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The Courtship of the Queen
By Bruce McAllister, Eric Fortune
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Bruce McAllister
All rights reserved.
When he was a child, he was stranger than many children, but not as strange as some. What he lacked in normalcy he more than made up for in passion, sense of wonder and acquisitiveness — the virtues that make any collector (or hunter) great. By the age of ten he had collected more than two thousand seashells, providing each, as any good scientist would, with its own neatly labeled card that listed its Latin and common names, where it had been collected and when and by whom, and the temperature that day. If he or his parents had purchased the seashell or it had been given to him by someone who did not have such information, that was all right; the card would at least bear its names. What mattered most was the beauty of the bivalve or univalve, the clam or snail, its personality, its character, and its role in the larger scheme of things, which the boy saw clearly.
He kept his seashells in the drawers of two nice oak dressers in his room and, as well, in the drawers of the ten junkier dressers his father had with affection purchased for him at yard sales and Salvation Army outlets and made room for in every garage or basement or attic they had, moving them carefully with their other furniture each time the family relocated from one coast or country to another.
How the boy's collection had come into being was not as strange as the boy himself, even if the size of it was: his father, a Navy enlisted officer, moved his family often because the Navy ordered him to, and often, because it was the Navy he served, they lived on or near military bases by the sea; and the boy, when he was old enough to crawl, had discovered that the one thing he could truly make his own and take with him from one place to the next was the seashells of that place — whether they lay dead and clean on the sand of nearby beaches, lived on the mud below in shallow water, hid under seaweed at tide pools, were gifts from kind people, or were purchased by the boy, when he or his parents had the money, in local shops. He could not take the people with him, friends he made at school, or the old women who walked the beaches in palm-frond hats, or the fisherman from the jetties. He could not take the houses his family lived in with him. He could not always even take the pets, which were sometimes lost in the moves and which, like all pets, sometimes died because pets rarely lived as long as their keepers.
He even felt that he could not take himself because what he was at each of his father's "stations" was different. But he could always — with his parents' encouragement because they knew he needed to take something with him or he would forget who he was — take the seashells of each place. They understood what moving meant, and they understood what could be lost. His father had fled a small town in Virginia to join the Navy and make a life for himself, and his mother was one-quarter Chickasaw Indian and, though quite educated, knew what it felt like not to know who you were.
Though it seemed odd when it began, his parents encouraged his playing with his seashells, too — the way other boys played with soldiers and toy boats and cars. His wanting to play with them as all children play with something did not, in fact, seem as strange to them as the cards with their scientific names and other information, which felt so adult and made them worry, lost in books as he often was, that he would never be a child. It made him — this playing — seem more normal to them; and so they watched and smiled when their ten-year-old son took the large, pink-lipped Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) which a shrimp fisherman in Key West, Florida, had given the boy (one his mother, without complaint, had boiled and cleaned so that it would not smell, as seashells sometimes tended to do), put it for the thousandth time on the rug in his bedroom, placed around it the fifteen tiny but feisty Strombus alatus — Fighting Conchs (shells he had also collected in Florida at his father's previous station) — and, as he liked to put it, played "Kingdom of the Ancient Sea" with them. After all, the Queen needed protection, he explained, looking up, and the Fighting Conchs, loyal as they were, would protect her. In actuality, Fighting Conchs could drill through the armor of other seashells and kill them, so why not here, in his fantasy, in the boy's very own kingdom, make them "the Queen's guards"?
The big, elegant Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea) — whose knobby shell was covered with a periostracum as dark as his heart — was even then approaching the Queen, whose reign (the boy explained at dinner that night) the Horse Conch wished to overthrow with his own forces, his own battalions of Fighting Conchs and his company of poisonous Cone shells, Conus gloriamaris (two specimens of which his parents had bought for him in Australia when he was six).
Because of the Conus gloriamaris, the Horse Conch would certainly have been able to defeat the Queen, who was much older and vulnerable to flattery from handsome suitors and a little tired from her centuries of reign over the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea, had it not been (the boy explained four nights later) for the ingenuity of the Queen's Carrier Shells. These shells, disguised by the broken shells and coral they had glued to themselves (as Carrier Shells do) with a calcium paste, were able after only two attempts, and in the darkest of ocean's night, to penetrate the Horse Conch's perimeter of Fighting Conchs and by their gifts of persuasion (namely, the promise of more Venus clams than any Cone shell could dream of) turn one of the dreaded Cones against the Horse Conch itself. The Horse Conch, not suspecting treachery in its own ranks, had left its naked body exposed the following night as it slept and, pierced by the Cone's radula, had succumbed to the poison. The Fighting-Conch guards, upon discovering the horror the next morning, had, fast and nimble as they were, dispatched the traitorous Conus gloriamaris with ease, but the Horse Conch was dead and even the spectacle of a hundred species of the most refined and colorful Murexes in the funereal procession that followed could not restore him to this world.
Upon hearing all of this, the boy's parents did not know which was stranger — that a ten-year-old boy might daydream such political intrigue or that the actors carrying out its mortal drama might be the very seashells favored by girls, old-fashioned eccentrics or proper European ladies who had combed the beaches of the world for centuries. Their son was a marvel to them and always would be, and one strangeness would simply be replaced by another in his life, they suspected, so what was left except to love him?
As he grew older and played for even longer periods of time with his collection, he sometimes reported at dinnertime the transactions of the Kingdom and sometimes did not. Sometimes, in fact, he would say nothing for a week, even a month, and in one or two instances, even a few months. If he seemed melancholic at times, what children were not? If his hands shook on occasion — from excitement and exertion — and he scratched his arms as if he had been swimming, the salt of the sea irritating his skin — this was normal, was it not?
Once, he had been silent about the Kingdom for six months before, in passing at dinnertime, he finally revealed that the late Horse Conch had been replaced long ago as ruler of the Greater Reefs by his eldest son; and even this was ancient history because the eldest son's younger brother, a particularly fine specimen of his species, had replaced that brother at his brother's untimely death of natural causes; and that this younger brother — who had been killed by a Thersite Conch in the employ of a certain Knobbed Triton (Charonia lampas) out to expand his own territory with cocksure prematurity — had in turn been replaced by a cousin from the New World, the stately Pleuroploca princeps Horse Conch, whose intentions for the Queen's territory and usurpation of her rule would soon embroil him in an intrigue that would put the first Horse Conch's machinations to shame.
The boy had seventy-five Horse Conchs of various sizes and seven species, and these did not include the Strombus family, of which he had three hundred specimens, among these at least four companies of Fighting Conchs of three species. The companies of Murex, Auger, Volute and Cowry were another matter entirely, numbering in the dozens as well. History and politics could not stress the boy's resources, which grew each month as he acquired more specimens, and so, his parents knew, the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea would only grow.
The new Horse Conch's intentions, naïve and inexperienced as the Princeps was, were foiled daily and in Byzantine course by the unflagging efforts of the Queen's special agents, namely, the Juno's Volute (Scaphella junonia), seductive in its whiteness and beauty marks, which had posed as a courtesan to obtain intelligence on the Horse Conch's western and more vulnerable reefs; five spiny Mediterranean Murexes sent as moneylenders which had, with their squidlike dye, blinded a platoon of key Fighting Conchs in the Battle of the Gorgonaceans; and the great and bilious Tun Shell, sent as an emissary, whose fragile bulk (offering no threat to His Majesty, according to the Horse Conch's key advisor, the Cameo Helmet), had actually hidden a small army of Flamingo Tongues (Cyphoma gibbosum), which overwhelmed and killed the Horse Conch's second youngest son.
The Queen had calculated perfectly, of course. She was not without a heart, not without compassion, and yet for her people — the fifty thousand species and countless individuals who had lived in the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea forever and only wanted peace, a peace which Princeps and five generations of Horse Conchs had threatened — she would do what was necessary. Princeps loved his second son more than he loved himself and could not bear the boy's death, and so within days he took his own life in the great Sea Fan Forest of the Eastern Reefs.
When the Princeps' reign ended, and the weakest of the Filementosa line took his place, the Queen Conch ruled uneventfully for a time. The boy was twelve now, his arms and legs covered with the scrapes he had apparently received in the tide pools he so loved. If his scrapes — red and puckered though they were — did not bother him, why should they, his parents, make a fuss?
One day the King Helmet Shell, from the Indian Ocean, came to court the Queen despite her advanced age. His arrival and intentions were announced by twenty young and quite pristine specimens of Charonia tritonis, the Trumpets, and the King Helmet seemed flattered by the attention of the spectacle. The King Helmet had any number of assets of which the Queen was keenly aware: the finest corps of thirty dancing Venus Comb murexes, their spines flawless; the finest orchestra of fifty red and orange Lion's Paw scallops, Lyropecten nodosa; and a castle-bastion of living Tridacnae, not only the great giant clams called gigas but the smaller, more colorful squamosa and hippopus, with seven immense Pen Shells, Pinnis nobilis, towering over it all. Yet these assets were but entertainment, and what mattered much more, and would to any Queen, were the battalions of lethal Spider Conchs and tall, imposing Augers, which, though no match for the Queen's Fighting Conchs, represented nevertheless a threat to the stability of the Ancient Sea. A marriage of their two kingdoms might, both parties knew, bring a far-reaching and lasting peace to the Kingdom.
And yet (the boy explained, gesturing with bruised hands as his parents listened, their forks and spoons raised) the goal of lasting peace for the greater Kingdom, practical and enlightened though it might be, was not enough for the King Helmet. He could not, he had decided privately — out of vanity if not sheer jealousy — humiliate himself by marriage to an aging conch long past her years of beauty, especially one whose stature and legendary imperiousness would in the end, he knew, reduce him to mere figurehead. To be remembered in the history of the Kingdom of the Ancient Sea (for that is what vanity demanded), he would need to be more than her husband; and to be more he would, yes, need to gain command however he could of the Queen's own forces — not only the Fighting Conchs, the companies of the Cyclopean Hexaplex fulvens (the Giant Murexes), and the even more numerous complements of Neptune Whelks — but also her spiritual advisors, the revered and powerful Miters.
But how to accomplish this?
At first (the boy explained a few nights later, arms folded in front of him, long shirt sleeves hiding them as if the scrapes now embarrassed him) the King Helmet was not sure. He had grown his own armies by the simple conquest of coral reefs where those who would become his soldiers farmed and hunted. He had acquired them by the sheer size of the soldiers in his first mercenary platoons, namely, other Helmets like him; and after that, by sheer numbers; and later still, by his growing stature and mystique in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and China Sea. How to seduce forces already aligned with another? And how, as he pursued this — the seduction of her army, its generals and her priests by whatever stratagems were needed — to distract the Queen so that she was unaware and would not interfere? One night, as the moon ("my flashlight," the boy explained), illuminated the sea around him ("my rug under the bed, Dad"), the King Helmet saw it at last:
The Queen had mentioned more than once, and wistfully, to her attendants and others, how much she wished she had had a child — whether boy or girl, it did not matter — a child to whom she could pass her kingdom; and how this was impossible now because, even though she occasionally received male visitors who were of her species and stature, her body had lost the ability to conceive.
The King Helmet was of enough stature to be acceptable as the father of her child, but he was not of her species. The latter was simple fact. And yet the King Helmet, as he pondered his dilemma in his guest quarters that morning, remembered a certain seashell he had once encountered, a beautiful and possibly useful one. She too was a conch, like the Queen, and one of the rarest and prettiest; but most importantly, she possessed the Queen's great pink lip. She was a gorgeous creature — her lip crenulated, her body decorated with a red embroidery — and the Queen would, he felt certain, find in the smaller conch's visage a mirror of what she herself wished to be. Rare ... and beautiful ... and young. If he used her carefully, she could be what he needed.
He would find this seashell, this Sinuatus conch. He would set his minions to the task, and when they had found her he would take her to the Queen and say, "As I have confessed more than once these past months of our courtship, Your Majesty, I too cannot bear children, whether the cause be age or the wounds of battle, of my sacrifices for my people; and this flaw within me haunts me, for what is a life if it does not leave to this world a legacy of beauty and bloodline? But what I have not told you, Your Majesty, is that once, years ago, in another life, another kingdom, I bore a child, and I bore her by a conch like you, a princess whom, because Neptune's plan is greater and wiser than mortal love, my love could not save from death in childbirth. Forgive my forwardness, but I wish I had sired her by you, my Queen; and yet she is all that I might offer you to relieve what haunts us both in our old age. I have found her again, this daughter I assumed I had lost, whose great pink lip shines in the sunlight or moonlight like your own, and whose channel twists like yours, even if she also bears a shield not unlike my own."
Excerpted from The Courtship of the Queen by Bruce McAllister, Eric Fortune. Copyright © 2010 Bruce McAllister. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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