Iridia’s Shell

Photo by David Hamilton
Photo by David Hamilton

She had come from Grenada by way of L.A., they said, and it might be tough on her, living here. Too cold, for one thing. She’d be landlocked, a concept that sounded weird when I repeated it, like the person was a prisoner of Oregon. I guessed they knew what they were talking about. Tremaine was a newer professor at the college. He liked to come by and visit with my father, the history department chair. I was listening from a crook in the maple tree and whittling a stick with my Swiss Army knife. I could smell pork chops and green beans, the scents escaping from the kitchen window. I put my work in a small pull-string leather bag and shimmied down the rope.

I figured Tremaine would be eating with us; he usually did. We had a couple of chairs open for anyone who stopped by. As I entered the dining room Mother flapped open the floral tablecloth.

“Get me the rose napkins from the buffet drawer, Roan,” she said. I’ve been meaning to use them all summer. And put the glass candlesticks on while you’re at it.”

I did as I was told but scowled. I wanted to get into the kitchen to scope out the rest of the meal, then check my email. Where was my sister again? It was her last summer home before leaving for a private arts school. Sure, she was pretty smart–she had a talent for piano, too–but Gen tended to think she was exempt from ordinary work, boring things. Plus she was busy being wild before she had to make good on her promise to make the family proud.

The table looked good when I was done. The yellow tapers cast a cheery warm light even though it wasn’t even dark yet.

I bent down and called out a screen window that opened onto the front porch.

“Dad, Tremaine! Dinner!”

“Mr. Davison to you, son,” Dad reminded me sharply. He got up and closed the atlas they had been looking at.

I knew Tremaine didn’t care. He was just ten years older than Gen. I looked at him to make sure I was right. He smiled, perfect teeth glowing in the eveing’s duskiness, and nodded at me.

“Never mind, the boy’s fine.”

I touched my braces self-consciously, worried about the corn on the cob. I supposed no one would pay much attention to me. It was always politics, historical research and biography reviews that dominated meals when Tremaine stopped by. I was fourteen and a half but I’d learned a few interesting things despite resistance. I wasn’t lazy, just a dreamer, as my father once told a teacher. It sounded lame, like an excuse.

“Where are the biscuits?” Gen asked as she swung through the kitchen and plopped onto her chair. “We need biscuits and honey, oh, sorry I’m late. I was playing badminton with Rafe.”

I snickered. She looked way overheated, cheeks cherry red, dark hair damp and coming loose from her ponytail. She usually looked messy to me but mother said she was prettier by the minute, as if her face was a work of kinetic art that changed before our eyes. Mother passed the pork chops.

“Anyway,” Tremaine said as he ladled food onto his plate, “Iridia and her mother, Clementine, came to live with Aunt Vi who lives down the street from me. Clem lost her part-time job at a health clinic in L.A., she said, but there may be a new one soon at Premiere Health. The first thing Iridia did was run off to the beach. She was gone over an hour. They were frantic until they found her sheltered behind some grass, sitting on driftwood.” He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully. “But they lived right on the beach in Grenada. A bigger city like L.A. wouldn’t do. It’ll be better here on the coast.”

“I certainly hope for the best for them.” Dad poured wine for the adults despite my asking him if I could have a little.

“Who?” Gen whispered at me.

“A girl from Grenada is all I know.”

“Don’t whisper,” Mother whispered.

“She might be in your classes this fall, Roan.” Tremaine carefully unfolded the linen napkin as if it was a thing of beauty and laid it on his lap.

I looked at him. “Okay.”

“You could meet her, help orient her to things.” Dad eyed his sweet corn with anticipation, then took big bites all in a perfect row.

I searched Tremaine’s ebony eyes and thought I saw a humorous response there. He had noticed my reticence with girls. I usually sidestepped them.

“Sure…unless Gen could do it. She knows the ropes, can show her the sights and shops. She’s a girl, anyway. I think.”

Gen kicked me under the table.”Roan, curb your lack of intelligence for once.”

I kicked back; she squashed my toe with her shoe.

“Kids.” Dad sighed.

Tremaine was busy with his corn. His pleasure was kept to a civilized level but I knew he wanted to tear into it like I did.

I finished the chop and served myself beans. The last thing I needed was to babysit some girl the last two weeks of summer. I had basketball to play and a great sci-fi book to finish. I was afraid more and more was going to be asked of me with Gen leaving soon. She should stay here. It was worrisome.

+++++++

I had been running a half hour and felt good, flying along the sand, a comfortable rhythm set, my legs feeling springy and strong. I passed by the headland where the tide was receding and thought I saw something on the wet sand, a heap. It occurred to me it might be an injured seal. I made a quick turn and headed back to see.  The closer I got, the slower I ran. It was not a seal but a girl.

She unfolded and rose in one smooth motion as I slowed to a halt before her. Her striking dark eyes took in my length, then narrowed as she scanned for information. Apparently she felt I was safe or decent enough. She brushed sand off her arms, shoulders. She wore a summery dress, orange and blue, and had a tan blouse tied around her waist. A brightly beaded bracelet clung to her wrist. I gauged she might be older, maybe sixteen.

“I saw you, thought you might be hurt or something.”

She shifted, looked over the waves. “No. Resting sorta. Listening to the ocean.”

She sounded a little different. Her voice rose and fell, words rounded in a way I’d not heard before. A wind swept up and ruffled my shoulder-length hair, lifted the hem of her skirt a little. She held her arms close to her chest and walked away.

“Wait a minute. Are you maybe Iridia?”

She whirled around, startled. “Why?”

“Tremaine told my family about an Iridia and her mother. You and your mom, maybe?”

“Oh. Yes, Tremaine, a good man. We know him. My auntie knows him well, I should say. He comes by. And you are?”

“Roan.”

She blinked twice, then laughed. “Like the color roan? Like a roan horse?”

I shrugged. I was used to a reaction, sometimes the questions but not so rudely at first meeting. I should have taken off but this was just getting interesting. She walked briskly now and I followed.

“My mother liked it, loved horses. What about Iridia?”

“Oh, that’s after my great-grandmother or my great-great auntie, the story changes and each time it has a different outcome or meaning, sometimes good, sometimes bad.” She picked up her pace. “You live here long?”

“All my life. You’re from Grenada, Tremaine said. The Caribbean, a long way away.” We were almost running now. “Are you in a hurry?”

“Yes. I wish I was back home now. But I have to be at my Aunt Viv’s in ten minutes or she’ll call the police.”

I ran alongside her a little more. Clouds raced and gathered; rain streaked the mountain peaks above the south end of beach.  She pulled on her blouse without breaking her stride.

“You run track?” I shouted.

“Yes, have to go now, ‘bye!”

She took off without me, zigzagging across the sand. I could’ve run after her, I’m a champion runner, but she obviously didn’t want me around. I ran the other direction toward home as a light caught me. When I arrived, I dried off and hunkered down on my bed to read. Nothing better than rain and books together. But her large searching eyes kept blotting out the page. How was it to be forced by your parent to go to the Northwest after always living in a balmy, paradise? An island life left behind? It must suck.

++++++++++

The next day I was on the beach with Taye and Dean. We’d been sailboarding, breaking in Taye’s new board, but the waves and wind were less than prime. Dean had brought three ham sandwiches and we were catching our breath and eating.

“Who’s that staring at us?” Taye pointed to a girl a few hundred feet away.

Iridia was standing there looking at me. When I stood she remained still. I gestured her to come over but she was like a statue.

“It’s Iridia, a new girl from Grenada.”

“Iri-what? Grenada? What’s that? A town somewhere?” Dean said.

“It’s an island, idiot,” Taye cuffed him and got up. “Wait, Roan, how do you know her?”

“No, you stay here, I’m going to talk to her a minute.”

“Got a girl, Roan?” Taye yelled after me. “Holding out on us? Traitor!”

“Shut up, fools,” I said and took off in a trot.

When I reached her I saw she had a large shell. She nodded at me with a flash of smile, then we ambled down the beach toward a small cave. She talked fast in those softened words about her mother’s new job and asked me about the town and school. Tremaine had told me she spoke in French patois at times so I listened closely.

It was easy, though. All I had to do was act like she was an old friend, which is how it oddly felt, and pay attention. Our arms swung out and back with our steps. Once they collided against each other. She moved apart from me but kept asking questions. Was the school very tough? Did they have music classes? Was the girls’ track team any good? Were my friends nice or typical jerks? I stole little glances at her face, her deep bronze-chestnut skin gleaming in the light, her lips a brownish-pink. I was very tan but she was from Grenada, after all. I was just a sun worshipper.

I heard Dean yell my name but soon it was whisked away by the salty wind. At the scooped-out cave we leaned against rocky walls.

“See? I brought this shell with me. A conch shell.”

She held it up. It was glossy and and pink inside, a sort of cave made of texturedshapes and surfaces.

“Listen.”

I held it to my ear and the sea echoed, first just a flutey call that floated inside my head. Then it roared and whispered, so familiar it seemed odd hearing it in a smooth shell when it was everywhere around us, slamming rocks, carving sand. Where did the sounds start and end?

Holding it close I turned to her. “Is it special? I haven’t seen one like this up close.”

“Conch shells are many places but this is from the Caribbean. My very own shell, my own bit of sea. For me this sea song is captured inside. It lives there.”

She took it from me and pressed it against her own ear, then started to hum a lilting melody, then singing words I didn’t quite catch but it seemed to be the sea itself speaking and falling out of her lips, silvery green waves rolling over us, unknown creatures rising and sliding over the water, spinning toward us. Her voice was rich like honey, light-splashed and sweet, and it carried me into the wind. Her face glowed. I felt shivery and sad and warm and good. A little afraid in a good way.

Then she stopped. There was only Pacific Ocean cresting and falling onto smooth, pale sand, then doubling back onto itself. The horizon blurred, thickened with fog as the sun began to slip away.

“My father gave this shell to me. He died last year, car crash. That’s why we came here, to start over, make a new life. To help forget, my mom says, but I won’t.” She turned to me. Her eyes glistened as she bit her lip then released it. “Is it always so chilly here? Will it be terrible in the winter? Will I be laughed at? Alone?” Her voice sounded like it had squeezed through a hole in the cave, thinned by fear, slick with unshed tears.

I took her forearms into my hands before I thought about it. “Your father, he died? You sing this song… For him, Iridia?”

She nodded, tugged her arms, so I let my hands fall.

“It was beautiful. But why are you telling me this? I just met you.”

She closed her eyes and shuddered, then leaned forward, inches from my chest, close but not so close she might fall into my arms without catching herself.

“Your name. My horse on Grenada–it was a roan. Really!” Her smile was small, shy. “And you are kind. It seems the right thing to do. So someone knows the truth.” She stepped back, peered at me hard. I felt her look way deeper than I was ready to have her look.”Not everyone, only you for now, okay? Just you.”

I’d worried she’d really cry then but it seemed she was alright. It wasn’t a big deal if she did–her dad had died. What was that even like? I couldn’t imagine it. But she had a horse? I liked that idea, her riding a horse on a piece of land in a turquoise sea.

“Yes, okay. I get it. There are things that need to stay secret. I won’t say anything. The winter isn’t bad here, just wet and cold but green. We have a fireplace if you don’t–you can come over. My family is nice enough. I’ll introduce you to my sister, Gen. She’s going to private school–she’s a musician–but she has pretty cool friends, you could meet them, too. And there’s Tremaine and –”

Iridia put her fingertips on my lips. I wished my braces were long gone and I looked really good. But she only touched me to stop me from talking. Still, my skin tingled when she lifted them away.

She leaned her shoulder against mine awhile and brought the conch shell to her ear as the sun shrank and vanished behind the grey swath of clouds. She was listening more. For her home, I guessed. For her father’s voice. It was a sacred shell, I thought; it would watch over her in her new life. It made sense to me. I felt this strongly enough so that she turned back, gave me a quick Iridia smile and linked her arm in mine as we walked on.

 

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