Seashell (Part 1 of a Short Story)

"Seashell" (Part 1) by Kevin Ott

In a place known only in rumors, a boy was born during an electrical storm. His mother's contractions paced themselves between sheets of lightning that, with great flashes and strange ripples of light, cast shadows and shapes on the walls inside their cottage.

The boy grew with health and strength, and he was a dutiful boy with a stout character and an eagerness to be of help. He always carried his parents' firewood at the end of the day when the smoke from the blacksmith and the tanner became heavier in the air and mixed with the smell of pine trees. In those days, people still rode horses and carriages to travel far away, though most families had never gone beyond the hills.

There was one hill, the highest hill, next to the village -- perhaps more of a small mountain than a hill, and it rose over the village. Upon it was a temple that had the appearance of a castle. It was a temple because it had altars and holy places and other things you would only find in a temple. But its appearance was that of a grand castle with spires and terraces and lonely courtyards and gardens where one could sit and think in peace. This temple-castle, called the Great Joy, was called such because anyone who went there always returned with an unearthly joy.

The Great Joy housed a beloved but much feared king. He was the great hero and protector of the village. They feared this king not because he was wicked, but because the force of his character filled the land with a quiet, ever-present rending of spirit -- a holy tearing in the hearts of every person. This tearing came stronger on summer nights, when the people looked at the cool-glowing moon and the steely stars and, in those perfect moments, listened to the Great Heartbeat.

This Great Heartbeat belonged to the father of the king. No one had ever seen the king’s father. But all of the people loved the king’s father because of how wonderful the king was. And on nights when the sky was clear and the people who loved to look up would look up, they could hear the Great Heartbeat.

When a person is born in this village, the king comes and visits the new baby and gives the baby a seashell. A gift from the king who is the most precious gift that one could receive in the kingdom. And when the person lifts the seashell to their ear, he or she hears their own heartbeat.

When the boy was just old enough to write and understand poetry and the Deep Pages, his parents died. And because the boy had no other kin, the king took the orphan into his care, and in the summer the boy spent many nights walking in the king's gardens.

One day the boy was walking in the gardens, and it was a warm day that had lived and died with ease and contentment. The sun had just gone down, and in the ultramarine glow of dusk, Venus rose. There was a tree on a small slope -- a tree that the boy had not seen before because he had never traveled so far into the garden. When he saw the tree, the boy stopped. As he looked at it, his hands went weak.

As he stepped closer to the tree, he saw all the things he had ever loved in life: the smell of rain on a sunny morning after a storm, the look of the sea at sunrise, the aroma of jasmine in the evening, the taste of Christmas dinner and the sound of his parents laughing, a kind hand touching his face, the mountains and the silhouette of the Great Joy when there’s a full moon, and many other things.

The boy sat beneath the tree with his eyes closed, seeing many things, until the moon drifted between Jupiter and the stars that formed the twins who stood side-by-side next to the lion. Finally, as he rose to return home, he felt something strike his shoe. His foot had kicked an object. After examining the ground, he found a seashell.

"Who's shell is this, I wonder?" He said.

That night, as he lay in bed, the boy lifted the seashell and listened to it. A heartbeat drummed faintly in a wash of white noise that one often hears in seashells. The sound of the heartbeat was muted, as if it were coming from beneath a sea.

In the night’s shadows and in the blue of the moon, he listened to the strange heartbeat until his eyes closed. The boy fell asleep clutching the shell to his chest.

The next morning the king summoned the boy to his castle. After the boy arrived, the king fed him a bountiful breakfast and seated the boy before his throne. He spoke with great solemnity.

"I know of the shell you found last night."

"Yes, my king. And who's shell is it, I wonder?"

"It is a strange thing to find a shell in this manner. The shells never leave the sides of their owners. And all people in this land protect their shells with great care. And, perhaps the most puzzling thing, my eyes are always on my gardens, but I have not seen anyone enter them, other than you, my son."

"I will give the shell to you, my king."

"No. I have spoken with my father. He has summoned you."

The boy's mouth fell open, and the blood in his veins surged with astonishment, as if the red blood cells had erupted in chatter and gossip at the king's words. The boy's face grew pale. No one in the history of the village had ever been summoned by the father of the king.

"Wh-what, must I do, my king?"

"You must cross the Great Sea and go to my father and bring this shell to him."

"But. But." The boy's lips grew heavy and trembling, and his vision clouded with new emotion. "But will you come with me? I don't want to leave you. I don't want to leave your kingdom. Or the gardens. I don't want to leave my home."

"I am sorry, my son. He has summoned you to come alone. But take courage. If he has summoned you, he will see to it that you arrive safely. He will not forsake you. Go now. It is an urgent quest."

The boy left the castle at once to travel to the shore. He was the first person from the village to ever leave the castle carrying both Great Joy and Great Sorrow in his heart. But it was a Holy Joy and a Holy Sorrow, for the king had given him a quest to fulfill.

That night, the boy stood at the shore near the village waiting for the Arriving -- the time when the ships from the far lands arrive and acquire new passengers for the journey back across the Great Sea. As the moon floated between Jupiter and Venus, the boy listened to the Great Heartbeat. And then he lifted to his ear the strange seashell that he had found in the gardens. He heard -- ever so faintly between the chimes of constellations and the quick midnight winds -- the strange heartbeat. And he looked across the sea. The silhouettes of the ships appeared before the face of the moon.

His journey was about to begin.