Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 600 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
SEA FOAM LULLABY
The infant who washed ashore cradled in an open clamshell and swaddled by sea foam had not yet formed an impression about anything other than feeling protected and cared for nestled between the two halves of the shell. The roar of the ocean waves crashing against the shoreline of the white sandy beach had a rhythm that lulled the child gently to sleep and also woke it up a short time later. The smell of fresh air had the same scent as the watery depths where the infant was born. Unable to see, the newborn stared almost blindly at the bright blue sky as tufts of silvery-white clouds floating gently and slowly by.
The beachcomber went by the name, Beachcomber. Being one for so many years he had forgotten his real name, or if he had ever had one. Few people other than Eddie at the Junk In and Junk Out shop and Suzy at the 24 Hour Shop-N-Mart talked to him, so having another name didn’t matter. Eddie and Suzy didn’t know his birth name either. They said he showed up one day, and they liked him, and so he stuck around. Dressed in his faded orange shirt decorated with white ferns Hawaiian-style, jeans cut off just below his knees, a pair of sandals made from the soles of a pair of men’s dress shoes and tied onto his feet with rope, and wearing a floppy straw hat that Suzy had given him from her trip to Disney World – the Mickey Mouse ears had fallen off some time back – he trudged along the beach searching for whatever the morning tides had brought in. He carried by a strap around his left shoulder a green canvas bag. That morning he had found and placed in it a toy plastic flute, an unopened can of Japanese smoked oysters, a woman’s blue shower cap, a laminated menu from a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship and an empty water bottle.
When he happened upon the baby in the clamshell at first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The sunlight glaring in his eyes did that sometimes. Once he thought he saw a mermaid sliding back into the water. He rubbed his eyes, blinked several times, and opened them just as a spit bubble formed on the infant’s lips. He looked around and then knelt down by the clamshell.
“Hello little one. I’m Beachcomber. What are you doing here all by yourself?”
He thought the baby was too small to answer, just like all babies, but he waited for a moment just in case. Who was he to say a baby wrapped in sea foam and lying in a clamshell couldn’t talk?
Not getting a response, he stuck his hand inside the shell and with one finger gently tickled the child’s belly. It gurgled and with one hand wrapped its fingers around his.
“Aw, aren’t you a sweet one,” Beachcomber said.
With his free hand he began to brush aside the sea foam that covered the infants mid-section, but as soon as he uncovered the baby’s rotund stomach a wave splashed onto shore, sending sea foam into the clamshell covering the area that the beachcomber had just wiped away.
Beachcomber rocked back on his heels and let out a low whistle, “Well, ain’t that something?”
The infant brought the beachcomber’s finger to his mouth and began to suck.
“You’re hungry, are you?” Beachcomber said. He gently pulled his finger from the infant’s fingers and stood up. “You wait right here, little one. Suzy’s working this morning. She’ll have some baby’s milk somewhere in that store she works at.”
He turned and began to trot down the beach from the direction he had come.
The baby had felt the presence – an awareness – that something new was nearby. Unable to form coherent thoughts, with no experience to rely on, or ability, to interpret what it was sensing, it waited. Then suddenly a new sound entered its ears. It wasn’t a sea sound – the infant knew those. It was something like the bubbles that arose from the clamshell as it opened up. The sound he was hearing was like the bubbles, but not them.
Then suddenly there had been heat. A warmth. Not sunlight warmth, a different type of heat. The child reached out and took hold of the warmth. Unaware of what it was grasping, the child felt calm, safe. The child brought the warm thing to its mouth.
And then it was gone. The new warmth was gone.
And then the presence was no longer there.
Then the infant did something it had never done. It cried. The child found it had the ability to make a noise, it’s own noise, not noise like the ocean, or the noise of the thing that offered warmth, but a noise that the infant felt rising from inside its body and sent out of itself through that part of its body that also had learned to seek food.
“A baby in a clamshell?”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Beachcomber replied to Suzy who was looking at him as if he had just turned into a turnip that could talk. The old woman had seen a lot in her life, but never a baby in a clamshell. She had never even heard of such a thing.
“It is crazy, sweetie. You haven’t taken up drinking have you?”
“I couldn’t afford getting drunk even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I’m telling you I found a baby in a clamshell down the beach near Sandblaster’s Cove.”
“Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe it’s finally getting to you.”
He took his canvas bag from his shoulder and dumped the contents on the counter.
“This is some new stuff, fresh from the sea. What can I trade you for some milk for the baby?”
Suzy rolled her eyes and slowly picked up each item and examined it carefully. “This looks like a can of oysters. I can’t sell it here, but if it looks and smells alright, me and my Henry can have ’em tonight while watching the news.” She pointed to a refrigerator case in the back. “I keep a few bottles of ready-made formula in the back for tourists and travelers who stop in. Help yourself to one.”
“Thanks, Suzy.” He scooped his beach junk back into his bag and headed toward the refrigerator case.
He didn’t see the man with a shark’s tooth in his left pierced earlobe standing in a nearby aisle who had been surreptitiously listening to their conversation.
The shark stuck its head out of the water and peered around and then disappeared beneath the surface. A few minutes later the man with the shark’s tooth in his ear walked out of the water and onto the beach at Miller’s Cove. He shook his entire body, flailing water in all directions until his clothes were no longer dripping wet. He tilted his head back and sniffed the air, and finding the scent he was looking for, smoothed back his silvery-gray hair, and began walking up the beach.
When he was only a few yards from where the infant in the clamshell lay sound asleep, the man
looked up to see hundreds of seagulls circling in the sky above him. The usually screeching noisy birds were silent, only the tornadic whooshing sound of their spread, soaring wings reverberated in the morning air.
He slowly approached the clamshell, then circled it, peering in at the infant, hungrily licking his lips. He knelt down beside it and reached in, excitedly flicking his fingers, clicking his pointed, sharp fingernails.
He leaned in, hovered over the baby, opened his mouth, displaying jagged teeth, and . . .
Beachcomber left the Shop-N-Mart with a bottle of baby formula, and the water bottle filled with water, both placed inside his canvas bag with the other items. Suzy sent him off with a “take care of that baby,” said in a way that bordered on sarcasm. He walked down the side of the coastal highway, backtracking from the Shop-N-Mart to Eddie’s Junk In and Junk Out Shop to the direction of where he had left the infant. He entered the junk shop thinking that the flute, shower cap and cruise ship menu wouldn’t be of much interest to Eddie but he hoped for the best.
Eddie was very picky about the junk he bought and sold.
Beachcomber entered the shop and walked in front of the loosely defined aisles of assorted junk looking for Eddie. There was order to the shop that only Eddie could make sense. There were aisles of t disordered shelves of everything imaginable that could fit onto them, and in between the shelves, piles of boxes, crates, rugs and a few pieces of questionably antique furniture. As often as Beachcomber had been in the shop, he still hadn’t figured out what made Eddie choose the items he did to sell. But Eddie seemed to have a thriving business although there were no customers in the shop at that time.
He walked over to the stack of empty wood crates that Eddie used as a counter, reached into his bag and took out the flute, shower cap and menu and placed them on the top crate. He then grabbed the flute and shoved it back into the bag.
He then found a piece of paper and broken pencil and wrote a note to Eddie.
Edee cen yu givin me a babe blankut for ths junk? B.
He placed the note on top of the cap and menu, weighed it down with a stapler and walked out the door with the bag slung over his shoulder. A few steps out he ran into Eddie.
“Where ya been, boy?” Eddie said as he sucked on the stub of an unlit cigar. “Something’s going on down the beach a ways.” He turned and pointed at the seagulls circling in the sky.
“The baby!” Beachcomber cried out and then took off running screaming the entire way. He reached the clamshell to find it closed tight and in the sand only the markings of the underbelly of a shark leading to the sea.
Beachcomber put his ear to the clamshell listening for the baby. He knocked on it several times. “Baby, I’ll never you leave you all alone ever again,” he said. “He took out the flute and played a few notes. “If you’re still in there and haven’t been eaten by the shark, I’ll play the flute for you night and day and one day teach you how to play it.”
The clamshell slowly opened.
Thirty years later, long after Eddie’s junk shop had been sold and turned into a surf board shop, and Suzy had died of food poisoning at the counter of the Shop-N-Mart, the elderly Beachcomber hugged the younger one. “Something’s calling me from the sea,” he said. “I don’t remember hearing it before, but I know I have to go to it.”
“But you taught me everything I know about being a beachcomber,” the younger beachcomber said. “What will I do without you?”
“Comb the beach as you’ve always done.” He slapped the younger beachcomber on the shoulder and as sea foam wrapped around his body, encasing him, he walked into the water.
The younger beachcomber instantly forgot about the old man. All he knew was that his name was Beachcomber, and that was what he did: comb the beaches. Oh, and he knew how to play the flute, and as he turned away, that is what he did as he strode down the beach.
With a bag that contained a plastic soup strainer, a boy’s ball cap, an embossed map of Hawaii, and one man’s leather shoe, Beachcomber came upon a baby in a clamshell. The baby was lying in a bed of sea foam.