by Joan Leotta

IN SPITE OF the weather predictions of wind and rough seas, in spite of the timing, near high tide, when my walk would be confined to a narrow strip of sand, shells few if any, the day has been so dreary, you need a walk by the sea. You shout a good-bye to your husband who is busy with the taxes and head to the parking access to walk across to the nearby barrier island that daily fights for its existence in the Atlantic.

There are no other cars in the parking lot. You cross over to the sand, glad you will be alone with your thoughts, with the onslaught of grief that has rolled over you repeatedly on this gray day.

You turn toward the famous Kindred Spirit mailbox and reach it quickly since you do not stop to stoop in search of shells. The island offers few shells most days and you know with the winds, and high rough waves today, the Atlantic will quickly gobble back any mermaid treasures that happen to wash up onto the shore. You open the mailbox, reach in and pull out this month’s notebook where walkers leave their thoughts and greetings. Picking up the pen, you flip to the first open page and begin to write of how you feel alone, bereft in your sea of grief: “I’m here alone today…” You write until, at one moment, you glance at the opposite page. It’s filled with  a poem about the sea. In a familiar hand. Your son’s.

Such a thing is impossible you say to yourself. He’s been gone twenty years. Yet the poem is so like him—even to the handwriting He speaks of being loved yet feeling so alone, and of liking brown and white cockle shells, a rarity on this beach, and how even though he did not see the point in collecting them he would often bring a few home to his mother. You touch the loops and swirls of the writing on that page and think you feel your son nearby.

A seagull flies down and lands on the mailbox. Stares at you, screeches that you should leave.

You turn to face the waves and see that they are growing higher. Wind whips grit into your face, causing you to tear up. You hastily close the book, replace it and run toward the steps to the parking area. At the foot of the steps, you spot a shell. A small cockle shell. You put it in your pocket.

At the top of the steps, before heading to your car, you turn back and look across the island toward the mailbox. Was that really Joey’s writing, you ask yourself? Then, as you watch, a sudden gust a of wind flips open the mail box. Before you can blink, a huge wave rises up out of the water and engulfs the box. When the wave recedes it releases the book onto the sand. You contemplate running back down the beach to grab the sodden book and drive it to the woman who changes the books each month. To save the book. To recheck the poem. But before you can step back down to the littoral, another wave swells up and sweeps the notebook into the briny Atlantic water. Shielding your eyes against wind-swirled dirt, you can see the pages, torn out of the book by the wave, scattered, floating out to sea.

On the drive home, you wonder if you should tell your husband about the poem, the handwriting, the feeling your son was with you. But when you arrive home you kiss this practical loving husband of yours, then wash the shell without saying anything. Afterwards you place this mermaid treasure, the only one that escaped the sea that day, near a framed picture of your son. After all, cockle shells were his favorite.


Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. She performs tales of food, family, and strong women in the US, UK and Italy. Internationally published, she’s a 2021 and 2022 Pushcart nominee, Best of the Net 2022 nominee, and  2022 runner-up in the Robert Frost Competition. Her essays, poems, and fiction appear in Ekphrastic Review, Verse Visual, Verse Virtual, anti-heroin chic, Gargoyle, Silver Birch, The Wild, Ovunquesiamo, MacQueen’s Quinterly and others. Her chapbooks are Languid Lusciousness with Lemon and Feathers on Stone.

Cockle shell photograph by Aaron Burden.