Part I: Kwa
This is the story of a conch-shell, and the man who answered its call to adventure.
The powerful and mysterious conch resided in a seaside temple on the outskirts of Peacetown. Whenever a resident of the town found themselves at life’s crossroads, wondering which path to take, notes from the conch-shell sounded in their ears and sang of what lay ahead in each direction.
When danger lay in the town’s future, it called one of its young men, bright of mind and clean of limb, to fight it.
That evening, it sounded in the ears of Kwa, a citrus-seller who was piling fruit upon fruit into neat pyramids, turning the best faces outwards. It was good but tedious work, a good but tedious profession, and it would earn him a good but tedious life.
Leave it all, Kwa, rang the conch-shell in his ear, you have a choice! In seven years, a terrible dragon will attack Peacetown. Come with me and I will teach you to beat him before he even has the idea. You will survive the encounter intact, and return home a hero, enormously rich. Or stay: You will marry and have a child within a year, and work in this shop until your dying day.
Kwa did want a wife and children, but not so soon. And how much more pleasant family life would be if he were wealthy Kwa the Hero, rather than barely-scraping-by Kwa the Fruit-Seller!
Kwa walked out of his shop. First he went to see the woman he loved, to ask her to wait for him. As steady and loyal as she was beautiful, she promised, and so he set off.
It was a long and difficult road Kwa had to walk, but the conch-shell was there at every step.
Creep past the giant sleeping spider, or fight it for its magical sword? It will be perilous, but not fatal. He chose to fight, breaking a couple of ribs, but gaining the sword.
A wizard lives here. Convince him to give you some spells, or not? It will be difficult, but not impossible. He chose to barter with the wizard, leaving with spells of fire and wind and earth and water, and minus his fondest childhood memories.
Here is the dragon’s lair. Use the wizard’s spells to close the mouth of its cave, or challenge it to a fight? Closing the cave meant no treasure, so Kwa chose the deadly battle. He was burned and torn and broken, but he slew the dragon.
Using the last of the wizard’s spells to transport the dragon’s vast hoard, he went back to Peacetown. Having had seven years of adventure, Kwa eagerly anticipated a warm home, a loving wife, charming children.
When he set foot in Peacetown, the mayor stood ready to greet him with a welcome troupe. There was great pomp and celebration, for the conch-shell had sung of Kwa’s exploits to every citizen. But nowhere in the crowds was the one face Kwa was looking for.
To cap off the celebrations, the mayor had arranged a thanks-giving ritual for the conch-shell at its temple. The shell would be decorated, hymns would be sung in its praise, and a tender coconut sacrificed to it. At the temple, the mayor called to his wife; she came followed by her two children—and the sight of her drove a sharp pain through Kwa’s heart, for she was none other than his beloved, who had not, in fact, waited for him.
Part II: Var
Or perhaps it is the story of that shell, and the man who did not answer its call.
That evening, just before it approached Kwa, the shell sounded in the ears of Var, a seller of pots and pans in the same market. But Var was thinking of Shai, the coconut-seller’s daughter, luminescent, with slender hands that thwacked the tops off coconuts with a sharp curved blade, and a smile that caused the stars to pale in comparison. There was none of the simpering coquette about her, the kind that turned into a whiny, nagging harridan after marriage. Var did not even hear the shell’s grand promises, and his choice was made by default.
Days later, as Var gathered courage to ask Shai’s father for permission to marry her, the conch-shell sounded in his ears again and this time he listened: Shai’s father will be pleased with you, but cannot give you much dowry. The wealthy timber-merchant’s daughter though, is plain and perhaps a couple of years past marriageable age. You will have money troubles soon and a substantial dowry will help.
This was an easy choice for Var to make and within a couple of months, he was married to Shai.
The shop’s fortunes took a downturn almost immediately after. A competitor set up right opposite, and began selling for half Var’s prices. When Var confronted him, the man had no qualms admitting he intended to drive Var out of business and then hike prices.
Expose him to the townspeople, said the conch-shell. It will be a dirty fight, but you will win. Or earn more goodwill by offering to mend dents and holes in your wares at no charge.
Var chose the latter. There was an uptick of customers, enough to keep the shop going, but not much more.
Then one day, the town wastrel came to him asking for a whole set of pots and pans on credit. An inheritance was due him, he said, promising to pay as soon as it came.
This is true, said the conch-shell, but others will start asking for credit if you agree. Not all will pay up, and I cannot advise you on each one.
Kind Var chose to extend the man credit. Var’s shop soared in popularity, but nearly everyone asked for credit. Var had to judiciously choose whom to patronise and whom to let down gently, a tiring task that he carried out for months.
Until a caravan of wealthy merchants arrived to trade in Peacetown. Hearing nothing but good about Var, his wares and his service, they chose to trade with him rather than his competitor. Two years after his troubles began, Var’s fortunes changed. The contracts he signed would keep him comfortable for the foreseeable future.
Over the next four years, he ensured his business ran like a well-oiled cart, until he no longer had to devote much energy to it. He decided it was only fair to enter public service, to give some happiness back to the town.
Thus it was that, later that year, Var was elected mayor of Peacetown.
Part III: Shai
Or yet perhaps, it is the story of that shell, and a woman.
Shai was up a coconut tree in her harness, taking in the blue skies, and the green treetops, and the foamy sea some distance away, when Kwa came to see her. She climbed down, thrilled to see her love so unexpectedly. But when she heard his news, her heart shrank in fear. And rightly so, for when he asked if she would wait, the conch-shell said: Kwa will be gone for many years. You will not be able to avoid marriage that long. If you promise, you will be lying. But standing there, in Kwa’s arms, looking into his brown eyes, Shai could not believe that. They had made so many promises to each other standing in this very grove, it would be traitorous not to make this one. She would wait. She had to. So she held him close, and kissed him, and made her promises.
Some days later, when her father gave Var permission to court her, Shai was taken aback. Their shops were close, she had spoken to him a bit, they had shared polite platitudes, but the conch-shell had not told her he was interested. Var seemed a little oblivious, but a good man, hard-working and not unattractive. Indeed, Kwa was the only good reason she had to refuse him, and she had no answer when her father asked where this Kwa was and why he had not yet asked for her hand. So she agreed to walk an hour with Var every afternoon before their shops opened, hoping she could delay an actual wedding until she thought up a way out of it.
It had been so different with Kwa. They had run into each other at temple festivals, caught the other’s eye, met in the coconut groves when Shai went to harvest the fruit. Let his shop turn a profit, Kwa said, and he would speak to Shai’s father. But that never happened, and here, after twenty days of walking together, Var was proposing.
What was she to do besides pursue Kwa on the road? He was a whole month ahead of her, and a woman travelling alone would be a target for all sorts of unsavoury characters. Shai was out of ideas.
You can’t refuse Var after walking with him for nearly a month, the conch-shell said. And besides, Kwa will be a different person when he returns. He will remember all your charms and none of your faults, so that after a week of marriage, he will tire of you. And if you turn Var down now, no other man will waste his time.
Shai cried bitterly that night and a month later, she and Var were married.
• • • •
Every morning, Shai woke early, dusted the shop and their house, just above; did the previous day’s dishes; shopped for vegetables, cut them and prepared a hot lunch; washed clothes and prepared dinner before Var returned home for the night.
When money started becoming scarce, the conch-shell told her: You will need to economise. Your fortunes will turn, but only if the shop is still in business two years from now.
But they already lived a sparse life. Shai could not see where to cut expenses.
Halve your vegetables, eat more rice.
The next day, Shai only bought half the quantity of vegetables. She served Var his half-portion for lunch, and the conch-shell came to her: What are you doing? Var’s pleasant nature is the only thing keeping whatever customers he still has. If he thinks you are suffering, he will be so demoralised, that famous pleasantness will vanish.
But Shai persisted, for she had just learnt she was pregnant, and she needed the nutrition. Sure enough, the shop’s fortunes took a further dive. On the tenth day, Shai had to dip into savings even to buy their half-serving of vegetables. This time, she served it all to Var.
He seemed to regain some energy, for a day later he came up with the mending service, and there was a little more money.
Some months later, the conch said: The baby is the wrong way around, Shai. Spend the next weeks on your hands and knees so it’ll turn, or you won’t live through it.
Terrified, Shai complied, bending while doing the dishes and cooking, mopping the floor on her knees. It was enormously uncomfortable, but fear carried her through it.
She delivered a beautiful baby girl—and lived.
Only to be told two months later, You’re pregnant again. If it isn’t a boy, Var will lose some of his patience with you. Avoid coconut for the rest of your term to ensure a son.
Shai could not believe this. Var loved her. He told her so, often. And coconut was an essential ingredient, food would be flat and tasteless without it. How could she eat like that for months; how could she expect Var to?
And yet, no matter how unthinkable, everything the conch-shell had predicted had come true. And that was its function, was it not? That was its divinity, its reason for existence.
And because she had learnt her lesson about imposing her difficulties upon her husband, Shai doubled her cooking, making different meals for herself. When the baby came, Shai was thinner, emaciated, her cheeks hollow, her eyes dull, but it was worth it, for he was a boy.
• • • •
When Var announced his run for mayor, Shai had the busiest time of her life. With two small children, she entertained people at their house night and day, as Var and his friends planned and campaigned. Her chores increased four-fold, even with hired help. Thankfully it paid off.
Soon after, the day came when the conch-shell announced Kwa’s return to Peacetown. Shai hoped and prayed that he had met someone else, that he would not care that she was married, that he would somehow understand. She did not go to the celebrations, there was time enough for matters to come to head at the temple.
And indeed, when Kwa saw Shai, his face fell. Shai could see his heart break, his dreams shatter.
Kwa’s strife was not lost upon Var either. “What is it, sir?”
The weight of Var’s voice brought a hush upon the gathered crowd. A sob breaking through his hard-kept composure, Kwa told Var all.
“I slew a dragon for you, Shai. For us. And how long did your promise last, a whole two months?”
Var turned to her in surprise and disappointment. “Why did you not tell me of Kwa when I began to court you, Shai?”
“The—the conch-shell said I had to marry you—”
“Had to?” interrupted Var. “The conch-shell never says had to. It merely lays out options.”
Shai’s brows furrowed, her voice pitched higher, as she panicked trying to remember the shell’s exact words. “It said Kwa would not want me after his adventures—”
“And yet, here I am to contradict that,” said Kwa. “Are you saying the conch-shell lied to you?”
Shai’s eyes filled with tears. Any explanation of the dire alternatives foreseen by the shell, anything more she said, would seem weak and whiny, and already they did not care to listen. Not Kwa for whom she had shed so many tears; not Var for whom she had done so much. How could anyone who knew . . .
. . . And then something struck her, something that would explain the bewilderment on their faces.
They didn’t know. The conch-shell had not told them.
Shai fingered the curved blade for the coconut-sacrifice hanging at her waist. The conch divined what was in her mind and said, in alarm: I only spoke the truth; it’s not my fault it was unpleasant!
Had it, though? Every citizen had heard of Kwa’s victories over the wizard and the dragon, of Var’s goodness and morality while conducting business. But had Var heard anything of her sacrifices during their marriage? Or Kwa of her torment while Var courted her? The conch-shell was silent and Shai had her answer. That was it, wasn’t it? It sang of the men’s work, their sacrifices, but not of the women’s. Shai hefted the blade.
You’ll be cast out of society! Out of family!
She would just have to trust to the coconut groves then. And she had to hurry, before the shell found someone to stop her.
Shai dropped a quick kiss on each of her children’s heads, all the explanation, all the farewell, she could afford. She lifted her blade high, and—
—with a mighty heave and a cry that reverberated through the small stone chamber—
brought it down upon the conch-shell, shattering it into a thousand pieces.