We carry certain images with us as proof, Barry Lopez says, “against some undefined but irrefutable darkness in the world.” So it is, for me, with shells. One shell in particular, a conch shell that my grandmother kept on her coffee table in the “living room,” as we called it, though it had also contained the coffin of her first-born child for whom I was named. I would venture into this room rarely. It was dark. It smelled of furniture polish and upholstery. Outside I could see, if we’d had rain, corn undulating in the wind. In drought, I saw corn stalks brown, withering. In winter I saw fields lying fallow.
I entered that room because of the shell. I gathered it up in both hands. I held it to my ear where, so my grandmother told me, I could hear the ocean murmuring. The shell was cold to my skin, its edges sharp, and deep inside it sounded a mystery. A song I couldn’t reach, so deeply spiraled was it into its decades-old source. My uncle had brought it back to my grandmother when he returned from the Coast Guard in World War Two.
When I read “The Woman Who Had Shells,” from Lopez’s Winter Count, that shell washed up on the white sand of my memory, along with all the other shells, smaller ones, that my grandmother's daughters and grand-daughters gathered from the beach at Panama City where we would spend two or three days during the hot droughty summers of Southwest Georgia. The woman in Lopez’s story walks the beach at Sanibel, reaching out with fingers like a crane for shells, then returning them to the surf. He cannot forget her. She haunts his memory. Later, the narrator finds her in a restaurant in New York City, introduces himself, and learns that she is a photographer. They talk for hours. He senses “the edges of her privacy,” but asks if he can see her home.
They return to her apartment where, after cups of tea and some reticence, she begins to tell him about her search for shells. “As she described what she saw in shells, she seemed slowly to unfold,” the narrator tells us, and before he leaves, she opens a glass compartment to show him her collection, placing several of the shells in his palms, some small as grains of sand. Dawn breaks, and in its light he sees the “flush outline” of her cheek. The image of her stepping among the shells at Sanibel returns to him. He hears the “pounding of wings,” and imagines that it is possible to “let go of a fundamental anguish.”
Is this my favorite story? I can’t say. All I know is that it has haunted me for years, that as I have grown into late middle age I understand more and more what that fundamental anguish means and how the image of a woman walking among the shells on a shining beach might enable one to let go, at least for a moment, of that anguish.
I see my grandmother walking along the beach at Panama City, following her daughters and their children, carrying the large handbag in which she has carefully wrapped the leftover hushpuppies and fried fish from our supper, a habit we know well. Sometime in the middle of the night we will hear her open the bag and unwrap the food. She will eat it in the dark while we pretend to sleep.
But now she walks just beyond the edge of the surf, where her grandaughters run in and out of the foam, screaming and laughing. She laughs, too. When they find shells, they bring them to her, and she nods her head. She reaches out to touch them. The Gulf of Mexico unfolds around us. The moon rises, laying a path of light into the edge of the world. I am spiraling into the depths of her conch shell, and in that moment I am no longer afraid.