On the evening blood trickled down Mavis’s thigh and pooled on the kitchen linoleum, her father sent her outside to wait for her sister. She waited a while on the porch and then walked away from the trailer and down the path to the Atlantic, oaks giving way to palms. The sun was almost gone. A warm, salty breeze pulled at her nightdress as she dug her toes into white sand between patches of rough grass. She kept her legs apart, tilted her body forward to watch three round stains seeping their way through sandy earth.
Her sister, Katrina, would not return before dawn, when she would carry a burlap sack full of purple-clawed decapod crustaceans—writhing, chirping bodies and clicking shells. Mavis found herself humming as she waited for her sister to return, rocking her hips forward and backward to soothe the unfamiliar pain in her abdomen. She fingered the flat place just below the curve of her belly through her panties’ thin cotton. She felt her insides sink lower, her guts gurgling as she walked the beach with her knees as far apart as her nightdress would allow. She bent slightly forward as she lowered herself to the ground and felt like a hermit crab herself. The waves whistled in the distance as she made her way to the gulf. She shuffled across the sand, her feet sinking into its cooler depths, and the sounds inside the trailer behind her faded. There were no more creaks from the loose screen door. The hum of the fan was now also gone, along with the static of an analog TV. As if to replace these sounds with other sensations, the breeze carried the smell of plants and fish decaying in the Atlantic. The decay was pleasant to Mavis; it smelled the way she remembered her mother’s hands and hair.
Hermits are most active at night, so Mavis guessed Katrina wouldn’t be back for hours. Trying to distract herself, she picked up shells and listened for the sounds of a more distant ocean, but she couldn’t hear anything over the frothing of the waves or throbbing of her own nervous capillaries. Her job had always been to gather and paint empty shells, which her father would bring to the pier along with the live hermit crabs that her sister caught to sell to throngs of northern tourists reeking of sunscreen. Not so long ago, Mavis’s mother had sung fantastical stories as they worked. Before the girls had started school, their mother had taught them how to paint tiny palm trees, how to add texture to waves, how to lick a lock of their own hair to a point and dip the tip into a pool of acrylic without pulling up too much paint. Why buy brushes, her mother asked, when you can grow your own for free?
Mavis felt a familiar lump in her throat, one that had formed at her mother’s death three months earlier. She swallowed it down past the tender heat behind her breasts, where it merged with the soreness below her belly button and made her skin pucker. She felt her toes growing cold and dug them beneath the sand, feeling its roughness as it closed around them. Mavis had always been able to feel the vibrations the crabs made as they dug their way into the sand, finding the perfect depth for molting. Her toes received messages from the crabs—where they were, if they were digging down or about to emerge, if they were molting or dead.
Once, a year before, Mavis and Katrina had tried to hide a crab for themselves. They’re not meant to be pets, their father had told them. They need the ocean and need to be free. To the girls, though, the safety of their bedroom seemed preferable to the beaks of seagulls and the tourists on the pier. Before the girls chose their crab, Katrina filled an empty Tupperware container with two inches of wet sand, just enough for a crab to molt under, and carried it home. She found spare shells for their future pet once it decided to grow, and Mavis hunted for a small piece of driftwood for the crab to climb. Together, they rifled through their toy box and chose a plastic purple dinosaur to keep it company.
Katrina stashed the dwelling under the bed in their room and told Mavis not to say a word. Katrina was older and, though much thinner and slightly shorter than Mavis, her eyes could flatten in a scowl that her sister had learned to obey. Soon they picked their favorite crab, small and bright orange with an oversized purple claw, and placed it in the four-quart rectangular plastic cage. The crab flailed its limbs searching for solid ground as Katrina first pulled it from her pocket and lowered it into its new home. Katrina let Mavis call the crab Shellbert, though she thought the name was stupid. They took turns sneaking pieces of meat or coconut into their room after dinner, and each night they slept above Shellbert in their bed, where they shared blankets and let the scuffling sounds of exoskeletal chitin on plastic lull them to sleep.
When their mother was hospitalized, shortly after her miscarriage of their baby brother, their father drove them upstate to Tallahassee to stay with their aunt so he could “get things straightened out.” The girls held hands in the back of an old Chevy van, and Mavis whispered questions to Katrina.
“Why couldn’t we keep him, again?”
“Momma said he was too small, like the size of a pumpkin seed.” Katrina looked at her lap, and for a moment there was only the sound of the highway and cicadas hidden somewhere in the night.
Mavis spoke again, this time so her father could hear her. “But why doesn’t Momma look sick?”
Their father hesitated, considering this for the first time himself. He thought of how she’d given away the girls’ old crib and tossed out boxes of unused pregnancy tests. He recalled her new habit of sleeping through the afternoon and losing track of the days of the week. How she’d stopped reading, let her paints dry up. But she hadn’t looked any different; there’d been nothing to see.
“She’s sick on the inside, baby,” he said finally, without taking his eyes off the illuminated section of the highway in front of him. He tried to be patient, searching for explanations he thought his daughters would understand. “In her heart.”
Mavis tried to imagine what a sick heart might look like. She wondered if it changed colors, if it became green or if it coughed hard against her mother’s ribs. She imagined arranging the dollhouse she shared with Katrina for their little brother. She imagined a pumpkinseed baby with a pumpkinseed heart, swaddled and pressed into a miniature plastic cradle.
Mavis scanned the horizon’s soft blue glow and noticed there were fewer stars shining than before. She pulled at a lock of her hair and tried to braid it the way her mother used to, but her fingers seemed to get in the way of her progress. She felt a warm wetness between her legs once more and peered down at the sand where a red clump lay between her heels. Alarmed, she kicked sand over the clot and moved away, wondering with more urgency where Katrina might be. She imagined her just around the cove, her bag full of hermits. She counted seconds, imagined her sister’s actions and predicted how long it would be before she appeared. Mavis pulled her nightdress up over her thighs so the blood wouldn’t stain it further. She watched as a crab inspected a bigger shell, feeling the edges with his pereopods. The hermit rolled the shell over, exposing its pearlescent interior. Mavis watched as it delicately removed grain after grain from the depth of the shell before finally scooting its body closer. Then in what seemed like an instant, the crab lifted itself from the smaller shell, revealing its vulnerable abdomen, and plunged inside the nacreous coil. Mavis curled her toes in pain as her body cramped, wishing herself in her own smooth, coiled place.
When the girls had returned home from their aunt’s and found their crab missing from its dwelling, they both hoped it had managed to survive despite escaping. Mavis imagined the crab had found a way through the screen door, perhaps when her father stood smoking on the porch, and was surprised to find Katrina crying the next evening. She’d discovered the body behind their toy box after following the putrid smell and slammed the door, refusing to answer Mavis’s questions. At first Mavis pushed against the door, calling out, “He’s my pet too,” between groans. Katrina leaned against the door with all of her weight against her little sister’s heft and dug her heels into the carpet. “I don’t want you to see!” she shouted, and then Mavis grew quiet. Katrina wished she could unsee it—slack legs and claws spilling out of the mouth of the shell, ants crawling underneath and inward to the soft, unprotected skin of the crab’s abdomen, brick-red remnants of eggs clustered around Shellbert’s gonopores that never found their way to sea.
Once, Mavis remembered, their mother had brought the girls to the cove where the crabs huddled together, climbing over each other’s bodies. Their mother had taught them how to step carefully, avoiding the scrambling crustaceans, the decay and pollutants that collected there among washed-up jellies. You have to respect their space, her mother had told them, pick them up by their shells, like this. Another time, the girls went to the cove alone and found a massacre. Gulls circled, pulling crabs from their shells in numbers the girls had never seen. Mavis knew they’d be scolded for how few they brought home, but there was nothing she could do. The crabs had already been devoured or frightened away.
“Hey, Mavis! What are you doing out here? I thought you said you were too sick today.”
Mavis startled, then slackened with relief. “Paw made me. Said you’d help me make it stop.” She pointed to her stained nightdress, and Katrina had to squint in the dark to see that it was blood. Dried lines of it clung to Mavis’s inner thighs and down one calf.
“Jesus. What did you do?” Katrina laid down her sack and poked at Mavis’s belly. “Can’t be your period. You’re too young.”
“When did you get yours?”
Katrina’s eyes went flat, then softened. “I didn’t. Not yet.”
At this, Mavis shrank. Her fingers dug into her hair, and she slid down the tree she had been leaning against and plopped into the sand. “So, I am dying.”
“No, you’re not,” Katrina told her, grabbing her sister’s hand and pulling her up, “At least I don’t think.” She tightened the knot at the top of her sack, and the crabs inside increased their movement, sharp tips of legs poking through burlap in places and grabbing hold. Katrina pulled her little sister toward the water and urged her to rinse off.
Mavis wiped her cheeks with a clean section of her nightdress before holding it above her belly and stepping over the line of crushed shells and stinking weeds into the waves. The water was warmer than usual, and she was surprised it didn’t sting her in whatever place the blood was leaving her body. Beneath the moon’s corona, Mavis could see a swirling pinkness drag out with the foam between her legs.
Katrina didn’t know how to make it stop. She tried to think back to before her mother’s sadness and before their little brother came out too small. Before Aunt June’s smoke-smelling trailer and writing letters to their mom. She had learned in school about becoming a woman, about bleeding and making babies and shedding layers, but she didn’t remember how it all worked. She told her sister this, and Mavis began to cry.
“Trina, you gotta tell me what to do. My body feels all wrong, and look here,” Mavis pointed at red scars forming at the tops of her thighs, as if her body couldn’t fit inside her skin. “There are some here too,” she said, lifting her gown up to show the marks forming around her breasts. They’d begun puffing out slightly, and pink scars bolted away from the new growth. Mavis saw her sister’s curious eyes on her body, the light hairs sprouting under her arms, and she felt her cheeks grow hot.
“Maybe you’re molting. Is your skin falling off? Maybe that’s why you have the scars.” Katrina rubbed her fingers over the marks, and the sensation made Mavis tremble.
Katrina looked at her sister, lit by the moon and standing thigh high in the water, her nightdress clutched to her body with white knuckles as she bled into the Atlantic. Mavis’s hands looked like their mother’s—small but strong and thick. She had the same long, smooth hair. Could Mavis outgrow her own shell, her own skin? She’d seen the crabs bury themselves into the sand. She’d watched others emerge, fresh and bright and looking for new dwellings. She’d felt the prick of freshly formed setae as they crawled over her ankles each time she lay on the beach.
“Do you think it’ll work?” Mavis asked, stepping into the hole they’d dug in the sand. It was startlingly deep, only twenty feet from shore, and the soil was damp at the bottom of the hole. Mavis had to point her foot straight out like a ballerina to reach. The girls fantasized about Mavis emerging, working her way up through the sand like the crabs, slowly and deliberately as sand fell away from her face. Katrina leaned forward and kissed her sister’s forehead like their mother always had, both hands clasping themselves over Mavis’s ears, thumbs brushing her eyebrows straight.
Mavis lay down in the pit, clutching her knees to her chest, which felt good and eased her pain. She signaled she was ready with a nod, and Katrina began pushing the sand over her legs first. Mavis felt the coolness of the sand envelop her as Katrina grunted and pushed in mound after mound. She closed her eyes and took a breath just before particles began to shower her face and infiltrate her hair.
Once, a few years ago, Mavis had observed sand under a microscope—tiny, minuscule shells, chipped bits of rock and coral. Not at all white, as it looked with the naked eye. She remembered pink, yellow, and blue, the ridged textures and the porous ones. Nothing was round or square, but the separate particles were conical or cylindrical or a myriad of different shapes in one. Mavis remembered that one had looked exactly like a honeycomb, another a tiny version of an adult crab’s shell.
Now she was under the sand in the dark. Katrina had buried her, reassured her. “Don’t worry,” she said, “this is how it works.” From under the sand, Mavis knew the hermits had found their way out of Katrina’s burlap sack, had begun pouring out over each other, fumbling their way to the shoreline. Sand was packed between her legs and became heavy on her chest as Katrina pushed yet more sand into the hole. Mavis found it harder to breathe. She thought she could feel the water seeping up from under her. She was sure she could hear the sound of her own lungs dying. She tried to yell but couldn’t. The grit of sand in her teeth cut at her gums, and she tasted blood in the back of her throat. She knew she had to molt fast so she could dig her way up. Mavis felt herself pushing, stretching, gasping sand. She thought she could hear their father shouting, Katrina’s manic combination of yelp and shriek.
Then, as soon as she thought it ended, it began. She felt herself bursting, felt the heaviness of too-small skin fall as she left it behind. Her pain was gone, and her body made sense again. The sounds above her faded, and she could no longer tell if it was sand above her, or sky, or salty sea.
Hayli Cox is an MA graduate and soon-to-be PhD candidate for creative writing at Mizzou. Her work has most recently been published in The Gateway Review, Moonsick Magazine, HOOT, Open Palm Print, Hippocampus Magazine, Paper Darts, DIAGRAM, and Crab Fat Magazine. In her free time, Hayli paints, builds with Legos, walks her cat, and indulges in late night audiostrolls on the shores of Lake Superior. She currently serves as an editor for Heavy Feather Review. You can find her on twitter @haylimayli.