Fiction

Thousand Metre Sea Shell: A Short Story by Tristan Jacobs

AMY:    I’ve never liked the mist. It always makes me feel… as if everything will disappear. And become unreal.  – Concealment by Reza de Wet.

The mosquito’s life ended in a smear of blood against the window. Felix pulled back his hand with a mixture of disgust and satisfaction.

Take that you bastard, he thought, that’s not even your own blood you’re lying in.

The insect-shaped pockmark showed up against the hazy background on the other side of the glass. The bus trotted along through the mist. It had been seven and a half hours since he set foot on the hunk of puke-brown metal, eight hours since he left his parents at home in Johannesburg. Goodbyes to pa in German. Goodbyes to mother in Chinese. They painted such an odd, rainbow-coloured picture in his head: One short, stout woman with a tinted complexion; The taller man with no pigment at all, a balding scalp and black-rimmed glasses.

Summer camp. That’s where he was heading. They call it that but it doesn’t work so well in this country, a melting pot of people just crazy enough to believe German-Chinese marriages work. They couldn’t possibly believe in the providence of “the summer camp”. Partly because summer is not the same here as in the Northern hemisphere; here summer just so happens to be when the festive season happens. No white Christmas here. Only hot, humid and sweaty celebrations. But summer camps, or whatever they wish to be called in a South African context, do nonetheless occur.

Felix took it upon himself to apply, book and ensure parental finance. It was his last year in school, he deserved one last holiday to be a kid.

The mosquito bite throbbed on his knee. His brother would have punched the bite right now, he was like that. ‘Is this a bruise? Is this a bruise?!’ he’d play the piano on your blue patches of skin. He couldn’t do it now, Thomas was over in China. Some scholarship had offered him his MBA there, so that’s where he had gone. It had been four months since Felix and his parents waved his brother away and onto a plane, the same way a broom does to the dust on your floor.

The bus slowed down in the mist, like it had reached a very thick patch of it and was struggling, then it stopped. They had arrived at “the summer camp”. The welcome was exhilarating – counsellors in blue shirts and extravagant, costume-party hats smiled and screamed in tandem at the bus.

Laurence, the boy who had sat next to Felix all the way down, helped with his bags before a grinning counsellor took them. Laurence was nice, a year younger than Felix but he had definitely kept portions of the journey entertaining with stories of his surfing trips. He had been to Mozambique and all up and down the East coast, probably seen more of the country than Felix had. But he’d bet Laurence had not been to a Chinese lantern festival, or cycled along the streets of Berlin.

The cabins they unpacked their week-long life into were cosy, rustic wooden cottages on stilts – ‘To protect you from the snakes and stuff’ the counsellors had explained. Laurence had been placed in another cabin. It didn’t bug Felix all that much. He shared his large, soggy room with twelve other boys he’d never met before. The room was soggy because of the mist, it seemed to have snuck inside invisibly, leaving the air damp. When it mists down here it really goes for it.

Felix scratched around his mosquito bite all through the introductory safety talk, ‘Bastard…’

***

The days were packed full of activities, and because of this went by like the lifespan of a moth – fast enough to forget what you had for breakfast. Felix learnt to kayak, fish, make bread and get shot. That last one was not intentional. Two boys who claimed to be from America (but were more than likely the kind of kid who watched too much MTV on their step-daddy’s widescreen) pummelled Felix with paintballs during their session together. They relived their harrowing battle just next to him in the cabin that night. The boys shared a bunk bed – sleeping like dominoes, one’s head where the other’s feet were.

Laurence did help him learn to surf one day. He barely got to see him, only when their interest in activities aligned. It was only a matter of time then really, because Laurence always chose surfing.

***

Halfway through summer camp the lightning storm hit. The weather had lost its blurry, misty edges on day two and since then had rained down the heat. Soon enough the blackest of clouds were seen (and heard) approaching from the South. When the rain first started hammering the cabin roofs Felix was still inside. It took only a few nudges (make that: straight-up teasing) from the pseudo-American boys to lure him out to the pool.

“How many times in your life are you gonna get a chance to do this?”

Felix wasn’t sure how he felt about the twang he heard on ‘chance’. But there he was, thunder beating the sky like a drum and the rain whipping the air. Two girls had joined them, and one other boy from another cabin. They were all laughing at the sky and playing in puddles when the lightning struck. Nobody did not scream.

Felix’s voice hit a couple of bumps on its way up his throat, coming out with air interspersed in the shout. He leapt up like a springbok, knees to chest as the electricity rocketed up his toes. Everyone darted back under the cover of the communal hall, except one of the girls. Felix turned to see where the sigh had come from and he watched her close her eyes and lie back. She fainted.

Everything seemed to have gone quiet, the rain made no noise as it slapped the concrete. That’s because a thunderclap was building. As Felix shouted for the others the thunder rolled over his voice, flattening it like tar in a pothole. Somehow the boy named Allen had heard him, he jogged back when he saw the girl Felix was pointing at.

“It’s Beth!” Felix heard his voice in his own ears, “She passed out.”

“Let’s get her out of here!” Allen replied.

Together they lifted her out of the rain and under cover. They lowered her onto one of the couches in the open lounge, after Felix slipped and lowered her (a little too quickly) to the ground first. He apologised. The other girl had returned, the Americans were out of their jurisdiction – they disappeared.

“Can you feel your toes?” the girl asked Beth when she opened her eyes, “Wiggle your toes for me. Come on. It’s fine, you’re ok. Wiggle your toes…”

***

The next day no one shared the story with anybody. Even Beth agreed to keep the whole ordeal under wraps. What if the counsellors found out? The American boys didn’t bug Felix for the rest of camp. Except on the second last day, and then they were bugging him without even being there.

The camp was having its final campfire on the beach. Children and counsellors were messing around, playing games or just chatting in huddled groups. Faces were dappled with firelight and Felix was enjoying the look of Beth’s eyes when Laurence pulled him away, “They’re missing…”

“Who?” Felix felt like accusing him for ruining his chances with Beth.

“Those Americans,” Felix could hear the inverted commas even in his distress, “You know the ones, in your cabin right?”

“Oh I don’t care. Tell a counsellor.”

“No man, this is serious.” He held Felix by the shoulders, “I think it’s my fault.”

“What did you do?” Felix had heard his brother talking about the bro-code. Friends before girl-friends.

“I’ve heard stories,” Laurence’s voice sounded truly apologetic, “About all sorts of things living in the sugar cane. I kinda tweaked one. Included something about people who’ve been struck by lightning being seen as gods to the Tikbalang. I thought we’d finally catch them with the whole American guise. Everyone knows there’re only cane-rats there.”

“What are Tikbalang?” Felix asked, moving Laurence further from the light of the fire. Counsellors were deep into a song, berating each other loudly with rhymes.

“Horse-headed demons… I found out about them on the Internet.”

“And what happens if they stay in the cane fields?”

“If the counsellors find out?”

“If the Americans mention you?”

“Busted…” Laurence pleaded with him, using only his eyebrows and then his mouth, “Please. Just help get them, bring those idiots back and then all is well. I’ll even be your wingman.”

Felix was already walking away from the crowd and up along the beach towards the sand dunes. Mist was rolling in. Back for more, he thought.

On the other side of the dunes Laurence led the way through the cane – because he had the torch. The pale little beam of light was horrible in the mist. It simply illuminated the grey cloud they were walking through. It was as if the light was cut off a few feet in front of the torch. Useless.

None the less Laurence eventually stepped out of the high sugar cane and onto a dirt road, Felix right behind him. The air was salty and sugary at the same time. Felix’s taste-buds made his jaw tense with the smell. He called the boys’ names. So did Laurence. They were at the top of the cane field now, if they could see over the eight-foot stalks maybe they would see the sea. There was just green all around.

Curious wisps of mist played around the green. Above them was the slow-moving grey cloud. If they listened carefully they could probably have heard the commotion of all the campers down below on the beach.

They called again before moving ahead.

In the silence that followed their cries there was a sound.

Felix grew up feeling his fingers twitch at these sorts of things – that sound that not all of you agree you heard. It might have been something, it might have been nothing, but it might also have been something trying to be nothing.

Felix wriggled his toes beneath the straps of his sandals. There was only the noise of Laurence’s torchlight when Felix stopped him. Perhaps it was nothing.

What was it? thought Felix. He couldn’t place his finger on it, like a mysterious ingredient in a sandwich. Laurence took barely two steps away from him again before Felix heard ‘something’.

It was most definitely ‘something’, it constantly went ‘clop clop’. Felix liked knowing that he could trust his ears, but when he heard the sound most unlike American teenagers he cursed the cartilage. A neighing and breighing broke the quiet ringlets of silent mist. The clop clop became a CLOP CLOP and then became permanent, as in: a ‘clopping’.

It got louder.

Felix had meant to run straight away, he really did.

When there are two of you, on a dark and misty night, alone in a cane field with strangely dangerous equine noises… you make considerably fervent efforts to voetsek!

He had meant to run but didn’t. Really.

Instead he spun around and, just his luck, spotted the bearers of bad noise. If he could not see them and could not hear them he would not have believed they existed – that it was just some boys in funny costumes. However, unfortunately for Felix’s sanity, Laurence’s torch illuminated two very unique – for lack of a better word – faces. Two huge, eight-foot tall men in ancient-looking leather armour and horse heads burst through the wall of sugar cane. Bits of leafy cane splintered into the mist.

The one-third horse two-thirds man seemed to stare at them. Felix could not really tell, the eyes were on the opposite sides of the face. They weren’t carrying any weapons, but their bare hands looked dangerous enough.

It could have been two seconds that passed as they reared in the small opening where Felix and Laurence stood, due to the stopping of his heart Felix watched their entrance in slow-motion.

Then they barked at the boys. Spit showering the space between their teeth and Felix’s nose.

Millennia of evolutionary brainwashing kicked in and Felix took flight – regrettably Laurence chose to fight. As he bolted back into the sugar cane Felix caught a glimpse of the one horse-headed man, the Tikbalang, punch Laurence square in the mouth. The earth shuddered as his body rushed to meet the ground, it shuddered again as the other Tikbalang gave chase. Felix fought through the sugar cane like a mad-man.

What was going on?

Where were the Americans?

And what the hell are these things? His grandmother had once mentioned that trees cleft by lightning became doorways to magical worlds. She had indeed used the word cleft, and Felix was eleven at the time so the story had lodged itself as fact in his brain by sheer quality of terminology.

These things could have found a way across the universes through a lightning-struck tree… lightning…? This was getting a bit too far-fetched.

Felix heard only the lashing of the cane as he whipped through it.

Far-fetched enough to keep running.

The heavy thudding of the clop-clop chasing him died as Felix tumbled out onto the sand dunes. His momentum carried him head-over-heels and he reached the bottom of the dune in a twisted foetal position. His eyes darted up to the top. Why was he waiting? As if he needed clarity that this thing was following him… surely he didn’t want to be there when it erupted from the field… his thoughts were dammed up somewhere behind a wall of adrenalin, so fear and panic didn’t get a chance at constructing horrific tales of violence that the Tikbalang could inflict on him.

With a grunt of mental grinding he forced himself up and further along the beach. It did not matter about the mist, he pushed on, stumbling in the soft sand. The wet air felt dry in his throat as he drew breath.

Laurence was taken. Where to, he could not even begin to guess. The beast chasing him must have gone back to help the one that floored Laurence, because nothing was following him now.
Eventually he was walking.

He had not consciously chosen to do so – his mind was still running. His brother had once called it Schizophrenia, but their mother had laughed so Felix assumed it was a lie. It had something to do with two minds in one head… his thoughts were as fuzzy as the night air. Nothing seemed to matter, he had lost his mind anyway it seemed.

After what felt like half an hour of walking Felix was still nowhere near the sound of people and fire. He had stuck to the edge of the water as best as possible to ensure he got no closer to any sugar cane, so at least he had gone along the coast.

His toes ached from gripping the sand. Felix sat down. The mist was still there, but it was thinning.

He wondered how long it would be until morning.

With the slowing down and stopping of his body Felix felt his eyes itch, shudder and close…

***

When Felix opened his eyes again it was because sunlight was burning them from the outside. Holding a hand between his face and the offensive sun he cracked open one eye. At almost the same time his ears turned on and he could hear the waves smacking the sand nearby. So he was still at the beach.

The mist was gone.

Felix would have liked it back, because now he could very clearly see that there was nothing in either direction. To be fair, nothing consists of: to the left and right – endless stretches of sand, in front – an endless expanse of ocean and behind – an endless field of sugar cane. The last one was a guess, but Felix had no intention of checking for sure.

He barely had the energy to think straight, all he could do for now was walk straight until something happened. He trudged and stumbled like this for a long time until the beach seemed to curve around into a bay. It was not a recognisable bay, but it was recognisably a bay. That was something.

The insistent waves hit rocks on the other side of the bay. To give his feet a change of scenery Felix hopped onto them. The first thought in hours passed through his brain, and it wasn’t about hunger or dehydration (his body had that issue highlighted well enough). He wondered what the time was – it occurred to him that the light had not changed since he first parted his eyelids. The white sun had not moved. Thoughts of camp and home flooded the dried dam walls of his weakened mind.

Then he saw a shell.

The most beautiful, pale-pink, conical shell he had ever seen.

With nothing much else to do, and convinced that he was learning to appreciate the little things in life, Felix put it to his ear. The sound of the ocean played inside it. The rest of his world seemed to dim as he listened. The sound of the shell was so soothing, his toes even lessened their grip on the slippery rocks. The oceanic sound got louder.

It blocked out everything else now.

His ear felt wet then.

A bit of water had fallen out of the shell. Felix lowered his hand. Water began gushing out of the shell. An infinite amount of sea water erupted out of the glossy shell and consumed him. In a swirl of bubbling liquid the young Felix disappeared.

***

Somewhere else summer camp ended.

Campers were sent home and counsellors sent themselves to the pub. Nobody seemed to bother about the four campers that disappeared on the night of the final campfire, except for Beth. She stopped pleading with camp authorities when she feared that they were actually going to classify her as mentally unstable. It was a horrible feeling, being the only one who remembered those boys. Especially the one called Felix – he was nice, he had helped her. Now he was gone. He walked away that night and did not return, nobody else found that strange.

In order to stop herself losing her mind Beth began walking on the beach. She had never been the type of girl to do that, she didn’t go in for sunset strolls or picnics in the rain… or whatever the combination of romantic clichés was.

But the walking helped. She had family in the area around the summer camp anyway, an aunt she was staying with for the rest of the holidays.

One day Beth took an early morning stroll after a heavily-misty night and found the air as crisp as a paper packet. She walked for miles but for what seemed like a short time. She must have gone past her usual turn-around point because she did not recognise the bay that appeared.

Her mind softened like a muffin in a microwave, which was why the walks were so good, she loved that feeling. She realised that she had picked up a lovely little shell. Its pink spiral shape curled wonderfully in her palm. She held it to her ear.

At first there was no noise, and then, from far away came an echoey meow.

Shells didn’t usually sound like that.

The faint meowing continued and grew in volume until Beth’s ear began to tickle. Luckily she lowered her hand because just then a black and white cat leapt out of the shell. It is at these moments that people seldom flee in confused terror. They often stand and gape.

She gaped at the feline pawing its way, confidently, along the rocks. The cat looked at her, with that invasive, soul-seeing stare of a cat, and she recognised those eyes. A squishy part of her mind hardened.

The cat licked its front paw and then darted off down the sand.

Beth made to follow but in her haste took a tumble on the wet rocks and hit her head.

***

Beth woke up at the entrance to her aunt’s house, the one from the beach front. Her hand itched and her head rang, but she was fine. She completed her holiday in relative bliss in that house. She didn’t walk on the beach again, she had never liked doing that.

Her memory was wild, she assumed it was because of all of the things she had done at camp. She printed photos of her time there, and made scrapbooks. She also sketched pictures of shells and cats in her spare time… she couldn’t tell why they suddenly fascinated her. But she was happy. She began studying fine art at a university in another province – she was over the sea. Well and truly over it.

Life carried on, and it was good for Beth.

***

The locals of a certain sea-side town claim to have a communal pet cat. It wonders the shoreline daily. Nobody knows where it came from or what it does at the beach – it never accepts food or shelter so some of the older inhabitants believe that it hunts fish and birds by the rock pools.

There are only a few who have seen that cat at night, only when the mist is out. The black and white cat is running then, always in the same direction, and it goes far.

The black and white cat once was a boy.

***

Felix made due with his circumstances.

It could be worse. He could be a mosquito.

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