Soul Food Stories

Shark Vertebrae Necklace, from Pinterest

Shark Vertebrae Necklace, from Pinterest

A young shark took the bait that was left overnight on a fishing line at the end of the dock on Pine Cay—bait that was intended for snapper, or grouper or other delectable dinner fish. When Raymond found it on his slow-gaited inspection walk around the dive shop just after sunrise, it was dead. Sharks need to keep moving in order to breathe, and this one, unfortunately, had been kept virtually immobile by the hook on a short line.

Raymond hauled the creature in, all six feet and hundred pounds of it. His parents, with survival skills that dated back to the late 1800s when their grandparents were brought here, the Turks and Caicos Islands, from Africa, would have filleted it, made shark steak, or hash, from it and dried the rest. But at nineteen, tall lanky Raymond had had enough shark meat to last him a lifetime. Moving quietly in his speedo bathing suit and flip-flops, he loaded the recently dead animal onto a wheelbarrow and brought it to me.

I had a working compost pile. It was in a big box that Raymond had nailed together from two old doors on either side, plywood cut to fit at both ends, a piece of wood on the top, bare ground underneath. The box was about six feet long, three feet high and three feet wide. I had filled it to the top with seaweed, leaves, donkey doo, lobster shells and refuse from many dinners from the small hotel on the island. Hot stuff! Literally. When you dug in with your fingers, it was almost too hot to leave them there.

“I knew you’d want dis,” he said in the soft island way.

We scooped the top layer of rotting debris off onto the ground, then reached for the shark.

“Look,” I said as we lifted the body into the box, “it fits!”

Indeed it did. Then we put back the layer we had removed, and put the lid back on. Coffin-like.

Two days later, I went back to check on our animal. As I lifted the lid and peered in, the strong scent of ammonia stung my sinuses. Hm-m. Nothing looked any different. I pulled aside the top layer of compost materials. There lay our friend. When I touched the grey skin, it was warm, and pulled back easily to reveal white cooked flesh. I took a pinch to taste. Although the nitrogen odour was unpleasant, the flesh was flaky, mild, and slightly sweet. I ran home, grabbed a knife and plate, ran back, and cut away enough for our dinner, hoping the smell would dissipate by then. It did, and with sweet potatoes and white wine, we didn’t just eat dinner, we dined.

Another two days later, I dug into the top layer and found … nothing. It was gone! Totally decomposed, transformed into other elements. The scent of ammonia was still there – sign of the nitrogen that would make rich compost. This was amazing. So fast! The temperature of the air, of course, was a helpful factor, 85 during the day, 75 at night. I dug around a bit more. Along the entire far side of the box was arrayed a row of vertebrae in perfect formation, from larger in the thoracic area to petite in the tail. I’d never seen shark vertebrae, and was in awe. They were small and white, delicate. This fierce predator had exquisite gems running the length of its backbone. And such artistry in each one! Cylindrical, about as long as my thumbnail, with small oval holes along one side.


Immediately I could see a necklace. I picked the vertebrae out of the hot pile, brought them home and let them completely dry on a plate in the sun. Days later, I drilled small holes in their centres and threaded a piece of leather thong through them, knotting it between each one. The finished piece was ancient, oceanic, and my artistic delight. I loved wearing it.

A few months later, as part of a conference on gardening in the tropics, a group of us visited a museum in the Dominican Republic. Under one of the glass cases of early man, I could hardly believe what my eyes were seeing. A necklace composed of shark vertebrae—from the 13th century! I felt an immediate kinship with the woman who imagined, designed and wore that necklace. In that startling moment, I met up with my original native self who wanted to adorn my body just as she did. I met a sister … who had lived, dreamed, died, and left beauty behind.

You never know where the transformational processes of a compost pile will take you. Just as the shark’s flesh provided nourishment for my body, and its vertebrae provided artistic wonderment for my soul, so too preserved personal stories can provide soul food for generations to come. Imagine a descendant a few hundred years from now saying, “… and to think she wrote this in the 21st century!”

34 comments on “Soul Food Stories

  1. This serves to remind me, Diane, that story turns into memory and memory into history wrapped in history all packed neatly together like Russian dolls — or perhaps more like the linked vertebrae of a 6 foot shark. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. We hooked a shark one day in the Gulf Islands BC and the poor thing gulped air, so it was humping and flailing around still hooked. Finally we netted it and brought it aboard,
    took the hook out and gave it a soft punch and sent it back overboard in good shape.
    Just needed a burp!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nicely told – I remember your telling me about the shark back in your island days…

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Sharks are such amazing creatures! Except when they grabbed hold of a tuna we just caught off our boat! I do love swimming with them – the nice kinds. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What an interesting story, Diane. And I love the way it ends. A most unusual necklace as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very enjoyable read, Diane. I’d like some day to see you wearing that necklace so I can admire its beauty. The only jewelry I pulled out of my northern compost, was a watch my daughter had lost, presumably when helping me one fall pull up squash vines and dump them into the pile. Unfortunately the heat and moisture killed it. Nothing really left to salvage except a warning not wear jewelry while gardening.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    A true story from Diane 👍😃

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Reblogged this on The Feed By Our Pantheons Way and commented:
    What an amazing story. I had no idea about the shark’s vertebrae or the compost cooking method. Very interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Compost cooking, indeed. Years before, while researching compost, I had read that compost could be used as a ‘slow cooker’ and knew that it was possible, although that was not my intention when dedicating that young shark to a compost pile that would improve the harvest from the garden plot.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A terrific story and one that as you say takes us back to our roots..literally.. I love making those connections. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. love that necklace Diane, truly a work of art.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Write on Diane – enjoyed this story and that very special necklace – unique and lovely.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. What a great story of transformation. I love the treasures that you found so unexpectedly.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I took some really comfort in the (very quick) transformational process that happened in this story. Overall, I’ve been in a ‘not so happy place’ since arriving in Johor Bahru (although I have had happy moments and some really good news on The Captain’s health). This story reminds me that ‘this to shall pass’. Of course, I hope that I have better luck than the shark in my next act. But oh what a beautiful gift he gave you.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I was unaware that the Captain’s health was awry, but it is welcome news that he is doing better now. It means a lot to me that you have seen the compost story as a metaphor for what is going on in your life right now, and that you have written about it here. Such wise words you have picked to guide you through this tough time, ‘This too shall pass’. Or, this too shall be transformed. Keep writing.:)


  15. Life is cyclical though we only get to see a tiny portion of that circle. Your story is such a wonderful reminder to me to search for the beauty at the heart of everything. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. We have put a lot of kitchen scraps into our compost pile, but never a whole shark! interesting how the vertebra became a necklace.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Fascinating and delightful story. I’m so glad I saved it at the bottom of my inbox (where so many emails have to be deleted for lack of time).

    Liked by 1 person

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