On Christmas day we set him free.
We hadn’t really captured him, of course. There were no traps or snares; no bait or tricks to lure him in. We had simply picked him up like all the others, unaware that he was even there. If he had shown himself, we would have left him to his ocean; but instead he tightened his brittle body deeper into his shell and hid. Fear will do that to you.
We were on vacation in Dad’s childhood town, and while the rest of the country opened presents around trees, Christmas morning found us in the garden of a small seaside bed and breakfast. The scent of hot pancakes and warm syrup melted into the salty geranium-infused air; and as the steam of coffee curled around us, we watched the gulls circling in the distance and the sun sailing on the waves. It was the kind of morning that once breathed in, is never really breathed out again; and we inhaled deeply.
Uncle Herbert was with us: his ruddy face puffy from years of sun and alcohol, his blue eyes seeking salvation in the strength of the coffee held cupped in his hands. He had joined us for breakfast, but would not be joining us in the old stone church that anchored one end of a narrow grey road. Instead he would be out on the lagoon, soaking up more sun and alcohol while we sat in the glow of sunlit stained-glass, singing carols and taking Communion. He thought it was too late for him: too many years gone by to accept the baby in the manger, the man on the cross; and so he wound his aching soul deeper into himself and hid. Fear will do that to you, but it broke Dad’s heart.
We spoke little on the short drive from the church to the hotel, but it was an almost sacred silence: the kind that soaks into your soul, and stains it beautiful. It followed us into our rooms, and lasted until a furtive scratching gently peeled it open.
The sound came from an antique chest of drawers that stood near the foot of my bed. An old wooden tray lay atop it, and I was just barely able to see something moving within the confines of the tray’s raised sides. Curiosity carried me quietly forward, but wonder caught and held me.
“Daddy,” I whispered.
“One of the shells is moving.”
I felt more than heard him cross the room to stand beside me. For a moment we stood mesmerised, staring at the collection of shells we had so carefully gathered the evening before. All but one lay in the neat little rows they’d been placed in. The remaining one was carefully exploring the tray, his spindly grey legs scratching against the hard wooden surface.
“Looks like we had a little stow-away,” Daddy said with a chuckle, as he picked up the tiny hermit crab and placed him in his palm.
The crab’s fragile legs and eyes vanished quickly into the protective curve of shell again, but I wondered if he realized just how vulnerable he really was.
“We need to take him back,” I said quietly.
I held him in a small box on my lap as we drove the long winding road to the lagoon; something in my child’s heart breaking as I listened to his brittle legs scratching hopelessly; as I watched him finally giving up and withdrawing into his shell. When I knelt on the cool shore of the lagoon, and gently lay the shell on the sand, he never reappeared. I waited for a long moment before I finally looked up at my father in despair.
“Is he dead, Daddy?” I whispered.
“No, Evie,” he said softly. “He just needs to feel the touch of the water. He can’t hide forever.”
With trembling hands, I did as my father said. The cool water slipped softly over the shell, and as its small inhabitant slowly emerged, I heard the quiet splash of oars as Uncle Herbert rowed slowly back to shore.
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