It was a balmy spring Sunday afternoon; the sun was playing a merry game of hide-n-seek with a bunch of portly, clear-skinned clouds and a lazy wind caressed the largely empty streets of the city. Even the sea seemed to have been lulled into a gentle slumber, with only the occasional wave clapping onto the rocky-sandy surface of its shore. After a rather heavy lunch, having chosen to ignore sleep’s comely arms and flirt with the pleasant charms of the outdoors instead, I found myself meandering along this picturesque but somewhat sheltered stretch of the seaside. Despite a few adventurous gulls, some bored street vendors and a thinly scattered mix of tourists and locals – probably out to enjoy the weather just as I was- it was quite a serene, unhurried setting. I was just about to light my second post-lunch cigarette – battling the frisky winds to get a match aflame- when I noticed the little girl sitting on the large rock.
She couldn’t have been more than four, chocolate-skinned with a tangled mass of dark, curly hair doing a tango with the wind. She had on a pretty yellow dress with a small, red bag slung over her shoulders and a pair of floppy, red sandals to complete the ensemble. I couldn’t see much of her face because it was buried inside a large sea-shell, almost the size of her head – while they were far from uncommon here; I hadn’t seen one that big very often. One hand was holding it up and the other was absent-mindedly petting an enthusiastic stray pup clamoring for attention at her feet, tail going about sixty wags a minute.
At first I wondered what she was doing here all by herself; she certainly wasn’t a street kid. But then I noticed a couple who seemed like her parents, lounging on the sand not too far away from her. They were probably all from out of town because the parents seemed completely fixated by the vastness and unbridled glory of the sea, tearing their eyes away from it every few minutes only to have a quick glance at the girl or to remind her to stay right where she was and not wander away. The girl herself seemed too engrossed with the shell at the moment to either pay attention to their reminders or to even consider wandering.
Something about how a child her age could stay so single-mindedly focused on that ordinary seeming shell for so long – especially when there was a whole seashore waiting to be explored – intrigued me and I strolled close to her, wearing what I hoped was a sufficiently benign and avuncular smile to not alarm the parents. They gave me a quick once-over but then apparently decided I was okay.
When I paused right next to her, it was the pup that noticed me first. It relinquished her petting hand to come say hello to my flapping trouser-legs, yipping away as it did. Perhaps it was the yipping or the sudden absence of the pup under her fingers that broke whatever spell the little girl was under; because as I bent to stroke the demanding puppy, she finally looked up from the shell and at me. She had eyes as dark as a moonless night and as shiny as happiness. Her face was flushed, possibly with excitement.
Either she was sociable by nature or seeing the pup take to me had marked me acceptable in her book because she immediately returned my smile with a sparkling one of her own. I straightened, waved softly and said, “Hi, there.” She waved a “Hi” of her own back. “So, what’s so exciting in that shell?” I asked, coming straight to what had been intriguing me.
She looked fondly back at the shell once more before replying in a slightly hushed tone, as if confiding a secret in me. “I found a whole World inside there.”
That certainly wasn’t the answer I had been expecting so I gently probed further. “Oh, a whole world? What kind of a world is it?”
“It’s a happy world,” she began earnestly, scrunching her nose as she tried putting into words all that she thought she had seen. “It has a big orange Sun that has eyes; big friendly eyes and a big friendly smile. But it doesn’t talk to anyone; it just looks over them and keeps them safe. And the ground is covered with long yellow grass, and the grass is so soft you can sleep on it. There are tall, pink and red flowers also, they sing to you when the wind is blowing; not like dance songs but songs that make you smile and close your eyes. And there are lots of trees; colored red and green, not like the dirty brown we have here. And hanging on these trees are gumballs, jelly-beans and lollies; and no one minds if you pick them and eat. Oh, and right on top on the highest branches are these big, round, many colored fruits. If you’re sick and you eat them, they take the sick away. And there’s big, big waters all around also, but there are no fish in the waters, all the fishes fly with the birdies in the sky. But there are stories in the waters, each time you drink from them, it gives you a different story; a happy-ending one, it also teaches you stuffs. And in the faraway, there are tall…really tall mountains made of snow that looks like jelly; on the top live ice dragons, but they won’t hurt you unless you go looking for them. And all the peoples live together and work together and on holidays, play together and there is no guvinment because they look after each other and the sun and the waters and the trees look after them and like that, they’re always happy.” She finished in a rush and stopped to take a huge gulp of air, after that breathless rendition.
I realized that even I’d been holding my breath while listening to her, rapt; not just by the unexpectedly rich and fantastical details of her description but also because she related it with the conviction of someone who’d actually seen this place, as opposed to a spur-of-the-moment yarn.
“You actually saw ALL that in there?” I finally asked, after both of us had caught our collective breath.
“Not at first. I only saw little bits at first but then I looked really hard and carefully, and saw all the rest.” She replied with a proud smile.
“Could I have a look at this world too?” I asked tentatively.
She seemed to consider it for a few seconds but then shrugged and handed me the shell, her attention straying to the pup, which was now gleefully attempting some manner of cartwheels at her feet.
I put the shell to my face and stared into it, a tiny irrational part of me actually expecting to see her ‘world’ in there. But all I saw in there were many layers of darkness; accompanied by the scent of the sea. I tried looking harder, but then realizing how stupid I was being, I looked away, at the girl. “I opened my eyes as wide as I could and looked really hard, but I couldn’t see what you saw.” I said, trying to look suitably crestfallen.
She turned to me, slapped her tiny forehead with a tiny hand and said, “You have to look with your eyes closed to see it, silly.”