Message of the Conch Shell

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2001

By Anna Hagen, Illustrated by the author

Salt sea spray brushed against my cheek as I paced placidly along my beach. Well, not my beach, technically, but that’s what I fondly call it. My adoptive mother, Elnore, says every time it’s a nice day out, “It’s a day for your beach, Shayla, go and capture it.” So that’s where I am now, on a beach where your thoughts break loose from a cage called your mind, and take off into the sky.

While my thoughts are off scanning the horizons, my green eyes stay close to the beach, seeking out shells. I always look for additions to my shell collection, which are easy to find, for I practically live on the beach. My eyes spot a dark gray shell poking out of the soft sand. I trot over and squat down by it, taking a piece of my short, curly brown hair and tucking it behind my ear. I carefully pick up the shell and turn it over. Sure enough, the rainbow colors of an abalone shell shimmer back at me. I smile and place the shell in the pocket of my battered old shorts, then skip off along the shoreline.

After a few minutes of poking along the beach, I find the driftwood bench that I crafted myself. I plop down on it and think about my life, what I always do on this unique bench.

I was adopted, or rather I was found. See, Elnore found me on the beach, which is, of course, very odd. Elnore told the police about me, and the police did their job and investigated to see if anyone had a missing child. No one claimed me, so Elnore took me under her wing. I have lived with her ever since, twelve years. I love Elnore’s cozy old beach house, and I love Elnore, but I would like to know about my past.

Message of the Conch Shell sitting on a bench

After a few minutes of poking along the beach, I find the driftwood bench that I crafted myself

A ship bell rings faintly. I look out on the ocean. Old Mr. Flint waves at me from his equally old fishing schooner. I wave back. Mr. Flint points to the cove that he usually docks in. I nod and he turns back to his wheel.

Lifting myself off the bench, I make my way down to Fisher’s Cove. I usually help Mr. Flint unload his catch in exchange for stories of what he saw in the ocean that day, and a buck or two.

“Aye, little Shayla!” Mr. Flint greets me with a toothy smile.

“Hey!” I grin back. “Any fish stories today?”

“Jest unusual happenings. I swear I saw a whale jest off the mainland. Gray-colored one it was.”

My eyes open wide with surprise. “But it’s not time for whales to migrate by here yet!” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I know. That’s what’s so strange about that whale. Help me with this net, wouldja?”

I bend down and help him with a net full of fish. I still am very curious.

“Was there anything strange about the whale, besides the obvious?” I enquire eagerly.

Old Mr. Flint wrinkles up his nose, thinking hard.

“Eyah . . . it were tossin’ around a trinket thing, mayhap a shell. I don’ think that that’s what’s causin’ um to act this way though.” He pulls out another net, and I help him with it.

“Nothing else?” I ask hopefully.

“Nothin’ ‘cept the sunrise,” was the disappointing answer.

I stay through the usual sunrise bit, I finish, he thanks me, and hands me the regular paycheck (a dollar-fifty). Finally I trudge home, with darkness setting over the ocean.

“I suppose you will be enlightening the beach with your presence today, right?”

I smile at Elnore’s obvious question, and reply enthusiastically over the tink, tink of spoons against breakfast oatmeal bowls. “Of course! Going to the beach is one of the many privileges of this off-school vacation! How could you ever doubt I would spend a day without my beach?”

“Oh, just a wild guess.” Elnore picks up my satchel, and tosses it at me. “Go find some seashells!”

“Aye, aye captain!” I rush happily out the door.

It is foggy when I get to my beach, and the waves crash steadily against the jagged rocks. I shrug my shoulders and continue on my way. A few sand dollars are all I can see in the sand, broken ones at that. I suddenly decide to walk on the western part of my beach, a part that I don’t acknowledge much.

The wind starts to whip around violently, and strands of hair keep blowing in my face. Frustrated, I search my satchel for a rubber band, and come out with a piece of string. I turn in the direction of the ocean and tie my hair up.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see something move out on the ocean. I know it isn’t the waves; the thing I see is an object. Something plops down in the sand right next to me and I jump. I come to my senses and look down. A large shell sits comfortably in the sand, as if it had been there a million years. I stoop and take a closer look.

The shell is a conch shell, and definitely excels in looks. It is glossy, and the surface is a mixture of cream and white colors. It is delicately rounded and has a curlicue on the top of it. Excited, I pick up the pretty shell and put it in my satchel. I walk home quickly, eager to show Elnore my lucky find.

How little I knew then.

*          *          *

“Elnore, Elnore! Look, look! Look what I found!” I burst through the door, wet from the now falling rain.

Elnore glances up from her sketch pad, and puts on her wire-rimmed glasses. “What do you have there?”

I hold up the conch shell.

Elnore’s eyes are like tennis balls. “Wow. That is the biggest shell I have ever seen! Where’d you find it?”

“On the west beach.”

Elnore nods. “Could I borrow it sometime, just to sketch it?”

“Yeah, sure.” I start to go up the stairs, but Elnore’s voice stops me midway.

“Isn’t that one of the shells you can hear the echo of the sea in?”

I shake my head up and down. “I’ll try it.” I hold the shell up to listen.

A series of high-pitched squeaks and whistles fills my ears. Where’d the sea sound go? I ask myself. Suddenly I realize something that makes me double up with confusion. I can understand the squeaks and whistles. I know what they mean to say. I start to translate. “I . . . am . . . at . . . the . . . cove . . . meet me . . . there?” Who’s I? What’s happening? I start to panic.

Message of the Conch Shell entering the house

“Elnore, Elnore! Look what I found!”

“Shayla . . . ? Uh, are you OK? Your face is sort of white.” Elnore’s voice is worried.

I snap back to the real world. “Um, yeah, I’m fine.” I teeter, but catch myself by leaning on the banister. Elnore catches my subtle movement. Her brow furrows in confusion.

“All right . . . whatever you say.” She turns back to her sketch pad.

I continue up the stairs with a little difficulty. I finally reach my bedroom. I barge in and plop wearily down on my fluffy bed. I start to do something I thought I wasn’t capable of at the moment: think.

First of all, how could I understand all that whistle stuff? What language is it anyway? I ponder those and many other questions, coming up with no logical answer.

Then out of curiosity, I decide on something daring, something the real me wouldn’t have done. I decide to do what the shell told me to do; I would go to the cove. I reason that the cove the shell talked about is Fisher’s Cove, the only one in walking distance.

I put the shell in my satchel and creep quietly out the back kitchen door.

*          *          *

I race along the sand; a sense of excitement and urgency fills me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. The fact that I am running along the beach with the crisp wind blowing in my face makes me shiver with sheer pleasure.

I slow, breathing fast and hard. Ahead is Fisher’s Cove. I check my watch: 4:46 PM. The sky is already darkening into night. I take a deep breath and trot toward the black-watered cove.

The cove’s silence sends a chill down my spine. I situate myself on a dark gray rock, zipping up my thin jacket to seal in as much warmth as I can.

Minutes go by, and I start to think I am crazy. The time on my watch reads 5:15. I pick up my satchel, ready to leave.

“I have come a long way, human Shayla, your presence I have also long awaited.”

“Omigoshwhoisthere?!” Terrified, I whirl around, my voice so full of panic that the words I want to say come out fast and slurred.

I expect to see a murderer, or a kidnapper, but what I come face-to-face with is anything but that. The so-called murderer is a whale.

The majesty and beauty of such a marvelous and magnificent wild creature dumbfounds me, and the size awes me. I can’t utter a word.

I look out onto the waters of the cove. I can’t believe it. A whale is talking to me.

I gather myself up and turn my eyes down at the massive head, which looks up expectantly. “Do I know you?” I ask, my voice quivering only the slightest bit.

“Oh, I believe you do, only you were a young calf when I rescued you.”

I try not to believe what is happening. “No one can talk to animals . . . you must be a phony. . . or something.”

“Well, I suppose someone can talk to our kind now. It makes sense; you were exposed to our language from an early age.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, human Shayla, that is the purpose of my journey. Sit, human Shayla, for I have a long tale to tell.”

As if in a trance, I sit down on the soft sand.

The whale takes that as a cue. She begins, “My family was migrating. I was a young calf then, but old enough to stray far from my mother. Our family was making their way down the coast of your home, Amer- . . . Amer-. . . America?”

I nod.

She continues, “A harsh storm struck. This we were not expecting, so one calf died. My mother and I were very lucky. The next day we continued our long journey. It was then that we discovered you. Apparently, your mother and father’s ship had capsized during the storm. Your parents were dead, but you were floating in your cradle. My family knew that no calf, whale or not, should be floating alone on the ocean. We took pity, and pushed you in your cradle to the nearest mainland. There, a human woman found you, and took you as her own.”

I have turned as white as a sheet.

The whale goes on, “I was chosen to risk the cold waters to bring you this message, and now you have received it.” She pauses. “Perhaps now you understand why you can translate whale.”

“Y- yeah . . . thanks.” My hands are knotted into fists.

“Would you like a ride?” asks the whale slyly.

“Um, sure.” Anything to get the attention off me!

“Hop on my back.” I do as she told.

The water is glorious. We spin, we leap, we swim, and the whale is careful not to throw me off her back. Cool, crisp water engulfs me, and all of a sudden I feel like sleeping. As I doze off, I hear the whale whistle a melodic, haunting tune.

And then I am on my bed, conch shell at my side. And somewhere out on the ocean I hear a whale whistle farewell.


Shayla spent the rest of her life promoting animal rights. She was especially known for her work with whales, such as helping to stop whaling in Japan and other places. As Shayla says, “Whales are special. They have a beauty and majesty that one should do as much as possible to keep alive and well.”

Message of the Conch Shell Anna Hagen

Anna Hagen, 11
Lake Oswego, Oregon

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