He was short and stout with his face crumpled like an old mangosteen fruit, and sand stuck in his white hair, and his tummy popping through his shirt, but still the boy watched him.

This beach was Boy’s beach after all, and he wasn’t afraid - even though, for sure, the man had a devilish air, was a foreigner – boys had disappeared around such men before his grandmother had told him, they had stared too hard and never come back.

But Boy knew better.

He was ten years old (and a half) and he’d grown up around this side of the island on Lombok, opposite the Gillis, by the Java sea, the only beach where the sand was touched with volcano ash; he’d watched the hotels shoot up, made friends with the staff, guided the new tourists. Hadn’t they always allowed him to walk and fish?

No, no. This man was walking on his beach, his eyes hooked onto the sand as if he was looking for something. From Boy’s vision, if he squinted just ever so, it seemed that the man met the beach and the sea met the man and in between on the shore were the famous shells of this side of the peninsula – it was these huge shells the man’s mind seemed to be groping through as if they contained an answer.

Even Boy had to admire the shells. They lay buried like treasure in the sand next to the washed up corals of the coral reefs. The shells looked like bits of old china. The broken bleached corals looked like bones. When the clear waters of the sea washed over them, the bones and the china would gather in a trough and rush together up the sand tinkling like temple bells.

Here was the man now bent to the beach.

‘Like music…’ he said to Boy looking up.

Boy had a straw bag where he kept two most valuable European snorkel masks, black with a red rubber trim. They had been given to him last year by some Dutch tourists he had help guide around the Gillis; his elder brother (who now worked inland in a tourist café called Happy Café in Sengiggi) had told him he could make good money by offering to guide tourists with a snorkel. He could take them out to the turtles over the blue coral and show them the sea snakes in the weeds. If it was the right kind of tourist, he could offer to swim naked. There was money in that, just don’t get caught and don’t tell our parents. Try to take them when the Mullahs are singing – they like that, or seem to.

Boy didn’t think it was right that he swum naked with this man not because he looked devilish but because he looked so miserable. He had been crying and his white face was marked with pink blotches like a dirty piglet. He had large blue foreign eyes, which would brim with tears, the tears falling onto the huge broken shells he kept picking up. He was old, at least forty and the type of foreigner you saw in the foreign films they played in Mataram. He would occasionally glance towards the volcano. It stood three islands away on Bali but on a clear day like it was today it dominated the horizon and seemed to shadow the sea.

‘I keep picking them up, but you see… they’re broken.’

Boy didn’t speak English but felt a little sorry for him. He watched as the man bent again unsteadily and dug with his hands in the sand this time to pull out a pure white porcelain spine - once the body of a large cowrie shell. Only the shell lips remained intact. He rubbed the thin pattern of speckled copper-bronze that remained on the shell fragment.

‘See, broken. I used to collect them as a child, on Sandwich Bay. They were tiny on that beach and I used to put them in matchboxes, and hide them from my sister; but the ones I see washed up here are huge like hands. They wouldn’t fit in matchboxes would they? I’m thinking I’m going into the water and I’m going to die. I’m not coming out. Do you understand?’

If Boy understood, he didn’t say so. It was about just before five o’clock, and the call to prayer would begin soon from the muezzin in the mosques. He wondered if he should suggest to go swimming with this man or should he just go home and have something to eat. It was Thursday and on a Thursday his mother cooked meat - chili-goat, with shrimp paste and coconut. Was he dangerous? Boy was a fine swimmer and had learned to dive to ten feet to collect shells.

The volcano loomed behind them and a slight breeze stirred the coconut trees; one of the nuts plopped into the shallow sea startling them both.

‘I think I’m rather drunk.’

Boy was sweet-hearted and after one more thought of his Mothers chili-goat, with its taste of lemon grass that seemed to hang on your tongue long after the last mouthful, he plunged into the water after the man - who was already waist deep.

It was warm like a bath.

He already had his red rubber snorkels hanging in each hand - crossing over to the man, he surprised him and swiftly adjusted the snorkel to fit his large round head. He was crying so hard that the snorkel was misting up, so Boy spat and dipped and rinsed the mask clear in the ocean then put it over his head again. This action alone seemed to revive the man and bring him a little to his senses.

‘I think I’m rather drunk.’

The sea beckoned. Boy swam on through the water beyond the sea-grass into the shallow lagoon. Underneath him large blue starfish sat lazily on plates of coral. A shoal of angelfish darted to his left and he followed them watchfully. The corals were still good here, bright like the spices at home. The water was pure too, not full of grease from the petrol of the fishing boats.

He bobbed a minute having forgotten the man and looked at the volcano, wondering lazily what would happen if the volcano would suddenly erupt. Would the fire smash as far as here? He would have to save his mother first of all, then his brother. There might be large waves. He turned to estimate the height of such a wave, only to see that the man was staring right at him; suddenly he made a lunging movement.

‘I’m not a strong swimmer, I’m sorry. I’m not even good at that. I’ll just hold onto you.’

The man grabbed at his upper body for support but strong for his age, Boy held him up just like his brother had used to do with him, with strong arms stretched out till he had some natural buoyancy, then tapped the man’s snorkel and dived again to bring up a blue starfish, which he gave the man to hold.


Boy laughed and spat out some seawater, then dived again – this time an old barnacled shell came up and on further examination was discarded with a frown. From deep in the fringes of the palm trees there came music and song – the mosques calling finally,

On the man the music had a taming effect.

He seemed stiller in the water and floated for a while on his back, then turned. The water swelled beneath them, clear like the sky. Instead of clouds there were worlds of coral.

‘Beauty. Beauty.’

They were heading out to the end of the reef. From the bank this part of the ocean looked serenely aquamarine but up close it was dark, dangerous and mysterious.

‘Ahh. We’re going too far. What will happen to us?’

Boy signaled to put his mask on again and still a little drunk, the man obeyed, the boy bending his head to look for shadows in the sea. The light was changing every minute. Fish passed under him. Yellow, blue, green. Silver. He liked the fish but he preferred the café nightlights where his brother worked, strung up in the frangipani trees like stars, making the bark look ghoulish; he wondered when his mother would consider him old enough to take a small job there.

‘BRitmoamsrjtal…’ said the man, his words lost in the rubber of the snorkel, not that Boy understood him. Instead he made the international OK signal with his left hand, just like his brother had shown him, for he’d finally spotted what he thought would cheer up the man.


It was a large turtle.

He tried to dive for the turtle as it swam under them and on the second attempt got hold of its flipper holding onto the foreigner with his other hand. Together boy, man and turtle went down, down into the sea one, two, three metres – no longer human, not animal either, not of the earth, not of the sky, not breathing air, not inhabiting space - two, tree, four seconds - then it had to be over – and he let the great dark sun go and it swam off slowly over the reef and into the abyss below, obliterated by the dark.


They tried to rise to the surface, but passing a shelf the man pointed wildly and tugged at the Boy. There was a terrible tussle. Arms flew about, legs tangled. In the squall a terrible thing occurred. His hand caught the boy’s snorkel mask as it came up and released it to the ocean; the red rubber tossed in the water in unbearable slow motion, sinking towards the turtle’s abyss before Boy could grasp it. They rose to the surface, gasping.

Boy had tears in his eyes, not that the man could see or had the mind to think about what had happened.

‘It’s down there, did you see it, a beautiful one! Did you see it?’

Boy had seen it and slowly held out his hand. It was a huge cowrie shell – perfect, bronze-spotted, the size of his fist.


They waded to shore.

‘Well I feel a lot better now,’ he laughed sheepishly. ‘It’s got a creature in it as well. Too large for a match box.’
Boy wiped away his tears and slowly reached into the straw bag he had left on the beach and dug out from a little compartment a small fishing hook; he swiftly scratched into the shell and out popped the mollusk.


He put the meal in his pocket and washed the shell in the seawater, giving it back.

‘Ah. Your supper I suppose. You are a funny little urchin, aren’t you? I expect you want some money now, but I don’t have any. So that’s that.’

A terrible silence filled the beach. The bones tinkled as the waves rushed in. The huge cowrie shell glowed in the sunset.

‘Well. Well I’d better be going.’

The man turned and walked up the beach, unable to resist a strange inclination by the palm tree to turn back and look at the boy who stood there still, looking, he was surprised to see (for it must have been a trick of the light) - bigger than the volcano, bigger than the sea.

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  View other short stories:
  Butterfly Kiss
  Le Temps et Le Reve
  The Burton Sisters
  Dark Hearts & Dinosaurs
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