The Oyster Therapist
I grew up in Maine, near the sea, but you couldn’t walk around barefoot or anything. The sand was covered with sharp rocks and shells; the water always felt chilly and too alive, too. That’s the word my mum used: “alive.”
It only takes an hour to get home, but the drive itself is tiring because I always find myself growing weaker as I create more and more distance from the mainland. No one is outside to greet me when I pull into the driveway except for some of dad’s chickens. I try to pet their lower back towards their tail feathers, but they scatter off, their ‘clucks’ insulting me on the way back to their coop.
It’s a windy day. The thin hat I’m wearing isn’t quite right for the weather. My ears are already red and hot and the corners of my lips feel like they are about to crack. There’s a massive pile of driftwood in the yard that dad claims he will turn into a sculpture one day. The door is unlocked, of course; my father never believed in locking the door because he’s so isolated down by the shore. The air inside is still. While the wind throws itself about against the old wood of the house, it sort of makes me miss my childhood. When I look towards the kitchen, I see dad staring at me wearing a bright orange beanie.
“Oh, good. Julia. You’re here,” he says a bit too loudly.
“Morning,” I say.
Dad isn’t really one for words, but I can tell that he’s happy I’m here because he’s already started on the eggs and potatoes, which are really the only things he eats. He puts wood in the stove and starts a small fire, too.
After breakfast, my father and I climb into his old motorboat to see the oysters. It takes us 10 minutes to reach them. His hearing loss has gotten worse over the past three years, which is when I started getting into the oyster business. Before that, I worked as a secretary in an office. My father barely talks anymore except to sing Bob Dylan songs to the chickens. He isn’t from Maine. We moved here with my brother after my mother left, which wasn’t an awful thing. It was something my dad always turned into a bit of a joke. “She went to find a new family,” he’d say like a punchline. No one ever laughed, but it always gave my father a chuckle.
We putter over to the small farm. The oysters are there. Bobbing up and down in their green cages. The wind has calmed. My father always told my brother and me that it was the geology of the river that gave the oyster its flavor. Its soft “crunch.”
My father’s oyster farm is small and dwindling. He could have expanded years ago if he bought seed from the local hatcheries, but he says he’s too tired for that now. As I watch my father watch the river, I understand how alike we are. We are both quiet and unassuming; our shyness, at times, is crippling. Even if mum hadn't left, we would still be the same.
I have my mother’s freckles. My whole body is covered with them. My brother’s too.
The boat steadily rocks us which makes me sleepy. My father pulls one of the floating nursery crates that sit together in horizontal rows like little houses towards the side of the boat. Despite the light wind, I know he can hear me better on the water. My father only has 20 oyster bags. But we aren't here to look at his oysters. I help unlatch the hooks, he pulls one of the black mesh bags out, which I dip several times into the river to get rid of some of the oyster poop. The bag is slimy and the crate is covered with bright algae and some strands of seaweed. The smell isn’t bad, just a bit briny. It’s the kind of smell that will cling to your skin all day if you let it. There’s a strong sulfur smell, too. I remove the slider from the top part of the bag, reach in and pick up two of the oysters, then place them in my dad’s bear paw-sized hands. These are my oysters from when I chipped in money towards a large order of oyster seed that a well-developed oyster farm had placed.
Right now, they are small and not ready for market, but they’ve almost doubled their size since spring. They're all males, of course. Oysters mostly come into life as males. It’s only after a year or two that they change into females.
“That’s a pretty oyster,” my father says as he picks up a larger one from the pile.
“They’re doing so well.”
“What’s that?” he yells.
“They look good, dad. They like it out here.”
There’s a small amount of frustration on his face. Even though he has hearing aids, he refuses to wear them. Their batteries are probably dead. He gives me a thumbs up. I give him one, too. He places an oyster in my hand and pats me on the back. I feel the oyster’s flatness, but also its smooth ridges that remind me of naked tree roots reaching above ground.
It really is a pretty oyster and it makes me a bit sad just to hold it.
It happened almost 14 years ago. That’s when it first started. I’ve talked about it with friends, but never with dad. I feel foolish getting choked up because I’m almost in my thirties. This feels like something I should be bigger than because at this point, I’m finally settled in my own skin.
It was my brother. This was about my brother.
I was always a dopey sort of kid. I could never concentrate and I zoned out often. It was August and one day, my friend’s father dropped me off at the house after a whole morning of swimming. I was a good swimmer and an even better floater. It took him awhile because it was out of way. My house was never a convenient trek. I took a shower and then went to my bedroom. I hadn't washed my hair. I often forgot to brush the back of it, too, which sometimes made the back of my head look like a bird’s nest. Draped in a towel, I scavenged for a clean pair of shorts, but I couldn't find any, so I had to go grab the ones that were drying outside from the day before. When I came back, my brother was in my room. At the time, I was always trying to impress him. He wasn’t much taller than me and he got pushed around a lot at school. That’s why he was always home. Instead, he should have been at summer school. He was only four years older than me, but it seemed like more because he was always thinking and grumpy about something.
“I was looking for something,” he said.
“For what?” I asked.
He pointed at my stuffed Dalmatian underneath my bed. I was too old to play with toys, but I never got rid of my stuffed dogs. I had five of them. When I reached underneath the bed, my towel disappeared. I looked towards the ground to pick it up, but it wasn’t there. It was in my brother’s hand. My own understanding of my nakedness hasn’t existed before that moment. When I reached for the towel, he let it fall as he ran away. I didn’t utter a word. There wasn’t any anger. I was too stunned. I dropped the Dalmatian and picked up the towel. Later that afternoon, my father came home and I helped him make chowder. My brother wasn’t in the house. I didn’t see him for two nights and I knew that things would be different the moment I picked the towel up from the floor. I was certain that if you knocked me against a wall there would be a hollow sound. When he did come back, he stayed in his room and didn’t talk to any of us.
That summer my brother and I were the only ones in the house during the day, but then he got a new friend and they were always together at the house. I regretted living so far away from the only friend I had.
The walls held their laughs. I could hear them making jokes about me. Jokes I couldn’t yet understand, at first.
Sometimes, I would drive our little motorboat out towards the oysters. I’d say that I liked checking on them, which was almost true. I told an ex-girlfriend this at one point. But it was always so cold and my gloves would always get wet. There were times when my hands would get so stiff that my joints would get glued together. I was never out on the water for long. I’d come back and dock and try to avoid my brother and his friend. There were some days where I would go without speaking.
One evening, I came back into my room and saw there was some gray thing in my bed. It was a pile of scattered oysters shucked of their shells. They were too small for shucking. I felt sick and ashamed. I gathered the oysters and chucked them into the water; I felt a bit sad that they were plucked up from the ocean so early.
I washed the sheets twice because the smell was so strong, then sat on the floor and leaned my body against the metal. The washer made churning noises and its whole body hummed. I tried to force myself to think. To react. To be angry. But I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My head was so heavy. That was my solution to everything that happened back then--to close my eyes, find a corner, and sleep.
But one day, my brother took the small gas-powered boat out with his friend. They often went out on the open water just to light small objects on fire and then when the flames would get too close to their fingertips, they’d drop the object in the sea. When they came back and pulled the small boat onto the shore, I watched them from the kitchen window like a stranger. Then they walked past me on their way to my brother’s room.
I went outside towards the boat while the sun was beginning to set. The sky was beginning to turn. Its orange color bobbed up and down along the waves. I sat in the boat between the two horizontal seats. The boat was grimy and there was a bit of algae in the corners and a puddle of water in the middle of the boat. My pajama shorts were already soaked through and even though it was summer, it was already starting to get a bit cold. I tried to make myself smaller by hugging my knees towards my chest and keeping my head down. In that moment, I didn’t know what I was doing sitting in my brother’s boat. My finger poked a crushed pill, blue like a robin’s egg. My brother was always carrying around pills in tin cases. They rattled in his pockets like little maracas. As the cold water soaked my shorts, I grew angry. My hands, which were never really steady, started to shake. Across the lake, the whistle of fireworks both frightened and excited me.
I spoke words aloud to myself that I can’t remember now. Words that made me feel detached from my voice.
I unhooked the fuel tank, picked it up, and carried it past the tall pine trees with a sprint. The gasoline sloshed wildly inside as I cradled the container tightly against my chest. It wasn’t very heavy because it could only hold five gallons. My brother always had trouble finding money to fill it up. When I looked back towards the house, everything was still. Just outside of the thin trees, I waited for my brother to come screaming at me out of the house, but nothing moved.
There was a circle of dead, flat grass deep in the woods. My brother liked to melt deodorant sticks and start small fires there. It was a big clearing. No one ever bothered him. There were large metal barrels filled with wood that stood guard and pieces of melted plastic scattered across the clearing. I unscrewed the cap off the tank and placed it on the ground. It was tricky to pour the gas out of the tank. It seemed like the gas didn’t want to come out. It splashed onto my bare feet and against my bony shins. After a few minutes, only a small puddle remained at the bottom of the tank.
The dead pine needles that carpeted the damp ground gently poked my feet, but then I ran faster and the needles began to dig deeper and deeper with each stride until I reached the edge of the forest. Under the cover of trees, I stood and watched the kitchen window and squeezed the cap so tightly that the joints in my fingers ached. Nothing moved inside. As I walked slowly towards the boat, I felt very dizzy but strong. I submerged the tank into the lake and watched the bubbles float and die on the water’s surface until the tank was half full. By the time I finished placing the cap on and hooking the tank back up, it was dark and hard to see what was in front of me. With my hands grasping for things that weren't there, I made it to the unlocked front door and to my bed.
The gasoline smell was everywhere, mostly in my hair.
The water was quiet the whole night. The next day, my brother didn’t try to take the boat out until late in the afternoon. From the kitchen, I watched him drag the boat offshore and into the water; he used a paddle to push back against the shore and launch himself towards deeper water. As he dipped the oars into the water, I twirled my thick hair and held it under my nose and inhaled the smell of gasoline and salt water.
That night, I made us a dinner of green beans and mashed potatoes. Despite my morning shower, the smell was still stuck to my lungs. My brother couldn’t swim well and refused to get out of the boat once it refused to start, but he did eventually make it back. It was dark by the time my father dragged the boat to shore. With a flashlight in his mouth and my brother in his arms, my father carried him across the beach and into the house. It was like watching a lighthouse come to life after a sailor crashes into the rocks. I watched my brother from across the table before picking up a plate and serving him food.
The year I turned fifteen, I witnessed my dad tap oyster after oyster together. Each sound was hollow. Most of that stock had died, but we never could figure out why. That was the year my brother left home to move to Seattle.
While I drive us back to dock, my father points out a flock of terns and jokes that they will kill us if we get too close. Over the next seven months, the oysters will continue to grow. Their flat bottoms will billow out to take on an oval shape. Here, the water is clean, cold. It is all thriving.
About the Author: Mary-Anne Nelligan is Managing Editor of Five on the Fifth. Her most recent work can be found in Gone Lawn, Flash Fiction Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Duende.