The Dawning of the Blue Crab

Matthew Gavin Frank


Like the Cassiopeia jellyfish, the Maryland Blue Crab's intestinal tract ties itself into an orchid. Your uncle, on indefinite leave from the day-boats, squirts ointment over the net scars on his hands, tells you that the orchid, our sexiest of flowers, has nothing to do femininity or, more specifically, your aunt in the kitchen, dressed in what she half-jokingly calls her "uniform," as she drops crab after crab into the kind of steam that reminds you more of industry than clouds.


Your aunt knows more about sexual dimorphism than she'd care to admit. She hums the song she learned in school so many years ago, the one about the difference between male and female blue crabs:

The belly of the male
is skinny and stale
like the Washington Monument, no less!
The belly of the girl
is rounder than a pearl
like the Capitol Dome of the U.S!


You wonder if the crab is more patriotic or blasphemous. If those crabs necklacing the shore of Isle of Wight Bay are only lying dormant, like the orchid—its flowers fading, the petals falling from the stem—or are really dead.


Since his days off, Uncle, your aunt says, likes to be as inactive as possible. She tells you that the jellyfish, by the way that it floats, sees our world as upside-down. You watch the blue crabs rise to the top of the water. You watch Uncle stare at the ceiling. You wonder if, to the jellyfish, belly-up means alive.


Over the pot, your aunt's hands redden like the crabs from other states. Here, our crabs evoke ocean, sky, your aunt's throat jeweled in her wedding sapphire, the bodies of the scab watermen found littered along the shore with too much ocean in their lungs. Your aunt doesn't say, serves them right, doesn't think of sexy flowers that fake their own deaths, of nets that tear the limbs from men like your uncle. She flexes her fingers into the kitchen light. The red fades from her palms. You know: No one tears a blue crab leg from its body like your aunt.


To commune with the crabs, and to avoid jealousy of what your aunt calls, "their uncomplicated lives," according to familial mythology and superstition, she eats blueberries while cooking them, wipes the juice from her lips with a red sponge in the shape of a claw.


Here, to be boiled is to be uncomplicated.


Uncle dozes on the yellow couch, having the nightmare again about the Blue Crab Crisis of 2009—the declining stocks of female crabs, the deep-catch restrictions, the $7.5 million in federal disaster aid that went, as Uncle says, "more to the watermen who agreed to quit crabbing, who snuck into the yards at night and hauled away our fucking pots,"—his snoring sounding to you less and less oceanic as the dream progresses.


Your aunt smoothes her "uniform," the image of the cross-eyed crab wandering too close to the pot, the bubble-lettered Don't Bother Me, I'm Crabby bunching at her middle. She says nothing about a child of her own, never calls you my sister's kid. The crabs cool, right side up to a Cassiopeia, on a bluer dishtowel next to the sink.


Your aunt knows, whether male or female, the belly of the blue crab is called an apron. In Maryland, we all know the apron is inedible.


Maryland, with the blue crab, is one of only three states to name a State Crustacean (along with Louisiana's crawfish and Oregon's Dungeness crab), state officials convening over the course of a week in 1989 in order to determine this, make it official. Soon after this declaration, after the fanfare and festivals, bandstands and carnival rides, the blue crab catch dropped from an estimated 126,000 tons to 27,000 tons, with revenue subsequently dwindling. While the blue crab, as State Crustacean, got a new title, so did the equipment of the crabbers. The abandoned traps piling up on the docks and shorelines of Maryland became known as Ghost Pots.


Here, we boil or steam our blue crabs in seawater and in white vinegar and in a half-cup of Old Bay seasoning, at least. The Old Bay mission statement declares that "Blue crabs are our raison d'être (ask your French philosopher friends)," which means that, as your aunt says, "Old Bay assumes we're stupid."


You can tell by his snores. Uncle is dreaming again of fishing with Frantz Fanon, the French-Algerian philosopher and existential humanist who wrote on the "colonial subjugation on people identified as black," who died in Maryland and who ate, Uncle insists, a last meal of blue crab.


In spite of your uncle's insistence, your aunt says that Fanon was not speaking of the resurgence of the Maryland Blue Crab industry when he said, in a 1959 speech, "Certain ochres and blues, which seemed forbidden to all eternity in a given cultural area, now assert themselves without giving rise to scandal."


In binomial nomenclature, the Maryland Blue Crab is Callinectes sapidus, or beautiful, savory swimmer. Like anything, we define it for its looks, actions, flavor.


Throughout the past decade, the U.S. has seen over 500 commercial fishing deaths, with over a quarter of these documented in the waters around Maryland, and over half of these involving the fishing of crustaceans, State, or otherwise.


Scandal: In 2009, much of that $7.5 million in federal disaster aid went to the scab watermen of Maryland, who earned as much as $400 per day cleaning the docks and shorelines of the dead fishermen's washed-up ghost pots.


In 2010: Maryland received another $2.5 million in federal aid to help out-of-work crabbers start oyster farms instead. In 2011, 25 out of every 26 oyster farms failed due to, according to The Baltimore Sun, "a slow start," "a cumbersome approval process," and "red tape." According to the Chesapeake Quarterly, "only five companies are listed as currently growing and selling oysters in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay." Your uncle, in dream, spits toward the ceiling. Your aunt, cooking, dries her hands on her apron. At her belly, only a cross-eyed crab, a stupid phrase. Not that it matters in this kitchen, but Maryland is the wealthiest state in the nation.


In this way, even the state that encompasses us seems so far away.


Maryland is named for Queen Henrietta Maria of France. The slave ship, the Henrietta Marie, which in 1700, deposited 191 captive Africans in the "New World," before sinking on its return trip to England, was also named after the woman we sometimes call Our Maryland Queen.


When he wakes up, Uncle says that a starving blue crab will often eat its own excrement. You imagine the catch of the dead fishermen, hungry, waiting in their traps for the federally-employed "crisis" watermen to dispose of them. You imagine the few still living, their hepatopancreases flashing yellow in their intestinal tracts. Tangled like this, they can't tell which is ocean, which sky. You think that, in this state, if they could summon the energy, any comparisons of their bodies to the stupid hibernating orchids should make them angry.


Fuck that forest through the trees shit, Uncle says, what about the blue crab in the ocean? Your aunt wants to say something about the crisis in the body. How in delicacy, is some awful prediction, a future doing without.


Your aunt bites her lip. You can't tell if this is anger or sadness. She speaks of eating so much of this hepatopancreas as a girl, when she called it, as most Marylanders do, the blue crab's "mustard," once a coveted delicacy of Chesapeake Bay. That this part of the crab, if eaten in high doses, has been found to be responsible for countless miscarriages and cases of infertility among the women in Chesapeake Bay, is something neither your aunt nor your uncle wishes to talk about at the supper table.


You know, because you've watched it hundreds of times. Though you haven't yet eaten, you know that, once you've finished your meal, your aunt will retain the crab shells and bodies for stock. You know: when she scoops, with two fingers, the mustard into the trashcan, she will bite her lip, close her eyes, hold her breath, turn blue.


Because the blue crab mustard contaminates the boiling broth, the Maryland Department of Health, neurotically and redundantly, says "These liquids should be discarded. Do not use the cooking liquid. We want to protect people." That Old Bay declares that the cooking liquid can be retained for its Maryland Crab Soup recipe is something that, in context, may baffle even the most erudite of your French philosopher friends.


Our Maryland Queen said, "If the wind is favorable, I shall set off tomorrow... I am hazarding my life, that I may incommode your affairs... If I die, believe that you will lose a person who has never been other than entirely yours, and who by her affection has deserved that you should not forget her." 28 years later, we named a slave ship after her.


Your aunt watches the steam freeze onto the kitchen window, the ice collect on the pots in the yard. Strange, she thinks, how we turn red when we both burn and freeze.


The steam will fade before the ice melts. We will remember no details about either.


Up the road in Crisfield, the residents prepare for the 66th Annual Hard Crab Derby. This year's events include a Crab Cooking Contest, A Crab Picking Contest, An Arm Wrestling Contest, a Hard Crab Derby Race, an Open Air Religious Service, and "Fireworks!!" Off-shore, the escapee blue crabs begin to regenerate their lost legs. Your aunt says, "And they don't have to pray to do it."


Besides the steam and the snow, other things that redden your aunt's hands: a childhood sting from the Cassiopeia jellyfish; an allergy to the orchid and an addiction to its beauty. The one thing that turns a blue crab red is cooking it. Here, red is when something blue is done, and done is when something is ready to eat.


Here, you learn in school early, the process by which water becomes steam is called the enthalpy of vaporization. If further heat is applied, the substance can reach the "critical temperature" at which distinct liquid and vapor phases no longer exist. Though you're no expert on thermodynamics, you imagine the resulting substance, which is said to "effuse through solids like a gas, and dissolve materials like a liquid." You imagine the stockpot and everything in it, your supper and everything your supper reminds you of—the venom of the Cassiopeia, the sapphire at your aunt's throat, the sepals of the Coerulea orchid, the seasoning, the broth, the crab... At the critical temperature these are all one thing.


Uncle says that when something blue burns, it turns red. When something red dies, it turns blue. In this, you sense a nebulous commentary on both Maryland priority and the last meal of the day. In this, you know that nebulous and critical can be the same thing.


Like your hands and your Uncle's, your aunt's hands will bleed when she eats blue crab. Your uncle will measure his net scars against the viscera of the blue crab, say nothing about capitols or monuments, but, as if reaching for anything sweeter and thriving, mutter, honeycomb, honeycomb, between bites.


None of this has happened yet. The crabs are still cooling so we can touch them.


According to the K-12 Education: Blue Crab Online Resource, "The outside parts of a blue crab are hard. Inside the crab, are the soft parts. Crabs must shed their shells in order to grow." Luckily, Uncle says, we're soft on the outside too. If he shed his scars, he knows: that means he's decomposing.


Your aunt knows, even while trying to commune. When carrying fertilized eggs, the female blue crab is called by marine biologists and fishermen alike, a "sponge" crab, or a "berry" crab. Your aunt wipes the juice from her lips.


Why are blue crabs blue? ask the K-12ers. They ask the same of the sky.


"It was dawn," Frantz Fanon said [and Uncle believes he was predicting his own journey to, and subsequent end, in Maryland], "The combat between day and night [and Uncle imagines the heyday, the boats knocking against one another like castanets, squealing like the boiling crab]. Exhausted from the struggle, the night slowly breathed its last sigh [and your uncle sighs and tucks his napkin into his collar, and your aunt sighs and picks up a knife]. A few rays of sun heralding the victory of daylight hovered timid and pale on the horizon [and the ocean out the window is thinner than our blood] while the last stars slipped under the bank of clouds [and the steam and the steam] the color of flame trees in flower."


On the dishtowel—the bluest you've ever seen, you now think—the crabs drain. The seasoned water meanders from their bodies into wet loops on the cotton. Your aunt tries to whistle but no sound comes out. There is nothing floral about this.