A scratchpad for photographic and literary ideas

Sunday, 1/13/2013 – The Shell


Jason rubs the worn shell between his fingers. His eyes clamshell shut, his brow pressing down like grey clouds over the straight horizon line of his mouth. He feels a storm gathering behind his eyelids, tears beginning to form, a drizzle before the deluge.

Pressing the shell to his ear, Jason strains to hear the sound of the sea and the kind, familiar voice that had always been there.

Listening to the silence, Jason feels his life sifting out from under him, an ebbing tide eroding his foundations, threatening to topple him, crush him beneath the weight of waves, and drag him and all he has done out in a rip tide he no longer has the strength to swim against.

“Where are you?” The question whispered in the empty room goes unanswered.

“I need you!” His scream crashes around him.

The shell remains silent.

His needs were simple, not requiring much. His job provided the necessities. Nothing more was needed.

Sylvie might have liked more, but she knew him, knew his finances, and married him anyway. In their years together, she had never complained.

Undisturbed by tide or time, life had been pond-calm. It had been, it was no longer.

Jason tries to remember when he felt the first tickles of unease like seafoam lapping over his feet. Two months? Two years? He cannot tell. His world has been eroding for some time and, he thinks, his sanity has been sliding away with it.


Jason takes the shell from his ear, looks at it, and feels his hopes whirlpooling down and down into darkness.

A grown man listening for answers in an empty whelk shell.


The sensations are the same now as they had been on that day fifty-one years ago.

That day.

No one talks about it, they never have, especially not to Jason. But, he knows, he remembers.

That day.

It had stared like every eight-year-old’s beach day with him racing through breakfast then slipping jellyfish slick from his mother’s hands as she slathered sunscreen on him.

“One hour before swimming, young man,” she called after him as he banged out through the screen door and launched himself, airborne, over the three steps that led down from the porch of the rented bungalow to the soft white beach sands. His bare feet raising a line of little sandstorms as he raced to the water’s edge and the waves tumbling up from the ocean.

Jason runs along the shore kicking up sprays of seawater that paint the space in front of him with tiny rainbows. He spreads his arms and spins in dizzying circles watching gulls rise from the beach and hang, effortlessly suspended, on the sea breeze.

One hour! One hour before he can swim. Not fair!

The bungalow door snaps shut. Jason follows the sound and watches as Grampa, one step at a time, makes his way from the porch to the sand before raising his hand to his brow and scanning the beach. When he sees Jason, he waves and walks unsteadily toward him.

With all of the energy of a July 4th bottle rocket, Jason races to his grandfather.

The old man laughs at the boy running in circles around him, fingers pointing here and there, his young voice crackling with excitement at all of the wonders that await them.

Like there! By the water! Jason runs toward the water pointing at a shell carried in on a wave. He reaches the shell, grabs it, and holds it up high above his head for his grandfather to see.

Grampa must be as pleased as Jason because he starts to run toward him. Jason remembers bliss then blackness, watching his Grampa then being thrown to the ground, his face pushed into the sand, then being tumbled, pulled and pushed with no up or down.

“You’re OK. You’re OK. You’re OK.” The words pull him out of the darkness and into his Grampa’s arms. Jason looks up at his grandfather’s face, notices water dripping off of his hair and from his eyes. There is a rushing, running, voices, too much. Jason closes his eyes and feels himself being pulled away from his grandfather and into his mother’s arms.

“He’s Ok. He’s OK. He’s OK.” Over and over. His grandfather, his mother, his father.

He opens his eyes and looks at the wet faces so close to his own. He finds his grandfather, and reaches out to him. As he does, his fist unclenches and there in his palm is the shell.

As each views the shell from his own perspective, some alchemy creates a bond between sun and sand, youth and age, life and death. The bond is sealed when Jason’s hand, and the shell it holds, is held inside his grandfather’s hands.

“Good boy.” Jason hears the words but he is sure that his grandfather’s lips never moved.

The following morning, his grandfather was gone. Sometime during the night he had slipped away, quietly, without saying goodbye.

The family tried to insulate Jason, to protect him from the loss. “You don’t have to go to the funeral,” they told him. He went anyway. He saw his grandfather laid out. He saw the flowers and the tears. He heard the cries. He knew his grandfather was gone but he cannot feel what others are feeling. He cannot feel the same separation or loss.

Jason stares at the darkened ceiling of his bedroom thinking about the day, the funeral, and the overheard whispers.

Was it his fault that Grampa died? Jason wanted to say he was sorry. He wanted to go backward, put the shell back on the beach, walk back to his grandfather, hold his hand and do it over. Without going near the ocean, without waves… One hour, he should have listened to his mother, stayed away from the water for one hour.

For the first time today, tears come. They run from his eyes and drop with a soft patter onto his pillow. Had his eyes been dry, Jason might have noticed a faint light, like the full moon on the beach, glowing from inside the shell sitting with the other young-boy treasures on his nightstand.

“Good boy.” 

It was his grandfather’s soft, reassuring voice.


Jason listens for something more, but nothing comes.

Jason looks at his life like so much flotsam moving out and away. He searches for a point of impact, for a time, like that day on the beach, when his world came crashing down.

There is no single point, no cataclysm, just a constant ebbing. The economy, his savings, his job, his house, and now his wife were all pulled away. Without the ballast of these familiar things, Jason drifts. Directionless. Lost.

He looks at the shell and remembers the times in his life that he had held it up to his ear and heard his grandfather’s voice. There were not many but each was significant. And every time his sea of confusion was calmed by the words spoken through the shell. Words he heard… or had he only imagined them?

If his Grampa was alive today, what would he say? What could he say?

Jason considers his life. He has done the best that he could. It just wasn’t enough. It was never going to be enough. If Grampa was alive today he would tell Jason that he had failed, that he was a disappointment. Grampa would say…

A faint glow, like the full moon on the beach, glows from the shell in Jason’s hand and a soft, familiar voice says two words.

“Good boy.”

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1 comment

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  1. cooperthom Jan 14th 2013

    The photography and word choice are excellent. Your metaphors are exciting–”life had been pond-calm.”


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