He thought she was a rock. Smothered in seaweed, motionless, her skin encrusted with salt. But then she moved, and he leapt back so fast that he fell over and landed on the sand, which was not as soft and accommodating as you might think.
She uncurled herself, her hair a tangled web of darkness, twisted with mermaid’s necklace and several pale starfish. Her face was darkened by sun and reddened by wind. She was tiny, a waif of a thing, with kelp wrapped around her body like a second skin, and she reeked of rotting weed. She looked like an urchin, a waif.
She hissed at him, baring tiny white teeth like oyster shells. Behind her, the sea breathed softly and rhythmically, whispering to itself, vast and impenetrable.
Ben drew back, but he didn’t run. He was seven years old, and he was not afraid of anything. (Except the dark, and climbing frames, and flying beetles.) He stared at her, and she watched him with dark eyes, lustrous and deep as the ocean. He glanced around. His mum was a long way down the beach, hand in hand with her boyfriend Darren, following the lacy edge of surf and leaning down to pick up a shell or a piece of crusty pumice. There was nobody else. The sun had nearly dipped below the horizon; the sea was glowing with that strange fiery light that comes when there are stormclouds looming, and the sky was streaked with gold and pink like candyfloss.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, since this was only polite. He saw that she had a barnacle stuck to her shoulder. She looked as though she’d just been washed up with the high tide.
She didn’t answer, but skipped away from him, lightly dancing over the sharp, jagged rocks, bare-foot and nimble, until she reached a rock pool. There, she leaned over, dipped her hand in and drew out a spiral shell, which she held up to show him. It caught the light and speared his eyes. When he saw the way it glittered and sparkled, there was suddenly nothing in the world he wanted more than to hold that shell.
He scurried after her, stumbling a little on the slimy rocks, holding his arms out to rebalance himself and wishing that he had taken his sandals off. When he reached her, and put his hand out for the shell, she tossed it back into the pool and laughed. It was a strange laugh. It didn’t sound quite right. It made him think of a woodpecker, and hammered a hole in his head.
He scowled at her and peered into the pool. It was a particularly good one, clear as a church window, with thick flowing weed and strangely coloured foliage, and it was deep. It looked like there might be crabs, and maybe a lobster hiding in a shadowy corner. The shell spun slowly in the rocking current created by its fall, and came to rest in a shallow crevice.
Ben plunged his hand into the pool to fish it out. And that’s when it happened. He didn’t know whether she pushed him, or if he lost his balance. But his hand was followed by his arm, his head, and the rest of his body, and before he could say ‘balloons and bicycles’, he had fallen in.
He opened his eyes before he could stop himself. But there was no stinging. That was the first astonishing thing. The second astonishing thing was that he appeared to have shrunk. Either that, or the world around him had sprung to gigantic proportions.
Cliffs towered around him, swathed in curtains of amber and smoky reds, fern fronds swinging and bowing in the gentle current as though in the wind. Ben looked up. He could see her face, huge and distorted by the water, peering down at him, her smile wide and innocent as a newborn.
Panic began to bubble up inside him. He tried to kick his way upwards, but his sandals weighed him down, so he tore them off, but sank to the bottom almost immediately, as if an anchor was tied to his ankles. He tried to calm himself, the way his mum did when he’d woken from a bad dream. I’m not dead. I can breathe. I can breathe. And, to his great relief, he found that he could.
The next moment she was standing right beside him, the same reduced size, her hair winding upwards from her head like sea snakes. She spoke, her voice a high chime, clear as a mirror.
‘What are you waiting for, boy?’
Ben looked around. There was foliage like kidney fern, and like spinach, and like wrinkled purple cabbage leaves. Light splintered through the water from above, flickering so rapidly that it hurt his eyes. It was like standing in a rainbow.
His panic began to subside. He said, ‘Nothing,’ his voice gurgly, like when he talked underwater in the bath.
She moved effortlessly in the water, her feet kicking together, like a pearl diver. Ben tried to walk, and found that this was not so difficult, although the water offered some gentle resistance and he imagined this was how it would feel to walk through honey (the runny honey, obviously, not the sort that bends your knife when you try to get it out of the jar). He could feel his hair floating upwards. A fish swam past, flashing silver, the length of his arm. Bubbles rose around them like helium balloons. He tried to catch one, but it dodged his hand and shot to the surface where it exploded with a ‘pop’. The girl laughed, and he laughed with her. She slapped at a bubble nearby so that it touched him softly on the cheek before detaching itself and disappearing above. Ben slapped one back at her. He was beginning to enjoy himself.
They followed a cliff for a little way, fighting through undergrowth that was yellow and orange and tightly curled like clenched fists, but the rock was slippery beneath Ben’s feet and he didn’t like not being able to see where he was treading. He wondered if there were crabs nearby. He really didn’t want to meet one. As for lobsters, they would eat him up as soon as look at him. But he felt safe with her. He had the feeling she would smack a lobster between the eyes until it turned tail and fled, begging for mercy.
There were clustered vibrant flowers, rubbery and enormous, bigger than he was. ‘Look!’ she said, and thrust her tiny arm into the centre of a lilac one. Immediately it closed its petals tight like a snapping turtle. She withdrew her arm with a soft sucking noise, and the flower remained closed, as though it had died. ‘Sea dandelions,’ she said dismissively. ‘Weeds.’ She plunged her arm into a brilliant blue one, and a flaming red one, and a bronze one with suckers so perfect it looked like plastic. They all closed their petals tight, and bowed their flamboyant heads, as though the sun had passed behind a cloud.
Ben recognised they were not flowers, but animals, sea anemones. Darren had explained this to him once. Ben had misheard him and echoed, ‘Sea enemies?’ which Darren had thought hilarious, and his mother had to intervene and spell it out for him with fridge magnets. And ever since then, Darren would always ask him, ‘What did the sea throw up for you today? Friends or enemies?’ which Ben didn’t think funny at all. But even less funny was meeting an anemone bigger than yourself, and knowing that you could very well be next on the menu. All the same, it didn’t seem quite right to make them all close up. Darren had explained that you can make them starve to death by doing that, because they couldn’t open up to feed again for ages and ages.
She found him shells so small they fit over his fingernails, and shells so large you could enter them like a house – only they were a bit of a squeeze and several of them were already occupied by large, slimy seaslugs. She danced through curtains of gold, and made tiny grains of sand rise up through the light, like motes of dust in the sunbeams of an old attic. He danced in slow-motion after her, gaining confidence in the water, barely touching the rocky ground beneath his feet.
Then she came creeping up, close to his ear. ‘Tell me, boy, do you ride?’ She fixed him with her strange, intense gaze. ‘I ride. Seahorses.’
‘Seahorses?’ Ben’s mouth fell open. A scarlet fish with frilly fins darted past, glancing at him without expression.
‘Of course.’ She whacked aside a tendril of seaweed, and sighed. ‘But not here, not in this puny pool.’
‘Then where? Where d’you ride them?’ Ben imagined himself clinging to the back of a seahorse, roaring through the water, dodging snakes and stingrays. The girl looked up towards the sky.
All at once the rainbow colours around them faded, and then vanished. A shadow had passed overhead. The sun was setting.
At that moment Ben saw the spiral shell nearby, gently rocking to and fro. They had come full circle around the pool. He moved over to it, pushing against the water, his toes sinking into small pockets of sand wedged into cracks in the rock. The shell didn’t look like anything special anymore. It didn’t glisten or gleam; it sat there, dull as a rusty coin. He leaned over it and reached down, placing his arms on either side to heave it upwards. It lifted easily, as if it had no weight at all, and he was surprised. It was like being in outer space. He hugged it to his chest.
She was there beside him. She tapped the shell, and a faint rushing noise emanated from its dark depths. Then she raised the shell to his ear. It was so large it nearly engulfed his head. He closed his eyes and listened. The rushing sound grew louder. It was the sound of wind, of rushing, buffeting wind, and the sound engulfed him, swamped him, overwhelmed him. Vertigo turned his body inside out and upside down, and when he tried to open his eyes, water was rushing past so fast it was like sticking your face upwards underneath a running tap. He clenched his teeth together and held his breath, waiting for the somersault in his stomach to pass.
When he could open his eyes, he was standing beside the rockpool, in his sandals, and he was as dry as a sunbaked bone.
Ben looked down in amazement at the pool, where the thick weed swayed to and fro, to and fro. The spiral shell was in his hand. A piece of mermaid’s necklace was wrapped around his ankles.
The girl was not far away, standing in the sea, water up to her thighs. She was very still, facing away from him, staring out towards the horizon. The sea rustled and murmured.
Ben could see his mother and Darren had turned around and were on their way back towards him. He felt a surge of relief at the sight of their familiar figures, and waved. His mother waved back. Filled with sudden courage, he ran over to the girl, splashing noisily, and stood behind her as the sea sucked at the sand beneath his toes and its energy rushed furiously past his knees.
‘D’you want to come for dinner?’ he said. ‘We’re having fish and chips. With oysters.’
She didn’t answer him, or look at him. He followed her gaze, and the sea folded itself around them, mile upon mile, heaving and wobbling like a vast jelly. The failing daylight caught the motion of the waves and shattered into a thousand tiny mirrors, momentarily blinding him. Gulls wheeled and wailed in the arching sky.
‘And sea dragons,’ she suddenly said.
She turned to him now, her eyes dancing, hair plastered to her thin neck. ‘Sea dragons!’ She grinned crookedly. ‘Let’s ride some sea dragons!’
Ben stared at her. ‘Real dragons?’
‘Oh, you should see them. They’re tricky to find. They look like weed. They hide, and you can’t see them. They are magnificent. Masters of disguise. But I know where to find them.’ She tilted her head to one side. ‘Oh, yes, I surely do.’
Ben was torn. He looked back along the shoreline. Darren had stopped to show his mum something, a piece of driftwood, a strange shell. He yelled as loudly as he could, and waved. They didn’t see him.
The girl began wading. The waves surged around her, and climbed to her waist. She turned towards him, and held out her hand.
Ben hesitated. Sea dragons? Sea horses?
The girl’s face was hidden by shadow. The sea swelled restlessly, and pulled at his legs. His feet sank deeper and deeper as sand was eaten away beneath them.
‘Come on, boy,’ she said, urgency now in her voice. ‘Hurry up!’ Froth and foam bubbled around her; the sea rose and fell. ‘It’s now or never.’
Ben glanced back one more time. Then he plunged forwards, clutched the urchin’s hand, and followed her into the sea.
The sun sank below the horizon. A gull hopped across the rocks, and then took to the air with a raucous cry. The beach stretched out, vast as the moon.
And the sea smacked its salty lips.
About the Author
Sea Urchin by Julie Dawn forms part of a collection of twelve short stories called The Wishing Tree and Other Dreams. Each story is inspired by a dream. Resurrection recently won the Writers’ Forum April competition and two other short stories are available for download from Pennyshorts.
Julie loves to create things using words, music and art, and some of these creations end up on her BlogSpot website. She is strongly inspired by the natural world.
Julie is originally from New Zealand and currently lives in the Cotswolds, England, with her husband.
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