Read an Excerpt
THE GLORY SHELL
Sister Conchita clung to the sides of the small dugout canoe as
the waves pounded over the frail vessel, soaking its two
occupants. In front of her the Malaitan scooped his paddle into
the water, trying to keep the craft on an even balance. Sister
Conchita could see the coastal village a hundred yards away. The
beach was crowded with islanders. She wondered whether it had
been worth the perilous sea journey just to see the shark-calling
ceremony when all she wanted was a shower and a meal. Of
course it was, she told herself severely. If she intended serving
God in the Solomons then she had to get to know everything
about the islands.
The half-naked islander in front of her suddenly gave a scream
of terror. Turning, he thrust the paddle into the sister’s hands and
dived over the side of the canoe, disappearing into the frothing
white foam. Sister Conchita sat rigid with apprehension, the
pitted wooden blade clutched loosely in her hands. Bereft of
the islander’s control, the canoe started pitching and swinging
For a moment all that Sister Conchita wanted to do was to
cower helplessly in the bucking wooden frame. Then her
customary resourcefulness took over. Snap out of it, she thought
grimly. You got yourself into this hole, better get out of it the
same way, girl. Muttering a fervent prayer, she tightened her
grip on the paddle and thrust it with all her force into the water.
For the next five minutes the wiry young sister fought the sea.
The momentum of the current was sending her at breakneck
speed in the direction of the beach and the watching islanders,
but the waves were crashing over the canoe at an angle, buffeting
it from side to side. Several times the entire tree shell was
submerged beneath the surface, but on each occasion it surfaced
sufficiently for the sodden nun, coughing and gasping, to resume
Doggedly she kept the prow of the canoe pointing at the
beach. After an apparent eternity of choking, muscle-aching
effort the shore actually seemed to be getting closer. One final
shock of a wave descended on the canoe and hurled it sprawling
up into the shallows off the beach.
Half a dozen brawny, cheering Melanesian men in skimpy
loincloths splashed into the water and laughingly hauled the
canoe up on to the sand. The crowd of assembled islanders broke
into delighted applause. Dazedly Sister Conchita stood up and
limped out of the beached craft.
Gradually her vision cleared. She blinked hard. Standing in
front of her, joining vigorously in the acclamation among the
large crowd, was the islander who had discarded his paddle and
left her to fight the sea alone. Struggling for breath, Sister
Conchita fought for the words adequately to express her opinion
‘They’ve just been pulling your leg, sister,’ drawled a
contemptuous voice from behind her. ‘They wanted to see what
you were made of. You didn’t do so bad. Most sheilas just stay
in the boat screaming bloody murder.’
The nun turned to see John Deacon, unshaven and clad in
khaki shorts and shirt, regarding her coolly from the edge of the
‘Mr Deacon,’ said Sister Conchita, trying to keep her balance.
Deacon was an Australian who managed a local copra plantation.
She did not like him, suspecting him of ill-treating his labourers.
However, she always tried, she suspected in vain, to conceal her
‘Local custom,’ explained the stocky, broad-shouldered Australian
laconically. ‘Any stranger approaching the beach, the
guide jumps overboard. Actually the current is bound to bring
the canoe up on to the shore, but if you don’t know that, it can
be a mite disconcerting.’
‘You can say that again,’ said Sister Conchita.
‘At least you had a go,’ acknowledged the plantation manager.
‘The natives like guts.’
‘Have you come for the ceremony?’ asked Sister Conchita
politely, trying to change the subject. She did not wish to be
reminded too much of her undignified arrival.
The Australian snorted with derision. ‘I don’t believe in
superstition,’ he told her. His eyes scanned her tattered, oncewhite
habit. ‘Any superstition,’ he told her with emphasis. ‘I’m
here to pick up a cargo.’
Suddenly Deacon was swept aside by a phalanx of island
women, offering the nun rough blankets with which to dry
herself, together with a husk of coconut milk. In a chattering
group they conducted her to a site at the water’s edge and waited
eagerly with her. An artificial lagoon about twenty yards in
diameter had been constructed there with piles of stones marking
its edges, and an aperture on the seaward side to allow fish to
swim in and out.
As the nun watched, an old man in tattered shorts and singlet
emerged from one of the huts and walked down towards the
stones. A profusion of ancient bone charms rattled on a string
around his neck. A naked small boy of about ten years of age
‘Fa’atabu,’ muttered an awed woman. She translated for the
nun’s benefit. ‘This one is the shark-caller,’ she said, indicating
the old man.
Four islanders splashed out into the shallow waters of the shark
area. They were carrying large flat stones, which they banged
together under the water. Simultaneously the shark-caller started
chanting in a high, tuneless voice. The crowd, which had swollen
in numbers to several hundred, looked on in expectant silence.
For several minutes nothing happened. Then a reverent
murmur went round the crowd. The fins of half a dozen sharks
could be seen entering the enclosure.
The men, still clashing the stones together, fled from the
water. Women picked up a few baskets of raw pork and placed
them at the water’s edge before withdrawing hastily. Completely
unperturbed, the boy hoisted one of the baskets up on to his
shoulder and staggered out with it into the water, to a depth of
several feet. To the accompaniment of screams and shouts from
the crowd on the shore the sharks began to swim steadily towards
Sister Conchita found herself clenching her fists at the sight.
The boy stood still for a moment. Then he reached up into the
basket and started feeding the sharks lumps of raw meat,
dropping these into the water just in front of him. As the sharks
approached, accepting the food, the boy began to caress them.
Throughout, the shark-caller continued his keening.
Sister Conchita looked on, fascinated by the sight. Out of the
corner of her eye she became aware of Deacon and two
Melanesians carrying a bulky sack along the ramshackle wooden
jetty protruding into the sea. A dinghy was tethered there,
bobbing in the water. Farther out to sea she could see the
Australian’s trading vessel at anchor.
The sister did not want to leave the ceremony but she thought
that it would only be courteous to say goodbye to the brusque
plantation manager. Reluctantly she slipped through the crowd
and made her way along the wharf. Deacon and his helpers were
trying to load the sack into the heaving dinghy. The islanders
were struggling to lower the sack to Deacon, waiting impatiently
below. As she approached, one of the Melanesians dropped his
end of the bulging sack. It burst open, disgorging a cascade of
Sister Conchita increased her pace to see if she could help.
Some of the shells rolled across the wooden platform and nestled
at her feet. The nun stooped to pick them up.
‘Leave that; we’ll sort it!’ ordered Deacon, scrambling up from
Sister Conchita ignored him. She had cradled three shells in
her hands and was examining them with increasing excitement
and anxiety. She would have recognized them anywhere. Before
she had left Chicago she had attended a museum display of South
Pacific seashells. The ones in her hands were a delicate golden
brown in colour, with a round base tapering exquisitely to a
‘Are you deaf? I said I’ll take those!’ shouted Deacon,
lumbering towards her.
Sister Conchita was intimidated by the Australian’s looming
presence but stubbornly she clutched the beautiful shells to her.
‘I think not, Mr Deacon,’ she said, refusing to take a pace
backwards, although every instinct warned her to get away from
the plantation manager. ‘I believe these are glory shells,’ she went
on. ‘You have no right to be taking them off the island. They’re
a part of the culture of the Solomons.’
The Conus gloriamaris, or Glory of the Seas, was the rarest of
all seashells to be found in the Solomons, sought after in vain by
almost every islander. It fetched over a thousand dollars among
collectors. Its export was expressly forbidden by the government.
‘Mind your own business!’ grunted Deacon. ‘Or . . .’
‘Or what, Mr Deacon?’ asked Sister Conchita, still standing
her ground, although she was conscious that she was trembling.
It had been a long time since she had been exposed to an
example of such apparently uncontrollable wrath.With relief she
realized that a group of village men, attracted by the altercation
between the two expatriates, had abandoned the shark-calling
ceremony temporarily and were hurrying along the jetty behind
‘This is a Catholic village, Mr Deacon,’ said Sister Conchita
clearly. ‘I don’t think its inhabitants would take kindly to seeing
a sister being manhandled.’
Deacon looked at the dozen or so men getting closer. With
an impressive display of strength he hurled the sack into the
bottom of the dinghy, scattering its consignment of shells.
‘I won’t forget this,’ he promised vehemently, glaring up as he
cast off. ‘I’m not having some bit of a kid who hasn’t been in the
islands five minutes telling me what to do.’
‘And another thing,’ the nun called after him. ‘Just in case you
have any more illegal shells in that sack, I shall be asking the
Customs Department in the capital to examine it when you get
Deacon was already rowing the dinghy with vicious strokes
back towards his small trading vessel. Sister Conchita turned with
a grateful and rather tremulous smile to face the approaching
islanders. She realized that, as usual, she had just insisted on
having the last word. It was a failing she was well aware of and
would have to take to confession yet again.
Sergeant Kella sat on the earthen floor of the beu, the men’s
meeting-house, patiently waiting for the ghost-caller to bring
back the dead.
Most of the men of the coastal village had managed to cram into
the long, thatched building with its smoke-blackened bamboo
walls. According to custom, a smallwooden gong had been struck
with a thick length of creeper to summon the assembly.
Kella could hear the women and children of the remote
saltwater hamlet talking excitedly outside as they waited for news
of the proceedings to filter from the hut. Most of the men were
eyeing him with suspicion as he sat impassively among them. A
touring police officer would not normally have been allowed
inside the hut, but he was present in his capacity of aofia, the
hereditary peacemaker of the Lau people.
Kella hoped that Chief Superintendent Grice would not hear
about the detour he had made to this village. Back in Honiara
his superior had been explicit in his instructions.
‘You’re going to Malaita for one reason only,’ he had told
Kella. ‘You are to make inquiries about Dr Mallory, nothing else.
After your last little episode over there, I said I’d never send you
back. But you speak the language. I take it that you can ask a few
simple questions and come back with the answers?’
Hurriedly Kella had assured the police chief that he could.
After six months sitting behind a desk in the capital he would
have promised almost anything to get out on tour again. Now
here he was, only two days into his journey, and already he was
The village headman entered the hut. He was a plump,
self-satisfied man clad in new shorts and singlet and exuding the
confidence of someone who owned good land. With a few
exceptions, the Lau area chieftains were not hereditary but were
chosen for their conspicuous distribution of wealth. This man
would have achieved his position for the number of feasts he had
hosted, not for any fighting prowess.
The headman cleared his throat. ‘We are here to find out who
killed Senda Iabuli,’ he muttered grudgingly in the local dialect.
Plainly he had not wanted the meeting to take place. ‘To do this
we have sent for the ghost-caller, the ngwane inala. He will tell
us who the killer is.’
The ghost-caller was sitting with his back to the wall, facing
the other men. He was in his sixties, small and emaciated, his
meagre frame racked periodically with hacking coughs. He wore
only a brief thong about his loins. His face and body were
criss-crossed with gaudy and intricate patterns painted on with
the magic lime. Barely visible beneath the decorations on his face
were a number of vertical scars, slashed there long ago when he
first set out to learn the calling incantations. Laid out on the
ground before him were two stringed hunting bows, some leaves
of the red dracaena plant, a few coconuts and a carved wooden
bowl containing trochus shells.
According to the gossip Kella had managed to pick up since
his arrival at the village, the ghost-caller had been summoned to
investigate the sudden death of Senda Iabuli, a perfectly
undistinguished villager, an elderly widower with no surviving
Iabuli’s first and only claim to notoriety had occurred a month
before. Early one morning he had been on his way to work in
his garden on the side of a mountain just outside the village. He
had, as always, crossed a ravine by way of a narrow swing bridge
consisting of creepers and logs lashed together. As he had made
his precarious way to the far side, a sudden gust of wind had
caught the old man and sent him toppling helplessly hundreds of
feet down into the valley below.
The event had been witnessed by a group of men hunting wild
pigs. It had taken them most of the morning to descend the
tree-covered slope into the ravine to recover the body of the old
villager. To their amazement, they had discovered Senda Iabuli
alive and well, if considerably shaken and winded. His fall had
been broken by the leafy tops of the trees, from which he had
slithered down to end up dazed and bruised on a pile of moss at
the foot of a casuarina tree.
The old man had been helped back to the village, confused
and shaking, but apparently none the worse for his experience.
For several weeks he had resumed his customary innocuous
existence. Then one morning he had been found dead in his hut.
Normally that would have been the end of the matter, but for
some unfathomable reason a relative of Iabuli had demanded an
investigation into his death. This was the family’s right by
custom and had caused the headman to send for the ghost-caller.
Kella had heard of the events and had invited himself to the
The ghost-caller picked up one of the red dracaena leaves and
split it down the middle. He wrapped one half around the other
to strengthen it. Then he placed the reinforced leaf in the carved
bowl. Next, he shuffled the two stringed bows on the ground
before him. Each was a little less than full size, fashioned of palm
wood, with strings of twisted red and yellow vegetable fibres.
The bows represented two Lau ghosts, the spirits of men who
had once walked the earth. The ghost-caller threw back his head
and started to chant an incantation in a high-pitched, keening
The calling went on for more than an hour as the caller
begged the right spirits to enter the beu. They had a long way to
come, for the souls of the dead resided on the island of Momulo,
far away. Suddenly the chanting ended. The caller stiffened, his
back rigid and his eyes closed.
‘The ghosts ride,’ murmured the headman, nodding sagely, as
if these events were all his doing. Some of the elders nodded
obsequious agreement. The custom man before them was now
possessed of the spirits of the departed agalo.
‘Who comes?’ demanded the ghost-caller. Spasms racked his
body. Voices began to emerge from his mouth. There were two
of them, speaking in different pitches. Kella had been expecting
them both. The ghost-caller had taken no chances, adhering to
the main ancestral ghosts of the region, ones everyone present
would know. He had selected Takilu, the war god, and Sina
Kwao of the red hair, who had once killed the giant lizard which
had threatened to devour all of Malaita. Only a ghost-caller was
allowed to address these spirits by their names.
As each ghost spoke, the relevant bow quivered on the
ground. The caller was good, thought Kella. The police sergeant
had been watching the emaciated man closely, and was sure that
there were no threads connecting the weapons to the ghostcaller,
which could be twitched surreptitiously to make them
flutter. He could only assume that the custom man was
drumming on the ground with his iron-hard heels to set up the