The Hermit Crab Hotel

On a beach in Cape Cod, in a hole dug into the sand, the hermit crabs are shimmying out of their shells. The kids scream with delight, and it really is wonderful. “I can’t believe we’re getting to see this,” I keep saying, like a taped message of my own amazement, and my son, Ben, says, “I know!” every time.

We’ve been collecting hermit crabs in a bucket, which itself makes for an inexplicably good time. But this year I’m having more fun than usual: maybe it’s because I trust more that Ben and my daughter, Birdy, will not suddenly be—How do I put this?—dead. This is the first year I can zip Birdy into a life vest without her shrieking what sounds like a demented version of the Hallelujah chorus with “Hallelujah” swapped out for the words “Boo hoo hoo.”

When the tide is out, the water here is knee deep for miles, and the hermit crabs scuttle along the sandy bottom, darting from seaweed clump to seaweed clump like spies in an action movie. Part of the thrill of picking them up is the possibility that they will pinch you with their tiny claws; this makes the children scream a lot, although Birdy is fond of reassuring Ben: “Hermit crabs really like to be so, so gentle.” She’s always been fearless about them, while Ben starts out every new summer a little crab shy. Sometimes I’ve been inexplicably exasperated by his skittishness: “Just pick it up,” I have been known to sigh. “It can’t exactly lop your finger off with a claw the size of dollhouse tweezers.” In a lifetime of stupidly picked battles, this may be one of the stupider—but Ben is always glad when he overcomes his fear.

We’ve dug a wide, shallow hole in the sand, which has filled with water, and dumped in the dozens of crabs—Ben always names this particular configuration of sand, sea, and crustacean “The Hermit Crab Hotel”—and now watch them, rapt, while they rest and mingle, wrestle and escape in an effort to find bigger and better homes. Ben notices that one of them is dragging around a real monstrosity. We look closely: at some point, the shell-less crab attached itself to a giant white clam half, which now pokes up into the air like a graceless sail. Ben is filled with pity. He splashes off into the bay, returns with an empty spiral, and places it near our afflicted friend. “Go ahead,” he coaxes. “Try it on.” “Oh honey,” I say. “That’s so sweet, but I don’t think it works like that.”

But I’m wrong. The little crab reaches a tentative claw into the shell’s empty hole, pats the shell all over, then pops out of his beleaguering house—he’s just a tiny thing, as naked as a boiled shrimp!—and, with his two claws braced against the opening, lowers his bare heinie gingerly into the new shell. He reaches back now to pat himself all over, then cranes his tiny head around to look. “Does this shell make my butt look big?” my husband, Michael says, and I laugh, but it’s such a dear thing we’re watching—this vulnerable little animal and the children so peachy and fascinated—that there are tears in my eyes.

Not a minute later, another crab is checking out the abandoned shell, and even as we’re shouting “Don’t do it! That shell stinks!” he’s plopping himself inside, feeling around. And suddenly it’s the fitting room at a sample sale; there’s an epidemic of shell swapping. “Um, no—I’m not sure I’m done with that one,” we imagine them saying. “Wait a sec, I may still be getting that one.” The crabs pat and pat themselves, crane their heads around, try on one shell and another, return to their original shells, pop out again.

And Ben and Birdy cheer them on, their enthusiasm as pure and bright as a shooting star.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir, “Waiting for Birdy.” Follow her on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.