otto and the jumbo shrimp
Otto Olsson, the hapless redhead in a family of ethereal Swedish blondes, leaves home at fifteen. It is 1954. The world ice hockey championships are held in Stockholm. Wedged in between an alcoholic mother and a wallowing hog of a stepfather, Otto watches from a living room in Sundsvall. He doesn’t care about hockey, but when the camera pans out over the city, he thinks, that is the place for me. Late one night he slips his savings into a suitcase and takes the train south. His awkward height comes in handy now. He claims to be eighteen and enrolls in culinary school. A year in, a chef from the Riksdag comes to visit, looking for assistants in the kitchen of the national legislature. The other novices arrive with shining sharp haircuts and pompous promises. Eric, who’s worked for politicians all his life distrusts them immediately. Instead, he takes a liking to Otto for his earnestness and lack of ambition.
So Otto leaves culinary school. Every morning, at eight he ducks in a backdoor of the Riksdag in his clean white apron. When there is bread to be sliced, he slices bread. When there are meatballs to be sauced, he sauces meatballs. Every evening he brings dinner to the speakers of the house, who live in the grand hotel across the plaza. Bjorn Anderson, the third speaker, always has shrimp on toast before bed. The old man is unpopular because favors stringent regulation on fishing, especially shrimp. He let the Germans use the railroads in Swedish- owned Russian colonies during the War. A sensible decision, everyone says. But the country is racked with guilt.
March, 12, 1955. Otto is cornered by two tall men in suits on his way home from work. One is handsome. One is ugly.
“Ride home, boy?” they ask.
“No thank you sir,” says Otto.
“Come on now,” they say. “It’s cold. It’s late. Warm up with a glass of brannvin with us before you head home. You work hard, Otto.”
Otto opens his mouth to ask how they know his name, but chokes the question down.
The tall men usher him into a black cab and take him to a tavern. It is quiet, mahogany- interiored, with tassels on the lampshades and velvet seats on the chairs. When the brannvin comes, Otto coughs on the burning wine.
“Don’t drink much?” asks the ugly man.
“Protestant parents?” asks the handsome man.
Otto shakes his head.
“Underage?” asks the ugly man.
Otto nods. He feels a sweet relief flooding his veins. He hasn’t told anyone for over a year.
“It’s alright.” says the ugly man. “In our day, a lad of sixteen living on his own was called independent. Now, these Social Democrats call you a delinquent. They’ll send you back to Pops if they find out, won’t they. You don’t want that, do you Otto?”
“That’s right.” says Otto.
"You like living alone?”
“Is money a problem?” asks the ugly man.
“A bit.” says Otto.
The handsome man clears his throat, leans forward. “We want to make a deal with you, Otto. If you work with us, we will pay you well. If you don’t, then we’ll reveal your age to the authorities, and you’ll have to go home.”
“So here it is.” says the ugly man. “We have heard that you bring Bjorn Anderson his shrimp on toast every night. As you may have heard, that man is a danger to democracy. He’ll tell you we had to open those railroads, but let me tell you, we didn’t. The Germans were losing the war. They would never have had the energy to invade us. Anderson was a coward and a sympathizer. And he’s old now. That brain on his is rotting and he wants to bring down the seaman’s livelihood. He wants sanitation standards no one can possibly reach in the shrimping industry. He expects our shrimp to be raised in bleach, practically, or they can’t be sold. It’ll put thousands out of work. Thousands of families will have no heat in the winter if he succeeds. My colleague and I are shrimp men ourselves. We represent a network of fisheries. It is our duty to make sure that does not happen.”
The handsome man produced a vial of amber-colored liquid from his attache case. “Cyanide.” he whispered. “A drop every night on his toast, over the course of a month, and he’ll weaken. His nerves will go. He’ll have to retire.”
“Don’t worry about being caught.” says the handsome man. “Slow-dosage poisonings are nearly impossible to track down. Just a drop a night.”
They drive him home. He doesn’t sleep that night.
The next night he drips a miniscule portion of the cyanide onto Bjorn’s toast. Otto half-believes the portion is too small to do harm, but the day after Bjorn complains of a headache. Otto hopes its coincidence and parcels out another drop.
Tuesday is Otto’s day off. He goes to the zoo. The brown bear has two new cubs, bumbling clumsy balls of fuzz. He buys an ice cream from a friendly girl at the foodcourt, then sits on a bench and watches them clamber up and down concrete logs. They have fat paws and nuzzle everything curiously.
“Two months old.”
Otto turns around. It’s the girl from the food court, standing behind the bench.
“I’ve been coming here for my lunch break everyday.” she says. “And watching them.”
She sits down on the opposite end of the bench, unwraps a sandwich and opens a thermos of coffee.
“They were born here?” asks Otto.
"Yeah.” she says, sipping her coffee. “Born in captivity.”
“We all are.” says Otto.
"You haven't been reading your Rosseau,” she says.
“You’re right. I haven't.” The bear cubs wrestle in the snow.
“I’m Hedda.” says the girl. She extends her hand to shake.
“Hi, Hedda.” he says, and shakes it.
“Don’t be shy. I’m not the Jumbo Shrimp.”
“The Jumbo Shrimp? You know the story? If you tell the Jumbo Shrimp your name, you have to serve her forever.”
He looks confused.
“I guess that’s just a story in my family.” says Hedda.
“What does she want?” asks Otto.
“No one knows. She collects servants to do her shrimpish and mysterious bidding. You’d have to be a shrimp to understand, I think. Only the shrimp know why some of us have to be underneath.”
“Oh.” He realizes he’s being rude. “I’m Otto.” he says.
They chat and watch the bear cub who’s lost the wrestling match wander off to scratch at a tree. The victor goes to nurse from its mother. A gaggle of children on a field trip come to the exhibit and paw at the fence, sticking their faces as close to the enclosure as they can get. A teacher quizzes them about the natural history of bears, then they depart in a bobbing line.
“Have you ever seen animals mate in captivity?” asks Hedda.
“N-No.” Otto stutters.
“I have. You see all kinds of things when you work at a zoo.” She pauses. “They really go at it.”
“I have to go now.”
“Well, it was nice talking to you.”
She starts to leave. “Otto.” she says.
“Yes?” Whatever now, he wonders. She leans in and he can smell the starch on her uniform. “Don’t forget, Otto. You’re not in captivity.”
Third speaker of the house Bjorn Anderson is wrapped in a quilt, his head throbbing as he wades through piles of papers on his desk. The doorbell rings, he calls out, Come in! And it’s that boy with the shrimp on toast. Otto places the toast down and they exchange pleasantries. The man’s hands quiver as he nibbles the crust. Otto has to look away. There is simply no way he can continue to do this. It’s like he’s been crawling through a tunnel that’s getting narrower and narrower. He cannot breathe. He is in the middle of a tunnel with a poor dead man on one end and a miserable home on the other end and he cannot move forward and cannot let himself to slip backwards. He thinks, Hedda was wrong. I am exactly like the bear cub.
Otto leaves the hotel but instead of returning across the square he sets off running. He runs along the canal and to the waterfront, where he runs past docks and docks. It’s a feeling he hasn’t had since he took the train to Stockholm, with trees flashing past him. When Otto is out of breath he stops in front of the Seaman’s hiring hall. There is a ship leaving that night for Iceland shorthanded. They are desperate for men. An hour and a half later Otto is onboard Vaker Dam learning how to tie a rolling hitch.
It isn’t till they’ve cast off and are slicing through black water when Otto asks “What exactly do we do on this boat, Captain?”
And the Captain says, “Shrimping, my boy.”
Otto grows quiet. He is not sure if he should laugh or cry. The Captain, suspecting some mental mutiny, thwacks him on the ear.
Otto’s resume of subservience serves him well. He swabs the deck, casts out nets and reels them in full of squirming shrimp. The shrimp are hosed off and stored in freezer chests below deck. At night Otto lies in his bunk and breaths in to the rhythm of the waves on the hull. He’s not confident that he’s shaken off the tall men, but he’s delayed having to face them for the duration of the journey. Bjorn may not be safe but Otto’s hands will not be bloodied further. He still has the vial of cyanide. It’s in the sea chest by the foot of his bunk wrapped in waxed paper and many layers of rubber bands. For now it seems harmless like an antique sword in a glass case. The other deckhands write letters home, planning to send them if they meet a merchant marine. Otto writes none. No one asks why. Once, he writes a letter to Hedda full of snippets of life at sea and facts about shrimp. He addressed it to the Stockholm Zoo and hopes it’ll reach her.
March 20th, 11:00 am. Otto sneaks into the captain’s quarters and steals a box of chocolates from a cabinet. He eats them in bed that night, one by one. There’s a sweetness to them that’s from something other than the sugar.
A few hours after Otto drifts off to sleep surrounded by chocolate wrappers. The Daughters of Neptune saddle silently up beside the Vaker Dam. Their ship, the HMS Sappho, is painted to look like a Coast Guard vessel, but as they bang their gangplank down onto the Vaker Dam’s deck, there is no polite radio message or morse code greeting. Otto jerks awake. Something is wrong. The shrimp crew come running in their sock feet. In the rigging of the Sappho, partly obscured by the fog, is a black flag with two Venus symbols linked by a bloody saber. The Daughters of Neptune storm the ship waving Tokarev rifles - nasty, rusty old things left over from the war, but far more intimidating than the motley collection of shrimp-peeling knives the shrimpers have. Otto thinks it’s funny how quickly some horrible things happen. The Daughters hold the crew at gunpoint and order them to load the crates of frozen shrimp over the gangplank. They demand all the cash on board, the captain's cigars, schnapps, and the morphine from the medicine chest. Their blonde braids and black naval coats reek of ironic bureaucracy. A few of the shrimpers seize one of the sisters from behind. Fists meet mouths, sabers flash, but she twists out, shooting erratically into the rigging, and the skirmish is over. A few twists of rope fall smoldering to the deck. The pirates decide to retreat while they still have the upper hand and jump back into the Sappho. There’s a scuffle over the gangplank, both sides tugging. No one wins and it falls into the dark water.
But what about Otto? While the skirmish panned on the deck he helped lug a chest of shrimp onto the Sappho, and as the two ships pull away from each other he’s left aboard, surrounded by chests of slowly melting shrimp. Otto slinks under the tarpaulin of a lifeboat and hunkers in the darkness. He feels in his pocket for a melted chocolate and finds the vial of cyanide instead. Why on earth did he put that in there? It was an instinctual motion, made as he jolted out of bed. Grab the most dangerous thing you can find. Otto drifts off to sleep, and wakes up sometime mid morning to voices outside the lifeboat.
“I say we give her everything but the port and cigars.”
“You don’t even like cigars.”
“What purpose would She possibly have for them?”
“That’s beyond me.”
“She does it beyond me.”
Seagulls screech overhead.
Mira, voice clamped with fear, begins to quote Beauvoir, “one must first unequivocally posit oneself -”
“As a freedom, yes, yes, I know. But you’re not Simone.”
Mid-afternoon they anchor offshore a small island. The Daughters of Neptune unload the stolen goods. When the long Nordic night falls again Otto creeps out from under the tarpaulin and surveys his surroundings. Floats of ice stretch from the island to the boat. Otto drops gingerly down off the deck and tiptoes across the ice. He almost loses his balance on the shifting slabs and falls to his knees, breathing heavily. A light rain is falling. It’s not that bad, he thinks. Just do it like a bear cub. He inches clumsily from one ice float to another on all fours. He pictures Hedda watching him with sweet detachment. Otto rubs a palm on the ice, clearing away frosty debris to peer in. He can just make out the bubbles trapped in the ice. They look like the breath trails of huge beasts. He steadies himself and moves onward, not exhaling til his feet meet the solid ground of the island.
The Sappho pulls up its anchors breaks free of the sea ice. It begins to glide away. Otto, shivering on the beach, is not sure whether to feel relief or dread. The rain is quickening. The island is small. Bubbles in the sea ice are reflected in the stars. To keep warm he begins to circumnavigate the Island. Within the hour he is back where he began. It’s less than two miles in rocky diameter. He sits on the sand and stares at the sky. He tries to think of something nice: his bed at home, or the warmth in Hedda’s eyes as she watched the bear cubs, but those things are very far away.
His teeth chatter, and the beat of his heart moves with a chant. JumBO-Shrimp, JumBO- Shrimp. What’s the word for that? Oxymoron. Just like a free man.
All the stolen chocolate in the world won’t change a thing. You will never be free.
The vial is heavy in his pocket. He finds his fingers slowly unwinding the rubber bands. Rain mats his shirt to his chest. There is one choice, he thinks, that I, Otto Olsson can make authentically, that no one can ever, ever take away from me, and that is to die. The waxed paper falls to the ground, he holds his breath as he unscrews the lid.
Then there is a gust of wind that blows the trees about so that he can make out a yellowness somewhere in the woods. The window of a cottage? With his poison still uncapped, Otto stumbles up the slope and into the trees. It’s there again, a glimpse of amber. He thrashes blindly through the branches towards the light. There is a thatched cottage. Red with white trim. Inside an old woman bends over a kettle.
Otto replaces the cap of the bottle and stows it in his pocket by reflex. He breathes deeply and knocks on the door.
Her hair is white. Her nose is broad. Her eyes are smeared like watery skyr behind her glasses. Otto sits across from her at the kitchen table. He’s wearing her late husband’s fisherman sweater and drinking tea. She’s talking.
“I always take the moss in in the fall.” she says. “Dry it over the stove - not the fire, cause I don’t like it smoky, but the stove. Then I mix in bilberries and birch bark, labrador tea. Good for the throat. You got any throat problem, you drink this tea, you’ll like it a lot. My mother taught me to make it. Now she was a real old hag. You think I’m an old hag? You should have met her. But oh, she was smart. And she knew her stories.”
“She’d been raised by Sami herders, and she knew all these Sami folktales. Let me tell you one. It’s called, How the Animals Were Tamed. Ahem. Let me get a sip of this. My throat needs it. Now the story is this:
There was a King who was to be married. He invited all the men and women and children to his feast, and all the animals too. This was in the days when all animals were wild. He invited the wild horse, dog, goat, reindeer, fox.
The fox arrived first, and waited at the gates, excited for the feast to begin. However, as he waited, be became more and more anxious. He’s the cleverest of the animals, even clever than the crow, and he realizes that the King is a greedy man. When the horse comes trotting along, the fox says, “Do not go there, brother horse. If you do, the King will see how tall and graceful you are, and he will keep you forever.”
The horse replied, “That is true and good. I am tall, I am graceful, I will attend the feast.”
Next came the dog.
“Don’t go, brother dog!” said the fox. “You are loyal and quick. The King will want you by his side forever.”
“Why thank you,” said the dog. “That is right. I am loyal, I am quick. I will attend the feast.”
The goat came. “Do not go, sister goat!” cried the fox. “The King will want to keep you for your rich milk and warm coat.”
The goat blinked vainly. “My milk is rich. My coat is warm. Why should I be ashamed? I will attend the feast.”
Even the reindeer, skittish and wild, came trotting in. “Do not go, brother reindeer. You are strong and hale. They will eat you up.”
“I am strong, I am hale. I will attend the feast.”
And so fox watched as the animals went into the feasting hall. The horse was broken in and saddled, the dog was beaten and trained, the goat was penned, the reindeer slaughtered. On his way home the Fox stopped by the sea, where he saw the tiny shrimp in the tidepool. “Lucky shrimp.” said the Fox. “You are so humble and useless, the King does not want you. You may swim forever. So shrimpy got bigger. Shrimpy got bigger. Shrimpy got bigger.” She looks up cheekily, like a child whose said something clever and expects praise. Otto is warm and sleepy.
“Nice story,” he says.
“Yes, good story, isn’t it. From my mother, Maja. I’m named after her. Are you named after someone, dear?”
“My Uncle.” says Otto.
“And what was his name?”
“Have you ever seen animals mate in captivity?” Hedda, in his head, asks. She asks this for no reason that he can fathom, but it’s certainly her voice, and now he’s trying to think of a clever reply that will carry on the conversation without veering into innuendo. Why couldn’t he have said something better at the time? Now he’s distracted, he realizes.
“Um?” says Otto.
“What’s the name, you said?”
Otto gulps. He doesn’t want to tell her, though he can’t pinpoint why. “Otto,” he finally says.
The tea kettle wheezes. She stands, creaking from the chair and goes to turn it off. Otto sees something strange rippling under her clothes. He rubs his eyes. No, he still sees it. Her apron falls to the ground. She’s getting taller. She’s getting thinner. Her dress falls down over her shoulders and off her hips - wait, thinks Otto. Those aren't hips. Those are the segments of a long shelled abdomen. Her braids into waving pink antennae. She’s standing on copulatory swimmerets, clutching a tea kettle in her claws. The yellow light glows on her pink shell. She moves jerkily. She is the Jumbo Shrimp and she has his name. Otto looks down to the vial of cyanide in his hands and knows what he must do. While her carapace is still turned to him he slides the contents of it into her tea, then sits and hyperventilates.
She returns slowly to her seat. “Otto,” she says. Her voice is a crystalline gargle. “Otto, my boy. I have some favors to ask you.”
She sits and clacks her claws. Her black eyes, large as light bulbs, bore into him and he stares her down as he lifts his teacup to his lips. She mirrors the action, putting the porcelain against her hellish mouthpiece and siphoning in the milky liquid with a terrifying speed.
“No, Mam’,” says Otto as she drains her cup.
“Hmmm.” she says. “After all I’ve done for you?” Her legs tremble a little. “After the tea and the sweater and the story? The story with the clever fox? Do you think you’re a fox, Otto? More clever than the king?”
“I’m Otto.” says Otto. “That’s all.”
She begins to convulse, folding in on herself with a crimping noise. She crumples to the ground and thrashes like she’s trying to siphon water, but she’s not in water, she’s in the dining room of a cottage on an island in the north sea. Otto stands, toppling over the chair. Her eyes go ridgid on their stalks and he stares her down. There is no way left for him to apologize or submit. A noise bubbles up in his throat, less of a scream and more of a deep gargle, and he lets it out, lets it sear through the cottage and off the copper pots in the kitchen. Every syllable is his and his alone and the raw expansiveness of it fills him with an unbearable anxiety. The empty bottle is swept aside by her antennae and rolls under the stove. This is your doing, he thinks. He meant for it to happen and it happened. The great vein down her back pulsates as she buckles. Otto steps out of the cottage and leans against the door and until it’s over. Then he re enters and drags the limp crustacean back through the woods to the rocks. He feels curiously free of guilt. As he waits for the sun to rise and the gulls to pick over the carcass he thinks back to Bjorn Anderson in the Grand Hotel, and wonders if Bjorn feels guilt about the railways. In a strange way, he hopes he doesn’t. It’s a floating, cool-morning feeling, the lack of remorse.
When he sees a ship on the horizon he goes down on the ice and waits. Just as suspected, it is the Sappho. As it nears, he rehearses his speech in his head:
I am Otto. Nephew of Otto. I have killed the Jumbo Shrimp. No longer will you have to serve her. No longer must you bring her treasures. No one will have to be poisoned for refusing to fish her spawn. No longer must the children quake and hold their names. As repayment, all I ask is that you take me wherever you’re going.
Elizabeth Wing is a freshman at the Pratt Insitute, whose work has appeared in venues including Hanging Loose Magazine, Up North Lit, Jet Fuel Review, and Euphony. Her story Leda’s Daughters was nominated by Gordon Square Review for a Pushcart Prize.