Ragged Claws Scuttling
Geoff Aggeler

In the daytime, I stay here among the rocks watching the pretty ones glide by above me--angelfish and banded clowns, the new lionfish and the guppies and mollies they feed on. I'm not a swimmer. I can't catch fast-moving fish or prawns unless they're careless and come within my reach, but I love the taste of a fish. Before I was brought into this confined place, I would scuttle out onto the beach in my sideways fashion, and sometimes I'd find a perch or a kelp bass washed up on the sand. Its smooth white belly was mine to open and taste. Looking up at the pretty ones, I remember the sweetness of that taste. And I remember how it was to be free.

Before I was brought here, I lived in the big rocks bordering the still water where wide things float on the surface tied to the bigger dark floating things attached to the long mussel-covered legs rising out of the bottom. It wasn't as safe as this place, which isn't very safe either sometimes. Whenever I left the rocks I had to watch out for big fish with snapping jaws and lobsters, and even the rocks couldn't protect me from an octopus. An octopus could snatch me out with its long legs and crack open my shell with its beak. If I left the water to find food during the day, I had to worry about other enemies with sharp beaks coming down on me from the air above, and at night there were hungry creatures with sharp teeth and claws hunting along the water's edge It was a world full of danger, but I was free.

Out of the water I had no defense, but when I was in the still water under the floating things I had friends who helped me defend myself. My best friends were the anemones. Their tentacles are full of stinging cells. Sometimes I'd take an anemone in each of my claws to repel attacks. And it wasn't as though the anemones got nothing for helping me. I stirred up food for them from the sea bed, and they ate fragments I left while I was eating. Another good friend was the sea-orange sponge. When I found one of these, I'd break off a little piece and hold it against my carapace with my last pair of walking legs. The sponge would grow right over my carapace and become an orange-yellow dome.

That was my world until the day the rocks moved. I'm still trying to understand what happened that day and how I wound up confined here in this little space. Looking back on that day, I remember resting in my chamber between the rocks, feeling very secure and content, having fed on a dead perch washed up on the sand. There was an octopus not very far away, but the entrance to my chamber was too narrow for him, and with my belly full I could wait for him to move on. How could I imagine that the rocks themselves would move?

What moved them was something like a crab that was large beyond belief. Sensing a great disturbance outside my chamber, I moved in my sideways fashion toward the entrance and looked out. The water, which had been clear, enabling me to see many yards in all directions, was now so full of whirling sand that I could see nothing. Then I felt the rocks themselves move as something like a huge pincer scooped them up and carried me with them. The rocks that had been sheltering me came together, and my carapace was about to crack. Caught between the rocks, I was lifted high above the water and set down with them on a place unlike any I had ever seen. It was without water, like the beach, but very hard, and it moved. I can't breathe out of water, but I can store water in the gill chamber under my carapace that lets me breathe when I go out onto the beach. Now the water in my gill chamber kept me alive while I was moved with the rocks. After a time I couldn't measure, being unable to see the sunlight or feel the movement of the tide, I was lifted up again with the rocks and set down in this place. Once again I felt my walking legs sinking into sand, and I was surrounded by water.

At first I couldn't see what had set the rocks down on the sand, but then I saw two large white pincers moving the rocks about and piling them on top of each other. One of them came toward me, but I scurried out of the way. There was an opening near the bottom of a big pile of rocks that had already been set down, and I managed to slip inside just ahead of the white pincer. The pincer followed me inside the opening, and I would have been caught if I hadn't found a tunnel that led me under a big rock. Looking out, I saw the pincer, which was very different from my own, being divided into several long branches, moving over the rocks and lifting some of them. I've learned to outwait my enemies, and after awhile this one, too, withdrew itself. I gave it plenty of time and stayed where I was, looking out the mouth of the tunnel and just enjoying the pleasure of breathing again.

How my world had changed. The water was the same as the water where I'd lived under the wide floating things, and there was soft sand under me, as there had been. But I saw that the sand ended a short distance away from the rocks. When I finally came out of the tunnel and scuttled across the sand, I found that I could not move beyond where the sand ended. Something hard blocked my path, something that had no color. In fact, I could see right through it. I moved along the edge of the sand looking out at the world beyond. Strange shapes were moving there, and something like the head of an octopus with two big staring eyes was looking down on me. Thinking it probably had legs like an octopus, I started back toward the rocks, but I was caught by one of the big white pincers. As it lifted me off the sand, I clamped down on one of its branches with one of my pincers. Then something else, another white pincer, seized me, and before I could do anything it ripped the cheliped attached to my pincer from my body. It happened so fast that I felt no pain. Pain would come later. I had lost a cheliped and a pincer, and it would have been the end of me if the creature hadn't dropped me on the sand. Maybe it wanted to pry loose the pincer I had clamped onto it with all my strength. Whatever the reason, it gave me a chance. I landed next to the tunnel and quickly scuttled inside.

A white pincer came into the tunnel after me, but I managed to stay just out of reach. I watched as it scraped the walls of the tunnel and stirred up sand. It must have been the same claw that I gripped with my pincer, for something red was coming out of one of its branches and clouding the water, like what I've seen when one fish grips another in its teeth. Finally the pincer was withdrawn, and I was left to nurse my own wound.

The pain of having my cheliped and pincer torn off was great, but I could bear it, knowing that the limb would eventually grow back complete with a pincer. This had happened to me once before, when I went out one evening just at dusk. In the darkness I didn't see the triggerfish coming down on me. It took one of my chelipeds in its jaws and lifted me off the bottom. Then it shook me, and its teeth went right through the cheliped just below my pincer. The rest of me fell back down to the bottom, and I scuttled back into the rocks.

I didn't know then what my body was capable of, how it could regenerate itself. I just knew that I had only one pincer to defend myself. As I thought about this, something as painful as the loss itself came to me. I would not be able to mate. What had brought me and others like me out onto the beach, aside from the need to fill our bellies, was another hunger equally strong. Females were waiting, ready to mate with the strongest among us. We would face off against each other, pincers raised, and meet in combat. The winners had the right to mate and couple with any of the females waiting nearby. They watched us, ready to give themselves to the strongest. I always won my contests with other males, and the reward of winning was a pleasure unequaled even by the taste of a white-bellied fish.

When I thought about what I had lost, I almost wished that the fish had carried off the rest of me along with my pincer. I say almost because I would never choose death over life. Even when you are full of pain and all of your pleasure has been taken from you, there is still life itself. My eyes on the tips of their stalks were still working, able to see great distances in every direction. I could still touch, taste, and smell. I wasn't a dead meal in the belly of that triggerfish. With my one pincer I could still crush the shell of a mussel and devour a slow-moving starfish. I might even be able to mate again, if I could manage to hold on to a female with my one pincer and my walking legs. We mate just after she has molted, and I hold her until her new shell has hardened. Eggs grow inside her until they're ready to be laid in a mass, which she holds under her body until they're ready to hatch.

The pain of losing my limb had hardly passed before a new limb began to grow. Soon I molted, and not long after that I molted again. After my second molting, my new limb, complete with a pincer, had grown back just as large as the limb I had lost. So it would grow back again. I wondered if the monster with the octopus eyes and the white pincers could grow a new limb after one had been torn off.

To survive in the world I had known, I had to understand my enemies - the octopus, the lobster, triggerfish, creatures in the air above the beach - and avoid them. So I would have to understand this new enemy and be ready to move beyond its reach. But I soon found that my movements would be very limited. Across the sand from the rocks was the hard wall, beyond which huge animals with octopus eyes looked in and moved their white pincer branches along the wall to follow the gliding of the pretty ones. Only the rocks were safe for me.

In the world I had known before, I judged the time to move about by the light coming down from above and by the movements of the fish around me. When it became darker and the light was about to leave altogether, the parrotfish who had been nibbling the growth on the rocks since the light first came into the water would stand on their tails and rub their heads with their fins. Then they would follow each other in a line out into the deeper water beyond the floating things. At the same time, other types of fish would come together in great numbers, and groups of them would take turns rising up to the surface and then diving back down. As they turned to dive, they would leave white clouds floating behind them. That must have been how they mated. Unlike us, they didn't seem to care about the eggs they produced. It didn't seem to matter that the currents would carry them out into deeper water where they would be eaten by other fish.

When I saw these and other types of fish movement and the shadows below the rocks grew longer, I knew that darkness was coming. It was the time of day when my eyes on their stalks that saw so much in daylight weren't yet ready to see through the darkness. It was also the quietest time of the day. I could not hear any of the sounds that had been filling the water around me--the popping of pistol shrimp claws, the crunching sounds of parrotfishes feeding on the rocks, the grunts of damselfishes, the snapping of triggerfish jaws, like those that had nearly finished me.

In this new world surrounded by the hard wall, I could not be certain when the day was ending. There was always light, and the movements of the fish did not change. The only thing I noticed was that the great ugly octopus heads beyond the wall did not come so often to look in when the light behind them grew dim. I could only guess that the day had ended and I could leave the rocks to hunt for food.

At first I found little to eat. A few shrimp had been brought in with the rocks. I smelled them, even as I felt their movements in the water. They didn't fill me, and I searched for other food. The pretty ones stayed out of reach. I watched them dive into the dark places between the rocks, searching for bits of food dropped from above by the same octopus-headed creature with white pincers that had tried to kill me and was still trying, reaching into crevices and caves with its pincers in search of me. I ate some of the food it left for the pretty ones, but what I wanted was a fish, one of the pretty ones.

Some of the pretty ones were the same as those I had watched while living in my other world, like the clownfish with its bright yellow fins and white-barred body. I remembered how it, like me, had the anemone for a friend. While I carried anemones in my claws to repel attacks, the clownfish would actually make its home nestled against the body of an anemone and be protected by its tentacles. Whenever enemies tried to feed on the tentacles, the clownfish would attack them.

The lionfish was the largest of the pretty ones, and the smaller ones were afraid of it. With good reason. It used its long pectoral fins to trap them against the hard wall, where two parts of it came together and they couldn't escape. The victim was trapped, and the lionfish would open its huge mouth to swallow it. I envied the lionfish, wishing I could catch and devour the fast-moving pretty ones.

It never occurred to me that I might enjoy the lionfish itself until one night I happened to be close to the place where the hard walls came together, where the lionfish had caught so many little ones. This night it had one of the banded clowns trapped and was closing in with its long fins preventing any escape. The little fish dove down to the bottom, where I was scavenging in the sand for whatever had been dropped from above. By now I had molted twice and my lost pincer was restored. I tried to seize the little fish, which was too fast for me. But then the lionfish came after it, and I had my chance. My pincer clamped onto one of its long fins, and I pulled it down to the sand. It struck at my feelers with the spine on its back, and I withdrew my eyes to protect them. The pain it gave me was considerable, but I held on to the fin and dragged it inside my cave.

I had thought that nothing could compare with the taste of a fish washed up on the beach, but the lionfish was a feast to be remembered. If it hadn't been so determined to catch the little banded clown, it wouldn't have come within my reach. I wished that other pretty ones would be as careless, but they seemed to have learned from what happened to the one they had feared. No one came close to me.

With the lionfish gone, the world inside the hard walls was peaceful for a time, disturbed only by the movements of the smaller pretty ones. But as the light beyond the walls increased and the huge creatures with white pincers came to look into our little world, there was much disturbance. Rocks were moved and piled on one another as never before. The same white pincers that had broken off my cheliped were probing every crevice and tunnel, and I barely managed to stay out of reach. They had threatened me since the day I arrived, but after I took the lionfish, they gave me no rest. Frequently they were attached to long hard things that could go into places between the rocks they couldn't reach.

If only I could understand this enemy as I did all of the others that attacked me before I was brought into this little world. All of us, those who clung to the rocks or scuttled among them, like those who glided above us, were in search of food. That was what moved us whenever we ventured out of our hiding places, knowing that any moment we might become food for those who had the power to take us if we gave them the opportunity. And they in turn were liable to become food for others still more powerful, as I saw one evening when a triggerfish was taken by a great sleek beast with flippers. It glided beneath the floating things, seizing fish, and I knew that somewhere out beyond the still water there must be larger creatures capable of devouring even that great sleek beast. This was the world I understood, a world full of danger, but there was no enemy like the monster with the white pincers, and I was free.

This enemy is not driven by hunger. If it wanted to feed on the pretty ones, they are within easy reach of its pincers, completely within its power. It feeds them, dropping in food and providing guppies and mollies for the larger ones to devour. Its power is greater than anything I could have imagined before I came into this world. I see now that this little world itself must be the work of its huge pincers. It must have confined the water within the walls and brought in the rocks, bearing me with them. In its concern for the pretty ones it tries to destroy me, but I will not let myself be destroyed. I fear its power, but I will not submit to it. While I'm not as free as I was before, I am free to live in spite of my enemy. My enemy can do his worst, move the rocks as much as he likes and poke his long smashing thing between them. I will scuttle beyond his reach.

Now a whole day has passed without the rocks being moved or the groping of my enemy's pincers. Maybe he thinks he has destroyed me. I scuttle out of my tunnel under the rocks and find bits of food in the sand dropped for the pretty ones. As I feed on them, my eyes on their stalks follow the gliding of their smooth bodies. There are the angelfish and the banded clowns I expected to see, but also, most surprising, a new lionfish brought in to replace the one I devoured. Like the one I devoured, it pursues the smaller fish and tries to trap them against the hard walls. Perhaps it will come within my reach, but probably not. Such good fortune does not come often.

If only there were others of my kind to share this little world, I would almost be content. Being alone, hunted by an all powerful enemy, is harder for me than anything I ever endured in that other world. Even other males would be welcome. I remember how when we males came together in the shallows or on the beach, we fought each other over mates or over food, but it was our way of living together. When a male and a female come together, they have to overcome the urge to fight each other if they are going to pair up and mate. When a female is ready to mate, she gives out signals that we males can recognize. I remember the scent she gave off that came to me through the water and drew me to her. When we met, we would touch each other with our antennae to let each other know that we were not going to attack. Then we would mate. Remembering those meetings makes my loneliness here in this little world even harder to bear. It may be that my memories and my longing to be with others of my kind are affecting my senses. Not long after I caught the lionfish, just before my enemy tried his hardest to destroy me, I seemed to catch the scent I remembered. Now that the water is still again it seems to be coming to me from the other end of this little world. Because of my enemy, I have stayed close to the rocks at this end, only venturing out onto the sand between them and the closest wall. But there is another pile of rocks at the far end. I haven't gone there because I would have to cross a wide expanse of bare sand and be exposed to my enemy. I wouldn't try to cross it now, but the scent has become even stronger than it was.

If I remain here in this pile of rocks, I will be safe. My enemy has tried his worst and hasn't been able to catch me since I retreated into this hiding place. But if my senses aren't deceiving me, one of my kind, a female in search of a mate, waits in that distant pile of rocks. Her scent beckons me to take the chance and cross the sand. So I will wait until the light dims beyond the walls and there are no octopus heads looking in. The risk will be great, but if I can find a mate, someone who has, like me, been dropped into this little world, it will be worth it. I remember how it was to be free. Even in that other world, to be free meant being vulnerable to attack. I will take my chances.

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