Oysters – Pre-Intermediate Story

I can remember every detail about that rainy autumn evening. I was standing with my father in a busy Moscow street, and felt as if I was coming down with a strange illness. I had no pain at all, but my legs were feeling weak, I was finding it hard to speak, and my head kept falling to one side. It seemed as though, in a moment, I would fall down and not be able to get up again. If I had been taken to a hospital, the doctors would written over my bed the name of a sickness which is not found in medicine books: Hunger.

My father stood beside me on the footpath. His once fashionable summer coat looked old and dirty. He was wearing a torn woolen cap, and on his feet were some old rubber boots with nothing under them.

This poor, foolish, strange looking creature had come to Moscow five months before to look for an office job. I came to love him more and more as he walked the streets of Moscow looking for work. And it was on that day he decided that he had no other choice but to go into the street to beg for money.

We stood in front of a big house of three stories. There was a blue sign above the door with the word “Restaurant” on it. My head was falling weakly backwards and to one side. I could not help looking up at the lighted windows of the restaurant. I could see people moving quickly about inside. I could see the right side of a piano, two paintings on the wall, and some hanging lamps. Looking into one window, I saw something white. It wasn’t moving, and it stood out clearly against the dark brown wall. I looked more carefully and saw that it was some kind of notice. Something was written on it, but I could not see what it was.

I must have looked at the notice for half an hour. Its white coloring kept bringing my eyes back, and I found it hard to look away. But although I tried to read it, I could not.

Soon the strange sickness began to affect me in other ways.

The noise of the carriages passing by on the street sounded like thunder. All at once the street seemed to be full of unpleasant smells. The restaurant lights were as bright as lightning and hurt my eyes. I could hear and smell and see things much more clearly than before.

“Oysters…” I read on the notice.

A strange word! I had lived in the world eight years and three months, but had never come across that word. What did it mean? Surely it was not the name of the restaurant owner? Signs with owner’s names on them always hang outside of buildings, not on the walls inside!

“Father, what does ‘oysters’ mean?” I asked in a sickly voice, trying to turn my face towards him.

My father did not hear. He was keeping a watch on the movements of the people walking past, following each of them with his eyes. I saw that he wanted to say something to them, but he could not speak the terrible words. He even took a step after one man and touched him on the arm. But when the man turned round, he simply said, “I’m sorry,” as if he had stopped the wrong person, and took few steps back.

“Father, what does ‘oysters’ mean?” I asked again.

“It is an animal that lives in the sea.”

I tried to picture this unknown sea animal in my mind. I thought it must be something halfway between a fish and a crab. As it was from the ocean, they would make delicious soups from it, with tasty spices and vegetables. I could clearly see it being brought from the market, quickly cleaned, quickly put in the pot. Everything done quickly, because everyone was hungry. Very, very hungry!

From the kitchen came the smell of hot fish soup. As I took the smell in through my mouth and nose, it slowly began to take control of my whole body. The restaurant, my father, the white notice, my clothes were all smelling of it. They smelled so strongly that I began to move my mouth as if I was eating. It felt like I really had a piece of this sea animal in my mouth.

It was such a wonderful feeling that my legs almost gave way. I held onto my father’s arm to keep myself from falling, and felt his wet summer coat. I saw that he was shivering. He was very cold.

“Father, are oysters cooked like fish?” I asked.

“They are eaten alive,” said my father. “They are in shells, but in two halves.”

As soon as I heard this, the delicious smell left me and the picture in my mind disappeared. Now I understood it all!

“How nasty,” I said to myself, “how nasty!”

So that’s what ‘oysters’ meant! I pictured a creature like a frog. A frog sitting in a shell, looking out from it with big, shining eyes, and moving its ugly mouth. I pictured the creature with claws and wet, sticky skin being brought from the market. I could see from the look on the cook’s face that he didn’t like to touch it. He would carefully take the creature by its claw, put it on a plate, and carry it to the tables. The children would all hide. Their parents would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs! As they ate it would cry out in pain and try to bite their lips.

In my mind I looked at one of the plates. The creature sitting there made me feel sick in the stomach. So why did my teeth move as though I were eating? I ate it, ate it quickly, frightened of what its taste or smell might be like. As soon as I had eaten one, I saw the shining eyes of a second, a third. I ate them too. At last I ate the plate, the paper towel next to it, my father’s rubber boots, the white notice. I ate everything that I could see, because I felt that nothing but eating would take away my illness. The oysters had a terrible look in their eyes, but I wanted to eat them! To eat!

“Oysters! Give me some oysters!” I called out loudly and reached for my father.

“Help us, please!” my father cried out in a soft, frightened voice. “It hurts me greatly to have to ask but – my God! – I can’t take it any more!”

“Oysters!” I cried, pulling my father by the bottom of his coat.

“Do you mean to say you eat oysters? A little boy like you!” I heard laughter close to me.

Two well dressed men were standing in front of us, looking into my face and laughing.

“Do you really eat oysters, young man? That’s interesting! How do you eat them?”

I remember that a strong hand pulled me into the lighted restaurant. A minute later there were many people around me, watching with amusement. I sat at a table and ate something wet and sticky. It was salty and tasted as if it had been sitting uncovered in the kitchen for many days. I ate quickly without looking, for I was worried that if I did I should see shining eyes, claws, and sharp teeth.

All at once I began biting something hard. There was a sound of it breaking up in my mouth.

“Ha, ha! He is eating the shells,” laughed someone. “Silly boy, do you think you can eat that?”

After that I remember a terrible thirst. I was lying in my bed, and could not sleep because of a burning feeling in my stomach and a strange taste in my dry mouth. My father was walking up and down, moving his hands about strangely as if trying to communicate something.

“I believe I have caught cold,” he said quietly to himself. “I’ve a feeling in my head as though someone were sitting on it. Perhaps it is because I have not eaten anything today. I really am stupid. The two men paid a lot of money for those oysters. Why didn’t I go up and ask them to give me something? They would have given something.”

Towards morning, I fell asleep and dreamed of a frog sitting in a shell, moving its eyes. At midday I woke up because I was thirsty and looked for my father. He was still walking up and down, moving his hands about in the same strange way.