At first, he put the new shell nowhere near the last, but soon that became impossible. Shells gathered like barnacles clinging to a hull where the air was a vast sea. No one came to tidy up because, as far as he knew, no one visited except him. Whether that did or didn’t make this spot the shrine he imagined, he was loyal.
He half-thought—half-hoped—someone might happen upon his work. A stranger might read signs of loving days, recognize accretion of attention in so many shells so meticulously arranged. When he feared they wouldn’t, he felt vague and unanchored dread, but, as time passed and his daily burden gathered, the shrine spoke its own mystery and meaning apart from him.
Each shell represented careful choice. He might have chosen many others. Some shells he must have passed by before, as they looked almost resigned where they lay, as if they already knew they wouldn’t leave that spot and accepted it. Others cried out. He didn’t always pick the loud ones but noticed their intentions. The silent conversation he shared with shells ran like an undercurrent through his thoughts every morning he walked the shore. He felt important amid all their insistence and also humbled, cowed by what he might do for them.
Yet that day’s shell grew lighter as he carried it. His hand’s warmth stirred the smell of the sea and the absence in the shell’s cavity. A shell is a dead thing—only imagination makes it live again. When you put a shell to your ear, you hear not the distant sea but your own blood rushing invisibly, amplified and echoing, trapped in a labyrinth, the spiral corridors and its abandoned rooms.
He’d started as a boy, and at first it’d meant nothing to leave each shell. It was something he did, and fervor came later. To abandon his task is to acquiesce, to break a chain of days.
In dark moments he stared at his city of shells and wondered about devotion, about compulsion, about obsession, about what separated them. Looking at the spaces he’d ringed and the towers he’d piled in loving balance, he liked to believe his own architecture found expression. A hidden order needed notice. Yet, how could he tell? Maybe desperation is the fundamental necessity. What would he have without a shrine, what other reason might he find for continuing?
The answer crept like tides—inevitable, dawning, adamant—approaching and withdrawing. Nothing else interested him. Walking in the diminished ripples of breakers, he thought about alternatives, what might satisfy his yearnings or fill the blank spots in his imagination. Before he sensed what he was doing, he reached into the surf and saved another shell from vanishing. He shook it in the receding water. He brought it up to his eyes and regarded it. Something said it was the last, the best, the final word.
He’d be back the next day. He wasn’t finished. He couldn’t bear being finished.