The anatomy of a conch is a curious and unnerving thing.
“Yeah, mon,” said the Bahamian in the conch shack by the sea. “Take da skin and eyes right off, den trow dem in da water. Dey live by demselves for two more days.”
My friend Laureen leaned over the counter to get a better look. In Donny’s hands was a large conch shell and a knife. “No, uh, gills or organs or anything?” I asked. “Just the skin? Living?”
Donny demonstrated. Experienced fingers pulled from the shell a floppy, purplish alien-slug-thing. Using his knife, he expertly cut something slimy off of something else slimy—conch skin and eyes from conch body, presumably—then tossed it over his shoulder. Through the open rear of the shack it flew, to plop back into the Caribbean Sea.
Donny was a thick man of middle years. The majority of his hair was going grey, and the majority of his teeth were going away. He and his wife, Monique, were proprietors of The Burning Spot, one of a long row of conch shacks lining a pier nestled beneath the huge bridge leading to Paradise Island. The Burning Spot was the size of a garden shed, though the entire back was open to the sea. From the ceiling dangled all sorts of oddities mixed in with daily use items. Funky ornaments made of seashells swung in the breeze, bumping into grill brushes and spatter guards. The front wall of the shack folded into a counter, over which Laureen and I draped ourselves, beside a pile of conch shells strung together and heaped several feet high. As we watched Donny continue to intimately manipulate the conch, I pressed into the stack of conch shells.
“Gaaaaah!” I suddenly bellowed, stumbling backwards. Laureen teased me with a voice usually reserved for small children, “Was it all slimy and icky, Bri Bri?”
“I-I just got tentacled!” I protested. “These things are still alive!” Donny and Monique laughed hysterically. Monique buried her face into his broad shoulder, overcome with mirth.
“If their skin can stay alive for two days,” Laureen observed, poking me “Whatcha think a whole one can do?” I muttered, “I thought they were just shells. For decoration.”
“Decoration’s over dere, mon,” Donny said, gesturing above him with his dripping knife. In the sheltered corner hung an old and tired pom pom, heavy and limp, some strands stuck to a cast iron pan. There was obviously a story there, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. Watching Donny laugh maniacally holding a sharp knife in one hand, and a slain alien in the other, brought to mind all sorts of B-rated horror movie imagery.
“Donny catch dem every mornin’,” Monique said, to which I quipped, “Cheerleaders?”
Monique laughed heartily, revealing huge, brilliant teeth. “He wish! He jump right off de back here sunup. Dey come to de pier every day, like de ships.”
Donny’s continuing work freaked me out. From the bodies of the conchs he pulled weird, half toothpick-sized slivers of what looked like gelatin. Each such find brought delight, and he promptly popped them in his mouth. He loved ‘em. I didn’t have the stomach to ask if they were conch anatomy or parasites. Yet despite the grisly performance, the results were worthy. We took our bowls of chilled conch salad to a crooked wooden table in front of the shack, and readily devoured the contents. The minutes-fresh meat was firm and bright. Mixed in were chopped tomatoes, onions, and peppers, the whole doused in copious amounts of freshly squeezed lime juice, then a pinch of salt and pepper. The conch salad was delicious.
*excerpted from Unsinkable Mister Brown, by Brian David Bruns. PARIS BOOK FESTIVAL WINNER: SILVER
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