Cats became crabs; it was quite sudden. They were cats, and then on a Tuesday in September they were crabs.
Lorraine Carpenter of Fridley, Minnesota, was as surprised by this development as anyone. She heard her own cats skittering around, as they typically did during the hour before their morning meal, and in her drowsiness she did not notice anything unusual in the sound: any alteration to the cadence, for example, or to the tone of the tapping on the linoleum. Yet despite her surprise she never doubted that the crustaceans she discovered in the kitchen were indeed Dewdrop and Fenton. They gave her the same careful attention while she operated the can opener, and they established the same hierarchy once she had set their dishes down: first the larger one ate, and then the smaller one. And while she no longer took much pleasure in sitting with them in the bed once Bill had disappeared into the basement for the day, the truth was that they were not very different than they had been before. Still wary, still clawed, still grouchy and obtuse. If the whole thing had ended with cats, she might have been able to come to terms with it.
But it did not end with cats. Some weeks later, squirrels became crabs. It was impossible to ignore them scuttling up and down trees in the park beside the church, or darting from shrub to shrub in the landscaped area outside the supermarket.
Lorraine was reminded of her favorite photograph: her young granddaughter Mila, crouching almost nose-to-nose with a plump squirrel in Lorraine’s backyard, offering it an acorn. It was terribly sad to think that such a moment could never happen again.
In November it was dogs, and Lorraine began to feel as though no one else appreciated the peculiarity of the situation. The National Dog Show went on as scheduled; even the categories were retained. Watching from the davenport with a bowl of yogurt-covered pretzels beside her, Lorraine made her best effort to keep an open mind. She watched trainers lead their carcinized charges around the ring—the little toy crabs, the avid sporting crabs, the high-strung herding crabs, and so forth—and waited for the announcers to make some mention of the unusual circumstances, but they did not. Bill insisted that she was overreacting. “You worry too much,” he said: a phrase which never failed to annoy her, because Bill’s habit was to make a show of not worrying about the things which needed worrying about—leaving it to Lorraine to manage them—and to fret melodramatically about things which didn’t matter at all, like the Twins’ bullpen or the opinions of imaginary Democrats. Bill sat with Lorraine just long enough to watch the presentation of the working crabs, and then he rose, glanced darkly through the window at the flurrying sky, and retreated again to his basement refuge. In any case, while Lorraine sensed that it was significant, this sudden crabwise progression of the species, she had no idea whether there was anything that ought to be done about it.
A week before Christmas she was awakened during the night by the awful thought that for all the obvious crabs, there must be at least as many that she had not seen. Pulling on her robe, she crept past Dewdrop and Fenton, who slept on a cushion beside the dresser, their thoraxes nestled together as though they hadn’t spent the entire day fighting, and she tiptoed to the kitchen. Here she confirmed her fear: scurrying along the baseboard beneath the cupboards were half a dozen crabs as tiny as water bugs. She was overtaken by dread, by the image of crabs emerging through all the cracks in the world, of crabs multiplying without end.
The phenomenon did not go entirely without comment. A reporter on the radio, for example, interviewed a scientist from the University of Somewhere who said that while the pace of the changes was startling, crabness itself was a logical evolutionary outcome, given something to do with certain advantages—it was difficult for Lorraine to keep up with the specifics, as she was on the phone with her daughter-in-law during the broadcast. Her daughter-in-law did not want to discuss crabs. She wanted to discuss Mila’s supposed gluten allergy. Lorraine was obliged to spend much of the call defending herself, and so she missed a great deal of what the scientist was saying. In the afternoon she tuned in again, hoping the segment would be repeated, but it was not. Instead, there was a lengthy piece about student loan debt.
Somewhat to her own relief, this gave Lorraine something else to worry about. Over dinner with Bill, she observed that their son and daughter-in-law had not been putting much away for Mila’s education. “I think we should offer to help out,” she said.
Her husband did not respond. He was red-faced and pop-eyed, as though he had been watching too much television in the dark. Was that what he did in the basement all day? He shoveled stroganoff into his mouth, rose from the table without so much as wiping his lips, and scurried back down the stairs. Lorraine listened to a Michael Bublé Christmas album while she cleared up the dishes and fed the crabs. She adjusted the lights on the tree. She sat on the davenport for a while, deciding between the television and her novel, though in the end she chose neither. After a spell, she went to bed.
In the morning she dressed, intending to go out for a final round of Christmas shopping, though it was raining cats and dogs. Or crabs and crabs, I suppose, she thought. Bill had not come to bed. This was not unusual, though she was surprised not to find him in the kitchen, grumbling over his coffee. She went to the basement to tell him where she was going.
Descending the stairs, she called his name; in return she heard only a series of scraping noises. The basement floor was littered with empty beer cans and tins of deviled ham. The air was moist and slightly rancid; the television was on. She found her husband half-hidden behind his recliner, three of his segmented legs drumming lightly on the floor, waving one enormous claw and flexing his eye stalks back and forth.
“Oh Bill,” she said. “For God’s sake, Bill.”
At the mall Lorraine picked up a few additional items for Mila, hesitating briefly over a doll house she knew her daughter-in-law would describe as “too much,” before deciding to go ahead with it. She returned the shaving kit she had purchased for Bill and sat on a bench beside the fountain, trying to think of something else she could give him, but no ideas came to her. In ordinary times she enjoyed sitting in this spot and watching the passers-by, but today her enthusiasm was dampened by the sight of several human-sized crabs strolling amid the throng, antennae twitching, shopping bags draped over their claws as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. It was no better in the shops: at the bath and body store, two purple crustaceans grappled over a bottle of moisturizer; at the gadget store, a great glistening mud crab sprawled across a pair of massage chairs. There were crabs in the food court, crabs in the restroom, crabs in the lobby of the cinema.
In the afternoon, Lorraine met Diane McCarty for a coffee at the Starbucks. Diane sat, grinning slightly, sipping a latte and listening as Lorraine unburdened herself. The shop was steamy and crowded; under a table in the corner a monstrous hermit crab peeked out from behind a pile of JC Penny bags. Rain beat against the windows. “Let it snow,” sang a voice from the speakers.
“Honestly, Diane,” said Lorraine, “it’s getting to be too much. Just too much.”
Diane nodded, jutting her lower lip in a performance of sympathy. She adjusted her gray pashmina scarf and nodded again. Diane genuinely enjoyed listening to Lorraine recount her miseries, which made her both a good friend and a terrible one.
Finally, Diane spoke. There were plenty of crabs around, she acknowledged—sure. More than there used to be. More than there ought to be. “But you know what they say, Lorraine. If everyone you meet is a crab, maybe the real crab is you.”
Lorraine excused herself to use the restroom. It was a real punch in the gut hearing something like that, even from Diane. It was unfair, and she couldn’t think of any response that wouldn’t make her sound defensive. She stepped carefully around the hermit crab, which retreated deeper into the recesses beneath its table, and squeezed into the filthy bathroom. She did not, in fact, need the toilet; instead she stood fretfully before the mirror, searching herself for signs of—what, exactly? It was the same proliferation of wrinkles and spots, the same slow attenuation of her blonde curls: change, sure, but all along the familiar trajectory.
What troubled her most about this crab business was how, for reasons she could not explain, it was forcing her to reconsider the nature of her relationships. She was in the habit of trying to assess what was expected of her, and now there was creeping upon her a sense that less was expected of her than she wanted to admit—that no one would honestly mind very much if she stopped trying so hard. If everyone was to be crabs, why would anyone care about the effort she put into making them happy?
She left the restroom still uncertain about what to say to Diane, but the question turned out to be moot, for Diane was gone. In her place was a large blue crab, a latte grasped in one claw and a gray pashmina scarf draped across its carapace.
For the rest of the afternoon Lorraine wandered around the mall, testing Diane’s idea that this was mainly a problem of perception. She made her best effort not to see anyone as a crab. She looked for the common humanity in everyone. This one, she thought. She’s probably tired at the end of the day. She probably worries about whether her children will answer her phone calls. But it was no good. Each stab at empathy ended in revulsion: she could not look past the quivering mouth-parts, the hideous joints, the beady black eyes. Taking another approach, she resolved to appreciate them for what they were. What was there to appreciate about crabs? They ate waste, she supposed. They were scavengers. In a wasteful world, there was a certain utility to scavengers.
Still, though, it wasn’t any good.
Her son called at ten o’clock on Christmas morning. “We won’t be able to make it for dinner,” he said.
With enormous effort, Lorraine kept her voice steady. “Why not?”
“It’s Abby. She’s…not feeling well.”
I’ll bet, thought Lorraine. “Couldn’t you come without her? Just you and Mila?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“Wait,” said Lorraine, now seized with anxiety: “how is Mila?”
“She’s fine. Happy as a clam.”
“As a what?”
“She’s playing with her new Duplo set.”
“But she hasn’t…changed?” Lorraine could not bring herself to say the word.
Her son laughed. “She changes every day. She’s fine, though.”
“I could bring our presents over. I’ll get in the car.”
“Another day,” said her son. He broke off for moment, speaking to someone, but his hand must have been over the mouthpiece, for Lorraine could not hear what he was saying. “Another day would be better,” he said, returning to the call.
“All right,” said Lorraine. “Okay.”
“Merry Christmas,” said Lorraine.
She watched the weather through the kitchen window. It was raining for the third day in a row. In a movie, thought Lorraine, the rain would turn to snow on Christmas Day. But it was not a movie. The rain continued.
In the evening, Lorraine removed the leaves from the dining table, leaning them together beneath a window. The wet glass glowed red and green and blue from the lights hanging along the eaves outside. Beside the window, the Christmas tree twinkled serenely. The carpet was clean and white and the fireplace tools hung neatly on their stand. The warm little ranch house was hung all around with tinsel and garlands. Lorraine put the Michael Bublé album on the stereo, laid out a gluten-free Christmas dinner for two, and called her husband to the dining room. Watching Bill suck down the turkey, his forelegs propped on the table, she was struck by his agility. Not once did he put a claw wrong; the candles and the glassware remained upright, undisturbed.
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” sang Michael Bublé, “if only in my dreams.”
By seven o’clock the rain had stopped; at eight o’clock the sky was clear. Lorraine considered driving over to the church for the late service, but the image in her mind’s eye—a congregation of crabs, making a mess of the old hymns—persuaded her against it. Despite everything, she felt a certain satisfaction: the gluten-free dinner had turned out well; it was the kind of thing she could do again. Another day. When she had finished with the dishes, she washed her hands, dried them on a kitchen towel, and carried the towel to the laundry basket. After this she stood in the living room considering the davenport and the television, finally deciding that it would be nicer to go outside.
The damp air was wonderfully cool; moonlight glistened in the wet grass. None of the world’s nonsense had kept her from putting together a nice Christmas. She had always put together nice Christmases. She herself had the courage to recognize this, whether or not anyone else did.
An unexpected joy surged through her, and with it a fresh faith in her own capacity for regeneration, and a delight in her own sturdiness, which came from within her and depended not at all on the expectations of others. With this, she was lit by a thrill like the one she had always imagined must run through the blood of those oddballs who streaked naked across the field at sporting events. But she did not run or shout. She looked to the sky. She stood happily on the silver grass, her claws raised, in quiet communication with the moon.
Paul H. Curtis is a writer and editor living in Yonkers, New York. He is the events coordinator, as well as a fiction reader, for Fatal Flaw literary magazine in New York. His writing has appeared in publications including Cherry Tree, Levee Magazine, The Madison Review, Zone 3 Press, Inkwell Journal, Bridge Eight, Prose Online, and Rockvale Review, as well as in Fatal Flaw. Find him online at www.paulhcurtis.net, or on Instagram @paul.h.curtis.