Melissa Benton Barker
Remember when we took the children out to the beach at night, and Elliott carried a flashlight and a bucket, and I called out after them: “Don’t lose your partner in the dark! Keep close to each other!” and how Elliott caught Candace’s hand.
The children were after ghost crabs. You and I stood under the trees at the edge of the beach, where the sand was littered with pine needles. You smoked a cigarette and I put my arm around your waist and leaned into you.
The children flittered in and out of the darkness. If they went too far, they were swallowed up, but then they’d reappear. They ran, making wide loops in the sand. They were bits of cloth and skin fading in and out like an apparition. Elliott’s flashlight, the big one we used to keep out in the garage, streaked across the beach.
I’ll admit to you now that I was still scared to go down to the beach at night. It was hard for me to lose sight of the children. You always told me to relax, that it would be okay because you always wanted them to have some freedom. Then the wind snapped at me and turned my hair into a basket of nettles, and it was impossible to tell the difference between the land and the water. The ocean was just another kind of darkness.
Elliott and Candace stopped running. Elliot’s light quivered, but it stayed in one place, a circle spreading.
“I can’t see them,” I said, holding onto your shirt.
“They’re right there,” you said. The flashlight dropped, facing away from us. Your face disappeared. The useless glow from your cigarette passed back and forth between your lips and your fingers.
I left you and walked out on the beach. The sand was cold under my feet, and Elliott and Candace crouched next to the flashlight. I put my hand to the top of Candace’s head and ran it down over her shoulder. Her hair was wet and brittle with salt water.
“Shhh! Mom, Mom!” Elliott said, waving his arm at me. In the flood of light, five crabs shuddered, half in and and half out of their sand holes.
“Mom! Stop moving!” said Elliott. “You’ll scare them!”
Candace reached up and caught my leg. Elliott turned his back to me. His shoulder blades poked up under his t-shirt and he held on to his bucket, ready.
“Back up! Back up!” he hissed.
“I’m not moving!” I said. “I see them!”
Candace kept one hand on my leg and one hand on the sand. Even in the dark I could tell that she was looking up at me. I sat down next to her and wiped away a strand of hair that had caught between her lips. I wanted to pull her onto my lap, but just like Elliott, there was a coil in her body, ready to spring.
They’d found the smallest kind of crab, the kind that in the daytime are like grains of sand and come alive when they take off across the beach. These crabs are almost clear; you can look right through them. I’ve held them. I’ve felt them rustle across the palm of my hand. All five crabs quivered in the pool of light across from me and the children. They held their strange eyes out a distance from their bodies. The smallest one crept all the way out of its hole, and made a break for the darkness. Elliott dove for it, crashed face forward into the sand. The flashlight rolled out of the way; the circle of light careening toward the water.
I chased the flashlight before it could roll down into the water, and when I found it, swung it up, the light arcing toward the sky, where it disappeared until I brought it back down again.
Up at the treeline, you lit another cigarette, which was the only way I could tell you were watching.
Elliott called for me. He’d caught the crab and cupped it under his palm against the sand.
“I need the bucket!” he cried. “Come on, Mom! Before it digs another hole!”
“I don’t see the bucket,” I said, sweeping the light.
Elliott blinked at me.
I asked him: “Did you drop it?”
“It’s by my foot!” he said. The bucket had tipped sideways and he kicked at it.
“Where’s your sister?” I said. “Candace!” I called. She knew we were supposed to stay together in the dark.
“Mom! Just get the bucket!”
Remember how the children would fill those buckets? They spent days scooping up seawater, trawling for sand fleas. One time Elliott found a barnacle, a living, unattached barnacle. He was little then, maybe five. I helped him fill the bucket half with water, half with sand, and then he gently placed the barnacle inside, like it was a treasure. We watched it undulate in figure-eights through the murky water. Its shell looked as though it were made of rock, a millenia pressed into a thimble. But the shell opened into threads of flesh, waving endlessly, uselessly, for a place to fasten itself. That day, I put the barnacle and its bucket beside my chair, next to my water bottle, shoved my feet into the sand like slippers. This was before you reminded me that the temperature of the water held in a bucket would rise, and by the end of the day, the barnacle was no longer moving. Elliott took the bucket and tossed the whole thing into the water. Candace was only three, so she cried.
“I don’t want you to kill the crab, Elliott,” I said.
“Mom, please,” said Elliott. “I’m not going to kill it. Just throw the bucket over.”
I tossed it so that it landed beside him. It made a soft sound when it landed. He scooped the crab up in a wad of sand.
“How long do you think it will stay alive in there?” I asked.
“Can I have the flashlight back?” Elliott came up beside me.
“No,” I said. I ran the light up to the trees, and found you and Candace standing together. She was holding your hand. Both of your eyes flashed in the light.
“What are you going to do with the crab?” I asked Elliott.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’ll let it go tomorrow.”
The children kept so many things in buckets. They tried to keep so many creatures alive. That’s what I told myself at the time, but now I wonder. Was it really about keeping something alive, or was it about holding onto a slice of it? Taking a small, wild thing and watching its every move, not really caring about its living or its dying, just the watching, and the feeling of right now, right now, it’s mine.
About the Author: Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, currently serving as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket. Her work appears in Lunch Ticket, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama.