Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Shell Collector, Page 2

Anthony Doerr

  “Didn’t run off? You’re three trillion miles from home! Some retirement. No fresh water, no friends. Bugs crawling in the bathtub.”

  He didn’t know what to say: What did she want anyhow? He went out collecting.

  Tumaini seemed grateful for it, to be in the sea, under the moon, perhaps just to be away from her master’s garrulous guest. He unclipped her harness; she nuzzled his calves as he waded. It was a lovely night, a cooling breeze flowing around their bodies, the warmer tidal current running against it, threading between their legs. Tumaini paddled to a rock perch, and he began to roam, stooped, his fingers probing the sand. A marlinspike, a crowned nassa, a broken murex, a lined bullia, small voyagers navigating the current-packed ridges of sand. He admired them, and put them back where he found them. Just before dawn he found two cone shells he couldn’t identify, three inches long and audacious, attempting to devour a damselfish they had paralyzed.

  When he returned, hours later, the sun was warm on his head and shoulders and he came smiling into the kibanda to find Nancy catatonic on his cot. Her forehead was cold and damp. He rapped his knuckles on her sternum and she did not reflex. Her pulse measured at twenty, then eighteen. He radioed Dr. Kabiru, who motored his launch over the reef and knelt beside her and spoke in her ear. “Bizarre reaction to malaria,” the doctor mumbled. “Her heart hardly beats.”

  The shell collector paced his kibanda, blundered into chairs and tables that had been unmoved for ten years. Finally he knelt on the kitchen floor, not praying so much as buckling. Tumaini, who was agitated and confused, mistook despair for playfulness, and rushed to him, knocking him over. Lying there, on the tile, Tumaini slobbering on his cheek, he felt the cone shell, the snail inching its way, blindly, purposefully, toward the door.

  Under a microscope, the shell collector had been told, the teeth of certain cones look long and sharp, like tiny translucent bayonets, the razor-edged tusks of a miniature ice-devil. The proboscis slips out the siphonal canal, unrolling, the barbed teeth spring forward. In victims the bite causes a spreading insentience, a rising tide of paralysis. First your palm goes horribly cold, then your forearm, then your shoulder. The chill spreads to your chest. You can’t swallow, you can’t see. You burn. You freeze to death.

  “There is nothing,” Dr. Kabiru said, eyeing the snail, “I can do for this. No antivenom, no fix. I can do nothing.” He wrapped Nancy in a blanket and sat by her in a canvas chair and ate a mango with his penknife. The shell collector boiled the cone shell in the chai pot and forked the snail out with a steel needle. He held the shell, fingered its warm pavilion, felt its mineral convolutions.

  Ten hours of this vigil, this catatonia, a sunset and bats feeding and the bats gone full-bellied into their caves at dawn and then Nancy came to, suddenly, miraculously, bright-eyed.

  “That,” she announced, sitting up in front of the dumb-founded doctor, “was the most incredible thing ever.” Like she had just finished viewing some hypnotic, twelve-hour cartoon. She claimed the sea had turned to ice and snow blew down around her and all of it—the sea, the snowflakes, the white frozen sky—pulsed. “Pulsed!” she shouted. “Sssshhh!” she yelled at the doctor, at the stunned shell collector. “It’s still pulsing! Whump! Whump!”

  She was, she exclaimed, cured of malaria, cured of delirium; she was balanced. “Surely,” the shell collector said, “you’re not entirely recovered,” but even as he said this he wasn’t so sure. She smelled different, like melt-water, like slush, glaciers softening in spring. She spent the morning swimming in the lagoon, squealing and splashing. She ate a tin of peanut butter, practiced high leg kicks on the beach, cooked a feast, swept the kibanda, sang Neil Diamond songs in a high, scratchy voice. The doctor motored off, shaking his head; the shell collector sat on the porch and listened to the palms, the sea beyond them.

  That night there was another surprise: she begged to be bitten with a cone again. She promised she’d fly directly home to be with her kids, she’d phone her husband in the morning and plead forgiveness, but first he had to sting her with one of those incredible shells one more time. She was on her knees. She pawed up his shorts. “Please,” she begged. She smelled so different.

  He refused. Exhausted, dazed, he sent her away on a water taxi to Lamu.

  The surprises weren’t over. The course of his life was diving into its reverse spiral by now, into that dark, whorling aperture. A week after Nancy’s recovery, Dr. Kabiru’s motor launch again came sputtering over the reef. And behind him were others; the shell collector heard the hulls of four or five dhows come over the coral, heard the splashes as people hopped out to drag the boats ashore. Soon his kibanda was crowded. They stepped on the whelks drying on the front step, trod over a pile of chitons by the bathroom. Tumaini retreated under the shell collector’s cot, put her muzzle on her paws.

  Dr. Kabiru announced that a mwadhini, the mwadhini of Lamu’s oldest and largest mosque, was here to visit the shell collector, and with him were the mwadhini’s brothers, and his brothers-in-law. The shell collector shook the men’s hands as they greeted him, dhow-builders’ hands, fishermen’s hands.

  The doctor explained that the mwadhini’s daughter was terribly ill; she was only eight years old and her already malignant malaria had become something altogether more malignant, something the doctor did not recognize. Her skin had gone mustard-seed yellow, she threw up several times a day, her hair fell out. For the past three days she had been delirious, wasted. She tore at her own skin. Her wrists had to be bound to the headboard. These men, the doctor said, wanted the shell collector to give her the same treatment he had given the American woman. He would be paid.

  The shell collector felt them crowded into the room, these ocean Muslims in their rustling kanzus and squeaking flip-flops, each stinking of his work—gutted perch, fertilizer, hull-tar— each leaning in to hear his reply.

  “This is ridiculous,” he said. “She will die. What happened to Nancy was some kind of fluke. It was not a treatment.”

  “We have tried everything,” the doctor said.

  “What you ask is impossible,” the shell collector repeated. “Worse than impossible. Insane.”

  There was silence. Finally a voice directly before him spoke, a strident, resonant voice, a voice he heard five times a day as it swung out from loudspeakers over the rooftops of Lamu and summoned people to prayer. “The child’s mother,” the mwadhini began, “and I, and my brothers, and my brothers’ wives, and the whole island, we have prayed for this child. We have prayed for many months. It seems sometimes that we have always prayed for her. And then today the doctor tells us of this American who was cured of the same disease by a snail. Such a simple cure. Elegant, would you not say? A snail that accomplishes what laboratory capsules cannot. Allah, we reason, must be involved in something so elegant. So you see. These are signs all around us. We must not ignore them.”

  The shell collector refused again. “She must be small, if she is only eight. Her body will not withstand the venom of a cone. Nancy could have died—she should have died. Your daughter will be killed.”

  The mwadhini stepped closer, took the shell collector’s face in his hands. “Are these,” he intoned, “not strange and amazing coincidences? That this American was cured of her afflictions and that my child has similar afflictions? That you are here and I am here, that animals right now crawling in the sand outside your door harbor the cure?”

  The shell collector paused. Finally he said, “Imagine a snake, a terribly venomous sea snake. The kind of venom that swells a body to bruising. It stops the heart. It causes screaming pain. You’re asking this snake to bite your daughter.”

  “We’re sorry to hear this,” said a voice behind the mwadhini. “We’re very sorry to hear this.” The shell collector’s face was still in the mwadhini’s hands. After long moments of silence, he was pushed aside. He heard men, uncles probably, out at the washing sink, splashing around.

  “You won’t find a cone out there,” he yell
ed. Tears rose to the corners of his dead sockets. How strange it felt to have his home overrun by unseen men.

  The mwadhini’s voice continued: “My daughter is my only child. Without her my family will go empty. It will no longer be a family.”

  His voice bore an astonishing faith, in the slow and beautiful way it trilled sentences, in the way it braided each syllable. The mwadhini was convinced, the shell collector realized, that a snail bite would heal his daughter.

  The voice raveled on: “You hear my brothers in your backyard, clattering among your shells. They are desperate men. Their niece is dying. If they must, they will wade out onto the coral, as they have seen you do, and they will heave boulders and tear up corals and stab the sand with shovels until they find what they are looking for. Of course they too, when they find it, may be bitten. They may swell up and die. They will—how did you say it? —have screaming pain. They do not know how to capture such animals, how to hold them.”

  His voice, the way he held the shell collector’s face. All this was a kind of hypnosis.

  “You want this to happen?” the mwadhini continued. His voice hummed, sang, became a murmurous soprano. “You want my brothers to be bitten also?”

  “I want only to be left alone.”

  “Yes,” the mwadhini said, “left alone. A stay-at-home, a hermit, a mtawa. Whatever you want. But first, you will find one of these cone shells for my daughter, and you will sting her with it. Then you will be left alone.”

  At low tide, accompanied by an entourage of the mwadhini’s brothers, the shell collector waded with Tumaini out onto the reef and began to upturn rocks and probe into the sand beneath to try to extract a cone. Each time his fingers flurried into loose sand, or into a crab-guarded socket in the coral, a volt of fear would speed down his arm and jangle his fingers. Conus tessulatus, Conus obscurus, Conus geographus, who knew what he would find. The waiting proboscis, the poisoned barbs of an expectant switchblade. You spend your life avoiding these things; you end up seeking them out.

  He whispered to Tumaini, “We need a small one, the smallest we can,” and she seemed to understand, wading with her ribs against his knee, or paddling when it became too deep, but these men leaned in all around him, splashing in their wet kanzus, watching with their dark, redolent attention.

  By noon he had one, a tiny tessellated cone he hoped couldn’t paralyze a housecat, and he dropped it in a mug with some seawater.

  They ferried him to Lamu, to the mwadhini’s home, a surfside jumba with marble floors. They led him to the back, up a vermicular staircase, past a tinkling fountain, to the girl’s room. He found her hand, her wrist still lashed to the bedpost, and held it. It was small and damp and he could feel the thin fan of her bones through her skin. He poured the mug out into her palm and folded her fingers, one by one, around the snail. It seemed to pulse there, in the delicate vaulting of her hand, like the small dark heart at the center of a songbird. He was able to imagine, in acute detail, the snail’s translucent proboscis as it slipped free of the siphonal canal, the quills of its teeth probing her skin, the venom spilling into her.

  “What,” he asked into the silence, “is her name?”

  Further amazement: the girl, whose name was Seema, recovered. Completely. For ten hours she was cold, catatonic. The shell collector spent the night standing in a window, listening to Lamu: donkeys clopping up the street, nightbirds squelching from somewhere in the acacia to his right, hammer strokes on metal, far off and the surf, washing into the pylons of the docks. He heard the morning prayer sung in the mosques. He began to wonder if he’d been forgotten, if hours ago the girl had passed gently into death and no one had thought to tell him. Perhaps a mob was silently gathering to drag him off and stone him and wouldn’t he have deserved every stone?

  But then the cooks began whistling and clucking, and the mwadhini, who had squatted by his daughter nightlong, palms up in supplication, hurried past. “Chapatis,” he gushed. “She wants chapatis.” The mwadhini brought her them himself, cold chapatis slavered with mango jam.

  By the following day everyone knew a miracle had occurred in the mwadhini’s house. Word spread, like a drifting cloud of coral eggs, spawning, frenzied; it left the island and lived for a while in the daily gossip of coastal Kenyans. The Daily Nation ran a backpage story, and KBC ran a minute-long radio spot featuring sound bites from Dr. Kabiru: “I did not know one hundred percent, that it would work, no. But, having extensively researched, I was confident . . .”

  Within days the shell collector’s kibanda became a kind of pilgrim’s destination. At almost any hour, he heard the buzz of motorized dhows, or the oar-knocking of rowboats, as visitors came over the reef into the lagoon. Everyone, it seemed, had a sickness that required remedy. Lepers came, and children with ear infections, and it was not unusual for the shell collector to blunder into someone as he made his way from the kitchen to the bathroom. His conches were carted off, and his neat mound of scrubbed limpets. His entire collection of Flinder’s vase shells disappeared.

  Tumaini, thirteen years old and long settled into her routine with her master, did not fare well. Never aggressive, now she became terrified of nearly everything: termites, fire ants, stone crabs. She barked her voice out at the moon’s rising. She spent nearly all her hours under the shell collector’s cot, wincing at the smells of strangers’ sicknesses, and didn’t perk up even when she heard her food dish come down upon the kitchen tile.

  There were worse problems. People were following the shell collector out into the lagoon, stumbling onto the rocks or the low benches of living coral. A choleric woman brushed up against fire coral and fainted from the pain. Others, thinking she had swooned in rapture, threw themselves on the coral and came away badly welted, weeping. Even at night, when he tried stealing down the path with Tumaini, pilgrims rose from the sand and followed him—unseen feet splashing nearby, unseen hands sifting quietly through his collecting bucket.

  It was only a matter of time, the shell collector knew, before something terrible would happen. He had nightmares about finding a corpse bobbing in the wavebreak, bloated with venom. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole sea had become a tub of poison harboring throngs of villains. Sand eels, stinging corals, sea snakes, crabs, men-of-war, barracuda, mantas, sharks, urchins—who knew what septic tooth would next find skin?

  He stopped shelling and found other things to do. He was supposed to send shells back to the university—he had permits to send a boxful every two weeks—but he filled the boxes with old specimens, ceriths or cephalopods he had lying in cupboards or wrapped in newspaper.

  And there were always visitors. He made them pots of chai, tried politely to explain that he had no cone shells, that they would be seriously injured or killed, if they were bitten. A BBC reporter came, and a wonderful-smelling woman from the International Tribune; he begged them to write about the dangers of cones. But they were more interested in miracles than snails; they asked if he had tried pressing cone shells to his eyes and sounded disappointed to hear he had not.

  After some months without miracles the number of visits fell off, and Tumaini slunk out from under the cot, but people continued to taxi in, curious tourists or choleric elders without the shillings for a doctor. Still the shell collector did not shell for fear he would be followed. Then, in the mail that came in by boat twice a month, a letter from Josh arrived.

  Josh was the shell collector’s son, a camp coordinator in Kalamazoo. Like his mother (who had kept the shell collector’s freezer stocked with frozen meals for thirty years, despite being divorced from him for twenty-six), Josh was a goody-goody. At age ten he grew zucchini on his mother’s back lawn, then distributed them, squash by squash, to soup kitchens in St. Petersburg. He picked up litter wherever he walked, brought his own bags to the supermarket, and airmailed a letter to Lamu every month, letters that filled half a page of exclamation-laden Braille without employing a single substantial sentence: Hi Pop! Things are just fabulous in Michigan! I b
et it’s sunny in Kenya! Have a wonderful Labor Day! Love you tons!

  This month’s letter, however, was different.

  “Dear Pop!” it read,

  . . . I’ve joined the Peace Corps! I’ll be working in Uganda for three years! And guess what else? I’m coming to stay with you first! I’ve read about the miracles you’ve been working—it’s news even here. You got blurbed in The Humanitarian! I’m so proud! See you soon!

  Six mornings later Josh splashed in on a water taxi. Immediately he wanted to know why more wasn’t being done for the sick people clumped in the shade behind the kibanda. “Sweet Jesus!” he exclaimed, slathering suntan lotion over his arms. “These people are suffering! These poor orphans!” He crouched over three Kikuyu boys. “Their faces are covered with tiny flies!”

  How strange it was to have his son under his roof, to hear him unzip his huge duffel bags, to come across his Schick razor on the sink. Hearing him chide (“You feed your dog prawns?”), chug papaya juice, scrub pans, wipe down counters—who was this person in his home? Where had he come from?

  The shell collector had always suspected that he did not know his son one whit. Josh had been raised by his mother; as a boy he preferred the baseball diamond to the beach, cooking to conchology. And now he was thirty. He seemed so energetic, so good . . . so stupid. He was like a golden retriever, fetching things, sloppy-tongued, panting, falling over himself to please. He used two days of fresh water giving the Kikuyu boys showers. He spent seventy shillings on a sisal basket that should have cost him seven. He insisted on sending visitors off with care packages, plantains or House of Mangi tea biscuits, wrapped in paper and tied off with yarn.

  “You’re doing fine, Pop,” he announced, one evening at the table. He had been there a week. Every night he invited strangers, diseased people, to the dinner table. Tonight it was a paraplegic girl and her mother. Josh spooned chunks of curried potato onto their plates. “You can afford it.” The shell collector said nothing. What could he say? Josh shared his blood; this thirty-year-old dogooder had somehow grown out of him, out of the spirals of his own DNA.