureless cold crypt where blue fades to utter black, a bleak plain where leviathan bones collect in jagged, pale ruins. Hell does not belong to Hades, but to Neptune, ruler of the sea. His domain is a sombre, salty hall where drowned sailors dream eternal nightmares, a static tomb where the only weather is the silent rain of fish scales, like fallen ash. Know this, land-lover: you too shall lay to rest upon a sterile seabed that has never known light, a trench that knows no bottom, an abyss that awaits your ocean-wracked, waterlogged corpse.’

Penny pulled the shell away from her ear. She gasped in disbelief, in horror, and for ocean air unspoiled by the nearness of the pale pink conch.

‘Did you hear the ocean?’ Her mother smiled down from her elevated stature, her auburn hair a halo of fire in the last light of the final sliver of blood-red sun that sunk behind the blue-black vastness of water. ‘Did you hear the sea calling?’ she asked again when her daughter remained wet-eyed, wide-eyed, and mute.

Oscar barked. Perhaps the dog had heard something coming from the shell. Perhaps the beast had sensed something as only creatures more attuned to nature could manage, a nonhuman instinct directing its attention to a nonhuman danger, a spiritual imbalance or some perverse demonic force residing in the conch, awakening from within its inward, spiralling core.

When Penny did not answer, but trembled, staring out to sea, her mother knelt down and hugged her daughter, rubbed her arms, taking her for cold, even though the air was warm and humid. ‘Come, sweet girl,’ she soothed. ‘Let’s get you back home.’ She kissed Penny on the nose and then held her own between pinched fingers and grimaced. ‘And let’s give that pretty shell of yours a good wash. It smells of something not of this world.’

She turned her head in revulsion. ‘It smells like hell.’

 

That night, in bed, Penny dreamed of aquatic nightmares, of oceanic doom. In her unsettled sleep her brain shuffled between blue-green, brine-soaked visions, churning waterscapes, whitecaps gone red with blood. Tossing and turning beneath her sheets, she whimpered throughout her troubled slumber. Arms thrashing, she trod the cold waters of open ocean depths. Beneath the desperate thrusts of her kicking legs and feet, vacant fish eyes watched, unblinking, by the thousands, a teeming school of dread and menace. Penny would labour, suffering to stay afloat, eventually drifting downward to drown. Then the dream would start anew.

Some of her dreams edged well beyond the boundary of absurdity, images both feverish and deranged: tuna singing, wild and operatic, to a barrage of out-of-tune violins; oarfish, each one longer than an NBA centre, with their alien faces cutting through the black depths, howling, as if wolves.

Other visions, while perhaps not as strange, came with an overt, apocalyptic hue: walls of water rushing towards the shores, mile-high waves en route for civilization. Tsunamis swept Penny away, transporting her mother, her dog, her home, her whole world to a watery grave. Whirlpools, just like the ones that formed when she drained the clouded water of her bubble baths, only monstrous, city-wide, circled, swirled, devoured everything, an unstoppable and indiscriminate black hole. Somehow, worst of all, even if understated by comparison, was the dream of absolute stillness, a profound silence found in the deepest reaches of the abysmal ocean depths. As if nothingness itself, a vacuum in space—it tore her apart.

She woke in a sweat, kicking away the bed sheets that clung to her body like strands of sea kelp adhering at her sides, like the damp, lank limbs of a boneless lover. She turned over her pillow, which had soaked on the side that supported her head, and in the end opted to throw it across the darkness. She writhed like a sea serpent, like a moray eel. She thrashed on her mattress like a fish out of water.

Sleep threatened to take her again, but Penny staved off the Zs that came creeping upon her like crabs crawling across tide-pool rocks. Outside, the halogen brights of a passing car painted a white, luminous streak across her room, stirring Penny to semi awareness, alert enough to catch the strange song coming from beyond the boundaries of her closed bedroom door. She had just enough presence of mind to recognize a melody from the doleful syllables of sound. Slow and steady, the song woke her, prompting her arousal in stages.

Soon, Penny was up on her feet and out of bed. She tiptoed across the plush blue carpet to the tune that grew louder, sadder, more insistent. Like a sailor directing her schooner into rocks concealed beneath the waves, Penny opened her bedroom door and dove headlong into the siren song which had bewitched her.

Down the hallway and into the bathroom, Penny converged on the source of strange music. She located the origin of the song, pinpointed what may have been a mournful dirge or a requiem for the dead. It came from the bathtub, filled almost to the brim with clear water. Penny skimmed the still surface with the tips of her fingers. Warm. She peered beyond the steaming vapor into the bathwater to focus on two objects that ed to its fiberglass bottom. Hands braced on the outer lip of the tub, she leaned over the water so her hair dangled to rest and coil over the surface. She edged closer, the song louder and louder, until the tip of her nose cut the still, warm water.

Sitting on the bottom: the conch shell, pale and luminous, pink and gorgeous and foreboding. Beneath its graceful bulk was one of Penny’s playthings—a doll—which the seashell pinned face down to the hard base. At first, she thought it might be one of her Barbie Dreamtopia mermaids, but upon closer inspection she noted the nuance that separated the two brands, that the underwater prisoner, in fact, was one of her Sea Stunnerz Bratz dolls. Her older brother, Zach, was away camping with her father, so Penny could not blame the boys for this unusual, sadistic display. Why her mother would arrange this odd exhibit was lost on her. But it angered Penny, so she reached into the bathtub to undo the perversity laid out before her.

When her hand and wrist penetrated the warm water to her elbow, she froze to the point where she did not even blink. The song coming from the bathtub coming from the conch coming from the voice that dwelled in its heart became so loud, so engrossing, so overpowering, that Penny found herself little more than a puppet to its direction, wordless commands that nonetheless were understood, and unflinchingly obeyed. Promptly, she removed her nightclothes and tossed them to the tiles. Stark naked, only her gooseflesh decorating her.

Then, in the darkest hour of the night, Penny crawled into the tub which filled beyond its capacity, water spilling over the sides to soak the floor in a deluge of excess. Over the tiles, the crosshatch of grout, the current moved as if a tsunami over the gridiron of an urban layout.

Edging her figure beneath the surface, Penny let the music engulf her, like the water itself. Letting go, she allowed the song to take her, body, mind, and soul. Stronger, more vivid, more real than before, the images of her nightmares returned to her.

 

In her own bedroom, Penny’s mother woke from her own set of nightmares. She didn’t dream of tuna or oarfish or waves that swallowed the world, but instead she slept to unhappy visions of her daughter in peril, flickering images of her little girl afraid and lost in the dark. Activated by the hypersensitive sixth sense that only mother’s possess in regards to their children, Penny’s mom shot upward out of bed. She wasted no time at all, rising to her feet and propelling quickly down the hallway. Outside the bathroom door the carpet was sodden with water. From inside, there was a faint light coming through the keyhole, and a song which was so quiet it was almost beyond her ability to hear.

Sensing trouble, Penny’s mother did not bother to knock. She reasoned that if she barged in on her daughter exploring the mysterious curiosities of her budding stages of puberty, she would apologize for her breach of privacy in the morning over breakfast. There was more at stake beyond the door, she determined, than her daughter’s embarrassment. There was far more to lose, she rationalized, than the dignity of a child on the verge of becoming a woman.

As is the case time and time again, a mother’s intuition did not falter. Beyond the door, there was trouble. In the bathroom, Penny was not okay. In the bath, she was at rest, breathing, but cold as ice. The water may have once been warm but hours had cooled it beyond what was healthy, beyond what was safe.

Penny’s mother reached into the bathtub and pulled the plug to drain the cold water. She sloshed across the tiles, sodden with overspill, and grabbed two large towels from the cupboard. Not daring to wait another second, she reached into the half-drained bathtub and pulled Penny upright, draping a dry towel over her young daughter while rubbing her arms and shoulders, her legs and feet, and with another towel, massaging Penny’s wet hair before wrapping her head in a tidy, warm, beach-towel beehive.

Her mother’s mind went to dark places and explored the possibility of grim what-ifs. She paused to consider: had she not roused as she had, jostled from her nightmare, her daughter would have risked hypothermia, or worse. She eyed the conch sitting at the bottom of the tub as she wrapped her daughter in another fresh towel. Her gaze lingered a moment on the otherworldly beauty of its elegant making. Somehow, despite its opulence, regardless of its refined form, she saw it for what it was, an ugly menace from a dark, foreboding realm. Without a further thought, she turned off the light and carried Penny to her bed.

 

At school, more than any other subject, Penny has always dreaded physical education. The gymnasium, for her, is a gladiatorial arena to be out-competed, to be slain and defeated—in sport, in athleticism, and in physical form. Long of limb, she was a willowy, flat reed of a girl. Penny’s height, which the boys all wanted for themselves, was the target of mockery among her classmates, the brunt behind the cruel names directed at her by both her male and female peers.

‘Pass the ball, Bigfoot,’ she’d hear during a game of soccer. ‘Hey, you up there, I’m open,’ others would call out. Most common of all, Penny heard her widely adopted nickname, ‘The Jolly Green Giant,’ an easy choice for those who wished to be unkind as the school colours are two shades of green, the logo a bold, bright clover branded to the sheer, vertical surface of her featureless chest.

That which was already dreaded had become worse. This week, gym class would focus on swimming. Swimming, which meant swimsuits, which meant showcasing Penny’s slender, shapeless body. Leading up to her afternoon class of PE she would frequently escape to the ladies’ room. There, she would nervously occupy a stall and read the graffiti branded by mean girls, probably seniors, or phantom scrawls left by classmates that had moved on, college-bound beauties, older women who had outgrown high-school, having imparting their wisdom, their generic insults and crude doodles, one-word obscenities written in all caps, like SLUT! or CUNT! or WHORE!, monosyllabic cuss words directed at no one in particular, directed, as a result, at anyone who chanced to read them. Here, in this cramped, unfriendly environment, Penny cupped her flat chest beneath her beginner’s bra as if to will her breasts to greater dimensions.

It was unfair, she thought. To make a person wear what is basically underwear. To parade a mostly naked girl in front of the boys, in front of the other girls who had more to offer. The gym teacher wasn’t one for excuses. He was immune, Penny had discovered, to both begging and tears. He would not allow for any other outcome; Penny would have to dress like a monosyllabic cuss word. In the over-chlorinated waters she would have to demonstrate her breaststroke, she would have to wade among her peers, both boys and girls. She would have to swim, half naked, fully vulnerable, dressed just like Dreamtopia Barbie, no different than a Seastunnerz Bratz doll.

 

‘Look!’ one of the boys shouted, dripping and gorgeous. Brad, a cute, tanned, popular kid that was a head taller than most, but not as tall as Penny. ‘Have you ever seen an asparagus go for a swim?’ Laughter echoed throughout the vast indoor chamber of the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Penny was wearing the school green on green, a skin-tight one-piece that extenuated her shapeless, willowy form. She blushed, going red in the face, looking like some worse-for-wear, weather-beaten poppy, an emerald stem with a ruby crown.

‘I wouldn’t eat that asparagus if you paid me!’ another boy shouted. Penny couldn’t bear to look, but she recognized Adam’s voice of warring high and low notes that strained with each syllable, more cracks to each word than demolished pavement. She had liked Adam as recently as last year. They had been ‘married’ once, swinging in sync on the playground with intention. But things had changed. As it stands, Penny wouldn’t mind waking to the news that Adam had been lost at sea, devoured by sharks, or resting at the bottom of an abyss that is darker than sin itself.

‘Okay, boys,’ the gym teacher casually chided, smiling beneath his light scowl. ‘That’s enough, now.’ He turned to Penny, who was shivering and wet, up on display on the diving board looking over into the ten-foot depth of blue water. ‘Go ahead, Penny,’ he urged. ‘Don’t hold up the queue. Show us your best dive.’ He then blew his silver whistle as if to initiate something profound, a prompt or an incantation to a magic spell. ‘Go on,’ he nodded to Penny. ‘Dive.’

Penny stood for a time, dripping and hugging herself, the sound of laughter echoing in highs and lows, guffaws and giggles. Then the echoes died out. All went quiet. The world was mute, on pause, and blissfully still, tragically static. Penny would not remember electing to fall into the water below, but as she would later hear, it was one hell of an acrobatic swan dive.

 

Deadheading the roses in her garden, Penny’s mother should have been in her happy place. Even so, she couldn’t seem to ignore a pit that was growing in her stomach like a dormant super volcano advertising signs of life. As if on cue to her flowering anxiety, she received a call from the principal at her daughter’s school. The woman over the phone told her what had happened at gym class, that Penny, in a sign of apparent protest, sat at the base of the deep end in swimming class until she lost consciousness.

When pressed by Penny’s mother for more information, the principal told her that her daughter had held her breath so long that Mr. Peters, the gym teacher, had to dive in himself to pull her out. Because Penny was not breathing, Mr. Peters was forced to perform mouth to mouth—a precaution to death, the principle assured; in no way a misconduct or a breach of consent. Mr. Peters was heroic, the principal vowed to Penny’s mother, who could care less about the gym teacher or his heroics, only concerned for the safety and wellbeing of her daughter.

‘Mr. Peters is in shock,’ the principal went on. ‘He has taken the rest of the day off,’ she told Penny’s mother, as if that information was even remotely important.

‘Penny is okay?’ It was all she needed to know.

‘Thanks to Mr. Peters, yes.’ The principal went on for a time, prattling away, but Penny’s mother no longer heard her meaningless chatter.

‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘Yes, of course,’ the principal agreed. ‘And do stop into the office, if you get a chance. We are all arranging to sign a card for Mr. Peters on account of his bravery and—’

Penny’s mother hung up the phone. As she hastened to put away the garden shears, removing her work gloves, she reached for her car keys lying at her knees and accidentally gripped the stem of a rose, its thorn embedding deep into her thumb.

On her way while driving to Penny’s school to pick up her daughter, she was tense in the driver’s seat. Behind the wheel, every red light was a lifetime, every stop sign an obstacle to setting things right. Her grip was tight. Her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Her thumb throbbed to the rhythm of her rapid pulse, sending a rivulet of blood trickling down her wrist, to cascade a gentle, steady rain onto her lap, a crimson blot to mar the fresh denim as blue and shiny as the sea.

 

That night, Penny’s mother allowed her daughter to have ice cream for dinner. She let her crash on the couch and watch television much later than was her usual allowance. She made Penny a big bowl of popcorn and combed her daughter’s hair while she watched a movie of her choice, The Little Mermaid, and looked down on her child, stretched out, long and lean, bathed in blue, pixelated light, a young girl who balanced on the very edge of the end of innocence.

Penny frowned when Ariel traded in her fishtail and fins for human feet. She cried, unusually afraid, when Ursula, the tentacled antagonist, grew large to churn the sea and sky in her malicious black wrath. In the end, before all the dread had shed its darkness to return to a light-hearted, happy ending, Penny fell asleep, curled up on the cushions of the couch like a foetus, cozy in the womb. Penny’s mother kissed her daughter and covered her in blankets, retreating to her bedroom for her own, fitful night sleep.

Much later, Penny stirred in the dead of night, the deepest trench furthest between dusk and dawn. She woke to the strange sound of a haunting song, her name called on a paper-thin wisp of words that carried oceanic depths of sorrow. Half asleep, she walked up the stairs past her mother’s room, down the hall, stopping short of her own bedroom to enter the bathroom. Inside, resting at the base of the empty bathtub, was her precious conch, her flesh-pink bauble from the sea. From the dark crevice of its inward spiralling mouth it sang out as if on a dying, pleading breath: ‘Take me home, my love, and I shall take you with me. Take me up and I shall guide you where you and I both belong. Hold me up and hold me dear. Walk into the water with me and luxuriate in the weightlessness of my cold embrace.’

The sentiment was iffy, at best, and came out on hissed, breathy words as if from venomous snakes or deep water denizens washed up on the tide. Even so, in her trance-induced state, Penny was sold to the notion, keen to adhere to the wisdom of the conch. She took up the seashell and descended the stairs back the way she had come. She left her house, her mother, behind, to walk out into the night to a shoreline that bordered two opposing worlds.

Dressed in a tee-shirt and underpants, bare of leg and foot, Penny walked over the asphalt lanes, the stretch of grass, and the sand and shells before the dark water lapped at her toes. Clutching the conch, she carefully climbed the barnacle-clad rocks slick with sea spit and peppered with gull shit. The sharp, jutting edges of her ocean-side throne shimmered handsomely in the pearlescent sheen of an observant full moon.

There, doused in flecks of foam, she sat upon the rocks and watched the dark, silhouetted shapes rise up from out of the water. She let the visitors’ uncanny lullaby command her attention, seize her heart, steal her soul as they dripped and crooned among the black, frothy shallows. They came near, webbed hands reaching outward, fawning, petting, offering their cold and clammy caresses, their escort to deeper, darker water. They converged, came together, black shapes merging into one, holding Penny close.

Cradled against the man-shaped creature’s scaled chest, Penny found her nostrils were assailed by the pungent smell of salt and fish oil and long-rotten corpses. She could hardly breathe, such was the stink of the embrace, but she pressed herself harder against it, urgently, desperately, in need of more, as if wishing to abate a hunger that had only just begun to be satiated.

Smooth, sickly limbs outstretched to web Penny in an offering brought up to her from the furthest reaches of an abyss unseen by any living souls. There she stood, festooned in seaweed, a cold, cloying wedding dress, a train of tentacles ushering out into the shallows, descending further out into the deep.

 

Half a mile inland, over the lapping foam, across wet sand, beyond dry grass, and ending at the termination of one of many concrete avenues, is Penny’s home, which presently, in the middle of the night, boasts a wide-open front door, its vulnerable space discovered by Penny’s mother, who has also discovered that Penny is nowhere to be found, presumably out and about in the lateness of the evening. She did not pause to dress, to fetch her car keys, or even to close the front door behind her. Her mother’s intuition was aflame with the worst suppositions. She kicked off her slippers to better sprint off into the night, her nightgown in flight behind her frantic stride towards the beach, one of many destinations that for uncanny reasons she knew without a doubt was where her daughter awaited to be found.

She held her phone and considered dialling 911. She considered calling George, her husband, who was out of town and could offer little, if any, practical help, and who, besides, was camping in the wilderness with their son, the two of them likely out of range of mobile service. She could smell the beach by the time she dialled for emergency services and hung up mid-ring. In her mind’s eye, guided by her sixth sense, she could see Penny wading in the dark waves and knew she could reach her daughter well before the police could manage with their barrage of questions and condescending calm.

Her feet hit the sand, still warm in the advanced hour of darkness, the residual heat of a summer’s day charged within the tiny particles of rock. Penny’s mother crested the dunes abutting the flat expanse of beach and ran a beeline to the crashing waves where two worlds met, where two ancient factions engaged in war as the millennia slipped by.

Small footprints, freshly made, disfigured the smooth sand in a straight line leading to the sea. Penny’s mother followed the trail made by her daughter, the even-spaced intervals of little feet that ended abruptly where a rocky outcrop jutted into the water, a slick stone shelf battered tirelessly by the advancing tide. She climbed the stones, razor sharp with studs of sea life, a perilous gauntlet of abrasive crustaceans permanently fused to the wet rock. Crawling, hand over foot, she cut open her spread palms and tallied gashes across her ankles, over her exposed calves.

Using her phone’s flashlight, she found Penny’s discarded bedclothes in a heap upon the slime-slick pinnacle of the crag. Even high up at the top of the rocky tower, the water level encroached to claim the abandoned pyjamas. The incoming tide pushed out, pulled in. Penny’s mother watched her daughter’s clothes float outward to drift on the surface, soon after to sink, forever claimed by the sea.

Conditions grew worse. The swell of waves became a rhythmic breathing of an elemental demon. Even as she scanned the dark for her daughter, who she feared had drowned, or was lost at sea, Penny’s mother also became aware of her own peril, her own risk of drowning, of being claimed by the insatiable water. Nearly knocked over by the assault of incoming waves, she lost her balance high up on the rocks, and yet, by good fortune, her shift of position cast her gaze upon a distant figure bobbing out in the undulating water.

‘Penny!’ she shouted, uselessly, unable to hear even her own voice among the crashing waves.

Then it came again, a mother’s gift, a parent’s superpower: without an ounce of fear or a second of delay for thought, Penny’s mother dove outward from atop the outcrop into the tempestuous halls of Neptune’s domain. Penny’s head, twenty metres out to sea, was her mother’s beacon, a luminous orb aglow in the purest of silver, a sheen cast from the lidless eye of the watchful moon.

 

The next morning, Penny’s mother drank her coffee at the breakfast table staring knowingly at the conch, which her daughter, even while drowning, had clutched to her chest, as if it were an infant child she dared not part with. Even with strong black coffee right under her nose she could smell the revolting stink of the shell. It was worse than a chum bucket. It was advanced decay. Death itself.

She finished her coffee and took up the conch, walking it outside while holding it out at arms’ length, turning her head to avoid breathing in its appalling stench. She brought it out to the garden to her bed of roses where she buried it well into the soil, only the very tip of its spiral top touching open air. Then, methodical, with the grace and calm of a zen monk, she raised a shovel high above her head. She held the upward pose to summon her strength before sending the implement downward, hard and fast, driving the flat metal surface over the conch, its shattering muted by a blanket of rich black earth.

As if on cue, Penny walked outside, cheerful for the first time in many days, perhaps many weeks. She greeted her mother with a smile, radiant at the doorstep while bathed in warm summer sun. Across the front yard, kneeling there in the garden, looking at her beautiful roses, her beautiful daughter, Penny’s mother smiled back.

She breathed a deep satisfied breath through her nose. She inhaled with vigour, with extended satisfaction. The bad smell had gone away. Now, the only scent which remained was the rich perfume of vibrant flowers, the untainted, fresh morning air.

 

 



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