I reach the sandbar and my kayak crunches into the rocky shore. I know that this beach is often a disappointment to visitors, who complain about the rocks and wonder where the shells are. There are shells, but usually in shards. They are for those who appreciate fragments of poetry, the beauty of which lies as much in a suggestion of what has been lost as in what is preserved; those mysterious, random interruptions and suspended thoughts that invite the reader to imagine the rest, or to marvel at the violent effect of such delicate breaks. Somehow, not having the whole shell makes me more aware of the subtle wash of creamy colors across its surface.
The common purple sea snail makes it to the beach in better shape, perhaps because, improbably, it lives on the surface of the ocean. Its story is sweet and sad. "This snail is remarkable in its adaptation to life as a drifter," I learned from my well-worn Audubon field guide, a book that can achieve the grace of the Psalms. "It manufactures a raft of mucus bubbles to which it clings upside down. If detached from its float, it sinks to the bottom and dies." Difficult to imagine such a fragile hold on life, in a home anchored by no more than the thread of a baby's spittle. But we, too, get turned upside down, and perhaps we only think we have a surer grip; we float our hopes on bubbles of optimism and opportunity, and the lines that keep us alive are easily snipped.
The larger whelks are usually eroded, so what I find on the beach are the thick inner whorls of the shells. Strange that, for us, the shell of a home is a sad or incomplete thing. We describe an early, uninhabitable stage of construction as a shell; a bombed-out shell in wartime; a rotting shell left behind by floods. A shell is an empty place, soulless. And yet, the shell of a sea creature is all the home it has; it is all it needs. I like the idea of fitting perfectly within my shell, and sealing it off against anything that threatens me. In my intertidal years, I finally come to the realization that I no longer want to be around people who make me feel like I am in harm's way. Where once this was thrilling or seductive, appealing in its unending neediness, now it is draining. I'm learning to seal myself off from toxic encounters.
It's hard for most shelled creatures to make any kind of home in this intertidal zone, where they can be swept away on a wave; they're too fragile, too vulnerable to the pounding of surf against stone. That makes the ones that do thrive all the more astonishing: the various mussels, snails, limpets, whelks, rock periwinkles nestled in the ropy weeds. I have to change my focus and come in close to appreciate them; I often take my reading glasses to the beach. It was years before I learned that the rough, chalky surfaces of the boulders at the tide line were actually filled with living creatures; the barnacles were not merely a mineral deposit, as I'd assumed. I've scraped myself against their sharp cones often enough, but I've never been able to pry one off. Waves slide right off their shells, and you need a sharp knife to cut through the strong cement with which they have affixed themselves to their rocks, sealing in life-preserving water during low tides.