Four unlikely friends were frolicking in the ocean one day. They were the Ghost Crab, the Blue Marlin, the Jellyfish, and the Nautilus. The crab and the marlin splashed about on the surface, and dove back down, while the jelly and the mollusk bobbed gently under the surface.
Overhead, there passed the shadow of the Seagull, who watched the friends with great interest, a great interest born of a keen hunger. Here she saw a variety of sweet and juicy treats for her to feast on. She could easily carry off the crab, the snail, and the mollusk. But that marlin was another matter. He was a giant next to her, and he would surely swipe and skewer with that bill of his. And being how fast he could swim, if he knocked the Seagull into the water, she would surely become his lunch.
The Seagull had some tricks beneath her feathers however, that most creatures would not expect. If her tricks were to work on the marlin, he would have to be willing to let them. She glided lower above the four friends, low enough to hear their chatter.
“Leave it be, friends,” the Ghost Crab said. “Five is not so many.”
“Not so many?” the Blue Marlin said, with a shake of his spiky bill. “I can’t even do one!” He laughed.
Just above the surface, the Nautilus bobbed and the Jellyfish fluttered.
“When will you show us again?” the Nautilus asked.
The Jellyfish seemed to squeak. “You must surely be the greatest in the ocean!”
The Seagull whirled about and wondered to herself.
The greatest what? she thought.
She received her answer on her next flight over the friends, which was even lower than the last.
“I would need to go on land to do it,” the Ghost Crab said. “I can’t do more than three out here in the ocean, with the waves bobbing and sweeping.”
“Then go to land,” the Jellyfish said. “We will go as close as we can and watch.”
“I will likely fail my first time, and my second, and my third,” the Ghost Crab said. “There is nothing to say that I will manage to juggle seven shells at a time.”
But the crab’s friends protested and boasted about her great talent of juggling.
The Seagull smirked.
She whirled about again and started laughing, as loudly as she could, at the crab.
When she came close, the four friends turned toward her.
“Greatest juggler in the ocean, eh?” the Seagull said. “Perhaps that is so. But on land, even I can best you with these clumsy wings.”
For a moment the friends were shocked at the Seagull’s intrusion. But she was still careful to stay clear of the marlin’s horned bill.
She swopped over them again.
“Then it was a jest among friends,” she said. “I had thought you were in earnest. My mistake.”
“We are in earnest!” the Blue Marlin said.
“And Ghost Crab is the greatest juggler, in the ocean…and on the land,” said the Nautilus.
“If that is so,” said the Seagull, “then let her come ashore and face me in a challenge.”
“No need, Seagull,” the Ghost Crab said with a sigh. “I concede to your superior skill—“
“No she doesn’t!” the Jellyfish cried. “We’ve never seen a gull juggle, either on land or at sea.”
The Seagull swooped over them again, laughing, careful to stay out of the Blue Marlin’s reach. But he was so incensed at the insult to his friend that he thrashed in the water.
The Ghost Crab politely declined the challenge, but the Seagull continued to wheel overhead, for she saw that the crab’s friends were working upon her will, wearing it down with their insistence that she answer the challenge. Appeals to her own pride and status meant nothing to the humble crab. But when they spoke of their own dismay and shame at not meeting the gull’s challenge, the Ghost Crab began to waver.
The Seagull sailed in the air, as she dreamed of clamping her beak into the tender flesh of the Jellyfish.
It did not take much longer for the three friends to convince the one.
The Ghost Crab accepted the Seagull’s challenge.
“Splendid,” said the Seagull. “And what will your prize be if you win the contest?”
“You will proclaim that the Ghost Crab is the greatest juggler on land and sea,” said the Nautilus.
The Seagull easily agreed.
“And what if you win?” the Ghost Crab asked, the stalks of her eyes following the gull’s flight.
“Then I will eat you, and the Jellyfish, and the Nautilus.”
As expected, the Jellyfish and the Nautilus objected at once. The marlin thrashed again. And when all was quiet, the Ghost Crab withdrew from the contest.
“Very well,” said the Seagull. “The known rules of contest allow for a challenger to withdraw, but not without some recompense to her opponent, who is left without the chance to prove her skill and to earn her reward.”
“What recompense do you ask of me, Seagull?”
“I will leave your friends be, but I will take you. You are not the juiciest crab I have seen, but you have some meat in that shell, I can see.”
The Ghost Crab, though stunned and terrified, began to acquiesce.
But her friends—those braggarts—halted her.
They insisted that they either die together or triumph together. And the marlin insisted that he would save them all if the gull dared to come close, no matter the contest’s outcome. But then they began to argue of the shame it would bring them to be known as cheats.
The Seagull sighed. Her belly protested. She did not have the patience to wait. Judging from the crab’s forlorn but resolute expression, there would be no contest, only surrender. But there would be no surrender either.
If there was no contest, there would be no shame for the friends to bear. The massive marlin would encircle his friends and allow their escape. The Nautilus and the Jellyfish would dive too deep for the Seagull to reach. The Ghost Crab too could ride beside the marlin until the gull grew tired and searched elsewhere for food.
If the Seagull wanted her treats, she would have to be rid of that marlin first.
Out of desperate hunger, the Seagull shifted tactics and revealed her greatest secret to the friends.
“I am skilled in sorcery,” she proclaimed. “My home is near the home of a human magician, and I have studied his ways and learned many of his spells.”
This was indeed true, though she did not reveal to the friends that her spells only worked upon those who agreed to let themselves be worked upon. Her sorcery was not strong enough to overcome a resistant will.
The Seagull took a bracing breath before she made her offer. “If you agree to the contest, Ghost Crab, and if you win, I will teach you what I know—and I will proclaim that you are the greatest juggler on the land and the sea.”
The Ghost Crab shook her head. “But if I lose—and I will surely lose, for I can see that you are clever and most likely a skilled juggler—then you will eat me and my friends. I would rather forfeit the contest, and my own life, than risk—“
“I won’t eat you then,” said the Seagull. “On the condition that the marlin there catch a few fish for me to eat.”
The Seagull had only just thought of the idea. Now she would have even more enjoyment, for she would have the chance to try her sorcery. And she knew just what spell she wished to practice upon this hapless band of friends.
“Give us your word,” said the Nautilus, “that if you lose, then you will accept the prize of a few fish caught by the Blue Marlin, and you will leave us be.”
“You have my word that I will not eat you no matter the outcome,” the Seagull said, turning her head toward the Ghost Crab. “But you must give me more than a few fish.”
“Speak up then, what is it that you want?” the Blue Marlin said.
“I wish to practice my skill in sorcery. If I win the contest, will you allow me to attempt a transformation? On the marlin?”
“Agreed!” said the Blue Marlin, and he winked at the others.
The Nautilus and the Jellyfish agreed as well. And all three goaded the Ghost Crab to agree.
“Why not transform me?” the Ghost Crab asked, for she smelled treachery upon the wind that followed in the gull’s wake. The gull was clearly trying to get rid of the marlin, so she could eat the rest of them.
“She is no sorcerer,” said the Nautilus. “We risk little. And you will beat her in any case.”
The Ghost Crab was uncertain, but she could rarely refuse her friends. Again, she agreed to the contest, with its new set of prizes.
“Do your friends wish to witness the contest?” asked the Seagull.
The Blue Marlin, the Jellyfish, and the Nautilus said, “yes.” And a sudden wave surged and swept them toward shore, a wave so strong that even the marlin could not swim against it.
The Ghost Crab glanced up and saw the Seagull following their course to the shore.
“She has done this,” the crab said, “with her sorcery.”
“It cannot be!” said the Nautilus, trying to hang on to the marlin’s head, even as the jelly hung on from below, trying to keep stinging nettles from harming the marlin.
But when the four friends reached the shore, the wave that carried them forth did not recede. It curled under itself and continued to gently churn, so that the marlin, the jelly, and the mollusk could float suspended within the wave, and watch as the crab and the gull landed upon the sandy shore.
The Ghost Crab grew even more nervous then, for she had hoped that her friends were right, and that the gull had no sorcery. The crab and the gull began to gather empty shells from the beach. Once each had gathered as many as she thought she could juggle, they met once again before their watery witnesses.
So the contest began, and the crab lost.
She did indeed juggle seven shells.
But the Seagull juggled eight.
In the open ocean, the Blue Marlin was a formidable threat. But now, trapped in an enchanted wave upon the shore, he was at the Seagull’s mercy.
They all were.
The Ghost Crab made herself watch carefully and mournfully as the majestic Blue Marlin was drawn out of the wave by the arcane shuddering of the Seagull’s wings. The crab watched as the marlin began to shrink and shrink, as his color shifted from blue to a green and white and a vivid red like the sky at sunset.
The Blue Marlin was no longer a fish. Indeed, he was no longer any kind of animal.
The Ghost Crab wondered what manner of thing the Seagull had transformed her friend into. It was nothing she had ever seen before, and she had seen many a wonder of the sea.
“It’s a watermelon,” said the Seagull, beaming down at the object. “A sweet and juicy treat.”
The Ghost Crab suddenly threw herself over the watermelon. “You said you would not eat us!”
“I said I would not eat you, or the Nautilus, or the Jellyfish.”
“Challenge her again!” came a gurgling cry.
It was the Nautilus, bobbing up and down in the enchanted wave.
“Win back the marlin!” said the Jellyfish.
“Please,” said the crab to the gull, “have mercy. Forgive our foolishness and turn my friend back. He will bring you fish to eat, not just today, but tomorrow, and the next day.” Her stalk-like eyes drew apart. “You can join us. Join our company.”
“And when I grow tired of fish and wish to feast on jellies and snails and crabs, would you let me?”
The Ghost Crab hesitated, and in that moment, the Seagull loomed above her, raising a wing.
The Nautilus and the Jellyfish cried out again and again.
“I challenge you to another contest!” said the Ghost Crab.
The Seagull paused.
“If you win, you may transform another of my friends, so long as you transform them into something that is not food to you.”
“You are at my mercy, little Ghost Crab. Why should I agree?”
“Because…I imagine that you will have more chances to eat jellies and crabs than you will have to practice your sorcery.”
The Seagull lowered her wing. “Why do you say this?”
“There must be some conditions to working your sorcery, or else you would not have wasted time wheeling about above us, trying to convince us to agree to this contest.”
“Perhaps I was merely toying with you,” said the gull. But she drew back from the Ghost Crab and narrowed her bead-like eyes.
“Perhaps…but you are not just hungry for food. You are hungry to try your sorcery. I would be too, if I had such powers.”
“Very well, little Ghost Crab. Out of amusement—and mercy—I will allow another contest. If I win, I transform another friend. If you win…”
“Transform the water’s melon back into the Blue Marlin and return us to the sea. I will convince the marlin to still find you some fish, and we will trouble you no more.” She wrapped her claws around the watermelon.
The Seagull bowed her head. “Agreed.”
So the contest began again, and the crab lost again.
This time it was she who juggled eight shells.
But the Seagull juggled nine.
The Seagull laughed. “You were right, little crab. I do so wish to try another transformation. Watch, I am not without honesty. I will not make this one into food.”
The Ghost Crab again made herself watch carefully and mournfully as the glorious Jellyfish was drawn out of the wave by the unfathomable fluttering of the Seagull’s feathers. The crab watched as the jelly began to shrink and condense. The Jellyfish too shifted color, from delicate pink and orange to dark brown and sandy brown and red-brown. Instead of a fluttering bell, the Jellyfish now looked like a hard brown blooming flower.
“It is a pine cone,” said the Seagull proudly, gazing down at the jelly’s new form. “And as promised, I cannot eat pine cones.”
The Nautilus cried out.
The Ghost Crab answered. “We must end this now. We may yet find another sorcerer who can help us transform our friends back.”
“Then you should hurry,” said the Seagull. “The watermelon will not remain fresh for long.”
The Ghost Crab saw that the Nautilus was angered and frightened, and that was a dangerous combination, for the mollusk goaded the crab into challenging the Seagull to another round.
The Ghost Crab also saw that the Seagull was eager for another round, for she knew she would best the crab, and have a chance at another transformation.
But the Seagull was right. The Ghost Crab would not find another way to transform her friends back, at least, not until it was too late. The only good choice she had was to play another round of the contest.
So the contest began yet again, and the crab lost again.
This time she managed to juggle ten shells, believing that was the number the Seagull would juggle.
But the Seagull juggled eleven.
For the third and last time, the Ghost Crab made herself watch carefully and mournfully as the magnificent Nautilus was drawn out of the wave by the cryptic rolling of the Seagull’s shoulders. The enchanted wave crashed to the ground and receded. The crab watched as the shell and mollusk split apart, both transforming into hard things the color of a gentle twilight. One part was the shape of a saucer. The other part was like a hollow simple shell, nothing like the beautiful intricate coils of the Nautilus. The shell was filled with some liquid that was not seawater.
The Seagull opened her beak and cried out in a wail of joy.
“A cup of tea,” she said.
She looked at the Ghost Crab. “And now there is only you. Will you play a final round for your own life?”
“You have been using enchantment to juggle,” said the Ghost Crab. “You have cheated.”
The Seagull shook her head. “Clever of you to notice. But, you did not forbid me the use of my sorcery during the contest.”
“Perhaps, if I learn from you, I can transform my friends back,” said the Ghost Crab. “Will you still teach me, even though I have lost?”
“No,” said the Seagull, advancing on the crab, “But I will still eat you.”
The Ghost Crab held out her claws. “Then please, grant me a dying wish. Let me try to juggle eleven shells as you have done.”
“You don’t wish to have another contest?”
The crab shook her head. “You will win. I would rather that my last moment be a victory, if only a victory for myself.”
“Your dying wish is granted, little Ghost Crab.”
The Ghost Crab gathered the shells. She began by juggling only a few. She did not look upon the watermelon, the pine cone, and the cup of tea that lay upon the sand. She easily juggled four shells, then five.
“Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be transformed?” the Ghost Crab asked.
“I cannot say that it has crossed my mind,” said the gull.
“It did not seem to be painful.”
“Of course not. I am no barbarian.”
“I wonder if being transformed feels the same as performing the transformation,” the Ghost Crab said, adding a few more shells to her juggling, moving her claws in artful patterns.
The Seagull scoffed. “It’s foolish to wonder so. Of course there is more pleasure in transforming than there is to being transformed.”
“But how could you know if you have never been transformed?”
The Seagull said nothing, but considered the Ghost Crab’s words even as the crab added a few more shells to her juggling. The gull began to pace around the objects that she had transformed the sea creatures into, peering at her work.
“Even if being transformed is a pleasurable sensation,” said the Seagull, “it is inferior to performing a transformation. Once a being is transformed, they cannot transform back to their chosen form without help.”
“It is unfortunate then,” said the Ghost Crab, “that you did not choose to join our company. We could have helped each other to transform into many wondrous things, and then helped each other transform back into whatever form we chose. I would still be a crab. But I think the marlin wished to be a smaller fish.” The Ghost Crab picked up a few more shells and began to juggle them. She felt a strange tingling just beneath her shell. “If I had won the contest, and you had taught me your spells, and if I could transform you into anything,” said the crab, “What would you wish to be?”
The Seagull admired the symmetry of the pine cone. “You are still trying to convince me to teach you and save your friends. Do you think such trickery would fool me now?”
“I had hoped so,” said the Ghost Crab. “But it seems all I have left is my shells.”
The Seagull broke her gaze from the pine cone and looked at the crab.
The Ghost Crab was juggling many shells, her claws quivering so quickly, the gull could only just see them. The gull counted the shells.
There were thirteen.
“Impossible!” said the Seagull. “You cannot juggle that many shells. Not without—“
“Sorcery,” said the Ghost Crab, and with a flick of her claw, she launched one of the thirteen shells toward the Seagull.
The Seagull squawked and jumped back, but even as she dodged the first shell, another struck her across the beak. And another punched her outstretched wing. A shell sliced her neck as its sharp edge whizzed past.
Even after thirteen shells were spent, more came. The gull leapt back and back again. She turned and ran, flapping her wings, and taking to the air.
It was only when she found a safe place to land that she would discover how many of her feathers had been sliced away, how many dripping wounds she bore, and how many bruises. It was only then that she would ask herself how it had happened that the Ghost Crab had fooled her. The little crab had known sorcery all along. But it could not be. She had let her friends be transformed, all to teach the Seagull a lesson, it seemed.
But it could not be.
The only way the Ghost Crab could have learned how to enchant her juggling was by watching another sorcerer, just as the Seagull had learned.
Many days would pass before the pieces of the puzzle clicked together in the Seagull’s mind, and she realized who had taught the Ghost Crab.
The Ghost Crab had been calm while juggling, weaving and tracking the threads of the newly learned spell quite smoothly. It was, after all, how she had learned to juggle, by watching each shell carefully. But as soon as the Seagull had turned around, as soon as she was forced to act, terror filled the Ghost Crab’s heart. She flung the first shell toward the Seagull, replacing it with another that lay in the sand by her feet. Then she launched another, and another. She aimed each one in a different place, so that the clever gull would not discern a pattern and deflect them. But the Seagull was so surprised that she let the first few shells strike her before she turned and fled.
Even after she flew away, the Ghost Crab did not trust that she and her friends were safe. She juggled thirteen shells and paced around her friends, watching the sky.
After a while, she decided to risk stopping. She had watched the Seagull closely. She had observed and learned how the Seagull juggled so many shells. She was not quite confident that she had learned the trick after her first observation. The second contest revealed complexities she had not noticed during the first. And the third contest revealed movements that she could make to replace the ones that the Seagull made, for crabs had claws where gulls had wings.
But juggling was not the only spell she learned.
She had watched the Seagull closely. She had observed and learned how the Seagull moved her limbs to grasp every part of the Blue Marlin with millions of near-invisible threads, wrapped around the smallest parts that made up the fish’s body and being. The Seagull had shifted those threads, woven, and knotted them until they formed a new shape. This spell was so complex that the Ghost Crab knew she must see it again. So she did after the second contest, and again after the third.
She was not certain she could succeed in transforming her friends back to their native forms and selves. But she would try. She would try to translate the Seagull’s movements to movements that a crab could make, for crabs had claws where gulls had wings.
The watermelon began to wilt after only one day. Then the Ghost Crab decided to act, for she had all to gain and could be bold.
She pulled the objects closer to the tide.
And then she began to juggle them.
The pine cone, the watermelon, and the cup of tea. She flung them into the air and kept them spinning as she summoned the threads of sorcery that would wrap around every part of each object. When the tide came in, she flicked forth the cup of tea with one claw, while keeping the watermelon and pine cone in the air with her other claw.
With a cryptic coiling of her claw, the Ghost Crab pulled, wove, and knotted the threads until the cup and the saucer rejoined. The cup began to swirl and segment. Tiny tendrils grew out of the saucer as it nestled into the cup. Into the water fell the Nautilus with a stunned cry. The tide receded, and the Nautilus went with it.
The Ghost Crab next flicked out the pine cone, twisting and knitting the threads of sorcery until the hard “petals” of the cone softened and lightened into a fluttering bell. Once again the tide came in, and the Jellyfish plopped into the water with a surprised squeak. The tide receded, and the Jellyfish went with it.
Last came the largest. The Ghost Crab walked further and further into the sea until she was swept back out, juggling the watermelon. Though the waters were not deep enough, the Ghost Crab feared losing her grip on the watermelon. She began the transformation. The watermelon seemed to burst, and from within the Blue Marlin arced his long body and splashed into the waters, swimming fast and far, with the Ghost Crab riding on his back.
Far out in the sea, as the sun dipped below the water’s surface, the four unlikely friends reunited.
“I fear, my friends, that I may not have transformed you back properly,” the Ghost Crab said. “Do you feel any different from your old selves?”
“I do not,” said the Blue Marlin. “Your spell freed me.”
“I do not,” said the Jellyfish. “Your spell restored me.”
“I do not,” said the Nautilus. “Your spell rebuilt me.”
“It is strange though,” said the Jellyfish, “that our dear Ghost Crab is even more worthy to be boasted of than before—not merely for your powers, of course, but for your heroics—and yet, I haven’t the urge to boast.”
“Nor have I,” said the Blue Marlin.
“Nor have I,” said the Nautilus.
The three friends looked at the one.
The Ghost Crab smiled fondly at her friends and shrugged her claws. Her friends were far more difficult to juggle than seashells.
But after all, they were worth it.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel