Oyster

Prose

Out of oxygen, algae, and a grain of calcium carbonate, the oyster came to be. It grew inside a metal cage submerged in the ocean, sometimes doubling in size in a day, changing from female to male to female without prejudice. For two years it remained in place, swelling soft and plump in the nourishing seawater. When it had grown to a length of two inches, it was dredged up by Chinese fishermen alongside the hundreds of others it had grown up with in the same metal cage. They rumbled to shore, the oysters riding in buckets of cold water to keep fresh. The oyster thought it was wonderful.

In a factory, the oysters’ shells were split and the meaty center pried out. These were poured onto moving belts, dusted with fine salt, and passed through bright orange ovens until they had become hard and dry. Oysters pelted the moving belt like hard little raindrops. The oyster wound up in a plastic bag along with enough of its fellows to make up 500 grams. A noisy gray machine sucked the air out of the bag, forcing the oysters to get cozy. The world looked warped and wavy through the squiggly plastic, which the oyster found interesting, though there wasn’t much to see once the bags were piled one on top of the other and loaded in crates onto a truck. Then the bags were stacked on a supermarket shelf in Singapore.

An erratic black conveyor belt, a ticklish band of bright red light, and a white plastic bag printed with the words NTUC FairPrice later, the oyster arrived in a human house, whereupon it was placed in a cold, dark box with a front door that opened and closed. Whenever the door opened, a light came on. By the yellow bulb, the oyster could see that it was in the company of many other Chinese groceries, including bags of dried scallops and trumpet mushrooms, rolled up, bound with red rubber bands, and stuffed into the side of the door. Thus, despite its travels, the oyster did not experience a significant amount of culture shock. From time to time the heavy door opened and shut but otherwise it was a period of great peace.

The two people who opened the door most often were an older woman and a younger woman—a mother and a daughter. The mother opened the refrigerator and took out many items at once, sometimes returning them later artfully combined into a single dish. The daughter was in the habit of taking out chocolate bars and putting empty, chocolate-smeared wrappers back into the fridge. Sometimes she returned afterwards and removed them; usually, the mother beat her to it. Gradually, the oyster became attuned to their voices. It noticed that a conversation that began casually could go on and on until it sounded like a wire drawn tight. This pattern persisted on the day that the mother cut open the bag of oysters and shook out a handful before returning the rest to the refrigerator, from which location the oyster overheard the following conversation several hours later. The mother said the daughter was eating too little. Or didn’t she like this food? The daughter replied that she loved everything the mother cooked, but especially this dish. The mother said she would give her some dried oysters to take back to the US. The daughter said there was food in the US, and anyway, it was too much trouble. The mother insisted that it was no any trouble at all. By this point, both of them sounded quite unhappy.

Meanwhile, the oyster was troubled, because it couldn’t follow the logic of the conversation. In fact, the conversation was illogical. No wonder the humans themselves were so confounded by their interactions, the oyster thought. They spoke as though they expected their words to mean something, but they acted as though they did not. This theory was confirmed as the mother took out the rest of the bag of dried oysters, poured them into a Ziploc bag, and held it up in front of her daughter, pointing out that it would be easy to fit into a suitcase. The daughter, who had not seemed to want the oysters previously, said they should double up the bags. The mother said that would be wasteful. The daughter said that she didn’t want her clothes to smell like a provision shop. They passed the bag to each other and held it up to their noses, taking deep experimental sniffs. The mother said there was no smell, yet she was the one who placed the Ziploc bag of oysters within a second Ziploc bag.

The mother said not to wait too long to cook them. The daughter said but they were dried and probably full of preservatives. The mother said that even dried goods spoil. The daughter said she never had time to cook. The mother said that was why she was giving her these oysters; they only needed to be soaked in cold water for an hour beforehand and then they were ready to use. It’s very easy, she said, very easy: marinate your chicken in salt and pepper for thirty minutes, cook your rice, add in the chicken and the oysters, then crack in two eggs mixed with soy sauce. That’s all you need to do. I won’t have time to do all that, the daughter groaned, and the mother snapped, make time.

While the oyster pondered the concept of making time, every morning from then on, the mother took out the Ziploc bag of oysters, looked at them, and then placed them back in the refrigerator. After about a week, the mother noticed the little drops of water beading on the inside of the bag. Whenever she opened the bag, the oysters had absorbed moisture from the humid air, which they now sweated out, compromising the thin layer of salt that kept them inert. So the mother transferred the oysters to foil-lined trays and left them out by the kitchen window where they sat nakedly in the sun. This made them warmer and drier, though unbeknownst to the mother, they continued to take in moisture from the air. From time to time the daughter walked by and stared at the sunbathing oysters in disbelief. But she did not disturb them. Only when they had taken on a more wrinkled appearance did the mother put them back into the Ziploc bags and return them to the refrigerator.

The day of the suitcase came. The bag of oysters was squeezed into a narrow space, next to bulky new clothing: thick socks, long-sleeved shirts, and a vest with warm downy lining. The oyster envied humans their clothes. How comfortable they must be in them! The suitcase swung shut, was zipped closed, rolled along, and then was flung onboard a loud humming vehicle that lifted off into the air. Days passed. Then the suitcase was dragged again, down pitted roads and up many flights of stairs. Zip, zip, zip, the suitcase opened, and the oyster looked eagerly around.

Here was a different human house—smaller, plainer, and not very clean. The daughter lifted up the bag of oysters and placed it into a different refrigerator, this time on the bottom shelf. Months went by. The oyster huddled in the shadow of new and varied companions, where it felt shy and intimidated. The upper-shelf items were constantly in flux—pushed aside to make room for more of the same, taken out and replaced with new ones. The oyster gave up introducing itself to the bottles of beer, a flashy fraternity not inclined to mix with others. It had slightly better luck with the round flat tubs of hummus and the yogurt cups, who appreciated cultural diversity. Still, none of these other guests stayed for long. The oyster came to perceive of itself as a historian of the refrigerator—wise, elderly, and of little relevance to the youth. This might have caused the oyster to feel sad and lonely, were not exciting, yet unhurried developments taking shape right in its own double Ziploc bag. The subtle moisture along its surface was thrilling, teeming with life. Repressed but not conquered by the chill of the refrigerator, bacteria in the water multiplied, tingling faintly. And so the oyster got a buzz.

All day, the refrigerator door opened and closed, like the rough striated shell the oyster had possessed as a young bivalve, when yet no dream was out of reach. Underwater, it could have grown to the size of a mountain; in the supermarket, it could have gone to any place and into anything. Or had it always been destined for this life? Hypnotized now by the predictable motion of the door, the oyster began to wonder if its potential had been forgotten. Perhaps it would perceive nothing more than this humdrum bottom-shelf existence until its mind gave out from neglect. And then one day from across the world, the mother spoke into the room. Are you eating properly? she demanded. Have you cooked the oysters?

The oyster marveled to hear its own name being called. It had never known its own worth before. How excellent were mothers! As the conversation spooled on, the oysters could barely contain itself. Perhaps this was the day when it would be soaked in water, cooked in rice, seasoned with a dash of soy sauce and consumed. The oyster shivered. It said its prayers, as the mother said, No matter what, I just want you to know that I love you. I know! the daughter roared, and then the voices stopped.

The refrigerator door was flung wide. The daughter bent down, retrieved the bag of oysters, and dumped it on a scratched kitchen counter. She unzipped the bags, looked at the oysters, and shook them about. She reached into the bag and picked one up between two fingers. She brought it close to her face and studied the white fluffy mold that was growing on it. She raised it to her nose and gave it a sniff.

First she tried to pick out the oysters with mold on them. Then she tried to pick out the oysters that didn’t have mold on them. Finding none of those, she put her hands on her hips. She stood looking down at the oysters as though they had committed a great sin against her. Then she resealed both Ziploc bags and dropped them into the open trash.

The trash was full of coffee grounds and mushy banana peels. The oyster in its double bag was right on the very top of this heap. The daughter kept giving the oyster rueful looks. She got up from her desk, peered at the trash, sat down, got up again. She sighed, grunted, and muttered things out loud. Finally she knotted the handles of the black trash bag, lifted it up, carried it down many flights of stairs, and slung it into an enormous lidded chamber loaded with other bags of trash. The heavy lid swung down, and then her footsteps padded away through the snow as the oyster lay in darkness. For the first time in its life, it had been abandoned.

Panic set in. But the oyster tried to pull itself together. It reasoned that it had traveled thousands and thousands of kilometers from ocean to land, across climates and time zones. Its life so far had been quite exciting. Now it even had a delicate white covering of mold, a soft coat of fur to call its own. Dressed and decorated, the oyster steeled itself for more adventures. I can still do this, it thought. I can change into something new. I just need a little time and I’ll be ready, ready as I’ve ever been. It repeated these words to itself for a long time, while mothers and daughters kept closing themselves off.