Things That Are Already Dead
The first thing to do is to get a bag or a basket or a sweatshirt with deep pockets. It might take you an extra minute or two to find a basket, but that is to be expected. You have only been living in your mother's house for a few months, the funeral not yet a distant memory. Only wear shoes if the beach is particularly rocky. Walk with your head bent slightly toward the sand so that you can gaze up and down and side to side in twelve-second intervals. Remember your mother's advice: don't pick up shells that are broken, still home to oceanic creatures, coated with remnants of seaweed or duplicates. That is just greedy and boring. You want something new to place atop your inherited mantle. And don't collect mussel shells; they are everywhere on this beach and they're not exceptionally fascinating or beautiful. Sea-glass is acceptable unless it is brown – that is just a beer bottle swallowed by the sea because some lazy old man or rebellious kid was drinking on another beach and could not, or perhaps would not, find a garbage bin. Miniature shells are only to be collected if they are either perfect in shape, color and texture or if they happen to be baby conch shells still in their pods. This is extremely rare as they are oftentimes picked out of their pods by ravenous, desperate seagulls. Do not feed the seagulls.
Begin your walk in the most common place: down at the point where the waves graze the sand leaving it packed smooth and hard. Remember the day so many years ago that you walked here, hand in hand with your mother, looking for the bracelet you lost in a sandcastle. Remember that you never found it. The best shells – the sand dollars, the prettiest clam shells, pieces of coral and conch shells the size of a child's fist and maybe even a dead starfish – will be here in this wet sand. You'll come across a beautiful sea snail with swirls of purple and gold and blue but don't place it in your bag. No, first you must turn it over and inspect the interior and nine times out of ten with a shell this vivid, the animal is still alive and just a little lost. You can't have its home yet. Throw it back into the sea but do check this place in about fifteen minutes as a seagull will have probably picked it up and eaten it and thus made it acceptable for your collection. Keep walking and pick up the pearly shells that look like the face of your mother's watch that now sits on your nightstand. Skip the plain white ones unless they are big enough to be useful as an ashtray, a potpourri holder or maybe a place to keep your jewelry safe while you go for a swim. Pick up the blue sea-glass but immediately throw it back since the edges are still sharp and remember: always, always pick up conch shells – even if there is a slight crack or inconsistency of form. If you are lucky, you will come across a seagull skull, licked clean of any blood or brains or feathers by the salt water the night before. This is such an excellent find that it might be wise for you to pack up your bag or basket or pockets and go home because if you are too greedy the tide won't bring you anything the next day.
Walk back to your house with your head held high, admiring the way the ocean is darker at the horizon than it is at your feet, and clean your findings with one part white vinegar and two parts water so that they don't smell up the kitchen because you know how that used to anger your mother so.
Shannon Derby received her MFA from Emerson College. After teaching courses in writing and literature at Emerson College, Suffolk University and Quincy College for five years, she decided to return to the other side of the classroom. She currently lives in Dublin, where she is pursuing a masters in Irish Writing at Trinity College, and plans to return to Boston upon completing her MPhil dissertation this fall. Her fiction has appeared in apt: a literary journal, STORYGLOSSIA and The Molotov Cocktail.