The island makes a sharp elbow jab into the Atlantic. A long, vacant stretch of beach, then a wide swath and a turn. You can see the waves crashing on the shoals out to sea. Paul walks out as far as he can and the tide closes in behind him. He turns, wading, before getting stuck out there. Nesting birds gather here, sea turtles nest here. Some years we've seen the flotsam and jetsam of shipwrecks, some years the garbage of surf fishermen and tourists.
And shells. Lots and lots of shells. In the early years of coming here, I couldn't resist them, picking up as many as I could (the National Park Service allows two gallons of unoccupied shells per person per trip). Some visits, I am more selective, tossing away smaller and less-than-perfect shells for better and bigger ones as I walk along. On this island I have found a greater variety of shells, more perfect specimens than any place I have ever been. Whelks of all sizes, helmets, moon shells, olives, scotch bonnets, pen shells, turkey wings. We've collected treasures of all kinds: sea urchins, snail shells, augers, crab shells, driftwood, sea glass.
This year there are fewer shells, fewer of the larger ones, fewer of the perfect ones. Still I can't resist looking, gathering. This year I have a new companion in my treasure hunt.
Before we left the mountains, Owen and Paul went through our coastal guidebook. They examined each photo, Owen asking "What's that?" and Paul patiently naming, explaining, describing. Now, here, she picks up a skate egg case and runs to him, "This was in your book, Daddy!" She finds a pen shell, mistakenly calling it a turkey wing, "Like in your book!"
She finds seagull feathers, horseshoe crab shells, even the intact skull of a bird. I show her a moon shell and suddenly she is finding more--"Look, Mommy, another moon shell!" She's right.
I walk slowly, eyes to the ground, occasionally scanning the beach, my path wandering as I search for only perfect shells. This year I will take home only the perfect shells.
Owen asks me what I'm looking for. "Shells, baby" I say, "Perfect, beautiful shells."
"I'll help you!" And she runs off. She is closer to the ground, she can see better. Quickly she returns to me, her hands full, holding them close to her body. "Look, Mommy! Is this perfect? Is this beautiful?" She shows me: the twist of a broken whelk, the curl of a piece of moon shell, a chip of clamshell the color of sunset. "This one's purple, Mommy! Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it perfect?"
And oh, my, it is. Perfect.