I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
* * * * * * *
Every morning the tank room smells of bleach. Gurgling pumps circulate fresh salt water endlessly through the lobsters’s quarters. I arrive at 7:00 AM, grab the clear bins of crustaceans that I had boiled the night prior, and sit myself before the stainless-steel, double-bay sinks that sit flush against the wall. I pop the lid off each bin and overturn it, dump the carcasses and their various juices onto my (briefly) white cutting board and set to dismantling the limbs, discarding the bodies, and mounding their meat in a colander. I remain here, hunched over the sinks in the whitewashed room, for anywhere between thirty minutes and three hours. This is the beginning of every day.
The crash of the churning sea waking endlessly upon Maine’s rocky coast is a sound that never grows dull in my ears– a primal roar of depth and brine, sometimes calm, sometimes furious, always beautiful. The waters of my home town are some of the most beautiful, though they are far quieter than other wide-open shores due to Loud’s Island breaking swells before they the have chance to threaten the mooring-speckled sanctum: Round Pond Harbor holds no less wonder in its murk than any section of uncharted ocean. I have lived here, right by the ocean, for fourteen years, and even before that I lived in close enough proximity to the ocean to consider myself permanently salt-waterlogged.
Even beneath the dark canvas of a midsummer night, the pale light offered by the moon was enough to illuminate our reason for being out at Moxie Cove Picnic Area: mackerel in abundance darted about the surface twenty feet out, each showing himself in a shimmer only when his silver side turned upwards for a moment, there and gone just as a falling star, but all together putting on a lightshow just as spectacular as any display of fireworks. A young me followed his older brothers under a waning moon just for the occasion, feeling blessed that we had such close access to the harbor from our house. My fingers wrapped around the cork grip of the light fishing rod I’d brought with me, and as soon as I situated myself shin-deep, expertly balanced on the submerged outcrop of slimy rock, I began casting.
The salty breeze, thrown in from the mouth of the harbor, nipped at our bare skin as my brothers and I hauled in fish after fish and I noted how the green-black pattern woven on their backs was just as pretty as the elegant of their shining sides. At some point in the night the mackerel stopped biting, and shortly after that the sound of their light nipping was joined by the louder smack of something very clearly breaking the surface, and though the night was taking its claim on the world with each passing minute we knew that the school of foot-long fish had been driven into frenzy by striped bass three times their size looking for an easy meal. I dropped my rod and simply watched, eager to witness anything I could but seeing nothing more than the occasional splash of black water where a striper had breached as it launched its muscular body into its prey.
My brothers frantically tried to catch these monsters, hooking our already-caught mackerel through their spines as bait. Nothing else struck their lines that night– probably for the best, for if a striper found itself caught on the hook it surely would have snapped the flimsy rod in two– and half an hour later the Picnic Area went quiet, all traces of the slaughter washed out with the receding tide. We packed up our things and made the quarter-mile trek home.
The most common thing you’ll find inside a lobster (other than meat, of course) is the white stuff, which is what lobsters have instead of blood and that has a consistency similar to those disposable gelly face-masks meant to moisturize the skin or something, if not a bit more delicate. Females often have roe, or eggs, which are clumped and grainy and fall apart between my blue latex gloves. Then there’s the tomalley: a puke-green pasty mess that works double-time as the pancreas and the liver of the big ocean bugs and that is inexplicably not present after boiling in some of them. The intestine tube runs down between the tail and often leaves the clean-white flesh smudged slightly brown. All of this must be removed, along with all shell fragments, before the meat is rinsed, cut and then packed into sandwich bags in the exact amount of 0.25 pounds to be used for lobster rolls later in the day.
One particularly busy day at the Round Pond Harbor, I recall chatter of a shark in the water by the docks causing quite a stir among the customers: dozens of them rushed to the railing when word had reached them, and there was plenty of screaming and running to bother me and the other employees. I slipped out the back door, when I got a moment, and peeked into the shallows to see only a dogfish– a shark, yes, but a small species that doesn’t often reach sizes larger than a couple of feet, and the same species that I had caught on a hand line so many years prior. I can’t argue that it wasn’t a rare sight, for I haven’t seen another shark in Round Pond Harbor since then, but I think what left me more bewildered than the streamlined fish circling in waist-deep water, its intentions forever a mystery to me, was the genuine panic that the predator had caused; I suppose it is an evolutionary trait to fear what we do not know. Despite its fan club, the dogfish eventually glided off, past the distinct line of depth in the water where light loses its grip on the world.
We think the lobster began evolving somewhere close to four-hundred million years ago, and in doing so it has developed the tools to become a mild nuisance to me as I load them into woven rope bags to be then loaded into the boiler for 11 to 17 minutes, depending on size and thickness of shell: one small, sharp claw meant for tearing apart prey and another, larger one meant for crushing, whether the object of that crushing be a clam or a rival lobster or my poor finger, caught between the claw inevitably when I remove the rubber band that keeps the things incapacitated. Their sectioned tail functions as the most obnoxious getaway device made by mother nature, for when I hold their claws together expertly in one of my hands for debanding, a trick learned after only years of practice, the things like to curl their tails endlessly, providing just enough movement to hinder the task at hand in a desperate attempt to break free from my grip, ignorant to the fact that escape would only mean a few more seconds before their descent into the cooker.
For the record, it is a myth that lobsters scream in their pots: however many tens of thousands of lobsters I have sent into boiling water, not one has decided to speak up.
On a relatively normal day– I am not working, but find myself at the seaside anyways– I sit on one of Round Pond Harbor’s three docks: big wooden platforms designed to succumb to the will of the tides. I’ve just gone for a dip and now let my legs hang in the grainy water, watching the mid-afternoon sun ride the shimmer of the ocean’s facade. Then, not five yards in front of me, a harbor seal pokes his head from the surface and spins, slowly, until his gaze meets mine. We share a long moment of silent understanding, his eyes more solemn and wise than any I have ever seen on a human, and then, without so much as a ripple, he dips back into the murky shallows where I had moments ago been swimming myself, perhaps along with him or any other number of denizens of the Atlantic. I watch a while longer in anticipation of the seal’s return, but he is gone just as the shark, exploring a world I’ll never lay my eyes on.
“Up until sometime in the 1800s,” says David Foster Wallace in his 2004 essay Consider the Lobster, “lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.” It wasn’t until some snob came along and decided that they were absolutely scrumptious (the same guy who got the masses eating oysters, probably) that everyone hopped on the crustacean-train. I’d wager that if humans weren’t so dead-set on hauling in as many of the things for surf’n’turf and lobster rolls as we are that they’d surely be as plentiful on the ocean floor as sand is at the beach— and they once were, as Wallace explains in his essay. In the pilgrims’s time they were fetched by the bucketful by hand. The fact that little beasts thrive even with the genocide we lay upon them each and every year, and in an environment as brutal as the ocean at that, is amazing in and of itself. Every time I visit Muscongus Bay Lobster, not as an employee or a customer but just as an onlooker, I see the lobsters crawling in their tanks and waiting to be turned into dinner, and feel the most curious calm; the lobster and I have developed a strange relationship over the years, and I can’t help but feel both pity for the ones baited into four-foot steel traps and envy for those that spend their days wandering the ocean’s bottom, urged only by current and instinct, for my landlocked legs long to bring me there too.