Two things merged to create this tale. The first is a picture I saw recently of regular beach sand, magnified hundreds or thousands of times: http://www.cracked.com/article_19953_9-normal-things-that-look-trippy-under-microscope.html. The second thing is a memory I have. I was rock climbing on the beach one day, and met a couple of kids who said they’d found an underwater tunnel that led under a big rock. The entrance they showed me was inside a small rock pool. So of course I ducked under and swam the tunnel. No words can describe the terror I felt in that tunnel. When my air started to run out, I still couldn’t see a single thing or a dot of light ahead. It was pitch black, and I was underwater in a narrow tunnel. Needless to say, when I emerged from another rock pool on the other side and roared at the top of my lungs with joy that I was still alive, the two small children playing there screamed and ran away. Like me, I don’t think they’ll ever recover completely. I almost died, but at least now I have a story to show for it. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
The rock pool was hidden from view, if you were looking from the beach. It wasn’t too far from the houses, though, so it was easy to find if you weren’t afraid to go out on the rocks. You had to go at peak low tide, unless you just wanted to look. That was all Will’s older brother had wanted to do, and despite its irresistible mystery (so it seemed to Will), Josh was bored quickly. ‘It’s just a rock pool,’ he said. ‘And you’d probably drown getting to it, anyway.’
That day, Will let himself be dragged away to collect shells and jump rocks, but the sight of the pool didn’t leave his mind. It was different from other rock pools, because it was all alone on a little rock island all of its own, and because it was much bigger than they usually were. That, and the thrilling idea of being caught out there at high tide, made it too good for a boy like Will to ignore.
He went out the following day, and made sure to head out a good hour before lowest tide, so that he could get out to it as soon as possible. Winter was barely over, and the sky was partially overcast with clouds and blue in equal parts, but Will went only in his shorts. He took his snorkel and goggles, of course, and a jar in case he saw anything interesting in the pool.
The stretch of water between the rocks and the little rock island was treacherous whether the tide was high or low. The rocks his feet all over that beach, but at least you could see where you were going: in the stretch the water was constantly flowing waist deep and it was a coin toss whether you’d step on seaweed (blessed relief) or barnacles.
The island was a solid slab of rock about the size of a tennis court, and most of the middle was taken up with the great pool. Will pulled himself up and rolled from the sharp edge and into the sandy shallows with a grunt of relief, which turned into a gasp of surprise. The water in here was almost warm. Warm by ocean in winter standards, of course, not bathtub standards.
He lay for a minute, marvelling at the sensation of being in calm, warm water while freezing waves crashed against the rocks all around him. Every now and again one hit hard enough for some of the spray to land on him like droplets of salty ice.
Will Darnow, however, was not one to stay in one place for long, and he was up a minute later, walking the lip of the island and peering into the rock pool. It began shallow on the shore side, and then deepened smoothly until it turned murky green at the ocean end. On that side, the became a huge boulder covered in dark green moss that was so thick it was like fur. Will took it as a challenge and managed to pull himself to the top of it, with some difficulty, though it wasn’t very interesting from there and so he went back down again.
It was then that he saw the colours for the first time. The sun was at his back, and as he looked into the pool he saw the light reflecting on thousands of colourful specs beneath the water. He moved around to the shallow end again and now, when he crouched and stared at the sand, he realised it was indeed coloured.
Not only that, but the grains seemed much bigger than regular sand grains ought to be; maybe a little bigger than hundreds and thousands. And each grain had such intricate patterns, spirals and stripes and rainbows – they were like snowflakes in a way. To see so many at once was overwhelming, almost hypnotising. Will was amazed he missed them in the first place, but then the sun went behind a cloud and the grains dulled in the absence of light. Now you had to be close to see the colours.
Not all of the sand in the shallows was coloured- it was mixed in with the regular stuff, so Will took his jar and waded further into the pool. It grew deep so quickly that he was up to his shoulders by the time he’d gone ten meters. That was why the other end was so murky, it must be ten meters deep by then. He decided to bring a flashlight next time he came, to explore the darker parts.
That day he didn’t go into the dark waters, but collected the sand instead. He used the jar as a scoop and when he found too much regular sand he’d empty it out and scoop again, until it was all coloured. When he saw the high tide coming in, he skirted the edges of the pool and knocked off a few of the more interesting looking bits of coral. It was only then that he noticed the oddest thing of all: there was no life in the pool. In every other rock pool he’d explored, there’d always been something – needle thin minnows, or crabs or even octopi. This was the first one he’d ever encountered that was home to nothing but sand and coral.
He made it back across the stretch and all the way home with the jar, but not his feet, intact. Once home, he set the jar on his bedside table, and spent a few minutes staring at it, the sheer volume of colours and shapes and patterns they showed him. To him, it was a work of art. Then, his father called for dinner and he forgot all about it.
Until, that was, the following day, when he asked Josh to go out with him and his older brother refused. ‘It’s risky,’ he said.
‘But Josh, I’ve already been there. Check it out.’ He lifted a bare foot and showed a wrinkled sole criss-crossed with nasty scars from the rocks.
‘Yeah, that’ll make me want to go.’
‘Oh yeah? What about if I show you what I found up there, then? I bet it’s nothing you’ve ever seen before.’
That got him interested, and a minute later they were in Will’s room, and Josh was standing by the window and holding it up to the light, analysing it with scientist’s eyes. ‘It’s strange,’ he admitted. ‘Beautiful.’
‘Yeah. Anyway, there was tons of cool stuff around there, but I couldn’t fit it in the jar. And, there was this whole dark place where I couldn’t see, so there’s probably even more there. Don’t you want to come?’
As if hadn’t heard, Josh opened the jar and took out the bits of coral from the top. He looked in and then sniffed. ‘It smells good.’
‘Smell it. It’s like sugar and honey.’
Will took the jar and inhaled deeply. He reached in and took out a handful of it and pressed it up to his nose. It was better than sugar and honey, he thought. It was like heaven and chocolate. Without thinking, he tipped the sand into his mouth and swallowed it. Josh stared at him, wide eyed, but said nothing.
Will scrunched up his face and shuddered. He gulped down the mud with great effort and then stuck his tongue out and raked his fingers down it as if to get rid of the taste. ‘Gross,’ he said. Josh erupted into peals of laughter and clapped his hands. Will scowled at him and put the jar back up on his shelf. ‘Well at least I had the guts to try,’ he said.
‘Wanna go feed the anemones or something?’ Josh said, when he’d recovered.
‘No, maybe later. Tell me if you find anything cool.’
Josh shrugged and left the room, still chuckling.
When he was gone, Will closed the door behind him and then went back to the jar. He lifted it from the shelf and sat down with it on the edge of his bed. He stared at the colourful sands and took another long sniff. Delicious. With a furtive glance at the open window, he reached into the jar and began to shovel handfuls of sand into his mouth.
It was incredible. He had no idea how he’d managed to look disgusted earlier but he thought he deserved some kind of award. Maybe he’d be an actor, one day. The fact was, the strange sand tasted better than anything he’d ever had. It was better than chocolate cake, better than the sweetest candy, and oddly spicy in a way that made his whole mouth tingle and his stomach squirm with pleasure. It was filling at first, but he found it was like rice – it wasn’t long before he was ravenous for it again. He finished the whole jar in half an hour.
He wanted more. With a surge of joy, he realised that whole island must be full of the stuff. There’d been jars and jars more just in the shallows alone! And, even better, the second low tide of the day would come just after dinner. It would be easy to sneak out with a waterproof torch and a few jars and fill up.
He told no one where he was going, because his parents didn’t like him to go on the rocks at night and his brother would surely want to follow. Instead, he waited until they were watching television and Josh was reading in the lounge, and snatched as many jars as he could carry. He got changed quickly, snuck out of his bedroom window, and headed out to sea.
He didn’t dare stay on the island for too long, because if the tide caught him at night he’d be as good as dead. But he needn’t have worried. Even in the dark, he worked like a maniac, and soon all the jars were full of the delicious, coloured sand. He made it back home and began to gorge himself before the tide even began to come in.
He filled five jars that night, but still it wasn’t enough. With a sinking heart, he realised that there was surely a limit to the stores of it and that at the rate he was going he was sure to reach it in a matter of days. All he could do, he supposed, was enjoy it while it lasted. Unless of course he found where it was coming from. Maybe then he could make more of his own? Farm it, in a way.
The thought filled him with hope, and when he’d depleted his stock to the last jar, he took the empties back to the island after breakfast. Today, he vowed, he would venture into the deep end, into the murky green waters where the sand was thick, and see if he could find the source.
That day, Josh had locked himself in his room because, being from big school, he had holiday homework. Will’s parents were both lying around on the front porch, reading or sleeping – he didn’t know – and he waved goodbye as he left. They were used to his strangeness enough to ask why he was heading down to the beach with four jars tied around his waist, a snorkel and a waterproof torch. It was nothing unusual, really. Still, when he finally dropped out of sight into the land of rocks, he breathed a sigh of relief. Alone at last.
It was peak low tide, and he could even see the rocks beneath the water as he made his way across. The thrill of discovery began to rise steadily in him as he pulled himself onto the island and unstrapped the jars. He couldn’t wait to get in that warm water: A chill off shore wind was blowing, sending ripples over the flat water and giving him goosebumps.
He kneeled in the shallows, strapped on his snorkel, and picked up the torch. It was time to go.
His heart beating wildly with anticipation, he went forward into the warm water and kicked slowly, staring straight down and panning the flashlight to and fro across the descending floor. The sights were dazzling. The deeper he went, the more of the colourful sand there was, and by the time he reached the other end of the rock pool the entire bottom was covered in it. There was enough in here along to last him a fortnight!
But where was it coming from? He swam in circles for several minutes before he found it. The sand seemed to pile up at the far end of the rock pool, and when he ducked under to get a closer look he found out why. There was a tunnel in the side, near the bottom. The opening was about as big as the average water slide, and the colourful sand spilled from the entrance. When he flashed his torch inside, he saw a trail of it leading inside, but he couldn’t see where it ended because the tunnel curved slightly upwards.
He kicked back up to the surface and held onto the edge while he caught his breath. The excitement was bordering on fear, now, because he knew he was going to have to swim down that narrow space. If not today, he’d do it when he ran out of sand.
He had an idea that big round moss covered boulder at the end of the rock pool was hollow, and that the tunnel led up into it. Maybe there was some kind of coral or something in there that made the sand.
An icy wind blew into his face, accompanied by a few drops of rain, and he realised he’d better hurry if he wanted to get in and out before the tide came in. He considered taking a jar through the tunnel with him and decided against it. Today it was just reconnaissance – if he wanted more sand afterwards there was plenty still left in the deep end.
Will unstrapped the snorkel, not wanting it to get caught on anything, but kept the goggles. He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe slower and deeper. He knew how panic sapped the air from your lungs, and he wasn’t keen on being caught halfway along that narrow tunnel without any air and a quick beating heart.
At last, he took a long, deep breath and ducked under. He went down until he was almost two meters under water, peering into the rocky tunnel. He hesitated, just for a moment, and swore to himself that if he doubted, even for a second, that he’d have the air for it, he’d push back straight away. That would be hard, too, because he’d have to come out backwards. He gulped. Holding the flashlight in front of him, he kicked into the tunnel.
As soon as he entered, he felt the difference. It was much warmer in here, and the goose bumps vanished from his skin. That did not strike him as odd, but what did was the feel of the walls under his trailing left hand. They had the same mossy, spongy feel as the boulder outside, and there was no hint of sharp, rough rock underneath. Even stranger, the walls themselves seemed felt warmer than the water, as though they were giving off their own heat.
He followed the gentle curve up and felt a stab of panic that it would be impossible to navigate the curve backwards. He shook it off and kept going. He moved his left hand to the trail of sand that continued along the bottom of the tunnel. The journey felt like hours, though it was less than a minute, and without warning the tunnel ended and he found himself, at last, inside the great boulder.
The first thing he felt was the heat. It was boiling in here, like a bath that had been run hot enough to make your skin red raw – it was suffocating. He decided then and there that he wouldn’t spend ten more seconds in this place, and then he saw the sand. It was everywhere, and it seemed to be pouring into the hollow through tiny pores in the mossy rock, constantly trickling like sand through an hourglass.
So there was a source! And all he had to do was come up here whenever he wanted it and collect that delicious, mouth numbingly good substance. For a minute, he was ecstatic, and though his lungs were already crying out for air he let out a silent bellow of triumph and pumped his fist in the water.
As if sensing the movement, the walls around him seemed to shudder and shift. He heard an odd grumbling sound reverberate through the water, and the sensation that followed it scared him very much. The slight current that had been pushing at him from the tunnel below stopped. He looked down.
The tunnel had squeezed shut. Not completely, but the hole it left below his feet was the size of a fist.
Immediately, Will flew into a total panic. He turned around and shoved his fingers into the hole, trying to pry the soft walls apart, but they stayed stubbornly clenched, like the heaving muscles of some colossal oesophagus. And it was that thought, that comparison, which made him realise the truth. He stopped pulling and his whole body went numb with shock.
This thing he was in, this boulder was alive. Was that rushing sound he could hear not breathing? Were these walls not just like the flesh of some giant creature? And this water, this searing hot water… He looked down at his arm and saw that layers of skin were floating free, though besides the intense heat all around he felt no pain. He was being digested.
It was then that Will lost his mind to the panic. He went insane with it, and as he opened his mouth to scream his lungs empty with his madness, his last thoughts were only of empty, incoherent death.
In time, his body was separated layer by layer and then absorbed into the walls of the stomach. His bones lay inside for much longer, and but eventually they too dissolved into tiny fragments. These were pale at first, then yellowed, and when they were ripe they were sucked into the heaving organs and stained with pretty colours and infused with exotic tastes. One day, when the beast was hungry again, it would emerge as mouth watering, delicious, colourful sand.
For now, the beast slept.