The Kiss and Other Stories/Oysters
It needs no straining of memory to recall the rainy twilight autumn evening when I stood with my father in a crowded Moscow street and felt overtaken by a strange illness. I suffered no pain, but my legs gave way, my head hung helplessly on one side, and words stuck in my throat. I felt that I should soon fall on the pаvement and swoon away.
Had I been taken to hospital at the moment, the doctor would have written above my bed the word: “Fames” — a complaint not usually dealt with in medical text-books.
Beside me on the pavement stood my father in a threadbare summer overcoat and a check cap from which projected a piece of white cotton-wool. On his feet were big, clumsy goloshes. The vain man, fearing that people might see that the big goloshes covered neither boots nor stockings, had cased his legs in old gaiters.
This poor, unintelligent man, whom I loved all the more, the more tattered and dirty became his once smart summer overcoat, had come to the capital five months before to seek work as a clerk. Five months he had tramped the city, seeking employment; only to-day for the first time he had screwed up his courage to beg for alms in the street.
In front of us rose a big, three-storied house with a blue signboard “Restaurant.” My head hung helplessly back, and on one side. Involuiitarily I looked upward at the bright, restaurant windows. Behind them glimmered human figures. To the right were an orchestrion, two oleographs, and hanging lamps. While trying to pierce the obscurity my eyes fell on a white patch. The patch was motionless; its rectangular contour stood out sharply against the universal background of dark brown. When I strained my eyes I could see that the patch was a notice on the wall, and it was plain that something was printed upon it, but what that something was I could not see.
I must have kept my eyes on the notice at least half an hour. Its whiteness beckoned to me, and, it seemed, almost hypnotised my brain. I tried to read it, and my attempts were fruitless.
But at last the strange sickness entered into its rights.
The roar of the trafiic rose to thunder; in the smell of the street I could distinguish a thousand smells; and the restaurant lights and street lamps seemed to flash like lightning. And I began to mate out things that I could not make out before. “Oysters,” I read on the notice.
A strange word. I had lived in the world already eight years and three months, and had never heard this word. What did it mean? Was it the proprietor's surname? No, for signboards with innkeepers' names hang outside the doors, and not on the walls inside.
“Father, what are oysters?” I asked hoarsely, trying to turn my face towards his.
My father did not hear me. He was looking at the flow of the crowd, and following every passer-by with his eyes. From his face I judged that he dearly longed to speak to the passers, but the fatal, leaden words hung on his trembling lips, and would not tear themselves off. One passer-by he even stopped and touched on the sleeve, but when the man turned to him my father stammered, “I beg your pardon,” and fell back in confusion.
“Papa, what does ‘oysters’ mean?” I repeated.
“It is a kind of animal. . . . It lives in the sea. . . .”
And in a wink I visualised this mysterious animal. Something between a fish and a crab, it must be, I concluded; and as it came from the sea, of course it made up into delightful dishes, hot bouillabaisse with fragrant peppercorns and bay leaves, or sour solianka with gristle, crab-sauce, or cold with horse-radish. . . . I vividly pictured to myself how this fish is brought from the market, cleaned, and thrust quickly into a pot . . . quickly, quickly, because every one is hungry . . . frightfully hungry. From the restaurant kitchen came the smell of boiled fish and crab soup.
This smell began to tickle my palate and nostrils; I felt it permeating my whole body. The restaurant, my father, the white notice, my sleeve, all exhaled it so strongly that I began to chew. I chewed and swallowed as if my mouth were really full of the strange animal that lives in the sea. . .
The pleasure was too much for my strength, and to prevent myself falling I caught my father's cuff, and leaned against his wet summer overcoat. My father shuddered. He was cold. . . .
“Father, can you eat oysters on fast days?” I asked.
“You eat them alive . . .” he answered. “They are in shells . . . like tortoises, only in double shells.”
The seductive smell suddenly ceased to tickle my nostrils, and the illusion faded. Now I understood!
“How horrible !” I exclaimed. “How hideous!”
So that was the meaning of oysters! However, hideous as they were, my imagination could paint them. I imagined an animal like a frog. The frog sat in the shell, looked out with big, bright eyes, and moved its disgusting jaws. What on earth could be more horrible to a hoy who had lived in the world just eight years and three months? Frenchmen, they said, ate frogs. But children — never! And I saw this fish being carried from market in its shell, with claws, bright eyes, and shiny tail. . . . The children all hide themselves, and the cook, blinking squeamishly, takes the animal by the claws, puts it on a dish, and carries it to the dining-room. The grown-ups take it, and eat . . . eat it alive, eyes, teeth, claws. And it hisses, and tries to bite their lips.
I frowned disgustedly. But why did my teeth begin to chew.? An animal, disgusting, detestable, frightful, but still I ate it, ate it greedily, fearing to notice its taste and smell. I ate in imagination, and my nerves seemed braced, and my heart beat stronger. . . . One animal was finished, already I saw the bright eyes of a second, a third. ... I ate these also. At last I ate the table-napkin, the plate, my father's goloshes, the white notice. . . . I ate everything before me, because I felt that only eating would cure my complaint. The oysters glared frightfully from their bright eyes, they made me sick, I shuddered at the thought of them, but I wanted to eat. To eat!
“Give me some oysters! Give me some oysters.” The cry burst from my lips, and I stretched out my hands.
“Give me a kopeck, gentlemen!” I heard suddenly my father's dulled, choked voice. “I am ashamed to ask, but, my God, I can bear it no longer!” “Give me some oysters!” I cried, seizing my father's coat-tails.
“And so yoii eat oysters! Such a little whipper-snapper!” I heard a voice beside me.
Before me stood two men in silk hats, and looked at me with a laugh.
“Do you mean to say that this little manikin eats oysters? Really! This is too delightful! How does he eat them?”
I remember a strong hand dragged me into the glaring restaurant. In a minute a crowd had gathered, and looked at me with curiosity and amusement. I sat at a table, and ate something slippy, damp, and mouldy. I ate greedily, not chewing, not daring to look, not even knowing what I ate. It seemed to me that if I opened my eyes, I should see at once the bright eyes, the claws, the sharp teeth.
I began to chew something hard. There was a crunching sound.
“Good heavens, he's eating the shells!” laughed the crowd. “Donkey, who ever heard of eating oyster shells?”
After this, I remember only my terrible thirst. I lay on my bed, kept awake by repletion, and by a strange taste in my hot mouth. My father walked up and down the room and gesticulated.
“I have caught cold, I think!” he said. “I feel something queer in my head. . . . As if there is something inside it. . . . But perhaps it is only . . . because I had no food to-day. I have been strange altogether . . . stupid. I saw those gentlemen paying ten roubles for oysters; why didn't I go and ask them for something . . . in loan? I am sure they would have given it.”
Towards morning I fell asleep, and dreamed of a frog sitting in a shell and twitching its eyes. At midday thirst awoke me. I sought my father; he still walked up and down the room and gesticulated.