The woman across from him was as old and weathered as her shack near the sea, and her cold eyes were the same stormy green as the chill waters washing along the shore. Her mouth was set in a perpetual frown, but her words were warmer than her countenance.
“Ye’ll drive yerself mad if ye do this,” she said, her voice gruff from disuse, but her tone soft. Knowing.
“If there’s a chance, then I have to find her. I won’t lose her this way,” he insisted. He didn’t raise his voice, but the resolve there was firm. He leaned on the table, and his tan, work-roughened hands supported his solid weight.
“She were lost long before she sought the sea,” the woman replied, softening further, but never turning away from the desperate grief shining in his honey brown eyes.
He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last to seek her here, and she made a point to never turn away from the pain of those who sought her out. She could do no less, but no more, either.
Just like the others, he ignored her words and asked; “How did you make it back without going insane?” He looked to the large conch shell sitting high on a shelf.
Her eyes followed his. Even in the low light offered by the overcast day, it gleamed, and the dark red lines on the shell were like runnels of blood spiraling against the pearl white.
Her very bones ached with the question, and as she turned back to meet this stranger’s eyes, she wondered if it was time. There was a strength in him that had little to do with his stature, and more to do with the fire she saw in him. His soul burning bright through his eyes. Such a soul just might have the strength needed.
He barely heard her over the wind off the sea when she whispered; “I made a deal.”
“A deal?” he asked, his voice losing its frenzied edge as it gave way to confusion.
She didn’t answer him as she stood from the table and hobbled over to the shelf. Her hands shook as she extended her arms to their limit to take the shell down. When her fingers had barely brushed it the wind picked up, whistling through gaps in the wood and howling around the shack.
“What deal?” he asked again, a heaviness settling into his gut like an anchor hitting the seabed.
Her back was to him, hunched, but not from age. More like she was folded tight around the shell. Then, even though her words this time were not loud, they found their way to his ears all the same.
“An exchange. Do ye still wish to find her?” she asked.
The weight in his stomach grew heavier, but he swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth before he answered; “Yes. With everything I am.”
She turned to him then, her mouth set in a soft, mournful smile. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and like the little shells on the beach that held tiny pools of the sea, the tide was more than they could hold, and tears spilled down her cheeks. When the first drop hit the wood of the floor, the wind shrieked its warning, but it fell on deaf ears. He was lost in the endless depths of her eyes.
“Good. Because that is what it will take,” she said. Then, faster than he’d imagined she could move, she smashed the shell on the floor.
It was later, when he woke, hungry, cold, and alone in the shack, that he finally understood. His eyes were grainy as he opened them, and the coarseness of the dried saltwater along his skin was rubbing it raw. Seaweed green eyes looked across the floor of the shack, but the shattered conch was gone. As was the old woman. His humorless exhale of a laugh ended in a shudder. He curled in on himself, cradling his own shell protectively with his shivering form.
The conch was an all-over pale pink color, like the roses his wife would lovingly tend in their garden, while the underside of the flat portion was the gleaming porcelain of her skin.
“I’ll never leave you again,” he whispered, the words raspy from his dry throat.
The shell pulsed with warmth in his hands, and he held on even tighter to it as the sea of grief washing along the shores of his mind drew back. Even if only for these few moments.
For right now, though, those moments were enough.