His collection for the day included a purple cowrie the size of his pinky nail, the green tip of a crab’s leg (hopefully, wherever it was, it still lived), a forked shark tooth, and a yellow seaweed float that looked exactly like a lemon. Pembo was disappointed. What good was living in the village next to the world’s most bountiful beach if it couldn’t provide him with amazing specimens every single day of the summer?
It was the beach of Illustraya, the beach of the goddess with the fanciest clothes and the loudest giggles. Its color were spectacular, the stuff of legends. Sometimes even the sand wouldn’t settle for being white; huge streaks would dye themselves green, or red, or silver. Weeds from the other side of the world would wash up, murals painted on their Pembo-sized leaves by the striped merfolk.
Yet, he’d spent three hours on the beach that morning, valuable time for the nine-year old boy away from his schooling, and come away with nothing but the paltry handful. The collection he had back in his family’s barn included far better things that had shown up, including a spiked purple shell big enough to hold the rest of the collection!
He was about to give up, the sand was getting brutally hot between his bare toes, when something glinted out in the surf. Glass perhaps? Normally the beach was too divine for trash to even touch it. What would the beautiful Illustraya let through? Had a stained glass window, a depiction of her, been allowed crack-less passage across the sea?
Other ideas swirled in Pembo’s mind as he ran towards it, his horseshoe crab-hat protecting his eyes from the sun. The possibilities dwindled as he got closer and the object beached itself. It was definitely a container. It had a neck. There was a cork, and it was decorated with a metal holdfast tied to a glittering ribbon that whipped back and forth in the breeze.
It was a bottle, of that he was sure, but far too large to drink anything out of. He stopped next to it with a spray of sand, and threw his slimy beach-combing hands onto its side. Yes, he’d seen such things before, but much smaller and in the homes of families much richer than his own. The bottle was taller than he was, even on its side, and it contained a model of a wooden ship. The model wasn’t exact to the vessels he’d seen; its deck had one large hatch, like a cabinet door.
He knocked on the glass. Somehow, he knew there was something alive inside. Why would they put a knob there if nobody could reach in and turn it? He knocked again and waited. Something crawled across the top of his foot. He glanced down to see a pink snail moving decidedly away from the bottle. There were others in the sand doing the same. Wherever it had come from, it was very very far.
His eyes shot back to the hatch when it flew open. A pale hand emerged, a little smaller than his own. Out crawled a girl, looking very weak. She bumped her head on the top of the bottle and fell against the side. Pembo got a look at the strange marks all over her body when her arm flattened against the glass.
Starting at the bottom of her chin, and moving in great swirls, were fine works of art. They looked like ornate rugs, spiraling down her limbs, but the rugs sprouted buildings and people: a whole civilization’s development playing out across her. The civilization’s first flames licked the bottom of her chin before becoming the fires of their industry around her navel.
She turned her head and looked at him with fluterring eyelids. She was of a different race, one Pembo had never seen. Her short dark hair clung to her sweating brow. Her cheeks had tiny white freckles, almost as bright as the sand. In her face Pembo saw a beach even more breathtaking and vibrant than that of Illustraya. His flustered mind took a little too long to realize she was in distress.
He panicked at thoughts of how much air could fit in such a bottle, moving to the end and tugging on the cork. It budged, but it took the girl stumbling over to him, crawling over the ship, and pushing on it for it to finally give. She tumbled out, gasping and flailing in the swirls of multicolored sand. He helped her to her feet and asked her name.
“I don’t,” she whispered. “I am not…” Her voice suddenly grew much louder. “I mean nothing. I bring only tidings of my peope, invitations across the sea. We are the land of iron towers and beautiful glass and we wish to make trade. This girl, she knows everything of ours. You can see it all here, written across her skin. A most amazing magic of our finest arcanic furnace.”
She took a few steps back and spread her arms wide. She sunk into the sand a little, as if expressing the weight of a factory. She fulfilled her purpse, sharing her life force with her markings and playing the advertisement from the land of iron towers. The people and animals in her markings came to life, busily going back and forth, lighting and snuffing lights up and down the towers across her arms and stomach. Pembo saw that they were not tattoos, like the flat shrines his people decorated their bodies with. The images were processed magic, drawing from her life and using her natural pigments. Once he’d seen the glory of her land, she collapsed and he ran to her side.
“I’m not,” she said once the magic was done possessing her. “My name… it’s almost gone.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. It was only by the grace of Illustraya they shared the same tongue.
“The trip… longer than they thought. The message fed on my memory, to stay alive, to stay pretty. Still… it’s taking me.”
“We have to get it off then!” Pembo declared, but had no idea how. It was magic, not ink, that was stuck to her. Perhaps it needed another medium, one just as alive. Pembo used what he knew: the sands of the beach that filled his life with joy. He grabbed the girl’s hands, clasped them in his own, and then thrust them down into the sand. He helped her craft.
They built a tower of sand and shells, then another, and another. They swept streets between them all. This was the new land of iron towers. The message could live there, among the snails and the tides. There was plenty of life to power it. They made street after street, sand castle after sand castle, their hands rarely separating.
They both grew smiles wide as razor clams when it started to work. The carpets drawn across her, and their accompanying civilization, moved down her arms and her waist and into the beach. The tiny sand castles came to life. Shell people ran back and forth, catching rays of beach sun to light their little homes. The chidren stood so the girl could clear her head away from the message.
Her eyes grew strong and bright. She was decorated by nothing now but her natural white freckles. She giggled at Pembo.
“My name is Reyta!” she declared. “I have my own life to talk about. It’s still there!” Pembo dutifully sat in the sand and crossed his legs, ready to listen. This would be the best addition to his collection yet. He would scoop the sound of the sea out of his giant purple shell, and put Reyta’s story in its place so he could hear it every night. You never knew what would wash up on the beach of Illustraya.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by loliskull during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!