Walk barefoot on this warm, soft beach where sea foam sighs along the long border of sand that marks the seam between land and sea.
Yesterday’s storms stirred shells from the depths. Crashing waves scattered them like so many jewels tossed on the sand. They lay shining, tide-polished—abandoned homes of creatures that breathe brine and perceive the sun through blue-green distortions of water.
Crabs amble around knots of seaweed in a sideward dance. Shore birds pick through larger tangles, searching for small fish or mussels netted in the green-gray-brown masses.
Look. There’s a shell unlike any you’ve gathered so far. Pick it up. Brush away the sand sticking to it and raise it to your ear. Listen to the shell echo the sound of the waves.
As you watch seagulls wheeling above the shore, you begin to hear voices—hollow, delicate voices the shell gathered throughout its watery life.
It is good, my Lord. Yes. Yes. It is very good.
Amphitrite fled, seeking sanctuary with Atlas. Nereus advises me to recover her gently, with diplomacy. I will send my most trusted and intelligent friend. Delphinus will charm her to me for he is sweet natured, irresistible. A lovable rascal, he asked what reward he would receive for persuading a Nereid whose countenance is set against matrimony—not an easy task. I promised to show him the pattern of his image among the stars in the high waterless ocean far above where the feathered ones swim.
My father holds no love for me. I resemble the brother he slew; he cannot endure to look on my face. I told my mother I would seek the grandparents his crime denied me, the cousins I long to know. I kissed her cheek in parting though I broke her heart, but I will not bid my father farewell. I will not look back for a man on the beach, a man marked by the curse of God. As this ship departs from the shores of Nod, I turn my eyes to the sea.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be, for the shell collected voices and the dreams of voices just as you collect shells. Its brine washed chambers captured the voices of spirits and men, recording their work, their passions, their crimes, their visions. Listen.
I bear the wrath of Reef. He never forgave us for losing Calypso. My sisters killed themselves; but he made me a wrack-chained priestess singing atonement to him, sacrificing virgin vessels’ blood for without blood there is no atonement.
44˚18’N, 26˚10’W Should’ve sighted the Green Island by now. Navigator checked and rechecked bearings, but no sign of the island the Portuguese call Ilha Verde. Will search the area for a few more days. If nothing found, will report to HM cartographers the reports from that drunken sot of a captain from Gibraltar are false. If we find it, there will be great reward for our king promised . . ..
Familial blood has stained us since Atreus. Now as we sail for Troy, I must choose whether to perpetuate the taint. The waves are angry. The men speak among themselves—we never should’ve brought Iphigenia. I see their furtive glances. They wonder if I will appease the waves with the life of my daughter. If I do, the fleet will be saved, but the curse will poison yet another generation of my house. If I don’t, we shall all perish, and Troy . . ..
Red sky in morning, sailor, take warning;
Red sky at night, sailor, delight.
60˚30’N, 1˚50’W . . . sighted a herd of pale horses frolicking in the surf. Such beautiful animals: powerful limbs, proudly arched necks, flowing manes and tails, shining pearl-gray as they splashed in the flood-tide. Steeds fit to draw the king’s carriage.
We spoke to the captain about capturing some to sell in Liverpool, but when the lookout saw them through the spyglass, he turned white as the foamy waves battering the cliffs beside that beach. He screamed and babbled something about cabyll ushtey being flesh-eaters. Dangerous. Monstrous. Who can figure these Manx sailors?
Look, son, look there! The dove returns, and she carries something green in her beak!
51˚48’N, 30˚0’W The wind’s been keenin’ like a bean-sidhe among the sails for four days and nights. Ye’d think the very sea grieved for us and the leavin’ of our homeland.
Three more died today. A woman, her teeth stained green from eatin’ grass. A child not ten years yet. And a babe that lived only an hour in this cold stormy world. There’s no holy father aboard but the captain’s a Christian soul, he said words over them before givin’ them to the deep black water.
In the Year of the Tiger, in the Hour of the Rat, I go down to the Tsientang. I make an offering to the angry spirit of the river. I make an offering of rice and ribbons of silk. I bow toward the directions of the wind. I do this under the full moon. I ask the kings of heaven to protect our ships as we sail down the Tsientang to the open sea . . ..
37˚12’S, 43˚5’E Half my crew is ill with the same malady rampant at the last port. It’s not deadly, but it does incapacitate them for a few days, leaving us short-handed. I know there are a few seamen among the prisoners. When I looked over the manifest, I saw their crimes were not grievous—the theft of a loaf of bread, a brawl with a squire over a lady of doubtful reputation . . ..
I will speak to these men about working on the ship. If they perform their duties satisfactorily, I will offer a small sum in payment and a letter of recommendation for amnesty to present to the governor when we drop anchor at Sydney.
. . . when she gave a flourish with her tail, and the boats capsized. Eleven men drowned . . ..
66˚42’N, 11˚0’E . . . navigators I spoke with in Copenhagen advised me to steer well west of Mosken and Moskenaes to avoid what the Norse call Maelstrom. They said we would be able to hear the roar of that evil water from a great distance . . ..
You wrap the shell in the length of linen you carry to the beach with you. You place the protected shell in your net bag with the starfish stranded too long in a dried tidepool, with the husks of sea snails, pieces of coral, and claws of crabs. You walk slowly home. You think about the multitude of voices echoing in your mind, and you stop along the way to hear more.
20˚10’N, 115˚0’W . . . exasperates me beyond belief! If he wasn’t such an excellent lookout, I’d feed him to the sharks myself and good riddance. At least he doesn’t come down from the crow’s nest while I’m on duty.
55˚10’S, 65˚1’W The lookout rang two bells and reported a ship listing badly one point forward of our port beam. I instructed the steersman to make the best course toward the distressed vessel.
We were within one and a half cable lengths when a breeze caught the vessel’s flags—one was a yellow rectangle. I immediately ordered our ship put in irons and viewed the vessel myself from the crow’s nest. I then instructed the first mate to make ready to burn the vessel.
Several crewmen and the helmsman were dead on the aft deck and fo’c’s’le. Large, blackened sores covered their bodies. There were no signs of life except for the rats swarming everywhere . . ..
Go down, ye blood red roses, go down . . ..
. . . when he signaled the other boat to help. Their catch was so many, I knew their net would break; but it held. When they hauled in the net, it seemed certain both boats would sink for the weight of their catch. My brothers and I worked all night but the sea gave us nothing. How did he know to cast the net once more on the right side of the boat?
53˚30’N, 3˚20’W A reading of the invoice bound for the colonies shows we carry the following: 2 stallions, 5 mares, 3 bulls, 18 heifers, 5 rams, 25 ewes, 30 slaves, 47 bondservants, 250 chickens, 150 cases of ale . . ..
43˚0’N, 40˚0’W Blasted landlubber! He spends half the voyage heavin’ his guts over the gun’les. Now he’s spendin’ the rest of it botherin’ me about knots.
Show me a bowline, he says. The rat climbs up the hole, runs around the mast, then back down the hole.
How’s the reef knot go again? he says. Right over left, left over right.
I forgot how the bowline goes, he says. The rat climbs up . . ..
Immortally yearning mortality, I sing alone as years pass, years of gazing out on watery wastes, endlessly wishing I could spill my briny blood, my salty tears.
41˚0’N, 12˚2’E . . . and though I see it with my own eyes, I find it difficult to believe, captain, that as a man of God you allow your navigator to use that instrument. The needle is obviously bewitched by demons, yet you entrust the lives of your crew and passengers . . ..
. . . know now I should not have heeded the ship’s owner nor the helmsman. Through every storm, the prisoner’s counsel kept those of us who listened alive. Dare I believe his other report of the Galilean?
When we ran aground, the soldiers thought to kill him lest he swim ashore and escape. I, Julius, centurion of the Augustan Regiment, will not permit this. God’s hand is on this prisoner. I will defend his life to my last breath. Agrippa was right . . ..
74˚1’N, 90˚5’W . . . can only surmise that Sir John either underestimated these waters or was unprepared for the time of year in which he attempted the expedition. We found wreckage from the Terror and the frozen body of a drowned sailor washed onto the rocks of an island. Another ship coming in from the west reports bits of wreckage belonging to the Erebus. Considering the condition of what has been found, I must conclude there were no survivors.
The currachs tomorrow will stand on the shore
and Daddy go sailin’, a-sailin’ no more . . ..
You sing with them, weep with them. You share the excitement as they discover a new passage, a new land. You feel the rush of adrenalin when a lookout yells, There, there she blows! You ache with personal memories of loss and loneliness as you hear the sobs of women sound out across water from headlands and widows’ walks.
The dragon’s head pointed west when we last saw the sun. Curse this fog! Every sounding we take is the same as the one before. We may be going in circles for all I can tell. We can’t see what few birds we hear, and I fear if we release any of our ravens, we won’t be able to follow them to land. The fog’s too thick, the wind too weak. I pray Woden favors us with the sun and a strong breeze soon.
16˚21’N, 70˚58’E Blast his scurvy hide! I should keelhaul him! His blather about that blasphemous Dutchman has our new cook terrified someone will sight that cursed ship. He hasn’t fixed anything fit for dogs to eat in nearly a week for fear of being doomed to drown.
. . . afraid if we do, afraid if we don’t. The Hebrew says this tempest will calm if we cast him into the sea. God charged him with a message for Nineveh, but he fled . . ..
. . . their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves . . ..
51˚30’N, 0˚5’W . . . but the hands that’ve sailed on the Mary Margaret and the Elizabeth were glad to hear the Muscovy Company hired Basque harpooners and flensers for this voyage. The crew thinks they’re lucky. I don’t know, but we do bring back more ambergris when they’re aboard.
The Basques should arrive a fortnight before we weigh anchor for Spitsbergen.
. . . By the deep 6. And a quarter 6. By the mark 7. And a half 7. And a half 7. And a quarter less 8. By the deep 8. And a half . . ..
. . . and I know it could be months or years till I know if the sea took the one so dear, and it wouldn’t be so hard to watch if it weren’t for the widows walks.
75˚10’N, 70˚0’W I’ve never considered mutiny, you know that. But I think the crew is right—Hudson is risking the ship and all hands in his search for a passage. Too many close calls with icebergs. The men have cause for pleading mutiny on the grounds Hudson is non compos mentis. They said they’ll set him adrift in an open boat before nightfall.
If I try to stand in their way, I’ll be with him . . ..
35˚55’N, 4˚9’W . . . and most of the crew’s on their knees crossing themselves. I should be, too. Although fire engulfs everything above her waterline, the flames are not destroying—not even charring—her timbers and sails.
27˚0’S, 109˚0’W Long before we dropped anchor, we saw standing along the island’s hills and beaches massive stone heads gazing out to sea—great, silent sentinels keeping watch for reasons forever behind hewn lips.
You place the shell on your mantle among other shells you collect. From time to time, you raise it to your ear and hear the lives of the sea folk. As years pass, you wonder if your hearing fades for the voices grow fainter each time you listen. At last, you realize it’s not your hearing. The shell starves for new voices to fill its empty chambers. It thirsts for roaring tides and salty waves.
On a day when you’re chilled despite the fire in the hearth, you reach again for that treasure from the sea. But the voices sucked down into a whirlpool of silence leaving only the emptiness of a hollow shell.
A version of “Shell” first appeared in Issue7 of The Cross and the Cosmos quarterly ezine (publishing online from 2010-2014).
“Shell” appears in the following collections:
Under Every Moon by GL Francis, 2013 (publisher: Charlie Dawg Press).
Available at http://www.amazon.com/Under-Every-Moon-G-Francis/dp/0615870694
Leyfarers and Wayfarers by GL Francis, 2014 (publisher: Charlie Dawg Press).
Available at http://www.amazon.com/Leyfarers-Wayfarers-G-L-Francis/dp/0692336834/