Everyday, where the land meets the sea, a large crab would scuttle up the shore toward a thornbush growing along the edge of the sand. Using his pincers, one gigantic and one small, he would playfully nip at the stems between thorns while trading taunts with the bush.
"Good morning, Thornbush. Or maybe I should just call you bush as these thorns seem hardly sharp at all these days. Perhaps you are losing your edge....er, your point?"
Thornbush would fan its branches wide to catch the wind, lunging back towards the crab with each gust while responding in riposte.
"Good morning, Crab. My thorns are sharp as ever, I'll have you know! Just yesterday, a passing tourist lost her inflatable ball beneath my branches. I waited until she neared before swiftly popping the thing, causing her to run in fear and horror."
Crab blinked up at the bush, squinting slyly as he questioned the story.
"I don't recall seeing this happen…"
Thornbush interrupted, perhaps all too quickly.
"It all unfolded in your absence! You had returned to the depths, I assume out of fear that one of my branches might fall upon you and pierce your fragile carapace."
Crab huffed and raised his claw toward the bush in threat.
"My carapace is thick and strong and the very definition of prickly. Just yesterday, an innocent but strong fisherman opted to pluck me from the sea. The mighty spines of my shell easily punctured his tough fishing mitts and the skin beneath. He--did I mention he was big and strong?--shrieked and retracted his hand, releasing me to sink back into the depths below."
"I don't recall seeing any fishing boats out yesterday and I sat here all day."
Crab rapt his claw against the bush's thick base.
"Then perhaps your vision is as dull as your thorns!"
Now it was Thornbush's turn to huff before snapping back.
"I suspect that man became a fisherman after seeing the dangers my thorns presented on land. I bet he has resigned to living on the seas, never docking his boat out of fear I may have grown to encircle each and every harbour."
Having taken turns to brag and challenge and huff, Crab began hobbling back into the waxing tide, a small smile appearing on his face once he had turned his back to Thornbush.
"Farewell Thornbush, have a good day. Or at least try to have a good day, knowing that you could never hurt another as well as I."
Thornbush waved gently in the breeze, smirking towards Crab's back.
"Farewell Crab, have a good day! I hope no genuinely strong fisherman scoops you up and takes you away. I'd hate for you to lose the opportunity to finally witness the stings I leave in those stupid enough to brush past me during a beach picnic."
And so this exchange repeated daily, with Crab scuttling up each morning to exchange barbs with Thornbush in hopes of asserting which creature could better hurt another.
Alas, the great powers that weave have forever asserted that talk is cheap and, one summer morning, things would change.
As the sun rose slowly in the clear sky, Crab emerged from the sea after breakfast, wiping a smile from his face with the back of his pincer as he scuttled up to scowl and snicker at Thornbush.
"Good morning, Thornbush! Looking a bit dull again, I'm afraid. Your thorns look no sharper than the red berries speckling the other bushes nearby."
Thornbush huffed and retorted, crossing his branches to hide a smile.
"Good morning, Crab! It appears that the tides have begun eroding you like the many pebbles amongst the shore. Your capace spines are worn down to almost nothing. Perhaps now you will sink faster, at least."
Crab huffed and snapped his large pincer menacingly toward the shrub.
His rebuttal was interrupted by the hollow, echoey bouncing of a beach ball that had caught a breeze coming in off the shore. The rainbowed sphere ricocheted off rocks and sand until it tumbled into and wedged deep amongst the base branches of Thornbush. Following the ball's sporadic trajectory came a child, who stopped in front of the Thornbush, eying its spiny branches nervously. She pleaded to Thornbush.
"Hello Mr. Thornbush, my ball has become stuck amongst your branches. Could you please return it? I would help, but I fear your mighty thorns might hurt me."
Thornbush blushed internally at the final compliment. Instinctively, he nodded toward the child and began to lift his branches, but froze upon catching Crab in the corner of his eye. Had he not bragged countless times about this exact scenario, where his powerful thorns would pierce through both the thin skin of the beach ball and the happiness of its owner? He wondered what Crab expected.
Crab sat agape. The prickly scene dictated to him almost daily had manifested before his own eyes. Would Thornbush proceed as he had so often described, driving thorns into the flimsy ball? And if so, how meek would Crab look in comparison? Crab noticed Thornbush watching him closely. Now was not the time to show weakness--how could he claim to compete as the most hurtful if he grew squeamish at simply witnessing Thornbush's mighty display? He cleared his throat and put on a stern expression to hide his concern.
Under the pressure of Crab's stony gaze, Thornbush gathered up his strength and pushed down with his branches. The beach grew silent amidst sounds of needles pushing through thin fabric and the resultant hisses of air rushing from each tiny hole. The hush was soon shattered by the wailing of the child, rushing off to her parents further down the beach. Thornbush nervously spoke.
"H-Hah! Another victim runs from my pointed rage. Did you see, Crab? Did you see that? I suppose you could never cause that kind of damage! At last my capacity to hurt is put on full display with none other than my harshest critic as my witness"
Crab frowned. Would he have been able to pop the same ball now knowing the outcome? Conflicted, Crab slowly turned and began waddling back into the waves, mumbling out to Thornbush.
"Farewell Thornbush, have a good day."
Thornbush frowned as Crab escaped into the surf, quietly replying.
"Farewell Crab, have a good day. And good luck trying to top that supreme display of prickliness"
Crab wandered uneasily towards home. Had his mind not remained so caught up in thoughts of Thornbush's action and his failing bid to be the meanest, he might have noticed the giant trawl net spread amongst the reef. Suddenly tangled in knots of rope, crab involuntarily ascended toward the boat above.
Bound and tossed onto a table onboard, Crab recognized the trouble he had found. He played dead, hoping the other bits of sealife caught amongst the rope would draw the interest of the fisherman now hovering over his catch. He heard a powerful bellowing overhead.
"This crab is gigantic--it could feed a family of four! With seconds!"
Watching the fishergod above slip thick mitts onto his hands and reach downwards, Crab suddenly recognized this situation as the very same he had conjured up to brag about to Thornbush. Stuffing his fear into the smallest corner deep inside his solid shell, Crab puffed his chest and sought to use this opportunity to, as they say, prick two birds with one spine. He would not only free himself from certain death at the mitted hands of a fisherman, but also return to the beach tomorrow with a brave story to tell Thornbush. Though Crab couldn't see over the side of the boat, he wondered if the whole scene may be occurring in view of the shore, where Thornbush would now act the witness to another great act of pain.
As the fisherman worked to untangle and loosen ropes, Crab bided his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pierce the hands of his oppressor. One, then two mitts held tightly around his body, Crab was lifted up for closer inspection. Now would be the time!
Crab inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and tensed. He imagined himself growing twice, no thrice, his size. He would embody an immense force pressing out from every sharp edge of his carapace.
But nothing happened. Despite his focus, Crab worked not even a single tiny hole in the heavy mitts of the fisherman. Instead, he was promptly tossed into an ice chest where he slowly dozed off as the trawler returned to harbour.
Ultimately, the chest would be reopened in a busy harbour market and Crab, pincers now bound, would be sold to a local family and eaten for dinner. The last thought that crossed his mind before he was unemotionally cracked and boiled was that he had lost and that Thornbush could, indeed, hurt another much better than he.
The next morning, Thornbush sat expectantly along the shore, watching the gentle lapping of waves and waiting for the smooth caps to be breached by crustacean. He had slept very little, finally calming down only deep in the dark of night.
By the afternoon, no one had shown up. Thornbush worried. Perhaps his mighty display of sharpness had scared even his closest ally? Feeling rather lonely, Thornbush looked down the beach. Word of his cruel act had spread and today's tourists had opted to sit far away from his reaches, lest they lose their own ball to his sharp thorns. As the sun set and the beach emptied of visitors, Thornbush laid to sleep alone, a small pang of hurt arising deep within him before he dozed off.
Over the coming week, Crab never visited, and everyone else grew warier of Thornbush. Even nearby shrubs and grasses had dragged their roots slowly away. Whereas such a lack of vegetative competition would normally help the growth of whichever plants remained, Thornbush appeared to shrink from day to day.
Each eve before he settled to sleep, the pain inside him arose stronger and sharper than the night before. He began waking up in the night, the sharp ache suddenly rising. He would search amongst his branches in the dark, swearing the pain that woke him up was identical to that of Crab pinching his trunk and branches on his daily visits to tease. Hoping to locate that bright red carapace below playfully plucking at his branches, he instead found no one and nothing.
As Thornbush's branches slowly shed their leaves and thorns, worries sprouted in their stead, but their weight was too great and dragged the tips of his weakening limbs to the ground. His trunk filled with equal parts fear and loneliness while emptying of equal parts water and nutrients. Over another week, Thornbush had shrivelled to less than half his mighty size. Another week later, he sat as a sole branch whose very essence began fading under moon light.
The pain too much for his now feeble frame, Thornbush had one final thought before collapsing onto the earth below: he had lost and that Crab could, indeed, hurt another much better than he.