Creamy Eyes

I

DEBORAH, the cook, had ‘stepped out to see her folks’ that afternoon of a late September day in 1889, leaving the Skipper and me, for a time, masters of ‘The Cottage’ and free to choose and provide our supper and, what was more, eat it where and when we felt inclined.

It was too late in the day to go fishing and yet, with the blue glinting water of the Cove lapping gently on the shingle at the foot of the lawn, a craving for spoils of the sea was so compelling that shortly we were searching the low-tide shallows for Bay scallops.

The Skipper was equipped with waders and a long-handled dip net, while I had on my thigh gum boots and towed a gunny sack. By keeping our backs toward the westering sun and with the gentle breeze from the same quarter, we had good vision through the two or three feet of clear water that covered the eel grass and patches of sand where the quarry lay — sometimes in numerous colonies and again in ones and twos. Working from north to south in order that the northeasterly trending wavelets might carry the rile of our footsteps away from us, the Skipper, without overextending himself, was able to dip up in the course of an hour or so three quarters of a bushel of selected ‘fish’ which, after every fruitful scoop, I would retrieve from his net and stow in my sack.

We’d brought our simple gear to highwater mark in a wheelbarrow — not one of the wooden horrors of mass production, but one so designed and built that, with its big broad-tired wheel, its light but strong frame, and its balance when loaded with our dripping plunder, it gave to one trundling it up to ‘The Cottage’ a feeling of power and ease rather than of disagreeable labor.

Before shucking our scallops that evening, we divided the lot by count. When each of us had his half piled at his left on the long wooden bench in the scullery and our knives in hand ready for business, the Skipper said ‘Go!’ and the plump creamy ‘eyes’ began to plop swiftly into two glazed earthenware bowls at our right. This making a race of it was to settle a long disputed question of technique. It was also an endurance test, for when the Skipper won by a half dozen or so I was wondering whether or not I could last the course, and ached all over from nervous tension.

By tacit agreement, as the Skipper picked up the two bowls and left me alone in the scullery, I understood that every trace of our operations there must be scrubbed and scalded away before Deborah should return. My final act of cleaning up was another trip to the beach, where the damning evidence of shells and offal could be disposed of safely below high-water mark.

As I pushed the barrow up the path again toward the house in the now cool darkness, I could see by a wavering rosy reflection on the panes of one of the long windows that the Skipper had a fire alight on the hearth in the ‘gun room,’ and a tide of satisfaction seemed to well up around me as I sensed the snugness of that retreat for ‘men folks.’

This feeling of well-being was in no way dulled as I came into the room where I found the Skipper before an old battered pine table, very busy with a rolling pin and cutting board, reducing bread crusts to an aggregate of crisp brown crumbs. On the hearth, toasting themselves in the bland heat of a deep bed of glowing embers, were an oldfashioned tin kitchen and two oak kegstaves, on edge, flanking it. These staves had been buttered and then plastered on their concave faces with a half-inch mortar of well scalded and salted Rhode Island gray corn meal.

Setting aside his rolling pin, the Skipper brushed the crumbs into a loose pile on the board and turned to a platter on which were ranged perhaps three dozen of the scallop ‘eyes.’ Picking these up one by one, he gave them a dip in a saucer of olive oil, a roll in the crumbs, and passed them to me to be threaded on a long skewer. When the last scallop had been spitted we locked the skewer and its brown beads into the tin kitchen.

As I sat down on an old milking stool, prepared to turn the handle of the spit, the Skipper warned me, ‘Don’t play “Yankee Doodle” on that tonight. “Dead March” from Saul is about the right timing.’ So, reining my hungry impatience, I sat there cranking slowly while the Skipper disappeared, to return shortly with a tray on which was half a Ponderosa lemon, a roll of butter, Austrian paprika, a jug of new cider, a dusty bottle of port, a green glazed jar of African dates preserved in pink syrup, and the requisite silverware, glass, and crockery.

By the time these things had been set out on the table and the two fat spermaceti candles that gave us our light had been freshened with the snuffer, the scallops were showing signs of having had as much toasting as they could bear, and the ashcakes on the staves were a golden brown.

Every mouthful of that supper ‘done us good’ — particularly the sweet tender scallops with a drop of lemon juice and a pinch of paprika on them, so that when at last we turned away from the table to face the fire that now, replenished with hickory and applewood fagots, was shooting tongues of yellow flame up the devouring throat of the fireplace, I felt that realization had, for once, equaled anticipation.

While the Skipper sipped his port and crunched the last of his ashcake it dawned on me that, so long as I had known a scallop, I had accepted the fact that the part of him we ate was called an ‘eye,’ while at the same time I was fully aware that this delicious morsel was in no way connected with his vision but was in reality the muscle by which this extremely lively bivalve could on occasion clap his shells like castinets. ‘How come?' I wondered and forthwith asked the ‘Old Man.'

Before answering, he took his time to light one of his Manila cheroots and savor the first long and fragrant pull on it; and then at last, with a look that passed me by and seemed to bore deep into gone years, he spun this yarn.

II

‘It must be nearly half a century since I asked my grandfather the very question you’ve asked me. It was an early December day in the old gray house — the furthest out on the Point here. We’d had a mess of scallops for midday dinner and had just finished the last of them when I asked for information. The old gentleman did not answer; but instead bundled himself into his winter cap, comforter, and heavy overcoat; and after helping me into similar warm wraps he drove me ahead of him up the attic ladder through the roof trap and out onto the Captain’s Walk that stretched along the ridgepole between the two big chimneys. From this vantage point we could sweep Buzzards Bay from Woods Hole to Cuttyhunk with the long spy glass which was kept on a rack between two rafters handy to the scuttle.

The weather was clear — moderate northerly, the best sort for picking up the private signal flying at the main truck of a homeward-bound ship that had reached into Vineyard Sound and anchored in Tarpaulin Cove. There she would wait for a southerly slant of wind that would allow her to fetch through Quick’s Hole, cross the Bay, and finally run up the Acushnet River into New Bedford harbor.

Because she was lying head on to us, it was difficult for Grandfather to make certain of the ship’s flag; but after several minutes’ peering he gave a sigh of satisfaction, lowered the glass, slapped the joints together, and said:—

‘Run down and tell thy grandmother that the Ann Alexander is in Tarpaulin and that thee and I will be starting in the Panther within an hour to visit Captain Snow and get the news of his voyage. Thee can help her stow the grub in the hamper while I keep on the heels of Gumbo and Jahazael and get the mainsail hoisted and the jib loosed.’

The Panther was a fifty-foot sloop Grandfather kept moored in a little bight on the east side of the Point for such expeditions as this of ours and an occasional fishing trip. She belied her name, being neither lithe nor lean. Instead she had tremendous beam, applecheeked bows, and a fine run, — a regular cod head and mackerel tail model, — and, with the centreboard hoisted, a shoal draft. To windward she was an indifferent performer, but on a reach or a run fast and comfortable. If anyone twitted him on the Panther’s inability to sail close-hauled, Grandfather would explain that, as a retired seafarer, at his age he had earned the right to keep the wind eternally on his back instead of his face, and that he was through forever with ‘shovin’ and pushin” to windward. I found he even went a step further as to the wind, for on that chilly December afternoon, as the Panther ran swiftly across the Bay towards Robinson’s Hole, the old gentleman went below directly we had dropped the mooring, to toast his face in the pleasant warmth of the big cookstove and euchre the wind entirely.

It was dark when we anchored deep in the Cove that late afternoon and I can remember how, by the time we had the sails furled, Jupiter, Mars, and Sirius were firing the placid water around us. It was a night in a thousand — cold and so crystal clear the stars seemed to snap as they winked. It gave me a cable-laid twist, so that, by the time Gumbo, the colored boy, had the cold corned beef, cottage fried potatoes, apple turnovers, and coffee on the table, I had to sit on my hands to keep from snatching while Grandfather asked a silent blessing.

Before I felt I had any more than commenced my supper I noticed Grandfather was shuffling his feet — a sure sign that a squall of impatience was building up. I knew this was unhealthy weather to be caught out in, and so I quickly lined up my knife and fork on my plate and ‘looked’ as satisfied as I could. It must have been a good ‘try on,’ for by the time we were in the dory, with Jahazael at the oars, headed for the Ann Alexander, Grandfather was reminiscing about the Cove in Revolutionary days — a sure sign that the squall had blown by.

As we came alongside that little ship (she was only eighty-nine feet long) the tale of her wanderings could almost be read by the varied odors that wafted out from her. There were the coconuts of the Pacific atolls, the mildews of Cape Horn, the cockroaches of Brazil, all tangled and held together by the sweetish sickly smell of sperm oil in oak casks.

Having hailed her, we climbed aboard at the starboard mizzen chain plates while Captain Snow gave us a hand as we went over the rail and dropped on deck. He and Grandfather immediately went below to the cabin, as I knew they would, to talk, talk, talk about such uninteresting things as the price of oils and candles. Jahazael could not and I would not follow them to that region of knives and forks in the stern. Instead, after the painter of the dory was fast, he and I made a beeline forward to the forecastle, where I knew there would be a treasure house of curios and scrimshaw work to look at, and plenty of tall yarns to listen to.

‘What an evening!’ But again I was not half satisfied when I heard a familiar voice coming from on deck at the head of the ladder saying: —

‘What is thee doing down there? Doesn’t thee know it’s long after bedtime? Come! Shake a leg or Gumbo’ll have fallen asleep and let the fire go out and we’ll shiver all night.’

On the way over to the Panther I asked if it had been a good voyage.

‘She’s bung full and Captain Snow says he’s even filled all the old boots. Thee can see she’s pretty low in the water.’

This was good news for me too. I felt Grandfather would be, so to speak, malleable; so I tried him again with: —

‘Thee hasn’t told me yet why what we eat of a scallop is called an eye.’

‘And I’m not going to now, my boy. But if it’s fair tomorrow we’ll run over to Menemsha and let Monohansett Joe satisfy thy curiosity.’

We started the next day early and were well across Vineyard Sound before the sun rose with promise of another fine day. Jahazael set us ashore in the dory on the beach of Menemsha Bight well to the westward toward Gay Head, and from there we watched him until he had reboarded the Panther and had her on her course up the Sound towards Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven now), where he was to anchor and wait for us to come overland by horse and wagon.

To reach Joe’s little farm we had to cover about three miles of uneven, rolling moorland that, sloping gently to the eastward, skirted the great tidal salt lake known as Menemsha Pond. For most of the distance, we could follow some one of the innumerable sheep paths that led all whither through dun-colored winter grass and leafless clumps of bayberry. At almost every step, up would soar a meadowlark, to sail downwind away from us, leaving behind a train of plaintive, fairylike music. We seemed bewitched and I, for one, felt I had come to a new world by the time we had reached the weatherbeaten, lichened cabin, on the very margin of an arm of the Pond, where this handsome old Gay Head Indian friend of ours lived.

We found him splitting driftwood on the lee side of the building and Grandfather said to him:

‘Joe, we’ve come over from Tarpaulin, where Captain Snow’s lying in the Ann Alexander waiting for a slant to run into Bedford, and we want thee to make us a chowder and then drive us over to Holmes Hole. Does thee think thee can accommodate us?’

‘Reckon I can,’ said Joe, ‘if thee’ll give us time. My horse and me’s gettin’ stiff in the joints for cold weather travelin’.’

Looking out across the sheltered pool at our feet where Joe moored his dory and a couple of skiffs, I noticed the calm glassy surface was constantly broken by little dark splashes. There were so many of these breaks, and they came so constantly, that there was a patter like rain. I was puzzled and must have shown it, for I came out of a trance to hear Joe say: —

‘Has thee never seen first-year scallops gettin’ ready to move into deep water before the ice comes? Them youngsters are comin’ up now to have a look at the weather. They’ll all be moved out come evenin’. Thee’ll be froze out too if thee don’t come inside where thy grandad’s been settin’ by the fire for some spell.’

Inside, that little house was shipshape — the neatest, cleanest you ever saw. In the one big room Joe had his workshop — tools, bench, and all; there was all his gear for fishing, eeling, clamming, and fowling; his cookstove, blacked and shining like Grandfather’s Sunday boots; the sink and polished copper pump; a ship’s built-in bunk; a table that folded against the wall; light but comfortable chairs of his own make; but not a ‘boughten’ useless gimcrack in the place — even the air there smelled useful.

With a good fire going in the stove, Joe set about preparing the chowder. He was so skillful that Grandfather and I just sat and watched. From the bucket of ‘soft-shelled’ clams that he brought in from the woodshed (he was careful to explain they had neither been drowned nor frozen) he selected about forty-five small ones and put them aside in a wooden bowl. Six small white onions were then cut into thin rings and fed slowly, one at a time, into a saucepan of already boiling water. While the onions were seething furiously on the hottest lid of the stove, he peeled six mediumsized potatoes, sliced them thin, and set them to boiling with two quarts of milk in a double boiler. By the time he had the potatoes and milk going strong he moved the onions onto the back of the stove and put a big heavy-lidded kettle, an eighth full of salt water, in their place. When this salt water had begun to steam and jiggle the lid, the clams, shell and all, were dumped in and the lid clapped on again. After the potatoes and milk had been cooking for twenty minutes or so Joe slowly mixed in with them a white sauce — pretty thick — seasoned with not too much salt and a good dose of black pepper, and set the whole to cooking again. He now took the big kettle over to the sink, scooped out the clams with a long-handled skimmer, shucked them, and, cutting off the black tips of the snouts, chopped the balance fine in a wooden tray and then poured them in with the milk and potatoes, adding two cupfuls of the ‘clam liquor’ from the kettle, and all the onion rings. The chowder was now allowed to boil two minutes more and then, piping hot, was set on the table in the double boiler and ladled into deep earthenware bowls. A plate of hard ship’s bread (hardtack) was the side dish for our chowder, and hand-wrought iron spoons that must have been very old the conveyers.

After we were well into our second bowl Grandfather said: ‘Joe, I can feel every spoonful of thy chowder makin’ Kyle the instant it reaches bottom.’

Joe looked pleased, but I wondered if, like all the rest of our friends and family, he was hazy as to the nature of this elixir ‘Kyle’ that Grandfather seemed to generate whenever his palate was pleased. Without expecting an answer the old gentleman continued: —

‘This boy of mine’s been pestering me for the last two days to tell him how scallop meats came to be called “eyes” — and I told him thee was the only man in the world that knew and had the right to tell the secret. It will please me if thee’ll tell the whole story.’

At this Joe’s rather severe face lightened up, and turning toward me he said: —

‘My folks were born, lived, and died on the Vineyard here for long — years and years before thy folks come in their ships. I was born over across the Sound on Monohansett (Little Island) in Lackey’s Bay. My mother and father were on a summer fishing in their canoe. That’s how I get my name. My grandfather told me about the scallop eyes when I was a boy like thee. His grandfather told him. All grandfathers in my family tell grandsons of times so far back that Vineyard and No Man’s all one island. In them times scallops were no account — had no good sweet eyes, just watery bellies; lay on the bottom like oysters — never come up like we see ‘em out there today.

‘One year, at dusk, hell of big canoe with one mast an’ big red and white sail come pokin’ into Bight. Tide was slack, water high, an’ her crew run her up the canal into the Pond ten or twelve oars aside double-banked. They beached her before they seen any o’ us. Our folks lay under cover and watched ‘em. That night they had a big fire on shore, an’ after eatin’ their victuals they lay round the fire to sleep with watchers takin’ turns to keep the fire alight. In the mornin’ my grandfather of them days, first mate to Gay Head Indian Captain, went down to palaver with these strange folks. When he come back he says they was all pink and white with hair like light corn silk. They was all men but one. She was boss an very tall and good lookin’. They cut down trees and made houses, they come fishin’ with us folks, they eat clams and oysters and stayed all winter cutting oak knees and crotches. They was friendly and good boatmen. Our folks made out they come from a long ways to the eastward.

‘The woman was a great hand for walkin’ round the shores of the Pond watchin’ the shore birds and singin’ to herself, and one early afternoon before they set out for home this boss woman came round on this side of the Pond lookin’ across toward the highland yonder. By damn! if all the scallops in that Pond didn’t begin to rise and break water. After that, every time that woman went walkin’ near the Pond them scallops would rise, and they kep’ this up until the ice came to keep ‘em down under. So then my folks knew scallops had grown eyes so they could rise and have a look at this stranger, and they took some ashore and watched ‘em and they seen they opened and shut their shells quick as a wink and peeked out when they thought no one was lookin’. Then they shucked some and there, sure enough, were them white creamy eyes that was good eatin’ when you get used to ‘em. And ever since them days,’ said Joe, ‘at this time o’ year thee’ll see them scallops risin’ and risin’ in hopes they’ll catch a sight o’ that handsome woman again.’