Ripping the green back off a blue-claw crab is not an easy task. It was my grandmother who taught me the technique. She showed me how to cripple crabs when I was ten years old. I’ve always preferred the catching to the killing, but when I was ten, Nana wanted me to learn her method for dismembering and cooking, and so I did.
“Grab from the rear like this,” Nana said fishing a large crab out of the bushel basket. “Hold it in the center and it won’t be able to reach around with its big claws and grab you.” She dangled the crab in front of me and I watched it wave its claws helplessly about. I saw the crab’s two large pincers bend gracefully around and stop just short of Nana’s hand. “You have to hold it just so,” she said showing me the grip she was using. Her hands were so small that she couldn’t wear bangle bracelets. She held the crab delicately between thumb and forefinger. “Now you try. ” She pointed at the basket. I shook my head and she laughed. I watched her deftly snap off first one, then the other large claw of the crab. She made it look easy.
“Now he’s helpless,” she said waving the crab in my face. Then with her left hand she grabbed the four smaller legs that ran along the side of the crab. With her right hand she quickly ripped the back off the crab exposing its colorful insides to me.
The legs that were still free were waving wildly. She tossed the green carapace she had ripped from the crab’s body into the sink. “You have to get rid of all this,” she said pointing at a covering of grayish gills that lay over the skeleton of the crab. With a flick of her knife the gills were gone. “Whatever you do, don’t rinse them. It kills the taste,” she said. “And you have to work fast. If you don’t they’ll drop all their claws on you and you’ll wind up with only the bodies.” The dismembered creature was still flailing wildly as Nana’s knife removed its jaw and eyes.
“What’s that stuff?” I asked pointing to a greenish mass that lay in the center of the exposed crab. “The tomalley. Some folks eat it, though it’s a bit strong to my taste. Just leave a little for flavoring. And the orange stuff is roe.” She tossed the crab into a pot that was sizzling on the stove. “This one was a female.”
The smell of the hot olive oil that coated the bottom of the pot merged with the briny scent of the crab. I could hear the still live crab banging about the pot. I saw the rest of the crab’s body lay scattered in pieces in the sink, the detritus of a culinary war. I watched as Nana quickly dismantled another eight crabs and added them to the sizzling oil. She tossed in all the large claws as well. A nutty scent filled the kitchen. “Now that’s going to be some pot of sauce,” she said putting a pot of water on to boil the pasta.
Everything grew lighter around Nana. Grandpa’s dark moods could never outlast her lilting laugh. Thick, heavy dough rose to four times its size under her judicious kneading. Creatures from the sea bottom were slashed to bits and turned into delicate morsels. When I was ten I spent my summer with Nana and Grandpa fishing and cooking, swimming and talking. At the end of the summer, when I went back home, I had trouble. Everyone else seemed strange to me. They were too serious, too nasty, too unsupportive. Unlike Grandpa and Nana, their eyes rarely met mine.
Grandpa and Nana lived on a lagoon that emptied into the Great South Bay. During the day Grandpa would take me out in their small skiff with the Evinrude outboard motor. “Let’s catch some crabs for dinner,” he’d say giving me a wink. Sometimes we’d go for fluke or bluefish. Other days we’d head to the flats for clams that I found by the feel of my foot while Grandpa used a clamrake. And on nights when the moon was full, we’d head out to the bay with flashlights to catch the young eels that were running.
I loved shining the flashlight on the dark green water and waiting for the eels to rise up from their watery home. The sound of the water slapping against the skiff and the twinkling of the lights from the homes that lined the shore made me dizzy with joy. I had trouble paying attention to the task at hand. “Keep that light trained on the water,” Grandpa would say quietly when I’d lose my focus. He always spoke softly on the water, not wanting to disturb the sea.
I liked crabbing best. When we’d collected enough old fish heads Grandpa would head the skiff out to Monty Bridge. There we’d thread the fish heads onto old metal coat hangers that had been dismantled and reformed into crab kits. Grandpa could do anything. He knew what line to use for catching blues and when and where they were running. He could shuck a clam in two seconds. But he didn’t care for modern fishing techniques, like metal box crab traps.
At Monty Bridge I watched him take a coat hanger and snip it with his wire cutters. We’d lost a crab line last time out and Grandpa was making a new one. His hands were large and gnarled like the oak tree that grew out in front of their home. He took a piece of the wire and molded it into a circle with the circumference of a large grapefruit. At one end he made a loop. He slipped a fish head onto the wire along with a “sinker”, a lead weight, and made another loop. The smell of the dead fish heads hung in the air. A pair of seagulls alighted on the piling nearest us and watched. Grandpa hooked the two loops together and pressed them shut. To the wires he attached a long cord. “You’re in business,” he said handing the line to me.
I tied the line to the skiff’s oarlock and threw the cord over the side. I watched the weight drag the fish head down to the bottom. Monty Bridge wasn’t a bridge anymore. It was a collection of old pilings that used to be a bridge a long time back. The crabs loved Monty Bridge because it made dinner easy pickings. Seaweed and sea snails clung to the old wood of the pilings. The water was clear enough that you could lean over the side and see the crabs busy at their dining.
I tied the rest of my lines to my side of the skiff and cast them into the water. We worked with eight lines generally, four each. That increased our chances.
When we were crabbing we never spoke unless it was absolutely necessary.
”Crabs are crafty creatures,” Grandpa had told me the first time he’d taken me with him. “While they can’t resist a smelly old fish head, if they hear you they’ll drop off the line for sure, so keep your mouth shut.” We sat together in the skiff. He on one side of the boat, I on the other, each tending our lines. We watched the lines drift away from the boat, thin, white tethers connecting us to the sea bottom where the crabs lurked.
After a while we began checking to see if the fish heads had done their job. I picked up a line and gently pulled it toward the boat. Just an inch or two, only till the resistance of the weight could be felt. If there were a crab at the other end dining on his odorous feast I would feel it in the cord. As a crab dines he holds his prey with one large claw, tugging on it with the other, breaking off small pieces of flesh. This tugging sends small pulses up the line into your hand. If there is no crab the line feels dead. Just a heavy weight at the end of the cord dragging across the bottom, occasionally bumping into some unknown object. But this time the line was alive. Short, fast tugs followed by a pause left my fingertips tingling.
“I’ve got one,” I whispered excitedly. I began pulling the line in. I pulled steadily to fool my prey. I knew the crab wouldn’t drop off if I kept a steady rhythm going. Soon I brought my catch up to the surface. I watched the blue-claw pulling at the fish head gingerly. He didn’t want to give up his tasty treat. The crab was a big one. Nana would be happy.
Grandpa rose from his side of the boat and quietly raised his net. He was careful to keep its shadow from falling across the crab and startling it. “Gotcha,” said Grandpa as he swooped the crab up. I saw the white underbelly of the creature for an instant as he raised the net over my head. Grandpa dumped the crab into the bushel basket rapping the net to get the crab to release its grip. This crab had one large side pincer and one small one, a sign that it had lost one of its pincers in the past. Had it not been caught, the new smaller claw would have continued to grow to the size of the other.
I examined my first catch of the day. The crab raised its sky-blue tipped claws in defiance. It scooted sideways across the bottom of the basket. Drops of seawater pooled on its dark green back. I knew that on cooking the blue claws would turn bright red. As I looked at the crab’s unbalanced claws I wondered if perhaps it had engaged in a crab battle and dropped its claw to foil its enemy while it scurried away. I fished some seaweed from the water and threw it on top of the crab as much to keep it moist as to keep it from staring at me.
The last week of the school year, my parents informed me that they were getting a divorce. My father moved out of the house and my mother was despondent. Grandpa and Nana asked Mama to let me stay with them for the summer while things got sorted out. “No reason to ruin Angie’s summer,” is what Nana said. I didn’t want to go but Mama insisted that it was the right thing to do.
I felt responsible for the breakup. After all, I had been a terrible pest for quite a while, demanding that they accompany me to innumerable school activities, interrupting their dinner conversation with questions, and lurking outside their door trying to ascertain what the strange noises were coming from their bedroom late at night.
As Grandpa and I crabbed I thought about what I could have done to prevent their divorce. Perhaps if I’d obeyed more rapidly, or helped more with the dishes and the laundry, or not argued so much, things would still be the same as always. Grandpa and Nana never discussed it with me, but I knew that they were upset about it too. Whenever Nana answered the phone I could tell when it was my Mama calling because Nana’s normally upturned lips became a thin line for a second. Then they returned to normal and she would call me to the phone to say hello. Mama called every night at eight. After the phone call we would all sit quietly on the porch staring out the screened window to the bay, letting the pure evening light wash over us and bring us back to where we’d left off.
When we’d collected half a bushel full or so of the blue-claws Grandpa shook his head approvingly. “That ought to be enough to please her,” he said referring to Nana. And we’d haul in the rest of our lines and stow everything away. Then we’d toss the half-eaten fish heads to the waiting gulls who shrieked with joy. Grandpa would pull on the old Evinrude’s cord and after a few adjustments to the choke the engine would sputter to life. I sat in the front of the skiff letting the salt air fill my lungs as we headed home.
Nana knew the sound of our engine and she was waiting at the dock for us. I could see her white-aproned figure the minute we turned into the lagoon on which their house fronted. She waved at us and we waved back and I called out to her. “Nana, we’re going to feast tonight!” She waved her arms some more.
We unloaded our catch and Nana hooted approvingly. “Why, these are the biggest ones you’ve brought in all summer,” she said. I beamed and Grandpa whistled as he hosed down the skiff. Nana and I took the crabs into the kitchen. “You can’t cook a dead crab,” she said setting to work. “Once they die, they release this jelly and that’s awful tasting. You’ve got to cook them while they’re alive and never knew what hit them,” she said. “And kill them quick. It’s better that way.” I nodded and watched.
I’d been in the kitchen with Nana since I could remember. She hummed as she worked. I’d seen her hack off a squirming eel’s head with one quick whack of her cleaver. I’d watched as she gutted a bluefish with the quick flick of a carving knife letting the entrails spill into the sink. I’d seen her nonchalantly rip apart countless crabs. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to kill crabs the way she did.
The last week in August was Nana’s birthday. It was also the day my Mama had arranged to bring me back home. Grandpa and I spent the day fishing as usual. And though it was blues we went for that day, when we’d finished up Grandpa did not head the skiff home. He took us to Monty Bridge. When we got there he cut the engine and we drifted a bit in the bay. The seagulls swooped overhead but soon left when they saw we had nothing to offer them. The water slapped against the sides of the skiff rhythmically as Grandpa stared at the horizon. I absently dangled a hand in the cool water and watched the ripples radiate away from me, sending small shock waves across the surface. Grandpa cleared his throat and I looked over. “God, I love this place, Angie.” He looked me in the eyes. And I began to cry. Grandpa put his arm around me and let me sob uncontrollably while all around us the gulls laughed loudly. When I stopped he said, “It’s going to be all right, Angie.” And I wanted to believe him.
Nana made a special dinner that night. She had spent the day cooking our favorite foods. It was her birthday gift to all of us she said. There was stuffed squid and baked eels for Grandpa, barbecued clams and linguini with crabs for me and stuffed escarole for Mama. After the espresso and anisette, Grandpa went to the hall closet and took out a large box with a big red ribbon. I saw Nana’s eyes fill with tears.
“My word,” she said as he presented it to her. She lifted off the lid and pushed aside the tissue paper. Inside was a bright red wool coat. I thought Grandpa was a little dotty to be giving Nana a wool coat in August, but Nana laughed aloud. “I don’t believe it, William.” I knew she was pleased by the tone of her voice.
“It’s just like the one you wore on our honeymoon,” said Grandpa shuffling his feet a bit. “I always liked you in that coat, and when I’m out on the water that’s how I always think of you, in that coat. I wanted you to have it now. Before winter.”
Nana got up then and went up to Grandpa and gave him a big hug. ”You’re the darndest man,” she said. I went up to my Mama and gave her a big hug then too and she smiled sadly into my eyes.
Mama and I went back to our home in the suburbs and I started fifth grade. I missed my father. I didn’t like my teacher or any of the kids in my class. I was miserable most of the time. Mama tried to make it easy for me, but I withdrew from her. There was too much pain associated with her. Like most people, she rarely looked me in the eye these days.
Right before Thanksgiving, Grandpa called with more bad news. Nana was dead. She’d been outside bringing in a load of wash from her line. Grandpa had bought her a dryer, but she refused to use it. She said she preferred the smell of air-dried clothes. So even on a cold November morn, when the clothes turned stiff as a board within minutes of hanging them, there was Nana outside stringing up her wash. The Monday before Thanksgiving her heart gave out.
Grandpa found her crumpled on the ground next to her laundry basket. It was too late. He called Mama and by that evening we were at their house. We found Grandpa sitting on the porch staring out the window to the bay. On his lap he held Nana’s red coat. He didn’t say anything. He seemed lost.
We stayed with Grandpa until the funeral was over. I refused to cry. I refused to admit that Nana was dead. Even when I saw her lying in the casket, pale and lifeless, not at all like herself, I wouldn’t succumb. I wished my father had come, but he was away in Europe on business and couldn’t make it.
The day after Nana was buried I was awakened by the sound of the old Evinrude. I ran downstairs but the skiff was already at the far end of the lagoon heading out to the bay. The cold wind slapped my cheeks and sent shivers through me. I ran and told my mother that Grandpa had left in the skiff and she looked worried. I didn’t tell her that he hadn’t taken any of his fishing gear. It was all lying neatly next to the porch where he stored it.
It was a cold blustery day and when Grandpa came back I helped Mama make him a cup of hot cocoa. He’d needed some air he said. I knew he’d gone to Monty Bridge. I didn’t like the look in his eye.
Mama begged him to come home with us, but he refused. He said he wasn’t about to be a burden to anyone in his old age. That he could manage just fine. But I wasn’t so sure about that. Grandpa had never been without Nana since the day they’d married. They’d always delighted in telling me that fact. And now he looked like he’d had all the wind blown out of him. It worried me to leave him.
About a month after the funeral, Mama got a call from the Coast Guard. Before she got off the phone I knew what it was about. Tears streamed down her cheeks, breaking up her features and reassembling them into a pained expression I’d only seen once before and had hoped I’d never see again.
The Coast Guard told Mama they found Grandpa in the skiff at Monty Bridge, frozen stiff. He was clutching Nana’s red coat.
Grandpa’s funeral was awful. This time I never stopped crying. My father showed up and not even his presence could stop my tears. After the funeral Dad came home with us for the first time since he’d left before the summer began. He tucked me into bed and said, “It’s going to be all right, Angie,” and I just cried more.
Funny thing was that Dad came back to live with us for good then. I don’t know why. Maybe he just needed some time away to sort things out. Maybe he realized that he loved my Mama the way Grandpa loved Nana, that he loved her so much he couldn’t bear to live without her. All I know is that things were definitely better between my parents after the funeral.
Back then it seemed to me that Nana and Grandpa died to bring Dad back. And that their lost lives were somehow feeding ours. I thought of the way that Nana transformed those broken and torn apart pieces of crab into something only vaguely reminiscent of their original state. And I prayed that that was what was happening here, under my roof, between my parents. I prayed that their broken and torn apart relationship would be healed and transformed into something good through the deaths of the two most wonderful and influential people I had ever known.
Now, years later I have a son who is interested in fishing. I never learned any of Grandpa’s techniques. I grew up to be a moderately successful newspaper reporter, an occupation no one in my family knew anything about. And though I can write a lead with ease, I never know where the blues are running or what line to use to catch a fluke. Neither does my husband who owns a small importing business. But my son is definitely a fisherman.
“It’s in his genes,” my Mama always says as he regales her with fish stories on our Sunday visits. She never sold her parents’ home by the water and eventually she and Dad retired there, though Dad’s not one for fishing. We visit them often. One weekend during the summer, when my son was ten and my husband was away on business, I decided to take my son to Monty Bridge. I took my son crabbing.
“You’re good at crabbing,” is what Grandpa had said to me when I was little. In truth, there wasn’t much else I was good at in the fish department. I wished Grandpa were around to teach my son what I never learned. But he wasn’t.
We rented a skiff at the Marina and headed out to Monty Bridge. Mama sold off Grandpa’s skiff and fishing equipment long ago. The night before our crabbing expedition I fashioned a couple of crude crab lines that were no match for Grandpa’s but that did the trick. I taught my son to crab and he was thrilled as he pulled blue-claw after blue-claw up from the briny water.
We sat there in the skiff, my son and I, until there was nothing but the sound of the sea slapping at the sides of the boat. And nothing but the smell of the salt water filling my nostrils and bringing me back. Back to a less bewildering time when everything seemed to have its immutable place. Back to a time that gave me the courage to go forward. A bittersweet taste filled my mouth.
That night, with my son looking on, I killed the crabs the way Nana had shown me, and we feasted on them, a middle-aged woman, her parents and her ten year old son. We ate crab till our stomachs could hold no more and I could think of nothing but the thin, white tethers of the crab lines, anchoring me to my past.
-Barbara Quinn (The Rose & Thorn)