I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
-- Sir Isaac Newton, 1727
One Perfect Shell
The first night, my husband, Charlie, and I walked from the house to the beach along a path of man-made stones molded in the shape of sand dollars. As we passed a few palms, lush tropical plants including flowering crotons, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and calypso oleander that surrounded the property, a tiny toad leaped out and crossed in front of them. Over a dune of sand and brittle grass, we began to see the shoreline stretching out its fingertips, Giacometti-style, to the left and to the right.
Louise and Ben, our friends who owned the house, had earlier given a clear description of what to expect. Instead of gently sloping down to the Gulf of Mexico, the beach beyond the house and the flora ended abruptly, threatening the dune. The tide slapped against what was left of the beach, what it hadn’t drawn out into itself.
Tomorrow, all of that would change.
Along this narrow strip of land, on either side between road and water, the island had room for only one house. Each family “owned” their beachfront, as if they’d signed a contract with God or Mother Earth herself. The neighbors had pooled a hefty sum and hired an excavation crew of sorts. The plan was to rebuild the beach by pumping out the bowels of the ocean floor and bringing the sand to shore. To reclaim their property, the residents planned to fill in the one- to two-hundred feet of land that had washed away during annual hurricanes and winter storms. They would give back to themselves the pleasure of walking down a gentle gradient to the water. Their children and their grandchildren would be pleased, at least for now, at least until another violent storm had its say.
One last time that evening, we surveyed the truncated beach with its moody-colored wet sand. The shore was punctuated with dead brown fish, limp on the sand, each with one eyeball staring skyward. Holding hands, we stepped over them—every one almost a foot long and smelling sad. Then we made our way back over the dry mound and through the dense foliage that marked protection from the ocean’s invitation.
The house itself stood on pylons, with only a few rooms laying claim to the ground level—a bath, laundry, garage and sun room, the last of which unfolded to the outdoor pool and spa area. It was a breezy house, plantation style, white on the outside with sky-blue shutters and an expansive lanai that coiled around the main floor. The white kitchen was meant for cooking and housed a complete catalog of cookware. The refrigerator and pantry closets were stocked to overflowing. Upstairs, there were two floors of bedrooms, both of which could be accessed by one of two winding staircases. White wicker furniture and soft pastels served as a palette for Louise’s personality—kind, eager, intelligent. A sign at the end of the driveway read “Chez Vous.”
After dinner out, Charlie and I retreated up two flights of stairs to the master bedroom and sitting area. The day before, we had laughed upon their arrival here. “Just the two of us?” I had said. The house seemed too big not to have brought along an army. Our two daughters were at home under their grandmother’s care. Even if they’d come, it would still have taken another ten or twelve people to make the house feel inhabited, alive. We giggled. “Just the two of us in all this space?”
Having a full house would have defeated the purpose of the visit, as my job here was to heal. Three months earlier, I had caught bronchitis, which had led to whooping cough. Or maybe there had never been bronchitis to begin with, but just the encroachment of the other relentless disease. Although I had received good care from my internist, the doctor—late forties, female—hadn’t heard the gasping, prolonged, panicked cough that racked my body. I had been to see the doctor twice at the beginning of my illness. Later, in calling in to the doctor, perhaps I didn’t have the words to describe the sudden uncontrollable “fits” of coughing, where one cough followed the next without a break, or the high-pitched whoop, a noise I made when I breathed in after a coughing spasm. At night, I had grabbed the mattress and held on while the coughing took me on its ride, a ride not unlike that on an old wooden roller coaster, jerking me around like Coney Island’s Cyclone, perhaps. I coughed until I was sick to my stomach. I coughed until I broke two ribs. I harbored an exhaustion that made me happy enough to sleep too long and enjoy the shortened days.
As for Louise, I had met her ten years earlier while doing volunteer work in our community. We had learned to write a wicked strategic plan and produced a volume for one organization. Since then, Louise and I had taken classes—Conversational French, Women’s Poetry, History of Music—together. We watched Shakespeare in the theater, discussed books and their respective children. Louise called us the “wordsmiths” and told others that she and I knew one another so well, we finished each other’s sentences. Louise called me “Natasha” to her “Boris,” “Cohort” to her “Hort.”
During my illness, Louise had not been a fair-weather friend. Indeed; she had hovered over me as a mother would a son. She brought brown bags filled with carrot juice, cranberry concentrate, homemade red pepper soup. She told me that what she needed was a good fix of beta-carotene. Louise stopped by with a plastic, blow-up, wedge-shaped pillow with a zip-on white cover, which she told me to sleep on so I could breathe more easily. She had mail-ordered one for herself as well. She lauded me with some of her favorite videotapes—Hamlet and a British comedy in which the husband clips his toenails on the bed while chatting with his wife. For my girls—both dancers, she brought a ballet-barré technique-class video produced by one of her friends.
A teddy bear appeared one day. Louise had found this brown furry creature dressed in delft-tile calico and holding a tea set to match. The bear wore gold wire-rimmed glasses and a hand-crocheted hat, which was topped with another porcelain teacup. Having had some trouble with her lungs as a young girl, Louise would not come near me, so here was the bear to keep me company. One day, she brought a guardian angel pin, which I was to wear for good luck and good health.
When I was no longer contagious, Louise came in past the front door. She came to lunch with my mother and me and brought a platter of ham and turkey sloppy Joe sandwiches, which would last another four days. She loaded me with magazines—Vogue, Veranda, and Metropolitan Home.
I told my girls that “although we might not be able to repay Louise, we would know the extent to which we might help others at a later date,” as if kindness was a rain check for someone else.
Then Louise had called and asked, “Where are you going where it’s warm? I’ve seen you try to breathe the cold air; you can’t do it.” She called again the next day. “You’re going to my house in Captiva. You and Charlie. You need to rest where it’s warm.” Now it was the end of March. After three months of illness, I had enough energy. The temperature in Captiva was in the seventies. We made plans.
That first night, along with a tropical frog mantra, I began to hear the repetitive warning coo delivered from a truck backing up on the beach. Intermittently, it continued. Charlie and I slept until eight, waking to a blue sky woven with palm tree fronds. I had some coffee and fresh fruit, put on a bathing suit, cover-up, flip flops and visor, and headed back out down the sand-dollar path while Charlie went out to play golf at a nearby course.
The beach’s transformation from the day before seemed shocking, disturbing, miraculous. The earthmovers were now working just to the right of Ben and Louise’s property. They had repaired part of the sandy playground of the rich. Two to three men appeared to be in command. It seemed logical. I couldn’t imagine women moving earth, just as I couldn’t imagine a female God. The men wore hats. One worker sat up high in the covered cab of the land-moving vehicle, shifting sticks that controlled a large shovel. His truck closed in toward me. I moved back, frightened.
Five to six miles out sat a platform, a black fly chewing on the horizon. It reminded me of an oil-drilling operation (of which I know nothing). From the platform, a massive pump worked to suck up the ocean’s floor. The pump forced seawater through a line of piping to the shore. At the Gulf’s edge, the five-to-six-foot-wide pipe protruded from the lapping waves. It crawled up the beach to where the erosion began and spewed out a mixture of sea, sand, and shells, a veritable slot machine gone wild.
I stood in amazement as I watched the ocean floor unfold before me onto the packed wet beach: king’s crowns, pear whelks, moon sails, fighting conchs, lettered olives, zigzag scallops, lightening whelks, and spiny jewel boxes, fragments of coral and sand dollars, lion’s paws, and angel wings. I had yet to learn these names.
I thought about Ben’s “price of admission for staying at the house”—to leave one perfect shell behind. In his dining room, he had set out a clear glass replica of a conch shell, the size of a cookie jar, for that purpose. Earlier, I had examined the jar’s contents left by past guests—trinkets ranging in color from the palest white to peach, pink, and brown. They came in stripes and polka dots, with ridged and pearl-smooth surfaces. Upon close inspection, I found that each of the seashells had its flaws. But what struck me most was their consistent size—big. Why couldn’t a perfect specimen be small—perhaps even the size of a newborn baby’s pinkie nail? I remembered how, in the 1950’s, each time my mother had brought a new baby home from the hospital, I would tiptoe into the bedroom, lean over the high rail by standing on the bottom rung, and grasp the boy or girl’s smallest toe to touch the little nail, so tiny, like a seashell, crafted.
Now, standing in a rivulet of warm water, as I watched the ocean’s guts flowing out of the pipe and trying to make a path back toward the sea, she vowed to leave behind one smooth, pink, tiny, perfect shell. I leaned over the flowing treasure and began my hunt in earnest. And what I had thought would be a short walk on the beach turned into an hour, then two of moving carefully, looking down, concentrating. A bird called out overhead. After a time, I wasn’t sure how long she’d been at it. The sun seemed more intense on my back. Several other people gathered quietly, each of them comfortable in their own space. There was no need to talk or know one another. passed their eyes over the shells, the sand, and the tiny whirlpools that formed, listened to the white noise of the shells’ shuffling. At first, I had grabbed every seashell that seemed pleasing to the eye. But as the morning passed, I found myself becoming more particular. At one point, I ran back to the house to grab a plastic bag out of the kitchen, a bag to hold my trove.
Meanwhile, I stayed clear of the men and the earthmover. They were as intent on doing their jobs as I was on doing mine. Their vehicle moved back and forth, lifting sand and letting it down neatly along the line of erosion, smoothing it out, tidying the land. The truck made its noises—motor running, tires turning, the now familiar warning tune. The men worked efficiently, replacing a piece of paradise.
I crouched back down and watched the flowing water and its contents move through my pale fingers, which were not too different in color than that of the sand. I was happy to be wet, and looked for a new shape or piece of ocean. I smelled the salt air on the breeze. After a time, my state became Zen-like. I’d gaze occasionally out to the pumping station, a speck on the water (in my mind’s eye, the black fly drinking the horizon), and move my location away from the manly work. I’d tilt down toward the feel of the sea’s animal life and housing.
I had left my shoes up by the grassy dune. Covered in sunscreen, my long sleeves, and sunglasses, I didn’t worry about the sun’s attempt to send me indoors. I did retreat for lunch, but found myself back out again soon after, and I stayed until late afternoon.
When the sun began to shift to the bay side of the island, the workmen left their steal piping and machinery on the beach. Break time. The water ceased to flow from the miles-long stretch of rigged pipe. I brought my seashells up to the patio near the pool, poured them into a plastic yellow bucket, listened to their wind-chime-like sounds, and gently washed the sand away with a rubber hose. Later, I would soak them in chlorine to bring out their pearly colors and shed their algae coats. Anything with life inside I had thrown back earlier into the ocean.
That night, after dinner out with Charlie, I slept hard, the land movers’ sound, over to the left of them, now vague. In the morning, I followed the same path that I’d taken the day before. I noticed a palm uprooted by a nighttime rain. I forgot the day of the week. It was startling—the new sight. Ben and Louise’s beach had been “repaired”—rearranged, stretched out, lengthened, all while Charlie and I slept. The workmen were on to the next “front yard.” Later, I would write a postcard to tell my friends they had reclaimed their property. She wouldn’t have thought it possible. Man against nature. And winning? How long could the effort last?
Meanwhile, my quest continued, but the longer I looked, the more doubt I had about filling the order. The ocean had moved against each delicate, sometimes filmy housing and its cradled life. A broken lip or chipped surface, an algae-covered, barnacle-savaged seashell seemed more in keeping. Could there be perfection here in God’s kingdom? I wondered.
The days blurred. The time away seemed to be passing quickly, particularly given the ten-to-twelve hours a night that I spent sleeping. Charlie and I enjoyed the house and the island. One day, we stopped their rental car to let an alligator cross the road. We tried to play tennis, but I tired easily. We ate dinners out and later, from the balcony at the house, watched for, but didn’t see, the green flash at sunset.
I made a point to sit in all of the rooms, falling asleep each time with a book in my lap. Charlie spent a good deal of time looking for me, opening doors, calling my name. He swam in the pool. I took hot baths in the whirlpool tub.
I established a routine of walking to the beach, forgetting about my recovery process, forgetting about the books I’d brought to read (history of the Romanov family, a novel, poetry). At night, I read up on shells from pamphlets and books in the house. I learned that the lightening whelk is one of nature’s only shells that is left-handed; that the prize was the Junonia, usually found offshore by shrimp boats; that Sanibel and Captiva are part of a large plateau that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico for miles, acting like a shelf for seashells to gather and rest. The islands lie east to west instead of north to south, like a crooked finger sticking out into the gulf.
My breathing felt seamless, and I forgot I was healing. I forgot about hmyself at all. It was enough to see the beach replenished, to look for the merest bit of perfection, to be lost in the search under a warm sun with the gulf lapping at my feet. I thought of a favorite poem by Samuel Beckett: “My way is in the sand flowing, between the shingle and the dune…me, my life, harrying, fleeing, to its beginning, to its end….” I recited the poem in its entirety over and over again to myself. I watched pairs of white cranes walk by.
At the end of their eight days, I anxiously selected a small shell and placed it without a clink into Ben’s shell bank. Its defects, I thought, were minimal, yet it wasn’t what I had expected it to be. In all this time, why hadn’t I been able to follow the instructions? Did Ben know the odds? Was this a tongue-in-cheek request he’d made? Or did he believe perfection could be found on his sandy beach? I didn’t know anything for sure.