There is a city in the world where everybody’s career involves the lobster in some way. By the age of five, not a child in the city hasn’t tasted the white meat. By the age of ten, not a child hasn’t received lessons in the relevance of their parents’ work to the business of lobsters. Stacks of lobster cages ashore are part of the local environment, like trees and the blue sky. The glass tanks full of lobsters, some motionless and others feebly stirring, lose their ability to draw a stare and pointed finger early in each child’s life.
With eyes as bright as the buoys attached to the cages, they enter the business of the city in their fifteenth year: trappers, fishmongers, restaurant owners, tour guides, shop owners each with sculptures or images, accountants to the shoreside companies, crier of broken records, and the highly esteemed positions, passed carefully between family members, of walking lobster and pincer-jeweled writer.
Of those who leave the city in their fifteenth year, little is known.
It is said that the blood of the city’s people dries to the hue of lobster shell.
It is said that newborn infants are mangered in lobster cages.
It is said that, on a foggy night, a creature half-woman and half-lobster emerged from the sea and said, “I am the truest creature in this city.”
Every spring, when the people scrape the final snow from their streets and the sun begins warming the shoulders of the trappers, the city opens its gates. They are fastened to the walls. Visitors enter the city and put its lobster meat on their tongues.
It is not said how the people of the city spend their winter.
I arrived in the city on a warm, breezy day late in the summer, and stepping out of my bus tried to discern the smell of lobster amidst salt and fish and petrol. Did they even have a smell? So much of my knowledge about the city involved the lobsters that I expected to detect them, red and sharp, in every sense. I fancied a hint of something different. In truth, nothing distinguished the wind tugging at my skirt from any other busy seafront’s.
My contact, Louise, met me beside a small jetty so that we could walk a little to my hotel.
“It’s so good that you’re here, Sasha!” she said, after the first exchange of pleasantries, “writing about our city in a British newspaper. Do you think many people will visit because of it?”
“I think so,” I said. “Brits like to travel, and the city is a curiosity—no other city in the world has such a singular devotion to an industry—yet it’s in a familiar, safe country.”
Even I’d been intrigued enough to take this assignment.
We walked together along the seafront, passing a number of jetties and restaurants—the Italian one offering lobster pasta, the Japanese one selling lobster rice—and a car park, the ferry station for travel to the islands, a café that sold lobster meat in a steamed bun, and many other places. After my long flight and the over-land journey, to be on my feet was a pleasure.
As we waited to cross the main street, I saw a man or woman in a lobster suit waving at idling cars and occasional children on the pavement.
“She welcomes people back to the city,” Louise said, noticing the direction of my gaze. “See how she stands by the exit of the ferry stop?”
“Are the islands so different that city residents need welcoming back?”
“They are not as devoted as us.” She set off across the street before I constructed a question—Do you envy that about them? —and began talking the moment I returned to her side. My hotel room faced the sea, a perfect location, and she recommended the rooftop restaurant. Did I want to go shopping before dinner? A new art gallery had opened and was, in every venue, receiving stellar reviews.
Her sudden and fervent sociability, after the quiet walk on the seafront, made me prematurely tired. I pretended jetlag and said that I intended to nap after checking in.
“Okay!” she said, still in that cheerful tone—unidentifiably sincere or forced. “You have my number if you need a restaurant recommendation for tonight. Shall we meet here tomorrow morning at nine?”
I nodded and, soon, retreated into a lift.
For a couple of hours I unpacked, took a shower, examined the main street from my balcony, and flicked through my guidebook. Its page numbers sat on the bodies of pale red lobsters. Several outings appealed, so I jotted them down and hoped that Louise’s company only endured for a few days. I far preferred exploring a city alone, treading my feet into its map.
The last section of my guidebook listed rare experiences and goaded the reader to seek them. A gin fermented in lobster shells. A festival held one night every five years, where all the people in the city dressed as a lobster. Books bound in shell and netting. Eating a lobster raw, still alive. That one sounded horrific and I almost put the book down. Then the final item read: On nights so rare that they do not occur twice in any person’s lifetime, a chimerical creature can be seen in the sea: half beautiful woman, half lobster. Some fishermen hold that she grants wishes to those who give her the most appropriate gifts. I rolled my eyes and wondered how much of the section was a joke. The lobster-maid made me close the book. Of course such a legend would emerge. No use in guessing what part of her anatomy was human, nor what kind of people liked to visualise her. I anticipated a surplus of delightful merchandise.
My rumbling stomach distracted me. Leaving thoughts of the legend to one side—already planning a sub-section in my newspaper feature—I ventured to the rooftop restaurant and got a table with a good view.
Low sunlight shimmered the wave-tops and cast boat shadows towards shore. Buoys bobbed. The ferry approached.
The waitress suddenly at my side asked what drink I’d like—a glass of a local white, preferably dry—and listed the day’s specials to accompany the menu in her hand. “But you’ll have the lobster, of course,” she said. I couldn’t decipher her smile.
“Does the lobster come in different forms?” I asked.
Yes, I was curious.
“Bisque; whole with a light, basil pasta; or grilled on sticks with mixed vegetables.”
“Whole,” I said.
Did any visitor to the city order a different dish for their first day?
It arrived in good time, whole on my plate with the pincers partially cracked open, waiting, ready for me to finish the job and excise the meal. As I’d heard, the quantity was not great. The taste, though—oh, it came from the sea and brought the currents, meals, journeys with it.
Yes, I partook.
The next day, I tried a lobster curry. The day after that, a lobster penne tomato dish. Louise insisted that I eat only her sister’s bisque, for none other compared. My newspaper financed a sub-section on the many culinary interpretations of the city’s industry. I sat at restaurant tables with my notebook open, pen in one hand and fork in the other. I tipped well. Gradually the coins in my wallet became those from the city’s small mint: on one face, a lobster with bound pincers.
It is said that, of five hundred and fifty-five ways to cook a lobster, only two hundred and twenty-five are still known in the city. Older chefs lament the days of their great-grandparents, when more ways were remembered. No one knows why this loss took place. A willful purge of repetitive or unpleasant dishes? A gradual forgetting as taste buds developed favourites or visitors grew less adventurous?
In 1995 a young man called Ben searched the city’s archive, a quest among paper, for clues. The archive collects a broad range of texts: old newspapers, journals, menus, locally written poetry, photographs in sepia and colour, a peeling sign from the famous five-day restaurant. Ben found some mentions of the other dishes, but no recipes. No conclusion neatly rested at the end of his essay.
It was a slow day, prone to drizzle, and the woman in the lobster suit lingered on the border between pavement and street. I approached and said, “Hi! How are you?”
“Pretty good,” came the muffled reply.
I couldn’t quite determine the location of her eyes. The suit made her entire self a mystery—but she’d had a young voice.
“What can I do for you today?” she asked.
“How long have you been doing this job? Is it a student thing?”
“Oh, no!” The suit didn’t conceal her horror. At first I thought I’d terribly misjudged her age. “I am supported by the city. My work is important. This is no minimum wage position.”
Confused, remembering Louise’s remark about the walking lobster’s role in welcoming people back to the city, but not quite believing its necessity, I said, “So this is a lifetime position?”
“Not always. My brothers may take over in a few years’ time. I am training to teach mathematics, in my spare time.”
I imagined the lobsters permeating every lesson. If James bought two lobsters and Dounya sold seven. . .
“Does every person enjoy this job?” I asked.
She raised a pincer: lobster-shrug. “That’s a pointless question, really.”
I wanted to know a precise elaboration on that, but the next ferry must have arrived because a large number of people approached and the young woman began her job of welcoming them.
That night, eating lobster-cakes with a crispy salad, I thought of her. Did she have dark or pale hair? What books did she read and what subjects excited her the most? The least? What did she succumb to in shops? Did she enjoy instrumental or lyrical music, or both, and what musicians in particular? What architecture delighted her most of all?
Under that skin lay a person, but I didn’t know anything of it except the suit, the bright red skin, she wore.
I didn’t even know whether she enjoyed or merely—unhappily, perhaps—endured her necessary role.
It is said that the first person to take up a lobster, drop it into a pan of boiling water, prise open the pincers and partake of their meat was a woman—a starving and ingenious traveler who, being pregnant, decided to settle by the sea and open her stall on the main coastal road. She sold lobsters by the bag, and her son gnawed on discarded shells by her feet.
The pincer-jeweled writer created a little book about this woman and her progeny. Five thousand copies have sold in the years since.
I started to order other meats in my third week.
With The Book Of Our Founders by Ara Shore open on my table, to double-check a few details in my completed sub-section on the city’s history, I truly read the menu and asked for a chicken kebab with rice.
“Not the lobster kebab?” the waiter asked.
At almost every table, visitors to the city welcomed the lobsters onto their plates: eyes wide, cutlery ready, indulging the city’s one apparent industry. I no longer knew if I wanted to be a part of that.
So I ate chicken, crab, mussels, sausages of all meats but lobster. I wrote about the art museums and the historical centre, having taken photographs of their best exhibits. I interviewed several lobster trappers about the myth of the half-lobster woman. From them I heard variations on the same theme: an old yarn, a fancy, a scam, possibly enticing in a strange way. I caught a ferry into the bay, toured the World War Two forts, walked the circumference of one island along its beautiful rocky beaches. On one stretch, countless blue mussel shells covered the sand and nestled among rocks thick like cast-off seaweed, so that every step was crunch, crunch.
My feature for the newspaper was complete, except for editing. Only two days of my visit remained.
The weather was cooling, the visitors leaving by bus and car. Autumn approached quickly—and the closing of the city’s gates.
In the city of lobster, the last few weeks of summer are slow and easy. The patterns of business with visitors are set like needled ink into hands and mouths. Lobsters swim into cages and the crier of broken records—her throat sometimes sore by this time, sometimes fresh as late spring, depending on the sea—watches for news. Her deep voice, louder than ferries, sometimes announces a momentous new record in these final days, and the remaining visitors are honoured to have witnessed this.
Then the gates close and no one except the people of the city knows what she does with her voice.
The danger of eating so much seafood is that, eventually, one morsel will settle in your stomach like a spined and malevolent entity—angry at having been eaten, and vengeful—and you will spend a night in the bathroom wondering which mussel or crab to blame.
To offer apologies and shrine-goods in its name, by the second night.
I had never been so ill from a meal.
After two nights I left my hotel and, instead of catching my bus out of the city, walked through the glass double doors of the city’s small hospital. They gave me antibiotics and IV drips full of nutrients. I recovered slowly.
The gates of the city closed. No visitors remained, except for me in my hospital bed.
The staff didn’t remark on this until, healthy again, I asked, “Where should I stay, until I can arrange a cab out of the city and a new flight home?”
“None of the hotels are open now,” the nurse said, “but you can stay here until you’ve got everything sorted out.”
As she left my room, I wondered what the city did during the off-season months.
That evening, for the first time since my illness, I walked along the seafront. Restaurants were still open, but none of them advertised lobsters, none of them had cute signs in their windows or hanging over their doors. The woman in the lobster suit was nowhere to be seen, even though ferries still ran to and from the islands. The shops selling lobster toys, lobster keyrings, lobster magnets, lobster pens, lobster books, lobster clothes, lobster paintings and all the other paraphernalia I’d written about, seen in the arms of visitors, were either closed with none of their displays in the windows or sold none of these items. I looked out along the jetties and saw no stacks of lobster cages. In the fishmongers, the glass tanks were gone. The other displays remained, full of every other sea creature that swam in or near the bay.
The change in the city made me too uncomfortable to ask any pedestrians for an explanation—though they smiled at me warmly, like friends.
I spent the late afternoon in the corner of a café, arranging my way home on my laptop. As evening dimmed the sky, I heard music.
It is said, by visitors, that the city of lobster must spend autumn, winter and early spring in anticipation, in slow dormancy, in a kind of emptiness.
I followed the source of the music to Anchorage Street. I followed groups of people, I followed the gaudy and exquisite and subtle costumes they wore, I followed their joy—so palpable on the air.
Firebirds, sea serpents, golems, stone giants, people with mammal ears and lizard tails, dinosaurs and gods and so many more filled Anchorage Street like the beautiful and strange shop that I’d seen earlier on the seafront. It had never been open before the gates closed. And the music, oh, it twisted through the evening air, fiddles and flutes, drums and a voice, louder than a boat’s horn, in wordless song.
Drinks were passed hand to hand, along with vegetables grilled on sticks, little pastry parcels, paper cups of seaweed and rice made colourful with pickled ginger. I ate, I drank, I felt both happy and guilty. I trespassed.
I wondered: Is a visit in the summer not also an intrusion? Is it worse? Everywhere I looked, smiles and dancing covered the street. The people were themselves, no ambiguity to their expressions, no lobsters on their tongues. Yet they called this the City of Lobsters, they spoke of the necessity of their work, and I liked the lobsters.
I leaned against one of the walls, full of questions and confusion.
I wondered: How will I even begin editing my article?
Colour creeps onto the street, a stop-motion of party activity: windmills and kites and balloons and, finally, the dancers. They come in all manner of costumes. They rarely stand still or communicate without song. They are happy.
This is on the fifth day after the gates close.
This is the party of all things that are not lobster.
A woman approached me, dressed in jeans and T-shirt with spider plants dangling from brown bracelets. On her left cheek I saw a small tattoo of a hot-air balloon. “Good evening!” she said, smiling, and I recognised that voice.
“You’re the—” I stopped. I knew she wouldn’t want to be identified as the woman in the lobster suit. “What is your name?”
“I didn’t expect you to still be here, Sasha. We don’t have many people who want to stay after the gates close.”
That remark caught me by surprise—not her recognition of me, for with waist-long hair and a pierced eyebrow I’m quite memorable, but the fact that other visitors have seen this.
“No one has written about the city in off-season,” I said.
“They think it is a secret we want kept.”
Kate shrugged. “I wouldn’t want many visitors at this time of year, so maybe it’s best if they don’t know that we’re an interesting city when they’re gone.”
That only complicated the issue of editing my article. Omitting this would perpetuate the lie that the city was all lobster, all days of the year. I thought of this party and this season as the city removing its lobster clothes. Giving a window to voyeurs around the world felt wrong too.
“I expect you want to know why we are the city of lobster when it clearly makes us less happy than being ourselves,” Kate said; and, before I could nod, answered the question. “Well, it’s our business and we’re good at it. Very good. You tried to ask whether I honestly enjoyed my work, but that’s a pretty stupid question to ask anyone. We’re good at it. We’re wealthy from it. It’s not like we have to spend all year doing it either. You know, a lot of us leave the city for a while. Some never come back. It’s just life, isn’t it?”
“Why do you all pretend to enjoy it in the summer?” I asked.
“Because surly actors don’t get paid. You might find it uncomfortable, and you’re certainly not the only one, but a lot of visitors like the fairytale way of the city: Once there was a place where everyone ate lobster. One kid called it Disneyland with lobsters. No, we don’t really like it, but more of the year’s spent with the gates closed.” Kate sighed. Quieter, looking away, she said, “It’s an uncomfortable skin, frustrating, like how the lobsters must feel when we fasten their pincers. And sometimes I feel like the half-lobster, half-woman from the stories: permanently between two states, never a real woman. For some people it’s not even acting, anymore. The summer and the off-season, both are skins.”
I wanted to apologise for imagining Kate’s maths lessons with lobster-themed questions. I wanted to go to each visitor in their homes and say: Did you really believe these people are in love with lobsters? I wanted to experience the real city.
Smiling again, taking my small hands in hers, Kate said, “Shall we dance, lovely lady?”
It is said that the half-lobster, half-woman, after emerging from the sea, died in the centre of the new town, in a hole she dug for herself, and the city grew up around her remains.
I stayed with Kate for several days and then left the city, with my still-unedited article on my hard drive. On the flight back over the Atlantic I considered several ways to change it.
Eventually I decided on a new opening line: This is only one of the skins that the city wears. I inserted other hints and a small, non-descriptive paragraph about my days after the gates closed. If readers wanted to know the city’s truer skin, they’d need to care enough to seek it beyond the fairytale of lobsters.
Years later, I still thought about that article and my other possible, never-made edits.
In the city of lobster, visitors sometimes remain into the fall and winter, wondering at the truth, and what they find leaves them troubled. None are certain whether returning in summer is a good or bad choice. None are able to decide how to recommend the city—which they like in its various skins—to family and friends. None forget it.
The grave of the half-lobster, half-woman is always tended by the woman or man who wears the red lobster suit on Commercial Street.