Author / Speaker



















KOROR, PALAU


Fronds jabbed their knees. Mosquitoes jabbed their skin. Even in the dappled jungle shade, the sun placed a fiery hand on their bare skin. But he was nineteen, and he was focused on other things.
It is every male’s hope, but she was every female.
Stepping from the jungle to the beach, she snapped her halter top.
“No way. Uh-uh. I’m not taking my clothes off here. The beach is half mud. And the whole place stinks.”
“We’re alone,” said Atiniui.  “No one comes here.”
Laia was sixteen, but she was no child.
“I wonder why,” she said.
Atiniui took her hand. Her hand was cool, but the rest of her was not. He reminded himself that he had had her many times before. He reminded himself that Atiniui meant man of the sea.
“Here,” he said. “We can sit on the roots.”
At the edge of the mangrove forest, the thickest roots rose up from the sand like a line of bow-legged old men.
Atiniui was racked with raging hormones, but he had a poet’s soul. This remote beach was his favorite place. It was hung with dank, but it was the dank of life. It was a place of regeneration. He liked that. A chance to rise past your mistakes. He was young, but he had already made a few.
The roots were uncomfortable, like sitting on bones, but their seat provided a lovely view of the water. Laia had seen this water her whole life, but the colors still hypnotized her. So many different shades of blue and green, melding, stepping apart, melding again. Never content to be a single kind of beauty. She had already decided. She was going to be a photographer and travel the world, taking pictures of beautiful places. But now her family could not afford a camera. She took a picture of the water with her mind.
Opening the cooler, Atiniui pulled out the bento lunches. Growing up in the middle of the ocean, you learned to hate fish. But Laia loved fish, so he bought fish. She was a strange bird, but she had a hard body and a creative imagination.   
The coconut crab scuttled out from the darkness beneath their dangling legs. Its shell was two feet across. It banged against Laia’s ankle, a seven-pound bowling ball, before lurching out into the bright sunshine,
Laia leapt up, and did a spastic dance.
“Fuck! Mother fucker! It ran right into me!”
The crab was twenty yards away, but she kept jumping. Her arms flapped over her head, as if they were free of bones.
Atiniui nearly cried with laughter.
“You’re one crazy fucking dancer,” he said. “You going to jump out of your pants?”
Laia stopped.
“You wish. Fuck you.”
The crab faced them from a safe distance, its wet maw opening and closing.
Atiniui watched the crab too. It was big, but coconut crabs got bigger.
“They’re an aphrodisiac,” he said.
“Everything is an aphrodisiac to you.”  
“Life is better that way,” Atiniui said softly.
Her embarrassment nearly gone, Laia looked at Atiniui with appreciation. He was handsome and surprisingly smart, and he had bought her lunch, though not without motive. She would let him use his hands. He would do until she traveled to Paris and fell in love with a Frenchman who knew what to do with his hands.
Three more crabs crawled out from beneath the mangrove roots a few yards away. They walked their sideways walk, cautious, creepy gunslingers, never taking their eyes off the boy and the girl.
“They smell the fish,” Atiniui said.
Laia followed his gaze.
The gray cat leapt boldly from the brush. The tabby followed tentatively, perhaps made cautious by whatever lesson saw it lose its left ear. The two cats sat on the loamy beach, away from the crabs. They watched the boy and the girl, tails twitching.
“It looks like everyone comes here,” Laia said.
“You’re an aphrodisiac.”
Warmth radiated through her legs. Being with him was like being blindfolded and spun around. He was a poet and a pervert. He was so confusing. She wondered if all men were like this.
Atiniui held out a piece of rabbit fish.
“Here pussy,” he said.
“Pig.”
The gray cat padded up. It accepted the fish from his hand with a pink tongue.
Atiniui held out a second piece. The gray cat tried to snatch it. Atiniui shoved the gray cat away with his bare foot.
“For the shy pussy,” he said.
The tabby came forward cautiously. It stopped a foot away, but they could both see into the hole where its ear had been. The bone was gray and mildewy looking.
“That’s disgusting,” said Laia.
“It doesn’t have any brains.”
“You would know.”
They had forgotten the crabs. Laia saw there were more. A lot more. Several were bigger than the advance scout. They swayed to and fro above the scalloped mud, as if entertaining some collective beat in their head.
“Their claws look like mouths,” she said.
“They ate Amelia Earhart.”
“Who’s Amelia Earhart?”
“Some old pilot,” said Atiniui. “She crashed her plane on an island. Her legs were broken, and she couldn’t run away.”
He made the last bit up.
It had the desired effect.
Without taking her eyes off the crabs, Laia fumbled for his hand.
“Bullshit,” she said. “How do they know that?”
“They found her skeleton. Pieces of her skeleton. Broken and scattered everywhere. Like a wood chipper.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said, but she did. “Coconut crabs eat coconuts.”
Surely they must eat something else. She suddenly realized how little she knew about her own island.
Atiniui knew he had her.
He lowered his voice, and sent his eyes darting left and right, for dramatic effect.
“My cousin shot a pig on the beach once. It was too big to carry, so he went home to get a friend with a boat. When they brought the boat the next day, most of the meat was gone. Even the biggest bones were broken.”
It looked to Laia like the crabs were applauding.
“Liar. You’re making that up too,” she said, but she didn’t believe herself this time either.
The crabs formed a colorful swath on the beach. Several crabs began to spin in circles, their spindly spider legs throwing up sand. One dashed straight into a mangrove root, braining itself. Two of the biggest crabs, their backs broad as dinner plates, began slashing at each other. The biggest crab drove a muscular claw into the carapace of its assailant, the sound like a crushed potato chip.
The victorious crab drew forth a viscous string of guts and flesh.
Laia stood.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
Crabs still tumbled from beneath the mangrove roots. The dark earth spit them forth in a clacking mass.
“Even I won’t take my clothes off here,” Atiniui said, but Laia saw the fear behind his smile.
They left the lunch behind.
The crabs smelled both fish and cat, but it was not hunger that saw them swarm forward. They weren’t hungry. They were overwhelmed with the need to escape their pain.
Here in this tiny cusp of bay, the water circulated little. The bacteria thrived in the warm sea water that percolated up through the sand.
Do you know how hard it is to break open a coconut?
These crabs, they can do it easily.
Finished with the cats, they turned on each other.