From the 2018 edition of Young Idea, available in late-May.
The barefoot boy walked along the beach, digging his toes into the warm sand. Every once in a while, he folded in half, letting his fingers trail for a moment before picking up the shell that caught his eye. Each new addition was greeted in his pack by leather straps and beach dust, and as he walked they rattled together. As the sun drooped below the waterline, the boy began to search for a place to settle down for the night.
He awoke early the next morning to an almost empty horizon, the silhouette of a lone runner a dark spot in the midst of a vibrant sunrise. He watched the sun until there was enough light to work by, and then dumped the contents of his leather sack into the sand at his feet: eleven thin strips of dark leather, eight pretty shells with small holes (one fractured, which he tossed away), and a single sand dollar. He tucked the latter back into his bag and set to work making simple necklaces.
By the time the beach began to fill, the boy had each of his necklaces carefully strung and hung around his neck. As he began his call of “Necklaces for sale,” his fingers rubbed back and forth over the sand dollar, now in his pocket. Locals taking morning strolls greeted him as old friends, often bearing offerings of breakfast or tea. As the day grew warmer, tourists began their sunburnt trek down to the water, and mildly overweight women in unflattering bikinis admired his work. Many were more than willing to fork over the seven dollars he charged, though some attempted to haggle him down. He always remained firm, knowing that even if one stubborn customer wouldn’t indulge, the next would.
Midday came and went, leaving the boy with only two necklaces strung around his neck. With a stomach full of lunch from a charitable family, he decided to nap in the shade until the hottest part of the day had passed. A woman’s voice beckoned him back to consciousness. “Boy, boy, are you awake? I heard you were selling necklaces.”
“What?” he creaked, then cleared his throat.
“Oh, yes.” He tugged the straps from his neck and extended them for inspection. The woman looked at them, then shook her head.
“These are very nice, yes, but do you have any sand dollars? I need a sand dollar.”
“Oh. Well, I have one, but it’s not really for sale.”
“Please? I’d be willing to pay you handsomely for it. Name your price.”
“I’d really rather keep it.”
“Please, I’ve been looking all morning and I simply must have one for my son. I’ll give you thirty for it.”
“Yes, thirty dollars. And a hot meal tomorrow. It’s really very important to me.”
“All right. Do you want a strap?”
“Thank you so much. I’ll do without.”
As they made the exchange, the sand dollar slipped from the boy’s hands, striking a stone on the sand beneath. It split evenly in two, and the woman gasped. Instantly, five white doves fluttered from a neighboring tree into the sky, bright against the hazy day. The boy watched in astonishment, and when he turned around, the woman, now several yards down the beach, turned and beamed.
She had gathered the pieces and left the boy with the money. The fresh bills, smelling faintly of seaweed, still rested in his pocket, and the boy knew that when he saw her again, he would hand them back, unwilling to accept payment for that which he was unable to supply. He wasn’t sure if, or when, the woman would return, so he spent his day searching solely for more sand dollars to replace the one he had shattered. Still, the boy finished the day with only the shells he had stooped to collect when they caught his eye.
The woman returned to him in his dreams over and over that night, each time offering solace and motherhood rather than simply money and a meal. Every time he went to hand over his sand dollar, however, he dropped it. Spiraling to the ground, the urchin always turned into a feather just before striking sand and fluttered gracefully to the woman’s hand. She shook her head, smiling, and disappeared before he could grasp for her safety.
He woke with sand and salt crusted to his cheeks, curled fetally around his sack. The sun was already drifting towards the center of the sky, and there were children bobbing back to shore with the waves. He watched as one small child, shrieking as the water tugged at her tail, staggered back to her mother, where she was scooped up into a warm embrace. A single drop of ocean left a swipe of cleanness down his cheek, and before he knew it, his entire small body was shaking with sobs. He hadn’t cried in years, or maybe ever, and had never felt quite as desolate as he did in that moment, surrounded by the vast ocean and no one to love.
When the ocean’s beating had left him dry and exhausted, the boy tried to string the shells from the previous evening’s gathering onto the few straps that remained, but his shaking fingers refused the delicate work. He was tired, parched, and there were no familiar faces around. He walked, a hunched old man, down to the shoreline, where the water lapped at his calloused toes. He closed his eyes and pictured the collie that had run free along the beach all those months ago, stopping only to taste the salt on his feet and face. His lips turned up ever so slightly.
A tap on the shoulder roused the boy from his daydream. His neck creased as he turned toward the setting sun. Cautiously, he raised his eyes to rest on the soft face of the woman from his dreams. Behind her, a red checked blanket was spread across the sand, a wicker basket sitting on it. The boy had soberly gazed upon many such a picnic, wishing against all odds for an invitation to cross his darkened ankles and shower his thighs with breadcrumbs and love. It never came.
The woman, noticing his furrowed brows, laced her fingers through his and tugged the boy to the edge of her blanket. He suddenly stopped just before reaching the blanket, scattering grains of sand over the pristine pattern. She urged him to sit down; he refused. “The food will get cold, and then where will we be?” the woman said, but still he shook his head.
Waiting for the boy to either change his mind or explain himself, the woman knelt and began to lay out the feast she had packed. As the woman took the foil off of the roasted chicken, the boy finally leaked from barely parted lips: “but the sand dollar….”
Silently, the woman pulled a slender brass chain from where it had rested against her chest, concealed by her flowy dress. At the end, now held together by silk ribbon, was the sand dollar. She freed it from her hair and neck, then turned to the boy and slid it over his head. It rested against his collarbone, a competition in fragile strength. He looked up, and his eyes, full of wonder and apprehension, pierced hers. Gently, the woman guided him to the ground, where his knees met the red softness of the blanket.