by Julienne Eden Busic
“What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Matthew 8:27
The house was supposedly just off Bear Valley Road, about a hundred yards past where the white trash Coys lived. You couldn’t miss them, because there were always at least half a dozen scabby kids in the yard wrestling with each other or chasing some mangy mutt around with a sharp stick as he yipped in terror, tail between his legs. Sometimes dead snakes hung from the clothesline, trickles of blood still dripping from their mouths onto the parched dirt.
After the white trash, they were to keep an eye out for a cockeyed mailbox on a wooden pole: no name, only two faded red letters, a “B” and an “L”, with an empty space in between. There they needed to turn right and follow a narrow dirt road down to the house.
Katie had thought long and hard about what to wear. Something 60s, to indicate she hadn’t changed all that much? Was that really the impression she wanted to create, that she’d just gotten stuck in time? She’d finally settled on a pair of jeans, not ripped or faded, which would have made too inaccurate a statement of her current world view. A regular pair, and a black shirt with no slogan. The absurdity of walking around in a T-shirt that said “Nietzsche is Dead: God”, for example, or one that had somebody else’s name on it! If she were going to have a name on her shirt, it would be her own, obviously, not some Italian’s she didn’t even know.
Sally probably hadn’t agonized over what to wear, mainly because she always wore the same thing. A plain, long sleeved sweatshirt, jeans, and socks to match the sweatshirt. Purple sweatshirt, purple socks, red sweatshirt, red socks. Not patterned, solid, just like the sweatshirt. Her hair was longer than it had been in high school, but she was getting ready to cut it again, she didn’t like the flat shape of her head when you looked at it in profile in the mirror, she said. She needed height on top, impossible to achieve with a head of hair more like a mane than anything else.
The mailbox they found without a problem, and Katie wondered for a moment whether Bill had had any mail lately, and if so, from whom and whether he’d bothered to respond. She considered peeking inside, but her respect for individual privacy rights prevented her, although she suspected inwardly she would have if she’d been alone.
Bill, golden surfer boy! Your skin burnished deep amber, hair so bright in the sun that it seemed sometimes it might simply blaze off your head at any moment and shoot upwards toward the stars. You got hit on the mouth once by your board when it twisted away from you in a big swell, and that was why one of your front teeth was discolored a pale gray; you never bothered to get it fixed. It didn’t detract from your allure; nothing could back then. Because you were the only one who could achieve a perfect union with the sea!
You’d be on your board, paddling on your belly, looking like a sleek seal in the black, full body wetsuit. Everyone would, hands flapping in the water, bobbing up and down, and then a wave would begin to build. It was almost like you had eyes in the back of your head, or a sixth sense about the ocean, how it moved, when it surrendered, when it struck back. You’d turn the board around to face the beach while all the others continued to paddle out, oblivious; you’d start paddling again, faster, to harmonize your speed and movements with those of the swelling wave. You’d catch it then, get up, position your feet, and the wave, the board, and you would all glide into shore together as a single entity.
Sometimes you’d just sit on the beach in the wetsuit, gazing out into the horizon as the waves broke against the rocks. You’d always have a shell or two in the palm of your hand, and you’d be rubbing them constantly between your thumb and fingers as though you were deciphering some message written in Colloquial Starfish. Once in a while you’d minutely examine them, the conch, the mollusk, the abalone, or hold them to your ear so you could hear the ocean’s roar, even though it lay in splendor at your very feet. Your knees and toe joints were sheathed in surfer’s knobs, from the many hours spent face down on the board, legs and feet pressed against the fiberglass surface.
Katie sighed. Bill. Golden Poseidon, King of the Sea! Now that they had found the mailbox, all they needed to do was turn right and go to the end of the dirt road. A dog was yelping in the distance, the yelp that meant someone was getting ready to throw him a stick to fetch or a big meaty bone. She could picture his front paws welded to the ground, eyes lasered in on someone’s hand, poised.
Sally was rambling on nervously about how long it had been since they’d seen Bill. How nobody seemed to know anything about him, except that he lived down the road where the old, smelly mink farm used to be, and had a house full of shells. Katie couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him, but the part about the shells provided her with immediate literary inspiration: “Sixties surfer boy gone insane”. Or maybe “High school Adonis trades sea for shells”. Both were catchy in their way.
They both kicked up dust as they made their way down the road. The dog had stopped yipping. A decrepit, gray shack came into view. It was one of the old mink farm sheds, a sprawling, one-story affair with a rock path leading up to the screened front door, which was gaping open. A black dog with a salt and pepper snout lay in front on the grass, a stringy, faded green tennis ball hanging from its clenched jaws. It raised its head briefly, found nothing much of interest, and continued to gnaw.
“Bill!”, they called out simultaneously. Their voices sounded shrill and calculated.
“Bill, it’s a blast from the past!” Katie sang out hopefully.
After a few seconds, Bill appeared from around the corner, naked from the waist up, in soiled khaki pants and bare feet.
“Well, what do you know. It’s Kate and Sally”, he said, but it sounded as though he were reading from some sign above their heads with their names on it, written in huge block letters.
“Just a minute, let me go put on a shirt.” He disappeared around the same corner and came back a few seconds later in what had once been a white T-shirt.
“Come on in!” He stepped aside for them to pass, but then hurried ahead so that he could guide them through the doorway to the right, which led into a small room covered floor to ceiling with shells. There were all shapes and sizes, pale pink to dark turquoise, some whole and others with parts broken off. Sand dollars, a four-legged starfish. Several were in piles, apparently for no rhyme or reason, as they seemed to have nothing in common but the fact that they were shells. There was a desk with makeshift shelves, all piled precariously with shells. A small kitchen, the counters covered with a layer of shells or boxes of various sizes heaped with shells. Cornucopias of pale rose, knobbed and fluted, smooth, agate-like mollusks from which dried, spooky claws protruded.
“So I’ll bet you’re here to see my collection, right?”
Katie stood to the side, leaning against the wall, while Sally buzzed around the room, lighting first on this, then that, cooing, expostulating. Bill pulled up an empty cardboard box – the two chairs in the room were occupied by shells – turned it so the closed side faced up, and sat down on it carefully, not really waiting for an answer.
His hair was still long, but not so blonde now, and a bit thinner. The discolored tooth, the long, slender, hard-muscled body, not bronzed, but not pasty, either. He wore a beard now, and a moustache, but they sat there on his face like intruders he had decided weren’t worth the effort of driving off.
Katie had, of course, come primarily for the shell collection. Fancying herself a writer, a thrill had traveled down her spine thinking of the possibilities it might present. A short story, a psychological essay, something polemical. Her eyes wandered around the room, filing away small details. The petrified cat food in a dish on the kitchen floor. Cats neglected, so consumed with shells that living beings were made to suffer. A few dishes in the right sink, a plate, a spoon, a cracked coffee cup. In the left, bowls of shells piled one on top of the other. A conscious decision to minimize the physical space in which he exists, to shrink his life, perhaps a reaction to his inability to bring larger spaces, e.g. the sea, under complete submission in his youth. Suggestive.
“That’s a mollusk. They evolved in the sea and have been adapting to its changing ecological niches for nearly 600 million years”, he told Sally, who was holding a large gray specimen in her hand.
“Mollusks have adopted an amazing array of life styles and habitats. Some groups are carnivores, some are strict vegetarians, others are scavengers or parasites; the bivalves, for the most part are sedentary filter feeders, but some are predacious”, he added.
She noticed Barbara Tuchman’s classic, “Guns in August”, wedged between two layers of shells underneath a window, and filed that away as well. A desperate attempt to inject an historical, and thus,”objective” justification for his fixation: all living beings subject to the same universal rules of behavior and therefore worthy of detailed analysis.
Sally had moved on to something else, a rainbow-hued scallop with lacy frills and elongated spikes.
“Collecting and studying shells is one of the oldest natural history pursuits of man, dating back to the Romans and before. As a matter of fact, a shell collection was preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Aristotle, and then Pliny the Elder were among the first to write about shells”, Bill continued.
“It’s so rare nowadays for anyone to feel passionately about anything” Katie said, wanting him to know she understood it all, and that although they might not be on the same side, could still share the same deep insights into human existence.
Bill looked through her. “My daughter gives me a hard time about it. She says I’m obsessed. I was obsessed about surfing, too, but the thought of that never bothers her.”
Bill picked up another shell, one that resembled a cross between a dwarf cauliflower and a common slug. Katie quickly continued, lest he get sidetracked again. “Great passion is often mistaken for insanity. It happens all the time. The great artists, writers, visionaries, most of them were considered lunatics, but look what magnificence they produced.” It sounded so trite in her ears, so platitudinous. She looked around, trying in vain to fit the piles and boxes of shells into her tidy theory.
She noticed that, stuck in between some of the layers of shells, randomly it seemed, were small, yellow post-it stickers. She walked over to one of them and peered more closely at the writing: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”
Perfect! But how was she going to remember that without writing it down? She tried to work out in her mind a formula to resurrect it later. Sea, ships, work, wonders, Lord. She repeated it several times in her head until she felt she’d got it down. Sea, ships, works, wonders, Lord. Of course, she could render it approximately, writers did that all the time, but she preferred to have it word for word.
Sally had picked up another shell and Bill gave her a patient smile. “The Pectinidae” he said. “A scallop shell. It’s been a pervasive symbol throughout history: ancient family insignias, decorations of armorial ensigns, for example. It’s a background image in many famous paintings by the great masters.”
Just below the niche where Sally had extricated the scallop was another yellow post-it. Katie pretended to inspect something that vaguely resembled a razor clam so that she could get a better look at what was written on it.
The slip, the yellow post-it: “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”
Storm, calm, haven, The sea again. Man in control of, plus the storm. The Leitmotif. She couldn’t possibly excuse herself and go outside to take written notes. She’d just have to remember; after all, she considered herself a collector of tiny details that escaped the attention of others, only to be recycled later as integral parts of some universal parable, or a bold and unexpected deus ex machina.
Sally was happily burbling on about shells she’d seen, her rock polishing machine, how when she’d been in Hawaii, she’d found a tulip shell.
“Fasciolaria”, Bill corrected her. “They’re carnivores, too.”
Katie tuned him out, feverishly filing away detail after detail. The videocassette, lying on top of one of the piles of shells. “Famous Battles of the Second World War”. The historical angle again, everything part of a continuum, man, beast, animal, vegetable, mineral, shell. The notion that nothing can exist in a vacuum, wrenched from its source, and Bill, part of the chain, his delusions sanctified by history.
Another multiple, yellow post-it this time, four of them stuck together, top to bottom. Sally was blocking her view.
She pointed to a shell on a shelf directly in front of Sally. “That actually looks like a tooth” she said, carefully maneuvering Sally to the side with her elbow, perhaps a bit too insistently, so that she could get a clear look at the post-it. “See, this right here”. Bill came over to examine her discovery.
“These are actually extended teeth that can function as pry bars to pop open the protective plates of their food, barnacles, and so forth. The low, flattened shells of limpets are adapted to evenly distribute wave pressure.” Bill spoke calmly, lovingly, more to himself than Katie or Sally.
“…and behold there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!
It was too much to remember, and Katie began to despair of ever being able to do anything with any of it. The words began to swim together, storm, waves, sea, calm, men marveling, the manner of man …There had to be a system for remembering, perhaps by first letters, concepts, categories, man, body part, body of water, deity. Her head began to ache.
“Plato said all learning has an emotional base”, Bill commented, but not as though he’d had a sudden epiphany.
He had surrendered to Sally a fossil-encrusted conch to take home with her. She held it gently in the palm of her hand, as though it were a foetus. “It’s called a frog shell. The scientific term for all snails and slugs is gastropod”.
Katie suddenly had an image of gurgling digestive systems encased in giant peapods, attacking, coming out of the woods from all directions, wreaking havoc. To spite her somehow. Bill was talking in the background, picking up shell after shell as Sally listened closely.
Pleurotomariidae, Triviidae, Haliotidae.
Engorged lungs with bad breath encircling her, cutting off her windpipe.
A pustule playing the harp. It bursts, covering her with sticky yellow slime.
She had to get out, get some fresh air. Bill was holding out his hand, offering her an elongated, iridescent, barnacle-looking object tapered at each end.
“This one here is…” he began.
She brushed his hand away involuntarily, knocking the shell to the floor. Instead of shattering, it merely bounced merrily from one end of the room to the other, coming finally to rest at Bill’s left foot.
“Part of the Ovulidae family”, he continued without pause, picking it up. “An Aclyvolva nicolamassierae. Part of its anal canal is irregularly curved to the right, see?”
A giant herd of marauding vulva bursting forth from the depths of the sea, sucking everything in like huge Hoovers on the rampage.
“I’ve got to, um…”, she mumbled to no one in particular, and careened out the door, down the short hallway, and out into the front yard.
Mr. Dog gave her a dour look. He was still munching on the tattered tennis ball. She breathed in deeply. The sea air rushed into her lungs and then spread throughout her body. She headed up the dirt road, towards the mailbox. Something caught her attention at the corner of her eye, a slight fluttering. She stopped, swiveled her head to the left, and was horrified to find a yellow post-it clinging to her shoulder.
She snatched it off furiously and read: “The whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.”
She thought how well things had turned out. This she would be able to reproduce word for word.
Julienne Busic is an author, translator, and essayist who lives in Rovanjska, Croatia. She has studied in the United States and Vienna, Austria, and holds a Master’s Degree in German and Linguistics. Her short stories, essays, and columns have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in America and Croatia (“The Barcelona Review”, “The Gobshite Quarterly” (contributing editor), “Verbatim: A Language Quarterly”, “Inside”, “The Bridge-Most”, “Outsider Fragments”, “Kolo”, “Aleph”, “Jutarnji List”, “Vjesnik”, “Vijenac” and “Tema”). She has published three books, “Lovers and Madmen” (Gray Sunshine Press, 2005), which won the Croatian Writer’s Society award in 1997 and is now in its seventh Croatian and second English printing, “Your Blood and Mine” (Ridgepath Press, 2008), and the just-released”Living Cells (Ridgepath Press, 2012), a novel based on the true story of a Croatian “comfort woman” during the Serb occupation of Vukovar in the early 1990s.
Julienne Busic has also translated and edited several Croatian authors for publication in the United States: “Survival League” by Gordan Nuhanovic, “Zagreb-Exit South” by Edo Popovic, and “American Scream” by Dubravka Oraic Tolic (Ooligan Press, Portland, Oregon), and “The Tiger is the World”, (Xenos Books, 2012).
She is currently working on a screenplay from her new book, “Living Cells”, about the “comfort women” of Vukovar, Croatia.