I suppose she really shouldn’t have been sneaking around up there. It was, after all, not her house. But there was such an overwhelming allure to that attic. One day, she was walking past and she could have sworn there were voices coming from above. Why didn’t she tell anyone? Why because who would believe the word of a twelve year old girl? They would brush it off as one of her pretend games, as they always did.
To be fair, she did love to play pretend. Since birth she was shy and untalkative, preferring the silent company of her own thoughts over the petty conversations of reality. But the thoughts were not silent, they had voices and energy and stories to tell. To her, they were more real than the talk around her. And so, people simply grew accustomed to the clouds in her eyes.
Despite how colorful these thoughts were, life spent in one’s own head is undoubtedly lonely. With that loneliness came an insatiable curiosity. Naturally, you’d often find this young girl buried in the pages of a book. She tended to prefer historical fiction; she was always trying to connect with the past.
The house itself was very connected with the past. It was owned by an old man who had been left alone when his wife died long ago. Since then he had dedicated himself to the town library, volunteering there and helping to improve its historical sections. He was a collector, and became one of the main proprietors of the library’s small historical museum. It was here that he met the girl, and he seemed to be the only one able to clear the fog from her eyes. She delighted in his many tales, and he delighted equally in sharing them with such an enthusiastic youth. The two soon became good friends, and so it was not uncommon that she visited his home.
The building had character, for sure. It was a fairly large colonial that overlooked the sea. The property included a large cluster of rocks jutting out of the ocean, fit for a young girl to climb upon. In fact, the passing boats frequenting the bay were quite used to seeing the figure of a small girl climbing upon these rocks. The interior of the house held just as much (if not more) intrigue as the exterior; it was filled with old paintings and model ships and all manner of antique trinket.
The attic was forbidden territory, which naturally made it irresistible to the girl. One day when the old man was out, the girl seized her opportunity. She grabbed an old chair and dragged it into the hallway. Then, standing on the tips of her toes, her outstretched fingers just barely managed to take grasp of the thin cord dangling from the ceiling. With some effort, she pulled the cord down, which in turn opened up the trap door and revealed the folded ladder. A few moments later she was scrambling up the ladder and into the unknown.
It was unbearably hot. The girl suffered a coughing fit due to an unfortunate dust allergy. Despite the physical displeasures, the attic was everything the girl had dreamed it would be. In one corner, stacks and stacks of photo albums and film reels, complete with an old projector. In another, all manner of strange old dress, including what looked to be an authentic suit of armor. Many chests beckoned to the girl, waiting to be opened. She knew she shouldn’t be there, and so her heart was beating rapidly. She began timidly poking through the odd assortment of objects. After a minute or so, her eyes fell upon a shell.
It was a conch shell, and the most beautiful the girl had ever seen. It was ornately decorated with spires and spirals jutting out in magnificent defiance. The entrance was a soft pink, the lip forming a delicate, flowing labia. It was the size of a pigskin, and contained a wide palette of pastel purples, blues, and pearls. The girl let out a soft moan as she gently held it, fingers tracing the spirals and dancing at the entrance.
She squealed, nearly dropping the shell; there was a startling noise from downstairs. Without thinking, she hurried down the ladder, shell still in hand, and quickly closed the entrance to the attic. Upon inspection, it seemed the noise was merely the cat knocking the toaster off of the counter. Heart still racing, the girl opted out of risking another venture skyward.
Relaxing a little, she entered the parlor and took a seat upon the couch, the nice one that gobbled you up. As she sank into the plush cushions, she held the shell up to her ear, to hear the sea.
“Hello,” whispered the shell.
Startled once more, the girl dropped the shell into her lap. After a few minutes of thinking, the girl cautiously picked up the shell. She put her mouth to the entrance, and with her lips touching the shell she breathed, barely audibly, “Hello.”
“Who are you?” asked the shell.
“I am a girl,” said the girl. “Who are you?”
“I am the sea,” said the shell.
The sea sounded wary, but her voice had a kind of force behind it that demanded admiration. It was the voice of a young woman, perhaps thirty.
Frightened, the girl did not speak to the shell anymore. Instead, she tightly wrapped the shell in a dish towel, placed it in her bag, and returned home. The old man was used to coming home to find the young girl gone- she came and went as she pleased.
That night, when it was time to sleep, the girl carefully unwrapped the shell and brought it to her bed. She pulled the covers over her head and curled up with the shell.
“Hello?” she whispered.
“Hello darling,” said the woman.
There was a pause. And then, “Are you really the sea?”
“Why yes, I and many others,” the woman laughed.
“But how?” the girl inquired.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question,” said the sea.
“Were you ever a girl like me?”
Another pause. “Yes, there was a time,” the voice returned.
“A tragically beautiful accident.”
That was that. The girl placed the shell on her bedside stand and drifted to sleep.
A week or two went by and the girl continued life as usual. It was the summer, so there was no school to attend, and the girl was not yet old enough to hold a job. Her parents were scarcely around, both having full time jobs. Their tiredness and apathy towards the quiet girl made them somewhat neglectful. They learned not to worry, because their daughter always made it home before dark. This is not to say that they didn’t love their only daughter, they simply rarely showed it.
She continued visiting the old man and exploring the rocks. It was turning out to be quite a dreary summer. Most days were cloudy and rainy, and the sky was a constant gray. The girl didn’t mind.
She always carried the shell with her, out of sight, wrapped up in her bag. She took it out often, when no one was around, and spoke to it. The shell made a great companion, and acted as one of the girl’s only friends.
After some time, the girl found herself very attached to the voice inside the shell. One day:
“I love you,” whispered the girl into the shell.
“I love you too,” softly said the sea.
“I’d like to be with you.”
“I’d quite like that.”
The shell continued to speak, but the girl did not hear. She wrapped it up tightly and made her way to the old man’s house.
He was out, probably at the library, but she let herself in with the key under the flower pot. She placed the shell on the table of the parlor and left it there. She began slowly walking away, but stopped. She returned to the table, picked up the shell, and kissed it.
In a trance-like state, she left the house and continued down onto the rocks she knew so well. She was in a floral pattern dress, but entered the water anyhow. It was frigid.
Slowly, she waded into the water up to her chest. She bent her head down and tasted the salt of the water, letting the waves slowly carry her up and down. Closing her eyes, she lifted her feet off of the rocky bottom and began swimming. She kept swimming until she knew she could no longer make it back. The currents began drawing her further out. Tired, she struggled to stay afloat.
As her body gave out and plunged under the water, she took a deep breath. She found, curiously, that she could breathe. Not thinking anything of it, she let herself sink further and further down, taking deep breaths of the salty water and letting it fill her lungs. It was ecstasy. Looking up, she could see the surface of the water far above her. The gray light streamed through the clouds and danced in ringlets on the surface. A terrible peacefulness washed over her entire body. Darkness clouded the edges of her vision, and as she let the last air out of her lungs, all went black.
The old man was startled to find his shell on the table. You see, he had not spoken to the shell in many years. He had deemed it unhealthy. The shell spoke to him, too. It was the voice of his wife, whom he had lost to the sea when he was still a young man. He had never loved again, and he painfully longed to be with her once more.
Unable to resist, he approached the shell and tenderly picked it up.
“Hello, my love,” he whispered into it, his voice shaking.
“Hello darling,” said the young girl.
By Eric Watterson