Why did I want a Queen Conch shell
whole, as if untouched? I recognized
beauty in the blush of its luminous mouth,
almost like labia, but both hard
and frail, glowing like a porcelain bowl;
I recognized the immaculate proportions
in its whorled spire, which rose to a spiraled
point, and the lure of its emptiness, known
to hold sounds of the sea from which it came.
I wanted a sign of the ocean on my shelf,
memorial of that place, where I stood barefooted
in my swim suit, the air so temperate
that my body felt no boundary with the world.
My friend had decorated the deck of his house
with rhyming lines of conch shells, their beauty
spoiled by uneven holes he’d cracked to lever
them out for conch stew or fritters or soups.
The way to avoid damage, my friend said,
was to kill the conch more slowly: to reach a hook
inside the conch’s shell, catch its flesh
above its foot, then hang the hook on a post
so the shell’s weight would leave the animal
exposed. The conch would die outside its shell,
the shell intact. So when next we dove
to pull our dinner from the sea grass, we put
one large conch aside in a pail. My friend
found a sharp, rusted iron curl,
a nautical tool, and dug inside the shell
to snag the damp flesh. Then he attached
the hook’s strap to a post. There, by the water,
we cooked our supper at sunset and drank and talked,
the night sky freckled with starry points.
We lit our lamps; the sea shushed in Culebra’s
narrow bay; the world seemed a gentle place.
Then we went to bed, me in my bedroll
on the deck, close to the conch and the conch shell
and the hook, from which the conch, I could not
not look, still struggled to retract, held
outside its shell by the hook above and its weight
below. In the warm Caribbean breeze
the conch tried to pull itself to safety,
to pull the shell over its soft body,
and the shell rose in response but only as far
as the hook would allow. And then the conch let go—
went slack to try again. I watched it work
for hours to survive. I dozed and woke, waking
to the same effort—the muscle straining, falling
back, the beautiful shell risen, the muscle
shortened and then, in what I came to feel
as pain, released, the creature suffering for me
for what I’d caused and didn’t know how to stop.
No, I knew. But I thought I shouldn’t waste
its suffering, the soundless, smooth wrenching sweep
of effort to pull inside the dangling shell
beneath the cool, unmoving, hard hook
that was my doing. Nature red in tooth?
I was cruel and my friend was cruel: hours
of hurt for nothing, a souvenir, a beauty.
By morning, when finally the muscle hung,
expired, my friend took the hook down and cut
away the conch and tossed its body to the sea
where another animal would surely eat it
and scrubbed the knobbed beige spire free
of dried sea grass until the shell looked
lovely, but common, nothing I hadn’t seen,
a frequent sight on tourist stands around
the Gulf, the Queen Conch not yet protected,
its swirled whorls knobbed, its rosy lips open.
When I put my ear to the delicate sheen
at its unmoving mouth, I did hear the sea—
or was it blood rushing against my inner
ear; my inner voice hissing, Where
was your pity? In all the shell’s shushing,
I felt shame, so I put it down again,
like a secret, as far away as memory would allow,
the physical fact balanced the rest of my life
on a deck beside Ensenada Honda.