Clapboard Creek: White Shell Fish Camp

by Tim Gilmore, 11/26/2016

“Flounder got both their eyes on the same side of the face,” Brandy says. “I’m glad we don’t do like that.” She points to a stuffed flounder on the wall above our heads.

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Brandy stands about 5’ tall. Her long straight brown hair is pulled back in a pony tail. A cigarette arcs daintily from between two tiny fingers.

“Flounder’s eyes is like that because the fish is flat,” she says. “Sometimes fishermen call ’em doormats.”

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White Shell Fish Camp leans faded sky-blue and paint-chipped into the salt marsh along Clapboard Creek. The sharp vertebrae of rat-spine palms rattle their fronds above the open wooden shutters of the bait house.

When it’s slow at White Shell, Brandy likes to watch the crabs and shrimp crawl and convulse in the bait house’s shallow waters.

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The bait house, a step off the main store, is open-windowed with three blue-painted concrete-block open-top tanks. In the long tank on the left, a couple dozen lonely shrimp curl sadly in water three or four inches high. To the right, blue crabs scuttle atop and across one another. In the shorter back tank, right-angled from the front two, swim masses of mud minnows.

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Brandy scoops two blue crabs into a net. One clambers quickly over the side and flings himself back into the water, but the other crab’s legs are caught in the interstices. You can tell both crabs are male, Brandy says, because of “the red fixed finger.” When blue crabs molt their exoskeletons, their soft remaining bodies are almost wholly edible, “and those,” Brandy says, “are the soft-shell crabs that people around here have always loved to fry.”

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At the back tank, Brandy holds one hand beneath the net she raises full of mud minnows, each as long as and plumper than her fingers.

Behind the bait house, a small shed stinks mythically inside like the origins of life on earth. Hundreds of fiddler cribs leg and claw their teeming retreat from our sudden shadows. Fiddler crabs are best for catching sheepshead, Brandy says, which populate these tidal creeks and oyster reefs.

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“You maybe never noticed this,” she says, “but sheepshead have human teeth.”

Puzzled, I ask her what she means.

“They eat the fiddler crabs because their mouths is filled with teeth look just like ours.”

sheepshead-teeth

Sci-fi and horror film directors so often make extraterrestrial life look insectile or like some underwater lifeform.

The strangest lives on earth are those lived underwater.

The strangest earthforms, most alien, are those the most earthen and subaqueous.

To recognize features similar to our own in such alien forms fits Freud’s idea of “the Uncanny”: to witness ourselves as other than us.

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Jimmy and Betty are the best people for whom anyone could work, Brandy says, “salt of the earth,” but says business “ain’t always what it used to be.” Though timeless fishermen, Ancient Mariners, lean still from Heckscher Drive bridges and piers, skin cooking in the brutal sun, in years past, Jimmy and Betty had four or five workers tend the store.

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Now it’s mostly just Brandy. The deer head, mounted over bags of potato chips and pork rinds, occasionally shifts its gaze.

When the fishermen pour in, Brandy deals kindly with people. When the people stay away, she marvels at the coordinates shared by angels and crustaceans.

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These concrete-block buildings have lain here in the sand and the mud since 1960, and Jimmy and Betty have run White Shell Bait since 1984. Beside these ancient earthen waters, Brandy says she’ll be here as long as Jimmy and Betty.

The sheepshead grins toothily, while the molting crabs are sidetracked and the flounder winks one-sided. Still, mock them if you will, the tallest palms through the night stand true with their green crowns.

It’s good to be able to trust them.