“My Samoan Crab” first appeared in The Whirlwind Review, Issue 3 (writingthewhirlwind.net/)
My Samoan Crab
Chester, my Samoan crab, is a gift and a blessing. I caught him a long time ago, when I was a boy, and I’ve had him with me ever since. It is through Chester that I can hear and see in the darkest, most subterranean places of my life. My arthropod friend has taught me, and continues to teach me, a great deal about being human and about spiritual transformation and renewal.
I’ve had a recent encounter with him: Chester, my Samoan crab, is molting, gone soft on me. I should have known this‑‑that crabs molt, just like birds and even snakes. But I’ll return to more about Chester later, after describing one of the teeming places of my childhood‑‑a place where awe and imagination were alive every morning and every day.
From the sixth grade onward, I grew up on the windward side of Oahu, in the foothills of Olomana, a mountain that stood separate from the Koolaus, a range of mountains that stretched like a wet, green wall in the west. Among the foothills in which I lived lay a large body of brackish water which had once been a royal Hawaiian fishpond, the Kawainui, or “the big water” (Ka = the; wai = water; nui = big). I loved to climb one of the hills, so I could see the full expanse of the pond‑‑the gleaming body of water surrounded by reeds and connected by canals to Kailua Bay.
A newly paved road ran straight through the reeds along the eastern edge of the pond. To get to school, I had to walk a mile on that road, then another half mile through the houses, truck farms and pastures on the edge of Kailua town. I went barefooted in those days like all the other kids, and the tarmac, wet and cold in the morning, hopped with huge toads. A faint odor of sulfur scented the air, and mist or low‑lying fog hung over the reeds on either side of the road. Every once in a while a black mud hen, sometimes with red on its head, moved quietly in open water among the reeds. When it was winter on the mainland, wonderful Vs of ducks‑-mallards and teals—whistled overhead and dropped down out of sight onto the Big Water. Walking there, I felt alone but connected to all of creation.
The road crossed two canals. On the first canal, a Filipino family lived in a small house that was partly on stilts in the water. The men of the family rowed out into the pond and set fish traps for mullet. On a regular basis, they cleared the buffalo grass choking the banks of the canals with machetes, then waded along the edge with nets, catching hundreds of catfish. They grabbed the catfish out of the nets with bare hands, skillfully avoiding painful stabs from the bone-hard dorsal and pectoral fins.
My brother Robert and I did our fishing from the bridge of the second canal. We used bamboo poles with line, a lead weight, and a hook. No reel. We used shrimp for bait. We caught oholehole, a good eating fish with white meat, and oio, a not‑so‑good bonefish.
It was off the second canal bridge that my brother and I went crabbing for the first time. We had watched an old Japanese man with a net and bucket come by and catch a couple of what he called Samoan crabs. They had green and blue spots on their backs. We asked him a lot of questions, then bought our own round crabbing net from the hardware store and a fish head‑‑the head of an aku, a kind of tuna‑‑from the town fish market. We tied the fish head to the net, the way the old man showed us, then lowered the net into the murky brackish water of the canal.
It was the most amazing thing. Out of those brackish depths came crab after crab. We ran home with a bucketful. Our mother was very excited, even ecstatic, at our catch. She loved crabs, and she loved eating them. She build a fire in the driveway, brought a huge pot of water to boil and cooked the crabs to a bright red. She showed us how to eat a crab properly, opening the crab up and showing us the ono, delicious parts under the broad back. I later learned that the broad back was called the carapace. She taught us how to get all the meat out of the legs and claws. I won’t go into all the details of our feast, but let me say that I learned a great deal about how crabs are put together‑‑how their mighty claws worked, for example.
One day my brother and I caught the crab of all crabs. At first, we thought the net was stuck in the muck of the canal bottom or snagged against one of the bridge pillars. But it wasn’t. As we slowly lifted the reluctant net, we thought maybe we had caught a rock. Somehow the current had swept a large one into the net. But it was not a rock. A huge crab looking very much like a rock–a dark, dangerous one–straddled the net. I was awe-struck as I watched the water flowing of the crab’s back and dripping from the net.
Where in God’s creation had this crab come from‑‑nurtured at what depths? We couldn’t get this crab into our bucket. Its large claws and shelly legs caught on the rim of the bucket. I poked at the crab with a stick, and it grabbed so tight I could lift it up into the air—a huge, spider-like thing that felt bigger than the Big Water from which it came‑‑and it was then that Chester scurried across my soul. I had caught my Samoan crab, or it had caught me.
My Samoan Crab is, for me, a soul image, imagination itself. It began living in me soon after it emerged from the deep and it continued to live in me even after being greedily consumed by my family. Through my Samoan crab my soul is related to the mystery and holiness of creation.
When I was an undergraduate I began writing about my Samoan Crab, how it would scuttle across the floor of my mind with its lime‑structured legs. These crab imaginings became a crucial part of a short story that I was able to finish only after enrolling in graduate school.
I invented an Asian doctor who lived in the middle of a town fast becoming a bedroom community to Honolulu. The doctor’s little house was literally in the middle of town with businesses pressing on all sides of it. His property was prime real estate. But he refused to sell.
In his lifestyle, the doctor lived on the periphery of society, an outsider demonized as a “phantom abortionist.” Long ago, he had a wife and a son, whom he said he loved but for whom had little time. Afraid of intimacy, he dealt with his wife’s and son’s growing needs and wants by working long hours and developing a reputation as a perfectionist who wanted only the best for his patients. One day, overworked and stressed by his family obligations, the doctor lost consciousness while operating on a woman. He injured the woman badly with assistant and scrub nurses as witnesses, and thus his life unraveled. The doctor’s wife divorced the doctor, taking the son with her, and the doctor retreated from society.
In the current action of my story, the doctor spends much of his time catching Samoan crabs in the canals of the Kawainui. He envies the apparent invulnerability of these crabs, their hard protective coverings, armor against the slings and arrows of change. He harbors the crabs in a large barrel in his backyard, keeps to himself and lives a narrow, circumscribed life, until one day a neighbor woman’s cat wanders into the yard and encounters the doctor’s prize Samoan crab–incidentally named Chester. In the face-off, the crab crushes one of the cat’s wrists in his larger claw, and the doctor allows his crabs to kill and consume the cat.
Mistaking the cat’s screams for a woman’s, the neighbor woman calls the police and rushes into the doctor’s cottage expecting to find mayhem. But all is quiet in the doctor’s cottage. The policeman sends the neighbor woman home, but looking back, she sees the doctor and the policeman standing over the dead cat practically buried in crabs. Incensed, the neighbor woman rushes back to re-confront the doctor, but the policeman turns her away.
The doctor is both attracted and repelled by the neighbor woman, who likes men, even violent ones, and is no model of virtue. The slovenly way she lives, not to mention the taunts she hurls at him, torments the doctor. To get her to cease her taunting, the doctor climbs the stairs to her apartment. In the encounter, the woman refuses to believe that he is a doctor. She can’t believe that a doctor would chose to save the crab rather than the cat. A wrestling match ensues and the woman overwhelms and pins the doctor. To convince her that he really is a doctor, he tells her about losing consciousness in the operating room, about hurting the woman on the operating table, and about how his life became unraveled. The neighbor woman remains unconvinced and won’t release the doctor until he promises to cook one of his crabs for her. The one she wants to eat is Chester, the doctor’s prize crab, and another wrestling match ensues during which Chester is kicked, chipping his claw.
Through her further encounters with the doctor (he does cook her a crab, though not Chester; she overwhelms him with a kind of raw intimacy), she provides him with the best chance to escape isolation and seclusion and to be restored to community. The doctor senses this. But he is unable to perform, unforgiving of himself and incorrigible. With Chester in hand, he chases the woman out of his cottage. And when the Board of Health condemns his backyard barrel, he fixes up his basement with mud and water from the pond so his crabs can stay out of sight and wet and alive.
I remember how some of my peers in graduate school hated this Asian doctor. They thought he was evil incarnate. He loved his crabs more than warm blooded animals, more than people. He was a misogynist, and a coward who wrongly believed that his crabs were the beginning and end of all existence, their broad, armored backs and heavy claws shields against all pain and suffering. Like the crabs, the doctor buried himself in the muck and refused to come out.
I remember how I struggled with these reactions to the doctor and my own demons and inclinations as a third generation Asian American male in a mixed marriage. The doctor was maddeningly antisocial, anti‑others, anti-woman. Was he me? I could not reject the doctor, as my colleagues suggested. Nor could I alter his character to make him more acceptable. I found in him a well-intentioned fellow sufferer, a human being. He had suffered the loss not only of job and reputation, but of wife and son through divorce. Most of all, he had lost that world in which awe and imagination were alive and available every day of his life. But he was aware of that loss, and through his latest encounter with the outside world he was able to grieve that loss.
It was through the doctor that I became reacquainted with my Samoan crab and discovered the God of Compassion. I had to recognize the doctor as an absolute other (not me) and accept him as he was. I had to allow him to live his life even in a fictional world–especially in a fictional world. Thus, I allowed my own Samoan crab and myself to come forward out of the darkness. I gave my Samoan crab the homely name of Chester. Out of the depths comes a blessing.
When Chester scurries into my mind, I remember the passage from Matthew when Jesus says: “So have no fear of them: for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Jesus comes to us wherever we are and speaks to us in the darkness of our lives. Fear, a desire to escape pain and suffering, may tempt us to bury ourselves deep in the muck, to develop broad armored backs and huge claws. But God whispers in the darkness, inviting us to hear his creative word and to use our imaginations to create a new world, in which our soul is alive in the full light. He invites us to have continual and vital conversations with him.
The images for our conversations with God come to us unbidden. It may not be what we expect, or what we had hoped for, or what we would choose if we were given a choice. It may be unusual, or bizarre. But it is there, provoking our imaginations into activity, and that’s what matters.
In his book Healing Fiction, psychotherapist James Hillman shows us how to take our lives not “literally” but “literarily.” When we take our lives literally, we become sick, paralyzed. When we take our lives literarily, using our imagination to shape a story of hope, we can free and heal ourselves from the intolerable images that prevent our transformation into human beings. “If we are ill because of… intolerable images,” Hillman says, “we get well because of imagination…. [We] … can imagine life, and not only think, feel, perceive, or learn it. …[I]magination is a place where one can be, a kind of being.”
Hillman suggests that “imagination is all” because it is in imagination that we encounter the holy and live and breath in its sway. Through the word, through the spoken story, through symbols, we can be about soul‑making, telling the soul’s story, rather than be about soul‑killing.
So where am I with my Samoan crab? Chester is molting, gone soft on me. He has absorbed much of the calcium from his old carapace, his old legs and claws. His hard, protective shell has softened, ready to be abandoned for something new.
I remember when I used to come upon softened crabs in tide pools. I thought there was something wrong with them, I thought they were sick. They were inedible, I kicked them away. Should things so vulnerable be alive? I did not regard the softening of shells as a natural process of growth.
But my Samoan crab, Chester‑‑this fiction through which my soul remembers the holy‑‑is soft, so vulnerable. So I wait to be spoken to, I wait again in the dark to hear what I must imagine and tell in the light.