She found the first one on a riverbank.
It lay on her palm, cool and heavy.
She’d wandered away from the family picnic, and found it nestled in the mud, waiting to be picked up and rinsed clean.
The second, she collected along a coastal walk. It was a gift from the sea.
The third in a garden.
After that, she lost count.
She hunted them with the passion of a connoisseur, a collector of fine porcelain, of rare coins. From here and there, in the city and countryside, but mostly from pebbly beaches. For they had all been shaped by water.
First, she stored them in a box. An ordinary cardboard container, but it grew too heavy, and, one day, when she picked it up, the bottom fell away, and they clattered to the floor like hardened snowflakes. This wouldn’t do – she needed something stronger, more secure. She scoured second-hand shops. Discarding plastic and paper. Until she spied a heavy metallic box, fastened by a silver clip. The shopkeeper told her it was used in World War I, to store ammunition for machine guns. It was perfect. So deep and roomy that her collection only filled it half way.
Soon, she moved to a town by the sea. A quiet, nondescript place with one special feature – the longest pebble beach in the country. Over here, her walks took up most of the evenings, and only briefly would she cast a glance at the sea, at the sky as they pulsed with light.
In all the years that the box lay at the bottom of her cupboard, she only showed it to one person. A solemn-faced stranger she met on the beach, looking for shells.
‘Only if they have a hole in them,’ he said.
She stared at him, but said nothing.
Later, she agreed to meet him for a walk the next evening.
And the evening after that.
The box was so heavy he had to help her lift it, and place it on a table. She dusted the top, and carefully unclasped the lid. It came undone with a soft click.
Inside there lay hundreds of stones, in all colors, shapes and sizes. Each one with a hole. Some with more.
When he didn’t ask why, she kissed him.
One night, at a dark and silent hour, he told her he collected broken shells because he was tired of perfection. Of excessive, tailored beauty. The shells reminded him of life.
She told him that, sometimes, when she was on her own, she’d empty the box on the living room floor, and arrange the stones around her in circles.
‘When did you pick up the first one?’
Long ago, she said, at a family picnic, where her parents were arguing, as they usually did. About things they couldn’t change – the weather, his temper, her stubbornness.
The second, when she lost her grandmother, and retraced her favourite walk on the coast.
The third, when a pet dog was dying. She buried him in her garden.
After that, she lost count.
‘I read a children’s story once, about a little girl who’s given a hole-stone as an amulet. And she discovers that when she looks through it, the world changes.’
She turned to him. ‘If that were true, I’d like to walk through one.’
And he whispered how he’d like to do that together, and they held each other until the sky pulsed with light.
When the stranger had to leave the town by the sea and return to where he came from, she walked for hours on the beach. From end to end, past docked boats and families, chip shops and smoking teenagers, hardly taking her eyes off the ground. Could it be that she’d collected them all? Perhaps this was such that it couldn’t be given form and contained. So, for months, she carried it with her, what he’d left behind.
Until one morning, she read an article in the newspaper.
How a farmer had discovered it by accident.
‘World’s Largest Cave,’ said the headline.
With a river, an underground forest, and walls carved out, two million years ago, by water. The passage ran from one side of a mountain to the other, although no one had seen the end. She turned the pages, yet it lingered. And that night, in a dream, she stood at the mouth of the cave, the stone rising high above her, wide enough to step through.