Multi-coloured seashells lined the shelf in Sophie’s spare room. They had always fascinated her nine-year-old granddaughter, Emma. Each shell had its own special story. Today, Emma had asked to hear about the big shiny spotted one, which twisted and curled to a little holey point.
Emma carefully lifted the shell from the shelf and sat on the bed as Sophie entered from the kitchen, wiping her wet hands on her apron. She smiled down at her granddaughter holding the shell gently in her lap. ‘I suppose you want to know about this very special seashell.’
‘Where did you find it, Nanna? It’s so pretty.’
‘It is pretty—as pretty as the beach I found it on. But this shell has a sad story to tell. The memory will live forever in here.’ Sophie placed her hand over her heart before continuing.
‘Poppa and I were visiting a place far from here on the west coast for a holiday back in 1992. It was our holiday of a lifetime—just after your mother finished college. It was a summer. We were staying at a resort village and Poppa and I spent the evenings walking along the cooling sand. On the third evening there was a full moon and we were about to head back up the beach to our bungalow when we heard a pitiful moaning. It seemed like it was coming from the ocean. The sound lingered like a haunting wail that echoed. I have to admit, I was afraid. I’m not one to believe in ghosts, but that night I would have believed anything.’
‘Oh, Nanna, that must have been soooo scary. What did you and Poppa do? What was it?’
Sophie traced the contour of the twisted shell to the point, holding her finger in mid-air for a moment before continuing. ‘Well at first we just stood there trying to work out what it was. Some of the resort staff came running down onto the beach yelling, ‘Save them! Save them!’ It was then that we realized there were black mounds rolling in the surf. They looked like huge boulders. Some were closer to us on the wet sand; water lapping around them from the incoming tide. Some of the people started running into the waves. Poppa grabbed my hand. The boulders were actually whales. Some had already beached themselves—others splashed about a little offshore where waves crashed around them.’
Tears ran down her cheeks as she recalled the events. ‘People were trying to persuade them back by yelling at them. Others just stood, staring, as one by one they beached themselves. It was an awful sight.’
‘Did they go back into the water?’ Emma asked, her eyes reflecting her anguish.
‘Unfortunately, most of them didn’t. I guess its part of nature. We never did find out why those whales beached themselves. We tried to help by keeping the whales wet. We even tried to encourage them back into the water.’ Sophie shook her head. ‘Four days later the beach was covered in dead and dying whales—fifteen in all. I remember I sat in the shallow water beside a mother and her calf and wept for them. Poppa and I took turns taking short naps and taking time out for meals provided by the resort’s kitchen. We continued our vigil for four days—the remainder of our holiday. We’ve always considered it a small sacrifice. We managed to get three whales back out into deeper water—only three, but we were relieved we were able to help in a small way.’
‘Oh, Nanna, this is the saddest story of all. But, where did you find the shell?’
Sophie picked up the shell and blew into the small hole at the point. It made a howling sound, like the wind. She handed it back to Emma so she could have a blow, and continued her story.
‘About mid-morning on the last day, men with hoists came and loaded the dead whales onto the back of trucks to take them away—for burial. I suppose we were too exhausted to ask where. When they lifted the calf beside me, I noticed something lodged in the wet sand. Poppa used his hands to dig it out and held it up to look at it more closely. One of the helpers from the night before took it from Poppa’s hands and washed it in the seawater. He lifted it to his lips and blew it, long and loud. It sounded almost like the mournful cry we had heard the evening before. The man handed it to me and walked away, back up the beach to the resort where he worked. I’ll never forget those whales—or the beach.’
Emma blew into the shell. The haunting wail lingered like the memories on the shelf. Sophie sat beside her in silence for a few minutes. Emma traced her finger around the shell before placing it into Sophie’s hand. She too, traced her finger to the point then placed it back in its place on the shelf.
© Chrissy Siggee