The Shell Collector

by Anthony Doerr

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792

“The Shell Collector” opens at the kibanda (beach house) of a blind shell collector, who is cleaning limpets (a marine mollusk that clings to rocks). A water taxi arrives, bringing two overweight journalists (both named Jim) from a New York tabloid, who offer the shell collector ten thousand dollars for his story. They ask him about his childhood experience hunting caribou, about his losing his eyesight, and about the recent cures, but they do not ask about his son’s death. They ask about cone shells and the strength of their venom. They wonder how many visitors come to the shell collector’s home.

The men stay overnight and are bothered in their sleeping bags by biting red ants called siafu. Next morning the shell collector goes out to the water, led by his German shepherd, Tumaini. The collector walks quickly and with confidence, while the heavy New Yorkers lumber well behind him.

The shell collector hears the muezzin (the English word for the Muslim official who calls the daily hours of prayer to the Islamic faithful) in the nearby town of Lamu and explains that it is Ramadan (the sacred ninth month of the Islamic year celebrated with fasting from dawn to dusk). He collects shells by wading out on a reef a kilometer or more from shore. He handles a number of different kinds of shells and snails, some of which are poisonous. For example, he finds nematocysts, which are poisonous even after they have died. Meanwhile, the journalists use snorkel masks to examine marine life.

The reclusive shell collector is something of a local celebrity now, in part because rumor has spread the news of his having cured a Seattle woman of malaria, who was accidentally stung by a cone shell in his kitchen. The narration turns at this point to the collector’s life up to the time when the two New York journalists arrive.

At the age of nine, the protagonist had hunted sick caribou with his father. He had leaned out a helicopter and culled the herds. But shortly thereafter he developed choroideremia (progressive degeneration of tissue behind the retina in males) and degeneration of the retina; by the time he was twelve, he was blind. At that point, his father took him to Florida to an ophthalmologist, who instead of examining him removed the boy’s shoes and socks and walked the child out the back of his office and onto the beach, introducing him to shell creatures. The introduction to the sea “changed” the boy. He saw the shells more clearly than anything else; feeling them gave him all the details he needed. Immediately, “his world became shells.”

Back in Whitehorse, Canada, the boy learned Braille and read books on shells throughout the coming winter. When he was sixteen, he left home and worked as a crewmember on sailboats traveling in the tropics. He was obsessed with “the geometry of exoskeletons.” He came back to Florida and completed a B.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in malacology (the study of mollusks). After that, he traveled around the equator; visited Fiji, Guam, and the Seychelles; discovered some types of bivalves and several other kinds of shell creatures.

After publishing on these subjects and after having “three Seeing Eye shepherds, and a son named Josh,” the shell collector, then fifty-eight years old, went into retirement, settling near the Lamu Archipelago. He spent his days on the beach and wading out onto the reef, identifying and collecting shells, always fascinated by the “endless variations of design.” He made his living by shipping these collections to a university where they were studied.

In the recent past, at the age of sixty-three, the collector found an incoherent American woman on the beach: Nancy was suffering from sunstroke and malaria. He took her into his kibanda and called Dr. Kabiru for help. When she recovered, Nancy talked about her life, her husband and children in Seattle, her travels to Cairo, and her meeting with a “neo-Buddhist.” The collector and Nancy had a sexual relationship, but they did not understand each other.

Then one day a cone shell got in the kibanda and stung Nancy, causing a catatonic trance and slow heartbeat. Certain cones have tusks “like tiny translucent bayonets.” The sting causes paralysis. The doctor came to attend her and assumed her condition was fatal. Ten hours later she recovered, claiming to be cured of the illness and suddenly feeling “balanced,” almost euphoric. She even begged to be stung again. A week later, the doctor returned with the mwadhini (the Swahili word for muezzin) from the largest Lamu mosque and some of his brothers. The mwadhini asked the collector to give his dangerously ill daughter, Seema, the same treatment that saved Nancy. The Muslims insisted that the collector find a cone shell and take it to the sick child and deliberately sting her with its venom. He acquiesced with great reservations; he went to the city and put the cone into her hand, closing the fingers around it. To the collector’s amazement, the child recovered quickly. This event was perceived to be a miracle by townspeople.

Word of the so-called miraculous cure spread “like a drifting cloud of coral eggs, spawning.” A local paper ran an article, and a radio station gave a one-minute spot to the story. This news transformed the hermit’s kibanda into “a kind of pilgrim’s destination.” Sick and mentally ill people lingered around his place. Others carried off his conches, limpets, and Flinder’s vase shells. Some even followed him into the lagoon, many falling and injuring themselves. The collector had a feeling of dread that something really terrible would happen, so he stopped collecting. When reporters came, he advised them to write of the danger of cones and not of these recent miracles. But these people only focused on miracles.

The collector’s thirty-year-old son, Josh, wrote, saying news of the miracles had reached the United States. He also said he had joined the Peace Corps and had taken an assignment located in Uganda but would visit his father first. When he arrived, Josh cleaned up inside the kibanda. He tried to help the people gathered around outside and invited them to dinner, saying his father “can afford it.” The collector stopped collecting shells because he did not want people who followed him into the water to get hurt; instead, he began slipping away on the trails to walk with his dog in new areas inland. He was fearful of thickets, though, and often hurried back. One day on a path he found a cone shell half a kilometer from the sea, an inexplicable event. Increasingly, he found cones inland, on tree trunks, and in a mango cove. Then he began to doubt himself, wondering if he mistook a stone for a shell, a marine mollusk for a tree snail. The island became “sinister, viperous, paralyzing.” Back at the kibanda, Josh gave away “everything—the rice, the toilet paper, the Vitamin B capsules.” Josh was enthusiastic, altruistic, but naïve. He relished the idea of doing good, but he dismissed his father’s warnings. While Josh busied himself with the little boys, his father sensed an impending disaster.

After three weeks, Josh told his father that U.S. scientists believed cone venom may have medicinal applications for stroke and paralysis victims and that what his father did may help “thousands.” Josh read the collector’s books in Braille and took three mentally ill boys searching for shells. The collector warned them, but they would not believe the shells were dangerous. Then Josh was stung on the hand and died within an hour. The mwadhini arrived to comfort the collector, telling him he would be left alone from now on. The mwadhini compared the collector to a shelled creature, blind, armored, and able to withdraw. One month later the reporters named Jim arrive.

The reporters want the story. They say Nancy has given them “exclusive rights to her story.” The shell collector imagines how his experience will morph into tabloid text: “a dangerous African shell drug, a blind medicine guru with his wolfdog. There for all the world to peer at.” At dusk on the second day, the collector takes the two Jims to Lamu, where the streets are crowded and vendors are selling food and other items. While they are eating kabobs, a teenager sells them some hashish, which they smoke with a water pipe. The teenager tells them: “Tonight Allah determines the course of the world for next year.”

The three men return by taxi after midnight, getting out of the boat into “chest-deep water.” Under the drug’s influence, they try to make their way to shore, and as the Jims admire the phosphorescence of some sea creatures, they ask the collector what it feels like to be stung by a cone shell. The collector takes up a search for a cone shell, turning in circles, becoming disoriented, thinking he will find one and sting the Jims with it. He loses his bearings, indifferently lets his sunglasses slip away, and realizes he has lost his sandals. He finds a cone shell and carries it, he thinks, toward the kibanda, thinking first of killing the Jims with it and then realizing he does not want to hurt them. He heaves the shell back into the sea: “Then, with a clarity . . . that washed over him like a wave, he knew he’d been bitten.” He realizes he is lost in the lagoon and lost in other ways also as the venom pulses through his body: “The stars rolled up over him in their myriad shiverings.”

In the morning, he is found by Seema, the daughter of the mwadhini whom he cured with the cone shell. He is a kilometer from his kibanda, and his shepherd is with him. Seema gets him into her boat and takes her to his beach house. There over the following weeks she cares for him, visiting daily, giving him chai, keeping him warm. Gradually, she engages him in conversation about shells and collecting; as he recovers, she takes him by the wrist and guides him into the shallows.

The final scene takes place a year after the collector is stung. He is wading on the reef, “feeling for shells with his toes.” On a rock nearby, his shepherd sits, and near the dog, Seema sits, “her shoulders free of her wraparound,” and her hair down. She is comforted by being with a person who cannot see and who does “not care anyway.” The collector feels a bullia (a slender, spiraled shell creature) under his foot. It moves blindly along, “dragging the house of its shell.”

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