SANIBEL ISLAND, FLORIDA
From her kitchen, Angel clocked the sound of Max’s wagon heading home. She cleared her supper and went to the porch to wait until six p.m., the time she judged best to arrive on his doorstep. Any later would put her in the way of his class, any earlier gave them too much time alone together.
Pulling on her smoke, she surveyed the artistic display in the skies. God had dipped a paintbrush into buckets of rich red and peony pink and zesty orange, layering them onto the canvas, each folding into a kaleidoscope of indescribable beauty. One look reminded her that she was but a small cog in the wheel and her well-laid plans had failed.
What had Tilly said…It won’t be what you expect. Heck, it never is!
Against the flare of sunset she saw the turtle guards packing up their stations as the evening shift entered the scene. Greg and Kim Goodwin shuffled across the flat plane of sand, like weary wanderers in search of an oasis, the petite wife ten paces behind her tall man, her shoulders bent under an invisible burden. She needed more than a cookbook from him—anyone could see that.
Someone else was staring at the pair: Libby, at the edge of Max’s property. Perhaps Kim had forgotten to tell her she wasn’t needed tonight. The blonde started towards them, when she came to a halt and, with a firm shake of her head, headed in the opposite direction.
Angel retrieved the wanted shadow box. Time to end this silly charade.
Max opened the door, his face awash in delight at the sight of her. “Angel.”
Had her name ever sounded so good? She wished he’d say it again. Close in her ear. With the sexy accent that left her woozy.
“Please, come in,” he added, taking the frame crooked over her arm.
She hesitated at the doorway, her will sinking like a foundering vessel. With a raspy cough she stepped into the simple living room—for just a minute, out of politeness—then she’d leave.
She noted the new paint of soft cream and white trim; Maeapple’s clutter was gone. On the far wall a large window looked onto a back porch with white wicker furniture and blue-striped cushions. Overall, the dwelling and its furniture, including a sturdy old captain’s desk, presented a clean view of the sea.
“The place looks nice,” Angel said. “Much lighter.”
“Thank you,” Max said. “There is so much beauty outdoors, I think now the eye travels there.”
“I see you have a knack for these things.”
“I’m eager to show you the workshop.”
How could she deny his sweet enthusiasm?
In startling contrast to the house’s muted palette and minimal décor, the garage exploded with colors and shapes and a dazzling array of shells in clear plastic bins that filled the walls. Here was the beating heart of his abode. She recalled that Tilly’s apartment had a similar feel and, with a guilty pang, once again wished she could share her experience with Max.
He placed the empty frame on one of two long tables that ran through the middle of the room. On the nearest table sat a pitcher of water and several glasses, beside a plate of cookies, as well as three more shadow boxes, each at different stages in the process of making a Sailors’ Valentine.
Unlike the higgledy-piggledy mess of Tilly’s craft materials, dozens of boxes catalogued in Max’s bold script were arranged in alphabetical order, according to their common name, on metal shelves at one side of the garage. They seemed to glow with life—Glassy bubble, Calico clam, Baby’s Ear, White Melampus, Lettered olive, Kitten’s Paw, Wentletrap.
Several trays on the far table held a variety of simple tools—cotton batting, glue pots, paint and brushes, tweezers, push pins, pencil compass, and single edge razor blades, as well as some he had rigged for the unique purpose of shell work, such as a sea urchin spine snip for the tiniest shell placement.
Angel took in the room, full of admiration for its organization and precision, and also shame that she could not express the depth of her appreciation.
“It looks complicated,” was the best she could do.
“Ah,” he said, running his hand over a grid of squares inside a frame. “The steps are not so hard. Anyone can learn them, I believe. It is inspiration that is difficult, for myself, too.” He picked up a small shell cluster that formed a white carnation type flower. “Andodontia alba, the Buttercup Lucine.”
“Very pretty,” she said, amazed that such a sturdy man could fashion the delicate handiwork. “I wonder how you became interested in shells.”
An odd look, perhaps fear, flashed across his face. “I do not wish to bore you.”
“I’d like to know.”
Seeing her accepting smile, he visibly relaxed. As he spoke, a sense of longing crept into his voice. “In my house as a boy there was a tall wooden cabinet. My mother’s mother, who was English, gifted it to her. I recall tracing my finger over beautiful shell designs inlaid with mother-of-pearl on the sides. Mutti kept a shell collection here. I must stand on my father’s footstool to see inside; some species I never saw again. You see, partitions in the drawers created geometric shapes—I often wonder if this is how the idea of shell mosaics began.”
His eyes drifted to the front wall where several Sailors’ Valentines hung: a floral all-white motif with simple words: Beloved Mother; a rowboat in a calm lake, Dear Father; and My Sweet Sister Klara, a small girl and her poodle playing in a garden.
“These were my first,” he went on. “Ach! They are not so good. I was happy, you see, to create the unique feelings I possessed for my family. I suppose the Valentines remind me of what was lost. Perhaps I am just a sentimental fool.”
“They’re lovely,” Angel said. Though it wasn’t a fair comparison, she realized they both had lost their families. “I can’t imagine how you carried on.”
“In every situation one has a choice. Compromise is not so bad, I think. Sometimes it is the best way.” He adjusted his disappointment as if straightening his tie. “So ist das leben.”
“I’m afraid so.”
He coughed to clear his throat and poured them each a glass of water. His tone grew more conversational. “You can imagine the fascination when trade ships brought colorful, exotic shells to England in the late eighteenth century. Charles Darwin also created an interest in natural studies. The shells exploded in popularity; especially women desired to collect.
“On my birthday each year, Mutti presented a beautiful shell to me and so, by the start of the war, I had a small collection. How often I wished I had taken it on the train. But she told me soon we all would be once again in the house in Leopoldstadt. I returned many years later, but the cabinet and the shells were no more.”
He paused to study Angel, as if searching for an answer to an unspoken question. “I confess,” he went on. “For some time I have not made a Valentine. I begin and then I stop. Many times.” He indicated the far table where a linen cloth covered a frame. “I tried even weeks ago. Without the Shell Queen, it is pointless.”
“The shell queen?” Angel said, unable to disguise her surprise.
“The shell that must the palette and design reveal,” Max explained. “Otherwise—ach!—so many options, one grows weary.” His gaze settled on her once more, as he added, “I am waiting for my Shell Queen.”
Before she could refuse, he took her hand in his. “Angel,” he began in earnest, when the doorbell rang. “Excuse me,” he said.
She followed him, intending to leave, but found Libby blocking the doorway.
“Oh, hey, Angel,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you.” She winked at Max. “You’ve got the best single ladies in town.”
A slash of color rose in his cheeks and he pointed the way to his studio. “Shall we?”
Libby swept past. “Believe me, I’m ready for something new.”
As Angel stepped towards the door, Max took her arm. “But you’re not leaving, are you?” he said.
“I can’t, Max.” She didn’t deserve him or the shells.
“What can I do to persuade you?”
If only she could reveal her past, as he had done with openness and trust, but she couldn’t bear for him to think of her as a liar.
As she entered the street, a long shadow passed overhead—a siege of night herons sailing towards the ocean. From the swampy verge came a scratchy scampering that compelled her to walk across the footbridge. In the shimmering silver light of a full moon, she saw ghost crabs racing across the sand, following the same path as the birds—in search of fresh eggs.
The turtles are coming!
From the relaxed state of the groups on patrol, no one was the wiser. To Angel, it was as if a loud gong had rung. She retraced her steps to Max’s doorstep.
“They’re coming,” she said, breathlessly. “The loggerheads.”
“Just a moment, please wait,” he said, turning towards the studio.
Through the living room window she saw Yemayá’s pearlescent light draped over small ripples on the bay like icing on a cake. The Great Lady was calling to her. Ven a mí, mi amor.
A moment later Max returned with Libby. “Now?” she said. “You’re sure? ‘Cause I don’t want to make a fool of myself out there.”
He answered. “Already they are late, no? By the middle of May they are expected, and we are almost June.”
He led them across the footbridge, and when they reached the dunes, Libby veered towards Greg and Kim. Her hushed call sent them to their feet. Soon an intermittent link of human protection formed in the nesting zone. Max took Angel’s hand. She smiled, her heart bursting, as they ran to an unoccupied spot several yards from shore. He squeezed her hand, like opening a lock, and she moved under the wing of his arm. It wasn’t so bad, after all, to love again.
Sea birds wheeled overhead, climbing the ladder of moonlight that stretched across the gulf, their cacophony of competing cries, like bets made at a sporting event, raining down on the beach. Angel sighted a dark, round shadow in the undertow. She nudged Max, pointing ahead, as another hump surfaced several feet away.
Up and down the shore, dozens of reddish brown loggerheads appeared, their jutting profiles like fierce figureheads on the prows of ships. They marched onto land, using their powerful pectoral muscles to heave their two-hundred-pound reptilian bodies across the sand. With scraping sounds, they pushed past surf zone. A high wave could swamp a low-lying clutch, while some would be lost to crabs and the rampant population of raccoons, despite the volunteers’ vigilance.
A ponderous loggerhead moved doggedly toward Angel and Max, stopping mere yards away. She began to dig with her hind flippers, sending a flurry of sand into the air. Several minutes later, when she had finished her nest, she deposited several dozen slick, leathery, golf-ball-sized eggs from her ovipositor.
Hungry birds dove for errant eggs that missed the mark, their cacophonous cries in contrast to the silent guard. When a nest was complete, the loggerhead covered the eggs in another spray of sand. The uneven timing of the turtle march, with its inconsistent small sandstorms among the whirling and diving avian enemies, made for a riveting if haphazard natural ballet.
Angel’s turtle—that was how she thought of it—turned seaward, obliterating evidence of the nest with a sweep of her fore flippers. The mother hesitated, perhaps to catch her breath or say a silent prayer for her young, before she moved forward, leaving a signature tractor-crawl in her wake. When she reached the moist line of crushed shells and seaweed, Yemayá drew her back into the belly of the sea.
Ven a mí, mi amor.
Would the mother forget her offspring as she swam deep into the blue? In two months, when the hatchlings arrived, would she wonder how many survived the perilous trek to sea?
As if on cue, the multitude of birds flew away into the night, the soft susurrus of surf resumed, while the moon glow waxed magical. The community waited in astonished silence for the spell to dissipate. After a moment, Max marked the clutch of eggs with a yellow flag.
“Our nest,” he said.
He wrapped her in his arms, his body snug against hers, as she let loose the seams of desire. His lips found hers, and she received him like the shore to the sea, without hesitation or question. At last she had laid down the fight.
* * * * *