The Smell of Seashells by Vera Hadzic

An old friend of mine could sense storms by smell. When I asked, she said they smell like water. I must have smelled water a million times, but never like this, she claimed. When a storm’s coming, water smells like soil and metal, as though the earth is cut open and the storm is its blood, pouring out into the world.

It had been months since I’d spoken to her.

“Smells like a storm,” I said one day over break. Nobody listened to me – they had more important mysteries to solve. I hadn’t really been talking to them, anyway. The fog made the sun a pink and hazy fingertip, smearing its oils over the sky. Conversation carried on as though I hadn’t said anything:

“I just don’t understand how they could have gotten here in the first place.”

I wasn’t a popular member of the team. My friend Lise used to compare me to an oyster, screwed tightly shut; you had to work to figure me out. Even worse, I was a last-minute addition – bad luck, according to Ana Miric. She was one of our supervisors, and she’d wrinkled her nose when we’d met at the airport. “This is the malacologist? She doesn’t look qualified.”

Ana had no baby hairs, or very reliable hairspray. Her ponytail sprouted out of her smooth, shiny scalp and showered her shoulders with gold. She knew I wasn’t qualified. She knew I’d only come on a whim. I hadn’t bothered to smile when we were introduced.

We were sitting in a Danish bog. Above our heads, the canvas shelter swelled with the wind – a wind that smelled mostly of spring and mud, but also of water. The shelter was an enormous dome hunching over our excavation site. It felt surreal to be here – not because the big white shelter was impressive, but because my coming had been so unplanned. Unplanned wasn’t usually what I did.

My colleague Victor had invited me along. It had been raining when he brought it up – the museum was darker when it rained, and this made it shrink into itself. I wasn’t close to Victor, but he spoke like we were best friends. Sure, Victor. I’ll come with you to Denmark. Why not?

‘Malacology’ – the study of mollusks. I wasn’t really a malacologist. I knew a lot about seashells, yes, but that was more a passion than a career. I could definitely look at some shells. Yup, a mollusk had definitely lived in that. How did it end up in a bog, kilometres from the sea? Beats me.

“Okay, team, back to work!” Dr. Klausen was the field director. On a spectrum of knowing what the hell they were doing here, she and I were at opposite ends. She didn’t mind that I could only tell her, “This is a blue mussel” or “This is an ocean quahog.” In the textbook I’d brought, they appeared in high-resolution images so you could see the markings. She’d murmur, “Ja, that’s all right, we’ll have someone verify later.”

The bog was beautiful. Yellow grasses and red mosses crept toward the horizon, interspersed with finger-thin trees, and reflective black water. I had to watch where I stepped, keep to spongy ground. The dig site wasn’t so big – compared to the stretches of bog all around us, we were a speck.

Victor and I were working carefully through a square patch of dirt, and so far, it looked empty. My most exciting find today had been a worm. Victor kept calling over his shoulder to Sofie, a PhD candidate who offered much better conversation than I did.

The site had been discovered by accident – they usually are. Some scientific team had stumbled upon a small nest of pottery while analyzing pH levels. People got all excited, as they do whenever something’s found in a bog. Of course, they were hoping for a body. Bogs are famous for those – and I had to admit, I wanted to find one, too. A bog body, perfectly mummified, frozen in time. The team had been parsing the area for a week already, with no signs of human remains. But Dr. Klausen was still hopeful.

Even without a body, there were plenty of mysteries to be solved. Like the seashells. They wanted someone on-site, someone to look at them as they came in. Ana and Dr. Klausen had been here before the rest of us, knee-deep in mud and moss, enthusiastic about pottery. Maybe praying the next shovel stroke would uncover a human knuckle, a skull. Instead, they found mollusk shells. Whelks, oysters, mussels. Enough to raise eyebrows. What were they doing there? I sure as hell didn’t know.

“Hey, Sofie! Sofie, let’s grab dinner sometime before I fly back home!” Victor was waving to the PhD candidate. I wasn’t sure if he was winking or if the sun was in his eyes. “Just you and me! What do you say?”

I’d planned on spending this week the way I always did: work, then home. I worked in the natural history section of the museum, and mostly I plugged things into databases. But I enjoyed walking through the drawers and crates and shelves in storage, checking everything was in its place. The mollusk shells were my favourite – not the flashy, scintillating ones that soaked up the exhibit lights, but the ones camping in the back. There were shells in storage which reminded me of those conical princess hats. Speckles of crimson like little rubies, peeking out from alcoves of calcium carbonate. Some shells were tiny whorls, slotting in the palm of your hand, and they could be dark and etched with patterns or pale white, as bone. The big conch shells, the pink and orange ones you find snorkelling, were usually out on display, but some specimens were kept in the dark. Usually, these were broken. Their gaping holes revealed their architecture – I could imagine this was a tower, a castle of shell bombed in World War II. Peering through the holes, I saw pink-white staircases.

“Hey, Cowles, I got another one for you,” Victor said suddenly. It took a minute to realize he was speaking to me. He dusted off another shell. It was a clam – slate-grey, unassuming.

I picked up a magnifying glass, stared at the silvery ridges on the specimen. “Soft-shelled clam.”

“You don’t say,” he said blandly.

We took photographs, recorded the location, then pried the shell out of the dirt. Carried it to the table where all our samples were arranged. The tiny clam shell clacked against the tray. Wind puffed at my face. I could definitely smell water on the air. It was settling on me.

“Still no corpse,” Victor sighed as he settled back down beside me.

I plunged my trowel back into the dirt.

“You know, people would like you better if you talked more.”

“What?” I said.

“Or if you were nicer to people. You’re like that – you act like you hate everybody and like everybody hates you. Like you don’t care about anything.”

“I’m not good at small talk.”

“You’re not good at making friends,” Victor said. “Look, I think you might be fun, if you got out of your shell a little.”


“All I’m saying is you’ll be on the flight back home as soon as we run out of seashells to dig up.” He spread his arms wide and let the sunlight cast his face in gold. “You’re travelling! Make the most of it!”

“I am making the most of it.”

He laughed. “Well, you sure don’t seem to be.”

I didn’t know how to explain that I felt transplanted, dumped in Denmark without a second thought. I didn’t belong.

As the sun slouched lower in the sky, Dr. Klausen signalled to pack up. The dome funnelled wind over the site – the water smelled so thick, so earthy.

“There isn’t enough to be a shell midden, of course,” Ana was saying to someone behind me as I piled trays. Her ponytail was just as immaculate at the end of the day as it had been this morning. “Just a few shells here and there. I wonder how they could have gotten here.”

“Well, there’s water. Couldn’t they just live?”

“Cowles says no. The bog is too acidic for these mollusks. And there’s no calcium carbonate for their shells.”

“But does Cowles know what she’s talking –” They descended into whispers. I tried not to listen.

Shell midden was a phrase I’d learned at the museum. Archaeologists buzz when they find middens – garbage heaps from early settlements. Treasure troves, testimony as to what people ate, how they lived. Shell middens are deposits from coastal peoples who consumed shellfish. They’re often found by the sea, by lakes, by rivers.

Not in bogs.

“Let’s get dinner started,” Victor moaned, “I’m starving!”

Dangling from our canopy, the pale lights sent ghostly shadows surging over the half-turned dirt. Storm-smell rustled my hair – the wind had picked up, was whistling softly, musically. Huddled under our dome, we cooked mussels for dinner. Victor had bought them the last time he’d been to town to stock up. He thought it was funny. I scooped the meat out with my fork, ate silently.

The bog around us darkened, webbed out into the evening.

“So, Cowles, what’s your deal?” Under the gaunt lighting, Victor’s eyes were the same colour as the mussel shells – dark, grating blue. “I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen you with a friend.”

“I’ve only been here a few days.”

“Not back home at the museum, either.”

“Maybe I don’t make work friends.”

“Give me the name of one friend,” Victor pressed, “that you’ve made in your lifetime. Just one.”

My heart slumped into my stomach. I didn’t want to talk about Lise. It was enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about her, or anyone else I’d lost touch with. Change the subject. I asked Victor about bog bodies.

“They didn’t actually live in bogs. Right?”

“There’s a lot of theories. Lot of debate, too.” He made a face at his water bottle. “Hell, there could be a hundred reasons why a body ends up in a bog. Murder’s nothing new. It’s the sphagnum moss that preserves the bodies, you know. Unlikely that they knew that, three thousand years ago.”

Quietly, I asked, “How do you think the shells got here?”

“Ha! I have no clue,” he huffed. “I’m just hoping we find a corpse before my bones rot from the damp.”

I wondered how much they’d really known about peat moss, the people who lived three thousand years ago. If they could tell a storm was coming by the smell of water on the wind, or if that was just something Lise had made up. I abandoned Victor as soon as I could set up my tent. I left the flap open, soaked in the night chill. A storm was certainly coming. I hoped the dome shelter would be enough to protect the site. And us.

I flipped through my old textbook. On some pages, Lise had written in the margins, annoying me while I studied. I recognized the minuscule crawl of her handwriting – she’d written scientific names like Margaritifera margaritifera and Donax trunculus, or drawn hearts around words like ‘endangered’ and ‘freshwater’. Had I come here to forget the past, or to remember it? When my eyes lost focus, the glossy pictures of mollusks morphed into gumdrops.

I blinked. Through the flap of my tent, I saw two rays of white light piercing the gloom. Then only one – then they were gone.

What is that?

I climbed out, tiptoed around the other crew members’ shelters and toward the edge of our site. Wind scraped at my cheeks, filling my nostrils with the metallic tang of water. A storm was coming. The tents fluttered precariously; our patches of mud lay undisturbed. But I noticed, now, that two shovels were missing.

“Ana and Klausen have gone.” Victor appeared next to me, eyes flaring, hair flopping in the wind. “Their tents are empty.”

“I saw flashlights out there.”

We waited, in silence, for the lights to reappear. I watched the fog, draping the earth. Sinews of it coiled into the night, full-bodied. Along with the wind, it hissed across the grass, sighed into the moss.

“Ana’s not the type to ask for help if she needs it,” Victor pointed out.

“Neither am I.” The lump in my throat was like a pearl. The wind peeled off my skin cells. “I did have some friends, before.”

“Oh, listen, Cowles.” He looked at me solemnly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pressed you so much. I don’t think you should have to open up, or talk more.”

He almost made me smile with that one.

“I know,” I admitted. “I do want to take more chances. I think it would be good for me.”

We’d gone to university together, Lise and all our friends, before drifting apart. Lise had gotten a job abroad. I had not really expected her to go. At the very least, I had expected her to come back.

It was strange that this was my first trip overseas since I’d graduated. I’d plunged myself into the museum – the dusty, soft-lit storage bins, the shrinking comfort of the halls. I’d stayed where I belonged. I wasn’t the one who left. I’d kept things organized. I’d waited.

Why hadn’t it felt right?

Even now, even here, I still wished for Lise. For things to go back to the way they were.

“There’s a storm coming,” I said softly.

“They might need help out there.” Victor turned to me. “Don’t you think?”

I don’t know what possessed me to follow him into the vast, dark bog. Maybe it was the oncoming storm that worried me, or the thoughts of Lise stewing around my head. The surprise that Victor believed me about the weather, perhaps.

We hurtled into the gloom. The storm was building: fists of wind howled past, sucking away our breath. The sky was dense and black. I expected to hear thunder. The air hung heavily over my hands, until I thought my own skin must smell of water and blood. The glow of our flashlights sank into the pitch-black waters as I staggered along the path – I nearly fell in twice.

“Ana!” Victor began screaming. “Ana Miric! Dr. Klausen! Where are you?”

Thunder. Growling and guttural, it came from below – clawing its way up from the earth. Water sloshed. There was nothing around us, only fog and darkness, and I wasn’t even sure where –

“Over there!” Victor pointed – shards of white light cut through the fog, not far away. “That’s them!”

We ran. My heart beat loud enough to snap my vocal cords. Clutching my flashlight, my hands were clammy, heavy with the air’s damp. The wind was louder than our footsteps, than my thoughts, my pulse: the fog tangled up my ankles.

“Ana!” Victor called. “Ana Miric!”

Thunder shook the arches of my feet.

“Ana!” I shouted. “Lise! Lise!”

We’d been at the beach when Lise taught me to sense storms. So many mussels lodged in the orange sand, caked in it. We’d been digging them out with our fingers and tossing them back into the water. She’d said storms were the blood of the earth, spilling through the cracks between tectonic plates. She said you could smell the ground in them.

My foot caught on a shrub, or a root. I reeled forward, landing with hands and knees on the moss. I lost the flashlight. Ahead of me, Victor was disappearing into the fog, but I couldn’t get up – my head swam. I had never smelled water like this. Coppery, sharp and pungent as mineral, weighted and moving, electric. And familiar – smelling like mussels. A mollusk shell, fresh out of the sand, the sea.

Something cracked open then – maybe the sky, maybe the earth. Sheets of rain warped and swivelled around me. I heard a voice in my head, telling me how storms came from below. And thunder reverberated in the soles of my feet, in their fragile bones.

“Cowles!” Someone called out for me. “Cowles!”

Where are you?

I must have dragged myself a few paces further, gotten to my feet somehow. Lurched my way through the storm until I found them – Ana Miric on her knees, Victor gaping above her. And Dr. Klausen with her head tilted up, letting her face fill with water.

The mossy ground was torn open, clumps of it scattered around their feet. Curled up on the soft ground, half-embedded in it, was a human body. She was leathery, tanned and smoothed over by the acid, by the ages. Her shrunken shoulder gleamed in our light; her hips tunnelled into the ground; her face, still and sleepy as stone. The rain fell and fell and her shoulder glistened and I didn’t want her to be wet – to have been alone for so long and now to be wet. I fell to my knees and crawled over. Curved my body over hers. I thought I could hear her voice in my ears, pouring in along with the water and the smell of the storm. I thought I could hear my own breaths. The rain wept over me and I was glad that I had found, here in the dirt, someone I was waiting for.

They’d found the cadaver entirely by accident, Dr. Klausen was saying – as bog bodies are usually found. The rain gathered and bled on my hands while someone went to fetch a tarp, some pegs. I thought, They need me here. Hunched over the dead woman in the rain, I looked down at her hands, folded tight, gripping something. Seashells.

She was carrying seashells.

Vera Hadzic (she/her) is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her work has appeared in Crow & Cross Keys, Kissing Dynamite, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Wrongdoing Magazine and can be found on Twitter: @HadzicVera