Jan Donley, Author of The Side Door


A Fable About Seashells that Used to Be Hands - excerpt

Some runners had found it washed up on Castlerock Beach. The detective called Laine that afternoon. The experts had identified it: Susan’s hand, severed from the rest of her, cupped slightly.

“Which hand?” Laine had asked the detective over the phone.

“The right one.”

Laine waited, took a breath, then asked, “Did the hand have a ring on it?”

The silence lasted a long heartbeat, and finally the detective answered, “Yeah. There’s this silver band with a black stone embedded in it.”

Laine’s breath stuck midway through her exhale.

“You know this ring?” the detective asked.

Laine nodded. She looked at one just like it on her own right hand.

“You there?”

Laine finished her exhale and said, “I’m here.”

“You give it to her?”

“Yes,” Laine answered, “it was a sort of . . . engagement ring.”

“Engagement, huh?”

“Actually, yes. We had plans.”

“You wanna see it?”

“The ring?”

“The hand—the ring, too, ‘cause it comes with the hand.”

“I don’t know.”


Susan wears bright scarves, feeds the birds, and listens to jazz. Susan walks along Castlerock Beach, next to Laine. She smiles at Laine. She reaches out to touch Laine’s hand, and Laine notices Susan’s fingers are water. Water’s supposed to be a good thing, Laine thinks, a womb thing. Laine tries to feel that womb thing, she tries to imagine her own hands forming inside the womb of Susan’s touch.

And then Susan is gone, as simply as she came. All of her ripples and waves, and then she disappears into the shoreline. Water. Nothing but water.

Laine’s bare feet sink into the sand, and the tide water slaps across the footprints she leaves behind.

“So are you coming back or what?” Laine wants to know. She looks across the day at the sky and its clouds, the sea and its waves, an abandoned boat, the wind. But no Susan.

Laine turns her back on the water. About 100 feet across the sand stands a forest that separates the highway from the beach. Laine moves closer to the ancient evergreens. One tree attracts her attention, seems worn to Laine, tired somehow. Still, it reaches out its branches, massive and muscular, as if inviting Laine into its arms. She hesitantly touches its trunk, notices its steady pulse beating in rhythm with her own. She leans deep into its bark. She slides down to its roots and feels the easy curves that mold to her, allow her to curl, like a cat, into sleep.

All writings © Jan Donley 1985-2018
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