Volume 14, Issue 32 ~ August 10 - August 16, 2006


Blue Crab Etude

Catching crabs is about more than dinner

By Elizabeth Ayres

Nana taught me how.

No matter how early I got up or how fast I slipped on my summer uniform of shorts, top and flip-flops, she would already be down there in her sundress and hat. Kneeling on the rough wooden planks of the dock. Chest butted up against a piling. Left hand working the string, right hand holding the net.

I see the scene so clearly. Those four front-most pier posts, darkly creosoted, each wrapped with pale twine. The cord plays out into the water at a wide angle to its tether on the piling, and no child of the river needs to be told what invisible tug o’ war holds the line so taut. On the sandy creek bottom, a blue crab struggles to swim away with its carrion prize: a chicken neck tied tightly to the end of the string my grandmother painstakingly works.

On memory’s split screen, I see a close-up of her left hand: the twine, threaded through Nana’s fore and middle fingers, pinned in place with her thumb. Over and under. Thumb up, thumb down. Inch by upward-bound inch, crab and bait rise.

Where it slices into the water, the net pole appears to break, a distortion that makes distance hard to gauge. Speed is out of the question; the water offers too much resistance. So with a stiff right arm, Nana maneuvers the net’s wooden shaft by quark-sized increments until the head is directly under the feeding, oblivious creature. Anything, even a flickering shadow, will startle her prey into its peculiar, sideways scuttle.

She continues, cautiously, to tease that awkward trio — crab, baited string and meshed hoop — to the surface. Then one deft, skyward jerk.

“Got him,” she says, grinning. I scamper off to the live-box with our catch.

Popi also taught me how, though kids were not welcome to join him. “You’re too noisy,” he would bark. “You scare the crabs away.”

So I would watch from a distance as he waded along the shore like a heron. Pant legs rolled up above bony knees. Skinny calves protruding. His far off, silent prowling is keyed to the constant slap of water against pier pilings, against moored boats, against the endless beach where tall sea grass whispers snick snick in a hot, dry breeze.

Popi is a vigilant hunter. He marches all day from one end of our cove to the other, net pole cradled, shotgun style, against a bent left elbow. From that position, he can brandish either end of his weapon: Wield the wooden handle to poke under logs and rocks. Or, like a bayonet, stab the hoop end into the water to nab his elusive prey: a blue crab, freshly molted, butter soft.

Supremely confident in his ability, Popi refuses to carry with him any sissy storage basket. Instead, he returns to the pier with two or three huge jimmies stacked in the same net he used for their capture. Popi’s grin is all for himself. Tucked into his chin. Elusive.

An etude is a musical composition written to provide practice in a particular technical skill on a solo instrument. Pianists may turn to Chopin to learn their parallel thirds. Flutists might rely on Boehm for their fingering style. Watching my grandparents by the water was my life’s etude.

I could walk down to the pier right now and catch a crab the way my grandparents showed me. Or I could stay at this desk, teasing thoughts to the surface word by upward-bound word.

Where bait and prize are often indistinguishable. And there’s too much resistance. Too long a solitary prowl. I know that ceaseless effort is the cost of all things hoped for. Yet ever and always I am tempted by the hiss of What’s the use? Still, I don’t give up. Nana and Popi didn’t teach me how.

Poet and writing teacher Elizabeth Ayres, newly returned to Chesapeake Country, is the author of Writing the Wave: Inspired Rides for Aspiring Writers. Her first reflection for Bay Weekly was “Sea Nettles: Children swim where grownups fear to venture” [Vol. xiv No 26: July 6].

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