The Broken Shell | A Short Story

Where the rolling sea meets the sand
you will find the ancient ocean man.
Sit still and listen if you can
to broken sea shells in shaking hands.”
-Old Sea Proverb

Vanora squats beside a rotting pile of kelp to examine the tiny insects buzzing around it. The golden tinge of sunset makes their wings appear delicate and translucent. They must be a kind of fly or gnat and she wonders how long their lifespan is. Probably days or perhaps only hours.

A wave of nausea hits and she falls forward in the sand on aching, aging knees. When did she last eat something? Breakfast was a large bowl of fresh strawberries and a cup of weak coffee in an off-white mug with a slight chip along the rim. She’d almost cut her lip but noticed at the last second and turned the mug.

The rest of the day is blurry and Vanora doesn’t like when her memories aren’t clear. Her grey hair smells of coconut shampoo and it’s braided back so the wind doesn’t tangle it. She must have showered and taken a nap. She feels clean and rested in black leggings and a loose purple sweater, but awfully hungry. She probably forgot to eat again.

For most of her life, she’s been a writer, always scribbling herself notes, poems, snippets of song lyrics, and endless to-do lists. Her novels were never on the New York Times Best Seller list, but she’s proud of how they reflect her as a mother and a woman. In the last few years, however, the words won’t come. The notes she leaves herself now are cryptic and upsetting. It’s as if she speaks a different language each day and there’s no global translator.

It’s hard to accept such a drastic change within herself, particularly as most of the time she feels like the same person—viewing the world through a lens of flowery words, colorful contrasts, and abstract connections. Yet her mind doesn’t hold everything at once anymore—sand running through a sieve collecting only the bits and pieces large enough to not fall through. It feels terribly unfair.

Sitting back, she touches the slimy seaweed with her pointer finger and sadness suddenly ripples through her chest, making it hard to breathe. This plant provided shelter, food, and protection to generations of sea life only to be ripped from its foundation and deposited onto the sandy shore like a banana peel thrown in an overflowing trash can. Or like an old woman who gave everything for her family only to find herself living alone in a travel trailer moving from town to town.

Waving her hands frantically to scare off the bugs, she lifts the limp plant up by the bulb, runs to the edge of the water, and tosses it as far as she can. The roaring waves mask any plunking sound but she imagines it’s similar to dropping dumplings into a boiling pot of chicken broth. Bloop.

Her children always loved soup night sitting around the large wooden table throwing crusts of bread at each other. It’s been years since they were all together—scattered now like sand in the wind. Maybe she should call them all to meet her by the sea. Would they come? Life can be so busy for those in the thick of it. This she remembers.

Vanora stands and brushes the wet sand off her clothes as best she can. There’s nobody on the beach except a few seagulls and a scraggly-looking crab missing a leg. She watches him scuttle sideways, struggling to cross the sand, and is struck by how similar they both are. Unable to move as they like. Pondering what’s next. Needing help.

Grabbing the large reddish shell with both hands she lifts the terrified crab from the sand and carries it into the icy water. The cold seeps into her pants and it requires all her focus to keep balanced, but she doesn’t stop until she’s certain the crab won’t be dragged back instantly to shore.

“Good luck, little fellow.”

With a flick of her wrists, she lets it go and it immediately disappears beneath the bubbly white foam. Vanora feels a pang of jealousy and wonders if anywhere will feel like home again. It’s been years since she’s felt the comforting feeling of belonging, but it feels more like decades. Lost memories and lost time. When did loneliness become her only constant?

Finding a large piece of driftwood to use as a backrest, Vanora sits in the sand with her legs out in front of her. The blue of her nail polish has chipped and she’s shivering from the cold. The sun continues to inch toward the water, painting the sky with thick, vivid brushstrokes of pink and gold. Nature’s nightly masterpiece always changes and surprises her.

“Every starry galaxy morphs and sings
caught within its own orbital rings, 
but it’s humans who have the power
choosing how to spend every hour.”

An eerie deep voice crackles beside Vanora and she turns to find a tall, wrinkled man sitting in the sand beside her staring at the sea. His limbs are long and crooked and he’s dressed in only a pair of tattered brown pants. There are tears falling from his pale green eyes, cutting a path through his weathered, sandy face. Sadness, the great connector, erases all traces of fear from Vanora and she’s left with only peaceful curiosity.

It’s as if he’s simply another creature found along the shore—nothing less and nothing more. There’s a slick wetness about him as if he crawled out of the water moments before and perhaps he did. His feet are covered in sharp, white barnacles and his long, grey hair and beard are peppered with pieces of dark green seaweed. His speech is slow and careful.

“Skulls of restless men do lie
beneath the choppy waves and sky,
searching for what they already know
love transcends the moon’s bright show.”

These words are followed by a blank expression and silence. Vanora feels as if she should respond but the man has now opened a tiny burlap sack he pulled from his pants pocket. He unties a thin brown rope and withdraws several shells with long, pointy fingers. Grasping them loosely between his palms, he begins shaking them.

The colorful sky swirls and tilts until everything is cloudy and grey. All sounds are muted except for the shells within the ancient man’s hands. Vanora sways to their rhythm finding herself falling into a sleep-like trance. Images appear dream-like and cloudy swirling for a moment until they flash into vivid, sharp focus. One after another.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Thirty-five seconds are left on the timer before the roast is ready to be pulled out of the oven. Vanora wipes her hands on her faded flower apron and watches the children rushing around setting the table. The older boys carry the glassware while the little ones help with napkins and silverware. Her husband kisses her on the cheek before washing his hands for dinner. The baby fusses in the high chair.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Turning off the radio reports announcing another deployment of troops, the family gathers in the overgrown field behind the house in the late hours of the night. Using a borrowed brass telescope they take turns looking at the moon, Venus and Mars. They eat banana pudding and vanilla cookies from a thermos. The little ones pick flowers using a flashlight. Vanora wipes a tear from her husband’s cheek with her pointer finger.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Walking through the empty house Vanora checks one more time for anything left behind. She doesn’t want to leave her home, but the war isn’t stopping anytime soon and without her husband she must do what she can to protect her children. Her youngest just learned to walk and he waddles across the clean wooden floors giggling at how much space there is to move. The oldest children fold their arms and scowl. Nothing she can say will fix this for them.

“What you have always given free
I have taken from the sea,
stolen from the ocean’s dark abyss
a broken memory shell to reminisce.”

Minutes pass into hours as the chilly night gives way to foggy dawn. Vanora sits stiffly with her eyes closed, locked in a slideshow of the past. She watches echoes of herself and her children grow up and change through vivid snapshots of her 70 years of life. Meetings and partings. Happiness and grief. Love and loss. Fullness and beauty transform into warming gratitude that radiates like flashing sparks through her tired body.

A hawk swoops across the sky calling loudly. She opens her eyes. The strange ocean man beside her is gone and the world looks bright and hopeful. A broken sand dollar sits beside her and she holds it close to her chest and smiles. Walking back to her small trailer the words flow as they haven’t in years, almost singing themselves within her, weaving with memories unlocked and free.

“What once was taken far from me
hidden inside the Tumtum tree,
this broken shell gimble gave
for might memory now to wave.

With burbling breath and flowing pen
I return back unto myself again,
for within my beating beamish heart
truth whispers of another fresh start.”

Author’s note: I’ve been working all week to get my house ready to host my mother-in-law’s memorial this Sunday and I left myself no time for writing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the words would come at all. I stayed up late last night, far into this morning, and this story is what developed. While it may not have stayed entirely on topic, I’m kind of proud of this one. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I’ll catch up on reading everyone’s blogs next week. I miss all your words!


Short Story Challenge | Week 35

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a conversation between artists. We had to include the words skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, and ponder.

For an added bonus this week, here’s a picture of Angelica as a unicorn and me as Raggedy Ann back in the early 2000s. She was simply the cutest. Still is.


Write With Us

Prompt: A story that takes place in one room

Include: petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

18 thoughts on “The Broken Shell | A Short Story

  1. Ahh Bridgette, I was touched by your story even without the “Backstory.” First of all your descriptions were especially good this week. I saw and felt each of the objects as you picked them up. Lovely and strong word pictures. However the content of the story felt especially close. As an aging woman with no offspring I often imagine what my final days will be like with nothing but memories for company. You do good work even when you are rushing. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, dear Penny. This story felt like it maybe is the tip of something bigger. After caring for my grandmother with dementia while in my early 20s, I became fearful of losing my memories and my ability to express myself. Watching my mother-in-law lose her ability to move and then her ability to express herself was painful and reignited this fear within me. I’m not sure what kind of story is there, but I feel the seeds of it germinating.

      Like

  2. Bridgette, this one was really poetic and beautiful. You did a really great job of packing in the brief memories with lots of emotion. I always enjoy the symbolism you stuff into your stories, specifically the cleansing and hope the follows your scenes on a beach. This one may have been last minute, but it was a really nice read.

    Also, thanks for the bonus pic. Really made me smile ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bridgette, I’ve been meaning to read your story since you wrote it at the beginning of September. I always enjoy and value your writing, and I’m so glad I returned to this one. I love the way you weave so much detail into your vivid stories. This one totally captured me, and I’m in awe of your talent as a writer. I really felt Vanora’s emotions and confusion in this, and it particularly touched me because my son-in-law’s mother has just been diagnosed with dementia. My son-in-law can’t deal with it at all and is grieving the loss of the mother he knew. My daughter has taken on the responsibility of ensuring she receives the correct care and support. It’s a hard time for them all. Thank you again for this beautiful and moving piece.

    I hope you are coping with the loss of your dear mother-in-law as well as you can be. Thinking of you fondly … Ellie Xxx 🦢💕💛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for returning and reading this story, Ellie. I cared for my grandmother when she had dementia in my 20s and it was terribly difficult and heartbreaking. I lived for the moments she’d have of clarity and just tried to use those other moments like a detective would-attempting to decipher things from her past or the underlying emotion. It was exhausting and my heart goes out to your daughter and her husband. Sending them all love and strength as they navigate this difficult path.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been meaning to get back to you on this comment. Where does the time go!? I’m sorry you had such a difficult and emotional time caring for your grandmother when you were younger. Nowadays, we are encouraged to talk to people with dementia about the past as it keeps their memories alive. I’ve heard photos and music are particularly good for this. However, it must be incredibly heartbreaking when a close relative doesn’t even remember who we are. Thank you for the love to my daughter and son-in-law. I passed this on, and they were both very appreciative. I send you my love, also. Xx 💕

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s