Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Adriaen Coorte
She had found the seashells by accident. When she was younger, she used to spend her evenings building sandcastles, chasing crabs and learning to write alphabets on the sand only to watch the sea wash away the distorted letters. The memories come lapping in waves with the shells she holds in her hands.
She picks up the natica from the matte plastic box and runs her finger over its smooth shell. She recalls her futile attempt to paint its glossy surface purple and gold, an incident that her friend Anjani had laughed about for days.
Scallops dominate her shell collection. The texture of its ridges with its repeated rise and fall like waves themselves. In every rise and fall, Leela saw the waves. She could be listening to a violin recital, the highs and lows of a beatpad or her own heartbeat—they were all waves from seas she had not yet discovered.
The banded tulips were always her favourite. They weren’t as enormous as conch shells, and would easily fit in the spaces between her fingers back then. She’d pour water into its curved hole, shake it, and pour it back on the wet sand. Anjani and she had become friends over banded tulips.
“You’re looking for banded tulips?” Anjani had asked, shy smile and bright eyes. “You can have mine!”
“Friends?” Leela had asked. They’d sealed their friendship with a mutual thumbs up and a fist bump.
What could’ve been a breezy summer reminiscence felt like drowning in a maelstrom of tainted memories.
Other shells, including a single murex and numerous whelks, are also in the plastic box. They all carry hazy memories she can’t quite remember or let go of. She does remember writing BEST FRIENDS on the sand using a stick. She also remembers disappointment crashing over her when the sea swallowed the words whole.
She shuts the box close.
She blamed chance for her finding the seashell collection shut closed in her murky attic. The second time, she admits full responsibility for hunting down old photographs and regrets the fact that she does not regret it.
When she flips open the album, several grinning faces welcome her. There are photos of a large group of friends, Leela and Anjani next to each other in almost all of them. Although she’s lost touch with the others, it doesn’t hurt as much as drifting away from Anjani. Anjani’s family stopped coming to the shore after the summer of 2017. Her’s followed in 2019. All the families who once lived in the coastside had gradually migrated into the nearby cities.
She continues flipping the thick pages. There’s a picture of Leela and Anjani when they were eleven showing off their nails, each painted in different colours. In Anjani’s backyard, swinging with her younger brother. Anjani wearing Leela’s mother’s earrings, her frizzy mane framing her tiny face. Sandcastles and plastic toys, the waves and footprints, headbands and sundresses, friendship bands and satin flowers and sunsets she can’t remember.
She doesn’t know whom to blame.
A week later she visits the beach. She wants to go back to the coast, go back to her childhood home, lie down in the sand and bury herself in its roughness. She doesn’t want to tell her parents she’s driving to town, she can visit with them again later. For now, she wants this place all to herself.
Nowadays, their town is more of a vacation destination than a residential area. She navigates her car across streets she has memorised. The turns—left first, right next and then straight until you reach the parking space for the beach—all come to her despite all the time that’s passed.
There are other people here, all tourists. She can hear their distant laughter, squeals of glee from splashing water at each other and the cotton candy vendor’s announcements. But none of that matters. She walks to the beach, runs to the sea.
The breeze ruffles her hair in the same way her father does. There’s sand in her toes, water washing her feet and salt air kissing her face. This is the sea in all its majesty welcoming her home and Leela wants nothing more than to capture the emotion unfurling in her chest and contain it in the insides of a hollow seashell.
She crouches, looking for fragments of calcium carbonate in the sand. Her childhood comes rushing back to her,her fingers knowing just where to look. She doesn’t know how long she spends on the beach, but ends up collecting three angel wings, several alphabet cones, a unique murex and two little limpets. She can see the sun setting from the corner of her eyes, a pale orange blending into the blue sea, and promises she’ll leave when she finds at least one banded tulip.
She wades a few feet into the water and feels the waves gently wash over her. Sinking her hand into the sand, she watches the setting sun as her fingers scour for shells. Nothing. She lets the ascending waves wash over her before pushing her fingers into the sand once again. Again, no luck. She hears the security guards blowing their whistles, letting the visitors know they aren’t allowed into the waters anymore. She tries a few more times until one of the guards personally asks her to leave.
The sun was no longer visible in the sky. Darkness descended over the beach, the stars and the moon swimming in the sea. A vice grip tugs at her ankles with every step she takes away from the waters, away from the sand.
She clutches the other shells she collected firmly in her hand, allowing them to indent her palms and yet, she feels empty. She stops at the zone from where visitors were allowed to watch the sea at night and closes her eyes.
“You’re looking for banded tulips?” she hears someone ask from her left.
She twists her neck to face the one person that knows how much she loved banded tulips. Anjani. She’s an older version of the girl who once wore Leela’s mother’s earrings, ones that would fit her face well now.
Leela is unsure of how to deal with the void separating them. The years they’d spent apart from each other, making new friends—it stretches in front of her. Whom is she to blame? The parents for leaving the town? Or each other for not keeping in touch? How accountable could she hold eleven-year-olds?
“I picked one hours ago,” she says with a guilty smile, stretching a palm with a single banded tulip. “You can have it.”
“Friends?” Leela asks.
They both laugh, the void in between them filling up with the sound.