A Shell Story

A Shell Story

by Debbie Slevin

I was so saddened by the news that a dear old friend had lost her 21-year-old niece in a tragic accident that I just didn’t know what to do with myself. She had expressly asked that friends not contact her. She did not want to talk. She did not want to be consoled. Her pain was fresh and searing and she was choosing to spend the initial days confronting its depths and ravished by its magnitude. I sent her love and let her be.

Unable to detach and impotent to help, I went to my place of greatest comfort, where man’s personal disasters are dwarfed by the enormity of nature, where surf and tide have more to teach about the human condition than we are willing to learn. I crossed the Ponquogue Bridge on foot, apologizing to every gull standing sentry along the way as they took flight, offended by my intrusion on their autumn meditation.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the dunes were almost gone. The roads and parking lots looked like extensions of the beach – blown sand and debris where there was once blacktop. A washed-out wasteland with unfamiliar boundaries and obliterated landmarks. I made my way carefully across the desert tarmac and through a small opening made narrower by the crazily twisted storm fence that had once defined the edges of this access path.

About forty feet back from the water was a long line of detritus deposited as the last of the waters receded. I squatted down and started sifting through the tiny glittering shells that ringed the broken dunes like a piece of cheap costume jewelry around an aging, wrinkled neck. I was in search of something perfect. Undamaged. Whole. I will collect these gems, I thought, and make something beautiful for my friend. They will be a reminder that although there are hurricanes in our lives, the beauty of nature and the order of the world survives.

And so I began. I sifted through the sand and picked through the shells, collecting several pockets full of little, itty-bitty cream colored conch-shaped shells. I put them in a bucket when I got back to my house near Red Creek Pond, and schlepped the pail back to the city, where I had work awaiting me. I planned to wash them during the week and glue them to something pretty.

In the car on the way home, my husband complained about an awful stench that was permeating the air. What is that, he demanded to know. The pungent odor of the shells was wafting in from the trunk. Pew! It was the awful smell of ‘wet and rotting’, with an overwhelming hint of ‘dead.’ As soon as we got home, I dumped some bleach in the bucket and left them overnight in the bathroom.

The next morning, I rinsed the shells carefully and laid them out on a dishtowel, sorting through, choosing only the most perfect ones for my project. I made piles by color and discarded the broken ones, leaving them to dry in the fresh air and went off about my day.

When I returned later that afternoon, the putrid odor greeted me before I got through the front door. I decided that perhaps I had not used the correct method to de-stink them, so I googled “How to get rid of bad smells on shells.” It said bleach. Okay, did that.

I kept searching. Baking soda. I made a paste with water and scrubbed the shells on both sides, then left them in the bucket to soak some more. The following morning, the smell greeted me before the daylight and I threw the windows wide to stop from gagging. I returned to the computer and searched some more. Vinegar. That didn’t work either. I scrolled my way through page after page of discussion.

One suggestion was to bury the shells in sand for 6 months and let the ants clean them out. Another suggested boiling. The 6-month cleanse didn’t suit my timetable, so I boiled. The next morning they were still putrid. I was beside myself with frustration and struggling with my reluctance to relinquish this idealized notion of how I might bring a little cheer to my deeply saddened friend. I just wanted to find a bright lacquer orange box (her favorite color) and glue some perfect little shells to the top of it.

I obsessed for days as I moved the bucket of stinking shells from place to place. The bathroom. The windowsill. The garage. I explained my task to my husband and his google search yielded nothing more helpful than mine. No matter what I did, the stench remained. But then he offered up something very wise: “Maybe,” he said, “that’s the point: no matter how you try to clean it- it still stinks.”

In a make-believe, made-up, happy-ending Hollywood world there may be a way to take the stink out of disaster, but in the real world there is no salve for the loss of a young person just starting out in life. That perfect specimen, that newly formed bud of a young woman who was just beginning to blossom was washed away in that (un)perfect storm. Because of this hurricane and that hurricane, there will be no beach roses this year. And the dunes have moved. And dead fish cling to the shoreline. No amount of bleach can change that. And that just stinks.