“Is it really the ocean that makes that sound inside the seashells, Dad?”
We had been collecting stones on the beach, putting them into a big beach blanket laid out on the sand. I thought perhaps Dad was making a castle, or some other creation, but after a heap of smooth round stones had been collected, he just squatted there, staring at nothing, with two little vertical dents between his brows. I was listening to my shell.
My aunt had told me that if you put a seashell up to your ear, you could hear the sea, even if the sea was nowhere in sight. I didn’t believe her, so she said she would prove it. She had taken me out to the beach and we had found a medium-sized shell, just large enough to fit comfortably over my little ear. We brought the shell back, and Auntie would not let me listen to it until we had got out of the car and into the house again, where it was quiet. Then she told me to listen, and I put the shell to my ear, and I heard the faraway roar of the ocean.
Dad didn’t seem to hear me, so I asked again: “Dad? Is it?”
To a seven-year-old girl, the world is supposed to be simple; but it wasn’t for me. Mom had died, and suddenly things had gotten pulled out of joint. The world had been ripped apart, turned upside-down, drained to the dregs. A month later, Dad still wasn’t talking much. I didn’t know what to do; but I was seven years old, and I was going to make the world simple again for Dad. I was the only one he had left, besides Auntie.
I kept coaxing him, the way only a child knows how, and eventually he looked at me. “Hm?” he asked, as though just hearing me.
“I said, is it really the ocean inside the shells?” I held the shell out to him demonstratively.
He was sitting now, and the setting sun tinted him yellow, fading now towards orange. He stared at the shell for a few seconds, then turned his eyes away and down and said, “No.”
I was determined to defend Auntie’s claim. “Then what makes that sound?” I asked.
Dad stood up then. He was a big man, even compared to other adults. As he gazed out towards the sunset, he said, in a quiet, tired voice: “There’s this person, see, called God.”
“Oh, I know about him,” I said, lighting up with a didactic eagerness. “I heard about him in Sunday School. He helps good people get to Heaven.”
Dad hadn’t looked at me. He just waited, after I had done saying this, until a silence stretched out, making me wonder if what I had said was actually right.
“No,” Dad said. “That’s what they tell you, sure. He’s a happy God, sitting up there, letting people into Heaven. But that’s just something to make you sleep nice at night, with no bad dreams. Really, God is mean.”
I wondered if he meant because Mom was gone, but I didn’t say that. I was trying to be strong, trying to help my Dad, even though I was only a little girl. I didn’t know I was a little girl. I thought I was very old and wise, and the world was wrong and I was going to make it right. So I said: “That’s not what Ms. Stacker said. She says Jesus wants everyone to go to Heaven.”
“Of course that’s what she said,” Dad continued, in a dead voice. “What I’m talking about is God, not Ms. Stacker and her Jesus. God is really a mean guy, who is so powerful that no one can stop him from doing anything. He sends people to a place called Hell.”
Again I brightened with knowledge. “I know about that,” I said. “Hell is where bad people go. Ms—”
“Hell is where everyone goes,” Dad interrupted me. “God sends people to Hell when they die because he likes it. He likes watching people in pain and hearing them scream.”
I firmly believed Mom was in Heaven. I was about to open my mouth and say so when Dad went on.
“He keeps them alive forever, so they can be in pain for all of eternity. They scream and scream, and he just watches, all the while making more people so that he can watch them live their pointless lives, die, and end up in everlasting torment.”
I was speechless by now. I was imagining all those people, screaming in pain forever, and God just watching, aloof, indignant, perhaps even smiling…
“And the sound you hear in the shell,” Dad continued, pointing at the seashell, which I still held unconsciously in my hand, “is the sound of the billions of people who have died before us, screaming in anguish forever and ever, beyond help, beyond hope.”
He paused. Then he said, as an afterthought: “…though we’re all beyond hope, from the moment we’re born.”
I was sobbing now, the orange-lit world fragmented through the broken glass of my tears. This place that Dad spoke of, it couldn’t be true, I knew it couldn’t…but Dad never lied to me. He wasn’t joking either. He was dead serious, and he believed what he said.
My mind formed the words, But what about Mom? but I couldn’t say them; I was crying too hard. I leaned against Dad’s leg, sobbing, and after a minute I said: “I wanna go home, Daddy.”
“In a minute,” he said, his voice still dead.
He had slung the towel around his shoulder as I had stood crying, but he hadn’t taken the rocks out of it. He just knotted it up at the corners, so that it hung across his chest and at his side like a giant purse. In the past we had kept rocks we found at the beach and taken them home, but I had never seen Dad take this many rocks home before. What could he possibly do with them all?
He took me then, with his enormous hands under my arms, and gently lifted me up so that I was sitting, cradled, in one forearm. I was still crying silently, making a wet spot on his burgundy shirt. Again I said, “Daddy, I wanna go home.”
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
And he walked towards the ocean.
At first I didn’t realize what was going on. I knew that the car was in one direction and Dad was moving in the opposite direction, but I just assumed, as children do, that Dad knew what he was doing. Then as the waves splashed around his ankles and up to his knees, and Dad kept striding forward with powerful sweeps of his legs, I felt apprehension creep up inside me.
The sun was almost set, and the dark waves seemed hungry and malicious. I whimpered, “Dad…?” as I felt the first waves lapping at my feet, and I saw his body slowly swallowed by the sea. He was holding me firmly against him, and when the water was up to his shoulders (my own chest), I began to panic. With a straining effort I looked back over his shoulder and saw the beach, far away, quickly diminishing to a dull purple in the dying rays of the sun.
I was screaming uncontrollably and sobbing, not because I knew what was happening, but because Dad was acting strange and the water was frightening me and I wanted to go home. I kept begging him to turn around, pleading and crying. In vain I kept trying to twist his head towards the shore, as though I could alter his destination by diverting the focus of his eyes.
But his eyes were like two stones, and they were fixed on the sunset unblinking as he marched, slogged, laboured forward. The water, almost black now, had eaten up to his neck, and I was frantically trying to keep my own head above the licking, cold tongues that were trying to drown me.
Suddenly we both plunged downward. He must have walked right off the shelf, where the shallows meet the depths. With fifty pounds of stone lashed around his torso, the effect was that of a man walking off a cliff. I was sucked beneath the merciless waves in mid-scream, and barely managed to remember to hold what little breath I had left.
My father would not let go. I understood now that we were both going to die, and however much I wanted to be with Mom again, my instinct said to keep living. In the end, I struggled like an animal to be free, panicking with every atom. His grip held me close. The need of my lungs for air was like a monster within me struggling to break out, and each moment it got stronger.
Then, when I was sure of death, Dad let go. As he descended without me, I thought I felt his hand give one last squeeze on my leg—though I can’t be sure.
I felt my head swirling as I kicked upward and flailed, but it was like writhing in the void. I had no idea how far I was from the surface, or how far each kick brought me. For all I knew, I was still sinking.
* * *
I don’t remember the rest. I was rescued: someone in a small boat nearby had heard my screams before I went down. I woke up in a hospital, and chaos invaded my world from that day onward.
Now, at last, a little stability has grown in my life, and I am able to think back and remember. No longer a child, I have learned to cope with the pain that surrounded my parents’ deaths, but there are some things that cannot be erased or forgotten.
I still go out to beaches sometimes, when I need to be alone, or when the cliché pressures of family demand that I pretend to enjoy myself. I have since worked up the courage to again hold a seashell up to my ear. And though I tell my own children that the sound they hear is the ocean, I cannot help but wonder, if somewhere amid the distant roar of a trillion tortured souls, my own father and mother are screaming.