Flesh Colored Shell

by: Allison Cripe

A story where a shell is far more than just a shell, and a significance of an ordinary object is birthed from a tragic real-life event…

In January 2010, I secured a modeling contract in Tokyo, Japan where I lived in a pre-arranged flat for two months. I was twenty years old at the time and I was told by my employers that I had wrinkles. I bought a potent protective A & D cream to dab under my eyes every night without exception, a request made by my agency. I also spent eight to twelve hours a day in either a van for castings or on set for photo shoots.

Tokyo was neon bright, culturally bizarre, and cold. One night it snowed. White powder drifted over the city streets and then abruptly stopped after five minutes, instead collecting as brown sludge in the gutters.

“It never snows,” our driver had muttered in disbelief. That statement, in recollection, feels like a premonition now.

That February, I booked a location shoot for a bridal company. A van picked me up from my apartment while it was still dark. We drove for what could’ve been two or three hours out of Tokyo until the sun was a brilliant ball of gold above the highway. I asked where we were going but no one spoke English, and I didn’t speak Japanese. The town remained nameless, quaint, and coastal.

We walked our equipment to the shore where an elderly man with kind, crinkled eyes helped us into his small motorboat. He sped us on a bumpy ride against salt scented waves to an island where we’d spend the rest of the day working.

As the crew was loading their equipment before departure — a fold-out makeup kit and giant zipped-up bags containing wedding dresses — I dragged my hand through the sand and found a spiraled pink and white shell. Flipped onto its back, the shell resembled a flesh-colored ear and deep within the recesses of the spiral were grains of sand which to this day I’ve never washed out.

Almost a year later, a record breaking earthquake devastated Tokyo followed by a tsunami with waves up to 128 feet, which consequently led to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and a dangerous radiation leak.

This shell, after that news, became more than just pretty junk pulled from a sandy beach. It became something I couldn’t lose. In 2011, on illogically restless nights, I wondered what might’ve happened to that small coastal town.

Was it warned by a tsunami alarm siren? Was it pulverized into debris then drowned? Was it in the opposite direction of the quake and not harmed one bit? I still have no idea. I could be giving significance to a shell from somewhere that never experienced Tohoku, but because I don’t know where we were, I just don’t know.

The shell is fragile. If stepped on, it would break. Now, it has a home on my bedroom shelf, safe from a storm or a shoe. Its sculpted beauty attracted me enough to pluck it from the sand. But, the idea that I could capture an adventurous day in the palm of my hand was what solidified our pact. In a selfish way, I’d stolen the shell from its home and stuffed it into my purse, in that instant it became mine and no one else’s.

That coastal town seemed so small compared to Tokyo and on the brink of insignificance. It was somewhere the papers wouldn’t mention in the aftermath of a disaster. Without a name, the town has become to me dream-like, intangible, un-google-able. The shell itself is mostly forgotten in my day-to-day routines but if I happen to glance over at it on the shelf, it still makes me feel a pinch of something.

Today, I’m too old to model, but the shell hasn’t changed at all. I keep it safe on my mantle. Sometimes, I even hold it up against my ear and reminisce on the soft, distant waves from my past.

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