At last. Months of waiting. Dying a little each day. While the drugs infused me images of a white, sandy beach suffused me. The memory of creation in the smell and caress of salt air from the sea: the sea in my blood, my tears. At last– a beach so unspoiled, it seems a disgrace to walk upon it. I imagined my footprints the first to engrave the sand. Shouldn’t I leave something more permanent than footprints on a beach? Then I saw what the sea had left: a single conch shell, lying undisturbed on the sand.
“Do you know the meaning of this shell?”
He was a slim, elderly man, perhaps in his sixties. Even in the waning light, I recognized him as Indian. The way he talked to me was somehow familiar.
“The conch shell is sacred to followers of Vishnu. In the Hindu religion, this shell is of great importance. The sound of the conch is associated with the sacred, first sound of creation.”
“You are Hindu?”
He smiled and nodded, pointing once more to the shell.
“If the shell spirals clockwise, it symbolizes the expansion of infinite space. Such a shell belongs to Lord Vishnu.”
His whole demeanor was so engaging. I immediately took to him. “What if the conch spirals in the other direction?”
He “ahhed” and quietly clapped his hands together. “That is an excellent question! Spiraling counterclockwise is said to defy the laws of nature. Such conch shells belong to Lord Shiva, the destroyer, the transformer.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but Lord Shiva sounds menacing.” I looked toward the shell, hoping I had not offended him.
“Do not be concerned. Always ask questions. Some questions can never be answered, that is the reason people turn to gods. Lord Shiva has his role. Gods are always engaged in dramas, usually for our benefit.”
“And Lord Vishnu? Is he a good god?”
“Ah, yes. I suppose he is. Lord Vishnu is the preserver.”
I told him I couldn’t tell the direction of the shell’s spiraling and suggested we take a look. We were standing about ten feet from the shell, the sand around it still undisturbed. I looked at him, waiting for his answer.
He folded his hands together. “Some questions do not need answering.”
“So, we’re not going to look?”
“Look, do not look. It is your decision. Is it something you need to know? And once you know, what will you do with the knowledge? But to wonder: wonder is elemental, life itself, however long you are destined to live. To know can be dangerous. It comes with much responsibility and must be defended.”
His eyes reflected the last rays of the sun, almost glowing, leaving me with a queer feeling. He continued his patient instruction.
“Followers of Vishnu believe the conch shell was given to us to destroy all evil; banish evil spirits and scare away poisonous creatures. It has been used as a battle horn. Indian mysticism says the sound of the conch is the breath of Vishnu, the sacred sound of “OM”, pervading all of space. But you must be tired of hearing me. Might I accompany you to your lodgings?”
We started to leave when I suddenly turned and ran to the shell, yelling back to the old man that I just had to see for myself the direction the shell spiraled. I gingerly picked it up and examined it, turning it over and over. Standing there I decided it was just mysticism and didn’t mean anything to me. I returned it to the sand, allowing someone else to experience the sacred conch and walked to the waiting man’s side. We both laughed at my flagrant curiosity.
I was staying at a naturalist lodge which was both exotic and simple; meant to leave the least footprint on the surrounding ecosystem. The sun had set, and as we reached the edge of the lighted compound, I had my first good look at my escort. I stopped and stared at him. He looked at me and laughed: a light-hearted, warm laughter from a man whose name I still did not know. He was nowhere near a man in his sixties. The slender, frail-seeming man on the beach did not exist. This man was taller, robust, with a remarkably warm smile. When I was finally able to speak, I asked him his name. Surprisingly, his response didn’t alarm me…
It has been many years since that encounter on the beach. I have been to many beaches since and I have a precious collection of conch shells. They all spiral in one direction.