Our favorite slow-moving drama

Four years ago, we purchased two hermit crabs - little ones, the size of red-oak acorns. As pets go, Beatrice and Barbara aren't very warm and cuddly. The shells in which they live prove a barrier to intimacy. Playing with a hermit crab is like playing with a Barbie doll that must forever remain twisty-tied to her pink box. Plus, hermit crabs always have the option of not playing at all. They're apt to go into their shells and not come out, like some teenagers with their bedrooms.

When a hermit crab does emerge, it's akin to a movie star's limo arriving at a Hollywood party. First, the crab's largest pincer claw comes out to take an intimidating bodyguard stance. Then pointy-tipped feet and long, thin legs slide into view. After that, the simile gets dicey, since antennae follow, atwitter with piano-hammer action. The eyes, instead of being surrounded by long lashes, are themselves long, each atop a stalk that can look around independently. The crab's body always stays hidden, save for the fleeting moments when the crab vaults into a new shell, a feat we've witnessed only once.

Crab locomotion took me a long time to fathom. Once the crab's legs are out and organized, the creature must tense its little crab abs to hoist its shell and get under way. The legs move in jerks and starts, like a set of novice square dancers. The resulting trajectory is not what one would expect from the shell's orientation. It's cock-eyed, as though a school bus were going along its route with its front right wheel foremost.

Any moving crabs do usually happens at night. During the day, Beatrice and Barbara hunker in hollows they dig in the terrarium's blue gravel. Sometimes they don't budge for days. Other times, we peer into the tank a full minute before finding where they've relocated overnight.

Their desultorily changing of location reminds me of a stuffed cloth bunny that appeared one morning on a lawn I passed daily. It was loved to shabbiness, with one of its eyes replaced with a black button sewed on in the X pattern typical of amateur efforts.

The bunny was still there when I walked by the next day. The following evening, it had moved across the lawn. To my delight, I spied the bunny in ever-varying locations: by the house, near the hedge, under a tree. This was all demystified the day the homeowner told me he carried the toy out of range of the sprinklers every time he watered.

Most people with hermit crabs probably take them out and let them stroll abroad, enjoying the novelty of an arthropod on their familiar household surfaces. We don't, since a friend once lost her crab thus. Two years later, it was found in a houseplant, living a life on the lam.

Rather than introduce the crabs to new situations, we introduce new items into their tank, rendering it a miniature performance-art venue. Their props have included a small Tabasco bottle, a giant conch shell (a mansion for them to aspire to), and a toy computer that has afforded many a joke about the crabs checking their e-mail and being Y2K compliant.

One night when Beatrice was on the keyboard, her eye stalks near the screen, I took her picture. William Wegmen, move over.

Barbara is particularly attached to a plastic stegosaurus. She has been known to scale the fins of its humped back and perch at the apex, like a mini broncobuster. More often, she burrows between its hind feet, where a real dinosaur would incubate its eggs. Since Barbara wears a smooth oval snail shell, she looks like an egg. We figure she's a dinosaur wannabe.

Barbara is very attached to the snail shell she wore when she came home from the pet shop. We have a variety of shells available so she and Beatrice can move on to larger ones as they molt and grow. Barb has tried others briefly, but she keeps coming back to that first shell.

After the last molt, her fifth while with us, she put on a much larger, spiky seashell. We were glad for her, though we became unaccountably nostalgic for the days when she was just a little crab. She must have felt homesick herself, since one morning she was wearing the snail shell again. We chuckled about the tight fit and how her pincer claw hung out risquely.

Soon afterward, someone wrote to Ann Landers about a colleague who was very intelligent but who always wore her clothes three sizes too small. The writer complained that the colleague was making herself look ridiculous. We conjectured that Beatrice had composed the letter on her computer and e-mailed it in.

Each evening we put out food and water for our little friends, which they, in turn, greet with apathy. Indeed, hermit crabs pack the same quantity of thrills as the average glacier. But sometimes late at night, we hear them foraging. Their shells hit the tank's glass sides with sharp, infrequent clicks, sounding like the world's most lethargic castanet players.

"Mm!" we say, eyebrows raised. "Another wild night in the crab tank."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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