© Ava Leavell Haymon.
Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
The wagon pulls up, its iron-rimmed
oak wheels, gritty from ice melt,
split through gravel with the pop
of teeth hitting buckshot —
it couldn’t have happened many times
but it always seemed to be the same:
I felt a high silent whine mount
with the late morning heat, I breathed
danger in the dust and horses’ sweat,
that alien cold background smell of salt sea
seeping from the lumpy brown gunny sack
lying in state on the melting ice.
The table for shucking oysters was set up
under the Possum Oak that shaded the kitchen.
Company was already on its way.
A black pot sat inside on the Chambers stove, waiting.
We’d churned butter the day before, pulled onions.
Fresh milk cooled in a feverish blue crock.
Nutmeg, grated, filled like opium a small silver spoon.
(I never saw my grandmother come outside
but she was always there in time,
radiating the business-like faint impatience
a good priest uses to propel the liturgy.)
Snaggle-tooth Calvin jimmied a dripping shell, gouging
at the hinge as though he had to relearn the art.
He held the open half out to her,
rolling his eyes away, outside the patch of shade.
The rudely exposed oyster swam in a dimming nacre,
the unformed palm of an embryo
— more phlegm than flesh.
She put the transparent thing in her mouth.
The sun stopped in its painful crawl across the sky
and the edges of everything grew hard
dusty sumac leaves hung motionless
the horses’ tails were not seen to flick.
Once I had to close my eyes.
Then she nodded
and went back inside,
the screen door shrieking open
and banging twice at her heels.
Relief leaked over us all:
the sun let out its breath, resumed its importance
and its path down the scalded sky.
“They still alive,” Calvin would say
to no one in particular
or maybe to my slack face,
and he and my uncle would shake out
half the nasty sack of heavy, wet shells
— barnacled and hideous as frogs —
onto the soft cypress boards, and commence
to prise them open with their stubby knives.
True to ceremony, when I make oyster stew
the company’s already invited.
“When did you shuck these oysters, Mr. Benoit?”
I ask at the fish market. Clouds of red pepper
and oil of cloves make me want to sneeze.
Aristile Benoit boils crawfish for you
if you call ahead.
We’re on friendly terms, but his answer
would be the same the day of a hurricane.
Once I heard my uncle’s wife ask for her recipe.
“What’s your secret?” was what my aunt said, prissy,
dabbing her upper lip with the white dinner napkin.
My grandmother answered down the long table:
“You want them to die in the hot milk”
(I thought of my baby sister
nursing endlessly in the back rooms).
And to know for sure, she ate the first one raw.
Ate it with the concentration of a wine merchant.
The fortunes of the chateau rode on her verdict.
I never saw her come outside, but she was
always suddenly there when it was time.
It slipped up on me every time —
the sequence of the liturgy
washing over me helpless, that dry
relentless force that drives a Bach organ fugue.
There she was, holding it in her mouth,
waiting for — what?
No words — the sun snagged at its zenith.
She made a pert shaman’s nod
turned to go back inside the screen door
and the afternoon relaxed and continued.
When I make oyster stew,
I know better than to boil the milk.
I give Mr. Benoit’s oysters a good sniff
before I dump them in the measured broth.
But I shrug — the company’s already on its way.
How could she tell
when an oyster ceases to be alive
and begins to be dead?
Oh, the extremes I can understand:
humming along with the music of the spheres
chockablock with its siblings
in the shoals of the Gulf, or
stinking to high heaven the way only shellfish can.
But in between.
Exactly as the shell is broached
(which, I read later, is a mortal wound,
although death is not immediate).
What did she know that I don’t?
the brackish juices running along her teeth,
lines of concentration around her glazed eyes,
the purse string of her mouth pulled tight.
The shaman’s journey
trailing the soul of animal or ancestor
into realms that can’t be seen
or measured with clocks or suns.
Failing her nod, I suppose
we’d have hung there around the makeshift table
by the bole of the oak tree
and slowly browned into an old photograph
forgotten in a drawer that sticks during winter rains.
The edges begin to layer like a gimpy fingernail
till the picture at last crumbles into fragments
that make no sense at all:
my cowlicked head and Calvin’s legs on one piece;
another showing my grandmother’s apron,
the open gunny sack and what’s left of the ice;
on another, half her floating hair and her forehead
tensed in attention, the cotton fields
stretching out forever behind us,
and the wagon just about out of sight.
The horizon, a character in its own right,
rising out of the distance
on the bright heat outside the shade,
would have skirled off in the endless way
it always threatened to,
taking its corner of the photograph with it.
And that would be it.
The whole show would be over.
No one later would know we were ever there
or wonder what had become of us.
The drawer’s mouldered contents would be dumped out
when the house was sold
and the story would not go on.
But somehow the shaman returned with a verdict,
and with her nod the great machinery of the afternoon
clanked to life again
like the kitchen in the castle of Sleeping Beauty
and time nudged forward,
the danger was past,
the little girl with the uneven curls
grew up, the tree had to be cut down,
and all the adults in the picture died.
Whenever I let Mr. Benoit lie to me
in the fishmarket,
the old brown photograph
swims before my eyes.
What did she look for, so long ago,
in the salty primal liquor
that swished in her mouth and along her tongue,
the taste of life or the taste of death?
What sign should I scry?
What archaic gift was this?
that I failed to learn even though I was there.
And how can she inhabit my life
with such pungency in a place she never visited
without bringing that knowledge with her?
A fine crack scrawls in the surface, spreads,
the photograph breaks apart,
we are all lost.
Then, “Still alive,” Calvin says to himself
as much as to me, interpreting the mystery yet
and him dead these 30 years.
What wrath would be called down
if she decided it were not so, and upon whom?
And what courage did she summon?
or what standard invoke?
while we all waited for the shutter’s click
and she put the raw ocean thing in her mouth,
pushed at it with her tongue,
and asked the only question there is.
Text prepared by:
- Bruce R. Magee
Haymon, Ava Leavell. “Verdict.” The Hudson Review 41.2 (Summer 1988): 323-28. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http:// www.jstor. org/ stable/ 3850874>. © Ava Leavell Haymon. Used by permission. All rights reserved.