a collage of a child reading in the window with an image of a library to the right and the cover of Brinton Turkle’s Do Not Open on the left.

Sea Glass Shadows

One day, knowing how much you love the beach and cats, our mom will find a book that happens to feature both and bring it home to read to you. She’ll read Brinton Turkle’s Do Not Open to you so much that she’ll recite the first few pages of it automatically, autonomically, when the adult version of you calls to ask if she still has this book. (Of course she does. She keeps everything that has a touch of sentimentality to it.) This book will change you because you love the beach and cats so much, but more so because it speaks to a lesson that you’ll refuse to learn when the opportunity presents itself over and over again—perhaps because your mom, our mom, wanted to keep us safe from the darkness knowing too well the grip that it holds on a soul, perhaps because you weren’t taught how to effectively and safely face your fears, perhaps these things go together. These lessons you must learn. In time, you will.

As in any good story, right off the bat you’ll be introduced to the two protagonists: “Miss Moody lived at Land’s End with Captain Kidd. Captain Kidd wasn’t the famous pirate, he was a cat.” (You hear the soft yet persistent tone of your mother as if you were young again skimming these words on the page.) Miss Moody is fiercely independent, adventurous, and brave. She lives in an old sea captain’s house right on the shore so that she can scour the beach for washed-up objects after storms. You’ll be inspired by this, especially by the watercolor image of her house, dazzling with flashes of teal light scattered by the stained-glass-like arrangement of sea glass in her window. Take caution though: while the light is beautiful and this image impressionable, it does not come without darkness. A mistake that you will make is to leave the shadows behind and only take the bright beauty with you. Each time that looming presence of the shadows comes again, you will be more and more frightened.

When storm fronts are moving in—you’ll come to learn and love what these look like growing up on the coast yourself, great ominous clouds piling up above and the waves crashing restlessly with unpredictable and increasing frequency—Miss Moody knows exactly what to do. She trusts that her sturdy house will be safe. She hunkers down by her cheery wood stove with a bowl of seafood chowder, and she eagerly awaits what she’ll find washed up on the beach once the winds pass and the morning comes.

Of the many things that Miss Moody finds on the beach is Captain Kidd (not the pirate: the cat). After a particularly terrible storm, Miss Moody happens upon a little marmalade cat and nurses him back to health. Grateful for her generosity, the cat stays with her and keeps the mice out of her house. While Miss Moody is excited about incoming storms for the treasure hunt that’ll follow as consequence, Captain Kidd cowers away in fear. Having been tossed by the storm himself, traumatized by the crashing of waves and cracks of lightning, he will not come out from under the bed. Not even the delicious scent of comforting chowder can move him. Despite your own bravery in swimming out too far, climbing too high, and taking on too many tasks, once you are hurt you will also hold tight to that experience. Certain harms done to you will become wrapped up into your identity. You will not choose this; it’s a consequence of defaulting and denying and not facing any type of malevolence or trying any forms of forgiveness. All these things are likely impossible for the cat, but they are possible for you (though possible does not mean easy).

While Captain Kidd and most things that Miss Moody finds on the beach are harmless, eventually her habit of collecting sea glass bottles gets her into some trouble when she finds a beautiful and unique violet-colored bottle with a tag tied around it that reads, as the title of the book suggests: “DO NOT OPEN.” Miss Moody does not heed this warning, for the voice of a child whimpers out of the bottle that a terrible demon has trapped his spirit inside. Miss Moody, ever sympathetic and naïve, believes the voice. Upon uncorking the little purple bottle, the wretched demon itself emerges on the sandy shores more ominously than the storm that brought the bottle to the beach.

However, Miss Moody claims that she doesn’t believe in such things as demons and devils, as she folds her arms and looks away, unimpressed. As she continuously denies believing in him, the demon becomes bigger and uglier and scarier. Rather than speaking to a potential inability to confront or address reality, Miss Moody is unwilling to give power to negative things.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes in a book you’re too young to read now (but that you won’t be able to put down in the future): “When we refuse to entertain the predator, its strength is extracted and it is unable to act without us.” Estés’ work analyzes women in folklore as a way to keep the deep lessons of stories alive. The section of text surrounding this quote explores the transformation of the naïve girl—one who seeks pastoral pleasantries, dark handsome men, and the pursuit of these nice things without reservation or intuition that there could be something lurking under the surface. Miss Moody, an older woman, has already learned these lessons (perhaps it’s why she lives alone with her cat), so when she’s confronted by this demon, she already knows not to give it the power it craves. Without experience, it’s all too easy to fall into the temptation of fear-based denial of reality rather than rising to muster courage and denying demons—metaphorical and real alike—the control they demand.

Though a performative irony, you’ll actually be kept from understanding some critical themes of this story. The demon is clearly all talk, and Miss Moody knows it, but a certain line will scare you to the point of nightmares. When you go to find this tormenting phrase, however, you won’t be able to. After a few nights full of terror and tears, your mom will use white-out to cover it up. This alteration of the text demands the question: why face your fears when you can hide them (despite the moral of the story showing otherwise)? Even though this act was done out of a mother’s desperation for sleep, it’s the lesson you’ll take away from the text. The lines of whiteout will define your relation to the story more than the plot or the illustrations. “This is the one you were so afraid of I hid parts of it from you,” not “this is the story that we worked through and talked about together during long restless summer nights until you understood and became braver.”

Photo of part of the text from Do Not Open where the demon describing what he does: "Lots of work. When anyone wants to steal or cheat or lie or hurt someone else or start a nice little war, I help them do it." The creature laughed. "Just for fun, I get into people's dreams." In the original publication, there's more text, but the author's mother added punctuation to complete the sentence with the correct grammar and used white-out to cover the rest.
image courtesy of the author

You will forget that the cat was found on the beach. You will forget how Miss Moody overcomes the demon. But you will remember the story about the whiteout, and you will remember the sea-glass light.

Estés again describes that “[s]tory solutions lessen fear, elicit doses of adrenaline at just the right times, and most importantly for the captured näive self, cut doors into walls which were previously blank.” Without the opportunity to properly encounter darkness safely within the confines of a storybook, how were you ever to learn the right time to be scared or the intuition to sniff out lies? It’s the same cruel kindness of Sleeping Beauty’s parents infantilizing her to the point where a mere prick to her finger rendered her comatose.

On your own and when you’re older, you’ll find the challenge of overcoming the programmed patterns and dispositions. The behaviors of remembering light without shadow and taking on a victimized identity are both, in part, learned. Your mom, our mom, is exceptionally skilled at compartmentalizing events and emotions. She’ll easily recall the words to this story as it brings fond memories of reading before bed despite the drama, but she’ll downplay the role that her alcoholism had on you. She will eventually find the courage and dedication to sober up, certainly an accomplishment in its own right; much healing still remains. While good-faith attempts wax and wane, you’ll have to learn how to forgive her regardless. It requires diving deep into your own psyche, realizing that the harm that was done to you might have turned parts of your soul black too.

It’s at this point—when you realize that you are the demon—that you’ll need Miss Moody’s courage to face the power of that darkness without fear, and her wit to overcome it. From those brave encounters, you’ll be rewarded with something you can repurpose and reclaim and make beautiful. In Miss Moody’s case, it’s the beautiful purple bottle from which the demon emerged. For you, it’ll be the self-confidence you can carry with you all the time. It’ll be realizing that you can work with your friends and community with more harmony than before.

One day, you’ll want to have children of your own, and you’ll want to bestow upon them the same love for cats, the beach, and the beautiful sea glass that made your childhood so bright and curious. But do not be tempted to blot out the darkness with whiteout. Accept the darkness that accompanies the light. Show your children how to be brave and wild like Miss Moody. There are constant opportunities to learn and relearn these lessons; you are by no means an expert on balancing the shadow side, and as an eventual parent one day you too will make your fair share of mistakes. But you can now approach sneaky demons with confidence and humility. Perhaps when you read this book to your children, or better yet when your mother reads it to them, you’ll write back in the line that was denied to you.

Sarah Kearns is an editor for a non-profit publishing organization and freelance writer. Living on a homestead, she puts her biochemistry training to practice by conducting fermentation and mushroom cultivation experiments. Sarah also loves to bake sourdough bread, play the banjo, go on long hikes, and read. Even though she grew up on the rocky coast of Maine, she’s growing roots in the hills of Central New York.

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