There exists a fine line between peril and delight, between a meal that thrills and a mouthful that kills. The world beyond safe sea walls is a minefield of mixed signals, where a bright mark may scream blue murder and a carapace of spines may hide pleasures of softer flesh. Beauty is often skin-deep and razor-sharp on the tidal flats; a bed of blossoms, pinkish rosettes on long, swaying rods, rises from a crown of cruel rock, while starlight beckons with a thousand blinks from columns with a cutting edge and a cold, crude streak. A battery of jaws awaits at segments at the end of a rainbow, and names like "rabbit", "puffer" and "cat" should be trigger warnings rather than an invitation to reach out and rub – hazards to health in the wrong hands with a point to prove.
This fine, florid line, which runs through biological families and respects no natural orders, has long ceased to be of meaning to modern man, who has given up on his senses and surrendered his ability to choose to more profiterole deportments. We have forgotten how to read the clues and colours that glow in the waters, to tell the difference between a fair catch and a foul beast, to distinguish food from fiend. This literacy of life, a skill honed by trial and terror, still survived not an age ago, when the sea fed these shores and taught the inhabitants of the Malay archipelago how to find dinner in its depths, to follow its rhythms and flee from its storms.
People on the Indonesian island of Ambon, a land of spice in a rim of fire, were already seasoned readers of signs and devout wanderers three-and-a-half centuries ago, when Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, a mercenary-turned-merchant arrived to rue by day and undertake a lifetime of research by candlelight. German-born but Dutch at heart, Rumphius would chart the flora and fauna of the eastern isles over the next fifty years, creating a cabinet of scientific curiosity filled with descriptions of indigenous plants, marine life and minerals that still ring true and sing with the voices of those who shared their observations – in Ambonese, Malay, Javanese, Makassarese, Chinese, Latin and Dutch – with a blind student who never saw his work in print and suffered the censor of his employers.
Shellfish soft and hard occupy two volumes of Rumphius' D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer, which depicts many creatures familiar to explorers of the Sunda Shelf but bestows upon them names that pre-date the Linneaen Revolution. Among the menagerie of this cabinet are: Squilla Lutaria or the Mud Crayfish of the mangroves; Cancer Crumenatus, the Purse Crab that scales coconut trees; Cancer Saxatilis or Cattem Batu that is filled with "goodly meat"; the bentho-pelagic Cancer Marinus or Sea Crabs; the Sea Apple which Rumphius dubbed Eschinus Marinus Esculentus; Stella Marina Quarta which the author compares to a "hard, baked Pasty with black burned knobbles"; and the Cancelli or Cuman, "little crabs" that Rumphius likened to worms for their twisted tails.
Rumphius took to heart the culinary warnings of his informants, who saw danger in certain patterns. In one chapter, he detailed Cancer Floridus, an intertidal crab locals called Cattam Bonga for its shield, which appeared
"as if it were strewn with flowers: The Ambonese also call it Yu Nikimetten, because the ends of the Pincers are somewhat black, which is why they are counted among those, which Nature has marked not for eating, wherefore it is thought to be a smaller kind of the big Black Tooth [Etisus sp.], described hereafter in Chapter 19. They are not eaten, because the Natives consider it a common sign, that all Crabs, that have Pincers of which the claws are black or brown, are not fit to eat, as if they had been marked by Nature."
A similar word of caution is issued for the Cattam Tambaga, whose belly is
"marbled with red and white. One swears that this Copper Crab is very harmful, and therefore rarely appears in the light of day. It is smooth over its entire body, and shiny like porcelain."
While he was still able and sighted, Rumphius must have also stumbled, on rocky shoals off the village of Hitu where he was stationed, upon a crab he called Cancer Terrestris Tenui Testa or Cancer Rubris Oculis. He noted the crab's black-tipped pincers, but added that this Cattam Darat was sometimes consumed to dire ends.
"It happened in my day, in Hitulamma, that a Woman and her little girl ate nothing more than the Pincers of these Crabs, yet were found dead by the fire, with the pieces of the Crabs still lying next to them. Otherwise, the general antidote for all such Crabs, is scrapings of black Accarbahar, the root of Siriboppar; or Pissang Swangi, and of Lalan grass, either drunk, or chewed with Pinang, and the juice swallowed, which will expel this hurtful food by vomitting."
More than 300 years later, the same three crabs still roam the reefs of the Coral Triangle and its urban peripheries, lurching from pool to weedy pool when the moon tugs at the region and raises basins of coral around islands such as Jong. Rubble and rough waters surround this nubbin of a landmass, which is guarded by kites that float over its cliffs and hermit crabs that patrol a slope of coarse sand and curious pickings: cage nets, old pillows, fallen branches and the topmost ridges of a formation named after a ship that turned into stone.
During these few hours of blight, the xanthids tend to lie low, shuffling between cover as they graze or grapple with more difficult feed. The eriphiids – Rumphius' "Land Crabs" – on the other hand, seem to revel on the exposed flats. Smaller individuals may be found in breaks between large boulders or lurking in hollows that seem too high for aquatic life. Larger, at times gravid, specimens defend choice corners with both bark and bite. Not a few make the most of their ability to straddle the fine, fleeting line between danger and desire by entering fresh bodies of water to find fellow sea monsters that the tide has trapped and tackling these lesser beasts with teeth built to crush shell and scale. One red-eyed hunter had a toadfish in its grip as it sought to drag its catch into deeper parts. The prey was itself a predator, a devourer of benthic dwellers that was in the wrong place at the right time. For the crab, it was a bonanza of protein that was probably easier to crack than its usual meals that have to be crushed before consumption and eaten without prejudice as a source of nourishment and perhaps a dose of posthumous vengeance against those who might fail to heed the dark, dread hues of its claws.