Of Candles, Salt and Owls: Cowrie Shells

by W.F. Lantry

read it in the correct order


Pomba Gira came walking through the village one day, wearing a long, flowing dress. The cloth on her left side was scarlet red, the cloth on her right was emerald green. Her hair was jet black that day, black as any night, so the cowrie shells woven into her braids looked like a sky full of stars.

At first, no-one noticed the color of her dress, because the hem was slit nearly up to her thighs, and the neckline plunged almost to her waist. It was only after she’d passed that people started arguing. One faction held her dress was all red, red as the orchids blooming just then in the forest, red as the wings of birds, red as blood just beginning to flow. The other side argued strongly for green, the color of crops and of leaves, the tail feathers of parrots, fresh harvested coffee beans. Both sides were so sure of themselves they nearly came to blows. “We know what we saw,” they all said.

That’s when Pomba Gira came walking back the other way, softly singing to herself, her bare steps light on the earth. The crowd was arguing in the middle of the road, and now they blocked her way. She told them how foolish they’d been, being so certain they knew what they saw. “You were all so busy arguing, you barely noticed the cowrie shells in my hair!”

And it’s true those shells were brilliant in the sun, translucent as porcelain, they looked like an object of love in themselves. Every man thought of love as he gazed at her, and even some of the women. And why not? Shells come from water, they are born of the ocean. They remind us of the moon, drawing the tides. So women wear shells when they want to draw something towards them. They’re woven into skirts and blouses, worn in necklaces against the skin. Mothers present them to their daughters, without saying a word of their meaning.

They’ve been used as money for four thousand years: it’s hard to counterfeit a shell. Most of them came from the Maldives. The locals would tie palm fronds into pairs, and anchor them in the sea. After a few weeks, they’d brave the sharks to retrieve them, shake all the shells into sand pits, and bury them for a month. When they opened the pits, the shells were perfectly clean and still polished, ready to be strung together. The further they got from the Maldives, the more those shell strings were worth.

In Yoruba, twelve strings were almost worth a brideprice. Every man owed the king one string in taxes each year. They were used in palace ceremonies, for conjuring and divination. They could reveal the truth and predict the future. But mostly now they’re used as a charm, and men have no idea of their worth. They can help draw whatever a woman desires.

Miranda and I were strolling through town. The evening’s performance had left her energized and thirsty, she was looking for a place to wind down. We were walking along 18th Street in Northwest, DC, where the cars park diagonally. We noticed a four story mural, a topless woman with red hair. There was writing all over her ten foot breasts. “Madam’s Organ restaurant and bar,” the right one read. “The Heart of Adams Morgan,” the other one said.

There were wagon wheels on the balcony beneath her. We went inside for a drink. I always get a Rusty Nail, she likes a Sex on the Beach, but can never bring herself to say its name. I had to tell the waitress what she desired. The music was almost too loud to speak over, so we drank them almost in silence. It was awkward to move from Fauré into bluegrass. We decided to move down the block.

There are people from every nationality on those streets, the less-wealthy embassies aren’t far away. And for every inclination there’s a store: a Burmese food market, Peruvian clothes. Rugs from the Uzbek, Brazilian spices. Sex shops and strip bars, used bookstores and basement fortunetellers. One of these last caught Miranda’s eye.

“Why would you want to go in there?”

“I’m just curious,” she said. “Why, are you worried she’ll tell me all of your secrets?”

“I already told you all my secrets? Besides, it says on the window half an hour would cost twenty bucks.”

“I’m worth it!” Miranda said, and down the stairs we went. It wasn’t at all what you would imagine. A bell rang us in to a small quiet room. Yes, there was incense, but no skulls or crystals. Hand-patterned Batik was draped on the walls. We sat down at a small table and waited in silence.

When the woman came in, I was even more surprised. She was cedar slender and looked Balinese. Her English was perfect: a Somerset accent. She asked for something small from each of us. I thought she meant money, and placed a twenty on the table beside her. She just smiled gracefully. Miranda knew better: she looked through her purse. In the bottom, she found a small loose shell. Maybe it had been a button that had come unthreaded, or maybe part of a sweater pin. She held it in her hand until it was warm, then placed it on the table in front of her. The Balinese woman touched it and looked up.

“Someone suspects you of something,” she said to Miranda. “Something you didn’t do. The unforeseen end of all this will astound you. There is a man who doesn’t wish you well. But another man, this man sitting right here, the uncivilized one: he loves you. You can always trust a man who loves a troublesome dog.”

I was too embarrassed to speak. I wondered how she knew about Brisi? I bet right at that moment, Brisi was chewing on something she shouldn’t. I picked up the white cowrie shell.




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