Shark Eye, Moon Snail, Bleeding Tooth
Holly Tavel

1. How the beachcomber, waking, reaches up and peels off a sheet of wallpaper soggy with sea air, in this cruddy little room in this cruddy little beach town, but what the hell, it’s his room, his beach town, and the dawn sky’s a panel of gray silk and the coffee’s black sludge scraping him clean from the inside;

2. How he can hear the landlady downstairs fighting with her big dumb galoot of a son, hears the son slam the screen door as he galoots outside and revs his big cruddy truck engine and zooms off, hears the black skimmers going at it, their brassy squips floating over the morning;

3. How the beachcomber is known by a moniker, a nickname bestowed on him by a lost love;

4. How no one in this beach town has ever known him by or called him by anything other than this nickname, how come to think of it that means no one’s called him by his given name in over twenty years;

5. How the beachcomber doesn’t remember how he got here. How he’s always been here, in a sense, on this beach, which could be any beach on any ocean, how if he was the philosophical sort he might believe that it was predestined, how if he thinks back on it he was always wandering on beaches, if only in his mind, when he was a kid back in Hastings, Nebraska, looking out schoolroom windows pretending the sky was a sea;

6. How the beachcomber once had a wife and a house and a child. How he sees his wife hanging clothes on a clothesline, cornfields in the distance, how he sees his child as two eyes framed in a dirty windowpane;

7. How the beachcomber was one minute on a destroyer in the sea of Japan and the next was floating on a life raft in crimson water, and how later after he was rescued they gave him a medal and how many years later he tossed this same medal into the sea without a second thought;

8. How he observes the sun-crisped tourists, flabby and gleaming in their damp shorts and flip-flops, frantically plowing through these rickety shops, searching for the fun, the find, the mystery. How they have transactional eyes and hoarders’ hearts, how they cheapen everything they touch;

9. How the beachcomber always sets aside his best finds for the collector, who’s been meeting up with him once a month for a few years now;

10. How he has a good haul that morning owing to the storm overnight, scooping up besides the usual whelks and winkles, three five-inch Lion’s Paws, six calico scallops, three venus clams, a scotch bonnet and a scaphella junonia;

11. How the sea rushes toward him eager to deposit her treasures, then slips off her robe to reveal them;

12. How there used to be an old pelican, mean as a cur, the Senator folks called him. How the beachcomber once watched this pelican swoop down upon a large red fat man who was lying flat on his back in the sand, and the man made a whine like a small girl as the pelican cadged and then swallowed whole the glass beer bottle the man was sucking from;

13. How he is always happy to see the collector, a young serious man pale as the moon, who reminds him of a kid he went to school with, a strange quiet boy who also collected things which had secret meanings known only to him, and who was beaten up daily by the brylcreem hooligans;

14. How the beachcomber sometimes wishes he was a person who saw secret meanings in everything, but he’s not. Things are what they are, and he knows better than to go poking too far beneath the surface. That’s why he never goes into the ocean anymore. He’s content here in the seam of things, the crack of things, the joinders.

15. How the collector gets up at six every morning and goes to work at his job, which is a good job in an office, how his coworkers are cordial but distant, how he is also cordial but distant, how he does his work quickly and efficiently, how he thinks all day of his collections and can’t wait to get home to them;

16. How he has his own arcane method of categorizing things, and how this system, and systems in general, and classifying things, and finding new objects to fit into these schemata, is a source of reliable joy, and somehow this has become his real life and his other life, his job life, is merely a scaffolding propping up his shelves, cabinets, shadow boxes, trays, tables, and archival storage boxes, his plant presses and specimen pins and bell jars;

17. How he writes the following words, printing them carefully on the tiny labels he buys in bulk from Kenbart’s Complete Hobbyist: Cirsotrema cochlea, corolla, plexus, pectinidae; feather stars, brittle stars, comet stars, basket stars;

18. And the corals: Staghorn, Elkhorn, Lettuce, Grooved Brain, Common Brain, Boulder Star, Great Star;

19. Some things that the collector has collected over the years: marbles, stamps, trilobites, bird skeletons, vintage elevator plates, cello bows, red green yellow and brown-banded mathildas, Old Bessie powdered-milk-tin lids, alligator teeth in wax, hobo mouth-organs, Chinese cutlery, and more pedestrian things like copper weather vanes, destroyed umbrellas, watercolor paintings of sailboats, and yes, seashells. Paper Fig, Pear Whelk, Alphabet Cone, baby’s ear, spiny jewel box, lettered olive, apple murex, lace murex. The names detach themselves from the things they belong to, and hang in the air, all golden.

20. The giant moon snail. Triplofusus giganteus luna. The collector’s never seen one, of course, except in books. Specifically, in one book: Bullen’s Illustrated Survey of Sea Creatures, from 1885. He made a drawing of it and showed it to the beachcomber; it was a good drawing, and the beachcomber nodded approvingly. He said he’d keep an eye out, but the collector could tell from his expression that he was being humored, and that the beachcomber didn’t really believe the giant moon snail existed, or if it did, was so rare that the hope of finding one was practically nil; still, at least he was being kind and humoring him, which is more than the collector can say for his parents, and his teachers, and for the university administrators who wouldn’t let him come back to school following the incident. How the beachcomber folded up the drawing and put it in his pocket, and patted the pocket in a way the collector found reassuring. How the beachcomber grinned, revealing the graying teeth of someone for whom dental hygiene is not a priority, and asked the collector if he could give him a little extra today, a sawbuck should do it, and thanked him, and said see you next time, and then was carried off by the music of someone’s transistor radio into the blaze of midday;

21. How the collector knows that this search, this quest, because that’s really what it is, if he’s honest…that this quest for the shell of the giant moon snail is the quest of his lifetime. The reason for everything. And he knows that once he finds it, it will all have been worth it.

22. How the beachcomber, with enough money to buy a fifth of good southern whiskey, crosses the busy avenue of angry people in angry cars, assholes all of them, to the liquor store. How as he steps into the cool air-conditioned store an unexpected burst of fellow feeling passes over him, because he big plans for that whiskey, and tonight he will get very drunk indeed;

23. How in the vicissitudes of the evening, when the sea is a dark unknowable foreign land, the beachcomber sits on someone’s abandoned beach towel and slugs back the last of it, and warmth sloshes through his veins. And how, as he gazes out at the dark sea rising and falling, a strange round glow breaches the surface of the water, then disappears just as quickly, and the sea closes over itself like a self-healing skin.

Holly Tavel is the author of the short story collection The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park (Equus Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, elimae, Torpedo, Diagram Journal, and many others. She holds an MFA from Brown University.