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The Shell Collector

Anthony Doerr

  Praise for


  “It’s fair to say that Anthony Doerr is doing things with the short story that have rarely been attempted and seldom achieved. . . . Doerr has set a new standard, I think, for what a story can do.”

  —Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun and What Is the What

  “Doerr has a way of saying the ordinary that makes you rethink the way the English language is used.”

  —The Denver Post

  “Doerr writes about the big questions, the imponderables, the major metaphysical dreads, and he does it fearlessly. The stories in Memory Wall shouldn’t work at all, and yet they do, spectacularly.”

  —The New York Times Book Review

  “It’s rare to encounter a writer who is able to make us see the world around us in new ways. And yet Doerr does so on every page.”

  —The Boston Globe

  More praise for


  “If you have stopped reading short stories because they have turned pretentious, silly, or meaningless, The Shell Collector is a good reason to come back.... The stories in this collection are polished jewels. They will draw you back . . . first to marvel at what Doerr is telling you, and then to see how he has performed his magic.”

  —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  “Stunning. Eight stunning exercises in steel-tipped feathery fineness that no writer can read without envying. . . . [Doerr’s] is the all-knowing, all-seeing eye we find in D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Pynchon, DeLillo, Richard Powers—writers able to pin down every butterfly wing and fleck of matter in the universe, yet willing to float the unanswerables about the ‘hot, hard kernel of human experience.’”

  —The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “These complex, resonant, beautifully realized stories sing. . . . A remarkable first collection.”

  —Andrea Barrett, National Book Award–winning author of Ship Fever

  “[Doerr] centers his stories on taciturn hunters and fishers with deep reservoirs of emotion—inept conversationalists and husbands whose senses only come alive in the woods. . . . Doerr’s wilderness contains a touch of the magical, too: a blind shell collector on the coast of Kenya discovers a miracle cure in a snail’s toxic sting. Tourists land a carp so huge it can’t be photographed. A woman finds she can divine the dream of animals by feeling them. ‘Want to know what he dreams?’ she asks her husband after touching a grizzly’s fur. ‘Blackberries. Trout. Dredging his flanks across river pebbles.’ These are tales that capture the wonder and the icy indifference of nature, and Doerr tells them exceedingly well.”


  “Anthony Doerr is a wonderful new writer. His stories reach deep and mine the forgotten places, as well as the never-before-discovered. These stories don’t just describe beauty, they help create it.”

  —Rick Bass, author of Where the Sea Used to Be

  Also by Anthony Doerr

  About Grace

  Four Seasons in Rome

  Memory Wall


  A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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  New York, NY 10020

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2002 by Anthony Doerr

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Scribner Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

  First Scribner trade paperback edition January 2011

  SCRIBNER and design are registered trademarks of The Gale Group, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, Inc., the publisher of this work.

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  Library of Congress Control Number: 2001040031

  ISBN 978-0-7432-1274-8

  ISBN 978-1-4391-9005-0 (pbk)

  ISBN 978-0-7432-2362-1 (ebook)

  Most of the stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere, in slightly different form: “The Hunter’s Wife” in The Atlantic Monthly; “So Many Chances” in Sycamore Review and Fly Rod & Reel; “For a Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story” in North American Review; “July Fourth” in Black Warrior Review; “The Caretaker” in The Paris Review; “A Tangle by the Rapid River” in The Sewanee Review; and “The Shell Collector” in The Chicago Review.

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  Chapter 1: The Shell Collector

  Chapter 2: The Hunter’s Wife

  Chapter 3: So Many Chances

  Chapter 4: For a Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story

  Chapter 5: July Fourth

  Chapter 6: The Caretaker

  Chapter 7: A Tangle by the Rapid River

  Chapter 8: Mkondo


  The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water taxi come scraping over the reef. He cringed to hear it—its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells too: punching holes in olives and murexes and spiny whelks, in Hydatina physis and Turris babylonia. It was not the first time people tried to seek him out.

  He heard their feet splash ashore and the taxi motor off, back to Lamu, and the light singsong pattern of their knock. Tumaini, his German shepherd, let out a low whine from where she was crouched under his sleeping cot. He dropped a limpet into the sink, wiped his hands and went, reluctantly, to greet them.

  They were both named Jim, overweight reporters from a New York tabloid. Their handshakes were slick and hot. He poured them chai. They occupied a surprising amount of space in the kitchen. They said they were there to write about him: they would stay only two nights, pay him well. How did $10,000 American sound? He pulled a shell from his shirt pocket—a cerith— and rolled it in his fingers. They asked about his childhood: did he really shoot caribou as a boy? Didn’t he need good eyes for that?

  He gave them truthful answers. It all held the air of whim, of unreality. These two big Jims could not actually be at his table, asking him these questions, complaining of the stench of dead shellfish. Finally they asked him about cone shells and the strength of cone venom, about how many visitors had come. They asked nothing about his son.

  All night it was hot. Lightning marbled the sky beyond the reef. From his cot he heard siafu feasting on the big men and heard them claw themselves in their sleeping bags. Before dawn he told them to shake out their shoes for scorpions and when they did one tumbled out. It made tiny scraping sounds as it skittered under the refrigerator.

  He took his collecting bucket and clipped Tumaini into her harness, and she led them down the path to the reef. The air smelled like lightning. The Jims huffed to keep up. They told him they were impressed he moved so quickly.


  “Well,” they murmured, “you’re blind. This path ain’t easy. All these thorns.”

nbsp; Far off, he heard the high, amplified voice of the muezzin in Lamu calling prayer. “It’s Ramadan,” he told the Jims. “The people don’t eat when the sun is above the horizon. They drink only chai until sundown. They will be eating now. Tonight we can go out if you like. They grill meat in the streets.”

  By noon they had waded a kilometer out, onto the great curved spine of the reef, the lagoon slopping quietly behind them, a low sea breaking in front. The tide was coming up. Unharnessed now, Tumaini stood panting, half out of the water on a mushroom-shaped dais of rock. The shell collector was stooped, his fingers middling, quivering, whisking for shells in a sandy trench. He snatched up a broken spindle shell, ran a fingernail over its incised spirals. “Fusinus colus,” he said.

  Automatically, as the next wave came, the shell collector raised his collecting bucket so it would not be swamped. As soon as the wave passed he plunged his arms back into sand, his fingers probing an alcove between anemones, pausing to identify a clump of brain coral, running after a snail as it burrowed away.

  One of the Jims had a snorkeling mask and was using it to look underwater. “Lookit these blue fish,” he gasped. “Lookit that blue.”

  The shell collector was thinking, just then, of the indifference of nematocysts. Even after death the tiny cells will discharge their poison—a single dried tentacle on the shore, severed eight days, stung a village boy last year and swelled his legs. A weeverfish bite bloated a man’s entire right side, blacked his eyes, turned him dark purple. A stone fish sting corroded the skin off the sole of the shell collector’s own heel, years ago, left the skin smooth and printless. How many urchin spikes, broken but still spurting venom, had he squeezed from Tumaini’s paw? What would happen to these Jims if a banded sea snake came slipping up between their fat legs? If a lion fish was dropped down their collars?

  “Here is what you came to see,” he announced, and pulled the snail—a cone—from its collapsing tunnel. He spun it and balanced its flat end on two fingers. Even now its poisoned proboscis was nosing forward, searching him out. The Jims waded noisily over.

  “This is a geography cone,” he said. “It eats fish.”

  “That eats fish?” one of the Jims asked. “But my pinkie’s bigger.”

  “This animal,” said the shell collector, dropping it into his bucket, “has twelve kinds of venom in its teeth. It could paralyze you and drown you right here.”

  This all started when a malarial Seattle-born Buddhist named Nancy was stung by a cone shell in the shell collector’s kitchen. It crawled in from the ocean, slogging a hundred meters under coconut palms, through acacia scrub, bit her and made for the door.

  Or maybe it started before Nancy, maybe it grew outward from the shell collector himself, the way a shell grows, spiraling upward from the inside, whorling around its inhabitant, all the while being worn down by the weathers of the sea.

  The Jims were right: the shell collector did hunt caribou. Nine years old in Whitehorse, Canada, and his father would send the boy leaning out the bubble canopy of his helicopter in cutting sleet to cull sick caribou with a scoped carbine. But then there was choroideremia and degeneration of the retina; in a year his eyesight was tunneled, spattered with rainbow-colored halos. By twelve, when his father took him four thousand miles south, to Florida to see a specialist, his vision had dwindled into darkness.

  The ophthalmologist knew the boy was blind as soon as he walked through the door, one hand clinging to his father’s belt, the other arm held straight, palm out, to stiff-arm obstacles. Rather than examine him—what was left to examine?—the doctor ushered him into his office, pulled off the boy’s shoes and walked him out the back door down a sandy lane onto a spit of beach. The boy had never seen sea and he struggled to absorb it: the blurs that were waves, the smears that were weeds strung over the tideline, the smudged yolk of sun. The doctor showed him a kelp bulb, let him break it in his hands and scrape its interior with his thumb. There were many such discoveries: a small horseshoe crab mounting a larger one in the wavebreak, a fistful of mussels clinging to the damp underside of rock. But it was wading ankle deep, when his toes came upon a small round shell, no longer than a segment of his thumb, that the boy truly was changed. His fingers dug the shell up, he felt the sleek egg of its body, the toothy gap of its aperture. It was the most elegant thing he’d ever held. “That’s a mouse cowry,” the doctor said. “A lovely find. It has brown spots, and darker stripes at its base, like tiger stripes. You can’t see it, can you?”

  But he could. He’d never seen anything so clearly in his life. His fingers caressed the shell, flipped and rotated it. He had never felt anything so smooth—had never imagined something could possess such deep polish. He asked, nearly whispering: “Who made this?” The shell was still in his hand, a week later, when his father pried it out, complaining of the stink.

  Overnight his world became shells, conchology, the phylum Mollusca. In Whitehorse, during the sunless winter, he learned Braille, mail-ordered shell books, turned up logs after thaws to root for wood snails. At sixteen, burning for the reefs he had discovered in books like The Wonders of Great Barrier, he left Whitehorse for good and crewed sailboats through the tropics: Sanibel Island, St. Lucia, the Batan Islands, Colombo, Bora Bora, Cairns, Mombassa, Moorea. All this blind. His skin went brown, his hair white. His fingers, his senses, his mind—all of him—obsessed over the geometry of exoskeletons, the sculpture of calcium, the evolutionary rationale for ramps, spines, beads, whorls, folds. He learned to identify a shell by flipping it up in his hand; the shell spun, his fingers assessed its form, classified it: Ancilla, Ficus, Terebra. He returned to Florida, earned a bachelor’s in biology, a Ph.D. in malacology. He circled the equator; got terribly lost in the streets of Fiji; got robbed in Guam and again in the Seychelles; discovered new species of bivalves, a new family of tusk shells, a new Nassarius, a new Fragum.

  Four books, three Seeing Eye shepherds, and a son named Josh later, he retired early from his professorship and moved to a thatch-roofed kibanda just north of Lamu, Kenya, one hundred kilometers south of the equator in a small marine park in the remotest elbow of the Lamu Archipelago. He was fifty-eight years old. He had realized, finally, that he would only understand so much, that malacology only led him downward, to more questions. He had never comprehended the endless variations of design: Why this lattice ornament? Why these fluted scales, these lumpy nodes? Ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege: to find a shell, to feel it, to understand only on some unspeakable level why it bothered to be so lovely. What joy he found in that, what utter mystery.

  Every six hours the tides plowed shelves of beauty onto the beaches of the world, and here he was, able to walk out into it, thrust his hands into it, spin a piece of it between his fingers. To gather up seashells—each one an amazement—to know their names, to drop them into a bucket: this was what filled his life, what overfilled it.

  Some mornings, moving through the lagoon, Tumaini splashing comfortably ahead, he felt a nearly irresistible urge to bow down.

  But then, two years ago, there was this twist in his life, this spiral that was at once inevitable and unpredictable, like the aperture in a horn shell. (Imagine running a thumb down one, tracing its helix, fingering its flat spiral ribs, encountering its sudden, twisting opening.) He was sixty-three, moving out across the shadeless beach behind his kibanda, poking a beached sea cucumber with his toe, when Tumaini yelped and skittered and dashed away, galloping downshore, her collar jangling. When the shell collector caught up, he caught up with Nancy, sunstroked, incoherent, wandering the beach in a khaki travel suit as if she had dropped from the clouds, fallen from a 747. He took her inside and laid her on his cot and poured warm chai down her throat. She shivered awfully; he radioed Dr. Kabiru, who boated in from Lamu.

  “A fever has her,” Dr. Kabiru pronounced, and poured sea water over her chest, swamping her blouse and the shell collector’s floor. Eventually her fever fell, the doctor left, and she slept and
did not wake for two days. To the shell collector’s surprise no one came looking for her—no one called; no water taxis came speeding into the lagoon ferrying frantic American search parties.

  As soon as she recovered enough to talk she talked tirelessly, a torrent of personal problems, a flood of divulged privacies. She’d been coherent for a half hour when she explained she’d left a husband and kids. She’d been naked in her pool, floating on her back, when she realized that her life—two kids, a three-story Tudor, an Audi wagon—was not what she wanted. She’d left that day. At some point, traveling through Cairo, she ran across a neo-Buddhist who turned her onto words like inner peace and equilibrium. She was on her way to live with him in Tanzania when she contracted malaria. “But look!” she exclaimed, tossing up her hands. “I wound up here!” As if it were all settled.

  The shell collector nursed and listened and made her toast. Every three days she faded into shivering delirium. He knelt by her and trickled seawater over her chest, as Dr. Kabiru had prescribed.

  Most days she seemed fine, babbling her secrets. He fell for her, in his own unspoken way. In the lagoon she would call to him and he would swim to her, show her the even stroke he could muster with his sixty-three-year-old arms. In the kitchen he tried making her pancakes and she assured him, giggling, that they were delicious.

  And then one midnight she climbed onto him. Before he was fully awake, they had made love. Afterward he heard her crying. Was sex something to cry about? “You miss your kids,” he said.

  “No.” Her face was in the pillow and her words were muffled. “I don’t need them anymore. I just need balance. Equilibrium.”

  “Maybe you miss your family. It’s only natural.”

  She turned to him. “Natural? You don’t seem to miss your kid. I’ve seen those letters he sends. I don’t see you sending any back.”

  “Well he’s thirty . . .” he said. “And I didn’t run off.”