Every twenty-eight days, when the Moon had turned her face to the stars to nap after a long month of watching over us, we would throw a party in town. We would light a big bonfire in the square and dance and keep each other up all night, then sneak into bed before the sun could see who had made such a mess. But there was one Dark Night when a young man who, having no interest in women or wine, started to walk along the red road to the sea.
Along the way, the young man ran into a beggar. We were told never to give money to beggars in case they were angels in disguise who could never make the flight back to Heaven with heavy coins in their pockets. Even so, it was getting close to the time of year when frost paints icy spider webs on pumpkins in the moonlight and makes the cornstalks too brittle to stand tall, and the man was moved by the beggar’s purple hands and shivering. He pressed a few coins into the beggar’s palm and continued walking.
It took the young man a while to reach the sea, and by the time the road had gone from clay to sand, he was sick with guilt over his potential wickedness. He was glad that the Moon was too tired to see what he had done, but felt the need to confess. He found a clam sleeping under a blanket of foam that the sea had left on the shore and ran his thumb along the ridges of the clam’s chipped white shell until it awoke.
The clam was slow to respond because he was dying. Earlier that day, a moon snail had drilled a hole in the shell that the clam had built of himself, for himself, by himself—and began to eat him. Before the moon snail could finish the job, though, a seagull came and plucked her off the clam and ate her, leaving the clam alone on the beach to die. The clam was very tired and in a lot of pain, but the warmth of the young man’s thumb made him smile within his shell and look out of the hole that the moon snail had left.
“Clam, I am sorry to wake you, but need someone to talk to. I have a terrible secret.”
“There is not much of me left in here, so if you whisper your secret into the hole the moon snail made, I will keep it in here for you. In return, I ask only that you bury me in the clay. I have never liked it here, never been able to make pearls out of the sand that slips past my lips. I think I should like to go to the clay, and someday be a jug of moonshine or the brick of a chimney. Something useful.”
The young man agreed and whispered his secret into the hole the moon snail made. The clam, however, had underestimated the greatness of the sorrow that the young man had attached to his secret. The clam’s shell was too small to hold the secret or the sorrow and burst in the young man’s hand, and the clam died. The young man took the matches out of the matchbox in his pocket and turned it into a coffin for the clam. A one-man funeral train, he cried all the way back to town.
The young man went into his backyard and buried the clam deep in the clay, staining his hands and clothes red. We were all asleep when he walked past the dying fire in the town square, when he picked up a chunk of pine that was still burning and scarred his hands red forever. Joseph Hollow says he heard the young man scream, but everybody knows he was silent as he walked back to the sea with his red hands and swam to the mainland.
When the Moon awoke, the stars told her what had happened. They searched for the young man to tell him that it was okay, that he had nothing to be sorry for, but they could not find him anywhere. A month later, a red clay tree had grown from where the young man had buried the clam. It has no fruit or leaves, just a trunk and many twisted branches. But every new moon, silver coins grow from it and people can read their own secrets on the coins by the light of the bonfire. And no one ever tries to take the coins and no one is ever ashamed.
Originally published in Mama Grande Press Issue 1.