s a child, I collected souls (but it was only when the deities slumbered). It mattered little that I did not know just what a deity was, let alone a soul. What I did know, thanks to listening in on the fractured prattle of adults, was that one usually prayed to God in the morning at something called a Mass and that this God had created everything, including, said one adult, seashells. I also discerned that whispering into these shells was the best way to get His attention; if you conferred with shells you’d be speaking to souls, which I understood as the inner ghosts of all people living and dead. Since seashells were by the sea — which is where we were at the time — my collecting of shells, which I did diligently, would give me more than the required number of ears necessary to speak to God (if I ever had anything to say) and whole handfuls of souls. Speaking into a shell, small or large, white or black, had a mystical side, because whenever an adult saw you engaged in chatting with a shell they’d look at you with expressions reserved for either kittens or madmen.
If you wish to compress this childlike logic, do so as follows. When my family went to the beach I would spend the time many others spent at church or at Mass or simply praying by walking ankle-deep in the cool Atlantic, picking up shells I thought God only could create — mostly odd, curved shapes — and which I’d then place in a brown bag I’d carry to my secret holy place under the boardwalk to talk to each of these “soul” shells so that God might hear me and eventually ensure I received cars I could use for my road race set at home. Enough soul chat would surely get this done. Or so I thought.
This method of mine had obvious drawbacks. First, I did not know what language souls conversed in. And if souls were in fact ghosts, would they even bother to listen, since they were dead? A soul, or so my mother’s friend insisted incessantly, was immortal and drifted nimbly all around. This drifting I came to associate with clouds, which I sometimes thought were also souls, just dressed differently.
Clam shells and small conches were perfect for my soul outreach (though that word had yet to acquire its baggage), because parts of these shells had the curvature of an ear (the Deity’s handiwork, no doubt) and talking into them made you feel as though you were engaged in a very adult phone conversation. This is why people walking on the boardwalk above me would at times come to a halt when below their feet they heard the words, “Hello? Hello! Soul, are you there?”
I was once reported to the local sheriff, who did nothing except tell me that shells were no longer alive and could not speak. Instead, he’d reminded me that church was the place to reach souls. If I kept this up, he warned, he’d take me there himself.
Once I’d despairingly asked, “What language does God speak?” He paused to smile wanly before announcing it was a bad idea to mock God.
All this for talking into shells in an effort to make a sensible connection with an almighty who couldn’t help but reward me with plastic race cars, on account of my persistence. I was certain any almighty would have them at hand.
I spent much of the whole of a summer in this shell game, at times asking my favorite shells if, as souls, they had ever in fact encountered God personally. I also demanded to know why they lived in the sea, an inhospitable place for anything misty or ghost-like. The ocean was a thick carpet, a wide curtain: How could they assert their immortal-ness under water? One conch tried very hard to give an answer. I could hear echoes of sound seeping through its smooth and pink curves. But no words emerged, or none that I could understand, nor did it respond when I cleverly (or so I thought) switched to French.
One day I met a nice man by the shore who asked why I spent so much time collecting shells — he had seen me daily, he said.
I explained in detail and even showed him my shell home beneath the boardwalk. He smiled, explained he was a marine biologist, which I immediately thought was some kind of special soldier, and went on to tell me shells were nothing but the hard skins or husks of sea creatures long dead and gone. They lacked magical powers. They spoke no language. And more to the point — thankfully, the sheriff was not around — God did not exist. We, he and I, were mere biological entities who would live until we lived no more, and so shells and human bones were but passing proof of a short stay on Earth. I listened but disregarded him, assuming this was how military men were forced to see the world. There weren’t any souls out here, or inside the shells, he concluded, with a caveat, “Except you. You’re a sweet soul.” And, with that, he left me to continue my gathering.
Over time, both on the beach later and in separate circumstances, I pressed ahead with my earnest work to make contact with souls. Ultimately, I’d decided only God could open the channel. If He resisted me, I’d have no luck, whether I sought toy cars or relief from the weariness of worldly news. Time and again I was told the problem was mine. I failed to listen carefully enough. I was insensitive to signs. I had steeped myself in the selfless dedication of prayer, a lonely act that required unmitigated devotion. My critics were no doubt right, but the endeavor grew tedious. So, decades ago all aspects of my earnest shell game ended. Invited toward mysticism, in which oneness with the Deity prevailed over all else, I had declined politely, remembering, and then believing as true, what the “military” biologist had told me on my small strip of Atlantic beach an eternity ago. We are born, live, age, and in some manner die, leaving behind remains that have their own lifespan, until water or dust consumes them.
Still, a vestige of that time remains. It’s a still fully intact conch shell, one I’ve placed atop the mantelpiece in my closet. My eyes are dying, and other organs are in chaos; this would seem no time to revert to soul-hunting. And yet at times I do. Placing the old shell on my bedspread when I cannot sleep, I turn toward its horns and holes and caress it for its longevity, which I know will surpass my own. In those moments, I thank it for once listening to me, when I still believed I could crack a code I now know will elude me forever.