From a distance, they mistook it for a turtle. A glossy brown bump in the sand, too smooth and round to be a rock. It looked like an overturned bowl among the tangled line of seaweed and driftwood thrown up by the last tide. The three children cried Turtle! and ran to it, leaving their parents and grandparents behind, kicking up cold clods of sand from their tennis shoes as they went.
It was December in North Carolina and the wind was gusting down the shoreline, pushing the waves over one another in a tumbling heap of dark gray water.
The wind carried the smell to them before they got to the shell, something thick and visceral lurking beneath the sharp salt and seaweed, something that slowed their pace and curled their nostrils. All things recognize decay.
Up close the children could see that the thing lying half-buried in the sand was not a turtle. The heaping carcass lacked any discernible head, arms, or legs. In the place of a tail was a long, spear-like barb.
“What is it?” asked the father.
“Don’t touch it!” instructed the mother.
The children shrugged and shook their heads. They couldn’t name it, and the dead dome was silent.
“Wow,” said the father, drawing closer. “That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.”
“What?” the children asked excitedly. “The biggest what?”
The man squatted down and brushed his fingers along the top of the shell, making a line in the saltwater grime and rustling the sheer coating of sand grains. He moved to the bottom of the shell and pried it loose from the packed sand and brittle seaweed. The children gasped. Pale white legs dangled down like limp streamers from the bottom of the shell, each one ending in a pointed claw.
“It’s a horseshoe crab,” the father said.
“It stinks,” said the grandmother. “Put it down.”
“See all its legs?” the father asked, jiggling the shell to make the hanging claws dance like a macabre marionette.
“What’s that?” the children asked, pointing at the tail.
“It’s a stinger,” the father replied. He tapped the pointed end of the barb with the pad of his index finger. “Still sharp,” he concluded. “Wouldn’t want to step on one of those.”
“Is there some sort of record size for these?” the grandfather asked.
“It’s big, isn’t it?”
“Huge. Biggest one I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ll get a picture.”
“Everybody squat down.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow with a tape measure.”
“We should hide it.”
They left the body in the sand, covering it with seaweed and pieces of driftwood. Tomorrow they would call Ripley’s Believe it or Not, or the University.
But that night the ocean crept back up the shore. Foamy fingers caressed the worn, smooth edges of the shell. The water rose up to comfort its lost giant and carry it home.
Home before the prodding hands and prying eyes could return, before Ripley’s got a call and the University sent out a van full of enthusiastic undergrads, before the scent of decay was cause for more shame, before death could be measured.
All night the sea whispered the eulogy, inexhaustible and keeping perfect time.