Thinking hermit crabs today

What is it with hermit crab these days? I find them by the mangroves, the sandy beach, decaying trees, and across various spaces on this little island. I literally trip over them and sometimes hear a crunch under my boots whenever I search for my monkeys. Many of them prefer to hide under the shade to escape the glare of the sun and, if you lift a decaying log, there they are in clumps, one over the other, packed like cars on a junkyard.

Nothing is more poetic than the union of an abandoned ivory shell and a crustacean in need of a home.  The hermit crab, devoid of its shell, has a belly so soft that a little squeeze can spread its guts out. It looks ugly and walks like a drunk pirate when left out “naked” in the open. Once it meets the shell of the proper size and condition, it wriggles itself in, making the shell a part of its anatomy until the crab outgrows it and has to find another shell again. The shell is the toughest armor in the crustacean world; after all, if the previous owner was safe in it, so will the current occupant be.

The shell is the central axis of the hermit crab’s defensive repertoire. A little movement and they retreat to their shells, shutting the entrance with their claws, and never to come out unless the danger has gone. Too slow to run because of the weight of their shell, they embrace themselves tight that in the process they close off the world outside. They’d rather fall from a higher ground and come down hard to the beach floor than fight off intruders. Their claws, while capable of slicing a finger, are designed more to be impenetrable doors than weapons.

If you wish to elicit a response from the hermit crabs behind their shell fortresses, try knocking on the bigger ones, especially those that have grown bigger than your fist. Every knock is answered back with a complaint. They scratch the insides of their shell, emitting a sound like a cross between the grinding of a pencil sharpener and the turning of a rusty wheel sprocket. When everything is still, the hermit crab slowly emerges from its hiding place, stretching its spindly legs, one after another. The antennas poke out of the shell like copper wires and then the rest of the head emerges. The eyes, matchstick black, scan the surrounding and in a rush the hermit crab lumbers to the nearest thicket. Once it feels safe, the crab curls back up again inside its shell.

Back home, we call the hermit crabs umang. They are way smaller than the ones on the island. Children in fishing villages collect them and put the umang inside a tin can. Sometimes, they would play with the critters: two hermit crabs are held face-to-face by the back of their shells to make them fight. As expected, they don’t fight. They didn’t evolve much for fighting. The umang merely push each other out of the way and then pinch the skin of the holders’ finger to escape. I think what excites the child’s curiosity is not so much the “fight” but the sword-like movement of the legs, almost like a samurai’s katana in hypnotic movement. When they fall from the child’s grip, the umang are picked up again for another round of “fighting.” This will only stop when the children smash the shell with just enough force,  breaking the shell but leaving the hermit crab exposed. Then, the tender and soft belly is separated from the rest of the body. For these child-fishers, hermit crabs are fish baits.

So if I ask again what is it with the hermit crabs today? Tell me it wasn’t smashed for fish bait this time. Tell me that I am squishing them under my boots.

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