First published by LITRO Magazine in October 2011
There is an animal which exists - apparently, it was once found only in the very North of China, up past the nuclear deserts of Xinjiang, though now, of course, it is very much more common and known in virtually all the cities of the world. Like the foxes of England, it has expanded its domain, abandoned its natural habitat and become a willing emigrant to the cities, where now it has become an effortless transplant, perfectly situated to the apparently artificial environment in which it finds itself.
It can be seen in the late evening, emerging from the dark places of the city – the grates in the walls, the cracks in the buildings – stretching out its little legs and plodding along the kerbs, pausing occasionally to wave its little claws like a phalanx of magician’s wands over some organic matter, nibbling at it and digesting for a moment before moving on.
It is a kind of crab, something like the size of the small fiddler crabs that live in such profusion in the mud-banks along the Atlantic coast, that emerge from their holes and extend their segmented arms in the warm sunlight like ranks of tiny robotic automota, stretching out their shadows in the breeze then clambering over the backs of their fellows to clumsily batter each other with their pincer, instantly shivering away at the approach of a stranger.
But they are most peculiar in that they have no exoskeleton of their own - they must employ whatever flotsom and jetsom they find in their paths to provide their soft, vulnerable bodies with a defensive barrier. When the small eggs hatch, the babies scurry out from the writhing mass of their brothers and sisters into the open air, the gulls wheeling and trembling in the sky above them, diving down with ugly cries to snatch them up in their beaks, but the fast and the lucky grip hold of small pebbles with their tiny claws and hoist them up over their backs, then using a strong, gluey saliva that they exude from their skin, they fix them there. After a minute, the glue takes hold, and they are temporarily protected from attack . The artificial fortification may last for weeks before becoming dislodged by scraping against a stone, or being ripped away by one of their brethren or some aggressive animal; then, naked again, they must make it their first priority to find some new, inconspicuous covering once again.
Since their emergence into the cities, they have found a wealth of materials with which to defend themselves, though, unfortunately, much of it seems unsuitable, more likely to draw the attention of predators than to deflect it. One evening, for instance, walking on the Lower East Side, I paused for a second on the quiet street to watch an empty cigarette packet ‘moving along’, as it were: undulating slowly as the animal clambered along the street, pausing every now and then to negotiate some little hummock or crack in the cement. Another time, late at night in Beijing, we spotted one that had climbed out of a storm drain, and was in the process of cementing a curved piece of broken glass to its back, green and sharp in the reflected street light. Thus affixed, it began to toddle down the asphalt, the shiver of glass bumping along with it like a weird weapon.
As the creatures have became more numerous, much attention has been paid to them, most of it marvellous: blogs have been written about the “fashionista crabs” who affix torn cloth, old socks and scraps of nylon to themselves, abandoned mittens and the broken heels of ladies’ shoes. Other websites are devoted to the “crab gourmands” who parade the streets beneath styrofoam burger cartons, miniature bottles of Scotch and half-eaten slices of pizza.
Thousands of videos have been posted on YouTube detailing their exploits - one in particular has garnered many hits and re-postings due to its apparent awfulness: a mid-sized specimen - six centimetres across, perhaps - comes across the dead body of another of its kind in the street. The video shows it clutching unsteadily at the corpse with its pincers for a few minutes before, with a final hurling gesture, it manages to balance it upon its back. After a while, the glue takes hold, and the creature begins to amble off unsteadily, the dead body of its mother, its brother or cousin attached securely to its back, in temporary defence of its own.