The Courtship of the Queen

The Courtship of the Queen

illustration by eric fortune

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

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”?

Kerwin Miller
1. tamyrlink

i dont have the words to express how well written and moving this story is.
2. jefff
Loved it. Thanks Bruce.
bruce mcallister
4. bhmcallister
Thanks, guys. One never knows whether a story will connect or not--so I'm very happy to see it did.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Agree that this was very well done. Very moving. Nice that you well inside the protagonist's shell. R
6. Myst44
All i can say is one word... awesome.
7. SerialStoryteller
One of the best short pieces I've ever read. If was a subscription magazine, this would have convinced me to renew. For years.
Azara microphylla
9. Azara
A really haunting story. Well done!
10. frootjoos
Elizabeth Coleman
11. elizabethcoleman
I used to play with my shell collection just like this. Thank you!
12. rtzn
This reminds me of a tale i read in school many years ago. It was from the perspective of cockroaches, how they saw themselves/ social interplay etc, if you know the one i mean feel free to post the title. Riveting, well done!
13. Pdxtrent
That was a beautiful story, haunting, and lyrical, and readable on multiple levels. Well done.... now I'm off to find out if everything you write is this good;-)
Zac Kenny
15. z_kenny
Very lovely story. The depth despite brevity is remarkable, one connects with every part of the story and the kingdom.
Oh, and the illustration is amazing, it is beautiful and really sets the tone of the story.
Haylee Herrick
16. hayleeherrick
Rare and powerful. It certainly rings true in a dreamer's heart.
Ronnie Christensen
17. gusmcgee
I love this story for so many reasons that I don't understand. Thanks, Bruce!
Ira Friedwald
18. airira
I have been reading your stories, Mr. McAllister, for many many years and I have to say that your work has never been better. Your story here and the one included in The Best American Short Stories Collection from 2007 (The Boy from Zaquitos) are haunting and timeless. Thank you.
19. bhmcallister
Such kind words, Airira. Thank YOU.
20. seallen
Really wonderful!
Matthew Smith
21. blocksmith
Mr. McAllister

A wonderful story. The imagery is fantastic and the tone foreboding and hopeful at once. This is the first story by you I have read, but I look forward to many more.
Rebecca Murphey
22. Mystictrout
I am so glad I had the privilege of reading this story. I only recently joined the Tor mailing list or I would never have seen it, and that would have been a sad loss for me. Thank you for writing it! It is so beautiful and elegant and touching without being stiff or sappy or sentimental.
23. rheanet
Having a young boy who at times lives in his own (very detailed) world, I was moved by this gentle little tale. Thank you.
Rikka Cordin
24. Rikka
what a boy, what a story.

this is perfection. haunting and evocative and sad but sweet.
Elizabeth Roland
25. zilsr
Excellent. Love the imagery, beautiful. As a Gulf Coast native this does strum the memories of my childhood on Boca Chica beach. As an avid Chess player I love the symetry. (It's been a long time someone please tell me if this is the appropriate term.)
Will look for this book so I can read it tomorrow!
ZILSR lookking forward to the rest of the story.
26. superbru
When I started reading this I thought. Where is this going and kind of almost reluctantly carried on. I ended up enjoying the tale so much that I am kind of sad that it has ended here. Great story , Thank you
jeff b
27. tcheph
that i am intensely glad that the kingdom, the play within the play, is safe at the end of the text is a testament to how well this is written. bravo.
28. Arish Rajan
sorry i did not like this. Simply because i could not understand it. just cant get any logic out of it. really long one, i wish i had not taken the effort to read it.
29. PHenry
Thank you for this "gift from the sea." I had an underwater city growing up, but was too afraid to explore it. This story showed me my Atlantis.
Liz McAllister
30. Liz
I wish I could be part of this world. This story requires a unique imagination from both the author and the reader, and I am thankful my mind lets me travel to this place. What a wonderful story.
31. Halio- Of the sea, salt
Simply amazing.
32. Cojafoji
Jesus. That was incredible. The names were a little confusing at first, but the story! INCREDIBLE!
Robert Esckelson
33. Esck86
This was an outstanding piece of work. I sincerely thank you for it.
34. Stephen Watkins
I'm with Superbru... it took me a moment to "get" where this story was going. But once it got there, I realized how beautiful the journey was... and how much I really identified with the main character. I was terrified for him when he began contemplating sharing his secret world with the girl, because I've often been terrified of sharing my own secret world with others.
36. LJ McDonald
I really enjoyed that. Thank you for writing it.
Andrea Johnson
37. andrea.johnson1989
This story was amazing in so many ways. I love it!
Jen Hahn
38. pyr1te
I'll give someone a quarter to put up mouse-over images of all the shells, though. It detracted a bit when I had to stop and google them all :(
39. bhmcallister
Great suggestion. Seriously! We'll do it when the personal website version is up and, in meantime, album of great pics for the story is on my FB site for anyone who wants to friend.
D. A. Metrov
40. metrov
Reading this makes me very proud you're my mentor.
42. JasonTrue
This is such a beautiful story - incredible imagery, story, voice - everything is exquisite. Especially enjoyed hearing YOU read it, Bruce. One of my favorite short stories I've read/listen to in a long time. Genius work from a seasoned master. Thank you!
Tucker Whitney
43. Ubique
Absolutely bloody amazing! Probably one of my favorite stories I've ever read. Damn! Wish I could come up with any more usefull criticism besides that I really enjoyed it. Can't think of a thing to change. Good Job!
Gina 'Oz Pound
44. KawaiiOz
Truly facinating. And brilliantly captivating; I found myself wanting to read more. *applause*
45. Bliss
Curious but ultimately plausible setting - loved the two stories running side by side. Am off to look at your other works and the shells too!
Great job.....
Thomas Costick
47. Zerf
I was looking through an RSS feed I have from and came across this story. One word: beautiful.
Thank you, Bruce.
48. Reverend Zim_ulator
Really great story. I love a story that makes me feel like I sort of know what's going on, but also gives me that odd feeling in my belly, caused by a rollercoaster ride.


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