Watching Sisyphus fight Achilles
Originally, he intended to eat them. That was the plan. That was the reason. That was the reason that professor always told people why he’d come here, when they’d ask him why, why’d you leave all that pay, why’d you have to go so far away. He’d tell them, crabs.
This place had the best crabs in the world. There was the mountains and there was the sea and between the thin stretch of a nose, a sandy flat and marshy land pushing out into the sea and all along the edges there the crabs crawled sideways, ten-legged and two-pinchered and mean. The stretch of land there was named after the crabs. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the way it was now was the land was named for the crabs and the crabs for the land and the two were identical, and that was his reason.
That was the reason he’d gone down on the first day of the seasons, gone down to the docks in the early morning when the first of the boats came back. The salt was still drying and dripping off the boats, off the funnel ends of the pots and the flat red backs of the crabs. The professionals were there at their first day of work and the amateurs were taking a day off and he walked down among them and found a few he liked and bought them.
He bought two. The fisherman wrapped pink rubber bands around the claws and put them in salt water in a pot and said, there you go. Fresh. The professor took the salt water pot and the manacled crabs and took them home to his wife. He put the pot on the stove and left it there for later.
Later, that day in the evening, he came back. He looked in the pot and the crabs were there. They were fighting. The one on the left was pushing. Out in front of him he had his rubber-banded claws and he was pushing the other crab back into the pot wall. He’d push and the other crab would look at him and get pushed smack into the wall and then he’d fight back. He’d bring up his claws, red claws absurd in pink rubber bands, and he’d fight back. He’d push off the wall, pushed too far, and the left crab would drive the right one back to the middle of the pot before he’d quit, and stop, and the right one would push him back again.
Hey honey, the professor called. I’m going to call this one Sisyphus and this other one Achilles.
What? she said from the other room and he said, the one’s always pointlessly pushing and the other always gives up but gets pushed too far and comes back fighting.
She laughed, but more like he was funny than like it was funny. And she knew then too that he was going to keep them. He wasn’t going to cook them, boil them so the shells would scream with escaping air and they’d eat them on the porch picking out the meat with the claws. She would have complained, maybe she should have, but they already had a poodle and a parakeet and a parrot and a bull dog and a cat and she couldn’t think of a reason to say they shouldn’t have a couple of crabs.
The next day he bought a tank. It was a salt water tank bubbling back into itself so it always hummed. It hummed and it gargled so you could hear it from anywhere in the house. He set it in the living room between the bookshelves. Sisyphus and Achilles, he said, both of them heros, each of them in their own way trying and failing to give up. He liked to watch them, in the lighted tank in a dark room. He’d listen to Mozart on the radio over the static and watch them, dusky red and rubber-banded, the one pushing and then the other pushing back.
The professor watched them that way all the way through crab season and into the spring. The sea grass flowered again and their bladders filled out red and rubbery and floated at the edge of salt eddies. He watched them into the next crab season and then he thought one night that he was like God, watching this struggle go on forever and how at any time he could stop it. He could stop it. He could have stopped it but he’d have to decide which of them he preferred. He’d have to take the side of the one that never gave up or the one that was always trying to, and he didn’t know how to do that.