They say that when you put your ear next to a seashell, you can hear the ocean. That you can hear the waves crashing on the sand, the ripples on the sea’s face lapping against each other like conscientious neighbors, and above the waves, the cawing of seagulls as they fly in search of prey.
Hayden had always wondered if the opposite was true. If maybe, the ocean could hear him, too.
He left his sandals by the large boulder that jutted from the sand. On the beach, the boulder stood vainly, as if it was the shore’s middle finger to the ocean that tried to constantly drown it. During high tide, the water would go a foot and a half up the boulder’s face. Through time, moss and algae had come to populate that foot and a half of damp rock. It made the boulder harder to climb, but Hayden climbed it anyway.
He climbed it all the time.
Barefoot above the boulder, Hayden peered into the ocean, like he always did. Today was not so different from most other days.
It was late October. The exact date, Hayden wasn’t quite sure. He hasn’t kept proper track of time since he got home. The sun rose and the sun set and over again and that was all Hayden knew. He woke and slept not knowing the hour or the occasion.
The saturated air of dawn calmed Hayden. It was one of the few things left in the world that could. He breathed deeply, letting the calm spread from his lungs to his limbs.
For a moment, his fingertips tingled. For a moment, relaxation. He could stay like that for a while. For a moment. Maybe even forever.
But the calm exited his body as the air did, and the moment was gone.
Atop the boulder with him was a plain beige seashell, perched and careless on the stone. He crouched and picked it up. The shell was light and small enough to fit neatly on his palm. He wanted to ask it how it got to the top of the boulder. Why, of all places, would it want to end up there. Did it mean to?
But he knew seashells couldn’t answer his questions. They didn’t have voices—only sounds, echoes of the ocean that brought it. He placed the shell against his ear and listened.
The muffled reverberations of the waves rang within—the sounds of water crashing and lapping from a distance, like an old relative calling you back home before it got too dark.
Hayden closed his eyes.
Every time Hayden thought of his childhood, it was always painted in a hazy orange hue, as if the world was entrenched in a sunset that never ended. He found himself in the center of a street, his hand on the middle line crevice that separated the left side of the road from the right. It was sunset, and dirt and sand got into his fingernails.
He recognized the place. It was the street of his old house. He caught a whiff of the smoke and fume-ridden air, courtesy of the vans and trucks that passed by the adjacent highway. But he liked the smoke, even if it made him cough and hold his breath. It smelled of home.
He knew the street more than he knew himself—cars parked on both sides of the road, trees jutting from cracks on the skimpy sidewalks, adults sitting down and smoking on makeshift wooden benches, and kids running around chasing each other while snot trickled down their noses.
Hayden used to be one of those kids. He used to have the snot, too, letting it run down over his lips and to his chin until it dripped to his sweat-soaked shirt. Hayden looked down on his palms, now smaller, smoother, and more fragile than before. And it was then he realized he was not anymore on the boulder on the beach. He was back home, and he was a kid again.
He wanted to jump and feel the air course through his young hair, to shout and laugh, only worrying about problems like eating the best snacks and avoiding the need to take a bath. He wanted to run and be untiring again, as he would never be.
So he did. He ran. His feet bounded, one step to another, and it was like his legs floated on clouds. Light as they were, and quick. Oh, were they quick. The houses that stood beside the street blurred. His speed was too much for anything to follow. His body felt as thin as the breeze, as he zipped through corners and alleyways. All the while the sun watched, smiling, glistening in the sky.
He ran until he no longer knew where he was. He stopped, realizing he had gone far. Perhaps too far.
“Where am I?” he asked aloud. He had a tendency to forget things, which was why Hayden loved the process of remembering. It was like regaining aspects of his life he had momentarily lost. But he did not remember this street, or the corner he took to get here. There were shadows here, not graced by the setting sun’s light.
Then the street rumbled begrudgingly, and the orange hues above turned gray. And the sun, tired of shining, now beamed, now bore a hole through the earth itself with light as white as blindness. Then, with a gust of foreboding air, gravity raged and weighed all things down. The sky dimmed black and started falling. The sky started falling.
Hayden jolted his eyes open. He was back atop the boulder, shell in hand. He laid it where he found it, and he jumped down to the sand.
That’s never happened before, he thought, shaking his arms and legs, rattling the shock from his limbs. In his daydream, the clouds began rushing to the ground and the world started to tighten. It was not true so much here, in the true world. But… but… In the few seconds before he opened his eyes, Hayden remembered the air squeezing his lungs with a putrid smell, a familiar smell… that of smoke and soot and ash.
He took a deep breath to regain some of his composure, before strolling down the shore. The ocean water came crawling softly to douse his feet wet. And in the cold of the ocean’s touch, Hayden felt his calm return to him, for a moment.
Ahead, a small empty shell was pinched on a sunken chink in the sand. It was beautiful, pointed, and decorated with soft shades of pink and yellow. Hayden picked it up and observed it. This seashell was heavier than the last one.
Holding it, he placed it beside his ear.
He heard nothing but felt something inside the shell move. A prickly brush against his inner earlobe sent every hair in his body, from ear to toe, to a creeping rise.
Goosebumps to the nth degree. He threw the shell back onto the sand.
Whatever creature was inside the shell skittered away, never to be seen or heard from again. He patted his ear to check for a gash or a wound. There was none, luckily.
Hayden continued to walk. His Dad used to take him on walks here on this very beach when he was a little kid. They used to talk about a lot of things, like the things they both loved (almost all kinds of cheese), and the things they both hated (blue cheese). Hayden would talk about school, and how easy he thought it was. His Dad wouldn’t talk about his work much, Hayden felt like it was a sensitive topic for him. They used to talk about their dreams, and how Hayden’s Dad used to dream of becoming a renowned archaeologist.
Hayden forgot what he wanted to be when he was a kid. He had a tendency to forget things. He wondered if he always dreamed to be happy as he did now. Was he ever happy? Yes, I was. When Hayden was younger, he was. When sunsets lasted all summers.
Together, Hayden and his Dad would pick seashells up from the shore and listen to the music of the sea. They would use the shells as telephone receivers, and they’d pretend to talk to each other through the shells, as if the shells were connected by a line.
Hayden would say “Hi,” and his Dad would reply “Hello.” And after came conversations about anything and everything, their voices rounding and bouncing on the walls of hollow shells. And it had to be shells, for his father loved them so. There’s history in these things, he used to say. Fascinating history written in their wrinkles. Those were the moments no one could ever take away from Hayden, the moments he would never forget.
When his Dad died, no one took Hayden to the beach anymore. No one held a shell quite as passionately. No one left prints on the sand with him and played telephone. So he stood on the sand alone.
A few feet in front of Hayden, a seashell sat timidly beneath the lapping waves. He drew closer, noticing shards of old glass surrounding the shell. A nagging hesitation came over him, beckoning him to lurch back. Who knew what beast or animal slept inside it?
But he grabbed it anyway, ignoring his doubts and careful not to graze the glass.
The shell was pale and undistinctive, apart from the smudges of black and gray that was smeared across its rounded surface, like far memories of forgotten sediment. He shook the shell to make sure that nothing lived in it. Thankfully, nothing moved.
He placed the shell next to his ear. “Hi,” he said wistfully. He wondered again if the ocean listened to him as he listened to it. If the ocean remembered the conversations he and his father had between the shells. If the ocean cared. If there was someone who did.
But then a voice came, “Hello.” It was a girl, not his father, definitely not. Was it the ocean? he thought, wondering about the voice’s origin. Hayden looked around, but no one was there with him. No one standing near, at least not within earshot. No one playing telephone. The only hands that held shells were his. The only voice that came sounded from his lips.
Catarina almost fumbled with the shell from her hand. Had Mercury and Neptune finally answered her call? They had promised to. She faced the sky, and she could feel the tears in her eyes start to flow. She stopped them with a sniff.
At first, the shell produced nothing but indistinct sounds from an unfamiliar language. Though Rome had conquered far-reaching lands and had sent their citizens and slaves to the peninsula, the voice from the shell spoke with a strangeness that she has never heard.
Could it have been the language of gods? She doubted it. Yet she doubted her prayer would be answered at all, but it was. And now, finally, with a cough and clearing throat, the voice in the shell spoke in a tongue she understood.
“Hi, can you hear me?” asked the voice. “Who is this?”
Beneath her, it was as if the sins of humanity were coming to a brutal boil. The ground trembled. Above, ash from the mountain loomed, painting the sea with a boundless shadow that brought darkness straight from ancient tales of the underworld’s vast pits to the surface. A towing abyss. She had to act now.
“Catarina. My name is Catarina.” She felt her heart sink, hope emptying it in gushing droves. “I require aid.”
“Cata—” The voice trailed. “… is this the ocean?” That was not the voice of gods, Catarina realized. That was the voice of a boy. How could a boy save her?
““No. No, this is not.” At the orchard, Neptune had assured her that he would whisk off her message to somewhere afar, where someone would have the ears to listen. That the hands of Mercury would carry her plea. “I am Catarina, and… and I do not know what to do.”
“Well…” The boy’s voice shifted. He cleared his throat again. “Maybe you can start by telling me what I can help you with?” The boy seemed calm. Catarina tried to latch on to the calmness, but the screams of the people around her drowned the final remnants of calm she had left.
Someone bumped her side, a panicked resident no doubt. One missed step and Catarina would fall. But she caught herself. Around her, the people ran to the water—to boats that still offered transport. But the boats were uncaring and did not wait. They had left. Even now, the nearest boat was all but a dark blur the size of a fingernail, but that did not stop the people from swimming.
“I need a boat.”
“What? I can’t give you a—” He stopped. “Wait. What’s happening? And where are you?”
“I—” She bit her tongue. Simply thinking of the name of the place appalled her very senses. She hated it here. She always had. “Pompeii.”
The boy’s voice crept. “Pompeii…that…” He seemed distant. His voice trailed, then started, then trailed again. “Hold on.”
Before—long before—when the ground first shook, Catarina had protested to her family that they leave. We are not meant to be here, she had said. This is not our home. This is a desecrated land. A land of dishonor and vulgarity. When Rome transformed the city to a hub of vices, where violent drunkards, scheming gamblers, and veiled thieves roamed the streets uncontested, the arrival of the gods’ wrath was inevitable.
But the drunkards, and the gamblers, and the thieves…they did not look like criminals. They did not dare be seen as so, as criminals plain as their own skin. They wore laurels and sashes of colors that were of great display. They held rich clothing, white as senators’ robes. And beneath those robes were pockets deep enough to fund their sins. And those pockets and what lay in them, that, that was what made all the difference.
No, her mother had answered her before. This is where our livelihood is.
Then her father chimed. What is life without livelihood? he had said. He was wrong.
What is life without life? Catarina had thought back then. She wished she had said it, then perhaps they would have left. It would be through tears and pulling and fighting. And ripped clothes and shouting and throwing. But perhaps they would have left, and all the clothes in the world would have been worth it. Now it was too late.
The conversation seemed like ages ago. That had been before Vesuvius truly erupted—before it had sent plumes of smoke that touched the rims of the sky; before it turned day into night.
“Are you still there?” the boy huffed out of breath.
The ground once again decided to rumble. Catarina clutched her shell. “Yes, what of it?”
“You said you’re in Pompeii. What are you doing there? Are you an archaeologist or something?”
“Archaeologist? What is that?” Catarina heard a clacking sound come from the boy’s side of the shell. A tick and a tack and a tock. Sounds Catarina did not know, but she no longer had the time to further wonder. “Can you help me? Or no?”
“I don’t know how I can.” And there was more clacking.
“B-but the gods… they said—” The smoke and dust around her thickened. She grabbed the upper portion of her tunic to shield her mouth and nose.
Then the heat came. No, she thought. Her father’s voice echoed in her mind, This is where our livelihood is. She winced. Our livelihood will be the death of us.
“Where are you in Pompeii?”
“By the west bank,” Catarina said. “The shore.”
“Are there any boats nearby? Can’t you get on the nearest one?”
“No, my family is here,” Catarina answered. “I cannot leave this putrid place without them.” What is life without life?
“Your family? How many of you are there? Wait, why are you there? How are you th…” The boy’s voice weakened. Catarina removed the shell from her ear and faced behind her, towards Mount Vesuvius, her eventual executioner.
His rage has come to its zenith. There was no more time. The boy cannot save her. He was no god. No, the gods were too busy playing their games. Having too much fun with their shells.
In her hand, though, her shell nagged her. It vibrated with the boy’s voice. When she neared to listen, he was muttering words Catarina no longer cared to understand. The gods had lied, as was their doing. How was it that she had come to hope? She should not have hoped. She should not have been surprised.
“I’ll ask you this,” she pleaded, silencing the boy. “If you may so allow me.”
He went silent.
“What is the most important thing in life?”
He didn’t answer. Not quickly, at least. Catarina could hear him swallow through the shell. It was not an easy question by any means. It required some thought, and thought required some time. One thing Catarina no longer had. Any moment now, the volcano would rupture the ground and the earth would swallow them whole. They would either burn or be buried. Death, regardless.
A couple of men ran past her, diving head first into the water. Intoxicated, she smelled them, but on what, she could not know. The men swam desperately away, gambling their lives on the waves. A hopeless errand. The waves raged and their flowing robes weighed them down. Water filled their pockets deeply, pulling them ever closer to the great below. But the worst of it all were their eyes. It was as if they had seen before them a thief in the night. But this thief was no ordinary crook. The thief was death itself, looking to plunder their very lives.
She could no longer see the last boat. The people had lost all hope. Vesuvius’ wrath could not be outrun. There was no point to try. Not now. Not anymore. Not with the gods watching. Not in their game.
And through the shell, more silence.
Then finally, the boy spoke his answer. “What you leave behind.”
The thought made her smile. What is life if not what you leave behind?
The sky burned, and it had never been more beautiful.
“Hello? What was that sound? Are you there?”
“Hello? Are you still there? Hello?”
“Are you alright?”
“Anyway, I looked up this website and got to thinking where you are exactly. You told me you were in the west bank.”
“I found this picture. Can’t believe victims of that old eruption were buried under the dirt and memorialized as stone figures.
“By any chance, are you near the woman facing the sky? It’s one of the more beautiful ones. I wonder what she was thinking before she died, you know? What do you think?”