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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”?