moonlit ocean

On the beach we used the cheese grater to make patterns in the macroscopic grains, cornflower and indigo. Parish sifted and sifted them, trying to find the smallest particle. “More than one always gets through,” she mused. “We should have brought the grater with different settings.”

“If you’re trying to find the Princess Particle, forget it,” I said with the dismissive indulgent air of one who’s listened to the same campfire tales too many times in her jaded old age. But Parish had never heard the story, and she sat pulling marmalade off her fingers with her teeth as I told it.

“Once,” I began, “there was a leader.”

This was common knowledge.

“She was an adequate leader, with her share of scandals and successes. Her personality had all the normal schisms. One of her hobbies was collecting glasswork that had been dyed blue. She had shelves of votive holders and iced tea bottles and Vicks Vaporub vases.

“Naturally one of her duties was encouraging the arts in her country, and she was inclined to keep a partisan eye on the glassmaking foundries, so that funding found its way there that wouldn’t have otherwise. More glass was produced, and because citizens regarded the leader’s hobby as something posh and interesting, more of this glass was being dyed blue. Eventually everything that could be contained was being sold in blue bottles, which were eagerly emptied and stored and admired.

“You know what happened then. What’s the point of collecting anything that’s everywhere? The effort is gone. It would be like collecting hair follicles, or televisions, or hydrogen.”

Parish suddenly stirred.

“There’s nothing wrong with collecting hydrogen,” I amended hastily. “But that’s more like a sport, isn’t it? I mean with the specialized nets and training time. It’s not a rarity.

“Anyway, the leader lost interest and so did everyone else. There was suddenly a blue glass glut. The packaging industries turned their attention to other materials. Meanwhile, though, there were these mountains of bottles sitting around everywhere in people’s closets and in closed glass shops, and the leader just hated to have it all thrown away. It seemed like such a hideous waste, and after all, it was rather her fault. The blue bottles could only be melted down to make more glass, and since most people didn’t want to see another stick of blue glass in their lives, recycling was out of the question. The leader was on the point of telegramming around the world to discover if any other country would like to have a blue glass city, when the inventor called.

“The inventor had created the Random Particle Generator, which he claimed would shock and instantly transmogrify the glass into tiny amorphous beads. After a prolonged phone discussion, the leader jetted in to Healthsea, where the waves splashed on concrete, meeting the inventor and a curious crowd. Ceremoniously, she fed the first bottle into the generator; the grains pittered onto the cement. Thousands of bottles were hauled to the shore. The people walked barefoot on the mounds of beads, and they were soft, and it was good.

“Well, the leader and inventor got together and had a daughter.

“The child loved to spend time on the beach, examining the grains, counting them, comparing sizes. When her father wondered what she was doing, she said that she was looking for the smallest one. ‘Why not the biggest?’ he laughed. ‘Oh, that’s too easy,’ she replied. And her father thought that she would grow up and forget all about it.

But she didn’t. She didn’t forget, and she didn’t grow, either. Her father called in all the thyroid experts but none of them could make her grow in the least. Only one psychobiologist ventured an explanation, which was that the girl was too focused on the idea of smallness. In fact, said the doctor, she might even begin to shrink.

“The inventor sat his petite daughter down and described the Random Particle Generator and its principles, emphasized its continued use to combat beach attrition, and concluded with ‘So you see why there’s no smallest particle, darling.’

“‘But there must be,’ she answered. ‘There’s one of everything, isn’t there?’ Her father squirmed and cleared his throat. Then he had an idea. ‘Look,’ he reasoned hopefully. ‘When you count upwards, it never ends, does it?’

“His daughter shook her head at him. ‘Daddy,’ she said scornfully, ‘You can’t touch numbers.’

“He had no alternative but to forbid her trips to the beach. Which only made the girl pine away so that she was very thin as well as very small. Endlessly she stared out the window toward the shore, not even activating the puppy she’d been given for her birthday. One morning her father wrapped her up in the biggest pancake he could make - for warmth - and set her down barefoot at the doorway. The child headed toward the beach and never returned. Some say she was transmogrified by the benevolent plankton so that she herself is now a thousand thousand particles.”

Parish rolled on her back, getting nodules in all the dents of her skin so that she was like a blue silica-skinned reptile, shedding. Behind her the cabanas stood in neat peppermint rows; the wind and water carried the thin voices of the timeshare children from further up the beach.

“Of course I don’t believe that story,” I smiled. “I think the terrain is just a freak of atmospherics.” Not to say that I hadn’t selected my own Princess Particle. I had lodged it in my left eyebrow for safekeeping.

-K.B. Hollingsworth