Beach, Boy, Stick, Man: A Parable
Updated: Mar 13
A child about six years old was walking on a lonely beach. He wore faded jeans that were rolled up, and a blue hooded sweatshirt that said in rainbow colors, “Loved.” A small hole was in one knee, and he was comfortably barefoot.
Over his shoulder, he wore a little fabric bag that his mother had sewn for him to take on his journey. He loved the bag. He loved his mother, too. He would fill the bag with beautiful things to present to her at the end of the day. He could think of nothing he'd rather do.
The day itself was grey, but not cold. The tide was outgoing, about halfway through the cycle between high and low. A storm had passed late the previous night, and the beach was littered with detritus. It would remain that way, of course. One boy with a shoulder bag can’t clean a beach, after all. He would have choices to make about what to put in the bag, and what to leave behind.
As he walked along, he considered all he came across. A shell. A shiny stone. Even a piece of glass, ground round by constant waves and endless sand. Many of these types of items went into the bag. He rehearsed the story that would be told behind each. How they were found. Where they would be placed in his room. What they looked like when he discovered them, and how different they looked as they dried.
Suddenly, the boy stubbed a toe on a piece of driftwood. The half-buried stick glared at him violently from beneath the sand like a malevolent monster. With some effort, he pulled it out and glared back at it. His toe throbbed. He wanted to throw the twisted stick back into the ocean. But more than that, he wanted to punish it for sneaking up on him like that.
Frowning, he looked around. Some big kids – teenagers, a class of youth that was frightening in their unfamiliarity - had made a bonfire the night before. He had seen them from his home on the cliffs. They were long gone, but he could see charred remains of the fire from where he stood.
With the driftwood under his arm, he walked toward the cold campsite. Squatting down, he pried a piece of charcoal from a half-burned log, dirtying his fingers. He didn't care about that. Placing the offending chunk down on the sand, he wrote on it in charcoal.
“Bad,” it said.
When the boy returned to the waterline, he looked around. His house was far up on the cliff. His mother had told him not to go out into the water, to be sure. But, just as certainly, she had rolled up his pant legs before he left. She must have known that he would venture out a little bit. How could that be helped?
It couldn't, he decided.
The boy waded out as far as he dared. The bottom of his cuffs were no longer completely dry. The water was cold. It stung his legs.
Stabilizing the bag under his left arm, he threw the driftwood with all his might back into the ocean. It didn’t go too far. But to him, it was a good toss. He stood for several minutes and watched it wander back into the breakers. When he could no longer see it, he walked back to where he had been.
He realized that the cold water had numbed the pain in his toe. It was still injured, he knew. He could see a little cut. His mother would treat it for infection, later. But at least it didn’t hurt anymore.
The process of rejecting the wood had numbed the pain. For the time being, anyway.
He continued down the beach now, picking up all kinds of things. More glass and shiny rocks. Some of the rocks were agates. Some had fossilized shells in them. Occasionally he would find part of something bigger he wanted to ask about when he returned home. A clasp from a broken piece of jewelry, for instance. The shell of a crab. Once, he found a glass ball. But tragically, it had broken in his bag. It took a long time to pick out all the shards. He was disappointed almost to tears that he would not be able to share this treasure with his mother. But by concentrating on the task itself, that of finding treasures, he was able to continue his quest.
From time to time, he saw jellyfish that had washed up. He was careful to stay away from these because he knew they could be particularly painful, and he knew that cold water alone wouldn’t make them feel better. He was a long way from his home and the comfort his mother would provide. He didn't want that kind of trouble.
The little boy walked on that beach for a long time. For a youngster, anyway. Toward the middle of the day, he began his trip back as he had been asked to do. The tide had retreated all the way during his long walk. It was now returning.
Even so, the ocean was calmer than it had been that morning. This was because the swell had dropped, as it does for all thoughtful people in their later years. The breakers were all but gone. The ocean appeared to exhale relief from the previous storms and now lay in respite, sparkling in a kindly sun.
Finally, he came to the spot where he had stubbed his toe as a young boy, so long ago.
There in the sand was a stick. It was a piece of driftwood. Picking it up, he could see the dark smudge of charcoal.
In the handwriting of a small child, there was a word. The stick was labeled, “Bad.”
The man, at first, didn’t smile. The memory itself was too painful. He considered throwing it out again, as he had so long ago. But then, in a reversal of the attitude he had initially experienced, he carefully brushed the sand away.
Gazing thoughtfully at this unexpected gift from his past, he remembered not only the experience but the lessons that had come from it. He decided that the lessons from the past added much to its worth in the present.
Realizing this, he made a decision not to change anything about the stick. Nor would he throw it back. Instead, accepting it as it presented itself, he placed it in the bag that his mother had made him. It was full of treasures, after all.
And he couldn’t wait to share them with her.
(artwork: prashob s)