The Conch Shell – Elizabeth Raphael

The Conch Shell – Elizabeth Raphael

May 2023 cover
May 2023

Mira sat on the couch, clutching the conch shell tightly in her hands. Her back had gone stiff and her legs were sweating against the soft leather of the couch, but she dared not move—not yet. If she stayed there just a little longer, she told herself, surely she would remember why she was holding the shell. Despite everything, she still had faith in the power of her mind. All she needed to do was focus, and with a bit of time, it all would fall into place. She took several slow breaths, the kind she had learned in the yoga class that Thalia insisted she take, and waited for the moment to return to her. It did not.

Mira let out a breath in a huff, the loops of her ever-present pearl necklace clinking softly against each other with the motion. She had never been one to wallow in self-pity, but she could feel it now, coiling itself around her body and threatening to pull her down. Her late husband had once told her that her ability to find the smallest sliver of positivity in any situation was a big part of what made him fall for her, but at the moment, she felt far removed from that version of herself. She could see no silver lining to dementia. She was being stolen away, piece by piece, and there was nothing she could do about it. Logically, she knew it was an indiscriminate condition, but the raw emotional side of her still wanted to throw herself to the ground like a toddler having a tantrum and wail about the unfairness of it all. She had done everything right, everything that was supposed to ensure that she aged as gracefully as possible. She had eaten a balanced diet, enjoying her food but not overindulging—or, rather, over-indulging only on special occasions. She had stayed physically active, swimming a daily mile until her early sixties, when arthritis seized her shoulders and she was forced to switch to walking. She had never been as graceful on land as in the water, but she had taken to walking regardless. As long as she was up and active, she was happy.

The cruelest bit of all, or so it felt to her, was that she had been just as diligent with her cognitive health. In addition to her daily crossword, she periodically took up disparate hobbies so she’d gain diverse skills—everything from archery to rangoli. She had walked through life with a tenacious optimism that everything would turn out OK, and it hadn’t.

Fighting off a wave of despair, Mira tightened her grip on the shell. She knew it was risky to stay in this pose. That new helper of hers—Kylee, Mira recalled after only a brief hesitation, Kylee with a double ‘e’ at the end—was due any minute now. If Kylee came in and saw Mira frozen like this, she would immediately call Thalia to let her know that her mother was having another episode. Thalia would then leave work straight away and drive the nearly 100 miles that separated them, likely using that time to work on a new pitch for persuading Mira to move into a retirement home.

Mira’s mouth twisted at the thought. Thalia was too young to fully understand the situation. To her, it was simple: Mira’s dementia was progressing—a fact that Mira herself could not deny—and therefore, she shouldn’t live alone. Why not be part of a community full of people who were going through the same sort of thing, cared for by workers trained for that very purpose? Mira shook her head. How easy it was for Thalia to come to such conclusions when it wasn’t her being forced to leave the home she had lived in for nearly 60 years. It wasn’t her being expected to leave behind the living room where her child had taken her first steps, the library full of her carefully curated books, swimming trophies, and assorted treasures, the bedroom that she had shared with her husband for 54 wonderful, too-short years. No, it certainly wasn’t Thalia’s freedom and privacy being stripped bare. It wasn’t her world being compressed down into one personality-devoid room.

Mira’s pulse thrummed an angry staccato inside of her, each beat a warning. She had to stop getting angry like this, she chastised herself. It wasn’t good for her, and it wasn’t fair to Thalia. Thalia’s single-mindedness could be frustrating, true, but she was a good woman and a good daughter. She was just a worrier, as her father had been. There was no ill intent behind this retirement home crusade of hers, Mira knew; there was only love. Thalia had harbored concerns about Mira living alone after her father’s passing, and Mira’s short-lived disappearance six months back had unfortunately given meat to those fears. If Thalia didn’t have to travel so often for work, she undoubtedly would have cleared out a bedroom in her condo and convinced Mira to move in long ago. As matters stood, this was her way of trying to keep Mira safe.

A cell phone trilled loudly from the coffee table, interrupting Mira’s line of thought. Prying a hand from the shell, she slid her turquoise reading glasses down in place from the top of her head and leaned over, squinting at the name flashing across the small screen. It was Thalia. A smile quirked Mira’s mouth. It was almost as if Thalia had sensed Mira’s train of thought and waited until she meandered into a more positive frame of mind to call. Thalia had always been an intuitive child.

Mira picked up the phone with her free hand. “Hello, dear,” she said, her back popping as she leaned back against the couch. “I was just thinking about you.”

“Hey, hey. How’s my favorite mother today?” There was a faintly echoey quality to Thalia’s voice, which told Mira that she was on speaker phone. That was not unusual. Thalia was usually doing at least ten things at once. At the beginning of her daughter’s career, Mira had been surprised by how busy the life of a marine biologist was, but she was well used to it at this point.

“Your favorite mother is fine.” Mira supposed that was a partial truth. Her eyes flicked towards the mahogany grandfather clock that stood solemnly in the corner. “It’s early for a call from you. Late lunch?”

Thalia clicked her tongue, a nervous gesture that had started when she was around eight. Nowadays, it indicated that Thalia was particularly worried about Mira’s health. “No, Mom,” Thalia began carefully. “I’m leaving on my trip to Mexico today. We got the grant to go to Lake Xochimilco and study the axolotls. I’ll be gone for a month.”

Mira muttered several choice curses inside her head—phrases that Thalia would have been shocked to hear, had they actually slipped out of her mother’s mouth. “I know all of that, Thalia,” she lied. “I just thought you left tomorrow.”

There was a brief, weighted pause. “Oh. Yeah. This trip has been such a long time in the making, it is hard to believe it’s finally here.” A horn honked faintly in the background. “Ugh—this traffic.” Thalia tsked. “I thought by leaving early, I’d get ahead of it all.”

“It’s tourist season. Rush hour is every hour.”

Thalia snorted. “That’s true. So”—her voice took on a tone of practiced ease—”how are you doing today?”

“You already asked that, love.”

“I know, I’m just…” Thalia clicked her tongue. “I applied for this grant before everything happened, and it’s such a long trip. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not the right time.”

“Thalia—” Mira tried to interject, but Thalia seemed not to hear her.

“I’d like to be there to get things going, so I could always go and then leave after a week or two. Dr. Slater is more than qualified to handle everything on his own. Well, on his own with all of the research assistants. He’d be fine. I’m superfluous, really.”

“THALIA,” Mira’s voice was loud and firm. “You are not now, nor have you ever been superfluous. This trip has been your dream since you were a child, and it’s your hard work that made it happen. You will go on this trip, all four weeks of it, and you won’t think of me at all while you’re there. That’s final.”

“Oh, Mom.” Mira could hear the smile in Thalia’s voice. “How could I not think of you? If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be a marine biologist. You taught me everything I know.”

“Ohh, pshh,” Mira said dismissively, just as her cheeks flushed with pleasure. “I think your professors probably did that.”

“Not really. You knew that the Greenland shark was the oldest vertebrate over the bowhead whale before that research was even published. That bit really impressed my ‘Intro to Marine Bio’ class. I think Professor Gruber thought I was a witch,” Thalia laughed. “Though witchcraft is as good of an explanation as any. Your knowledge of the ocean has always bordered on the supernatural.”

“I read a lot of books, love. That’s hardly supernatural.”

“True, but that doesn’t fully explain—”

“So,” Mira interrupted, pivoting the conversation. There was an explanation, she knew, but of course she couldn’t remember what it was. Thalia didn’t need to know that, though. “You mentioned that a Dr. Slater will be on this trip. Is he that handsome British fellow we ran into at that Cuban restaurant?”

“He is,” Thalia answered suspiciously.

“He’s the one with the wife and three daughters, right?”

“Hmm—no, Dr. Slater is single. I’m not sure who you’re thinking of,” Thalia said before picking up on her mother’s comfortingly familiar matchmaking attempt. “Oh, wait. I see what you did there. I tripped right into that one.”

Mira smiled. “Your old mother still has a few tricks. I know you’ll be busy on this trip, but hey, there’s a lot of hours in the day.”

“Duly noted.” Thalia clicked her tongue. “So you’re really all right? Really? I worry about you all alone.”

“I won’t be alone. I have Kylee, I have that yoga class—I’ll be fine.”

“But you seemed fine before your disappearance.” Thalia took a deep breath. “You know, Coastal Gardens is really more of an apartment complex than a retirement home. You’d have your own space—”

“I’ll be fine. That’s not going to happen again,” Mira said, willing her voice to sound more assured than she felt.

Thalia clicked her tongue. “OK, mom. I’ll still have my cell. So you can call me, and I’ll call you, of course. Let’s see… “ Thalia drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “My itinerary is on your fridge, but I’ll text it to Kylee so she has it, too.” She clicked her tongue. “I guess that’s everything.”

“Have a good trip, love.”

“Bye, mom. I’m only a phone call away if you need me for anything. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

The smile slowly faded from Mira’s face as she set her cell back down and wrapped her freed hand back around the shell. Her disappearance. It always came back to that. It was a specter that she could never escape from, one determined to wreck her past and present. There had been mental lapses before then, but that blasted episode was when it really became a problem. Cruelest of all, the events of that day remained a mystery.

Familiar feelings of frustration and fear rose in Mira as she once again tried to remember what had happened the day of her disappearance. She had eaten her usual breakfast—soft-boiled egg on a piece of wheat toast—then dressed in her exercise clothes and set out for her daily walk. After that, she recalled nothing. Nothing until nearly two days later, when she was found on a beach nearly 65 miles away by a group of early morning surfers, soaking wet but otherwise fine.

Shades of that day occasionally came to her. They bore no true form but gave an overall feeling of peace. However she had gotten there and whatever she had been doing, she had not been afraid. The fear had come later, when she was being subjected to every test possible in the hospital. On the beach, she had felt safe.

Mira sat up straight, scooting to the edge of the couch. The beach. That day. That’s when she had gotten the conch shell, wasn’t it? Yes, she realized with sudden clarity, excitement buzzing through her. She had argued with the EMTs—they hadn’t wanted her to bring it in the ambulance—but Mira had refused to get in without it. She kept insisting she had found it, it was important, and she wasn’t going to give it up.

But no, that wasn’t quite right, was it? Mira’s nails drummed against the rough exterior of the shell as she thought. That was what she had told the EMTs, but she had already started to forget by then, hadn’t she? Forget that she had not found it; it had been given to her. Yes, that was it! It had been given to her by someone she knew, someone she loved, someone she had not seen in a long time. Mira’s right leg bounced in time to the drumming of her fingers as the moment solidified further. She could almost picture their face, but the image was distorted, as if viewed through a warped mirror.

The front door burst open in a flurry of noise and motion. Mira reflexively leapt to her feet, nearly dropping the shell in the process. A small blonde woman—Kylee—stepped through the entranceway a few seconds after.

“Sorry, sorry!” Kylee said, bowing her head in apology. “That wind is nuts! The storm must be coming sooner than they said.” She shut the door behind her with visible effort. “That door got away from me.”

“So it would seem!” Mira’s voice was faint, her heart still pounding from the surprise.

Kylee quickly finger-combed her windblown tresses and pulled the hair back into a low ponytail, securing it with a black scrunchie that she slid off of her wrist. “Your doorbell is broken, by the way. I was out there ringing it for, like, five minutes.”

Mira chose to avoid the obvious question as to why Kylee didn’t just knock on the door. Instead, she tsked in sympathy.

“I told Thalia I didn’t need one of those camera bells. The more fancy parts an item has, the more likely they are to break.”

Kylee slung her purse down on the coffee table. “No biggie—I’ll just give that handyman of yours a call. Hopefully he’ll be able to come out soon and do some troubleshooting. Is his card still on the fridge?”

“Should be.” Mira settled herself back down on the couch.

“Good. I’ll put on a pot of coffee while I’m in there. After being tossed about in that wind, I could use a warming up. Want a cup?”

“Mmm—add a splash of chocolate milk to mine.”

Kylee raised her brows. “Oh, that sounds good! I’ll have to try it, too.” She gestured towards Mira’s lap. “Cool shell, by the way! Doing some dusting?”

“Oh!” Mira looked down. She had forgotten that she had been holding the conch. “I was…admiring it.” That was right, wasn’t it?

“I can see why. It’s a beauty!” Kylee reached out and stroked the smooth inner curve of the shell. “Look at those colors—just like a sunrise! When I was 10, my aunt went deep-sea fishing off the coast of the Florida Keys and brought me back one of these. She ate the conch, and I got the shell. I thought it was the prettiest thing in the world—almost as pretty as yours. Anyway, it broke during a move just two years after I got it. Military life, you know? I was crushed. It was the star of my shell collection.” The corners of Kylee’s mouth turned down ever so slightly, an odd sight on her normally impossibly cheerful face.

A pang of sympathy struck Mira. She knew that to most, Kylee’s story would seem inconsequential. But as a woman with more than one collection, she knew it to be quite serious, indeed.

Mira patted Kylee’s hand. “I’m sorry about that, dear.” Mira took care to make sure that her tone sounded serious and respectful.

Kylee met Mira’s eyes and flashed a grateful smile. “Thanks. You know what’s silly? Every night before bed—when I still had the shell, obviously—I used to hold it up to my ear so I could hear the ocean. I’d sit there like that for at least five minutes.” She chuckled. “That’s funny—I haven’t thought about that in forever. I was an odd kid. Memories…”

Kylee shook her head, amused with herself, then disappeared into the kitchen.

“Memories,” Mira echoed in a voice barely loud enough to even be considered a whisper.

Mira waited until she heard the coffee pot start bubbling and the murmur of Kylee chatting with the handyman before she began. Supporting the shell with both hands, she raised it up with a slow reverence and placed it carefully against her ear.

Mira gasped. At the sound of the soft woosh from inside the shell, it all came back—who she really was, where she’d really come from. She remembered her whole life, which had begun beneath the waves. Warm and weightless, she would ride the currents and tides, powered by the undulation of her tail.

Oh, her tail! It had been beautiful, a glistening gradient of blue and green scales that melded seamlessly with the soft, pliable skin at her waist. Her family all had the same colors on their tails, though arranged in different patterns.

Oh! She had a family down there—a large family! Parents, six sisters, and four times as many aunts, uncles, and cousins. She had loved them fiercely, and they had loved her in return. It had broken her heart to leave them behind, but she had known then, deep in the marrow of her bones, that part of her destiny lay on the land. As with the other mermaids who had made the choice before her, she had been granted the opportunity to leave the water with the understanding that when her human form was nearing its end, she would return it and her soul to the sea. Far from being an unwelcome caveat, she had taken comfort in the knowledge that some day, she would return.

Mira gasped yet again as it all connected. That day, her disappearance—she had not had an episode. She had been called to that beach! One of her sisters—Adria, beautiful Adria with the long black hair that curled like no one else’s in their family—had been waiting there in the waters for her. She had aged at approximately one quarter of the rate that Mira had on land, but it was the kindness radiating from Adria that truly made her beautiful. Mira would have been content just to gaze upon her sister again, but Adria had called her there to give her an important gift—the shell. Not just an object of beauty, it was a talisman designed to help bring Mira back to herself.

Tears pooled in the corner of Mira’s mouth as they streamed down her face, their salty taste carrying with it the echoes of the sea. Her heart bloomed with a joy beyond words. She had lost much over the years, and she knew that even this moment might soon slip away from her.

But right now, she remembered.

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