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When he was a child, he was stranger than many children, but not as strange as some. What he lacked in normalcy he more than made up for in passion, sense of wonder and acquisitiveness—the virtues that make any collector (or hunter) great. By the age of ten he had collected more than two thousand seashells, providing each, as any good scientist would, with its own neatly labeled card that listed its Latin and common names, where it had been collected and when and by whom, and the temperature that day. If he or his parents had purchased the seashell or it had been given to him by someone who did not have such information, that was all right; the card would at least bear its names. What mattered most was the beauty of the bivalve or univalve, the clam or snail, its personality, its character, and its role in the larger scheme of things, which the boy saw clearly.
He kept his seashells in the drawers of two nice oak dressers in his room and, as well, in the drawers of the ten junkier dressers his father had with affection purchased for him at yard sales and Salvation Army outlets and made room for in every garage or basement or attic they had, moving them carefully with their other furniture each time the family relocated from one coast or country to another.
How the boy’s collection had come into being was not as strange as the boy himself, even if the size of it was: his father, a Navy enlisted officer, moved his family often because the Navy ordered him to, and often, because it was the Navy he served, they lived on or near military bases by the sea; and the boy, when he was old enough to crawl, had discovered that the one thing he could truly make his own and take with him from one place to the next was the seashells of that place—whether they lay dead and clean on the sand of nearby beaches, lived on the mud below in shallow water, hid under seaweed at tide pools, were gifts from kind people, or were purchased by the boy, when he or his parents had the money, in local shops.
He could not take the people with him, friends he made at school, or the old women who walked the beaches in palm-frond hats, or the fisherman from the jetties. He could not take the houses his family lived in with him. He could not always even take the pets, which were sometimes lost in the moves and which, like all pets, sometimes died because pets rarely lived as long as their keepers.
He even felt that he could not take himself because what he was at each of his father’s “stations” was different. But he could always—with his parents’ encouragement because they knew he needed to take something with him or he would forget who he was—take the seashells of each place. They understood what moving meant, and they understood what could be lost. His father had fled a small town in Virginia to join the Navy and make a life for himself, and his mother was one-quarter Chickasaw Indian and, though quite educated, knew what it felt like not to know who you were.
Though it seemed odd when it began, his parents encouraged his playing with his seashells, too—the way other boys played with soldiers and toy boats and cars. His wanting to play with them as all children play with something did not, in fact, seem as strange to them as the cards with their scientific names and other information, which felt so adult and made them worry, lost in books as he often was, that he would never be a child. It made him—this playing—seem more normal to them; and so they watched and smiled when their ten-year-old son took the large, pink-lipped Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) which a shrimp fisherman in Key West, Florida, had given the boy (one his mother, without complaint, had boiled and cleaned so that it would not smell, as seashells sometimes tended to do), put it for the thousandth time on the rug in his bedroom, placed around it the fifteen tiny but feisty Strombus alatus—Fighting Conchs (shells he had also collected in Florida at his father’s previous station)— and, as he liked to put it, played “Kingdom of the Ancient Sea” with them. After all, the Queen needed protection, he explained, looking up, and the Fighting Conchs, loyal as they were, would protect her. In actuality, Fighting Conchs could drill through the armor of other seashells and kill them, so why not here, in his fantasy, in the boy’s very own kingdom, make them “the Queen’s guards”?
The big, elegant Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea)—whose knobby shell was covered with a periostracum as dark as his heart—was even then approaching the Queen, whose reign (the boy explained at dinner that night) the Horse Conch wished to overthrow with his own forces, his own battalions of Fighting Conchs and his company of poisonous Cone shells, Conus gloriamaris (two specimens of which his parents had bought for him in Australia when he was six).
Because of the Conus gloriamaris, the Horse Conch would certainly have been able to defeat the Queen, who was much older and vulnerable to flattery from handsome suitors and a little tired from her centuries of reign over the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea, had it not been (the boy explained four nights later) for the ingenuity of the Queen’s Carrier Shells. These shells, disguised by the broken shells and coral they had glued to themselves (as Carrier Shells do) with a calcium paste, were able after only two attempts, and in the darkest of ocean’s night, to penetrate the Horse Conch’s perimeter of Fighting Conchs and by their gifts of persuasion (namely, the promise of more Venus clams than any Cone shell could dream of) turn one of the dreaded Cones against the Horse Conch itself. The Horse Conch, not suspecting treachery in its own ranks, had left its naked body exposed the following night as it slept and, pierced by the Cone’s radula, had succumbed to the poison. The Fighting-Conch guards, upon discovering the horror the next morning, had, fast and nimble as they were, dispatched the traitorous Conus gloriamaris with ease, but the Horse Conch was dead and even the spectacle of a hundred species of the most refined and colorful Murexes in the funereal procession that followed could not restore him to this world.
Upon hearing all of this, the boy’s parents did not know which was stranger—that a ten-year-old boy might daydream such political intrigue or that the actors carrying out its mortal drama might be the very seashells favored by girls, old-fashioned eccentrics or proper European ladies who had combed the beaches of the world for centuries. Their son was a marvel to them and always would be, and one strangeness would simply be replaced by another in his life, they suspected, so what was left except to love him?
As he grew older and played for even longer periods of time with his collection, he sometimes reported at dinnertime the transactions of the Kingdom and sometimes did not. Sometimes, in fact, he would say nothing for a week, even a month, and in one or two instances, even a few months. If he seemed melancholic at times, what children were not? If his hands shook on occasion—from excitement and exertion—and he scratched his arms as if he had been swimming, the salt of the sea irritating his skin—this was normal, was it not?
Once, he had been silent about the Kingdom for six months before, in passing at dinnertime, he finally revealed that the late Horse Conch had been replaced long ago as ruler of the Greater Reefs by his eldest son; and even this was ancient history because the eldest son’s younger brother, a particularly fine specimen of his species, had replaced that brother at his brother’s untimely death of natural causes; and that this younger brother—who had been killed by a Thersite Conch in the employ of a certain Knobbed Triton (Charonia lampas) out to expand his own territory with cocksure prematurity—had in turn been replaced by a cousin from the New World, the stately Pleuroploca princeps Horse Conch, whose intentions for the Queen’s territory and usurpation of her rule would soon embroil him in an intrigue that would put the first Horse Conch’s machinations to shame.
The boy had seventy-five Horse Conchs of various sizes and seven species, and these did not include the Strombus family, of which he had three hundred specimens, among these at least four companies of Fighting Conchs of three species. The companies of Murex, Auger, Volute and Cowry were another matter entirely, numbering in the dozens as well. History and politics could not stress the boy’s resources, which grew each month as he acquired more specimens, and so, his parents knew, the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea would only grow.
The new Horse Conch’s intentions, naïve and inexperienced as the Princeps was, were foiled daily and in Byzantine course by the unflagging efforts of the Queen’s special agents, namely, the Juno’s Volute (Scaphella junonia), seductive in its whiteness and beauty marks, which had posed as a courtesan to obtain intelligence on the Horse Conch’s western and more vulnerable reefs; five spiny Mediterranean Murexes sent as moneylenders which had, with their squidlike dye, blinded a platoon of key Fighting Conchs in the Battle of the Gorgonaceans; and the great and bilious Tun Shell, sent as an emissary, whose fragile bulk (offering no threat to His Majesty, according to the Horse Conch’s key advisor, the Cameo Helmet), had actually hidden a small army of Flamingo Tongues (Cyphoma gibbosum), which overwhelmed and killed the Horse Conch’s second youngest son.
The Queen had calculated perfectly, of course. She was not without a heart, not without compassion, and yet for her people—the fifty thousand species and countless individuals who had lived in the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea forever and only wanted peace, a peace which Princeps and five generations of Horse Conchs had threatened—she would do what was necessary. Princeps loved his second son more than he loved himself and could not bear the boy’s death, and so within days he took his own life in the great Sea Fan Forest of the Eastern Reefs.
When the Princeps’ reign ended, and the weakest of the Filementosa line took his place, the Queen Conch ruled uneventfully for a time. The boy was twelve now, his arms and legs covered with the scrapes he had apparently received in the tide pools he so loved. If his scrapes—red and puckered though they were—did not bother him, why should they, his parents, make a fuss?
One day the King Helmet Shell, from the Indian Ocean, came to court the Queen despite her advanced age. His arrival and intentions were announced by twenty young and quite pristine specimens of Charonia tritonis, the Trumpets, and the King Helmet seemed flattered by the attention of the spectacle. The King Helmet had any number of assets of which the Queen was keenly aware: the finest corps of thirty dancing Venus Comb murexes, their spines flawless; the finest orchestra of fifty red and orange Lion’s Paw scallops, Lyropecten nodosa; and a castle-bastion of living Tridacnae, not only the great giant clams called gigas but the smaller, more colorful squamosa and hippopus, with seven immense Pen Shells, Pinnis nobilis, towering over it all. Yet these assets were but entertainment, and what mattered much more, and would to any Queen, were the battalions of lethal Spider Conchs and tall, imposing Augers, which, though no match for the Queen’s Fighting Conchs, represented nevertheless a threat to the stability of the Ancient Sea. A marriage of their two kingdoms might, both parties knew, bring a far-reaching and lasting peace to the Kingdom.
And yet (the boy explained, gesturing with bruised hands as his parents listened, their forks and spoons raised) the goal of lasting peace for the greater Kingdom, practical and enlightened though it might be, was not enough for the King Helmet. He could not, he had decided privately—out of vanity if not sheer jealousy—humiliate himself by marriage to an aging conch long past her years of beauty, especially one whose stature and legendary imperiousness would in the end, he knew, reduce him to mere figurehead. To be remembered in the history of the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea (for that is what vanity demanded), he would need to be more than her husband; and to be more he would, yes, need to gain command however he could of the Queen’s own forces—not only the Fighting Conchs, the companies of the Cyclopean Hexaplex fulvens (the Giant Murexes), and the even more numerous complements of Neptune Whelks—but also her spiritual advisors, the revered and powerful Miters.
But how to accomplish this?
At first (the boy explained a few nights later, arms folded in front of him, long shirt sleeves hiding them as if the scrapes now embarrassed him) the King Helmet was not sure. He had grown his own armies by the simple conquest of coral reefs where those who would become his soldiers farmed and hunted. He had acquired them by the sheer size of the soldiers in his first mercenary platoons, namely, other Helmets like him; and after that, by sheer numbers; and later still, by his growing stature and mystique in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and China Sea. How to seduce forces already aligned with another?
And how, as he pursued this—the seduction of her army, its generals and her priests by whatever stratagems were needed—to distract the Queen so that she was unaware and would not interfere?
One night, as the moon (“my flashlight,” the boy explained), illuminated the sea around him (“my rug under the bed, Dad”), the King Helmet saw it at last:
The Queen had mentioned more than once, and wistfully, to her attendants and others, how much she wished she had had a child—whether boy or girl, it did not matter—a child to whom she could pass her kingdom; and how this was impossible now because, even though she occasionally received male visitors who were of her species and stature, her body had lost the ability to conceive.
The King Helmet was of enough stature to be acceptable as the father of her child, but he was not of her species. The latter was simple fact. And yet the King Helmet, as he pondered his dilemma in his guest quarters that morning, remembered a certain seashell he had once encountered, a beautiful and possibly useful one. She too was a conch, like the Queen, and one of the rarest and prettiest; but most importantly, she possessed the Queen’s great pink lip. She was a gorgeous creature—her lip crenulated, her body decorated with a red embroidery—and the Queen would, he felt certain, find in the smaller conch’s visage a mirror of what she herself wished to be. Rare . . . and beautiful . . . and young. If he used her carefully, she could be what he needed.
He would find this seashell, this Sinuatus conch. He would set his minions to the task, and when they had found her he would take her to the Queen and say, “As I have confessed more than once these past months of our courtship, Your Majesty, I too cannot bear children, whether the cause be age or the wounds of battle, of my sacrifices for my people; and this flaw within me haunts me, for what is a life if it does not leave to this world a legacy of beauty and bloodline? But what I have not told you, Your Majesty, is that once, years ago, in another life, another kingdom, I bore a child, and I bore her by a conch like you, a princess whom, because Neptune’s plan is greater and wiser than mortal love, my love could not save from death in childbirth. Forgive my forwardness, but I wish I had sired her by you, my Queen; and yet she is all that I might offer you to relieve what haunts us both in our old age. I have found her again, this daughter I assumed I had lost, whose great pink lip shines in the sunlight or moonlight like your own, and whose channel twists like yours, even if she also bears a shield not unlike my own.”
How would the Queen react? Would she find in this lie the answer to her most profound sadness?
As the boy posed these questions to the air at dinner that night, his parents truly felt them. The story—the boy was thirteen now—was as real as anything else in their lives, and of course they wondered how it would go, this subterfuge, this manipulation of an old queen’s heart by the vanity of a king unable to love.
But when they pressed him a few nights later, the boy did not answer. He seemed withdrawn, more upset than usual about the Kingdom, and he made strange, slow gestures in the air as if defending himself from something they could not see.
When they pressed him again that weekend, he said only, “It isn’t right, what is happening now. I tried to help him, but suffered wounds in my attempt.”
“Wounds?” his father asked, not knowing what his son meant, and wanting very much to know. He stepped toward the boy, to check his body for injury, but his son moved away.
“They are minor,” the boy said to him. “They will heal on their own, Dad.”
His mother and father looked at each other and, without a word, knew the truth: The boy was referring merely to his tide pool scrapes—which in the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea would of course be “wounds.”
When they had given up hope of finding out what had happened in the story—when the story had faded enough from their own lives, from his father’s work at the base and his mother’s teaching at the local high school, that the Queen’s fate no longer held them in the morning when they woke and at night when they fell asleep—the boy did tell them. It was many months later, and at dinner, as always, that he said:
“The Queen was too cynical to fall for his lie. She had never sensed in the King Helmet’s heart the capacity for love that would have allowed him to sire a child with a conch, with a woman of another species. And in this she was right. He was too vain, too proud, to be sullied by such mixing, and the Queen knew this. But this was not all that protected her from his ruse. It was her own cynicism, her own insistence on the profound sadness (the idea of her barrenness) with which she had lived so long that she could not live without it, that protected her most from his lie.”
His parents stared, waiting. “Yes?” they both said.
“Nevertheless, the Queen agreed to marriage—though in name only, with separate quarters, their lives sharing not even breakfast—that their kingdoms might be joined for the sake of the people of the Ancient Sea.” The boy paused, as if sad, though perhaps (they told themselves) he was only feeling thoughtful. His mother had seen a mark on his face the week before, a little puncture wound, like a spider bite, one that made a hole, but it had healed. He’d had a fever then, too, but there was no reason, the boy insisted, to think the two matters were related. “She was a queen, after all,” he was saying to them now, “and did in her heart, despite the sadness that told her who she was, truly care about her people. Is this not what a queen must do, even if she despises the partner of the union that may achieve it?”
The boy’s parents nodded. Of course that is what a good queen must do; and it made them proud that their son, whose whole life was reading and seashells and had so little in common with the world other people lived in, could be so wise, could in fact understand that world perhaps even better than they, who had lived in it for so long.
“It is the story of the Queen’s Minister of Coral Reefs that matters now,” the boy said, obviously upset, “because he is the one who may actually destroy the Kingdom in the end, though that is the last thing he imagines he could ever do. He falls in love with the Queen. That is how it happens. I have tried to help him see the truth, but it is impossible. . . .”
There was indeed, his parents saw, a sadness in their son’s eyes (which were still red, as if a trace of the fever were still in him). He was fourteen now, and had been asking about girls recently—what they were like in their hearts and minds, in the way they thought and felt, how they were different from boys, if they were, and the same, if they were—and, given his words now, it was difficult for them not to imagine that the two were somehow, in a way only he understood, related.
“Love doesn’t always—” his father began, stammering, then tried again: “Love doesn’t always need to end in tragedy.” As soon as he said it, he felt embarrassed; but his son, who was looking at him now, smiled. “I know, Dad, but thanks for reminding me. I’m just speaking about the Minister, who is not experienced in love and so can be taken advantage of. Those who do not walk the corridors of power can afford to engage in the playfulness of love without tragic consequence, but I’m afraid the Minister is not one of these.”
His parents did not know how to respond. What could they say? The boy understood it better than they possibly could. But shouldn’t something be said?
“Is there no way,” his father went on, “to warn the Minister, to help him understand?”
The boy’s mother stared at her husband as if he had lost his mind; but then she too looked at the boy, nodding, wanting an answer. There were no marks on her son’s face, no marks on his arms (which were bare), so she did not have to worry and could listen.
The boy sighed. “I wish it were so, but those who live as the Minister lives are too isolated to be warned, or to listen even if they are.”
Again, his parents thought they saw in their son’s eyes something more personal than the story he was telling, but what words could they give him? His father was not going to say, though he wanted to: “Could the Minister not listen more carefully to his heart, to find wisdom there that might protect him from foolishness?” Or: “Could he not stop for a moment and see that love might not really be a trap, but a way to live—to really live—even if the corridors of power make it so difficult?” His mother was not about to say, “Whatever happens to your Minister, Brian, that is not what your life needs to be.” Certainly not that, though that was what was in her heart, both as a mother and as a woman who loved a man, and whose life was good, even if they both worried sometimes about their son.
When the boy entered high school, his body—which often did not feel like his own—changed, and with it his mind and what that mind saw in the world; and though the seashells were still with him, so were girls and other boys and teachers. Without planning it—without seeing at first the dynamic of mind and heart that might allow and ensure it—the people he came to know at school and after school, those willing to speak to him despite his manner of speech and the rash he often had, suddenly seemed real to him; and he began to write about them in the diary where he now recorded the Kingdom’s story as he knew it; the diary he had been keeping for the past year and, like the marks he brought back from the Kingdom each night, had not confessed to his parents.
One day at school, in the corridors of the main building, he spoke to a girl, one he had two classes with and noticed frequently outside of class. They spoke on the Ninth Grade patio. How it had occurred, he could not be sure when he looked back at it that evening in his bedroom. She had been standing there, talking to other girls, and had turned to look at him as he passed. She did not stare at the rash on his neck, which itched from the sea, but simply looked at him, eyes open to what she might see. He had stopped because she had looked at him this way; and when she said, “Hi, Brian,” he stood there looking back at her until he heard himself say, “Hi,” too. The other girls left, and he and she remained, sometimes finding words (she found them more easily than he) and sometimes just standing there, looking around at the other students, not saying a thing, but also not leaving, as if being together mattered to both of them somehow. What all of this meant, he could not be sure.
They spoke again two days later, impulsively and spontaneously and more thoroughly, as if they both knew, without needing to think about it, what to say. She had long dark hair and pale, but not unhealthy, skin. He liked looking at her, though it made him shy, too; and, as he looked, he felt not only an excitement—the racing of his heart—but something else; a tenderness, a kindness, toward her. He had said something that morning in English class that the other students had laughed at and that the teacher, a conscientious woman, had praised, but with a look on her face that suggested she hadn’t perhaps understood it. The girl had not laughed, which told him that she was not afraid to be alone in the world or pursue in her life what she believed was right.
Standing there on the Ninth Grade patio again, she asked about his own life, where he lived, what his parents did, and what he enjoyed doing most—what made him “happiest.” He answered the first questions easily—the way other boys and girls would answer them (something he was learning to do)—but the last question left him silent until she said, “If it’s against the law—if you like to shoplift and that’s what makes you happiest—you don’t have to tell me.” It was a joke, he saw. There was a light dancing in her eyes, which meant she was being playful. He said, “I love the sea.” It was not an answer to her question; but he did not know how else to phrase it.
“I do too,” she answered quickly, and he could tell she meant it. She had touched his hand, a hand whose raw skin would have frightened many. Should he ask her to come to his house after school? She lived only a few blocks from the military base, from the beach were he spent so much of his life, the one that was always empty because even the sailors never used it, and that always displayed on its sands the seashells of the bay, the Chiones and Tellinas and Turitellas. His father could get her a pass so she could visit, so the guards at the gate would let her through; but he didn’t know what she would think of his seashells, or the Kingdom, or whether she had a place in it, or even wanted one.
That night, as he lay in bed, a voice said: Be careful, my soldier. Remember, you are in my service. In her beauty this Volute of yours may be a subterfuge. The King Helmet will, I am certain—and this haunts my sleep—never relinquish his plans of empire.
Two nights later, however, as he began to fall sleep, the same voice spoke, with a sigh: I advised you poorly, Soldier. An innocent and a commoner, she may not be a spy. . . .
I believe this, too, Your Majesty, the boy answered, but is she the one? Is she the one that I, simple servant that I am in your service, have been waiting for all these years, stationed with the other Fighting Conchs on Your Majesty’s northernmost Barrier Reef, here to repulse what may threaten you, our bodies wounded and yet prevailing for your sake? Is she, pretty and pale as she is, the one I will fight and perhaps die for if I do not die for you—for love is worth nothing, is it not, unless the lover is willing to risk everything for love?
The boy waited, very awake. He would go to the Kingdom this night, as he did every night, and fight for his Queen. He would go as soon as she ordered. But the voice did not speak, and its silence made him shake. The next morning he still did not have his answer. Not knowing what else to do, he wrote about the girl in his diary. In his story, where the boys and girls he knew were all seashells, each with a role in the story of the Ancient Sea, she was indeed a young, impulsive Juno’s Volute, pale, with beauty marks, though she might as well have been the Black Cowry, Cypraea nocturnis, in its enigmatic, starry beauty. He could not make up his mind, and he could not be certain of her role. He wrote about her five mornings in a row, posing again and again to himself and to his silent Queen the questions of who this girl might be in the great tale the Kingdom was and would always be, and whether his body would ever be truly his; but on the sixth morning he stopped, put down his pen, and stared at the page, which no longer made sense. She—Carey—her name was Carey—was a girl. Was there anything more important than this?
At school that day, near his locker on the bottom floor of the main building, he asked her if she would like to come over sometime, after school or on a Saturday, to do homework together, if she wanted, and also, if she wanted, to see his seashells.
She cocked her head. Then she laughed, though not unkindly, touched his hand again, making it tingle and burn as any touch did; and, with the light dancing in her eyes again, said, “Sure!”
As she did, he saw suddenly that all was well at last in the Kingdom, that a peace not easily ruined—one that might prevail for years—had at last been achieved by the most willing of hearts; and that, because it had, his Queen might no longer need him and might soon (if he listened carefully enough for her voice) let him go. Only then would he stop bleeding from the battles he engaged each night in another body, returning with countless small wounds to his own. Only then would he stop having to clean spots of blood from his sheets after his parents left for work in the morning; stop worrying about the venomous bites of the Cones and Augers (which made his body burn); stop hiding his wounds with every trick he knew; and let his body heal at last, his once more.
She was looking at him still, and she had, he could tell from her eyes, which were darker than any sea, no intention of looking away.
Copyright © 2010 by Bruce McAllister