On the boat, she’s one of the guys. She’s wearing her favorite leather jacket. Her long dark hair is wild and free. Saltwater mist whips across her face and leaves her vision blurry.
Things are easy with these boys, like brothers. Their bodies move together, hauling things in from the dark and dangerous sea. Pots full of blue crabs, freshly molted, their snapping claws bright sapphire blue, bodies slick with mud. Overhead, gulls caw and dive for crabs of their own. But the boys on the boat don’t mind: there’s plenty to go around, and so it’s easy to share.
Someone opens the cooler. Cracks a beer, passes it around, cracks another, passes. Each bottle opens with a satisfying hiss-pop. The sound of a shell cracking.
She reaches into the mud. Feels around for the crabs that are beginning to surface. It’s dangerous, being a molting crab. It’s the only way for life to go on, but it’s also the time when others will come for you—fishermen, fish, birds. In the mud, you’re a predator, but the moment you crawl out you become prey. Other creatures learn early on to survive, darting and feinting and fending off blows. But the crabs stay safe in the mud for too long, so when they crawl out, they don’t know what danger looks like.
The sun and the beer leave her flushed. She shimmies out of her leather jacket, which falls to the sea-slick wooden floor with a thud. Kicking back, relaxing, she’s one of the guys, it’s easy, it’s natural, another beer cracks, another pot is hauled onto the deck, someone passes her beer, she drinks it, watching the crabs clambering over one another, stupid, senseless, all nerves and reaction, no brain.
One of the guys is measuring the crabs. At least five inches, point to point, to be a keeper. A crab barely makes the limit, five inches exactly, and he throws it back. Plenty of other crabs in the sea, why waste their limit on a runt?
She’s missing time, skipping time, even by the otherworldly logic of the sea things aren’t quite right. The boys who she thought were her brothers aren’t her brothers, they’re boys from her past, boys she went to college with, boys who shouldn’t know a ring net from a box trap. She stares at the water and wonders if its dark, whirling vortex is to blame, swallowing strands of her memories.
Most of the crabs are males. Occasionally there’s a sook. A sally, some of the guys call it. These smooth-skinned sons of surgeons and fund managers, who before have only ever seen a crab on the dinner table, here, on the boat, somehow know the right words. They know that you’re unlikely to catch a sally, and if you do, she’ll probably be part of a doubler. Sometimes a male crab attaches itself to a sally’s back, and then she’s stuck there, underneath. It’s doublers that get caught in the traps, gum up the works.
Just like a girl, causing all that trouble, one of the guys says.
But the girl was just minding her own business, sitting there when the guy came along and glommed on to her back. It’s his fault she’s trapped now, fine turquoise claws helpless against the rough rope of the trap, gumming things up, slowing things down.
On the deck, it’s getting hotter and hotter.
Beer me, Jess says, and the smooth brown glass of the bottle, straight from the cooler on the deck, is fresh against her skin. She’s wearing an oversized t-shirt, wide black stripes alternating with narrow white ones, but now even that’s too hot, and she slips it off. It turns her hair staticky as it goes.
She’s down to a daisy yellow tank top, one black bra strap peeking out from underneath, against the tan skin of her left shoulder. All around her, the guys are still working, hauling in, teasing her with crabs. Why has she stopped? She knows she could be hauling in with them, but every time she stands and tries to put her hands on the rope to pull, they tell her not to be silly. Sit down, look pretty, let the men do their work.
She holds up her hands, rough with callouses, to show them the work she’s already done. Except her hands are soft now, slippery with the condensation that’s slaked off the beer bottle, and the men only laugh.
You could wrap those pretty hands around my rope any time.
Fingers like a squid, that one. You ever wonder what that’d feel like, boys? All those tentacles, squeezing you tight?
She takes off the tank top, its daisy yellow spaghetti straps more delicate than the person she wants to be. She’s down to a black bra, black underwear. Not sexy, but utilitarian, with strong wire frames holding her in place.
In the sea, the crabs are crawling, climbing, molting, rolling around in the mud. They approach the boat, the sea thick with crabs piling on top of one another, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, stacking themselves so high that they climb out of the sea and onto the deck of the boat.
She unhooks a clasp and lets the bra fall to the ground. The men who she thought were her brothers holler and hoot. Beers crack. Low whistles echo. She pays them no mind.
She’s still hot, sticky in her body. So she slithers out of her skin once more, becomes a soft and teneral thing. She reaches her arms high above her head and arches against the sky, and then she dives into the sea teeming with molted crabs, and she swims through them, pressing her body against their bodies, her skin against the sea. As she swims, she sheds and molts and grows into something new.
Eventually, she tires. She spies a boat and swims toward it, and only when she is close does she realize it’s the same boat, with the boys who are not her brothers. They’re hosing down the deck, trying frantically to keep the crabs from overtaking them. A wall of water is rolling off the deck, washing with it the clothes that she shed before she swam.
Black wire bra, daisy yellow top, striped t-shirt, black leather body: they drift toward her, sliding onto her body as if made for it. Except the body she has now is a different body, a crustaceous thing, the same long black hair but limbs slim and multitudinous, and two fine turquoise pincers.
She reaches the boat. She and the crabs are one: she lifts them up, they lift her up, and the men watch in horror. She stares back, her beady crustacean eyes powerful, stereoscopic. On the deck, a dark curl of seaweed wraps around her left claw. She studies the kelp tangled in the serrated blades of exoskeleton, where her fingers used to be. She gives her right claw a single, experimental snap. Then she uses it to pinch the seaweed away from the other. She’s overcome with memories—her own memories, or those of her sister-crabs, she isn’t sure which, she isn’t sure it matters. Hand after hand reaches toward her, attached to men with boil and butter behind their eyes.
Megan Corrarino is an international human rights lawyer whose fiction writing has been supported by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and others.