ILIAD of the OYSTER
“Our Remote Ancestor was Probably Arboreal.”
FROM his hut in the tree-top Probably Arboreal looked lazily down a broad vista, still strewn with fallen timber as a result of a whirlwind that had once played havoc in that part of the forest, towards the sea. Beyond the beach of hard, white sand the water lay blue and vast and scarcely ruffled by the light morning wind. All the world and his wife were out fishing this fine day. Probably Arboreal could see dozens of people from where he crouched, splashing in the water or moving about the beach, and even hear their cries borne faintly to him on the breeze. They fished, for the most part, with their hands; and when one caught a fish it was his custom to eat it where he caught it, standing in the sea.
In Probably Arboreal’s circle, one often bathed and breakfasted simultaneously; if a shark or saurian were too quick for one, one sometimes was breakfasted upon as one bathed.
• In the hut next to Probably Arboreal his neighbor, Slightly Simian, was having an argument with Mrs. Slightly, as usual. And, as usual, it concerned the proper bringing up of children. Probably listened with the bored distaste of the bachelor.
“I will slap his feet every time he picks things up with them!” screamed Slightly Simian’s wife, an accredited shrew, in her shrill falsetto.
“It’s natural for a child to use his feet that way,” insisted the good-natured Slightly, “and I don’t intend to have the boy punished for what’s natural.” Probably Arboreal grinned; he could fancy the expression of his friend in making this characteristically plebeian plea.
“You can understand once for all, Slightly,” said that gentleman’s wife in a tone of finality, “that I intend to supervise the bringing-up of these children. Just because your people had neither birth, nor breeding, nor manners
“There, there, my dear!” broke in Slightly, with a warning in his voice. “Don’t you work around to anything caudal, now, Mrs. S, or there’ll be trouble. You understand?”
On one occasion Mrs. Slightly had openly charged her spouse that his grandfather had a tail five inches long; she had never done so again. Slightly Simian himself, in his moments of excitement, picked things up with his feet; but, like many other men of humble origin who had become personages in their maturity, he did not relish having the matter commented upon.
“Pooi old Sim,” mused Probably Arboreal, as he slid down the tree and ambled toward the beach, to be out of
range of the family quarrel. “She married him for his property, and now she’s sore on him because there isn’t more of it.” Nevertheless, in spite of the unpleasant effect of the quarrel, Probably found his mind dwelling upon matrimony that morning. A girl with bright red hair, into which she had tastefully braided a number of green parrot feathers, hit him coquettishly between the shoulder blades with a handful of wet sand and gravel as he went into the water. Ordinarily, he would either have taken no notice of her at all, or else would have broken her wrist in a slow, dignified, manly sort of way. But this
morning he grabbed her tenderly by the hair and sentimentally ducked her. When she was nearly drowned, he released her. She came out of the water squealing with rage, like a wild-cat, and bit him on the shoulder.
“Parrot Feathers,” he said to her, with an unwonted softness in his eyes, as he clutched her by the throat and squeezed, “beware how you trifle with a strong man’s affections—some day I may take you seriously!”
He let the girl squirm loose, and she scrambled out upon the beach and threw shells and jagged pieces of flint at him, with an affectation of coyness. He chased her, caught her by the hair, and scored the wet skin on her arms with a sharp stone, until she screamed with the pain, and as he did it he hummed an old love tune, for to-day there was an April gladness in his heart.
“Probably! Probably Arboreal!” He spun around to face the girl’s father, Crooked Nose, who was contentedly munching a mullet.
“Probably,” said Crooked Nose, “you are flirting with my daughter!”
“Father!” said the girl, ashamed of her parent’s tactlessness. “How can you say that?”
“I want to know,” said Crooked Nose, as sternly as a man can who is masticating mullet,
“whether your intentions are serious and honorable?”
“Oh, father!” said Parrot Feathers again. And putting her hands in front of her face to hide her blushes, she ran off. Nevertheless, she paused when a dozen feet away and threw a piece of driftwood at Probably Arboreal.
It hit him on the shin, and as he rubbed the spot, watching her disappear into the forest, he murmured aloud, “Now, I wonder what she means by that!”
“Means,’’said Crooked Nose, “don’t be an ass,Probably. Don’t pretend to me you don’t know what the child means. You’ve made her love you. You’ve exercised your arts of fascination on an innocent young girl, and now you have the nerve to wonder what she means! What’ll you give me for her?”
“See here, Crooked Nose,” said Probably, “don’t bluster with me.” His finer sensibilities were outraged. He did not intend to be coerced into matrimony by any father, even though he were pleased with that father’s daughter. “I’m not buying any wives to-day, Crooked Nose.”
“You have hurt her market value,” said Crooked Nose, dropping his domineering air, and affecting a willingness to reason. “Those marks on her arms will not come off for weeks. And what man wants to marry a scarred-up woman unless he has made the scars himself?”
“Crooked Nose,” said Probably Arboreal, angry at the whole world because what might have been a youthful romance had been given such a sordid turn by this disgusting father, “if you don’t go away I will scar every daughter you’ve got in your part of the woods. Do you get me?”
“I wish you’d look them over,” said Crooked Nose. “You might do worse than marry all of
“I’ll marry none of them!” cried Probably, in a rage, and turned to go into the sea again.
A HEAVY boulder hurtled past his head. He whirled about and discovered Crooked Nose in the act of recovering his balance after having flung it. He caught the old man half way between the beach and the edge of the forest. The clan, including Crooked Nose’s four daughters, gathered hurriedly to see the fight.
It was not much of a combat. When it was over and the girls took hold of what remained of their late parent to drag him into the woods, Probably Arboreal stepped up to Parrot Feathers, and laid his hand upon her arm.
“Feathers,” he said, “now that there can be no question of coercion, will you and your sisters marry me?”
She turned towards him a sobered face. Grief had turned her from a girl into a woman.
“Probably,” she said, “you are only making this offer out of generosity. It is not love that prompts it. I cannot accept. As for my sisters, they must speak for themselves.”
“You are angry with me, Feathers?”
The girl turned sadly away. Probably watched the funeral cortège winding into the woods, and then went moodily back to the ocean. Now that she had refused him, he desired her above all things. But how to win her? He saw clearly that it could be no question of brute force. It had gone beyond that. If he used force with her, it must infallibly remind her of the unfortunate affair with her father. Some heroic action might attract her to him again. Probably resolved to be a hero at the very earliest opportunity.
In the meantime he would breakfast. Breakfast had
long been delayed; and it was as true then, far back in the dim dawn of time, as it is now, that he who does not breakfast at some time during the day, must go hungry to bed at night. Once more Probably Arboreal stepped into the ocean — stepped in without any premonition that he was to be a hero indeed; that he was chosen by Fate, by Destiny, by the Presiding Genius of his planet, by whatever force or intelligence you will, to champion the cause of all mankind in a crucial struggle for human supremacy. He waded into the water up to his waist, and bent forward with his arms beneath the surface, patiently waiting. It was thus our remote ancestors fished. Fish ran larger in those days; as a rule. ‘In the deeper waters they w'ere monstrous. The smaller fish, therefore, sought the bIiallows where the big enes, greedy cannibals, could not follow them. A man seldom stood in the sea as Probably Arboreal was doing more than ten minutes without a fish brushing against him either accidentally, or because the fish thought the man v s something good to eat. As soon as a fish touched him, the man would grab for it. If he were clumsy and missed too many fish, he starved to death. Experts survived because they were expert; by a natural process of weeding out the awkward it had come about that men were marvelously adept. A bear who stands by the edge of a river watching for salmon at the time of the year when they run upstream to spawn, and scoops them from the water with a deft twitch of his paw is not more quick or skillful than was Probably Arbor-
SUDDENLY he pitched forward, struggling; he gave a gurgling shout, and his head disappeared beneath the water.
When it came up again, he twisted toward the shore, with lashingarmsandsomething like panic on his
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” he cried. “Something has me by the foot!”
Twenty or thirty men and women who heard the cry stopped fishing and straightened up to look at him.
“Help! Help!” he shouted again. “It is pulling me out to sea!”
A knock-kneed old veteran with long, intelligent-lcoking, mobile toes, broke from the surf and scurried to the safety of the beach, raising the cry; “A god! A god! A watergod has caught Probably Arboreal!”
“More likely a devil!” cried Slightly Simian, who had followed Probably to the water.
And all his neighbors plunged to land and left Probably Arboreal to his fate, whatever his fate was to be. But since spectacles are always interesting, they sat down comfortably on the beach to see how long it would be before Probably Arboreal disappeared. Gods and devils, sharks and octopi, were for ever grabbing one of their number and making off to deeper water to devour him at their leisure. If the thing that dragged the man were seen; if it showed itself to be a shark or an octopus, a shark or an octopus it was; if it were unseen, it got the credit of being a god or a
“Throw me a line!” begged Probably Arboreal, who was now holding his own, although he was not able to pull himself into shallower water. “It is not a god nor a devil. It doesn’t feel like one. And it isn’t a shark, because it hasn’t any teeth. It is an animal like a cleft stick, and my foot is in the cleft.”
But they did not help him. Instead, Big Mouth, a seer and vers libre poet of the day, smitten suddenly with an idea, raised a chant, and presently all the others joined in. The chant went like this;
“Probably, he killed Crooked Nose,
He killed him with his fist,
And Crooked Nose, he sent his ghost to sea,
To catch his slayer by the foot;
The ghost of Crooked Nose will drown his slayer, Drown, drown, drown his slayer,
The ghost of Crooked Nose will drown his slayer, Drown his slayer in the sea!”
"You are a liar, Big Mouth!” spluttered Probably Arboreal, hopping on one foot and thrashing the water with his arms. “It is not a ghost; it is an animal!”
But the chant kept up, growing louder and louder:
“The ghost of Crooked Nose will drown his slayer! Drown, drown, thrown hi« slayer,'
Drown his slayer in the sea!”
OUT of the woorl3-came running more and more people at the noise of the chant. And as they caught what was going on, they took up the burden of it, until hundreds and thousands of them were singing.
But, with a mighty heave and wriggle, Probably Arboreal went under again, up to his head and body; his feet for
an instant swished into the air, and everyone but Probably Arboreal himself saw what was hanging on to one of them.
It was neither ghost, shark, god, nor devil. It was a monstrous oyster; a bull oyster, evidently. All oysters were much larger in those days than they are now, but this oyster was a giant, a mastodon, a mammoth among oysters, even for that period.
“It is an oyster, an oyster, an oyster!” cried the crowd, as Probably Arboreal’s head and shoulders came out of the water again.
Big Mouth, the poet, naturally chagrined and hating to yield up his dramatic idea, tried to raise another chant.
"The ghost of Crooked Nose went into an oyster,
The oyster caught his slayer by the foot,
To drown, drown, drown him in the sea!”
But it didn’t work. The world had seen that oyster, and had recognized it as an oyster.
“Oyster! Oyster! Oyster!” cried the crowd sternly at Big Mouth. »
The bard tried to persevere, but Slightly Simian, feeling the crowd with him, advanced menacingly, and said ;
“See here, Big Mouth, we know a ghost when we see one, and we know an oyster! Yon animal is an oyster! You sing that it is an oyster, or shut up!”
“Ghost, ghost, ghost,” chanted Big Mouth, tentatively. But he got no farther. Slightly Simian killed him with a club, and the matter was settled. Literary criticism was direct, immediate and effective in those days.
“Biit, oh, ye gods of the water, what an oyster!” cried Mrs. Slightly Simian.
And as the thought took them all, a silence fell over the multitude. They looked at the struggling man in a new community of ideas. Oysters they had seen before, but never an oyster like this. Oysters they knew not as food; they had always regarded them as rather ineffectual and harmless creatures. But this Titan of oysters was actually giving battle, and on equal terms, to a man! Were oysters henceforth to be considered as enemies? Were oysters about to attempt to conquer mankind? This oyster, was he the champion of the sea, sent up out of its depths, to grapple with mankind for supremacy?
Dimly, vaguely, as they watched the man attempt to pull the oyster ashore, and the oyster attempt to pull the man out to sea, some sense of the importance of this struggle was felt by mankind. Over forest, beach and ocean
February 1, 1921
hung the sense of momentous things. A haze passed across the face of the bright morning sun; the breeze died down; it was as if all nature held her breath. And if mankind upon the land was interested, the sea was no lesa concerned. For, all of a sudden, and as if by preconcerted signal, a hundred thousand oysters poked their heads above the surface of the water and turned their eyes—they had small, fiery, opalescent eyes in those days—upon the combatants.
At this appearance, mankind drew back with a gasp, but no word was uttered. The visible universe, perturbed earth and bending heavens alike, was tense and dumb. On their part, the oysters made no attempt to go to the assistance of their champion. Nor did mankind leap to the rescue of Probably Arboreal. Tacitly, each side, in a spirit of fair play, agreed not to interfere; agreed to leave the combat to the champions; agreed to abide by the issue.
But while they were stirred and held by the sense of tremendous matters impending, neither men nor oysters could be expected to understand definitely what almost infinite things depended upon this battle. There were no Darwins then. Evolution had not yet evolved the individual able to catch her at it.
DUT she was on her way. This very struggle was one of the crucial moments in the history of evolution. There have always been those critical periods when the two highest species in the world were about equal in intelligence, and it was touch and go as to which would survive and carry on the torch, and which species would lose the lead and become subservient. There have always been particular instants where the spirit of progress hesitated between two forms of life, doubtful as to which one to make its representative.
Briefly, if the oyster conquered the man, more and more oysters, emboldened by this success, would prey upon men. Man, in the course of a few hundred thousand years, would become the creature of the oyster; the oyster’s slave and food. Then the highest type of life on the planet would dwell in the sea. Civilization, which was not yet, would be a marine growth when it did come; the intellectual spiritual and physical supremacy held by the biped would pass over to the bivalve.
Thought could not frame this concept then; neither shellfish nor tree-dweller uttered it. But both the species felt it; they watched Probably Arboreal and the oyster with a strangling emotion, with a quivering intentness, that was none the less poignant because there was no Huxley or Spencer present to interpret it for them; they thrilled and sweated and shivered with the shaken universe, and the red sun through its haze peered down unwinking, like the vast blood-shot eye of life.
An hour had passed by in silence except for th,e sound of the struggle; more and more men and more and more oysters had gathered; the strain was telling on both champions. Probably Arboreal had succeeded in dragging the beast some ten feet nearer the shore, but the exertion had told upon him; he was growing tired; he was breathing with difficulty.
He had swallowed a great deal of salt water. He, too, was dimly conscious of the importance of this frightful combat; he felt himself the representative of the human race. He was desperate but cool; he saved his breath; he felt himself the representative of the human race. He opposed to the brute force of the oyster the cunning of man. But he was growing weaker.
If only those for whom he was fighting would fling him some word of encouragement! He was too proud to ask it, but he felt bitterly that he was not supported, for he could not realize what agonized emotion had smitten dumb his fellowmen. He had got to the place where a word'of spiritual comfort and encouragement would have meant as much as fifty pounds of weight in his favor. He had, in fact, arrived at the Psychological Moment. There were no professing psychologists in those days; but there was psychology; and it worked itself up into moments even as it does to-day.
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Probably Arboreal’s head went under the water, and briny tears and salt ocean mingled nauseatingly in his mouth.
“I am lost,” he gurgled.
But at that instant a shout went up— the shrill, high cry of a woman. Even in that moment of agony he recognized the voice of Parrot Feathers! With a splendid rally he turned his face towards the shore.
SHE was struggling through the crowd, fighting her way to the front rank with the fury of a wild-cat. She had just buried her father, and the earth was still dark and damp upon her hands, but the magnificent creature had only one thought now. She thought only of her lover, her heroic lover; in her nobility of soul she had been able to rise above the pettiness of spirit which another woman might have felt; she knew no pique nor spite. Her lover was in trouble and her place was nigh him; so she flung a false maidenly modesty to the winds and acknowledged him and cheered him on, careless of what the assembled world might
She arrived at the Psychological Mo-
“Probably! Probably!” she cried. “Don’t give up! Don’t give up! For my sake!’
For her sake! The words were like fire in the veins of the hero. He made another bursting effort, and gained a yard. But the rally almost exhausted him; the next instant his head went under water once more.
Would it ever reappear again? There was a long moment, while all mankind choked and gasped in sympathetic unison, and then the dripping head emerged. It had hit a stone under water, and it was bleeding, but it did emerge. Besides the cut on his head, one eye was nearly closed.
“Watch him! Watch him!” shouted Parrot Feathers. “Don’t let him do that again! When he has you under water, he whacks your eye with his tail. He’s trying to blind you!”
And, indeed, these seemed to be the desperate oyster’s tactics. If he could but destroy our hero’s sight, the end would soon come.
“Probably—do you hear me?”
He nodded his head; he was beyond speech.
“Take a long breath, and dive! Do you get me? Dive! Dive at your own feet! Grab your feet in your hands, and roll under water in a bunch! Roll towards the beach.”
IT WAS a desperate manoeuvre, especially for a man who had already been under water so much that morning. But the situation was critical, and called for the taking of big chances. It would either succeed or fail. And death was no surer if it failed than if he waited. Probably Arboreal ceased to think; he yielded up his reasoning powers to the noble and courageous woman on the sand; he dived and grabbed his feet and rolled.
“Again! Again!” she cried. “Another long breath, and roll again!”
Her bosom heaved, as if she were act w illy breathing for him. To Probably Arboreal, all but drowned, and almost impervious to feeling, it also seemed as if he was breathing with her lungs; and yet he hardly dared to breathe and roll again. He struggled in the water and stared at her stupidly.
She sent her unusual and electric personality thrilling into him across the intervening distance; she held him with her eyes, and filled him with her spirit.
"Roll!” she commanded. “Roll, Probably, roll!”
And under the lash of her courage he rolled again. Three more times, be rolled . . . and then. . . unconscious, still breath ing, however, he was in her arms.
As he reached land a half million oysters sank into the sea in the silence of defeat and despair, while from the beaches rose a mighty shout. The sun, as if it had gestured, flung the mists from its face, and beamed benignly.
“Back! Back! Give him air!” cried Parrot Feathers, and she addressed herself to the task of removing the oyster from his foot.
That giant beast was dying, and its jaws were locked in the rigor of its sufferings. There was no way to remove it gently. Parrot Feathers laid her unconscious hero’s foot upon one rock, and broke the oyster loose with another.
Incidentally, she smashed Probably Arboreal’s toe.
He sat up in pained surprise. Unthinkingly, as you and I would put a hurt finger into our mouth, he put his crushed toe into his mouth. At that period of man’s history the trick was not difficult. And
A beatific smile spread over his face!
Man had tasted the oyster.
TN HALF an hour, mankind was plunging
into the waves searching for oysters. The oyster’s doom was sealed. His monstrous pretension that he belonged in the van of evolutionary progress was killed for ever. He had been tasted, and found good. He would never again battle for supremacy. Meekly he yielded to his fate. He is food to this day.
Parrot Feathers and Probably Arboreal were married after breakfast. On the toes of their first child were ten cunning, diminutive oyster shells. Mankind, up to that time, had had sharp toe-nails like claws of a bird. But the flat, shell-like toe-nails, the symbols of man’s triumph over, and trampling down of, the oyster were inherited from the children of this happy couple.
They persist to this day.