NEA Literature Fellowships

Anthony Doerr

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(2002 - Prose)

rom The Shell Collector

Copyright 2002 by Anthony Doerr. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc, New York.

The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water - taxi come scraping over the reef. He cringed to hear it - its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern-shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells too: punching holes in olives and murexes and spiny whelks, sending hydatina physis and Turis babylonia spinning. It was not the first time people had hired a motorboat taxi to seek him out.

He heard their feet splash ashore and the taxi motor off, back to Lamu, and the light sing-song pattern of their knock. Tumaini, his German shepherd, let out a low whine from where she was crouched under his sleeping cot. He dropped a limpet into the sink, wiped his hands and went, reluctantly, to greet them.

They were both named Jim, overweight reporters from a New York tabloid. Their handshakes were slick and hot. He poured them chai. They occupied a surprising amount of space in the kitchen. They said they were there to write about him: they would stay only two nights, pay him well. How did $10,000 American sound? He pulled a shell from his shirt pocket - a periwinkle - and rolled it in his fingers. They asked about his childhood: did he really shoot caribou as a boy? Didn't he need good vision for that? When did the cataracts set in?

He gave them truthful answers. It all held the air of whim, of unreality. These two big Jims could not actually be at his table, asking him these questions, complaining of the stench of dead shellfish. Finally they asked him about cone shells and the strength of cone venom, about how many visitors had come. They asked nothing about his son.

All night it was hot. Lightning marbled the sky beyond the reef. From his cot he heard siafu feasting on the big men and heard them claw themselves in their sleeping bags. Before dawn he told them to shake out their shoes for scorpions and when they did one tumbled out. He heard its tiny scrapings as it skittered under the refrigerator.

He took his collecting bucket and clipped Tumaini into her harness, and she led them down the path to the reef. The air smelled like lightning. The Jims huffed to keep up. They told him they were impressed he moved so quickly.


"Well," they murmured, "You're blind. This path ain't easy. All these thorns."

Far off, he heard the high, amplified voice of the muezzin in Lamu calling prayer. "It's Ramadan," he told the Jims. "The people don't eat when the sun is above the horizon. They drink only chai until sundown. They will be eating now. Tonight we can go out if you like. They grill meat in the streets."

By noon they had waded a kilometer out, onto the great curved spine of the reef, the lagoon slopping quietly behind them, a low sea breaking in front. The tide was coming up. Unharnessed now, Tumaini stood panting, half-out of the water on a mushroom-shaped dais of rock. The shell collector was stooped, his fingers middling, quivering, whisking for shells in a sandy trench. He snatched up a spindle shell, ran a fingernail over its prickled spiral. "Fusinius colus," he said.

Automatically, as the next wave came, the shell collector raised his collecting bucket so it would not be swamped. As soon as the wave passed he plunged his arms back into sand, his fingers probing an alcove between anemones, pausing to identify a clump of brain coral, running after a snail as it burrowed away.

One of the Jims had a snorkeling mask and was using it to look underwater. "Lookit these blue fish," he gasped. "Lookit that blue."

The shell collector was thinking, just then, of the indifference of nematocysts. Even after death the tiny cells will discharge their poison - a single dried tentacle on the shore, severed eight days, stung a village boy last year and swelled his legs. A weeverfish bite bloated a man's entire right side, blacked his eyes, turned him dark purple. A stone fish sting corroded the skin off the sole of the shell-collector's own heel, years ago, left the skin smooth and printless. How many urchin spikes, broken but still spurting venom, had he squeezed from Tumaini's paw? What would happen to these Jims if a banded sea snake came slipping up between their fat legs?

"Here is what you came to see," he announced, and pulled the snail - a cone - from its collapsing tunnel. He spun it and balanced its flat end on two fingers. Even now its poisoned proboscis was nosing forward, searching out his fingers. The Jims waded noisily over.

"This is a Geography Cone," he said. "It eats fish."

"That eats fish?" one of the Jims asked. "But my pinkie's bigger."

"This animal," said the shell collector, dropping it into his bucket, "has twelve kinds of venom in its teeth. It could paralyze you and drown you right here."

Anthony Doerr's first collection of stories, The Shell Collector, was published in January, 2002 by Scribner. In the past year his fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Paris Review, Black Warrior Review, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and elsewhere. He makes his home in Boise, Idaho where he is working on a novel.

Author's Statement

I could not be more thrilled to receive a fellowship from the NEA. Not only will the fellowship help me continue to devote the bulk of my days to writing my novel, but it also will keep me from having to move in order to find a job. Until last May, my wife and I had moved five times in three years, each time for a job teaching writing. At last we are able to let our roots settle a bit, and it feels wonderful. Thank you, NEA.