Beachcombing

 Beachcombing

A terrible find on a beach

There had been a savage storm. The day afterwards, Sarah went down to the beach to see what had been washed up. Little piles of sea-glass glinting in the sun, mermaids’ purses, starfish, plastic detritus. She picked her way carefully through the salty harvest, and then she saw it. She rubbed her eyes hard, because she could scarcely believe what she saw.

There on the shingle, half-covered by a skein of seaweed, there was a piece of driftwood about six inches long. She picked it up. Gnarled and knotted, it had two huge whorls which Sarah thought resembled breasts. Certainly they looked like that at first, but then she looked closer. She turned it to catch the light, and saw to her astonishment that the whorls were not breasts, but eyelids. They opened, and two bright blue eyes glinted at her.

In her shock, she almost dropped the driftwood. But she braced herself, and returned its gaze. It must be her imagination, but it seemed as though the eyes had expression. How could that be? But nonetheless they looked magisterial. They knew stuff. And Sarah wanted to know it too. So now, standing on the shingle as the wind got up apace, she looked steadily into the blue eyes and tried to see what they saw.

She could ascertain little at first. It was as though a mist had fallen: and then as it cleared, she saw the most terrible scenes: battles, stabbings, torture, rapes, bulldozed forests, deaths by hunger, hunts, cannibalism, drownings, the countryside laid waste, premature burials, pestilence, tyranny. With a scream, she flung the driftwood away with all her might. The eyes were the witnesses to intolerable pain: they were its historians.

Stumbling a little, Sarah scrambled over the shingle and retrieved the driftwood. She collected some dried leaves and twigs, placed her find on top, and set a match to it. It caught immediately. There on the beachhead, in the gale, the little fire roared and the blue eyes sizzled. She waited till there was nothing left but ash.

She often wondered afterwards if she had done the right thing. Shouldn’t she have preserved it? Was the driftwood a witness, or a warning? Shouldn’t she have broadcast what the eyes had seen? But she had had to repress the memory of the images in order to survive. She had been faint-hearted, perhaps. She had made a funeral pyre in order to make herself feel more comfortable. She had hoped she was a warrior: but she was not one, after all.