The Crab Whisperer

Were those white fragments made of paper, styrofoam, or plastic?

As I worked my way along the slough’s edge, bits of scattered trash compelled my attention as much as the grasses and birds surrounding me. Odd and out of place in an environment where signs of human presence are uncommon, their colors suggested packaging of some sort, although the combination of white, blue, and orange didn’t bring a specific fast-food franchise to mind.

Wading out into the water for a closer look, I found the trash wasn’t plastic or paper at all, but remnants of another sort of dinner — not to mention evidence of diners no more inclined than certain humans to clean up after themselves.

Scattered blue crab shells and multitudes of footprints belonging to raccoons and wading birds made clear that I’d stumbled across one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. Some shells might have washed ashore after the completion of their owners’ molting process, but others clearly had been broken and gnawed at by hungry creatures looking for an easy meal.

Claws and shell of the blue crab  ~ Callinectes sapidus
The scientific name means “beautiful, savory swimmer”

Given the number of body parts scattered about, I realized that more crabs surely were hidden away in the shallows. Being able to see one of the savory creatures swimming in its natural environment appealed, but my lack of a chicken neck and a string made even that low-tech way of attracting a crab impossible.

Then, I remembered the old man. Bent over the railing of a rickety dock when I spotted him on a local bayou, he acknowledged my presence without looking up. “Howdy,” he said. Following his gaze down to the water, I saw nothing more than smooth slickness and a hint of current. “Fishing?” I asked. “Naw,” he said. “Crabbing. See the line?”

Then, I saw it. The heavy twine, common as any found in a multitude of garages and storage sheds, hung perfectly straight, as though weighted. “What’s your bait?” I asked. “Chicken,” he said. “Got a neck on there now. Any part’s good. Legs. Liver. Turkey necks, too. Some use fish heads, but they’re better for a trap. For a hand line, I’d say chicken and turkey’s best.”

We stood for several minutes, staring at the line. Clearly, crabbing required patience. “What if you don’t get a bite?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I might just set a spell in the shade, and then try again.”

Wishing him luck, I turned to leave, but stopped when he called out. “Just remember,” he said, “there’s one trick’ll guarantee you a good catch.” Curious, I waited to hear more. Grinning, he said, “If nothin’ else works, make a noise like a chicken neck.”

Crabbing Central

I’d always thought he was making a joke — perhaps even poking a bit of fun at me — until I sloshed my way back to dry land and stood staring into what I assumed to be crab-infested water. How do you make a noise like a chicken neck?  I thought. Chicken necks don’t make noise.

Then, it occurred to me. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Deciding to test the theory, I sat down on the bank and waited. Silent and still for five minutes; then ten; then fifteen, I heard nothing more than a faint clacking of dried reeds as the riffling of tidal flow moved across the flats.

Then, a stirring of silt and a faint gleam of color caught my eye as a crab emerged from beneath the broken reeds. In the brackish water, its colors were dull and its outline blurred, but there was no question it was heading toward land. Whether it would join me on the bank, I didn’t know.

Soon enough, the question was answered. Both male and female crabs began crawling onto the land: males recognizable by their blue claws, and females by the red-tipped claws that suggest they found the bottle of fingernail polish.

Unmoving, hardly daring to breathe, I watched them settle onto the sun-warmed mud, acting for all the world like vacationers jostling for the best poolside deck chairs.

I had little doubt they were aware of me. Compound eyes on long stalks allow them to see in multiple directions at once, and any movement on my part seemed to freeze them in place. When I stopped moving, all was well, and they returned to whatever it was they were doing before I so rudely interrupted them.

Finally, one of the more courageous females came close, perhaps to assess the strange creature sharing her mudflat. Tired of sitting and needing to stretch, I decided to talk to her.

“You’re darned classy,” I said, “with the prettiest claws in the bunch. I’m glad you crawled up here so I could see you.” No more chatty than the old crabber who’d suggested I imitate a chicken neck, she didn’t say a word. But she posed for another photo, and I swear I saw her smile.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about blue crabs, provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

 

The Tale of Godot & Godette

Readers know the truth. Closing the cover on a well-told tale is one of the most satisfying experiences in the world. 

Breathing a sigh, caught between worlds, still oblivious to the clamor of unmade beds and untended gardens vying for their attention, readers linger at the threshhold of half-remembered lives, hesitant to turn from the vibrant, constructed world they entered with such anticipation, happy to have discovered all the pleasures of diversion, insight and beauty it once allowed.

Still, as I set aside the story of Godot, my self-effacing little cactus with the extravagant blossoms, I was content. The history of his rescue, the drama of his against-all-odds determination to bloom and the glory of his flowering had been recounted, and it was time to move on.

From all appearances, Godot was equally satisfied. As his blossoms faded and fell, he didn’t fuss or complain but re-dedicated himself to growing quietly in his corner. Life went on, as life does, and all was at peace on the porch. Continue reading

Godot Gives It Another Go

“What’s happening with Godot this year?” she asked. Startled, I said I didn’t know. I’d paid scant attention to my little patio friend since April, when inspections revealed no sign of activity in the cactus pot – no new growth, no buds, no blooms. By the beginning of May things still were quiet and, as happens in so many families, the quiet and well-behaved one was left to fend for himself.

Of course, turning your back on the quiet one can be dangerous. Left to their own devices, there’s no telling what they’ll get up to. Continue reading

Zero’s Chances

Sometimes it grieves me that so few photos remain from my years in Liberia. The realities of West Africa at the time – inadequate film storage, poor processing, the nature of the film itself – have resulted in most photographs fading into darkness, leaving nothing but indistinct smiles and a memory. The traditional blacksmith who forged iron “country money” is gone, as are the piles of cocoa pods, the gaggle of “money buses” with their marvelous painted slogans (“God Bless the Woman that Born Me”, “The Wicked Will Fall”) and stacks of Russian waxed toilet paper in the Gbarnga store.

Still, there are treasures. In one photo, my father stands next to a village chief, both men solemn with the responsibilities of formal gift-exchange. In another, my mother follows my father along a narrow bush path, watching him as he tries to pretend he doesn’t see the line of bare-breasted women coming from the village to greet them. Continue reading

The Raising Up of Dale T

No one seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his name, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gladys, who came in off the rigs to put her cooking talents to work in the cafe she purchased after years in the oil patch, had plenty of opportunity to watch the locals in action and she watched Dale a lot. She insisted his nickname came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. It was a reasonable assumption. No matter how oblivious, uninterested or irritated the woman might be, Dale’s confidence was absolute as he slid into the seat next to her or leaned against her car.  “Hey, darlin’,” he’d say. “I’m here to improve your life.” Lord knows he tried. Continue reading

Art and Life Say “Howdy” and Shake

I hadn’t meant to linger, but when Hazel caught me just outside the post office doors, there was nothing for it but to say good morning and fold up the to-do list.  Like everyone in town, I knew the truth Hazel freely confessed. She came to the post office as much for the socializing as for stamps, and when she bumped into you, she expected to be humored.

That day, it was my turn.  We covered her loss at the weekly domino party (“they cheated”), the small size of her figs (“not near enough rain”) and the relative merits of oilcloth versus paper table coverings at a picnic. She’d just begun dissecting the virtues and faults of her grand-daughter’s new boyfriend (“polite enough, but not much use on a tractor”) when a fellow I recognized but didn’t know by name parked his truck and ambled up the sidewalk.

Hazel fairly beamed. “Harlan!” she said. “Why aren’t you out with them cows?” Harlan just grinned. “Now, why would I be spendin’ time with a bunch of old cows when I can come here and spend time with you?” Turning my direction, Harlan touched the brim of his hat with a finger. “Mornin’, ma’am.”

Hazel always remembered her manners. “Have you met this young lady?” “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Harlan said. “I sure haven’t. We’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook yet. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” The introductions made, we proceeded to shake hands, right then and there. Continue reading

Heading Home

Given a choice, my mother preferred not to travel. She enjoyed being in new places, visiting family members and taking in the occasional entertainment, but she despised the process of getting from point A to point B. Packing for a trip was agony – so many decisions needed to be made!  Even getting the house cleaned and put in order before leaving created high anxiety, but it had to be done. What if you died on the road? Certainly you wouldn’t want strangers roaming through your bedroom, running their fingers over a dusty night stand and telling one another you were slovenly.

As for those hours in the car, there weren’t enough magazines, knitting projects or books in the world to overcome her impatience. Sometimes she seemed to be thinking, “If only I could close my eyes and discover when I opened them this misery had passed.” Other times, she put her feelings into words: “If I’d known it was going to take this long to get there, I would have stayed home.”

Now and then someone with an inclination to tease would call her “Dorothy”, and everyone understood the reference. She’d just laugh and say,  “If someone gave me a pair of ruby slippers, I’d be out of Oz in a minute. Being able to click my heels and go would make life a whole lot easier.”  Continue reading