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July 31, 2013 | Fiction

An Account of the Shell

Patty Yumi Cottrell

An Account of the Shell photo

Suppose the policeman does not come when you call him for help. So what good is the phone? What good is the policeman? Suppose the policeman is distantly related to a little Polish man who has traveled slowly the lengths of gentle, pastoral villages and always some wrinkled swarm of bees follows him to the meadow’s glade. Suppose that. Continuing this spell of fantasy, say the strangest part of the little man is his mollusk-like shell. It is a hard gray whorled surface. It takes up most of him; there is more shell than body. Two matchstick legs poke out from the shell’s lips as the head sticks up out the pointed anterior. The posterior of the shell is a tiny spiral, perhaps the thickness of a pencil stub.

The little man sits next to me on the bench. From afar, it might appear that I am sitting next to something I picked up off the beach, but I'm just reading a book. It's a book of romance, confusion, anguished masculinity. I have anticipated this book, highly. When the little man tries to get my attention, I go on reading. I'm that absorbed. I'm also eating an apple. And I shouldn't be on this bench, I should be at work.

None of this constitutes a situation, except I think the little man may be hungry, because he sticks out his head and opens his moist eyes wide and pleading. I notice it when he bites my elbow. It doesn't hurt. He looks like a street urchin or a textbook depiction of an old world, world-weary immigrant. I mean, his face. How old is this little man? He must be as old as mushrooms. I chew my apple thoughtfully, then spit it into my hand and drop the bits of white meat into the little man's tiny mouth cavity.

It's a life of dreams and concrete, I openly admit this is the way things are.

The little man claims he did something bad in a previous life and the bees are his punishment. This is how you carry something toxic from the past into your present reality. It would never occur to the little man to frame it a different way. He is convinced. He is desperate to tell his story. He inches his way to the tip of my index finger and begins to broadcast his saga through a small megaphone he pulled out of his shell. I tap his shell; it's as hard and textured as I expected. How fun it would be to tear it off, I think, but that's not nice. I'm not a nice person anymore. Why are you so afraid of bees when you live inside a shell? I want to scream. You are really dumb.

When a bee swarm approaches us, the little man drops his megaphone and screams. His scream is a radiator's heat billowing out the open windows of a house in winter. It sounds like nothing. Then the little man's head withdraws into the shell, all predictable. I get on my phone, I call the policeman for help, but he doesn't come. The policeman and I are third cousins, announces the little man from inside the shell. Twice removed.

I should tell my children about this, after dinner, to teach my children's passive faces a lesson about what to do in a state of emergency. It takes grace or it doesn't. My mode is ambivalence. It doesn't take me long to inhale the swarm of bees and permit them into my lungs. I am that capacious. I get fucked a lot. Why today is a special day; today is the day lungs can become caves filled with soft buzzing crowns. I am full now. The little man brings his head and hands out of his shell and gives me a barely audible round of much-deserved applause. He promises to meet me at this park bench next year to mark the occasion I saved his life. Precisely one year later, I will sit here and he will not. I will hazard a guess that the little man took his shell back to Poland.

image: Andromeda Veach


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