Not very long ago, Hoban Cordell moored on the beach at Voter-Gunknut and demanded to speak to the man in charge. The man in charge was a woman named Ani, and Cordell seemed to find her gender important, in a way we found hard to understand.
“You’re not understanding me,” he said. “You don’t understand. But that’s fine. I expected something like this. I need to speak to the man in charge.”
“I don’t think there is a man in charge,” Ani said. She turned to the rest of us, seven altogether, and Kurt and me in particular. “Do either of you two feel like the man in charge?”
Kurt rolled his eyes and went back to work on that evening’s potatoes. I raised my eyebrows and said, “Probably not, no? I suppose I could try it, if you wanted?”
“There,” Ani said. “George is in charge. Speak to George.”
“But, wait,” Cordell said. He had a way of flapping his arms in between words that made me wonder if he’d ever stood at a window and tried to take flight. “Is he really in charge?”
“No,” Ani said patiently. “I am.”
“You can’t be in charge.”
“Good,” Ani said, nodding. “So George is in charge. Speak to George.”
The rest of them wandered off and left me to wait for Cordell to do something. The gentle caress of the waves on my ankles was a pleasant distraction in the meantime. A peekytoe crab surfed past me on a wave and I thought about diving for it. The air was warm, and the sun was pleasant on my naked buttocks. Eventually, Cordell leaned forward, looking unsure, and I raised my eyebrows again.
“Do you want to get off the boat ?” I asked.
“Will you attack me?”
“Why would I attack you?”
He pursed his lips. “Savagery?”
“I’m pretty sure I’m not a savage.” I thought about it. “But who knows, I guess? Do you need help?”
Doing his best to balance in the barely sloping waves, he shooed me away. “No no. I’ve got this.”
I went back to enjoying the water. Cordell gamboled around in the surf like a drunken gull. His oars were trapped in the tangle of his legs, a net was doing its best to crawl up his back, and a box of something, potentially important, was drifting unnoticed into open water. The sand stretched some 30 yards in either direction behind me, sloping toward the water from the raised plateau of our camp. I decided to invite Cordell for supper.
“You don’t need to invite me,” he said. “If anything, I should be inviting you.”
“But I’m already here,” I pointed out. “And Kurt’s the one cooking supper. Do you have supper with you?”
The oars caught up with him at last, and he fell, losing contact with his boat altogether and landing in the water. He flailed for a moment, apparently afraid of drowning. I watched the show, bemused, and waited for him to realize he could sit up. When he did, red-faced and puffy-eyed, he spat a mouthful of debris and looked at me full of reproach.
“Everything on this island, including your supper, belongs to the crown.”
I furrowed my brow. “I don’t think it does.”
“No, it definitely does. I have paperwork.”
“Right,” I said, “but I’m already here on the island, you see. And so are all the others.”
“Illegally here!” he sputtered. “Illegally!” He stood, stumbled toward me, and fell again, eventually managing to haul himself out of the water altogether, lying flat on his back and twitching at the shingles with two hands. I let him be while I looked again for the crab. It had floated away, presumably half-aware that I wanted to eat it. Kurt’s potatoes were nice enough, and artfully grown on such a small plot, but you should never turn down crabmeat. I squatted beside Cordell and asked if he needed help.
“Need it? I demand it!”
“Sure,” I said. I yanked him to his feet and tried a smile. I was thinking about the crab, and whether or not it was Cordell’s fault I didn’t have any. He looked me up and down and seemed to realize for the first time that I was naked.
“And I demand that you put some clothes on.”
I shook my head. “Can’t.”
“But I don’t know where they are.”
“My clothes. I’m not sure where they are. Sorry. Do you have any spare?”
“You can’t wear my clothes!”
I looked at him. “They’re probably a little small for me,” I allowed, “but you want me to put on some clothes and I don’t know where mine are. So do you have any? I don’t think Kurt knows where his are either. He wears a little patch, like a sort of sling thing, when he’s cooking. But that just covers up a certain part, and I’d rather not share that with him. If it’s all the same to you.”
“Nudity,” Cordell said, brushing himself down, “is a gross public offense.”
“It says so right here.”
He produced a scroll, long, tied with ribbon, kept safe in a Ziploc bag. The bag had, at one time, held sandwiches. “On this scroll I have His Majesty’s Code of Laws. One of them, an important one, says public nudity is a gross public offense.”
“Which public is it offending?” I asked. “Everyone else is naked as well.”
“Except for me!”
“Right, well then might I suggest you take your clothes off.”
His eyes grew wide, and I thought for a second they might pop out and dangle around as if on stalks. Which reminded me of the crab again. I turned back to the water to look for some.
“You should be finding clothes!”
I ignored him and knelt in the surf. Eventually a crab would come to me. From up the beach, Ani called down to us to check that everything was all right.
“This man will not put on clothes!”
“I think we burned them,” I said. “When it got cold.”
Ani came toward us, nodded. “That’s right. Made a lovely fire, too. What do you need them for?”
“Because public nudity is illegal. I have here a list of the laws of His Majesty’s Kingdom, to which you have recently been annexed, and it states quite clearly. He can’t just walk around naked.”
He seemed to be ignoring the fact that she was naked too, which was admirable. One problem at a time is an excellent survival method.
“So what should we do to him?” Ani asked. Her eyes were lit up, her cheeks agreeably red. She grinned.
“He must be imprisoned!” Cordell said. “For a suitable time.”
“But we don’t have a prison.”
“Then we must make one!”
“George,” Ani said, “do you mind if we put you in jail?”
I looked around. “Can the jail be here?” I asked. I was certain a crab would be along soon.
“Right here?” Cordell asked.
He seemed to think about it and then looked pleased. That was fine. “This area is now the jail! I expect it to be appropriately segregated. And I’ll need to sit down with the other man, as he’s now the man in charge, and—” he began sputtering, waving his arms around with serious urgency. “What are you doing?!” he shouted. He was staring at Ani, who stopped what she’d been doing and sighed.
“I was going to help George find a crab.”
“But you can’t go in there,” Cordell explained. “That’s the jail cell. We just established that! Each prisoner is guaranteed a space of no less than 80 square feet. It’s the law. You can’t go in there. You see?”
“I can’t go in there?”
“If I catch a crab,” I asked, “can I throw it out there?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll throw you a crab, Ani.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
I turned back to the water and scanned the surface. Cordell’s boat was disrupting the surf; little bits of alien flotsam were popping up everywhere and confusing the fish. Behind me, Cordell and Ani walked up the beach and toward our longhouse. I could smell Kurt’s potatoes in the pot, heard one of the others stoking the fire. I didn’t have long to catch my crab before it would be time for dinner. Somebody else padded up behind me, slipping gently into the water and floating on her back.
“Is this the jail?” she asked.
I nodded. “Roomy.”
“Cordell said I had to come to jail,” she said, “because I forgot to put safety tape around the fire pit.”
“Ah,” I said. “What kind of safety tape?”
“Who knows?” she asked. Jen often started the fires. “Any crab?”
We waited together for a while. I caught a handful of whitebait and sent them wriggling into my stomach. I heard Cordell shouting something before I heard more footsteps and a final thump just behind me onto the sand. “Is this jail?” someone asked.
“Yes,” Jen said. “What did you do?”
“I’m not sure. Something about the waterproofing on the longhouse.”
“Why would we want it waterproofed?”
“Who knows?” the new prisoner said. It was Dave, our builder. “No idea where our water would come from if we sealed it up. But you’re to know that, in line with regulations, the jail has been expanded to 240 feet to accommodate its three prisoners.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Did you want a crab?”
“If you find one.”
A set of clouds moved in on the horizon, creeping over the sun. The waves a mile out were frothing threateningly, promising to carry all of the crabs out to sea. I shuffled around and began to poke my head underwater, looking for any crustaceans hidden in the sand. When I came up for air, a fourth and fifth prisoner had been added. They were discussing the new jail which, at 400 feet, was almost half of Voter-Gunknut.
“Doesn’t that make the longhouse part of the jail?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the water.
“Yep,” someone said. “Cordell’s demanded he and the others move to the other side of the island.”
The trick to catching crab is patience. Peekytoe crab are only marginally intelligent, and will eventually walk right into your hands, if you wait long enough without wriggling. A moment passed before two more people crested the little rise, walking down the sand and toward the water.
“Are you in jail as well?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kurt answered. “My cooking pot couldn’t be moved out of prison territory, which meant that I was obstructing the public justice. Emma’s earring isn’t regulation size, and she didn’t want to take it out. We thought we’d join you down here.”
“Sure,” I said. “Are the potatoes done?”
“Yep. Any crab?”
I lay out on my stomach, letting my body float on the water. The sun wasn’t so warm on my back anymore, and I shivered, sending tiny waves rippling into the wider ocean. I spotted what might have been a crab some two yards to my right, and swung myself gently in that direction, slipping my face beneath the water and pivoting my arms as gently as I could. There was a commotion behind me that I ignored. Ani called the others back up the beach.
“What is it?” they asked.
“I’ve been placed in jail,” Ani said, “for maintaining that I’m not a man. Apparently I can’t be both a woman and in charge.”
“Why not?” Jen asked.
“I’m not sure. Anyway, Cordell has retreated to the free country outside the jail.”
They all turned to the far side of the island. Cordell sat crouched, drawing a ring around himself in the dirt with a greasy fingertip. Everything inside that ring complied perfectly with the law. He looked very content.
“You all stay in there!” he shouted. “Don’t even think about coming out!”
“Sure thing,” Ani shouted back. Kurt was seasoning his potatoes. Someone else had the fire started. Just as I came out of the water, I heard Ani ask if I’d caught anything yet. I held up a pair of peekytoe crab and grinned while the others applauded my catch.
After supper, I brought Cordell a leftover bowl, brimming with white meat and buttery spuds. I’d like to tell you that he ate, stripped off his clothes, and joined us on our island under the sun. More likely, however, is that Cordell ate nothing at all, fearing food that was not regulation, and starved to death in his little circle of freedom. That’s a little morbid, however, so I’ll let you decide how the story ends.
The secret, as I mentioned, to catching a crab, is to open the palm of your hand, sit very still, and let it catch itself.