The Scent of Rotting Sea Life

I found a piece of coral on the beach. If you live in Florida and you’re reading this, stop laughing right now. It was so beautiful. I never really knew how the color coral got its name, but I figured it out when I saw this gorgeous sea knick-knack lying on the beach. I picked it up, rinsed it off in the ocean and carried it home along with the other shells I had found. On the way from the beach to our house, my husand said, “Hey, maybe you should leave it outside for a couple of days, just in case it smells.” Red flag number 2.

Red flag number 1 was the still lingering memory of the time we picked up about half a garbage bag full of conch shells on a vacation to Kiawah Island in 1995. This was something that you don’t easily forget.

It was our third vacation to Kiawah, but the first time we saw billions and billions of conch shells on the beach as we were walking.

“Wow! Look at all these beautiful shells!” We started to pick up the prettiest ones. My oldest son, who was about 7, opened up his beach towel and started filling it with shells. The rest of us followed suit.

“I wonder why no one else is picking these up,” I said, prophetically. Bystanders were not only not picking them up, they were looking at us with expressions of aghast pity mixed with ready-to-burst-out-laughing. At us, not with us.

We got our stash of shells back to our condo and spread them out on the patio picnic table.

“I wonder if they’ll smell a little bit,” my husband said. Again with the prophesy. So we spread them out in the sun for the day, thinking a good airing out would be just what they needed to go from being cogs in the wheel of nature to being craft supplies in our house.

That’s what we were thinking. What we weren’t thinking was that these shells weren’t just shells. They were animals. Living conchs were still inside. And that’s the reason we were the only people picking them up from the beach. It would be like picking up a baby seal and taking it back to the vacation condo and letting it air out on the deck. Or making a fur coat out of a raccoon that is alive, but just stunned and very thirsty.

After a couple hours in the sun on the deck, our pet conchs were starting to bake a little bit. We noticed the smell when we walked out of the sliders. Then we noticed it in the surrounding neighborhood. Either the smell had attached itself to the insides of our noses or it followed us everywhere on the island. One of us was bold enough to get closer to them and noticed that a slimy gray innard that looked like a clam casino without the butter was starting to come out. It was moving.

“They’re alive!” my husband announced. The problem was the kids and I still wanted those shells. We decided they were probably headed for death anyway, since they had been on broil on the picnic table for so long, so I put a big pot of water on the stove, brought them inside and cooked them. I thought maybe the inside creatures would come out and float on the water, but they boiled right inside there.
The smell was unbelievable. Imagine that you bought some clams at that Asian market that you’re suspicious of to start with. Then you forgot you bought them and left them in the trunk of your car for a whole weekend. Then you took them out and left them on your kitchen counter for a few more days. Then you steamed them with some chicken gizzards, Spam, a can of cat food and some limburger cheese you had lying around. Then you ate it and threw up in your bed. That’s what our conchs smelled like.

We ruined a perfectly good condo by stinking it up with boiled conchs. The worst thing was that everyone on the island of Kiawah knew what that smell was – some stupid tourist from Illinois picked up a bunch of conchs and was making soup out of them on a condo stovetop.

Not to be deterred, we aired them out the rest of the vacation, took them home in a triple garbage bag and then aired them out for about another year before putting them in the basement. I told you we needed them. (We still have them, in a plastic pan in our garage. My husband found it ironic that we were moving shells to Florida.)

So last weekend when I found this piece of coral, it didn’t really occur to me that it was still alive. It was soft, but I figured once I dried it out it would get crispy and hard and I had a place all picked out for it. We have these little shelves at the end of our kitchen island that don’t hold anything. I thought I’d put some of my prettier shells there along with this orangeish-red piece of beautifulness.

Two things: It did smell. Not right away. I got it home and decided to run it under some really hot water to clean it up. Then I put my nose up next to it and inhaled. I gagged. It smelled like the vomit of a bad animal, like a rat or a carp.

And: It didn’t stay coral colored. Apparently the color “coral” refers to this thing when it’s still in the ocean. Once it sits on the bench around your pool (aka dead), it turns a rusty brown with dirty white tips. Right now it’s beginning to harden, but I’m thinking that those pieces of coral that you buy in the Hallmark store are made out of plastic. They’re not real. If they were real, they’d be the color of something you might scrape out of the bottom of a blast furnace. And they’d smell.

I’m thinking nobody would buy them. Except maybe me . . .

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