When I hold a shell to my ear, the memories return

A late November idyll along a stretch of the North Carolina coast known for its marine detritus - recent and fossil - was the perfect vacation for a land-locked, ocean-starved Hoosier.

Instead of clumping about the barnyard preparing for a Midwestern winter, there I was in the Southern sun, collecting clamshells, cowries, conchs, and whelks of all sizes, not to mention the rarer stuff of a dedicated beachcomber's dreams.

Last summer, my brother Dave invited the family to spend Thanksgiving in a rented beachfront cottage near his home. I lost no time accepting, and after arriving and tossing my bag into one of the rooms overlooking the surf, I headed out the door to see what the ocean offered.

It brought me right back to the childhood vacations I'd so loved on Cape Cod, especially when Dave joined me for an ebb-tide excursion. We talked as we walked, but remained equally vigilant as we scoured the beach for the delicate white spheres of sand dollars. Most often we'd find sections of these fragile echinoid exoskeletons, but occasionally one of us would spot a beautifully intact specimen all but camouflaged in the clean wash of the receding water. We gloated over our finds, reigniting an old sibling rivalry to bring home the best and rarest.

Wandering along the strand in North Carolina on my own one morning I settled the matter, even if my brother wasn't there to witness the coup. The perfect and intricately beaded globe of a sea urchin presented itself at my feet like a gift from the deep. It was surprising that it had survived in the surf that deposited it onto the smooth sands at the high tide mark, surely within the past hour or two. Set amid the strongly ribbed scallops, rocks, and crab claws, it seemed implausible, illusionary, and poemlike. I scooped it up - ah, it was real! - thinking of my brother's conceding nod.

Toward the end of the week I realized that I had yet to find a shark's tooth, though the worn dental remnants of ancient great white, dusky, nurse, and sand sharks supposedly wash up along Onslow Beach in noteworthy abundance.

I dedicated one of the last of my walks to finding a few, and came up empty. Back at the house, my young niece, coming in from her own excursion, calmly unpalmed a handful of small pointed fossils on the dining room table, and at my gasp of surprise, offered them to me.

I begged her instead to share her technique for finding them.

Hannah and I waded just into the ankle-chilling Atlantic, where she pointed downward. There, all manner of small shell fragments, pebbles, and beach glass burbled landward and drained seaward with each cycle of surf. A few objects had flanges and moved with a peculiar fluttering motion. There, there, and there were the chattering teeth of age-old predators.

My sand dollars survived the trip home in slippers, and the beaded globe of the urchin traveled in a small satin box shared with a brooch and necklace. The sharks' teeth nestled in the bowl of a bivalve.

It all looked strangely out of place on the bureaus and shelves of an Indiana farmhouse. But as the days shortened and winter arrived, the temporary marine display brought it all back - a brother's cry of triumph when he beat me to a find, the catch of my breath moments later when I upped him, a niece's grace, and the sea itself - audible even now, whenever I hold my striped whelk to one ear.

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