The Light in the Oyster

It was among the darkest of the days of the year when Linus took an apartment in Cancale, at the doorstep to the great grey-green wilds of Bretagne and settled in for what he hoped would be a quiet winter. He had been in France almost a decade at that point, and, after a failed pregnancy in Lyon prophesied a failed marriage in Paris which then foreshadowed a failed business in Arcachon, he decided the only thing worse than staying in France was admitting defeat and leaving, returning to live with his parents in their very sensible flat in Stockholm. Cancale appealed to him precisely because it was not a winter destination.  The winter would be mild. The tourists would have all but vanished, and he could kayak freely up and down the Emerald Coast, which had rapidly darkened to sapphire under the cloudy grey December skies. One afternoon, he’d gotten almost all the way to St. Malo when he spotted a strange rock shaped like a man sitting atop an outcrop. He pulled his kayak up well above the waterline and scaled the rocks to get a better view, when he realized that the man was not alone but surrounded by hundreds of carvings of people, faces, animals, mythological creatures, ranging in size from the smallest insect to a full-sized crocodile, and the dwarven man. Excusez-moi? Monsieur? The voice could have easily been lost in the crash of the waves had its owner not been standing mere feet behind Linus. Hello. Hello. Did you know these were here? Yes, monsieur, of course I did, I’m the ticket taker. The ticket taker? Yes, I sell the tickets to the park. Which park? This park: Les Rochers Sculptés de Rotheneuf. I’m very sorry. I didn’t see a sign. How much is admission? Three euros. Thank you. Of course. Linus decided to remain with the dwarven rock for a while longer, especially since he had paid entrance. So they sat and watched the oyster ships out in the bay, charging at one another now, retreating a bit, flashing signals and lighting fires on deck. They had been fighting since the summer, when some of the British fishermen came a bit too close into French waters, and there had been some ugly moments already. One ship rammed another, sending the crews overboard. Nobody was hurt and the two ships were towed back to their respective countries, but the season remained tense and the arrival and departure of Christmas had done nothing to dampen the hatred that the two groups felt for one another. If anything, the fear that one group would abandon the channel to enjoy Christmas and the other would swoop in to sweep the oyster beds clean had heightened the animosity between the two groups.

It was as he paddled back to Cancale that Linus saw the light for the first time, as clearly as if the sun had given up on trying to break through the iron clouds and had instead decided to emerge from under the water.  Linus stopped immediately as best as he could in the choppy waters of La Manche. It came in three bursts that first time, light pouring up out of the water like a long-lost beacon that had simply refused to stop working even after it had been reclaimed by the sea. But after the third beam of light, it disappeared, and though Linus waited more than an hour and a half, paddling around the small bay and back, he could not pinpoint its location. Later that evening, as Linus warmed himself by the electric heater and drank linden tea spiked with calvados, that he resolved to find the source of that light no matter how long it took him.

The next few days were impossible for kayaking, so Linus drove his small teal Citroen to Rotheneuf, paid the ticket taker another three euros, and allowed the waves to slap him a while as he cowered next to the dwarf and watched the inlet for signs of the light. The fishermen were out in full force, patrolling the oyster beds and menacing one another. Linus considered taking a video of the dance they did, surmising that some newspaper somewhere might pay for footage like this. They’d been covering the Oyster Wars for the better part of the year, but the reports were always from sailors or members of the coast guard who got involved after the drama had mostly played out. The photos were always a boat in dry dock and a few salt-burned sailors looking discontent. Linus had no aspirations of being a photojournalist, but it might be fun to take a photo that ended up on the cover of the New Year edition of FranceOuest. It was as he had resolved to take his phone out to begin recording that he caught a glimpse of the light. It didn’t beat multiple times but gleamed only once before fading back into darkness. This was everything Linus needed. He took a picture of the cove from where he sat, marked the photo with a highlighted X approximately where the light had been, and collected his things, wishing the ticket taker and the dwarf a good day on his way back to the car.

Before breakfast the next morning, Linus had acquired a scuba tank from the only operator who had not completely shut down for the season. You must be careful, Monsieur. The oyster beds are a dangerous place to be now. Les Brittaniques. He scowled. In any event, please have the equipment back by sixteen hours, four. We close early in the winter, and the sun will have already begun to set then. Linus arrived back at Rothenuf with his gear, paying another three euros to the ticket taker, who-sensing a fellow admirer of the work of the retired catholic priest who, between 1894 and 1907, took it upon himself to carve the French coast into that same menagerie of surrealism-took it upon himself to accompany Linus to as far as the dwarf, prattling on about this or that sculpture and whether or not UNESCO or at least the French republic would ever come to classify it as a protected part of the patrimoine. It was next to the dwarf that the ticket taker noticed Linus’ gear, recognized that the sculptures were not his primary purpose for visiting, and left silently.

There were no blasts of light to follow, no pulsing stars, no submerged lighthouses or abandoned wrecks to explore. The seabed was exactly as it should be: craggy and speckled with mollusks of the many varieties for which Cancale had become famous. The tides were strong, but with some work Linus found the approximate area he’d indicated on his photo, and he scoured the ocean floor for anything remarkable. Linus was under water a long time before he discovered what he was looking for – but when he did, it was unmistakable: one oyster, one sole oyster otherwise indistinguishable from the others, glowed pink and ochre at its edges as if contained within was all the light from several suns. Even looking directly at the edge of the oyster left Linus blinking momentarily, trying to readjust his sight to the semidark of the seawater. All around, jade seaweed waved in the currents, unconcerned by the mystery Linus had uncovered.

The oyster would not budge. It could not be opened no matter how much force Linus applied, though getting a proper grip was difficult given the way the riptide bowled him over from time to time, loosening his fingers from the slick skin of algae covering the surface of the oyster. Linus even kicked it a few times though his flippers caught the water and prevented him from really getting enough speed to do anything except graze it with his heel.

The scuba master was surprised when Linus asked to rent the gear again the next day but was even more surprised when Linus arrived with a crowbar, hammer, and a small glass jar. What will you do with that Monsieur? I’m going to collect an oyster. A single oyster, Monsieur? Surely you can get a dozen at Leclerc for less than ten euros. The scuba master couldn’t tell if Linus was joking when he said it was to be a pet.

The journey to the oyster beds, as familiar as it had become, was not without its own surprises. The ticket taker barred Linus’ way when he arrived, glancing uneasily down at the crowbar. Les Rochers Sculptés de Rotheneuf cannot be visited with a crowbar. C’est pas possible. C’est interdit. So Linus packed himself and his gear and his disappointment back into his small teal Citroen and found a small parking area near the coast that would permit him access to a quiet cove where he could enter the water and begin his hunt. The day had been a wet one, misting on and off throughout the morning. But as the afternoon wore on, the clouds hung darker and darker on the horizon and threatened a true storm before night was finished. The fishermen had swarmed into the cove after lunch and were busy collecting their hauls. The French sailors waved at him as cheerfully as they could muster, but the British sailors scowled as he entered the water, shining their lights at him through the fog as if mere lights could scare him off.

The oyster, when he found it, was brimming with light. Gold threads played at the edge of the shell, shimmering and dancing as the dark water swirled around, but no rays slipped beyond the edge into the depths. Linus worked quickly, prying the oyster up from its bed, remarking how easily it came up from the rocky bottom, and placing it within the jar with sufficient seawater for the return home. He wondered what a bivalve might eat, or how often the water should be changed. He wondered if the oyster might lose its light after leaving its spot on the ocean floor, or if the light would change in quality, dimming or becoming nuclear or going supernova on his kitchen counter. For its part, the oyster simply sat at the bottom of the jar, vibrating with energy and giving away no clues about what it might do in its new home.

Linus sped home, pushing the Citroen through all five of its gears before reaching the top of the first hill, and, once inside the house, he dropped his gear and set the oyster jar on the table. It did nothing, sharing none of the luminosity that was still detectable in the faint glow at its edges. It remained firmly shut, and Linus’ apartment remained shrouded in the dark of winter. Linus sat, speaking to it, pleading with it to open, to no avail. He shook the jar and poked the oyster with the blunt end of the crowbar but only succeeded in causing the faint glow to dim a bit. Eventually, disappointed, Linus decided to rinse the seawater off his body and prepare for bed. The mystery of the oyster would have to wait for a cup of linden tea spiked with calvados and a bit of raclette melted across bread.

It was the scuba master who found Linus, the next afternoon, just after he had closed up shop in the four o’clock hour. Linus hadn’t returned the gear but had given a local address on his forms, so the scuba master arrived, unannounced, to find the house dark and quiet, with the small teal Citroen parked just outside. The landlord had, with very little prompting from the scuba master, become extremely concerned about Linus’ welfare and had opened the apartment just to make sure nothing was amiss. There sat Linus at the table, head rolled back and eyes wide in ecstasy, a grin spread permanently from ear to ear. And there sat the oyster on the table, wide open and reeking of death, dark as the December afternoon.

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