Scattered Shells

by Erika Byrne-Ludwig

Coral took off her shoes and walked up the stairs to the office. As usual it was rather early. The night dust was still floating about. She was alone in this part of the building. The cool banisters suited her hands, the coarse concrete grains her feet. That morning, slipping into her yellow dress, she had felt quite optimistic. She may have been fooled by an illusion but she believed she was cured. To be entirely sure she had tested herself next to the lift.

Staring into it, she thought it had a grin, a sanctimonious grin. She tried with one foot in. Again she had misjudged the power of her phobia. Moisture had already gathered in her frowns, wet pincers gripped her neck. Defeated, she stepped out again and saw the doors shut on imaginary shadows and stares and walked towards the stairs.

Four floors up she rested, communicated with her creation, as she called her bump, fondled the base of her belly. There was a faint response. Entertained by one or two images, she continued her climb. Two more floors to go. She glanced up at the nakedness of the narrow corridor above. From somewhere high in the stairwell a door slammed, sending a slight shiver through her arm, like a vibration from an old dream.

Coral remembered watching the city bend to the will of nature, her roof carried away like a giant oyster. She fanned herself with brisk flapping movements of her collar as if the temperature had suddenly risen and the building shrunk into a lift, into a wardrobe. She looked around in quest of immobility, of safety. They were things of the past, she scolded herself. The wardrobe was a warped and empty remnant of her refuge during the tornado. She stood still and stared. Always at the same sequence of images: a derelict land, gulls scavenging ruins for scraps, people wiping dust and tears from their eyes, tarnished figures squatting in a wasteland, her own hunching over debris, searching for a pulse, a twinkle, for some relics of the day before. She turned the door-knob, still in thoughts. Under splintery timber, in a heap of rubble, her collection of shells lay scattered.

There may be shells on all planets. Coral lay down. It was late in the afternoon. She raised her legs. Looking between the pale marble fins of her knees she tried to adjust to the pace and bend to the will of the swirl. She whispered something to her creation while the chromes reflected in ever-sliding patterns a parade of rubber-gloved hands and uniforms.

The nurses' quick movements sent thin currents of air to her face. Her chin tickled. On that day, before the earth trembled, the wind was blowing in her face. On the white planet someone spoke. The nurse closest to her rustled like a nesting gull, cooing friendly words. Coral planned to give her a present — a jewellery box studded with pearly shells perhaps. As if to clinch her small deal, she squeezed her hand.

Tiny shiny pods of sweat and tears had rolled down to her chin. Heavily sedated, she invented for herself and her infant supernatural stories. They were funny, elliptical, bizarre. In her womb aquatic animals swam, played and wrestled with each other. The baby gushed out and screamed. Between her knees the doctor smiled. A lift had opened its doors. Coral hesitated. The stairs crumbled. She stepped into the lift. She was serene. The air was now almost wintery.

The cowrie lay open, bloody and torn. Coral was holding the mollusc. Her fingers slid over its slithery skin. She turned her head to the window. A blown up moon was glowing. She tried to rearrange each spine, each spike, each rib, each comb lying on the nacreous layer, into marine stars, spiders and lizards, moving among puffy whorls and thin veinous spires. Contented, she gazed at the lit scenery, at the lit reef. A large celluloid limbed mollusc was swimming in it. She heard its cry and watched it play with moon snails and spindle shells.