727755015_94987219cf_zI have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth. —Umberto Eco

At first, he put the new shell nowhere near the last, but soon that became impossible. Shells gathered like barnacles clinging to a hull where the air was a vast sea. No one came to tidy up because, as far as he knew, no one visited except him. Whether that did or didn’t make this spot the shrine he imagined, he was loyal.

He half-thought—half-hoped—someone might happen upon his work. A stranger might read signs of loving days, recognize accretion of attention in so many shells so meticulously arranged. When he feared they wouldn’t, he felt vague and unanchored dread, but, as time passed and his daily burden gathered, the shrine spoke its own mystery and meaning apart from him.

Each shell represented careful choice. He might have chosen many others. Some shells he must have passed by before, as they looked almost resigned where they lay, as if they already knew they wouldn’t leave that spot and accepted it. Others cried out. He didn’t always pick the loud ones but noticed their intentions. The silent conversation he shared with shells ran like an undercurrent through his thoughts every morning he walked the shore. He felt important amid all their insistence and also humbled, cowed by what he might do for them.

Yet that day’s shell grew lighter as he carried it. His hand’s warmth stirred the smell of the sea and the absence in the shell’s cavity. A shell is a dead thing—only imagination makes it live again. When you put a shell to your ear, you hear not the distant sea but your own blood rushing invisibly, amplified and echoing, trapped in a labyrinth, the spiral corridors and its abandoned rooms.

He’d started as a boy, and at first it’d meant nothing to leave each shell. It was something he did, and fervor came later. To abandon his task is to acquiesce, to break a chain of days.

In dark moments he stared at his city of shells and wondered about devotion, about compulsion, about obsession, about what separated them. Looking at the spaces he’d ringed and the towers he’d piled in loving balance, he liked to believe his own architecture found expression. A hidden order needed notice. Yet, how could he tell? Maybe desperation is the fundamental necessity. What would he have without a shrine, what other reason might he find for continuing?

The answer crept like tides—inevitable, dawning, adamant—approaching and withdrawing. Nothing else interested him. Walking in the diminished ripples of breakers, he thought about alternatives, what might satisfy his yearnings or fill the blank spots in his imagination. Before he sensed what he was doing, he reached into the surf and saved another shell from vanishing. He shook it in the receding water. He brought it up to his eyes and regarded it. Something said it was the last, the best, the final word.

He’d be back the next day. He wasn’t finished. He couldn’t bear being finished.


Filed under Allegory, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Thoughts, Work, Writing

5 responses to “Collecting

  1. Lovely to read and think of…. immediately I thought of Canadian ephemeral artist, Diana Lynn Thompson’s works which are underscored by this delicious obsession. Check out her website to see what I mean. G

  2. A wonderful piece here, for the shell artist this sounds like a work starting out as love but developing into an obsession. Thanks also to suburbanlife for mentioning Diana Lynn Thompson, as I enjoyed checking out her art. She did a series on shells, shown here: While reading your post, I thought of an artwork at a museum in DC. An artist created throne room objects out of gold and silver aluminum foil. It must’ve also taken him many years to create. The work is called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” and can be viewed here:

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks so much for the link–I loved looking at Thompson’s work–and part of my inspiration was the life of an artist, which on some level is creating/collecting without any reliable sense of what value it might have to whom. It can become obsessive, something easier to do than not to do. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I’m sorry I’m so slow in catching up to these comments. I’m busy collecting shells! –D

  3. And who would want to be finished! How boring. I wonder if that ‘finishing’ is our finding of Umberto’s underlying truth? Great quote btw.

    • dmarshall58

      I don’t want to be finished myself. It’s something I say to students all the time–it’s not about this essay, story, poem, drawing, etc.–it’s about essay writing, fiction, poetry, and art. It would be a curse to come up with something so great you could find no motivation to go on to the next project. That said, who doesn’t desire success, and what could be more confusing never knowing how to get there, questioning whether there is a there, and wondering if all this activity is only obsession with no inherent value at all? It’s the sort of impossible conundrum Eco addressed. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Sorry I’m so slow in responding. –D

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