by Sara Rich

When the boy was very young, he watched the sunset every evening. He watched, perched on a boulder near his house, not wondering where the sun went during the night, what it did there or when it would come back. Rather, he wondered how it would taste. 

He watched, chipping flakes off the grey boulder and pretending to crunch them between his baby teeth, and thought how at first the late afternoon sun must taste like lemon sorbet, bright yet cold. Then, slowly softening and darkening, its flavour would start to churn like butterscotch. Or, on cloudy evenings before a rainfall, that flaming stone in the sky must become a great sugar plum or Turkish delight.

The boy's parents were lithe and amorous, and listened to music made with instruments like sitars and zithers. They both had long hair that smelled of coconut oil. They made sure that the boy only ate lentils and rice, and for dessert, or if he was very good, some peanuts. Every day, when the afternoon smoke filled their house, one would play drums while the other danced, and they took turns this way until they fell into each others' arms and kindly requested that the boy go play outside for awhile. 

One night they forgot to tell him that he could come back in.

When the sticky honey evening sun had passed but there was still plenty of light to see by, the boy left his grey boulder, sucking on a small piece of it, and followed a path down to the coast. As he walked along the shore he saw a little cave in the limestone cliff. He crawled into the dark cool chamber, where he dug a shallow hole into the sand, which had been warmed by the afternoon. He nestled down in the rock shelter among the tiny pieces of quartz, aragonite and mica, and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning he awoke to the sound of gentle waves splashing among the shingle and sand of the beach. As high tide turned to low tide the water receded and left bare billions of pebbles and larger rocks, separated only by occasional pieces of algae and stranded jellyfish. The air smelled and tasted of rock salt, and the further the waves stepped back to reveal their secret, like a magician opening wide his cape, the more millions of rocks there were glittering under the beaming sun like a thief's stolen jewels. As far as the boy's eyes could see there were beach flints: behind him as far as the limestone cliff, in front of him as far back as the tide pulled its watery cape and to his left and right forever and ever. 

Some of the flints looked like eggs, brown and speckled. But just like eggs, when cracked open by time or pressure they revealed their translucent, juicy insides. They were white, black, red, pink, various shades of brown and yellow, and some had specks or swirls of cream. 

The boy didn't know which one to choose first, he was so overwhelmed. At last he picked up one very shiny black rock. Where it had been broken apart from its other half, the crack formed rippling circular shapes, like a raindrop in a pond. The glassy stone reflected the sunlight in a most magnificent way, and the boy turned it left and right in his hand, admiring the patterns in it, before popping it in his mouth and starting to chew. He had only ever smelled black liquorice before; now he knew how it tasted. The anise obsidian swirled around the boy's small teeth while he nibbled. The flavour was so wonderful that his tiny pale hands couldn't help coming up to his cheeks and, with his eyes closed, he held that gustatory moment in his mind and mouth for safekeeping. Finally he could keep it no more, and he swallowed the molten obsidian shards, with great gusto.

The next one he chose was a translucent brown piece, somewhat cube-shaped, with pale yellow flecks all the way through. The sweet toffee stuck to the roof of his mouth and the buttery speckles gave him a sensation of warmth he'd not known before. The more flints he ate the less he remembered of the house or the lentils, or even the grey boulder.

The boy went on this way for several months, filling his growing belly and body with flints of every colour and flavour, each of them tastier than the one before. The fiery ginger rock in the sky looked out for him by day, and the cool limestone with its warm sands kept him safe at night. And just in case he ventured out of his cave in the dark for a midnight snack of dark chocolate chert with raspberry flecks, the marshmallow rock overhead was there in some form or other, always with at least one eye on the boy, as they were all kindred spirits.

One morning, when the boy awoke and crawled out of his sandy bed, he heard the waves as usual, but when he held his breath to listen close he could also hear footsteps crunching his rocks. Leaning as far as he could out of the cave without falling from it he could just make out, far down the beach, someone walking toward him. It was a small someone, smaller even than he, and she had long hair plaited into a braid like a fishtail that hung over her shoulder. 

She kept her eyes to the rocks, shifting her gaze from left to right, and finally, when the boy couldn't wait any longer, he called out to her: “What are you looking for?”

She looked up at the boy, hanging out of his crevasse like a confused stalactite. She couldn't help but smile, and with a certain grace wriggled up to the opening of the cave. 

“Fish bones,” she said, but it sounded more like, “fith bonth” because her baby teeth had all rotted out and only the nubbins of permanent teeth let her pronounce letters at all. She had come to the beach the previous night, when her parents had gone to the store to buy more candy after catching the girl with her hands in the fishbowl again. Their eyes had swirled like angry peppermints even though the goldfish had been too slippery to catch. Her parents listened to music with vocal harmonies about bubble gum and love boats, and never danced but sang along instead. 

Together the boy and girl strolled the beach, the boy stopping once in a while to sample new flints of unusual hue, the girl digging out from between the stones small vertebrae and sharp ribs to crunch between the gummy bumps of her teeth. Sometimes, when she tired of teeth and skulls and cartilage, she would munch a periwinkle, conch or cockle instead. Her skin, once sickly speckled as saccharin, became like a pearl with its layers of colour that changed from ivory to violet with the angle of the sun or moonlight.

As time went on the children saw more of the moon and less of the sun. The melodies of the beach they had learned also began to change. The rushing of the waves became more vigilant and charged with some sense of urgency. The pitch of the seagulls' cries echoed the water until they were tinged with anxiety. The other birds left altogether, flock by flock. The sea became a darker green and the sky a darker grey, until one day the sun was no longer able to warm their sand bed. The children huddled in their cavern shivering, as the night air rattled through their bodies and made them stiff with cold. As they shivered, though never from fear, they watched and listened, transfixed as the wind whistled a new frosty tune while snowflakes twirled around the air outside the cave before settling on the pebbles and skeletons of the beach below. 

First their little fingers and toes became rigid, then their arms and legs, until finally their blood solidified in their icy blue veins.

Many winters later, a great wave crashed against the mouth of the cave and it spat out a large boulder onto the beach. When it landed, the impact broke it in two, revealing on each half conchoidial fractures like the ripples of a pebble dropped in a tidal pool. The rock was cased in a soft powdery limestone riddled with the fossils of fish and shells, each one opalescent beneath the distant sun. The inside of the boulder was smooth and glassy like strawberry glazing or a maraschino cherry. On this windy winter day even the distant sun shone brightly, reflecting from somewhere within the translucent halves of stone the resplendent warmth of solidarity. 

Based in Southampton, Sara Rich is the author of Ligatures, and her recent dark fiction shorts have appeared or are about to appear in Metaphysical Circus' See the Elephant, Monsters and the Monstrous, Cyclopean, Cadences, Chupa Cabra House's Temporary Skeletons, and in a forthcoming anthology by Egaeus Press. Find her at @wracksandruins

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