“The Song of the Whistling Crab” by Michael McGlade

“The Song of the Whistling Crab” by Michael McGlade

Saoirse left me this morning for a strongman with a bum leg who owned a travelling circus of three bears, two dingoes, and a whistling crab.

Which came as quite a surprise: the bum-legged strongman had a whistling crab? Something like that, I’d have liked to see.

It was evening now and I had returned from working the fields. Saoirse my wife of two years had pinned a note to the hiccupping fridge, alongside a to-do list that said read note. The note said Cú, I am gone and that is that. She’d run off without so much as a warning.

Incandescent with rage, burning like a torch, I tramped to Murphy’s Field, a scrap of scrubland south of Durrus town, where the circus had set up a week ago. There were sickly yellow circles of grass where the tents had been and elsewhere the ground had been cut to muddy ribbons. It was deserted; the circus had vanished.

How was it possible that Saoirse had fallen in love with a circus strongman so quickly? I’d been courting her (a good Catholic girl) for a year before we married. And for two years now we’d been trying for children. That it hadn’t happened for us wasn’t a huge concern. But Saoirse had said something yesterday: what’s the point if there’s no young’uns to bring up in our ways? And I’d replied, What ways were them, working the dirt twelve hours a stretch to scrape together a living? That then had settled the matter, I thought.

The strongman was six-feet-ten and thin as a beanpole. Word was he got the bum leg when a elephant struck his hip; he never yelled out in pain, but had tied that elephant’s trunk in a Gordian knot. He lost all the muscle soon after. Supreme tolerance to pain allowed him to perform a needle-through-the-arm routine. And needle-through-the-cheek. He had tied a fifty-pound barbell to his scrotum and lifted it like it weighed no more than a tea cup. I dreaded to think what debauchery he was subjecting my wife to.

A couple with their boy arrived and glanced around disbelievingly. The woman prattled on about how rugged the strongman had been; the man seemed relieved, although he’d heard stories about how the strongman could make a elephant dance on its hind legs, and roll over on its back like a dog begging a belly rub. Several more carloads of people arrived now, nobody knew why the circus had departed in such a hurry.

The sullen-faced boy was kicking around in the mud, then noticed wagon-wheel tracks stretching off across the open country. He moaned at his parents to chase after them and catch a show. But what did kids know? A lumbering caravan like that wouldn’t make it to the next town by tonight. They’d have to make camp on the roadside.

* * *

I barreled into the encampment like a wild thing. The dingoes glared at me then stared off, trembling.

My name is Cú; it’s not lost on me that in Gaelic my name means hound. Sister Hildegard said that name had been written on the newspaper I’d been wrapped in when dumped on the orphanage’s doorstep. At fourteen I was given to the Macardle family to work their fields; I slept in the chicken coop. The only true home I’d ever known was with my wife Saoirse.

To the right were several bowtop caravans with green fabric roofs; they were small and dirty, the kind of vehicle lived in by manual laborers. Farther on was an elegantly adorned wooden, straight-sided caravan, painted bright red with gold-leaf, angel lamps creaking in the stiff breeze. I grabbed a pitchfork from the pile of manure outside a covered enclosure with an elephant snuffling around inside and climbed the steps of the caravan.

I heard them at it then, giggling and cooing. The strongman was having his way with her. I shunted the door open and raised the pitchfork.

A cast-iron stove throwing intense vaporish heat blurred everything like I was underwater, and the flickering light made things shimmer as if alive. The wagon was ten feet long with a double bed at the far end, thick beveled mirrors on either side. But Saoirse and her interloper were not on the bed; the pair were sitting cross-legged on the floor and had been staring upwards at a lighted aquarium. Where the light was coming from I did not know, for the water itself luminesced. A strange whistling emanated from the aquarium.

I closed the distance in two giant strides and bashed the strongman on the side of the head. He turned to me, his eyes glazed. Saoirse’s eyes were glazed too. Then the whistling ceased. Saoirse’s green eyes were fierce now. The strongman snapped to and readied to stand, but I jabbed the pitchfork near his face and he stopped moving. He had a square head with a large forehead. All that was missing were neck bolts.

I peered into the aquarium. A hermit crab had made his home from a tin can of sardines, a bottle cap, a Zippo lighter, a Bic pen, and the yellow innards of a Kinder Surprise egg. Ingenious little creature, how it could meld those things together, like a work of art.

I said, “Can’t you give it some decent things to make a home of?”

“Used to be I’d bring him silk and ancient wood and Faberge eggs, but he’d have none of it,” the strongman replied, then glanced at an empty refuse sack he’d taken from a bin. “Now I bring him a new bag each night and he takes what he likes.”

The crab had six coral-red legs in a single row in front of his face and his eyes were on stalks. He was staring at me, antennas twitching. Then I remembered why I’d come.

“How could you run off, Saoirse?”

“I told you for months I was leaving.”

“That’s just something married people say to each other. But they never follow through with it. Just talk.”

She put her arm around the strongman’s shoulder and hugged him tight. I still had the pitchfork in his face.

“Do you love him?”

She said, “Yes.”

“More than you loved me?”

Saoirse dry swallowed and took the strongman’s meaty hand in hers.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I begged.

“Just go back home,” she replied. “Leave us alone, Cú.”

I drew the pitchfork back now to strike, but whistling emanated from the aquarium. Small bubbles were forming at the crab’s mouth, and it was truly whistling. Not a song I had ever heard before. But something familiar.

Saoirse and the strongman were staring at the crab, mesmerized.

“That really is quite something,” I said.

“He hasn’t whistled since leaving Durrus,” the strongman said. “And he never whistled before arriving in Durrus.”

I moved a step closer and the crab whistled louder. He was whistling to me. I reached out but Saoirse came at me, yelling to leave it alone. I shoved her off and jabbed the pitchfork near the strongman’s face. Blindness, it seemed, was something he feared.

“Maybe I’ll kill the crab,” I yelled. “Cook it and eat it.”

The crab peered at me expectantly. Saoirse too.

I thought of my life with Saoirse, and how I would sometimes steal a bushel of onions or garlic from my employer as a gift for her, and how I was paid in goods rather than cash, and how I hardly ever seen her. I knew then that she was lost to me. She deserved better than I could give. Maybe now she had found love and happiness.

That’s just the way of it sometimes. Like trying to stand your ground in a gale. Your heart desires something: accept it, or die inside.

“Cú, you are hairy as a wolfman,” the strongman said. “Perhaps you might want to join us in the circus business?”

I could never do that. I needed to be away from them or else I’d kill. I dropped the pitchfork and turned away. The crab was staring at me.

“His name is Jules Gabriel Verne,” the strongman said.

“You call him a people name?”

“I believe he used to be the French writer.” The strongman was standing alongside me and he laid an arm around my shoulder. “He has taken a shine to you, my friend. You should take him. Help him get to where he’s going.”

* * *

People think hermit crabs are just throwaway pets, something that lives a few months; but hermit crabs can live for twenty years. After our first performance, with the proceeds I bought a book about crustaceans and I’ve been reading up about my friend Jules Verne.

He has six legs on show, but there were actually ten in total, four of which he uses to carry his home around. I helped him build bigger and more ornate accommodation, using a glue gun to attach various trinkets, bells that decorated Christmas trees, shiny baubles, and lucky charms, and also the Padre Pio medal that had been my mother’s.

When Jules Verne comes out of his shell, he has a soft exposed underbelly, tightly curved in a spiral; in moments such as these he is at the mercy of predators. I once found him an authentic M67 fragmentation grenade from the Vietnam War. He really loved kitsch memorabilia. Together we deactivated it: me tracing out the connectors and denotation cap, and him cutting the activation wire with his claw; and for a whole month he lived inside it; but then he outgrew it, and took to wearing it on one upturned claw. It always drew laughs from the crowd.

Sometimes I’d tie a red bandana around his head like in the Deer Hunter. He even managed to twist his face up in a perfect impression of Christopher Walken. I’d have a revolver and I’d load a single bullet and spin the barrel and point it at his head and pull the trigger. Click. Click. Click. Crowd on the end of their seats. It was a loaded gun and it was a real gun. Click. Click. Bang. He’d catch the bullet in his teeth. Except hermit crabs don’t really have teeth. Anyway, it was all just part of the act.

My book also said some species of hermit crab were reported to make croaking noises. Experts still don’t know what form of communication it serves; Jules Verne doesn’t know either.

Hermit — I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. It means living in solitude. At least we had each other. And at each village we went to, there was always a welcome. Everywhere was home now.

My favorite part of our act is to ask Jules Verne questions: simple ones, mind. Questions that are one-whistle-for-yes and two-whistles-for-no. He’s really quite smart. He knows the days of the week, the months of the year, and pi to five places. He doesn’t know why he can whistle around me or why I should be the catalyst for his whistling.

We bought a bicycle. We could afford a van but we both disliked the use of fossil fuels. The bicycle has a wicker basket on the handlebar. I pedal and Jules Verne rides up front in the basket. We travel the single-lane roads and dirt tracks of Ireland, stopping in every village, finding a home, even if it’s just temporary.

We’ve been travelling and performing now for a year and have never been in the same place twice. After we have visited everywhere on land that Jules Verne wants to see, he says he’ll show me some of his favorite haunts on the sea floor. I don’t know if he’s joking or not. Jules Verne has a dry sense of humor. But he says we’ll fashion a box of air, just like his aquarium tank, and I’ll sit inside it and he’ll push me with his little legs: I’d imagine he’s tremendously strong underwater.

Jules Verne is a hermit crab and he obviously can’t speak English; but we have an understanding. I’m teaching him to write cursive in the sand on the bottom of his aquarium. When I asked him where he came from, he said the sea.

“Are you really that French writer?”

“No, I’m a crab. A hermit crab. A crab born without a home.”

“Some people, like me, don’t have homes either. Hermit humans.”

Just like that one we’d seen the other day, German guy with a backpack, said he liked hiking around the drumlins. He’d walked from Quedlinburg north of the Harz mountains all the way to Slieve Gullion mountain in County Armagh. Sixteen hundred kilometers. And then he’d just kept on walking. Wherever his feet would take him.

Jules Verne said, “Some people just don’t know where they’re going. And they never will.”

I said, “Where exactly are you going?”

“One day, back to the sea.” And he stared off to nowhere in particular and whistled that strange song of his.

“Don’t you hear it,” he asked, “the song of the sea?”

Whistling never reminded me of the sea. The sea was rollicking waves and icebergs that humbled unsinkable cruise liners.

“I hear it all the time,” Jules Verne continued. “Always calling.”

Tonight, during our act, I had dropped three coins into his tank and he correctly selected the marked coin of a member of the audience (we’re getting upwards of fifty people a night), and just as he pushed the correct coin forward I noticed, all the way at the rear of the room, a stoop-shouldered woman, hunched over, her head covered in a black shawl. She was loitering in the shadows. But I noticed red frizzy hair beneath the shawl. And if the old hag was so decrepit, why stand when there were seats available? No, I knew it was Saoirse. I glanced at Jules Verne, whose antenna were twitching fearfully. Saoirse and her strongman had come to take Jules Verne back.

But that’s okay. The things you want most are worth fighting for, worth dying for. I’d never let Jules Verne go. And right now, with him in my room here, both of us watching the door, we are prepared for that fight. He’s perched on my shoulder and whistling gently and has told me what to say, told me the things I needed to do to get my way. And if those don’t work, on my lap I had a loaded revolver.

The door handle turns without noise. Jules Verne stops whistling. He retreats into his shell and blocks the opening with his claw. I snuff out the light and wait for the door to fully open.

black-widow-baby Michael McGlade is an Irish writer with over 70 short stories in journals such as the Saturday Evening Post, Hennessy New Irish Writing, Grain, Downstate Story, and Shimmer. Represented by the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, he’s currently writing his debut crime novel. Find out the latest news and views from him on McGladeWriting.com.