by K.S. Khunkhao
A gentle gray halo softly dims, giving way to all the bright sparkles in the sky. The clouds are swirling wearily like old maiden’s hair, painted with lasting grief and unsung sorrow.
It’s a full moon tonight. And Cecil’s heart, too, is full of hope. He stands on top of a small cliff beside a majestic sea. There appears a soft smile on his face as he mulls over the night and its mystical charm. This is the first time Cecil has smiled since the last full moon.
In his hands are countless white objects that glow gently in quiet moonlight. He holds them tightly and softly murmurs.
He closes his eyes and folds his lips together as he brings the objects in his hands close toward his chest. It seems like he is uttering something from inside himself. Cecil is a man who always knows what he wants. Now, however, despite his young age, he feels tired, weak and weary from years of searching and waiting – something which can make even the strongest mind confused. Nevertheless, tonight everything will be clearer, or at least that is what he has been praying for on this beautiful seaside cliff.
After his prayer ends, without opening his eyes, he slowly lets his thoughts drift away dancing with the tune played by a symphony of the sea.
There seems to be whispers in the wind uttering something back to him as his thoughts roam free, or is it only his imagination playing tricks on him? After all, they say the moon can make people insane, but Cecil never believes such lies for he was raised with tangible things like books and seashells. Yes, tangible, like the seashells. He then abruptly opens his eyes to look down at the grayish beach not so far below, but there seem to be no seashells tonight… not even a single one. At least that is what the pale luminosity of the moon has revealed thus far. This fact, however, does not dampen Cecil’s hope by even a tiny bit. With no hesitation, he inhales fresh cool air deeply into his lungs and sets off for the beach below.
As he arrives on the soft sandy floor he drops to his knees and starts… not to look for seashells, but to build.
At first his creation is unrecognizable, but later, as the clouds shy away from the magical moon and the walls and parapet are starting to make their appearances, there is no doubt that he has built a sand castle – a very, very beautiful one. Cecil takes great care of all the tiniest details as if he were wiping a tear from his lover’s eye. Yet, strangely enough, it seems that he tried to position his wonderful work of art as closely as possible to the approaching waves of the sea.
Perhaps the moon does make people insane.
Cecil retreats from his creation and, without a glance backward, heads out to look for the last seashell…
The tide has now risen and the night slowly slipped away beyond the horizon, yet there is still no sign of any seashells.
The stars are cheering and the moon is watching with a gentle gaze as Cecil walks with a half-settled mind. He knows that tonight is the night, but when? When will his prayer be answered?
Then suddenly, with his mind unprepared, Cecil notices a dark figure somewhere at the corner of his eye. He reluctantly turns to look more carefully at the strange silhouette. Indeed there seems to be someone there sitting on the shore, but a careless eye can fool even the brightest mind, and Cecil never likes to be fooled, so he decides to approach closer to the visage to find out.
“Good evening, lad.” The cheerful voice gives both a chill down his spine as well as a warmth inside his heart.
“Oh… um, good evening, sir. Sorry to interrupt you but I just felt skeptical about someone fishing this late in the night, so I came to see for sure.”
“Aye, and skeptical ya should be, lad, at all times with all things.” The old man who seems to be fishing says before he continues with an ever cheerful voice, “And it’s not that late ya see, the stars are still sleepin’. There will be a lot more fish to catch – Big, big ones too. Ya can catch more fish when the sun is gone, ya know.”
“Aren’t they all sleeping ?” Cecil asks as he secretly examines the fisherman’s pale furrowed face and his long gray beard which look strangely familiar.
“Bah! Sleepin’? Sea slug! Ya can’t believe all the stuff people’ve been telling ya lad. Ya gotta try and see everything for yerself.”
“Yes, of course…” Cecil’s mind slips away as he pauses a little.
“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me. The name’s Cecil, and you must be…” Cecil says as he steps closer to the fisherman to offer an apprehensive hand-shake.
“Hah, who would bother to remember such things!” The fisherman says as he laughs loudly without turning to look at Cecil or taking his handshake. “Ya see, I used to ‘ave one but it’s gone now – the bloody king grouper must’ve swallowed it! Ha ha!” The fisherman continues to laugh.
As the words reach Cecil’s ears he keeps his face still and his well-groomed manner intact. “Ah, I see…” He says as he draws his hand back and shifts his attention from that pale wrinkled face to the ground around the fisherman’s wooden chair.
“Have you come across any seashells tonight, sir?”
“Nah, not that me old broken eyes can see. I’ll tell ya when I do. And stop callin’ me sir, I’m no knight nor lord, no king nor hero, I’m no one…” And with that last word the fisherman gazes absent-mindedly into the far horizon of the sea.
“What do ya need ‘em for anyway?” The fisherman asks back without paying much attention.
Cecil’s pupils suddenly dilate in awe, his eyebrows curl inward and his head moves back slightly as if there was an invisible string pulling his hair behind his head.
“To go to the Paradise Island, of course. What else in the Nine Shells would I need them for?”
“Paradise Island?!” The fisherman bursts out before he suddenly swings himself back and starts to laugh hysterically revealing his toothless gums. As he tries to catch his breath, once again, he speaks with an occasional interruption of short sniggers. “That, me young friend, is the most belly blastin’ thing I’ve ‘eard in years! Argh!” he says as he continues to laugh loudly, veiling the sound of the sea.
Cecil’s eyes are starting to twitch as he utters in an unusually flat tone, “I truly cannot see why that could possibly be a humorous thing to you. You must have seriously mistook me or my words.” Cecil pauses before continuing “Now I think I’m going to go and proceed with my mission. It was nice meeting you.”
“Hang on, lad.” The fisherman interrupts as he stops laughing and remarks further with an unprecedented seriousness in his eyes, “I know where ya can find that precious shell of yers, but first, tell me, why do ya want to go to that darn island so much?”
Cecil suddenly freezes and turns swiftly towards the fisherman.
“You actually know where the seashell is?” Cecil raises his voice above the normal pitch.
“Answer me question first.” The indifferent voice swiftly replies.
Cecil temporarily loses control of his otherwise well-disguised temper. “Answer your question? Are you trying to fathom my wit, sir? Or is it the case that you are truly ignorant of all the basic truth in the world?”
“Ha! Truth is only an accepted lie, lad.”
“Yes, sure, whatever. Now could you please point me to the whereabouts of the seashell? I have only one more to collect then I’m done.”
“Ya mean ‘borrow’”
“Ya mean ya have only one more to borrow.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“Ya can’t take anything from the sea, lad, just borrow ya can. Shells, fish, sand, even meself and me beard, haha!” The fisherman pauses to laugh and stroke his gray beard before continuing in a milder tone, “The sea will let ya borrow ‘em for a blink, but then she’ll take ‘em all back. So be jolly while ya got ‘em.”
“Well, sorry, but that does not work for me. I won’t be ‘jolly’ until I trade my life’s toil for what I want first.”
“There is no ‘then’, sir. That’s the finish line right there. And reaching the finish line means finish, in case you don’t know.” Cecil utters the last sentence with a hint of contempt.
“Aha! But ya life’s no line ya see, it’s a darn circle!” The fisherman pauses before taking his eyes off the sea for the first time and turns to look at Cecil’s bulging pocket “Tell me, how many shells ‘ave ya already got there, lad?”
“Who knows? Just enough to trade for a ticket to the island, save for this last one.”
“And once ya’re there?”
“Then I’m there! Why is that so hard to understand?”
“And have ya been there?”
“Of course not!”
“Then how do ya know it’s even real?”
“Could you stop asking me ridiculous questions and tell me where the seashell is old man?! ” Cecil now completely loses control of his temper.
“Ah, so ya don’t like questions, I see. I find that even more dangerous than a flying sperm whale ya know. Hah ha!” The fisherman chuckles, “I will answer ya question when ya answer mine with a fine rum clarity – how do ya know if it’s real if ya’ve never seen it?”
“Bah!” Cecil inhales the cool air into his lungs to calm his mind down. “Ok, listen to me now. The message is everywhere; from voices in the box, pictures in the posters, words on the walls – everywhere! There are countless stories about how people there live happily all the time, and you can see their faces on the posters; they’re not lying. Everyone knows this; that’s why we all want to go there. And now I’ll be the first one from my village for I’m only that close to it. I’m sure they’ll be proud of me.” Cecil gives himself a hopeful smile as he gazes out into the far horizon “If you tell me where it is, I might even take you there with me you know. Don’t you want to be in paradise, old man?”
“Haha! These fish are me angels. This rod me magic wand. This chair me throne. Why in the Eleven Seas would I wanna move my shabby arse elsewhere?”
“Right, right, good for you, now would you be so kind to tell me where the last seashell is?”
“Here ya go.” Without taking his eyes off the sea, the fisherman reaches into his pocket and tosses something small but fairly heavy to Cecil. He stares at that yellow object which seems to shine beautifully under the moonlight, creating a captivating charm.
“This is not a seashell, this is a gold coin! I want the seashell not this piece of junk!” Cecil bursts into anger.
“Oh, I’ve got ‘o whole lot more in the chest under the tree over there if ya want some more, ya know. Ya can take ‘em all and I won’t give a fart. Dunno what to do with ‘em anyway, can’t bloody well eat the darn thing.”
“You lied to me!” Cecil’s face now turns as red as the harvest moon.
“Sea slug! Ya lie to yerself stupid boy! That’s the crime against yer own heart. I have nothin’ to do with it. I’m just an old fool who loves to fish ‘n that’s all there is. When ya collect as many wrinkles as me, ya’ll see that nothin’ is prettier than ‘em fish, not a bloody coin or a blasted shell, nothin!” Then, out of the blue, the fisherman’s rod begins to move back and forth in an awkward manner.
“Bah! Speakin’ of the devil, here’s one! A big grumpy one too!” The fisherman springs up to grab his good old rod with lightning speed and pulls it up with awesome power. This is the first time Cecil actually sees the old man’s bottom separated from his dark wooden chair. He watches in amazement as the fisherman performs his little magic show.
“Yeehaa!” The old man yells as he pulls the fish up from the water, swings it up high above the waves into the direction of the beach and raises his wrinkled hand up to grab it in the air.
“That’s me boy!” he shouts loudly as he brings the fish closer to his face and kisses its slimy gill. His eyes are filled with extreme pleasure.
“You’re insane, you know that?” Cecil said, while shaking his head mildly from side to side.
“Haha! Maybe I am! Or maybe I’m not and ya all are! Hi ho! Ya see, lad, everythin’ ya want will come back to devour ya. Well, if ya don’t devour it first, that is! Hah ha!” He continues to laugh and speak with an ever merrier voice. “Now I’m gonna go and cook this nice darling of mine with a bit o’ seaweed on the side, and a lil’ bit ‘o rum to wash it down too. Bah! This is jolly good!” Cecil has not seen such joy before except on the posters of the Paradise Island. Witnessing such a sight keeps Cecil’s mood from sinking ever deeper into the mud, but he is still not above it. In fact, he never seemed to be above the mud if he was not picking up a seashell. Cecil sighs before speaking to the fisherman with a slight hint of joy in his tone – the joy that he somehow tries to hide.
“Well, it’s good to see that you’re happy, but I’m clearly wasting my time here and the tide is almost at its highest point now, so I better go. Please excuse me, I have a mission to complete. Oh, and enjoy your fish.”
“O’ course I will! Come join me, lad. Ya look as grumpy as a sea bass. Come gorge yourself in the lovely tuna ‘n dive in good ol’ rum – finest in the Eleven Seas I tell ya. And even if ya’re not hungry, just come sit with me ‘n enjoy the night.”
“No, thank you, but I have no time for that now.”
“Bah! Seashells will come back as the waves ‘n tide crawl up ‘n down, but a jolly time, lad, a jolly time is not coming back like waves or tide. Ya gotta grab it while ya have it!”
“You don’t understand. I really have to go now. And um… I’m sorry I yelled at you before, I wasn’t completely… myself. Goodbye, sir.”
“Yea, whatever ya like, lad. I’ll be just over there cookin’. Come and join me if ya can’t resist the smell of me rum, haha!” The fisherman laughs as he walks away merrily. Cecil turns away and rushes towards the edge of the sea.
The tide is now at its peak and the night at its darkest hour.
Cecil’s back is facing the sea; the cold wind is hitting him hard while he stands there to start building another sand castle. This is already the third one for tonight, and the most beautiful one yet. Although his back hurts a great deal from such a meticulous task, the agony is much alleviated every time he pictures himself walking on the shore of the Paradise Island. Cecil
almost drifts away in dreams, but then he quickly snaps back to reality and continues focusing on the important task before him. However, as he runs his finger delicately above the castle’s door
to finish the final detail, an inquisitive voice pierces through the wind breaking the silence of the night.
“What’re ya doin’?” Cecil’s hand accidentally slips, making a small mark on his exquisite creation. His deep inhalation is followed by a long sigh. He asks, without taking his eyes off the sand castle. “Why are you still here? I thought you already got your fish.”
“Bah! Why leavin’ so early? I’m at me best when the moon is full.” The fisherman examines the castle before further remarking. “This thing is sure a beauty, eh! But ya’re mad as a loon to build it so bloody close to the sea. Soon ‘em waves will come and wash it all away.”
“Precisely, and then I’ll finally have my seashell, a real seashell that is, not some tainted old coin.” Cecil said with a dash of sarcasm in his voice.
“Hah ha ha! By mermaid’s tits! Ya actually thought the sea will give yer her seashells ‘cos ya offer her these pretty castles? Oh, ain’t that a blast! Ya sure can make me laugh, lad.”
“I don’t know behind which rock you actually live that you could be so… devoid of such common knowledge.” Cecil finishes the sentence with a small touch of contempt before beginning a new one with a hint of pride. “And please do kindly note, sir, that the person you are laughing at is the both the best builder and collector in the village and the youngest to be given such privileged opportunity to come out on his own.”
“Oh, I sure do envy ya lad, for I had only seen such ‘opportunity’ once before on the slave boat I used to own, haha!” As the old man finishes his sentence, the foamy lips of the sea rush pass beneath their feet, licking away the doors, windows, and walls of the magnificent sand castle standing before them.
“There ya go, all your precious sweat and toil. And ya even miss the meteor shower.” The fisherman’s words were followed by a chuckle.
“Who cares? I know what I want and how to get it old man. I’m mature and smart enough.”
“Bah! Sea slug! It’s always the smartest ones that are most likely to fool ‘emselves!” The fisherman pauses before swinging his rod back on his shoulder, readying himself.
“Anyhow, I’m gonna sit down and catch some more fish for tomorrow. Hey ya know what, why don’t ya come sit with me ‘ere and learn how to catch a tuna, or a marlin if you’re a pro? I’ll teach ya.” He says as he puts down his antique chair and hurls his arm back to swing the bait out for as far as the eye can see, this time much further than the last.
“No way in Nine Shells! No one does something crazy like that anymore except you. It’s unsafe, uncertain, and much too complicated.”
“Oh, I see. It’s much ‘arder than buildin’ a bloody castle, waiting for ya precious shells to appear and trading them for a darn ticket to go somewhere ya don’t even know exists, eh? That’s as ridiculous as a kraken’s fart if ya ask me!”
“You don’t understand. It’s not just the island. How do you think people will look at me? What things will they say about me if I fail or quit now, huh?”
“Ya’re a lad! A brave young lad, ya’re not afraid of a storm or a sea serpent, but of eyes ‘n voices?! Bah! Put ‘em in a cannon and shoot ‘em all away! Especially those ones from yer own head. All bloody sea slugs!”
As the fisherman’s last word echoes in the cold wind, his age-old rod gets dragged away by a sudden force. He jumps to grab its handle then tucks his two feet deeply into the sand and pulls the rod backward with all his strength.
“Hi ho! This one’s surely the biggest in three moons! C’mere lad, help me pull this darlin’ up.”
The fisherman struggles as he tries his best to control the rod, it seems that he has much more strength than his appearance suggests.
Cecil hesitates a little before he reluctantly steps in to help the old man. Together they stand and pull against the cold wind and the force of the creature. The struggle seems to go on forever for Cecil and the fisherman. However, in one fraction of a moment, as they both pull the rod at the exact same time with full force, a fish as big as a rum barrel flies out of the turmoil of waves, and onto the wet ground in front of them. As they drag the fish against the sand towards themselves, Cecil and the fisherman fall onto the gentle ground because of the creature’s sheer weight. They both laugh with great joy while still panting with exhaustion. The great fish is left there on the sand between them as the fisherman examines the creature and remarks with eyes full of bright sparkles like the stars above him.
“By mermaid’s tits! We got ourselves a big daddy lad! Hi ho, what a jolly night! Look at ‘im, what should we do with ‘im tomorrow? Broil, grill, eat ‘im raw?! Hah ha!” The fisherman shouts merrily while slapping the sandy ground beside him.
But Cecil did not hear a single word the fisherman had been saying, for he had already stopped laughing quite a while ago. His face now becomes as still as a seaside rock and his eyes deadly fixed on something lying on the sand, something which he could never believe the big fish had brought with it.
A little white seashell…
The small object reflects grayish light from the pale moon. It can hardly be seen by normal eyes, but in Cecil’s, the tiny object does shine as bright as a summer’s sun.
Without further hesitation, Cecil springs forth like a new born stag to grab the precious object. Yet… the only thing his two shaky hands can lay their palms upon is but another wrinkle old hand. The fisherman slowly stands up tall as he closes his fist ever tighter.
“Give it to me you old fool!!” A dark corner in Cecil’s heart now takes full control of his body and soul. He continues to yell with a cracked and crumbled voice.
“You want it for yourself don’t you! You have been waiting all along for this, but you didn’t have the guts or the skill to do it yourself, so you used me! You pathetic old man, give it to me now or and I will take it from your cold dead hand!”
Both Cecil and the fisherman now stand up facing each other with the calm sea swashing its waves obliviously behind them. The old man pants heavily but does not show any sign of fear or anger. His deep gray eyes are simply cold and impervious like the night sky beyond him. Without any words escaping from his lips, he slowly reaches into his wet pocket with one hand and brings something out to show to Cecil.
“Can ya see this? Look at ‘em carefully and tell me what ‘ey are.” Cecil’s eyes broaden even wider than before. And this time he also momentarily forgets to breathe. Can it really be what he sees? These are… no, not seashells nor gold coins.
These are the tickets! And not just one or two, but more than a dozen of them!
Cecil struggles to let the words out and his face now becomes as pale as the fading moon. “H… How could you… Is this some kind of sick joke?”
“This whole world is a joke, lad!”
“But how… how could you end up here on this miserable place instead of being on the Paradise Island?”
“The first question ya should always ask is ‘why’, not ‘how’. I’ll let ya in on a secret me young friend, ya can never stay in one place forever, not even in paradise. No matter how pretty it is, one day ya’ll wanna sail out again, for the kraken, the sea serpent, the treasure island, the mermaid or just to be sucked by a darn vortex. But then ya’ll grow tired, and wanna go back to that island, thinking this time it’ll be different, this time ya’re gonna stay there forever, but ya never do. In fact, ya’ll get bored of that bloody island much faster than the turbulent sea. Look, lad, I’ve lived me life like there’s a shark chasing behind me back all the time, wishing to reach that long-lasting paradise not knowing that the real one is not on some crappy posters or stinky island…” The fisherman pauses as he gazes out absent-mindedly into the far horizon of the sea “But it’s somewhere under me crumpled old skin.”
“I… I don’t understand, but why don’t you stop?”
“Ya know ya never smile when ya look down at the darn shells in yer hands, no matter how many there are. Ya only smile when ya’re picking up a new one. And ask yerself, lad, is it really you who want the bloody shells or yer darlin’ village, huh? Seashells come ‘n go even if ya build a titless mermaid or a ship with an arse or nothin’ at all! What ya think is true is only
what folks’ve been putting in yer head, but the only real thing, lad, is in yer heart. And what does yer heart tell ya now, huh? Are ya found? Or are ya lost like a fish in a bloody whirlpool?”
After the fisherman finished with his last word. Cecil bends his head down a little and stares at the ground beneath the old man’s shadow, this time not to look for a seashell, but perhaps something more… important.
“I’m so confused.”
“Of course ya are! That’s what they want ya to be, but think, lad, when ya’re lost in the sea, what do ya want more – a north star, or just a nice meal to ease yer mind for a day?”
Cecil clutches his pocket and feels the numerous objects inside it. He then stares out at the endless sea. It seems to be calling for something. All the stars have already gone to bed as the night slowly gives way to the rising dawn. Cecil then utters with his mind somewhere far, far away.
“But, this is why I’m here… I was born to collect seashells so that one day I could tuck my feet in the nice warm sand on the Paradise Island. That’s the moment I’ve been waiting for. This is my purpose, you see. And I can’t live without it!”
“Sea slug! The only thing ya can’t live without is the bloody fish! Forget about what the darn village has been tellin’ ya and ask yerself… what does paradise mean?” The fisherman’s voice is fierce and strong, and his words seem to come straight from somewhere deep inside himself.
“Yes, of course. I know the answer. I’ve always known…”
Cecil’s eyes are full of emptiness as he whispers to himself abstractedly. He then inhales deeply before speaking with a voice as sharp as a marlin’s snout.
“I have decided, old man.” Cecil slowly raises his voice as he reaches out his hand. “Give me the seashell…” Cecil pauses before adding. “I would rather die than live
After the words reach fisherman’s ears, there seems to appear a hint of gentleness in his eyes. He smiles a little as he shakes his head mildly from side to side.
“Stupid boy… ya’re already dead a long time ago!”
And with that last word still echoing in the wind, the fisherman swings his arm backward with full strength in the same manner he swings his beloved rod every time. However, this time there is no rod, only a tiny white seashell in his hand.
“Nooo!” Cecil’s eyes widen with fright as his primal instinct surges up from inside to take control. His arms thrust forward in the direction of the object like a beggar rushing towards a gold coin. The object flies away, past the light of an approaching dawn at the far horizon, and into the glittering surface of the sea. Cecil’s legs then suddenly push him forward to run towards the edge of the shore and jumps into an oncoming wave. He tries to swim jerkily with full speed to the direction of the sinking seashell. He then dives down as the object drifts slowly to the bottom of the sea. The target is further than he thought. His strength is already waning, and his eyes cannot properly see.
As he reaches nearer to the object, he knows that the air in his lungs is running out, but he resists. Indeed, Cecil is a man who knows very well how to resist what his heart is telling him. And the sea, too, knows how to reward such a man, for he is now holding in his hand the
precious object he has been dying to have. No more waiting, no more building, no more day dreaming.
Every great conquest, however, comes with a great price, for the surface is now becoming too far for him to reach, so is his little paradise…
For all the sweat and toil, Cecil can now have his well-deserved rest at last, but even in the last moment of his life, those weary hands are still holding the dear object as close to his heart as possible, as if it would wrap him in a warm round bubble and keep him safe from all harm. The last thing Cecil’s dreary eyes can gaze upon is an endless blue sea and a myriad of white soft reflections far down below. These are reflections that he is indeed very familiar with. He then smiles for the first time since that ‘big daddy’ he caught with the fisherman. However, the fisherman is no more, for when Cecil dies, he also dies with him.
On that lonely beach there is only a single line of widely-spaced footprints leading to the foamy sea. This, too, will soon be washed away like every sand castle and seashell.
A new dawn has arrived as the morning light glitters upon the surface of an azure sea. The waves are drifting towards the shore in their usual unhurried manner, as if nothing had happened since the beginning of time…