TO EAT AN OYSTER, it is best not to anthropomorphize. Forget for the moment that an oyster, too, has a mouth, a stomach, a heart.
The first time I can remember eating an oyster I was drunk, standing on a picnic table, noting the beauty of the Skagit River. I remember the beauty, but I don’t remember the river. I remember the oyster. Huge, I’d later learn, and in cocktail sauce. The menu said it was from Samish Bay.
The oyster was a shooter. I shot it. Then I chewed it. Cream brine, mineral melon, horseradish, tomato. I wasn’t supposed to chew, someone said. I kept chewing. The satisfaction I craved from the first moment of being satisfied was one I could only achieve with teeth. I swallowed the little creature, stomach and all, and repeated aloud what I had heard and now believed, that raw oysters are a perfect food. “A perfect food!” I said. “I can’t believe it!” I said. “Get off the table,” someone said. “You’re going to fall.”
IN SELKIE TALES, the fisherman steals the selkie’s skin so that she must stay human on land and love him. Over the years she bears him many children but longs for her seal family. One day, as she watches a pod of swimming seals, her youngest child notices how sad she looks. She belongs with the seals, she tells him, but his father has stolen her sealskin. The boy runs to the chimney where his father has hidden the skin and retrieves it for her. She kisses her boy, tells him she loves him, then slips into the waves. She never returns.
The polypi barnacled to the cave of the sea witch in The Little Mermaid are, like selkies, half animal and half something else. If they have feelings, they are the two halves of one feeling: to want and to keep. Their arms or feet (“it is scarcely proper to call them either,” wrote the Scientific American in 1858) sprout in a ring around their mouths, which is at the center of their bodies. What they catch they do not release.
A real live oyster, on the other hand, has no appendage that might be called an arm, but it does have a kind of foot. After two or three weeks swimming free in the water column, having been ejected in a milky plume from their father-mother, oyster larvae metamorphose a “foot” they then use to “walk” over rocks and sand while searching for a place to settle. When they find that place—rocks are fine, but other oyster shells are ideal—they glue themselves to it. Left alone in the right conditions, they will cluster in massive beds to make themselves less vulnerable to weather and predators. Once oysters set up house, they filter phytoplankton from water and make habitat for other sea creatures. When they die, their shells form an ideal substrate for baby oysters. This is the sort of city the selkie bride misses, the kind of intertidal town her family visits when in search of a good meal.
MY HANDS ARE IN hot water and soap, scrubbing at some recent lunch. The window above our kitchen sink faces Eld Inlet, where the neighbors say orcas sometimes swim. Eld is at the southern end of the Salish Sea, so the beach is rocky, the land is green, the sky is gray, and the water is very cold. From here we can watch hemlocks sway on the inlet’s western shore while geoduck boats and harbor seals hunt for shellfish. It is the best view I have ever rented for long enough to do some serious washing up. The smallness of my task becomes spacious, even mythic, this close to the water.
We only live here during the Washington State legislative session, four months at most, and always during winter. It rarely snows. It rarely stops raining. When seals swim down the inlet, they flop onto the neighbor’s dock and stay for a week or so, barking their heads off. My husband can hear them, but from this distance I cannot. For all I know, they could be singing as beautifully as selkies.
“Can you hear that?” my husband asks during a storm. I imagine rain sheeting down the pane, dripping from the rhododendrons, dropping like a curtain over the inlet. “I can’t,” I say. My husband makes a rushing sound with his mouth, just air, and patters his fingertips across my shoulder. “It sounds like this,” he says.
Outside our rental is a beach where we can walk at low tide to a place where water makes a neat isosceles of land. If we turn around, away from Squaxin Island and toward the city of Olympia, we can see partway down Budd Inlet with its view of Mount Rainier and the Capitol Building, and partway down Eld with its view of nothing we have capitalized names for. Both beachfronts are encrusted with homes.
It is not an easy walk. The path down is a slippery, unmaintained mess of mud and rotten wood. The beach itself is cold, rocky, and always windy. We are always about to twist an ankle. If we stay out too long on our walk around the point, the incoming tide will cover the beach before we make it home. On the afternoon when what we’ve imagined happening really does happen, we climb a neighbor’s seawall, then creep along the bottom of their landscaping until we reach our own, where a mat of unrestrained ivy grows so thick it appears to be a solid surface. Should our feet break through the vines, we will fall into the tide. We step carefully, clinging to rocks as the ocean rises.
But on this day, I am inside washing dishes when I look up and see that a whale-watching boat has appeared in front of the house. It fills the inlet, the window, my eye. It came quietly, from nowhere (this is impossible—Eld Inlet is a dead end; it came most certainly from the northeast). It came quickly, in the time it took to pry old cheese from a plate. It appears to be parked in front of our house, waiting for something.
I DON’T REMEMBER when we first saw them just hanging out there on the beach or why we were surprised. Probably on our first walk up Eld. At first I thought they were rocks, but they were not rocks. They were oysters. We found them loose among the rocks and clustered in plastic laundry baskets that our neighbors had anchored to cinder blocks and seeded with spat.
Compared to the oysters served on the half shell at fine restaurants, these were massive, almost as big as a child’s football. I guessed that they were Pacific oysters, Crassostrea gigas, a Japanese species first introduced to Washington waters at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, Pacific oysters are legal to gather from the beach if we want to gather them.
And we do want to. But we are afraid. Surely any waterway we can easily access is too polluted to eat from. To us, the Coast Salish saying “When the tide is out, the table is set” is an invitation we’re too nervous to accept. Eld is probably quite clean—local oyster bars source their bivalves from these waters—but still, we do not harvest, forage, or fish. Instead, we allow shops and restaurants to obscure the labor of obtaining oysters, which removes our fear of eating a bad one, which improves their flavor. By which I mean that fear makes food disgusting. That seafood can be too fresh. To have that problem—to even know that problem exists—a person must live close to the sea.
IN SOME SELKIE STORIES, a male selkie tricks a seal hunter by taking the form of a paying customer and then kidnapping him. As the man enters the realm of the seal people, he is terrified. He thinks he’s going to drown. Instead, the selkie promises to release him if he heals the selkie’s father—a seal the man had gravely injured earlier that day—and swears to never hunt again. In exchange for this oath, the selkies give him his life and a bag of gold. He returns to land chastened but rich. Thanks to this wealth, the seal killer doesn’t have to hunt seals anymore—or risk the wrath of selkies.
A PORTION OF THE DELIGHT we take in this house is how it is awkward and filthy and breaking down. We spend the first days of our occupancy vacuuming and wiping and sweeping and dusting. I do five loads of our landlord’s laundry. Sam scrubs the half-full coffeepot that is now half full of mold. When we remove the intake grate behind the bed, we find dust motes as big as cats. Conversations with the landlord were always strange; in the past several years, it’s become clear that she’s deteriorating. A thicket of sticky notes now greets us when we arrive, posted wherever she needs a reminder for how to care for the crumbling house. DO NOT GET WET one reads. We find it on the counter next to the kitchen sink.
We don’t love the leaking roof or the broken fridge or the ring in the tub. We love how these breakdowns make the house accessible to us. Were it restored to its former glory, we would no longer be able to afford it. Even if it were restored, it would always be a strange structure. Its surfaces are hard, worn, and cold. Its rooms pile up on each other, offering little privacy. But the house feels beautiful, especially at the seams, where we can see how it was pieced together over time.
We have heard that the first half was built in 1949: just the foyer, a sitting room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a studio. A purple wrought-iron spiral staircase rises from the middle of the foyer up to a door in the wall that leads to a bedroom. If you walk up those stairs and through the door, you can open another door that opens onto a staircase and leads to the sitting room. The floors in that room are a kind of smooth brick. The floors elsewhere are wood and stone and marble, as are the countertops, a cloudy gray-black that looks like something you’d see in an expensive old church. The second half—which added a new kitchen, dining room, and living room—was built in 1950. It covers the west side of the house like a shell.
Photograph by Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood
We have heard that the man who built this place was a judge who wished he was an architect. He’d keep an eye out for leftover building materials, buy them for a song, and collage his house together. When we visit the Capitol Building, we discover that the marble used on the walls and floors is the same marble in our kitchen and bathroom. We can imagine how the judge first found the spiral staircase, then dreamed up a door to get there.
Our landlord is the judge’s daughter, who was raised here and raised her kids here. We’ve heard from her that the ladder affixed to the south side of the house was installed for her husband so he could sunbathe nude on the roof. Today the ladder is exclusively used by roofers who nurse the ever leaking skylights. But once long ago, while the husband was sunning himself, a crow, attracted by the sparkle of the wedding ring he had removed to avoid a tan line, swooped down from a Douglas fir and stole it. The ring might still be in the yard, our landlord says. If we find it, she has promised us a reward.
IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY at “our” beach, beyond the mussel shells and sand dollars and crab carapaces, beyond the live Pacific oysters, you might see smaller oysters clustered on discarded Pacific oyster shells. These are the North American west coast’s native oyster, Ostrea lurida, also known as the Olympia oyster. Ostrea lurida used to encrust more than ten thousand acres of Puget Sound tidelands. A timeline of the oysters published by the Swinomish tribe describes coevolving with kloch kloch over ten thousand years, harvesting them only when needed. When the first white settlers arrived in 1845, they were too late in the season to plant crops, so they survived on the oysters they found in the inlet that is now Capitol Lake. Olympia oysters were one of the first extraction industries of the region—the local paper said this place was riddled with “oyster mines”—and a source of wealth for some of the earliest settlers, just as they were a source of wealth for the tribes before those settlers took their land. Some of the oyster companies founded in those early days are still in business. Oysters didn’t just signify wealth. They were wealth.
Today, though individual Olympia oysters can be found throughout their historic range, only 4 percent of their beds remain. The culprits of this crash—overharvest, pollution, dredging, development—aren’t surprising. Where oyster cities thrive, so do human cities.
OSTREA LURIDA are smaller and shallower than Pacific, Eastern, or Kumamoto oysters, the species we’re accustomed to eating in North America. To gather a gallon of Olympia oysters requires shucking about twenty-four hundred of them. (Do we measure any other meat by the gallon?) The market for Olympias last boomed during the California gold rush, when Eastern oysters couldn’t make it across the country for a gold strike’s celebration and Pacific oysters hadn’t yet been introduced to Washington waters. Once transportation improved and more settlers poured into the region, tastes changed. The people wanted their fat Bluepoints. For a time, oyster farmers grew Crassostrea virginica in Willapa Bay and the inlets of Puget Sound, but Easterns never naturalized and eventually died off. Pacific oysters were introduced around 1912. In Willapa Bay they “grew like weeds,” as one descendant of an early oysterman said. Pacific oysters, too, had to fight to win over the Eastern-trained palates of earlier waves of settlers. Even still, they beat Olympias at the market for their size and speedy growth. They still do.
The oyster itself is a quivering beige with feathery
dark markings along its mantle, afloat in a tiny sea.
At their biggest, Olympias don’t quite reach 2.5 inches, the legal limit for harvesting oysters from a Washington State beach. I can find Olys in our backyard, but to legally eat one, I must buy it from a local oyster farm. Several currently grow Olympias as a specialty offering; some of these farms also grow spat in their hatcheries for local conservationists like the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The Olys I bought today from Taylor Shellfish in Shelton are larger in diameter than a quarter, but smaller than a sand dollar. From hinge to head they are slightly shorter than my thumb and only as deep as my thumbnail. Shucking them will be no more of a challenge than shucking any oyster.
Not that I know how to shuck an oyster. All my attempts have, so far, ended in a decision to barbecue the damn things. This is a perfectly delicious decision and how they are often served in the bars of Skagit Valley, where I learned how to eat oysters. To barbecue them, light a grill, put the oysters cup-down on the grate, and wait for the heat to kill them, cook them, and relax their adductor muscles. Once they’ve cracked open, they’re done. Pry the top shells off by hand or with an oyster knife. Eat the meats exactly as they are, or splash them with a little soy sauce, garlic, and good olive oil.
To really taste an oyster, though, one must eat it raw. In the absence of an oyster bar (it is Monday, they are closed), one must do the shucking oneself. In the absence of any inherited skill or helpful experience, ask the internet. A sixty-second video from Cook’s Illustrated will teach everything you need to know.
The first step is to make sure your hand is wrapped securely in a towel so you cannot stab yourself (it’s impossible to elegantly describe this; just watch the video). The second step is to secure the oyster under your towel hand so the flat part of the oyster shell faces up and the hinge—which is on the fat half of the oyster—shows. Then take the tip of your oyster knife and poke around the hinge, trying to pry it apart, until you actually do pry it a little apart. Wipe off your knife so the grit you’ve dislodged from the hinge doesn’t end up in your oyster, then winch the knife along the sides, prying them apart. Run the knife along the inside of the top oyster shell to dislodge the creature from its adductor muscle. Discard that shell. Gently cut the oyster from the bottom shell too, leaving the oyster as intact as possible. Then put the shell to your lips, tip your head back, and eat.
TURNS OUT Olys are harder to shuck than Pacific or Kumamoto oysters. The oysterman at the Olympia farmers’ market can’t tell me why this is so, except that perhaps it’s a matter of their anatomy. I open my full dozen Olys the same way I was taught to take a multiple-choice test: do the easy ones first, then take a deep breath and attempt to conquer the rest. The effort requires the same sort of patience as undoing a stubborn knot and incites the same small fury when I fail. When I finally do break into the oyster, it feels like victory, but it also feels like barging into a quiet room without knocking. Like I should apologize.
The inside of an Oly is, of course, beautiful. The shell is a shiny, slightly iridescent brown with pink and olive highlights. The oyster itself is a quivering beige with feathery dark markings along its mantle, afloat in a tiny sea. It has a stomach and mouth and intestines, but it does not have a face—the line by which some vegetarians I’ve known demarcate what they will and won’t eat.
The Oly is known for its coppery flavor, but I also taste melon and seawater and a sweet astringence I can best compare to an unripe banana. Words feel a little useless here. It’s not that the taste is so amazing that I’m speechless. It’s that the flavors are so fast and large, I can barely nail them down. Even now, a few minutes after eating the oyster, I can’t remember its flavors so much as the pleasure of tasting them.
IT IS TRUE that I have never seen a whale. I have seen the ships that stalk them through Puget Sound, all windows, camera lenses, and peeled eyes. Looking for what? A blow spout? A fin? A killer? A friend? Once they finally see the orca they’re following, what can the sight of that whale do to—or for—the looker? Is it like the wing of God? The teeth of a mermaid? The splash of a selkie? Or, even better—the skin?
Selkies shed their sealskins at the shore and take human form so they can play (and in some versions of the story, have sex) all night. In one version of the story, the fisherman steals the sealskin because he thinks he loves the selkie, but the narrator knows he is merely struck by her beauty. Over time he falls into a deep, selfless love. The selkie comes to love him, too, but when given the chance she still runs. In another version, when the fisherman finds a sealskin, his first thought is to take it to his village so people will believe he saw selkies. His second thought is to trade the skin for a “pretty penny.” His third thought occurs after he sees the naked selkie crying and shaking, begging for her skin. She’s so beautiful, he falls in love. This third thought is his final thought: he will keep her skin so he can keep her.
I will share this house, but only on my terms. The leap from seeing beauty to wanting it is, for many people, short. Especially if we imagine that beauty will offer us some kind of shelter. I feel protective of this place. Defensive of it. Able to be crowded out.
Photographs by Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood
When a rich friend visits and sees our wealth, she badgers us for the landlord’s phone number so she can turn our house into her writing retreat. The request feels like an extraction, like we’ve suddenly become—or perhaps always were—a resource she intends to develop. She is not welcome to my Eden. That is not what we offered when we invited her to dinner.
The way she wanted our house reminds me of what it’s like to sit on a bench in front of famous paintings. My favorite Rothko at MoMA, for example. The one with a marine mood. Half of the experience of being with that painting is waiting for people to take their photos and get out of the way. You don’t get to keep it! I want to yell. As if I am separate from the throng.
To desire differently—to let the beautiful thing alone—requires more thought than I’m always able to muster. When it comes to this house, I’m not so different from my friend. I know that one year, probably soon, we’ll no longer be able to pick up our lives and live here. Or the house will pass into someone else’s hands, they’ll remodel it, and we’ll be out. When I live here, I bring my own fantasies of refuge and creation and beauty and wealth. These dreams are perishable, I know. That’s what makes them precious.
THERE IS ANOTHER VERSION of the tale. This time there are three human brothers and three selkie brides. The eldest two brothers force the selkies into their homes, where the women sullenly keep house. The third brother sees his selkie’s terror and gives her sealskin back. She grabs it and returns to the sea. On the ninth day when the fisherman visits the beach to watch for her, a horde of seals comes to shore, takes human form, and fans out to look for the missing selkies. An old man approaches the brother and thanks him for liberating his daughter. “Should you need us,” he says, “we are your servants. Fionagalla, do your duty.” Fionagalla then runs to the third brother’s house and begins baking bannock. The fisherman tries to help her. She smiles. From then on, the youngest brother and his selkie bride meet every ninth night in perfect happiness.
Meanwhile, the elder brothers grow fat and lazy while their wives do all the work. One day, the eldest brother’s children find their mother’s sealskin and give it to her. She runs to the ocean and disappears. The second brother, worried that his wife will follow her sister, tries to burn her sealskin. It explodes, showering sparks over the house. The man orders his wife to splash water on the fire, but she cannot. She’s lying on the floor, covered in burns, dead.
AS I WRITE THIS, I am keeping an Olympia oyster next to me in a small white bowl, though doing so will probably kill it. I’m working in the dark here, literally, so I can spread into the quiet and gradually meet the day. (“The most private thing in the world is an unopened oyster,” is not what M.F.K. Fisher wrote—she had eggs in mind—but it is a perfect description of that solitary morning feeling, which, if you ask me, is more of an oyster feeling than an egg feeling.) I keep turning on the overhead light so I can remember what the Oly looks like. It is gray, barnacled, and ruffled, but not exaggeratedly so. Some oysters look like they’re dressed for a ball; the Olympia looks like it’s dressed for the weather. Just now, when I pick it up to reinspect its color and texture, I notice that a tiny space has appeared between its tightly closed halves. The adductor muscle is loosening. Which means it is on the way to dying. Which means it is time to stop considering the oyster and eat it. As I walk us to the kitchen, the Oly clinks against the bowl. The sound it makes is a cross between money and rocks.
Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood is a photographer who has served in the curatorial departments of the Center for Creative Photography and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Her work was recently awarded a gold medal and best-in-show at the Royal Horticultural Society.