A.P. Chekhov - Oysters
I NEED no great effort of memory to recall, in every detail, the
rainy autumn evening when I stood with my father in one of the
more frequented streets of Moscow, and felt that I was gradually
being overcome by a strange illness. I had no pain at all, but
my legs were giving way under me, the words stuck in my throat,
my head slipped weakly on one side . . . It seemed as though, in
a moment, I must fall down and lose consciousness.
If I had been taken into a hospital at that minute, the doctors
would have had to write over my bed: Fames, a disease which is
not in the manuals of medicine.
Beside me on the pavement stood my father in a shabby summer
overcoat and a serge cap, from which a bit of white wadding was
sticking out. On his feet he had big heavy goloshes. Afraid,
vain man, that people would see that his feet were bare under
his goloshes, he had drawn the tops of some old boots up round
the calves of his legs.
This poor, foolish, queer creature, whom I loved the more warmly
the more ragged and dirty his smart summer overcoat became, had
come to Moscow, five months before, to look for a job as
copying-clerk. For those five months he had been trudging about
Moscow looking for work, and it was only on that day that he had
brought himself to go into the street to beg for alms.
Before us was a big house of three storeys, adorned with a blue
signboard with the word "Restaurant" on it. My head was drooping
feebly backwards and on one side, and I could not help looking
upwards at the lighted windows of the restaurant. Human figures
were flitting about at the windows. I could see the right side
of the orchestrion, two oleographs, hanging lamps . . . .
Staring into one window, I saw a patch of white. The patch was
motionless, and its rectangular outlines stood out sharply
against the dark, brown background. I looked intently and made
out of the patch a white placard on the wall. Something was
written on it, but what it was, I could not see. . .
For half an hour I kept my eyes on the placard. Its white
attracted my eyes, and, as it were, hypnotised my brain. I tried
to read it, but my efforts were in vain.
At last the strange disease got the upper hand.
The rumble of the carriages began to seem like thunder, in the
stench of the street I distinguished a thousand smells. The
restaurant lights and the lamps dazzled my eyes like lightning.
My five senses were overstrained and sensitive beyond the
normal. I began to see what I had not seen before.
"Oysters . . ." I made out on the placard.
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-keeper? But
signboards with names on them always hang outside, not on the
"Papa, what does 'oysters' mean?" I asked in a husky voice,
making an effort to turn my face towards my father.
My father did not hear. He was keeping a watch on the movements
of the crowd, and following every passer-by with his eyes. . . .
From his eyes I saw that he wanted to say something to the
passers-by, but the fatal word hung like a heavy weight on his
trembling lips and could not be flung off. He even took a step
after one passer-by and touched him on the sleeve, but when he
turned round, he said, "I beg your pardon," was overcome with
confusion, and staggered back.
"Papa, what does 'oysters' mean?" I repeated.
"It is an animal . . . that lives in the sea."
I instantly pictured to myself this unknown marine animal. . . .
I thought it must be something midway between a fish and a crab.
As it was from the sea they made of it, of course, a very nice
hot fish soup with savoury pepper and laurel leaves, or broth
with vinegar and fricassee of fish and cabbage, or crayfish
sauce, or served it cold with horse-radish. . . . I vividly
imagined it being brought from the market, quickly cleaned,
quickly put in the pot, quickly, quickly, for everyone was
hungry . . . awfully hungry! From the kitchen rose the smell of
hot fish and crayfish soup.
I felt that this smell was tickling my palate and nostrils, that
it was gradually taking possession of my whole body. . . . The
restaurant, my father, the white placard, my sleeves were all
smelling of it, smelling so strongly that I began to chew. I
moved my jaws and swallowed as though I really had a piece of
this marine animal in my mouth . . .
My legs gave way from the blissful sensation I was feeling, and
I clutched at my father's arm to keep myself from falling, and
leant against his wet summer overcoat. My father was trembling
and shivering. He was cold . . .
"Papa, are oysters a Lenten dish?" I asked.
"They are eaten alive . . . " said my father. "They are in
shells like tortoises, but . . . in two halves."
The delicious smell instantly left off affecting me, and the
illusion vanished. . . . Now I understood it all!
"How nasty," I whispered, "how nasty!"
So that's what "oysters" meant! I imagined to myself a creature
like a frog. A frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with
big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws. I imagined
this creature in a shell with claws, glittering eyes, and a
slimy skin, being brought from the market. . . . The children
would all hide while the cook, frowning with an air of disgust,
would take the creature by its claw, put it on a plate, and
carry it into the dining-room. The grown-ups would take it and
eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs! While
it squeaked and tried to bite their lips. . . .
I frowned, but . . . but why did my teeth move as though I were
munching? The creature was loathsome, disgusting, terrible, but
I ate it, ate it greedily, afraid of distinguishing its taste or
smell. As soon as I had eaten one, I saw the glittering eyes of
a second, a third . . . I ate them too. . . . At last I ate the
table-napkin, the plate, my father's goloshes, the white placard
. . . I ate everything that caught my eye, because I felt that
nothing but eating would take away my illness. The oysters had a
terrible look in their eyes and were loathsome. I shuddered at
the thought of them, but I wanted to eat! To eat!
"Oysters! Give me some oysters!" was the cry that broke from me
and I stretched out my hand.
"Help us, gentlemen!" I heard at that moment my father say, in a
hollow and shaking voice. "I am ashamed to ask but -- my God! --
I can bear no more!"
"Oysters!" I cried, pulling my father by the skirts of his coat.
"Do you mean to say you eat oysters? A little chap like you!" I
heard laughter close to me.
Two gentlemen in top hats were standing before us, looking into
my face and laughing.
"Do you really eat oysters, youngster? That's interesting! How
do you eat them?"
I remember that a strong hand dragged me into the lighted
restaurant. A minute later there was a crowd round me, watching
me with curiosity and amusement. I sat at a table and ate
something slimy, salt with a flavour of dampness and mouldiness.
I ate greedily without chewing, without looking and trying to
discover what I was eating. I fancied that if I opened my eyes I
should see glittering eyes, claws, and sharp teeth.
All at once I began biting something hard, there was a sound of
"Ha, ha! He is eating the shells," laughed the crowd. "Little
silly, do you suppose you can eat that?"
After that I remember a terrible thirst. I was lying in my bed,
and could not sleep for heartburn and the strange taste in my
parched mouth. My father was walking up and down, gesticulating
with his hands.
"I believe I have caught cold," he was muttering. "I've a
feeling in my head as though someone were sitting on it. . . .
Perhaps it is because I have not . . . er . . . eaten anything
to-day. . . . I really am a queer, stupid creature. . . . I saw
those gentlemen pay ten roubles for the oysters. Why didn't I go
up to them and ask them . . . to lend me something? They would
have given something."
Towards morning, I fell asleep and dreamt of a frog sitting in a
shell, moving its eyes. At midday I was awakened by thirst, and
looked for my father: he was still walking up and down and
Fames: hunger (Latin)
orchestrion: musical instument similar to a barrel-organ that
imitates the sounds of other instruments
oleographs: imitation oil paintings