- Whale Fall
This is the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the drowned valley of the Susquehanna. Out on the water, the dim opal surface of an overcast morning, my uncle reels in his cages. Each one is bursting with blue crabs. Sputtering and cackling, they stumble over one another. They snap at the metal bars. They’re looking for a break. The bayside docks are awake, and the smell of coffee billows out to sea from the little inlet cafés. The smell is warm and rich. There, too, is the downwind smell of phosphorus, a rank smell, drifting off the tidal wetlands: the marine dead zone of stagnant water thickly blanketed in algae bloom.
This is the end of September. The trees have begun to drift, dropping their red and brown lashes along the roads. The maple in the front yard has turned over early, but my father thinks it’s dead. Crumpled leaves tumble into the garage where my uncle prepares the steaming pot. “If you were older,” he says, “you could pour the crabs.” But in this memory I’m a child; my hands are not big enough and my arms are not long enough to hoist the cages over the top of the pot, the big gray speckled pot that I could hide inside of.
Then the crabs tumble in, some linked together claw by claw. In the pot, the crabs are frantic, scratching the sides, and as the steam boils the moisture within their bodies, they make a high whistling sound, as if they were screaming.
“Did you see horses?” I ask, trying to ignore the sounds of the crabs. My uncle taps the lid of the pot with a stirring spoon, shaking one escapist crab loose. In school I’d read about horses along the Chesapeake, wild horses with dark velvet noses wetted with sea spray, manes cast out behind them like kite tails in the free coastal wind. [End Page 87]
“No horses,” he says as the scrambling in the pot dies down, the steam swirling out soundlessly. He says I must be thinking of Chincoteague or Assateague, the islands on the other side of the bay. But he thinks, maybe, there might have been horses there, looking over the water, restless from the sound of the boats and the tractor trailers stopping by the harbors.
“Yes, there may have been horses,” he says. He carries the pot inside.
And my mother teaches me, the same way she taught me to pray—with a steady hand and a resolute hunger—how to eat the crabs.
We open the crabs like a box. The soft breastplate underhand, the warm finger of cartilage settled into the abdomen: we pry it loose, we pull it apart. “It’s called the apron,” my mother tells me, because it’s the smallest thing that ties the crab together. We tear the crab in half, use the upturned shell as a cup to collect viscera. We rip out the lungs, the feathery cones called the deadman because they’re tough and chewy and if you eat them you’ll get very sick. I brush a finger across the surface of one lung, watch the flaps of skin flutter against my touch. I wonder how it moves under water, how it inhales.
And we find, deep in the chest cavity, the sweetest meat. Around the lungs, the she-crabs carry a cluster of orange eggs, and we eat them too, and the eggs are soft and warm. Green, sickly liver clings to my fingers. I wipe my hands on my pants, on the sleeves of my shirt, too mesmerized to stop to ask for a napkin, marveling at the unexpected intimacy of consumption—nothing, not even a fork, standing between this body and my body.
Weeks later I’m still thinking about the crabs. Before they were cooked alive they were so blue, and alien. But when they were dead, when they were bright red and limp and splayed across the kitchen table, they looked the most familiar.
I’ve hidden the clothes I wore when we ate them, because I thought I could still smell the...