And whispered, “In the morning I’ll eat you, every last one of you.”

This wonderful quote comes from the Japanese poem, Clams, by Ishigaki Rin, about a woman who buys a bucket of live clams. She sets the bucket in the corner of her room and goes to bed. But she is unable to sleep because she can hear them gasping in the dark. It’s only when she leans over the bucket and whispers the promise above that she is able to sleep.

I first read this poem many years ago and the image has stayed with me. First because of the evil presence of this woman, looming over a bucket of tortured bivalves who, while she goes peacefully to sleep, spend the rest of their short, tortured existence with the knowledge the there is no escape from being boiled alive — or possibly cooked alive in some kind of lime juice — and consumed in mere hours. No superhero will sweep out of the sky, kick down the door, and rescue them… [Remind me to tell you some time of the paper I wrote in Writing Workshop to satisfy the “objective writing” lesson in which we were asked to describe the behavior of an animal that we had observed. I chose the lobster in the tank of the seafood restaurant that I passed each day on my way to class. High marks for writing; low marks for meeting the requirements of the assignment. Oh, I guess you don’t need to remind me to share that story….] The other reason it stayed with me was the beauty and the strangeness of her writing.

Anyhow, I was thinking about this poem again this week for several reasons.

First, I was thinking about how we sometimes delay gratification to build appreciation of that thing for which we are grateful. Over dinner tonight, my father-in-law was reminiscing about a can of sardines that he received soon after the Philippines were liberated in WWII. He waited patiently in a long line at the truck full of food that the Americans brought to his neighborhood, and carried home, in triumph, the large ovular tin. He and his family placed the tin on a shelf, unopened, for days, and gazed at it, despite the deprivation and hunger they suffered, because the anticipation of the treat was so gratifying in itself.

Second, I was thinking about it as I lay in bed the other night, with a big day planned for the next day. Like the woman in the poem and a kid on Christmas night, I couldn’t sleep; I was looking forward too much to the gratification that morning would bring. At the same time, I knew I had to get up early, I had much to do, and I needed my sleep. But my inner child kept giggling and dancing about, swinging around my mind, like a very cute and very annoying little girl I saw on the subway the other day. Finally, in my mind, I cuddled my little girl in my mental arms and told her that she had a very important job to do the next morning: it was her job to get me up on time for my day and she would need to sit quietly and watch the clock, to make sure I didn’t oversleep. Once I did that, things settled down for me – oh, her excitement got the better of her a couple of times, but I just reminded her of her important job and eventually she, bored by clock watching, fell asleep, and I did, too.

Finally, I was thinking about it in relation to resisting temptation. Instead of getting up and eating the clams, she just promises that she will eat them tomorrow, and then she goes to sleep. When I heard about the marshmallow test – where scientists place a marshmallow on a plate in front of a young child, offer them a choice between eating that one now, or waiting until the scientist returns in five minutes, and then eating two marshmallows; a test which supposedly is the harbinger of future adult doom for children who fail — I first made the mistake of assuming that I would have failed the test because of my lack of willpower when it came to food. Then I thought about the very expensive box of chocolates that I had recently received as a gift; I had not eaten it on the bus home; I had put it in a cabinet to save for a special occasion. (A special occasion that never came because someone else ate them when I wasn’t home.) And I thought about my habit of buying boxes of Thin Mints from Gift Scouts, hiding them in the freezer, and doling them out for dessert two at a time (until they were scarfed down, again in my absence). It then occurred to me that perhaps the marshmallow test would not have been a good indicator of future adult doom, since I certainly would have failed it as a child, and certain other people would have passed.

And still I have in my head a picture of a small dark beach shack, rough wooden floor with sand coming up between the boards, gritty beneath my feet. A tiny uncomfortable cot, with threadbare sheets, patched quilts, and a lumpy pillow. A simple table, hand-hewed, piled high with notebooks, a cake of ink, a jar of water, and a narrow tip brush, and a single wooden chair. Walls so thin that you can hear the whisper of the sea outdoors, and smell the salt. Moonlight streams through the ill-fitting shutter, illuminating the room in stripes, one of which reveals the mad glitter in the eyes of the dark-haired woman lying on the bed, thin, her arms wrapped around her waist as she stairs into the darkness. And in the corner, a small galvanized pail, filled to the brim with unopened clams, mouths slightly ajar, their multitude of eyes glittering from between top and bottom shell, and the rasp of their tiny, labored breathing as they wait, terrified, to learn their fate.

In the morning, I’ll eat you, every last one of you.

To read the complete poem, you’ll have to track down a copy of The Penguin Book of Women Poets – a book that I highly recommend.

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