Fiction

The party for Crabs

CLAIRE DRAGS A finger down the booking sheet. Her boss has circled the name in blue biro, which she knows means very important. Besides it, she has scribbled ‘Okay to bring dog’, which is strange because her boss doesn’t like pets this close to the marine reserve. The restaurant, Crabs, brushes up against it, and on humid nights like this one the mangroves felt like they were creeping closer. Claire scratches her arm; a familiar rash has started to crawl towards her elbow.

Benson. The party’s name sounds familiar but her memory feels murky after an afternoon spent studying for her marine biology exams. Before that was her internship at the Department of Fisheries, navigating the cells of an endless Excel spreadsheet. And, of course, she’d been awake since dawn to snag the best mud crabs at the seafood market.

Oh no, the crabs! She had left them in the tub on the patio, and now they were glimmering like Christmas ornaments in the afternoon sun.

‘Watch it! The guests don’t want to see ’em half-cooked.’

The chef, a French backpacker, had crept up behind her. They grunt in unison, hauling the tub into the shade. Its shimmering contents dissolve into dark shapes of mottled green and muddy brown. The chef motions to high-five her. Knowing what’s coming, Claire lifts her hand but keeps her fingers limp. He looks at her rash and lets out an exaggerated gasp, yanking his hand away and cackling. She rolls her eyes, but this weird little ritual always brings Claire a sense of solidarity. It was always easier to endure the guests when she didn’t feel alone.

‘Tonight’s a big one.’ She shows the chef the blue biro circle. He shrugs. Not his problem. He scuttles back into the kitchen as the first guests of the night trickle in.

The party isn’t due until 7.30, but each time the bell jingles her eyes dart to the door. It’s mostly tourists tonight, all attempting to blend in with the tropics. Expensive watches rest on boardshort-clad knees that bounce up and down, waiting for their next beer. Peacock-patterned kaftans dissolve into well-moisturised fleshy fingers; their fuchsia nails might click at you, slip $20 into your apron pocket, or both. The restaurant was almost fine dining, its edges pared back with paper tablecloths and a soundtrack of the best reggae covers of Phil Collins. Very authentic, one online reviewer wrote. Recommended by my cruise companion, wrote another. Choose your own sauce but MOST importantly choose your own crab…and await the explosion of taste at your table!

This is why the tourists come in droves – not just to chew and suck and scrape out the state’s finest mud crab, but to choose which crab to chew and suck and scrape. It was Claire’s job to deliver the selected individual to the steamy kitchen for their death-by-chef. Even though she’d dissected plenty of marine creatures at university, she could never bring herself to stay and watch. She had read once that when they’re distressed, mud crabs cast off their own body parts, often a claw. This image had taken up residence in her head, its contours sharpening since the Department of Fisheries’ site visit the week before. A few hundred metres downstream from Crabs, she’d watched the resident marine biologist measure the pH of the muddy water and mouth fuck.

Each time the chef presented her with a cooked crab, she found some comfort in its wholeness. Hopefully, it had died in peace, with dignity, before its corpse met the mini-mallet of a sunburnt tourist in an oversized bib.

Crabs was a Tripadvisor treasure, a must-visit on your next trip to the tropics, but even underscored by persistent ukulele and an unknown woman crooning ‘It’s just another day for you and me in paradise’, not everyone left Crabs satisfied. Especially lately.

‘Your prices have increased since last time.’ A man with remnants of clarified garlic butter and chillies in his beard leans across the counter. ‘We won’t be coming back to Crabs.’

‘Honey, we can’t blame small businesses!’ The woman beside him smiles at Claire. ‘It’s the crab crime, honey. All those unlicensed fishermen have been stealing from the crab farm. The farm has had to increase prices to survive.’

Here we go, thinks Claire.

‘We actually buy our crabs from the markets.’ Claire strains to find the soothing tone she uses for the guests. ‘Their prices have increased because of the government restrictions. The farm is offering cheaper deals to local clients, but we’re supporting the fishermen.’

The woman purses her lips. ‘But it’s very unsustainable to keep sourcing them from the wild.’

‘Yes, but–’

‘And so much of the crab sold down at the harbour is stolen goods.’

‘No, that’s not true.’ Claire’s voice falters as she realises the woman is quoting the news site that coined the term Crab Crime Epidemic.

The woman grabs the man’s hand. ‘We won’t be coming back to Crabs.’

 

‘YOU’RE GOING TO stop coming soon, aren’t you?’ one of the fishermen at the markets had asked Claire that morning. She promised she wouldn’t. Her boss had grown up with the local fishermen and, as they increased their prices, she refused to make the switch to the commercial farm.

‘I can hardly afford rent anymore. It’s not a crab crime epidemic. It’s a war on the poor,’ the fisherman muttered. Claire said she knew.

Okay, there was some crab crime, but who could blame them? Overfishing and acidifying soil had led to an alarming drop in the local mud crab population. The Department of Fisheries had introduced strict catch limits and a blanket ban on hunting female crabs. These restrictions only affected the solo fishermen; the commercial farm continued to thrive. So when a fisherman had a conspicuously large catch on offer that day, Claire didn’t count the crabs. Sometimes, she would pick one up and notice a rounded flap on the bottom of its shell – a forbidden female. If the owner wasn’t in the restaurant that day, she would meet its seller’s nervous eyes with a quick wink.

 

‘CLAIRE. CLAIRE!’ THE chef is scowling at her. She hadn’t heard the bell and he’s had to usher the 7.30 party – the blue biro party – to the patio.

She sees the dog first, a little terrier, its creamy fur ghostlike, then the hand holding its lead – clear, manicured nails, no fuchsia in sight. ‘Party for Benson?’ The woman has angular features and a shiny red bob. She’s pretending not to notice the chef wiping his hands on his apron covered in fish blood. She’s even smiling, but Claire surveys her off-white silk pantsuit with suspicion.

Everything about the woman seems to reject the porosity of the tropics. Her creamy skin looks untouched by the sun, her sleek bob immune to humidity. It forces the summer night into the background, to hang behind her like an uncanny green screen.

Another woman appears. Her frizzy curls and a halo of sweat embody the environment, foregrounding it once again. They also frame a familiar face; she must have come to Crabs before.

Claire notices a little girl clinging to the back of the first woman’s pantsuit. She’s about seven, with long red hair, wearing a blue tie-dyed shirt with a Sea Shepherd logo.

She leads the party to the table with the best view of the mangroves. An acoustic cover of ‘In the Air Tonight’ plays through the speakers.

As she lists the night’s specials, Claire attempts to figure out the party’s dynamic. Shared complexions make the elegant woman the little girl’s mother, surely. It’s the women’s relationship she can’t figure out. University friends? Distant cousins? Their conversation seems too polite for either. Unnatural.

‘Do you have any natural wine?’ the elegant woman finally asks Claire. ‘Also, while we have you, which sauce would you suggest?’

‘I actually can’t eat crab, but I’ve heard it goes very nicely with the clarified butter with garlic and chillies.’

‘Oh god. How ironic! Is it a seafood allergy?’

‘No. Well, yes. It’s called ciguatera.’

‘It’s an illness caused by reef fish poisoning,’ the curly-haired woman interjects. Claire looks at her, surprised by her knowledge. Have they had this conversation at the restaurant before?

‘Oh dear. Is it common?’

‘No,’ says Claire, ‘but it’s becoming more so with climate change.’

The daughter lets out a cry, and her mother wraps her arms around her.

‘The lady is fine, honey, look at her!’ she laughs.

Claire rolls down her sleeve, hiding her rash.

‘She’s very sensitive to things like that.’ The woman gives her companion a thin-lipped smile over her daughter’s head. ‘It’s hard to see her upset, but it’s also very special, the way she is so…in tune with the issues of our time.’

‘The children are the future!’ agrees the curly-haired woman.

‘And, you know, coming to the tropics, the immersion in nature, she loves it. We’ll have to visit again next year. Hopefully it will be just for ­pleasure by that point,’ she gives the other woman a pointed look.

 

‘THEY’RE SQUEEZING US out!’ one of the fishermen at the markets had muttered to Claire that morning. ‘They’re selling the farm to one of the big guys, aren’t they? There’s no plan to roll back the restrictions for us.’

The rumours were true; Claire knew from her internship. Someone from Sydney owned the local commercial farm. They were negotiating a sale to the biggest fishing company, which had plans to expand it further.

‘The department still needs to approve the sale,’ Claire told him. ‘There’s still hope it won’t go through. We’re auditing them at the moment, and there’s something strange going on with the numbers.’

‘Something strange?’

‘The farm’s stock reports aren’t quite adding up. They can only legally breed a certain number of crabs per square metre, but their reports say they’re losing an unprecedented number. They’re blaming it on theft.’

The fisherman rolled his eyes.

‘But some people at the department think they might be over reporting the amount of space dedicated to crabs and that they might be losing them due to–’

‘Cannibalism!’ the fisherman shouted. ‘The commercial farms, they don’t know how to handle these monsters. They stack them like dominoes. It’s a guaranteed explosion of limbs.’

Claire nodded. ‘But we need to prove it before the department finds any evidence of the crab crimes. I mean, um,’ she looked at his face, ‘alleged crab crimes.’

‘With all the press about the crimes and the politics around the promise of local jobs with the expansion, my supervisor said it will be harder for the cannibalism theory to stick, even though the numbers make it almost certain.’

‘We’re done for,’ the fisherman muttered. ‘We’re dinner.’

 

WHEN CLAIRE TELLS the chef the little girl had ordered a jackfruit burger and potato cakes, the chef looks like he wants to take a bite out of her. She retreats from the kitchen. Standing at the counter, chewing the nails of one hand, she traces the blue biro circle on the booking sheet with the other.

Benson. Okay to bring dog.

Benson.

‘Benson… Fuck!’

She reaches for her phone and, sure enough, Benson are the family who own the crab farm. The restaurant owner must have given in and invited her as some kind of peace offering. How could she turn her back on the fishermen she had grown up with?

‘What is it?’ the chef pokes his head out the kitchen door. ‘Has the little vegan brat asked for something else? Does she not realise she’s at a seafood restaurant?’

Through the moist air of the kitchen, his voice sounds bloated. Does she not realise?

‘Yes, that’s it!’ says Claire. ‘How would you like to ruin that vegan brat’s night?’ And kill this deal.

He gives her a toothy grin. They concoct a plan over the hiss of boiling salt water.

 

CLAIRE MARCHES TO the table, interrupting the women in a tense discussion about stock, or numbers or something. She doesn’t care.

‘It’s time to pick your crab!’

Sure enough, the girl sits up in her seat. ‘What does the lady mean?’ Then she screams.

The chef is standing behind Claire, wearing a crazed smile and holding the largest crab of the night. He’s freed it from its twine, holding it by its front pincers. He’s always been one for dramatic effect, thinks Claire.

‘You’re going to eat it? Kill it and eat it? That’s a living thing!’

‘Absolutely not,’ the mother assures her, kneeling down to face her daughter. ‘We, um, had no idea this was going to happen. It’s so barbaric, we never would have agreed to come!’

Barbaric?

‘Do you know what barbaric is? Tell her about how many crabs you’ve lost to cannibalism!’

The girl doesn’t hear her – she’s too busy instructing her mother to release the crab back into the wild right now – but the other woman raises her eyebrows.

‘How do you know about that?’

Claire wants to tell the woman she’s a marine biologist in training. That she’s interning, no, working, at the Department of Fisheries. That the farm’s dystopic conditions are a well-known fact, but the woman with the bob interrupts.

‘You can tell your boss we will never supply to Crabs.’

‘Good,’ says Claire. That was the idea. ‘She should never have caved to you in the first place.’

‘What are you talking about?’ She laughs. ‘I’ve never even spoken to her!’

Claire’s cheeks flush. If her boss hadn’t betrayed the fishermen, why was the woman here? Was it possible it’s just because Crabs is a must-visit for your next trip to the tropics?

She tries to steady her voice, hiding her embarrassment. ‘Well, either way, we’ll prove how unfit you are to manage your crabs. They’ll revoke the fishing restrictions and we’ll never need you!’

The woman smirks. Meanwhile, her companion is attempting to rationalise with the girl.

‘This crab has had a very good life, and they’re put down very humanely, that’s the law.’ The chef cackles behind her, his apron still covered in blood.

‘Let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go!’ the girl screams, the terrier wriggling uncomfortably in her arms.

‘You know what?’ the woman says. ‘Fine! Fine. We will let it go.’ A sigh of relief punctuates her daughter’s sobs. ‘But I’ll make sure this is the last crab you ever sell,’ she hisses at Claire.

The girl’s tears slow down. The curly-haired woman looks disappointed the girl has missed out on a life lesson – something about aquaculture, supply chains, the way things work. Meanwhile, the chef seems disappointed the chaos has de-escalated. He shoves the crab into Claire’s hands and disappears.

She holds the creature by the bottom of its front pincers, feigning confidence. She’s only ever held a crab bound by twine, and as its remaining pincers flail, she nearly loses balance. The fisherman’s words hang in her head: They don’t know how to handle these monsters.

She shuffles to the edge of the patio, and the party follows close behind, the girl carrying the dog in her arms. It’s a strange procession, watched on by the other restaurant guests with open mouths. It feels like a funeral, Claire thinks, although it’s really a resurrection.

Claire holds the crab high over the water’s edge, her arms outstretched. It just feels like the right thing to do. The importance of commemorating this strange assembly isn’t lost on the terrier; it starts to bark as the crab’s limbs shimmer in the moonlight. 

The party leans over the patio, watching its bottle-green shell glinting against the dark water. Surely they have noticed how the mangroves below seem to have crept closer to the creature dangling above them. As if to claim it. Surely this moment is special to them too.

Claire couldn’t know the creature’s fate. Would a fisherman scoop it up the next day, or would it dwell in the warming mud for years to come? Staring at her outstretched arms, she realises the rash – usually purple at this point of the night – has faded to a mottled pink. In her shock, she almost loses her grip. The crab’s limbs thrash in protest as she slides her hands further down the pincers to find a stronger hold. Instinctively, she turns away from the water, forgetting her plans to return the creature to the shallows below.

The curly-haired woman gasps.

‘That’s a female!’

Sure enough, the moonlight is now illuminating a rounded flap on the creature’s underside.

‘Fuck,’ says Claire.

‘I know my female crabs,’ the woman says. ‘I work at the Department of Fisheries!’

Claire feels her face turn red. That’s how she recognised her. This had been a meeting – a negotiation about the farm sale. Perhaps the curly-haired woman chose Crabs as a subtle show of solidarity to the fishermen?

‘I know you source your crabs down at the markets. This, I hate to say, is proof of misconduct.’ She shakes her head. ‘Whether this crab is stolen from the farm or picked up from the wild – it’s most certainly illegal.’

Everyone is silent, except for the woman in the speakers begging them ‘Give me just one more night, ’cause I can’t wait forever’.

‘Crab crime!’ someone in a bejewelled kaftan shouts from a nearby table.

‘Crab crime, crab crime!’ the little girl joins in.

As the chorus grows louder, the woman with the red bob smiles, showing her teeth for the first time that night. Even though she hasn’t eaten anything, she looks satisfied – as if stuffed to the brim.

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