Hunting Conch Shells

Some memories have archives, and these exist in a book I kept when I was seven.

I would pay my way in the world by selling conch shells to tourists off of the edge of a jetty on Petite Martinique. My business partners were my older sister and my younger brother. and I made quite a profit – it’s hard for anyone to resist that pink perfection of a Caribbean shell forever playing the ocean against your ear.

Our success wasn’t just because of the quality of our conch shells, which where of the finest calibre in the Grenadines. No, at the age of nine, seven and five we had already figured out how to play these tourists like steel drums. My sister crushed the petals of Tobago flowers into her face so it looked like she had a touch of the jaundice, and my little brother would strum songs on his stringless ukelele.

It was my hair that really made the money, though—my cornrows started looking less like rows of corn and more like treasure chests, with bones and beads hanging from them, feathers held like sea salt wings. I had black scars on my knee from a run-in with a sea urchin. But it was my shipwreck hair that had become a home to sea snails and starfish. And that’s what made the tourists pay big. If their sunburnt faces suggested that the sale had gone bad, I would pull a snail out from amongst my braids and look up at them with a sadness that I had practiced for hours in the reflection of my grandfather’s fishing knife. They would give me a twenty dollar note, and a phone number to a child services agency in America.

We learnt to refuse their money until they insisted, and then we relented and accepted with tears of gratitude. When our customers were out of sight we ran to the Whale Bone Restaurant, a name it had acquired because it was made entirely from a whale’s skeleton. The tables and chairs were balanced on the ribcage, which made it dangerous, as the dining area was surrounded by a moat filled with sharks. But the Whale Bone served the best turtle burgers on the island. You would scrape your dinner remains into the moat, and watch as the great whites fought each other like seagulls for pieces of sweet potato chips and onion rings.

We brought conch meat to Naomi, the beautiful waitress, so she could make lambi. In return, she put aside boxes of cut coconut for us to take back to our parents. And every morning, Naomi’s husband, Javel, would row his raft up to the side of our boat with scraps of crab meat for when we went conch hunting.

We would set our traps, and then boat to the island to practice magic amongst the flame trees and banana leaves. We only had three books amongst us, the first three installments of the Harry Potter series. We reread those books until we could quote whole chapters, and our magic developed from Transfiguration lessons my sister held in rock pools. We weren’t very good, but the Grenadines held its own magic that whispered to us through boats rusted from sea salt, perfumed breezes.

Those breezes once carried us to the island of Bequia, where a man named Orton lived alone amongst a million turtles. And there, we found our perfect conch shell. It stood three metres tall and two metres wide. You didn’t just put your ear against it, you climbed inside it—and instead of ocean waves you could hear the universe turning. It was far too big to fit in our dingy, and since Orton didn’t like to leave Bequia, there it stayed. We wrote poems about that shell, drew it into the sand, traced it on each others burnt skin.

When we left the Caribbean we wrote our business plan and hunting techniques on a sheet of paper that held our father’s email address at the bottom, and then we tucked it into a glass bottle and cast to sea. We included, amongst other things, our secrets of the whale skeleton, Orton and his turtles, the hair-snails, and of course, our perfect conch shell.

Four years later my father received an email from a man in Mexico. My brother’s bottle had washed upon his beach, and he was emailing to tell us that he didn’t believe any of what he had read, that our stories were merely that—stories for children. He finished the email by saying that he had even looked it up, and that the biggest conch shell ever on record was twenty-four inches; it was in a museum. We thought about it, and agreed that he was probably right. And yet sometimes, in the dead of summer when sea salt comes whispering on my windowsill, I swear I can hear faint echoes of that hollow conch shell—the reverberation of galaxies colliding, exploding suns in my ears.

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