After a brief holiday hiatus, we are pleased to announce our choice for January's Author Spotlight: Renee Desult
The following is an excerpt from her novella, The Shell. Enjoy.
“Where’d you get that?” Paul Henson gazed curiously at the remarkable little shell his son, Peter, had nestled in his palms. Peter, who had been staring intently at the fantastically hued carapace, started at his father’s question and swiftly curled his hands closed around the shell, concealing it.
“Nowhere. I found it. On the beach back in Cairns or Townsville, I think.”
Paul’s brow lowered. Whenever his son answered a question in that vague, too-quick manner, he was usually lying. Paul, after checking their heading, tied off the rudder and slid down the bench that occupied the starboard side of their little ketch, Gilligan’s Isle, to sit beside Peter.
“Peter,” he said in his best “dad” voice. “Where did you get that shell?”
“Why? What’s the big deal? Who cares where I got it? It’s just a shell I picked up on some beach back in Australia, okay?”
Paul sighed. Yep, he thought, definitely lying. “I’m just asking because I think I remember seeing shells like that back in that little shop in Awara. Remember that one? The owner had all those relics from the headhunters of ancient Papua New Guinea.” Paul watched as his son hunched his body tighter around the shell clasped in his hands, as if Peter thought he would snatch it from his fingers.
Paul thought back to that decrepit shack filled with dusty knick-knacks and shriveled old fruit with donkey hair glued on it that the proprietor had insisted were miniaturized human heads. Peter had been enthralled by the “antiquities” that covered every available millimeter of real estate in the dilapidated shop. Paul remembered that he had lost sight of his fourteen year old son when the wizened old shop keeper had cornered him and dangled bird beak necklaces in front of his face, speaking an unintelligible mixture of Tok Pisin, the official language of Papua New Guinea, and English.
“I can’t remember all the places you’ve taken us to,” His son said, bringing Paul back to the present. A faint look of calculated spite gleamed in Peter’s brown eyes as he continued, “ever since mom died, we’ve been on this stupid boat, sailing from island to island, country to country. I feel so…” he trailed off, watching Paul from the corner of his eye, gauging the effectiveness of his words, “...lost sometimes.”
“Mmm hmm,” Paul nodded, concern creasing the skin between his thick eyebrows. “Yes, it must be disconcerting to be a young man, in the prime of life, exploring the world from the decks of a sailboat. No school, no homework.” Paul eyed his son, the corners of his mouth quirking. “Drop the victim act. You love your life.”
Peter hesitated a moment before he shrugged, grinning. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I do.” His smile faded as he looked out over the calm blue water, “I do miss mom, though.”
Paul nodded, solemn. “I do too, son.” They had lost Mary five years ago, to a rare type of lung cancer. Paul and Mary had met at a record store, both thumbing enthusiastically through old Peter, Paul, and Mary albums. The folk group had been present, musically, not physically, at their wedding and their first and only child had been conceived with “When the Ship Comes In” playing on the radio. The decision to name their son Peter seemed preordained.
Paul gazed fondly at his son’s profile, seeing Mary in the shape of his nose and lips. When Peter’s restless fingers revealed glints of the brilliant pink orange shell, Paul remembered his responsibilities as the boy’s father and, hating to interrupt one of their infrequent moments of camaraderie, said resignedly, “you stole that shell, didn’t you Peter.”
Peter shrugged and closed his fingers tighter over the prize secreted there. “I don’t know.”
“You aren’t a child anymore, Peter. There are consequences for your actions now. What if he had caught you? A foreigner stealing what may very well have been a relic from the times of his ancestors? You could have gotten in a lot of trouble, Peter. Are you listening to me?”
The boy had turned his gaze from the water skyward, where clouds were slowly coalescing. “Do you think the clouds are going to cover the eclipse? It’s supposed to start soon, isn’t it?
Paul ran his fingers through his hair, mentally debating the merit in continuing on with his half-heard lesson in action versus consequence. One last try, he thought, if only because he really would have gotten into a lot of trouble had he been caught.
“Listen, Peter, you can’t steal, alright? No matter how small-”
“It’s for mom,” Peter interrupted, his voice determined. “Kina, the old guy from the store, told me that when we die, our souls enter the ocean and look for new homes, kinda like snails. Kina said that this was a special shell, but I got it mostly because I thought mom would really like to live in it. It’s her favorite color.” Peter’s eyes glistened as tears formed, their trembling weight heavy on his lower lid. “I bought it with my own money. I didn’t steal it.”
Paul, feeling abashed for the accusations he had levied against his son, looked to the sky as well, hiding his own welling eyes. “Yes, it looks to be about noon. The eclipse should be starting any minute now.” He glanced at Peter. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s okay, dad,” Peter looked away from the sky, down at the shell clutched in his fingers. “I’m going to throw it in the water when the sun goes completely dark. Mom’s soul will be able to see the shell better that way; it will shine brighter in the dark.”
Paul nodded silently, unable to speak. He was lost in thoughts of Mary, the way her hair looked first thing in the morning, how her hips swayed when she walked, when he noticed the sky had darkened, as though he was looking through lightly tinted sunglasses.
“It’s starting, it’s starting!” Peter shouted, leaping to his feet. “I’ll get the glasses!” He bolted through the hatch that opened into the small living area in the hull of the boat. He returned with the solar filter glasses Paul had purchased in Australia, when he learned that the impending eclipse would be visible from their scheduled location in the Solomon Islands.
They put their glasses on and lay back on the teak benches that lined either side of the deck; Peter on the portside, Paul starboard. As the moon slowly meandered across the well-lit path of the brightly burning orb, Paul found himself humming a popular PP&M cover, I’m leavin’ on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again. Peter, who knew and liked the song, joined him and the two sang in the disappearance of the sun, their off-key harmony giving the ever-darkening sky a jocular theme.
When the sun was fully entrenched behind the moon and the sky dark as night, Paul heard clothes rustling as Peter pushed himself to his feet. Must be time for the release of the shell, Paul thought as he intertwined his fingers over his stomach, content in watching a seemingly magical event unfurl before his very eyes. Magical and yet, a little unnerving. Now I understand why ancient peoples were so frightened by solar eclipses, Paul thought. He had read somewhere that the ancient Chinese, the people who had invented gunpowder and the magnetic compass, thought an eclipse was the work of a dragon in the sky trying to swallow the sun.
So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll wait for me, hold me like you’ll never let me go. I’m leavin’- Paul heard a splash and looked over at Peter, the song in his head paused. The portside of the boat was empty.
“Peter?” He called, sitting up.”Peter, where’d you go?” Paul took off his glasses and looked around the empty deck. “Peter?” He stood and leaned down to peer through the hatch into the living quarters. Empty. “Peter!” Paul said loudly, his heart beginning to pound in his chest. “Where are you?” Peter straightened and rushed to the starboard side of the boat, looking into the water. “Peter!” He yelled, his voice shrill. “Where are you?!”
Peter sat, trying to still the sickening dizziness in his head. His knees were tucked up close to his body, his head hanging down between them, his arms wrapped tightly around his bony shins. Peter could see the shell sitting on the curved floor between his rear end and his heels, rocking gently back and forth with each undulation of the sea. The last thing he could remember was leaning over the edge of Gilligan’s Isle, the shell in his fingers creating a long wavering v-shape in the dark water as he gently lowered it into the sea. When the whole shell was submerged, Peter had been about to release it when he felt a throb echo through his body. It had been so powerful, this strange inner pulsation, that Peter had thought he might tip over into the water. The sight of the eclipse-darkened ocean was Peter’s last memory before his world went really black.
Now, staring fixedly at the fluorescent shell, Peter swallowed the last of the bile that had risen up threateningly from the depths of his stomach and took a deep breath. And the breath was deep, needed to be deep, because Peter could tell the rough wood on which he sat was not that of his father’s ketch.
Steeling himself, he raised his head, and wide-eyed, stared at the strange sailing vessel he was huddled on. He recognized the basic shape of a catamaran, double-hulled canoes connected by a large platform, a tall forward mast with a large triangular sail stretching the length of the long boat. He sat in front of a palm-covered shelter, and as he scooted around to peer inside it’s darkly shadowed interior, he found it was filled with people.
Peter started violently and used his heels and palms to quickly back away from the crowded interior of the three-walled shelter, grabbing the shell and stuffing it into his pocket as he retreated. Peter was forced to stop when he reached the foremost edge of the wide platform, his backward crabwalk arrested when his questing right hand found nothing but air beneath it.
“Wh-who are you?” He stuttered. “Where am I?”
The huddled people didn’t answer; the flapping sail and the gentle slap of the water hitting the hulls were the only sounds that filled the moon-shadowed platform. Peter was about to ask again when one of the older men separated himself from the group and slowly edged toward him, the aged man’s eyes glancing alternately from the eclipsed sun to Peter.
The man’s thin, wrinkled lips parted and emitted a faltering flow of what sounded like gibberish to Peter. He lifted an obsidian-tipped stick, Peter had been so intent on the man’s face that he hadn’t even noticed it in the man’s hand, and pointed it at Peter. Feeling like he had to go to the bathroom very badly, Peter’s hand snaked into his pocket and gripped the smooth shell, the familiar shape reassuring in its normalcy.
“From where do you come?”
Peter jerked. The old man had spoken again and this time, amazingly, Peter had understood him.
“Do you come from the night day sky?” The man raised the stick, pointing it at the heavens.
“I-I don’t know,” Peter replied.
When the man started, comprehension clear on his deeply wrinkled face, Peter felt his spirits rise up out of his shoes.
“Can you understand me? You can, can’t you. Where am I? Who are you?” Peter couldn’t stem the outpouring of questions that gushed from his mouth.
“Too fast. You must speak slowly.” As Peter and the man conversed, the rest of those clustered together beneath the shelter slowly emerged, staring raptly at Peter, their mouths agape.
“Where am I?” Peter asked, being careful to enunciate each word.
“You are in the waters of my people. Where have you come from?”
“The waters of your people...are you,” Peter hesitated, remembering the map that usually resided on the table in the living quarters of the ketch, “the Solomon people? From the Solomon Islands?”
The man shrugged and shook his head, not recognizing the strange words. He asked again, “where have you come from?”
Peter mimicked the old man’s gestures, adding, “I don’t know.” He looked around, taking in the rustic boat and the short-statured people, clothed in green palms fronds, if they were clothed at all, that were now standing in a semicircle before him. “This is too weird.”
“You are sky spirit? Here to punish us?” The old man gestured at the dark sky, his words making the people shrink back from Peter.
“No, no.” Peter pulled his hand from his pocket and made soothing gestures. The old man looked at Peter’s pale palms and frowned, bringing his own hand to his face, as if comparing the differing hues. The man’s mouth opened and Peter heard nothing but gibberish.
“What?” Peter asked. “What did you say?”
The man’s frowned deepened and he spoke again. Peter shrugged helplessly. Why couldn’t he understand the man anymore? Looking at his hands, still outstretched before him, gave Peter an idea.
He plunged his right hand back into his pocket and pulled out the shell. “Can you understand me now?”
“How do you speak our tongue if you are not a spirit?”
Peter looked down at the shell clenched in his hand. He could only understand whatever language they were speaking when he was touching the shell.
“When Kina said it was a special shell, he wasn’t kidding.” Peter said, his voice low with wonder and disbelief.
“Hmm?” The man, Peter guessed he was some kind of chief, raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
“Nothing.” The wind strengthened and the sail billowed, causing the men huddled around the old man to run to the multiple woven ropes that hung from the sail and were connected to different spots on the platform. Some ropes were tightened while others were loosened, and soon they were speeding along the wind blowing back Peter’s long brown hair. The sky was beginning to brighten perceptibly as the moon continued on its way through the celestial heights.
“Wait, stop!” He said, rushing around the platform, trying to make the men stop what they were doing with the sail. “I have to go back to my dad! We have to stay here until he can find me!”
“No stop, must be home for ceremony,” the old man said, eyeing the way Peter’s shirt fluttered in the stiffening breeze curiously. “Home before storm comes.” When he gestured toward the horizon, Peter saw lightening flit across the sky. “Big water comes,” the old man mimed large waves with the arm not holding the stick.
Peter sat dejectedly, his body unconsciously moving with the rolling boat as it rode the surface of the ocean. The old man came to sit beside him, poking at Peter’s white Nike shoes with the obsidian tip of the stick.
“From what do you cover your feet, spirit? Sharp coral? The stinging skin of the eel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, thinking of the lecture his dad would have given him for that answer. “They’re just Nikes.”
“Nikes,” the old man repeated slowly. “Nikes.”