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She Sells Sea Shells


Paul Darcy Boles

Humans seem to be nature's xenophobes, hell-bent on conquest, ravaging the land and everything growing and living on it in order to "possess" it. We destroy and conquer out of fear . . . fear of anyone or anything unlike ourselves. Not satisfied with destroying the land, we are now hard at work trying to ruin the sea as well, dumping radioactive wastes and millions of tons of lethal chemical sludge into it, poisoning its inhabitants (and slaughtering those we don't poison), befouling it with massive oil-slicks that spread through the living water like huge black cancers . . . .

And yet, throughout history there have always been those who have a gift for living in sympathy with nature, those who are the friends of the earth . . . and of the sea. For them, for those wise enough to see with their hearts, the sea can bring gifts of life, and love.

For the others, for the ravagers and despoilers, the sea has a cold gift of quite another sort. . . .

The late Paul Darcy Boles was an internationally-known author with eleven books to his credit, including Limner, Parton's Island, Night Watch, and the collection I Thought You Were a Unicorn and Other Stories.

His most recent novel was Glory Day.

She was a quiet woman, the best kind. Up around the rocks nobody much goes in after Labor Day. But there she was, here into October, stroking in as if the water wasn't fit to chill a lobster. Naked, far as I could see, but for what looked like a shell necklace. Clean arms, with the shine of silver along them in the twilight and her legs scissoring nice and smooth, and no strain to it at all. A wonderful swimmer. Quiet, as I said.

Sun was just going out of sight out at Bradford Point, hanging behind the old lighthouse and making it look like a black candle in the middle of the afterglow. It's a time when I always liked to be by myself on shore. The summer people—the "straphangers" we call them, and you can figure out why—are gone and the pines and the rocks just sort of turn into themselves again. The boards of the docks look bleaker and quieter. The ring of green weed around the dock pilings gets a gentle, lost light in the evening. Molly's Fish House down the line gets its shabby contented look back again. It seems to be about to fall into the sea but it never does. The smell of the water is stronger and like iodine around a scratch. Some places on the island you can stand still and hear a moose drinking from one of the creeks. It's a near-to-wintering time when the sun feels better than it will again all year.

When she got in under the shadow of the steepest rocks I said, "Evening," and heard her stand up in the shallows. Then she looked around and up at me, just her face showing in a little spotlight of last sun. It was a searching face, like a seal's, and smooth as brown stone under the water-shine. Her hair hung down to her backbone, wet and heavy and looking like dripping amber in that light. The eyes were the color of the periwinkles you see growing in some of the inland gardens where the wind doesn't reach enough to tear them out of the ground. They were wide and a little surprised to see me there. With her two hands she lifted the hair from her back and stroked the water off in a downflowing motion. Then she said, "It's darkening fast. Will you walk me back to my place?"

I nodded that I would. I guessed she trusted my looks. I didn't know her from Adam's off ox, but she didn't look like leftover summer people to me. They have a different shine, as if they're already on their way to somewhere else in their heads. She seemed as if she belonged. And she didn't look as though she fooled around with paint and canvas, bothering the lobstermen by sketching them or parking herself on the rocks and making a common buoy and some gulls come out like daubs. Or writing poems about the coastline and how the fog makes her think of her lost childhood. I waited while she dressed under the overhang of the rock. It was nearly good dark when she came around up the path. Her feet were bare and she walked like she swam, neat and quick. She carried a little old tote bag she'd kept her dress in. The dress was just any old wrapping.

We headed up the shoreline toward Molly's. With some people you have to make talk. You could wait for her to make it. After a while when she thought it was time to say something, in her own good pace, she said, "There are whales out past the Point."

By now it was dark along the sand and the water had a steadier sound as it lapped. The light at the Point was sweeping across out there, picking out pieces of the cove and then letting them go like a sliding eye. It touched the side of her face and let it go.

I said, "If you got that far out you're some navigator. That's about five nautical miles, where the whales hang out. Stand a good chance of letting yourself get caught in a tide rip."

The light came around again and this time when it touched her I could see she was smiling. "I don't mind a little tide. I've fought them before." She looked ahead to where the lights of Molly's were starting to show the outlines of the fishnet draped over the windows. "It's only when I come back that I get frightened. There are too many murderers on shore."

She happened to lean against me and I took her arm. It was cool as wet sand and lean and hard but round too, with the pump of blood I could feel under my fingertips.

I said, "I'm Jeb Malifee. Portygee on my mama's side and green apple saltwater on my old man's. They've both been gone awhile. I've got the little black shack you see crosswise from the Point. But you can't see it after dark or get there unless you know the path."

I waited for her to tell me something about where she sprang from. She took her time about that. Neither of us were in any chattering hurry.

"Marna," she said after a spell. She sort of walked around the name and caressed it like a woman will try a ribbon on for color and effect in a mirror. "Marna," she said again, as if she liked it all right. "I come from not far off."

I like anybody who doesn't care to tell too much about themselves. There's a decent mystery in that. She appeared and felt old enough to me to have been married and rid of whatever man had bogged her down and maybe even to have had kids. But they'd need to be little kids; she wasn't that old. I kept holding her arm and didn't mind didn't mind it a whit. Neither did she. She gave off that clean smell of the salt that soaks into your pores and seems to touch your bones when you've been swimming a time.

I said, "I take supper at Molly's most evenings. Before I walk you home maybe you'd like to join me. The chowder's not bad, and she sets good greens."

We were inside the light that came out through the fishnet windows now. There were a couple of local cars. Bigbee's truck and such, parked in the yard. A first wind had come up and was shaking the yard grass some. I could see her eyes clearer. They were pretty close to mine. The Point light didn't reach us here because of the breakwater slabs. But it touched the slabs in its swing and made the tip ends of her drying hair shine brighter when it passed over. I said, "I'd think you'd be sharp-set from swimming. I've got some handyman's pay in my pocket. My treat."

She said in a low voice. "Yes, I'm hungry."

I don't know how it happened then. But she swung in against me. And I took her shoulders and then I was covering her mouth up good. It was like tasting bright brine on a sunned morning when you're a kid. With a lot of heat at the center. It was like applejack too, with the rindy kick you get that wakes you up like blowing weather.

I held her close and then let her go. Just holding her arm again now. But it was different for both of us. We went on into Molly's. She was doing all the parlor serving herself, her summer waitresses gone back to school or wherever. She's a big woman with a front like a bosomy tree full of russets, and hair that goes springier every year she dyes it more. She took us to a window table where we could look out through the holes of the nets and see the grass pushing in the wind, and past that, her husband Jack's dory where it was left after he drowned. It was all clogged with sand up to the flat keel around the bow. She told me, "I'll need some shoring up soon, the timbers on the east wall, Jeb. Before real winter."

I said, "I'll bring my tool bag over tomorrow."

I lit the candle in its cup on the table. Marna gazed across at me, nodding when I asked if I could order. I ordered plenty of chowder and all the greens going and a side order of cod for both of us. The candle flame made her eyes turn up at the corners like a cat's. When Molly'd gone I said, "You don't have to fret about murder on the island. The only thing kills anybody is the water. Coming from around here you should know that."

She was listening, looking right at me. From over at his table Ed Bigbee and his boys let up some laughs. I figured they might be laughing at me for picking up a woman they didn't know and walking in here bold as cooters. I didn't care about that.

I lifted a saltshaker and laid it on its side like it was a man lying down. 'Ten men in the last month of summer," I said. "Every one done in by the water. Jack Meliorot was the first." I nodded out to the bleaching dory. "Rat calm, but the dory came in without him. He wasn't a steady drunk. Just some tanking on weekends." I picked up the shaker and laid it down on its flank again. "All like that. Island people and people with God-sense about the water." I looked up. "So you can see what could happen to a one-woman swimmer without even a boat. Going way beyond the limit and finding whales."

Her eyes stayed so blue they hurt on mine.

"They come up dark as glory and then beside you," she said. "Their eyes looking at you and their power shared with you. They smile in their bellies and roll like churches in a storm. They make me full of wonder and charged with joy."

She reached and touched my hand. It was like touching cool fire. 'There were fishermen, trying to harpoon them. But they go deep, when they feel that. They speak in the deep. They sing about the narrowness of the land and the tininess of men. About what'll happen when the world changes and they walk on land again."

I kept her hand firm in mine. "Sure," I said. "The only trouble is they don't have thumbs. If they had thumbs like monkeys and could learn to walk they'd be pretty big beans. Nothing wrong with their brains. But it won't work if they're planning a takeover. Don't you know in the Writ where it says, 'There shall be no more sea'?"

She saw then I was laughing a little inside me without showing it. She pulled her hand out of mine like a fin going small and slipping the bight.

She stared at me with the eyes afire in the middle of the blue and then started to get up.

I said, "Sit down. I'm sorry. I won't talk so again. When you look like that I'd swear you can see in the dark."

She settled back. I took out my pipe and lit it. While I got it going she reached in a pocket of that wadded do-nothing dress and pulled out a shell. Not the kind you see washed in by the thousands, but gold-tipped with the whorls in it creamy and a perfect nacre moonlight on the outside. I figured it for one of those I'd seen in the necklace when she'd come swimming in. It caught the light and sent back a kind of light itself.

I said, "That's a different animal."

"From the floor of the sea," she said.

"Well, how?" I said. I blew a cloud. "You can't go that far down, you wouldn't be here. A suited diver can't make it five miles out. I'll show you cartographic soundings sometime, if you want."

She said, "The whales bring them for me."

I had sense enough to keep my lips tight.

"I sell them to a shop, a store in Boston. They sell to museums, collectors."

"That makes sense," I said.

After a time her hand came back. I held it like it was a quiet child I'd saved from a beating.

Molly came with our orders. I'd been wondering if hunger for this woman meant hunger in the way of appetite for food. I needn't have worried about that. She ate with her head low and nothing before her but the eating. It should have been something you wanted to look away from, but it wasn't. Just like an animal with health in it, and that fierceness. It excited me some. She didn't need any of Molly's bibs. It all went down without a scrap left but the peeled cod bones.

When we got outside again in the dark, Bigbee's truck was just leaving with his boys and some bottles waving back, and the rest of the cars were gone. She'd put the valuable shell back in her tote bag. I put an arm around her and felt her lean into it. I said, "If you don't want to show me your place inside, you don't have to. No obligation. But give me a general idea which way it lies."

She'd put up a hand and she rubbed the hair at the nape of my neck. "It's past your shack, to leeward. Under the dune there, beside the inlet. It's not a house. It's a cave."

I said, "I know the place. I haven't been there in a time. Some of us island kids used to root around there summers, before we had to make ourselves a living. It will get cold as Billy B. Hell when the snows come."

She said, "I won't be there then. I'm moving in with you."

"So be it," I said. Her hand stayed in my nape hair while we walked on. We passed my shack, black clapboard with salt caked on the seaward boards and my own dory upended on tubs in the yard and my toolshed unlocked in case anybody wanted to borrow—whoever did would leave a note—and went right on to the dune. The inshore breeze was pestering the sea oats, making them lean like stiff wheat. The dune shoulder loomed up high and the tide was in and the surf starting to make. She let go of me and cut a little ahead. I followed her over the dune and down to where the cave is: an old granite deposit with walls like carved fleece. She hunkered down to go in, and for a minute it was dark, then she found a match and struck it to the binnacle lamp set on the cave floor. The wick widened with fire.

While she gathered shells, a good many of them, all strange and different, and stuffed them in a gunnysack on top of dried seaweed, I kept looking at the lamp. It was old as whaling days. Had worm holes in the elm strapping, thick wavy glass. I said, "Pete Chalorous had a lamp like this. Got it from his father, carried it in his dory. When Pete and his son washed up, the dory came in a day later. Nobody ever found the lamp."

His back was turned. Her hair was dry as moss now. Shining like something fed by the half dark. Falling deep to her shoulders when she faced me. "I found the dory afloat before it came in. I thought it had gone adrift. I took the lamp for my own."

"Nobody needs it," I said. "Pete's wife's gone to live with relatives at Bangor."

I helped her carry the lamp and the sack full of weed-cradled shells and her little bag. That was about all she seemed to have. Travel light and stay clam pure; it didn't seem to be a bad life, if lonesome. Maybe she knew what I was thinking. Because when we mounted the dune again, breeze at our backs and the surf talking, she said over hair floating from her shoulders, "I send the money from the shells to a wildlife group. They're trying to save the whales."

"Yes," I said. "Everybody's trying to save something."

At the shack I went in first to light the stove and lay some wood in the fireplace. That was all I usually needed to see by at night. She put her shells out where they could catch the light around the sill beams. When I had the pine and birch logs drawing I stood up and wheeled around and then just stood. She'd stripped her dress. She lifted her arms as if she might be going to dance or make a dive.

When I took her she arched back as if she didn't have any bones, making a singing noise in the back of her throat that seemed to get in my head and stay there. It stayed even after the first time, while we were just lying in the firelight. I had her head across my chest, her hair like a fine seine I could just see shadows through. It smelled of kelp and clean salt. The song kept on. I thought it must be coming from the whole body, not just the throat. The way a cat does from the inside out. With one hand I spread the hair back from her ears, and ran a finger down an earlobe and along in back of the cord of the throat there, but she rolled over and crouched and spread herself above me, and I forgot about anything else.

By morning the half-easterly had blown itself out, and while I made coffee and fried bacon and dipped bread in egg batter I said, "I'll be at Molly's about till noon. Then I've got to go to Abel Masterson's, he needs some plastering. His store's next to the P.O. If you've got some shells to ship you could do them up now and I'll post them."

She was combing her hair with an old ivory-toothed comb that had been my grandmother's. Malifees hardly ever throw away anything. Her hair was like a buried walnut gun stock when you've rubbed it with the heel of your hand about a century. She shook her head. "I want to gather a few more before I send what I have. There aren't many good days for it left this year."

I couldn't argue with that. She was so set in her mind she'd have made a good selectman. But I told her not to try that five-mile jaunt again. "The weather stations do what they can. But a squall line can come up so fast it's around you before you can see it's there."

She looked at me like she knew more than generations of seagoing Malifees had ever fathomed. She said, soft, "You are a good man. Born here among the cruel men in this place."

When I left with my tool bag and the plastering gear, she waved till I was past the blueberry brambles. Then I couldn't see her any longer, though she stayed in my mind all morning, while I shored Molly's and went on to middle-island where the stores were and where people like Abel Masterson were breathing slower after the summer rush. The usual bunch of old islanders were gathered like numbers circling a clock dial around the octagon bench under the maple in front of Abel's place, cutting up their neighbors and gently spitting.

I was working on Abel's entrance wall, with the door open, when Ed Bigbee's truck roared up and his big-bellied self and his sons poured out.

I suppose as I listened to him—you could hear him half the block—he was what she meant by a cruel man. He wasn't that, though. Just crafty and stupid, the usual mix. I knew he'd wanted to get those whales for a long time, and now here it was; he and some of his buddies were grabbing the full advantage of no outlanders being left on the island, no ecology and wildlife champions. I stepped to the door in time to hear him boom it out: "We got her all rented and set for morning, boys! Cutter like a Coast Guard's, with a sharper bow. This crew knows what they're doing, and they'll split the meat with us. All we do is pay for the time and trouble. Hell, they done it before, plenty of times—maybe a ton of equipment on board with these depth-propelled harpoons like a torpedo. Sneak up on Mister Leviathan and jab him in the giblets."

Bailee Bigbee, Ed's oldest son, caught my eye. His own glistened. "You comin', Jeb? We're just trustin' people from here who can keep their mouths shut. This ever got out, those fancy straphangers'd nail us to the wall. All we got to do is go out to meet 'em and watch the fun. They ain't even coming in the cove. Just cruising straight to the feeding grounds."

"Yeah, join us, Jeb," Ed said. "We're goin' in my dory. Give you a whaleburger later. Save you puttin' your own dory back in the water."

I said something that made no promises. Then I finished up the plastering, ate half a lead-heavy egg sandwich at the drugstore, and walked by myself through reams of Indian summer light to the rocks. I took my shirt off there and stretched out. With the sun on my eyelids I thought about Marna, if that was her name, and I didn't care if it was or wasn't. I thought about her claim that the whales brought up special seashells for her. I thought about the high average of people who'd been drowned when they'd bothered those whales this past year, too. When I dropped off to sleep I had a drowning dream—which happens sometimes if you're island-born and have seen enough men washed in.

I woke up at dusk, the rock under me cooling.

At first I didn't see her coming in. It could have been a sleek piece of driftwood. Then just as the Bradford Point light came on I could make out her arms and legs slicing along, no tiredness in them. When she reached the shallows and waded in I could see three new shells, the strange kind, draped around her neck on a rope of what looked like seaweed. They showed like odd diamonds under and across her breasts.

I went down off the rocks and took her free hand and walked her into the rock chink where she'd left her dress and bag. She took off the shells and stood back and shook herself, then slid into the dress, and I didn't say a word. I didn't want to break the spell she held around her. Then she moved to me, still wet, the dress sponging, and when I kissed her I thought I'd go on keeping quiet.

She clung close on the way back to the shack. As if the sand and trees and rocks happened to be alien and the shadows threats. When we passed Molly's windows I could see Ed Bigbee's jutting head as he tipped a beer toward somebody and explained how smart he was to revive the sport and business of whale-killing in this Year of our Lord.

In the shack you could see the fog creeping up outside. And feel it. You could almost taste it. Our lovemaking was so fierce it was like hitting each other, or being in a nor'easter, and behind her eyes I could see the faces of all the men I'd known who'd been lost in the deep. The Davy Jones men. They were all there, from this past summer and way back, my relatives among them.

About midnight I got up and went outside. The fog was a pea-souper. By the time I had my dory off the tubs and on rollers and to the inlet creek my hair and pants were soaked. It wasn't an ice chill but it was winter waiting. Inside, I rubbed down and folded myself beside her. I could hear that secret singing of hers. I could feel it through my hands like a harp.

In the morning the fog was still there, hanging on but starting to lift a little. Which it would do when the sun played through. I didn't make breakfast, just told her, "Take me where the whales are."

She fixed my eyes with hers a second, and nodded. Then we had the dory worked out in the cove. The sun started coming through when we hit the open water. I could hear others setting off behind us now. A lot of happy shouting with that shut-in sound it gets across the water. There were soft swells now and where the light patched the patches were blue as a robin's egg. I started my dory engine and gave her the gun. Marna stooped at my shoulder and guided my hand on the engine tiller for direction. It was warming now with the sun as far as you could look and the last fog wisps traveling up into the sky. Now and then when I looked back I could see just the specks of other island-craft coming, and I hoped to God my engine would hold out and not blow from all I was giving it. I kept squinting back through the spray. Then she said, calling above the engine's racket, "Here." I cut the engine and we wallowed ahead a few seconds and then were alone in near silence. Except for the lap of water on the strake-boards.

When I held to the gunwale with my knuckles going white and looked down, I could see the first of the whales. It was a gray-blue shape far below, coming up through brightening layers of light, getting so big you felt when it broke the surface it would shut out the world. Around it in its upward passage silver green fire flew. Behind it came eight more, all the same, all rising and looking up to Marna who'd cast off her dress and stood in the bow. Then the first one checked just under the dory. It made a curving wave that rippled the dory-length and seemed to hold it like a chip on a bubble. They were all just a few feet under and around us now, not sounding, just waiting, in wonderful islands with their darkness solid and glistening and their tiny port-wine-colored eyes holding the sun. The understanding was what reached upward, more important than the size. One rolled a little to see Marna better. Weed wrapped its flanks like a green lace shawl. Marna was calling now, and they were answering. The noises were high and clean above the water. Below, they must have been heard for fathoms.

I raised my head when Marna pointed. I saw the hired whaleboat coming directly over us. It had a high flat bow with a knife-shaped pitch, and behind it, off in the blaze of daylight, lighter craft were bobbing like waterbugs against the blue. Its hull was battleship gray, and guns were bearing down on us from the foredeck. Its rigging cut the sun in tight black lines.

Marna dived. She curved into the water beside the nearest whale, her arm caressing it as she came up, her flesh and the whale's looking like one easy body, then she held to the gunwale and kissed me, lips salt and cool and eyes wild as a hawk's and sad as Time. "Good-bye. If you fools of men would accept and keep what you have, it would be enough!" Her hair was swept back. I could see the gill on that side of her throat, a pale rose color, still pulsing as it had done underwater.

Every part of me wanted to dive with her. But she was gone again so quick I couldn't follow. Sinking with bubbles trailing her and her legs moving like a single fin, then getting small as the whales went down with her. All the whales behind her made one deep sweep as if led by her command. Then they were gone from that place and from all land.

After that I had to hang to a thwart to keep from going over while the blue-cold steel skin of the whaler passed so close the wash came creaming and tumbling into the dory and tried to suck me with it. Then I was half swamped and bailing with an old bucket. Somebody, one of the friendly island sportsmen—I was gagging too much to tell who—was hauling me into another dory then and cussing me for fifty kinds of fool. Telling me the Goddamned whales were gone and saying maybe I'd been the one to spook them. I didn't care much if he threw me overboard. It seemed kind of silly to still be breathing.

But maybe, I told myself afterward when I got calmer, I ought to stay around to do something about those shells she'd left behind.

There were a good many chancy stories about that morning. Ed Bigbee stayed so plagued and mad he wouldn't talk to me—kind of a wonderful relief—for two months, not until he knocked a hole in his living room floor trying to shoot a deer from his window and needed a good reasonable repairman to carpenter it. There were a lot of tales about whales having naturally vengeful natures, some saying they'd seen the lead mamma swallow the girl. I made "ee-yah" noises to that, it being the safest sort of sound to make around foolishness.

When all the to-do was dead and it was cold winter, with people dragging out the family pung for a turn around the back roads, and ice on Cherry Pond, I went down to the P.O. to call on Miss Orvington, who's held the postmistressing job forever, and asked her about a box a woman named Marna might've taken out some time back.

Miss Orvington fiddled with her stacks of paper—she has records of when Vice President Dawes, who sort of assisted Coolidge, summered here and took a box in the twenties—and came up with a slip for paid box rent. Signed, Marna something. Paid in U.S. cash. So I put a few more questions, knowing Miss Orvington's feeling for detail, and got out of her that Marna had sent boxes to this shop in Boston, and received checks from them for the contents of same. And I got from Miss Orvington the adjacent news that Marna—"same woman, a dress you wouldn't give an orphans' rummage sale"—had sent money orders to the Save the Sea Mammals Society, in Delaware. Then I plodded home and made up a seaweed-packed box of the shells and sent them along to Boston, and when I got their check sent it along to the Society.

I felt better after, but only a little. Still had the megrims, which hard work doesn't cure any more than not working does, and didn't feel kindly disposed to anybody. The straphangers came down in force in the summer, like blackflies with spending money. We all lived through that, and when they were gone counted our blessings and their money. Then the good days came. October with that autumn-nut kindness, a time of opening up, of hoping.

I was leaning on the rocks in the evening looking across to the Bradford Point light when Bailee Bigbee came up behind and leaned into my pipe smoke. He said. "The whales come back, but they didn't linger. Me and Papa was trawling last night and seen 'em. Gone now though. Swam off most while we watched."

"Shows their basic common sense," I said.

"That ain't all. Somebody left a package on your shack doorstep."

I thought with the way luck had run all year it would be a stack of summonses for city jury duty and such. But it wasn't. When I opened the basket and peeled back the blue cover, here was this spit-and-image of her, with a dash of me around the nose. About three months old and a hale specimen. Bawling his head off, but when I took him over to Molly's she knew what to do and instructed me in the essentials, and warmed up milk and so forth.

Time being, I keep these knitted hats snugged tight around his head. And he plays with the handsome exotic shell he brought with him—it was lying on his naked chest when I first saw him—but he has plenty of other toys for when he outgrows it. His hair's starting to come out fine, thick as a raccoon's. When it's long enough it will cover the gills, and then we'll throw away the hats. The gills are interesting but nothing you could explain to a preacher at baptizing time.

Merman Malifee's not a bad name. It has a kind of quiet ring to it.

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