Secret of Survival: Fiction Based on Horseshoe Crabs
Photo of Horseshoe Crabs
Final Wish: To See Horseshoe Crabs Mate
Each May, the O'Connells of Kent county bring their children to my Slaughter Beach home to watch one of nature's greatest spectacles - the sight of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of horseshoe crabs mating in the moonlight on the shores of the Delaware Bay.
I'm the oldest surviving O'Connell, and the only one who knows how this family tradition began. For over 80 years, I've kept the tale of my little sister, Lizzy's, fate a secret because I thought it would be too frightening to share with the younger members of my clan. I now realize that I've done a disservice to Lizzy's memory by never talking about her.
Hospice nurses tell me my body is riddled with cancer and I won't live long enough to see the crabs mate for one last time. My granddaughter, Mary, has been taking care of me. She's agreed to type my words and try to get this story published.
First Time I Saw Horseshoe Crabs Mating
Lizzy was still inside my mother's belly the first time Mama woke me up to see the mating of the crabs. Moonlight and stars reflected off the pearly white sand and when we reached the water's edge I squealed with delight. Thousands of horseshoe crabs were riding the foamy tide, and coming onto shore in a seemingly unending line of large brown, hard-shelled bodies huddled side by side and four feet deep. Mama's tone of voice was reverent as she told me, "The crabs know that the secret of survival is to mate successfully. Nothing more, and nothing less, is required of all God's creatures."
Squatting down into the sand, she held the kerosene lantern closer to the ground so I could get a better view of one of the couples who were scrambling to find a private spot on the beach. "The female is searching for a patch of sand to lay her eggs, and the male is hanging onto her back so he can fertilize them."
"What does ferti...fertilize mean?" I stammered, sensing that a word so big must be an important one to understand and remember.
"It means he sprays them with a special seed that makes the eggs grow into babies."
"Is that how you and Pa made the baby in your tummy? He climbed on your back and fertilized you with his seed?"
Mama laughed, though I must confess that at the time, I had no idea what was so funny.
"No," she said, and told me something that was even stranger. "Pa collected a wad of spit on his tongue, stuck it in my mouth, and when I swallowed it, his seed went into my belly. When the baby gets full-sized, I'll squat down and 'poop' it out."
"Ugh, that's really sickening, Mama."
"Sure is. There's nothing glamorous about having babies. It's hard work that's best saved till you're a full-grown woman. Never let a boy get close enough to kiss you, or you'll wind up having young ones before you're ready."
Maybe Mama lied about how babies were made and born because she thought her tall tale would make me swear off boys and keep me out of trouble till I was old enough to marry, or perhaps she did it to avoid talking directly about sex. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing why she told me something so bizarre, because she died while giving birth to little Lizzy.
Mama's death was devastating. At first I resented Lizzy, and the fact that I was forced to feed and change her, but as she got older my little sister became a companion for me, and I enjoyed teaching her things. When she was eight, I woke her up during a full May moon and took her for a walk along the beach. I couldn't resist teasing her with Mama's fertilization story even though by then I knew how babies were really made.
When I finished Mama's tall tale, Lizzy scrunched up her nose. "That's really yucky."
I laughed at her naivety, but was sure she didn't know what was so funny.
"Has a boy ever tried to kiss you?" she asked.
The truth was that Harry Blake, the boy who lived next door, had made out with me between the sand dunes last summer, and his kisses had been wildly exciting and enjoyable until he'd stuck his tongue inside my mouth. I gagged and pushed him away, screaming that he'd have to marry me because he'd made me pregnant.
"You can't be pregnant. We haven't done anything yet!"
"But you stuck your tongue in my mouth."
"So? I'd have to stick my penis someplace else to make you pregnant."
I turned crimson and was too embarrassed to ask him to specify where.
Later on I'd asked my girlfriend where a man's penis has to go to make you pregnant, and I finally learned the facts of life. Of course, I couldn't tell Lizzy any of this, and I invented a tall tale of my own to answer her question.
"Yeah, Harry Blake tried to kiss me by the willow tree in back of the schoolhouse last year, but I kicked him in the shins, and ran away before he got close enough to spit. There's no way I'm having babies before I'm ready. I changed enough of your stinky diapers to know it's no fun having babies when you're just a kid yourself."
This time Lizzy knew I was teasing her and she giggled.
Just then a large wave flipped over a group of crabs. "Help me turn them back onto their bellies, or they'll die," I told her.
Photo: Horseshoe Crab Stranded on Beach
The Fateful Storm
We worked so hard righting the crabs that we didn't notice that a storm was coming in until a bolt of lightning flashed above the bay. Past experience told me we had only a few minutes before the storm would be directly overhead, and I grabbed Lizzy and started running back toward the house. We'd gone a short distance when sheets of black water erupted from the ominous sky. Barely able to see, Lizzy and I both tripped over a piece of driftwood, and like a log being split apart by the blade of an axe, we fell in opposite directions.
The lantern flew out of my hand and the rain completely extinguished its flame. I desperately flailed around in the darkness trying to find Lizzy, but couldn't make contact with her. In between long rumbles of thunder, I heard her crying out for help, but the swirling howl of the wind scattered the direction of her cries, totally disorienting me. Suddenly a blinding flash of light illuminated her small body and her chilling scream raised the hair on my arms. A second later a powerful force hurled me to the ground and knocked me unconscious.
When I woke up, the sun was shining directly into my eyes, and I saw Lizzy floating above my head. I knew that what I was seeing couldn't be real, but I was still too dazed to make sense of it.
"Come down before you get hurt," I said.
"Look Jenny, I can fly." she giggled, apparently delighted by her newfound ability to soar. Spreading her arms like the wings of an eagle or perhaps more fittingly, of an angel, she floated so high that she melted into the sun.
"Lizzy," I screamed, sure that the sun would incinerate her if she stayed up there too long. "Come back down to earth right this minute!"
I didn't realize that I was hallucinating until Doc Wilson's face came into view and eclipsed the sun. I noticed that the dark circles around the orbits of his sepia-colored eyes made him look like a black-eyed raccoon, and started to laugh so hard that I could barely catch my breath.
"Hush, child. Lizzy's with God now, and your Mama's there with her."
It was then that I understood that Lizzy had died, and I became so hysterical that Doc Wilson had to give me something to calm me down.
Horseshoe Crabs Know Secret of Survival
Over the course of the next few months, I physically recovered from being struck by lightning, but it took much longer to heal the emotional wounds that the ordeal left on my soul. Doc Wilson, Parson Thorne, Harry Blake, and most everyone else I knew, said it was a miracle that I'd survived, but to me, it felt more like a curse, especially when Pa, who had never remarried after Mama died, committed suicide.
For a long time, I felt depressed and wished that God had taken me instead of Lizzy. I was an orphan, and Harry's parents kindly took me in. I still let Harry kiss me on the sand dunes because I needed to be held, but his kisses no longer made my heart sing. When we turned 17, he asked me to marry him, and I agreed because I felt that being married would give me some security.
Though it wasn't common practice back then, I kept my maiden name after the wedding. I told Harry it was all I had left of my family, and he seemed to understand. Harry was a kind man, but he was obsessed with sex back then and didn't much care what I did, as long as I let him make love to me every night. By the time I was 18, I was pregnant with our first child.
Harry was excited about the prospect of having a baby, but I was troubled. I went for long walks on Slaughter Beach. One day the words Mama had spoken about the crabs came to me as if they were a whisper from Mama herself. They skimmed along the tops of the gentle waves, and were balm to my wounded soul: "The crabs know that the secret of survival is to mate successfully."
At that moment, I realized that the spirits of Mama, Lizzy, and even Pa, still lived on within the child that was growing inside me. It was an epiphany that made me vow to have as many babies as I could, and the heavy veil of depression that had distorted my vision for so long was finally lifted.
Since then, I've endured many hardships, but our family has been the glue that's held me together and made my life worthwhile. I'm ready to die now, and am actually looking forward to being reunited with Harry, Lizzy, Mama and Pa, and 3 of my 8 children who have passed to the other side.
Epilogue: Moonlight Magic
Grandma Jenny died several weeks after telling me this story, but something eerie, yet fantastic, happened at Slaughter Beach the next time my family came to watch the crabs mate.
Grandma Jenny's last wish was to have her ashes scattered in the Delaware Bay.
At the precise moment that I threw her remains in the air, black clouds rolled across the moon, and wind rumbled over the water, frightening the children as it quickly grew into great claps of thunder.
Sure that a storm was imminent, we all sought shelter in Grandma Jenny's house. I made hot cocoa for the children and looked outside the window to see if it was raining. To my amazement, the moon was as bright as a molten sphere of glass twirling on the tip of a glass blower's pole. Several of my cousins went back outside with me and the only sounds we heard was the rhythmic crashing of the waves against the shoreline.
We turned our heads up to the heavens and the stars looked like a thousand lighthouses blinking down on us. There wasn't a single trace of the storm clouds that had filled the sky just a few moments earlier.
That was when we knew that the spirit of our beloved Grandma Jenny would always be with us.
Links to Websites With Photos of Horseshoe Crabs and Information on Where to View Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware
- Horseshoe Crabs, Limulus polyphemus at MarineBio.org
Horseshoe Crabs, Limulus polyphemus, Merostomata, Xiphosura, Limulidae, Description and Fascinating Facts, World Range and Habitat, Feeding Behavior, Life History, Ecology, Reproduction, Conservation Status/Additional Comments, References, and Furthe
- Many Horseshoe Crabs and Birds on Delaware Bay from Travelogue by Sing H. Lin, Ph.D
Stunning photos of huge number of horseshoe crabs mating and many birds on beaches along Delaware Bay.
- DuPont Nature Center at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve
Owned and operated by the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, this center offers one of the best viewing areas for spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds during the peak season.