By the Seashore

R. A. Lafferty



The most important event in the life of Oliver Murex was his finding of a seashell when he was four years old. It was a bright and shining shell that the dull little boy found. It was bigger than his own head (and little Oliver had an unusually large head), and had two eyes peering out of its mantle cavity that were brighter and more intelligent-seeming than Oliver’s own. Both. Oliver and the shell had these deep, black, shiny eyes that were either mockingly lively or completely dead - with such shiny, black things it was hard to say which.


That big shell was surely the brightest thing on that sunny morning beach and no one could have missed it. But George, Hector, August, Mary, Catherine and Helen had all of them missed it and they were older and sharper-eyed than was Oliver. They had been looking for bright shells, going in a close skirmish line over that sand and little Oliver had been trailing them with absent mind and absent eyes.


‘Why do you pick up all the dumb little ones and leave the good big one?’ he yiped from their rear. They turned and saw the shell and they were stunned. It actually was stunning in appearance - why hadn’t they seen it? (It had first to be seen by one in total sympathy with it. Then it could be seen by any superior person.)


‘I wouldn’t have seen it either if it hadn’t whistled at me,’ Oliver said.


‘It’s a Hebrew Volute,’ George cried out, ‘and they’re not even found in this part of the world.’


‘It isn’t. It’s a Music Volute,’ Mary contradicted.


‘I think that it’s a Neptune Volute,’ Hector hazarded.


‘I wish I could say that it’s a Helen Volute,’ Helen said, ‘but it isn’t. It’s not a Volute at all. It’s a Cone, an Alphabet Cone.’


Now these were the shelliest kids along the seashore that summer and they should all have known a Volute from a Cone, all except little Oliver. How could there be such wide differences among them?


‘Helen is right about its being a Cone,’ August said. ‘But it isn’t an Alphabet Cone. It’s a Barthelemy Cone, a big one.’


‘It’s a Prince Cone,’ Catherine said simply. But they were all wrong. It was a deadly Geography Cone, even though it was three times too big to be one. How could such sharp-eyed children not recognize such an almost legendary prize?


* * * *


Oliver kept this cone shell with him all the years of his growing up. He listened often to the distant sounding in it, as people have always listened to seashells. No cone, however, is a real ocean-roarer of a shell. They haven’t the far crash; they haven’t the boom. They just are not shaped for it, not like a Conch, not like a Vase Shell, not like a Scallop, not even like the common Cowries or Clam Shells or Helmet Shells. Cones make rather intermittent, sharp sounds, not really distant. They tick rather than roar.


‘Other shells roar their messages from way off,’ Helen said once. ‘Cones telegraph theirs.’ And the clicking, ticking of Cones does sound somewhat like the chatter of a telegraph.


Some small boys have toy pandas or bears. But Oliver Murex had this big seashell for his friend and toy and security. He slept with it - he carried it with him always. He depended on it. If he was asked a question he would first hold the big cone shell to his ear and listen - then he would answer the question intelligently. But if for any reason he did not have his shell near at hand he seemed incapable of an intelligent answer on any subject.


There would sometimes be a splatter of small blotches or dusty motes on the floor or table near the shell.


‘Oh, let me clean those whatever-they-ares away,’ mother Murex said once when she was nozzling around with the cleaner.


‘No, no - leave them alone - they’ll go back in,’ Oliver protested. ‘They just came out to get a little sunlight.’ And the little blotches, dust motes, fuzz, stains, whatever retreated into the shell of the big cone.


‘Why, they’re alive!’ the mother exclaimed.


‘Isn’t everybody?’ Oliver asked.


‘It is an Alphabet Cone just as I always said it was,’ Helen declared. ‘And those little skittering things are the letters of the different alphabets that fall off the outside of the shell. The cone has to swallow them again each time, and when it has digested them they will come through to the outside again where they can be seen in their patterns.’


Helen still believed this was an Alphabet Cone. It wasn’t. It was a deadly Geography Cone. The little blotches that seemed to fall off it or to come out of it and run around - and that then had to be swallowed again - may have been little continents or seas coming from the Geography Cone; they may have been quite a number of different things. But if they were alphabets (well, they were those, among other things), then they were more highly complex alphabets than Helen suspected.


It isn’t necessary that all children in a family be smart. Six smart ones out of seven isn’t bad. The family could afford big-headed, queer-eyed Oliver, even if he seemed a bit retarded. He could get by most of the time. If he had his shell with him, he could get by all the time.


One year in grade school, though, they forbade him the company of his shell. And he failed every course abysmally.


‘I see Oliver’s problem as a lack of intelligence,’ his teacher told father Murex. ‘And lack of intelligence is usually found in the mind.’


‘I didn’t expect it to be found in his feet,’ Oliver’s father said. But he did get a psychologist in to go over his slow son from head to foot.


‘He’s a bit different from a schizo,’ the psychologist said when he had finished the examination. ‘What he has is two concentric personalities. We call them the core personality and the mantle personality - and there is a separation between them. The mantle or outer personality is dull in Oliver’s case. The core personality is bright enough, but it is able to contact the outer world only by means of some separate object. I believe that the unconscious of Oliver is now located in this object and his intelligence is tied to it. That seashell there, now, is quite well balanced mentally. It’s too bad that it isn’t a boy. Do you have any idea what object it is that Oliver is so attached to?’


‘It’s that seashell there. He’s had it quite a while. Should I get rid of it?’


“That’s up to you. Many fathers would say yes in such case; almost as many would say no. If you get rid of the shell the boy will die. But then the problem will be solved - you’ll no longer have a problem child.’


Mr Murex sighed, and he thought about it. He had decisions to make all day long and he disliked having to make them in the evening, too.


‘I guess the answer is no,’ he finally said. ‘I’ll keep the seashell and I’ll also keep the boy. They’re both good conversation pieces. Nobody else has anything that looks like either of them.’


Really they had come to look alike. Oliver and his shell, both big-headed and bug-eyed and both of them had a quiet and listening air about them.


Oliver did quite well in school after they let him have the big seashell with him in class again.


* * * *


A man was visiting in the Murex house one evening. This man was by hobby a conchologist or student of seashells. He talked about shells. He set out some little shells that he had carried wrapped in his pocket and explained them. Then he noticed Oliver’s big seashell and he almost ruptured a posterior adductor muscle.


‘It’s a Geography Cone!’ he shrieked. ‘A giant one! And it’s alive!’


‘I think it’s an Alphabet Cone,’ Helen said.


‘I think it’s a Prince Cone,’ Catherine said.


‘No, no, it’s a Geography Cone and it’s alive!’


‘Oh, I’ve suspected for a long time that it was alive,’ Papa Murex said.


‘But don’t you understand? It’s a giant specimen of the deadly Geography Cone.’


‘Yes, I think so. Nobody else has one,’ father Murex said.


‘What do you keep in it?’ the conchologist chattered. ‘What do you feed it?’


‘Oh, it has total freedom here, but it doesn’t move around very much. We don’t feed it anything at all. It belongs to my son Oliver. He puts it to his ear and listens to it often.’


‘Great galloping gastropods, man! It’s likely to take an ear clear off the boy.’


‘It never has.’


‘But it’s deadly poisonous. People have died of its sting.’


‘I don’t believe any one of our family ever has. I’ll ask my wife. Oh, no, I needn’t. I’m sure none of my family has ever died of its sting. I just remembered that none of them has ever died at all.’


The man with the hobby of conchology didn’t visit the Murex house very much after that. He was afraid of that big sea-shell.


* * * *


One day the school dentist gave a curious report of things going on in Oliver’s mouth.


‘Little crabs are eating the boy’s teeth - little microscopic crabs,’ the dentist (he was a nervous man) told Mr Murex.


‘I never heard of microscopic crabs,’ Mr Murex said. ‘Have you seen them, really, or examined them at all?’


‘Oh, no, I haven’t seen them. How would I see them? But his teeth just look as if microscopic crabs had been eating them. Ah, I’m due for a vacation. I was going to leave next week.’


‘Are the teeth deteriorating fast?’ Mr Murex asked the dentist.


‘No, that’s what puzzles me,’ the dentist said. ‘They’re not deteriorating. The enamel is disappearing, eaten by small crabs, I’m sure of that; but it’s being replaced by something else, by some shell-like material.’


‘Oh, it’s all right then,’ Mr Murex said.


‘I was going to leave on vacation next week. I’ll call someone and tell them that I’m leaving right now,’ the dentist said.


The dentist left, and he never did return to his job or to his home. It was later heard of him that he had first abandoned dentistry and then life.


* * * *


But little Oliver grew up, or anyhow he grew out. He seemed to be mostly head, and his dwarfish body was not much more than an appendage. He and the great seashell came to look more and more like each other by the day.


‘I swear, sometimes I can’t tell which of you is Oliver,’ Helen Murex said one day. She was more fond of Oliver and his shell than were any of their brothers or sisters. ‘Which of you is?’ she asked.


‘I am.’


Oliver Geography Cone grinned.


‘I am.’


Oliver Murex grinned.


* * * *


Oliver Murex was finally out of school and had taken his place in the family business. The Murex family was big in communications, the biggest in the world, really. Oliver had an office just off the office of his father. Not much was expected of him. He seemed still to be a dull boy, but very often he gave almost instant answers to questions that no one else could answer in less than a week or more. Well, it was either Oliver or his shell who gave the almost instant answers. They had come to resemble each other in voice almost as much as in appearance and the father really didn’t care which of them answered - as long as the answers were quick and correct. And they were both.


‘Oliver has a girl friend,’ Helen teased one day. ‘She says she’s going to marry him.’


‘However would he get a girl friend?’ brother Hector asked, puzzled.


‘Yes. How is it possible?’ Mr. Murex wanted to know.


‘After all, we are very rich,’ Helen reminded them.


‘Oh, I didn’t know that the younger generation had any interest in money,’ Mr Murex said.


‘And, after all, she is Brenda Frances,’ Helen said.


‘Oh, yes - I’ve noticed that she does have an interest in money,’ Mr Murex said. ‘Odd that such a recessive trait should crop up in a young lady of today.’


Brenda Frances worked for the Murex firm.


* * * *


Brenda Frances wanted round-headed Oliver for the money that might attach to him, but she didn’t want a lot of gaff that seemed also to attach to the young fellow. But now Oliver became really awake for the first time in his life, stimulated by Brenda Frances’ apparent interest. He even waxed a little bit arty and poetic when he talked to her, mostly about his big seashell.


‘Do you know that he wasn’t native to the sea or shore where we found him,’ Oliver said. ‘He tells me that he comes from the very far north, from the Sea of Moyle.’


‘Damn that bug-eyed seashell!’ Brenda Frances complained. ‘He almost looks alive. I don’t mind being leered at by men, but I dislike being leered at by a seashell. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as the Sea of Moyle. I never heard of it. There isn’t any sea in the very far north except the Arctic Ocean.’


‘Oh, but he says that this is very very far north,’ Oliver said with his ear to the shell (When you two put your heads together like that I don’t know whose ear is listening to whose shell, Helen had said once), ‘very, very far north - and perhaps very again. It’s far, far beyond the Arctic Ocean.’


‘You can’t get any farther north than the Arctic,’ Brenda Frances insisted. ‘It’s as far north as there is any north.’


‘No. He says that the Sea of Moyle is much farther,’ Oliver repeated the whispers and tickings of the shell. ‘I think probably the Sea of Moyle is clear off-world.’


‘Oh great glabrous glabula!’ Brenda Frances swore. Things weren’t going well here. There was so much nonsense about Oliver as nearly to nullify the pleasant prospect of money.


‘Did you know that he has attendants?’ Oliver asked. ‘Very small attendants.’


‘Like fleas?’


‘Like crabs. They really are crabs, almost invisible, almost microscopic fiddler crabs. They are named Gelasimus Notarii or Annotating Crabs - I don’t know why. They live in his mouth and stomach most of the time, but they come out when they’re off duty. They do a lot of work for him. They do all his paper work and they are very handy. I’ve been practising with them for a long time, too, but I haven’t learned to employ them at all well yet.’


‘Oh great whelping whelks!’ Brenda Frances sputtered.


‘Did you know that the old Greeks shipped wine in cone shells?’ Oliver asked. ‘They did it because cone shells are so much bigger on the inside than on the outside. They would put half a dozen cone shells into an amphora of wine to temper them for it. Then they would take them out and pour one, two, or three amphoras of wine into each cone shell. The cones have so many internal passages that there is no limit to their capacity. The Greeks would load ships with the wine-filled cones and ship them all over the world. By using cones, they could ship three times as much wine as otherwise in the same ship.’


‘Wino seashells, that’s what we really need,’ Brenda Frances mumbled insincerely.


‘I’ll ask him,’ Oliver said. They put their two heads together, Oliver and the cone shell. ‘He says that cones hardly ever become winos,’ Oliver announced then. ‘He says that they can take it or leave it alone.’


‘After we are married you will have to stop this silly talk,’ Brenda Frances said. ‘Where do you get it anyhow?’


‘From Shell. I’ll tell you something else. The Greek friezes and low reliefs that some students of shells study - they are natural and not carved. And they aren’t really Greek things. They’re pictures of some off-world things that look kind of Greek. They’re not even pictures of people. They’re pictures of some kind of seaweed from the Sea of Moyle that looks like Earth people, I hope that clears up that mystery.’


‘Oliver, I have plans for us,’ Brenda Frances said firmly, ‘and the plans seem very hard to put across to you in words. I have always believed that a half-hour’s intimacy is worth more than forever’s talk. Come along now. We’re alone except for old sea-slob there.’


‘I’d better ask my mother first,’ Oliver said. ‘It seems that there is some question about this intimacy bit, a question that they all believed would never arise in my case. I’d better ask her.’


‘Your mother is visiting her sister at Peach Beach,’ Brenda Frances said. ‘Your father is fishing at Cat Island. George and Hector and August are all off on sales trips. Mary and Catherine and Helen are all making political appearances somewhere. This is the first time they’ve all been out of town at once. I came to you so you wouldn’t be lonesome.’


‘I’m never lonesome with Shell. You think the intimacy thing will be all right, then?’


‘I sure do doubt it, but it’s worth a try,’ Brenda Frances said. ‘For me, you’re the likeliest jackpot in town. Where else would I find such a soft head with so much money attached?’


‘We read a seduction scene in a book once,’ Oliver said. ‘It was kind of funny and kind of fun.’


‘Who’s we?’


‘Shell and myself.’


‘After we’re married, we’re sure going to change that “we” stuff,’ Brenda Frances said. ‘But how does Shell read?’


‘With his eyes like everyone else. And the annotating crabs correlate the reading for him. He says that seduction scenes are more fun where he comes from. All the seductors gather at the first high tide after the big moon is full. The fellows are on one side of the tidal basin - and then their leader whistles and they put their milt in the tidewater. And the she seashells (Earth usage - they don’t call themselves that there), who are on the other side of the tidal basin, put their roe into the water. Then the she seashell leader whistles an answer and that is the seduction. It’s better when both moons are still in the sky. At the Sea of Moyle they have two moons.’


‘Come along, Oliver,’ Brenda Frances said, ‘and you can whistle if you want to, but that seawash talk has got to stop.’ She took big-headed, short-legged Oliver under her arm and went with him to the chamber she had selected as the seduction room. And Shell followed along.


‘How does it walk without any legs?’ Brenda Frances asked.


‘He doesn’t walk. He just moves. I’m getting so I can move that way too.’


‘It’s not going to get into bed with us, Oliver?’


‘Yes, but he says he’ll just watch the first time. You don’t send him at all.’


‘Oh, all right. But I tell you, there’s going to be some changes around here after we’re married.’


She turned out the lights when she was ready. But they hadn’t been in the dark for five seconds when Brenda Frances began to complain.


‘Why is the bed so slimy all at once?’


‘Shell likes it that way. It reminds him more of the ocean.’


‘Ouch! Great crawling crawdads - something is biting me! Are they bugs?’


‘No, no - they’re the little crabs,’ Oliver told her. ‘But Shell says that they only bite people they don’t like.’


‘Wow, let me sweep them out of this bed.’


‘You can’t. They’re almost too little to see and they hang on. Besides, they have to be here.’




‘They’re annotating crabs. They take notes.’


Brenda Frances left the bed and the house in a baffled fury. ‘Best jackpot in town, hell!’ she said. ‘There are other towns. Somewhere there’s another half-brained patsy in a monied family - one that won’t bring the whole damned ocean to bed with him.’


It was later learned that Brenda Frances left town in the same fury.


‘That was an even less satisfying seduction scene than in that book,’ Shell and his crabby minions conveyed. ‘We do these things so much better on the Sea of Moyle.’


So Oliver preserved his virtue. After all, he was meant for other things.


* * * *


An off-world person of another great and rich family in the communications field came to call on Mr Murex at his home.


‘We weren’t expecting your arrival in quite such manner,’ Mr Murex said. He had no idea of how the other had arrived - he simply was there.


‘Oh, I didn’t want to wait for a vehicle. They’re too slow. I conveyed myself,’ the visitor said. They met as tycoon to tycoon. Mr Murex was very anxious that he and his family should make a good impression on their distinguished visitor. He even thought about concealing Oliver, but that would have been a mistake.


‘That is a fine specimen,’ the visiting person said. ‘Fine. He could almost be from back home.’


‘He is my son Oliver,’ said Mr Murex, quite pleased.


‘And his friend there,’ the visitor continued, ‘I swear that he is from back home.’


‘There’s a misunderstanding,’ Mr Murex said. ‘The other one there is a seashell.’


‘What is a seashell?’ the visitor asked. ‘Are Earth seas hatched out of shells? How odd. But you are mistaken, person Murex. That is a specimen from back home. Do you have the papers on him?’


‘I don’t know of any papers. What would such papers indicate?’


‘Oh, that you have given fair exchange for the specimen. We wouldn’t want an interworld conflict over such a small matter, would we?’


‘If you will let me know what this “fair exchange” is - ‘ Mr Murex tried to comply.


‘Oh, I’ll let you know at the time of my leaving,’ the visiting tycoon said. ‘We’ll settle on something.’ This person was very much up on communications. He engaged Mr Murex and George, Mary, Hector, Catherine, August, Helen, yes and Oliver, all in simultaneous conversations on the subject. And he made simultaneous deals so rapid-fire as to astound all of them. He controlled even more patents than did the Murex family, some of them overlapping. The two tycoons were making non-conflict territory agreements and the visitor was out-shuffling the whole Murex clan by a little bit in these complex arrangements.


‘Oh, just let me clean them off there!’ Mrs Murex said once where she saw a splatter of small blotches and dust motes on the table that served both for conference and dinner table - the splatter of little things was mostly about the visitor.


‘No, no, leave them,’ that person said. ‘I enjoy their conversation. Really, they could almost be Notarii from my own world.’ Things began then to go well in these transactions even for the Murex family, just when they had seemed to be going poorly.


The visitor was handsome in an off-worldly way. He was toothless, but his bony upper and lower beak cut through everything, through the prime steak that seemed too tough to the Murex clan, through the bones, through the plates. ‘Glazed, baked clay, we use it too. It spices a meal,’ the visitor said of the plates as he munched them. ‘And you have designs and colours on the pieces. We do that sometimes with cookies.’


“They are priceless chinaware,’ Mrs Murex said in a voice that was almost a complaint.


‘Yes, priceless, delicious, exquisite,’ the visitor said. ‘Now shall we finalize the contracts and agreements?’


Several waiting stenographers came in with their machines. Brenda Frances was not among them - she had left the Murex firm and left town. The stenographers began to take down the contracts and agreements on their dactyl-tactiles.


‘And I’ll just save time and translation by giving the whole business in my own language to this stenographer from my own world,’ the visiting tycoon said.


‘Ah, that isn’t a stenographer there, however much it may remind you of the stenographers where you come from.’ Mr Murex tried to set a matter straight again. ‘That is what we call a seashell.’


But the visiting tycoon spoke in his own language to Shell. And Shell whistled. Then whole blotches and clouds of the almost invisible annotating crabs rushed into Shell, ready to work. The visiting tycoon spoke rapidly in off-worldly language, his beak almost touching Shell.


‘Ah, the Geography Cone shell - that’s what that thing is - is said to be absolutely deadly,’ Mr Murex tried to warn the visitor.


‘They only kill people they don’t like,’ the visitor said and he went on with his business.


The annotating crabs did the paper work well. Completed contracts and agreements began to roll out of the mantle cavity of Shell. And all the business was finished in one happy glow.


‘That is it,’ the visiting tycoon said with complete satisfaction after all the papers were mutually signed. With his beak he bit a very small ritual wedge from the cheek of his hostess, Mrs Murex. That was a parting custom where he came from.


‘And now “fair exchange” for the specimen from back home,’ he said. ‘I always find these exchanges satisfying and fruitful’


He had a sack. And he put the short-legged, big-headed Oliver into that sack.


‘Oh, that’s not fair exchange,’ Mr Murex protested. ‘I know he looks a little unusual, but that is my son Oliver.’


‘He’s fair enough exchange,’ the visitor said. He didn’t wait for a vehicle. They were too slow. He conveyed himself. And he and Oliver were gone.


* * * *


So all that the Murex family had to remind them of their vanished son and brother was that big seashell, the Geography Cone. Was it really from the world of the visitor? Who knows the true geography of the Geography Cone?


* * * *


Oliver sat on the shore of the Sea of Moyle in the far, far north. This was not in the cold, far north. It was on a warm and sunny beach in the off-world far north. And Oliver sat there as if he belonged.


There hadn’t been any sudden space-change in Oliver. There had been only the slow change through all the years of his life and that was never a great alteration - a great difference hadn’t been needed in him.


Oliver was bright and shining, the brightest thing on that sunny morning beach. He had his big head and his little body. He had two shiny black eyes peering out of his mantle cavity. Oliver was very much a seashell now, a special and prized shell. (They didn’t use that term there, though. Seashell? Was the Sea of Moyle hatched out of a shell?)


Six sharp-eyed children of the dominant local species were going in close skirmish right over that sunny sand and a smaller seventh- child trailed them with absent mind and absent eyes. The big moon had already gone down; the little moon still hung low in the sky like a silver coin. And the sun was an overpowering gold.


The sharp-eyed children were looking for bright shore specimens and they were finding them, too. And right ahead of them was that almost legendary prize, a rare Oliver Cone.