Another windblown day, the humps in the sand like mountains. There’s a scent in the breeze, fresh fish, or maybe shrimp. The smell came from near the water, but it would be worth it if he got there before any of the other crabs. Or the gulls.
He scurried across the gritty, cream colored mountains, dodging neighbors’ holes and staying quiet. If they investigated, there’d be a swarm, and he wasn’t in the mood to tear someone’s leg off, or lose an eye stalk. Growing them back was dubious.
As he reached the cliff where the tide had formed a wall in the sand, he saw what he’d come for. Gleaming in the sunlight was the back half of a moon fish. Must’ve been fishing bait for the humans. Sleek, untainted.
He hesitated. An upside down crab was gull bait, so he could not tumble off the cliff. Worse was the water. In winter, the cold would shut his system down. He could see and think but hardly move. He’d float and watch a gull treat him like free food.
He would not be free.
There. A break in the cliff. The tide had knocked a section flat.
Wait for the waves to slow.
His eye stalks swiveled above him, and his big claw clipped closed a few times. There was no one else nearby, how lucky. He rushed to the flattened place, and a wave met him there, wetting his legs and belly, big claw and little one.
The cold hit him like sleep. A dark dream pulled him in, and he tried to wake from it by stretching his eyes open, or wiggling a foot. The numb comfort called him.
One eye opened, then the other, and his legs tripped over the sand to back away. The sunshine brought him back to consciousness.
Dammit. Too close.
His eyes swiveled, and from the outside-in he started to rewarm.
Back on the cliff he watched the water and his back. Looking up, down. Nothing around.
He chased the frothy water down to the fish. In his excitement, his big claw clamped so hard it severed the tail. Regripping the fish, his legs kicked at the wet sand until the next wave was near. He let go and fled.
Repeating this three more times, he had the chunk of fish up to the cliff. One more effort. Back at home-hole there’d be enough for a week.
His blood pounded a reverb like when the humans chased him with lights and nets at night.
One last go. This time his small claw was enlisted for help. Scraping, shivering, clawing, his heart steamed inside him. He heard the water crashing behind him, but before he could react, he was across the cliffline onto hot sand.
He danced a scuttering shuffle around the chunk of meat.
His eyes swiveled with excitement, and there was a flash as something passed across the sun. Coolness, a shadow, and he was airborne.
Lifted by his small claw, there was fresh air beneath him, and the whock-whock of large wings blinded him. He broke the small claw at the hinge, but he was held by his legs too. A gull.
Its beak was half the size of Craig’s entire body. There were ridges on the glossy yellow beak.
The marks of crabs fighting for their lives.
Its great eye held him in a dream. It started as a black point, then a sandy-green band that stretched out and around him. It was all Craig could see, like the world of sand where he lived. But it ended in another ring, fire-orange like embers against the white feathers.
Craig’s claw snapped up towards the eye and found flesh. The giant pupil expanded, and its beak opened in a terrible cry.
He landed upside down against one of the mountains of sand. Kicking and squirming, blinded, he was certain the gull would be back. With the big claw he tipped and landed on his feet. He cleaned his eyestalks as he sprinted for the cliffs. It would be a fight for the fish. There was no fear now, only a mindless hatred that burned in his limbs like fire.
The gull was flying away with Craig’s fish in its mouth. It would be a snack for the bird, a single mouthful, and Craig felt sick.
His phantom claw nipped at the air, and an aching had started in the two legs. He would have to sever them and grow new ones. He needed food for them to grow back, and he was too weak to hunt. Pain throbbed with every beat of his heart, like a hum.
On the cliff he watched the water, and he wondered.
Maybe a dip, he thought. Just to see.
He circled to the flattened section. A wave surged. Another step and it would hold him in its embrace, cold at first, and then numb, and then nothing. Easy. The water glimmered and blinded him. When he opened his eyes again something continued to glimmer, something small. Pressed up against the cliff, a silver star sat impaled on a fork. It was the tail of the fish he’d severed.
He poked it, and it was real. He would still be hungry after growing everything back, but he’d been hungrier in the past. A little nourishment and he could hunt again. He’d watch for that goddamn gull.
Like a mouse in the dunes, he dodged the other crab holes. He hopped over mountains and slid down embankments, and he made it to home-hole, exhausted. Inside, he nibbled at the fish. It was salty, like everything, and he cleaned his eye stalks carefully.
Overhead, a crab skittered past, knocking grains of sand down onto his head. Craig wondered what scent was on the breeze.
Will Hearn is a firefighter. Between shifts he writes stories trying to scratch his own itch. He’s been published with Rumblefish Press, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, and in March with Vistant Literature. You can find him at willhearn.com and with a few other publications across the interwebs. He’s on Instagram and Twitter @will__hearn.