A Crab Tale by Bryan Jones

The deed records in the dusty basement of the county courthouse listed Cranston’s name as one of the owners of the troubled property. Old timers remembered Cranston’s orphanage on the small cliff that overlooked the Atlantic. Cranston and his wife, Claire, had run the place for several years. The couple had never had children of their own. Instead, they had cared for twelve orphans. The boys had been described as having dark hair and piercing eyes that expressed the heart-breaking nature of the world.

Interviews with elderly town historians uncovered persistent rumors about a violent incident involving Cranston. Several of them knew the story about the fight between Cranston and a handsome violin player who had come from another town. The men were rumored to have fought over Claire on the narrow stretch of rocky shoreline behind the orphanage. Some people believed Cranston had knocked the musician down. One theory had the musician falling and striking the back of his head on one of the boulders. Fishermen had stumbled upon the body that had been crawling with tiny fiddler crabs that were feasting on their gruesome find. Blood spilling from the man’s broken skull had stained the rocks. But very little of this could be verified. No one in the town had seen the men fight. The authorities had questioned Cranston, but nothing ever came of it. The investigation was closed. No one was charged. But people noticed Cranston never went near those rocks again and he told the orphans to stay away from the area.

Claire’s health began to fail after the incident and she lost all interest in life. The local doctor paid several house visits, but nothing he prescribed seemed to do any good. Then she died amid the lingering rumors and speculation. People recalled Cranston’s struggle to keep the orphanage going after the death of his wife. They remembered him driving into town in his old rusty car and visiting the market where he would reach into the pocket of his moth-eaten coat and buy what little he could afford in the way of groceries before making the trip back to the orphanage. The orphans, at that point, gave him the only meaning to his life. He scrimped to find enough money to feed them. No one thought he’d be able to manage it. He seemed cursed by his overwhelming circumstances.

An older neighbor who had lived very close to Cranston’s property had told his daughter before he died that he had seen something strange one night outside the orphanage. The daughter said her father’s story began after he had encountered the orphans on one of his strolls. The old man had been walking on the beach when he had seen the boys near the wooden steps that led up the cliff to the orphanage. They had been huddled around two large glass jars that contained fiddler crabs.

“We broke the rules and went to the boulders at the end of the cove,” the oldest boy had said. “We heard these fiddler crabs playing their claws like violins and we caught them. We’re having them for dinner tonight.”

The old man had been amazed by the wild imaginations of the boys. The small crabs weren’t good to eat, but he didn’t say anything. He hadn’t wanted to discourage the boys. He complimented them on their catch. He told them he would bring them some of his spicy crab boil. He watched one of the boys unscrew the lids of the jars. Then the boy lifted one of the jars and carefully positioned it close to the other one. The boy flipped the top jar upside down and allowed its crabs to pour into the bottom jar. The old man told his daughter that for a moment the two jars had reminded him in a strange way of an hourglass.

Later, the old man had gone over to the orphanage to drop off the spicy crab boil. One of the orphans had invited him inside. The place had very little lighting. The old man had spotted the rest of the boys at the dinner table. He had walked over to them and realized that the boys had been so hungry that they hadn’t waited on his crab boil. Each boy had eaten his share of crabs. One boy looked up from his plate and had remarked on the strange taste of the fiddler crabs. The boy grew pale and his pupils began to dilate over the empty crab shells. The old man asked about Cranston. He wasn’t home. He was still at the town market. The old man figured Cranston would be along shortly so he had said goodbye to the boys and had gone back to his place.

A few hours later the neighbor had been getting ready for bed when he looked out his window. Cranston had returned home from the market. Cranston carried the grocery sacks out of his car and into the house. Then dark shapes had appeared on the back porch of the orphanage. The old man put on a robe and went outside. The wind howled off the ocean that night. A full moon cast a pale light over the churning surf.  The old man went over to the edge of his property and he could just see the boys walking off the porch with gaping black mouths and glinting eyes. The boys went to the wooden walkway and followed the stairs to the beach. Cranston came out of the house. He called to the boys, but they didn’t respond. He pursued the boys as they beat a winding path out to the boulders. From his vantage point, the old man saw Cranston stumble on a rock and fall. Cranston had hurt his knee and he cried out in pain. For a moment, he couldn’t get up. He kept calling the names of the orphans. Then, slowly, and in unison, the boys turned to face him from between the boulders. All at once, they crouched down and held their arms as though they were playing invisible violins. Slowly, they all began to walk backwards on their haunches, backing their way through the spaces between the boulders into the cold surf. Cranston attempted to get up again, but his wrenched knee prevented him from standing. He cried out for them to come back before they disappeared forever into the crashing waves.

The old neighbor had gone back inside his house and had called his daughter. His daughter remembered how upset her father had been on the phone. He worked himself into such a state recounting the story that he suffered a paralyzing stroke while talking to her. By the time she got over to her father’s house, he was dead. Cranston was nowhere to be found. His car was gone. After the incident, the neighbor’s daughter had been offended when almost everyone doubted her father’s story because of the man’s advanced age and his failing mental faculties. The state regulators went out to the orphanage, but no one seemed to know what they put into their final report.

The orphanage fell into disrepair after Cranston’s departure. The old timers said the thin white window curtains had looked like burial shrouds in the abandoned place. Eventually, the bank foreclosed on the property. The structure sat vacant for many years. Wind whistled through the rotting boards. The seasons took a toll on the dilapidated structure. Years passed and almost everyone had forgotten about the property until a wealthy young couple from the city bought the place. But they had no interest in getting the orphanage up and running again. They had the building demolished and over the course of nine months, a custom builder erected a gorgeous new summer home on the lot complete with transplanted palm trees and window treatments with bougainvilleas. The couple only lived in that home two years. They decided to move back to the city. A real estate investment trust acquired the property, but the house had yet to list on the market.

The mystery surrounding the orphans would have been forgotten entirely if that wealthy couple hadn’t gone into the town market just before they sold their home and asked some strange questions to a local woman who sold fresh produce. The couple said they were going to miss walking along the beach and the view from the end of the point. Then they’d asked about the fiddler crabs that they had seen out on the boulders. Why did the little things play such haunting music, they’d wanted to know. Do all crabs play like that?

Short fiction by Bryan Jones has appeared recently in The Cossack Review, Cease, Cows, Axolotl Magazine, and Spelk. He lives and works in Texas.