Opals and Oyster Shells

A stranger handed her a necklace on the street
He said “I know what you are, and I know you’ll be angry with me.
But meet us in the library tomorrow at half past three
And you’ll get the answers you know in your heart you seek.”

And then he turned and walked away, abruptly as he came
And she was left so shaken she couldn’t remember her own name
For the necklace was a pendant made of opals and oyster shells
And she dared for just one moment to believe it could get her out of hell

Because hell was this world, that as a child she had just called More
Because it was More than she imagined could have existed before
Before, you didn’t imagine, you didn’t hope, you didn’t plan
You just swam in the colors and wallered in the iridescent land

And Before was so easy
And More was so hard
But there was no going back
Once they bombarded her cranium with words
She could never throw them back
So she learned to adapt
She learned to accept
That her rescuers were praised
They’d pulled her out of heaven
And into hell
But everyone was amazed
They’d taught her to speak
To read and to write
To get along with other kids
And that was all that mattered
She was just an object in their personal dramas
So she learned to live how they wanted her to live

But now she was grown
Standing in the street
Necklace in hand
And every hair on her body stood up
And she turned
And she ran

On automatic pilot she ran to the sea
She knelt down in the sand
She opened up her hand
And saw opals and oyster shells
She put the necklace on
And she cried burning tears
Of rage and desire and self-pity and shame
But most of all they were tears of loss

It had been twenty years
Since her forced exile
From the only place she’d ever felt at home
She’d tried every way she knew to get back
But the damage was already done
Once they’d given her
More words
More thoughts
More contemplation
More More
There was no going back to Before

Oh she was a success for them
She went to a mainstream school
Nobody knew of her past
Though the kids treated her like a fool
But being odd was no problem —
For the ones who rescued her
It was enough that she could talk and read

So she grew up
Got a job
Dated men
Lived on her own
Surely it didn’t matter much
If her heart turned to stone

So she stared at the oyster shell
And remembered that world like a dream
Where you didn’t need to know you existed
You just floated from scene to scene
And the colors in the opal
Brought back memories of light
Of dancing and swimming and wallering
In rainbows cast by sunlight
The oyster shell reminded her
Of the underwater ocean feel of Before
And the smooth pearly light
She had felt such delight
Until the outsiders dragged her into More

In her mind anyone seeing the necklace
Would see right through her
And the lies and broken promises of More
So she wore it under her shirt so nobody would see
But she also showed up at the library
Next day at half past three

The first person she saw
Was a wisp of a woman all in grey
Tiny and slender with black curly hair
Body dancing to a rhythm
That made her look not all there
But she recognized the rhythm
And almost bolted out the door
For the rhythms this woman danced to
Were familiar from Before,

Instead of running she stood in the doorway
Shaking from head to toe
The man from yesterday took her hand
And whispered in her ear “I know.
Some of us are still mostly Before
Some of us are mostly More
And some of us go back and forth
Like a revolving door.
It’s scary at first to see people
From your own private world
But most of us have similar stories
And it’s not so private anymore.”

She allowed him to lead her to a seat
Still shaking like a leaf
The whole floor shook, she shook so hard
And she couldn’t quite believe
But each one had something —
Their eyes
Their hands
Their movements
That gave them away
And that made her feel
Cautiously welcomed
So she came back every day

She learned that most of them
Had been pulled out from Before to More
Though a few — it seemed the happier ones —
Had simply outgrown Before
A smaller number had never really left
And kept one foot firmly in Before

She bitterly envied the last ones
She’d spent so long trying to get back
They made it look effortless
She could only feel her own lack
And yet it was they
Who welcomed her most
Who wanted to find her way home

It was one of them who made the necklace
Of opals and oyster shells
Sensing that it would best remind her
Of where she’d been

It was one of them who listened all night
To her tales of being pulled into More
Of the terrifying moment
When language appeared and locked the door

The opals and oyster shells
Felt like a bridge to Before
Not a bridge she could fully cross
But she could stand on it
And swim in an ocean of sensation, without thought
And now that there were others like her
She could see how lucky she’d got
To feel the currents of Before overtake her
For the briefest moment’s glance
It made her feel that
Maybe
She had a chance

[This is a true story. It’s not my story. But it’s the story of too many people I’ve known. It was written in response to a writing prompt from fullyarticulatedgoldskeleton: the words opals and oyster shells.]

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