Sometimes in the middle of the night I’m awakened by a clunking noise. I’m a pretty solid sleeper when it comes to sound, but my brain is trained to pick out anything that doesn’t fit the normal night sound pattern wherever I live. In my old house, the swish thump of the cat door always banished sleep because I’d start wondering if the cat entering was mine, or some interloper. And then, remembering past sleep interrupted nights, I’d wonder if my cat brought a rodent in to show me, live. On St. John where I live now I have no pets, but a few wild animals have adopted me as their human.
The clunking on the deck is accompanied by a sound not unlike a mouse scratching around inside the walls, so I can’t ignore it. I listen carefully because this combination of sounds is getting closer. Only the flimsy implied protection of fiberglass screen separates me from the outdoors.
I turn on the outside lights. Their yellow glow is sucked up by the night and the dark forest just beyond the railing of the deck. The night is full of other sounds, crickets cheep cheep, frogs riki-tiki sounding like bells, other frogs just croak. A gecko dives for cover as I close the slider with a soft thunk. I don’t hear the mousy clunk after I get out on the deck. That sound is gone.
Hermie in his new digs and his cast off shell.
I move around to the side of the house where I think the sound came from and stop to listen and take a closer look. I check a few spots and then I hear it again. The sound is coming from behind the boxes of water stacked against the wall. Then nothing. I wait. After five excruciating minutes during which my legs and arms are visited by numerous mosquitoes, I hear it again. I move a box. No sound. I disturb a large brown lizard from its rest and it darts for cover. Then I catch a glimpse of color in the yellow bug light’s rays.
Up against the wall is a top shaped black and white snail shell the size of a lime. It’s what the locals call a whelk, only they pronounce it wilk. They’re also called tops, because they look like the wooden toys children spin. I think that behind my water boxes is a strange place for a whelk, because I know they live in the water among the rocks along the shore. I’m a long way from the water and I think, how did it get there anyway? Then it moves. And there’s the sound. I see thin black feelers dancing around and even in the dim yellow of the bug lights I am awed by the deep red blue of a large claw, then deep red legs with pincers at the tips, and these begin to wave around. I don’t move, just watch.
I know what this is. It’s a soldier crab. It’s the first time I’ve seen one at this house such a long way from the water. Because my kitchen is outdoors I’m very careful with food scraps, garbage and water. I don’t want any uninvited rodents. I can’t imagine what it’s looking for. I know that soldier crabs have what amounts to a very well developed sense of smell, but because I’m so fastidious, I can’t think of why it’s foraging here. I want to go back to sleep now that I’ve identified the clunk and scratch. I decide to return it to the bush. I pick it up.
Immediately the crab tries to pinch me with its big claw, nearly the size of my thumb. I invert it, the conical top is now pointing down, and it pulls its appendages in close. Even retracted as far as it is, the crab’s legs and claw nearly enclose the shell. Unseen, its naked unprotected body winds around the empty spiral of the shell’s interior. In this self protected state only the chitin covered red legs and claw remain outside, held tightly together like fingers wrapped around a bat.
In order to grow, this crab will need to find a larger shell. I can see it’s outgrown this little whelk shell with a hole in it the size of a dime. I think about the soft vulnerable body curled around inside and wonder how it can support this feisty crustacean with such big claw and legs.
I move the crab to a spot I think will keep it from returning to the deck, and go back to sleep. But the next night, it’s back. Passing around the corner of the deck I notice my glass pie plate full of things picked up on the beach. I see the empty whelk shell. Then I know. This crab somehow knows it’s there; is looking for a new shell to accommodate it’s too small body, so it can grow to match its powerful claws. Picking the crab up again I measure its shell against the one in my collection. Same size. No good. I put my friend back in the bush and name it Hermie.
Soldier crabs travel to the beach once a year, en mass like an army, to spawn. Their propensity to move in large numbers is how they got their common name. In places where they are less numerous, people call them hermit crabs. Mine seems to live alone here with me, so I gave him that name. When they’re on maneuvers they cover the roadways, trails, scramble through the bush. No obstacle can deter them. You can’t drive without smashing a bunch. While at the water they look for another shell if they need one, foraging for a cast off, or they battle another crab an steal one. A weak crab can be evicted from its shell.
On a hillside such as where I live, far from the water, there are few cast off shells. The steepness of the terrain means that most of the crabs are in the lower levels, not up here where the house is. One move on an unsteady surface will send a crab clattering downhill until it comes to rest on a pile of rocks or debris. In time it will climb back up hill, foraging as it wanders. At this house, I’ve only seen this one crab, with the identifying hole in its shell.
On my beach walks I keep an eye out for empty shells that are whole. These are hard to find. Local people forage for whelks and eat them. Some sell the meat. I often see piles of smashed shells on the beach, the shiny pink nacre of their exposed inner surfaces gleams in the sunlight. These colorful piles always make me sad. I think of soldier crabs, how they must battle one another for a new shell or find a cast off and think these smashed shiny new shells have been wasted. I wonder if there will someday be a shortage of larger shells, and the crab numbers will reflect this.
Several months after meeting Hermie I am at Brown Bay hiking with a friend. He’s a veteran hiker, and islander. He can spot a whelk from a long way off, and he knows about my friend on the deck. He walks way ahead around a point. A half hour later he returns carrying an assortment of treasures. He shows me a small goat skull bleached pure white, a huge chunk of charcoal, a sea urchin shell with a hole in the top and two perfect whelk shells, one large, one small. I’m not supposed to take anything from the beach, but I disobey and take the shells home.
The next time I see my friend Hermie I show him the shells. It’s immediately clear he’s going to need the larger of the two. I put it next to him on the step. He’s nervous at first, as always when I’m around. He retracts into his little top. I back away down the stone stairs. Hermie comes out after a while, starts feeling this new object, tentatively at first, then with great interest.
I’m wishing I had my camera, but I don’t want to move. I want to see what he does and it never occurs to me to just pick the new shell up and go get my camera. I stand there spellbound, my mouth open. If I move at all, he withdraws. Using his claws, he embraces the shell, seemingly measuring its span for a fit. Then he picks it up and turns it all around, feeling its surfaces. He puts it down and sidles up to it, reaches deep inside with his claw and I can hear a soft scraping sound. I didn’t think to clean it out.
It’s dusk and the mosquitoes are coming out. I can’t take my eyes off the action even though it’s in slow motion. Hermie is still sizing things up, cleaning the shell. I want to see him make the move. I’m riveted to the spot not wanting to move a muscle. Finally, a mosquito on my shin drives me nuts. I quickly steal a glance down at my leg, reach down and brush it off. When I look up, one second later, I see that Hermie, like Houdini, has made his move. Clever animal, I think. How did he do that?
© 2010 Jennifer M. Pierce, All Rights Reserved