Archaster typicus, the most common of asteroids on beaches that suffer from urban neglect, teem at Pulau Hantu, sitting on tongues of fine sand, sifting, ploughing, wallowing through sediment trapped by wedges of loose rock, a zone of elevation, of partial, perforated exclusion, created by the framing of two coral islands and a reef between to paint a picture perfect storm trooper pooper of a party state your business or bring it on kick a bucket let Atlas shrug off your chains nothing to lose but a world to whing. The stars huddle on silty ridges, occupying the gaps between the roots of stiff old Sonneratia trees, exposing themselves to opprobrium from morose opponents of sex on a public beach, even though privacy's never an option and there's nothing more exciting than a waiting game – no shudders from mutual thrusts, no fumbling over buttoned nails and dismantled cavities, no skirting around the moral hazards of sharing, nay squeezing, one's saline secretions into a sea all juiced up and run down – just a tango of small arms in a grip of vice versus verity, spinal tapestries on the margins of plates serving as barriers to entry, proxies to a meeting of mindless vessels on grounds that straddle two worlds: the sallow and the hip.
Archaster favours depths beyond the reach of tetraodontiform fishes. But other animal crackers, built for trudgery on shallow flats, pay no heed to claims of celestial impunity. A harry crab, dripping with ill menace and draped in tatters that trap dirt and reduce its profile to a clump barely distinguishable from muddy frocks, dragged a smallish star through puddles pierced by skinny cones, gripping its prize between naked fingers which exercised no restraint – the chelae had crimped the edges of its victim's appendage and snapped off some of the spines that led to the tip. The crab ran the risk of a runner: these asteroids not infrequently rend themselves under duress, ditching their extremities to preserve the core of their being. But the detained individual appeared non-plussed by its plight; perhaps the pilumnid gave off no foul hints, being a creature of brute, unaromantic, force, and so failed to trigger alarm in its supper. Stuffing the entire star into the crab would have been, literally, a stretch, so such episodes and, if nothing particularly stellar was imbibed, their recuperatory aftermaths may account for the not uncommon occurence of animals with fewer arms than the standard array.
Islands of sargassum littered the upper rim of Pulau Hantu's reefs in late September, but the bloom was then still benign; messy ridges and bladdery mounds lined the outer fringe of the slope before petering out closer to the water's edge. The fronds gravitate around larger outcrops and coral heads, leaving pale gaps between the colonies, an archipelago of basins filled with bodies frenetic in silver and glass, slivers of flesh and fibre that dart, float, dip, hang, perch, sit, clamber and crouch in a space of three dimensions and multiple fates. Halfbeaks, sleek, slim and full of it, trace the contours between the elements, a layer breached every now and then by silversides erupting in panic at imagined threats, releasing sprays of structural blue that fall to black as the shoal re-enters the splash zone. A few land on bundles of wrack and flounder on their flanks until their scales flake off or a friendly wave shoves them back into the brink, where they join shoals of fry in midwater, hovering, rowing, dancing on tenterhooks, maintaining safe distance from each other but hedging their bets on a zero-sum huddle, a race to keep their heads below water, to roll, pitch, stay in play, survive the night and last another day in paradice.
Small, spineless creatures run circles around nervous fish, refusing to let the tide put their lives on hold and lose a chance to grab a meal or grapple with fellow malacostracans. Epibenthic carideans, encased in flimsy armour that reveals all but their bright blue eyes and a gullet of goo, frolic on barren bottoms, holding fort on tiny bluffs and challenging their poolmates with primary chelae that probably threaten nothing larger than a louse. These shrimp forage with four legs and amble on six, while swarming above them are cousins eons-removed that had turned their thoracic limbs into feathery sculls and now wheel about crowded pools, invading the personal space of larger crustaceans who paddle only when pressed.
The shrimp, be they humpbacked or happy-go-lucky, party hard, for the decapodence of tidal pools is short-lived. Disguised carnivores – scorpions, frogs, toads and stones in piscine form – snap up careless treats, while deaths looms from above in minute, molluscan doses. Pygmy squid, which have half their senses trained on potential prey and the other on lurching pokemonsters, betray their chase with hues of excitement, their chromatophores swelling and sinking in sympathy with the pursuit of small game; the hunter putters, stalls, swivels, blanches and braces before a plunge that proves fatal to a thin-shelled thing and prompts brief flashes of deep, dark pigments, as if the squid were celebrating or cutting it loose after a less-than-lucky strike.
The seaweed and a landscape of shadows, drowned by cold fire from towers that stain the sky with nasty nocturnal emissions, cloak many of the larger beasts, offering but glances of fins, spines, limbs, tails, shells and segments – a flash of leg from an egg crab, the swish of a carpet eel-blenny scooting down an alpheid hole, glimpses of mandibles agape, tentacular manouevres in spots too tight, flurries of sediment from fossorial decapods in reverse gear, arms that tease and twist as they wave goodbye and drag a skeletal disc into a crack of gloom. A pallid worm, probably armless and caught flat-footed on a bed of bubbles, the breathless by-product of benthic filaments, felt its way across the silt, puking rainbows from its cuticle as stiff chetae and a nose for burrowed time led it to a cave guarded by a goby that offered neither resistance nor welcome to a bristly guest.
It was probably our final survey of Pulau Hantu for the year. But each trip to this and every shore remains a singular moment, a sojourn too sharp, too quick, too fleeting, too sweet, too much of a chore to dismiss and drop at a hat in the ring before the bell hits ten and the boat leaves the pier pressure cooker of a coastal settlement in cash and carry through a rumbling a tumbling a fumbling on the deck with rubber heels past the port go aft look stern hang tight as a duck be arsed about it don't ask don't tell no one just what you want what you really really want – a buoy a star a clown a clam a dollar in the sand bar none but the lonely heart of an urchin in trouble in tears from pieces of eight when ends the ride, falls the night. By then it's too late to turn back, force a light and restore what you shook off before you wandered into the worst of times, the worst of signs, a malady of royal bents, of anguish at a distance, at a point close enough for comfort but where being becomes unbearable, knowing turns bile, and it's still possible to count each day and curse your blessings, to swear at the gods of later days, the crippled heirs of a house of spirits in exile and pain from an island of kings who sold for a song.