There are two honors for women here. One is that you marry well; your husband doesn’t beat you and will hold you close at night. Two: you become a crab girl in the crab factory.
I live on a little island named Jauh. It’s near Malaysia and is lost between the seas, a grain of sand being rubbed by an oyster. The island has one brown road that splits it apart like the spine on our backs.
My house is the one furthest in from the shore. It teeters between the strong arms of palm trees, and smells of soft yellow plumeria. At night, I can hear the cries of the ocean. It’s our Ibu, the mother asking you to come home to suckle on her cold wet breast. I don’t listen to her cries, but many girls do, and they go to sleep under her waves of love. We find them in the morning and dry them off, bringing them home to earth mothers with earthly love.
My ma says, “You are destined to be a crab girl. You are plain, but you got good hands.”
I have the hands of a man, strong and rough. They can easily break off the leg of a crab. I tell Auntie that when I get to the factory. Auntie pulls my hand up close to her, “Your hand’s fatter than a man’s. You’ll never get all the meat out of the shells. Your heart line is short too.” I tell her that I work hard. She sighs, and says that’s what my ma told her too.
When you work in the lines, you can’t talk. Auntie says, “The pretty white people who eat these canned crabs don’t want to know that some dirty brown girl has got all her spit in there.” So we work silently. I sit next to Nur. Her face is as soft as the sand of Ibu, and when she pulls apart the red crabs, she does so softly and gently. She likes the boy who brings us the fresh ones. I know because when he’s here, she stops peeling, just to smile prettily at him. I ask Nur why she still works at the crab factory. She’s pretty enough to marry the boy. Nur opens her mouth, and her big tongue flops out. It looks like a baby’s hand in her mouth and is raw and red, too wide and wet. She slips and slides her words out to say, “My tongue ugly.”
The young girls work at peeling the crabs. We nick our fingers and squint our eyes ‘til we are old and hunched like the clams at the bottom of the sea floor. The Caps work in the canning factory. They wear white like it’s their wedding, or funeral. They grab the soft white crab meat like it’s the feathers of angels. They trap it in tin tombs. The Caps are the older us’s, and they are more crooked than the tail of a cat. When we crab girls go to visit them with our buckets of peeled crab meat, they stuff a tiny piece in our mouths, a little angel feather for the way home.
I’ve only seen one white person my whole life. That’s the owner of the factory. He’s tall and thin, and he looks like a duck that’s about to be cooked. He smokes cigarettes more than he breathes, and when he smiles, he looks like he’s hurting. No one talks to him, except Auntie. She tries to impress him with broken English, more rotten than her teeth. He still smiles at her, but I can’t tell if it’s pain he’s showing or if he’s just trying to be nice.
It’s easy to peel a crab, Auntie explains. You grab it by its legs, pull hard and then crack it more times, until the hard red skin becomes like silk robes. Crabs are like pretty ladies. They want to put up a fight and give you a show before you get to their tender parts. They sometimes scratch you with their thorny skin, but that’s passion. You grab the largest chunks, and then take a tiny leg to scrape out the tiny bits. It’s easy she says. Too easy.
I don’t want to be a crab girl. I tell my ma I want to leave. Ma has black hair, and they say she was once pretty. Whatever pretty she had in her, she used it all up on my dad, because after he left, she became as withered as driftwood. She holds my head close to her and cradles me. She says, “I once felt like that. But, wherever you go, it’s the island, again. You are never gonna be happy, because you’re my daughter.” I know this is a fact, because I think I have her sadness in me, just like how she got it from her ma, who got it from hers. This sadness is the heirloom all the women in my family sew into their eyes, ‘til their pain makes them sand-blind with pleasure.
The crab boy stopped coming. It’s hard being a crab fisher. The winds and waves know your name, and once you set foot on that boat, it’s a ticking clock ‘til they claim you. Nur’s so sad you can see the pain in her crab. The red creature sits hot and boiled, and she peels so hard and fast, even the crab moans. A week later, Nur marries her father’s friend. There’s no ceremony. I go to see her at her new house and bring her mangoes. They are ripe and juicy and I peel them like a fish to make her laugh. She eats the mangoes and lets the sticky juice run down her chin like the tears she wants to cry. I peel her one more mango, but it’s rotten to the core, copper festering on its insides. “You’ll be happy, here,” I say. I tell her that so maybe it will happen. Maybe I have magic that will enchant this place and make the brown walls that cake and cover her into the sky. She says, “Your mango rotten.”
The white man says the factory is going to close. He smiles when he says that. Is he happy that he doesn’t have to look at dirty island girls with cans of dank crab meat? He says that machines are getting popular and white people want factories at home. More reliable. He gives us his phone number and says, “Call me if you need help.” Of course no one calls him. He’s too nice.
That night the ocean sings to me. I look out the window in my room and see the crab factory, its black smoke shadow spreading over the waves. I say goodbye. Auntie gives me my last check. She says, “A lot of the girls are going to the mainland to seek jobs. You should try your luck there. Your fate line is good, and you’ll find fortune.” I look at my hand and the lines on it stretch forever, flying off my palms like grains of sand.
When I buy a ticket to the mainland, I don’t tell anyone. At night only the moon knows my secret as she licks the ticket white hot, searing my hands. I tell Nur to come with me. She smiles, ‘cause she knows I’m trying to be nice. We both know that her destiny is here. My ma throws words at my face that fall to the ground as tears, leaving our feet covered in mud. She says there’s nothing there for me, but I don’t know yet. I am leaving. I step onto the boat. The waves churn side to side, reminding me of home and sleep. The smell of the sea lingers in my nose and rests in my hair like the softest of spring winds. I look up to watch the island shrink away, crawling back into the ocean like a crab. I let the meaty teeth of land claw around me, feel its firm grasp forgetting the rhythm of the waves.
My ma was right. I was destined to be a crab girl. At night, I still crack crabs in my sleep, letting the slippery meat fall and rain into the mouths of pretty white children, while Ibu beats her drum.
“Crab Girl” by Holly Chen appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Holly Chen is an incoming freshman studying screenwriting at UCLA. She has won various awards for prose, winning silver medal nationally for her piece, “How to be Yourself.” She has also been published in the paperback Best Teen Writing of 2014 by Scholastic. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering with autistic children, watching Netflix, and hanging out with family and friends.