A 63 year old biologist, blind since childhood, collects snails and shells in Africa. His self-imposed isolation is shattered after he is credited with saving the lives of an American woman and a native eight year old girl who are both suffering from malaria. The venom of a cone shell provides the cure. Strangers flock to the scientist’s abode hoping to find their own miraculous remedy, but instead a few discover tragedy or even death.

The biologist’s own adult son dies from a cone shell bite while visiting his father. In the end, the shell collector is also bitten by a cone and experiences both paralysis and clarity in his near-death condition. He survives with the aid of the young girl whom he had earlier cured of malaria.


This short story illustrates the power, beauty, and indifference of Nature. It is a force that can save life as well as take it away without cause or regret. There is an obvious similarity between the scientist and the creatures he collects. Both inhabit shells to insulate themselves from the outside world. The biologist retreats into his blindness yet he is keenly aware of his surroundings. Blindness is portrayed literally and figuratively. Vision and touch compete for primacy as the most valuable of the five senses.

The story delves into the geometry and mystery of life and the need to maintain equilibrium. The scientist realizes that the accumulation of knowledge only generates more questions. "Ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege" [14]. His infatuation with discovery raises an interesting question. When does passion become obsession?

The story ends fittingly when the shell collector encounters a blind snail. Both creatures plod forward. The two organisms share a common plight as each must adapt to their respective environments or die. No matter their fate, Nature doesn’t really care.


This story also appeared in The Chicago Review.



Place Published

New York



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