My 10-year-old daughter, Hallie, works in the construction of temporary housing. At our house she has an old glass aquarium filled at different times with ants, potato bugs, and, when we can find the lid, snakes. She uses clay mud to build slug and worm habitats.
Away from home, she is usually carrying something alive on her forearms: a moth, a lizard, a salamander. Once, on a small inlet near Lake Superior, she dug a trench from the beach sand to allow in a few leeches for closer observation.
Two years ago, we spent several months in Central America. Hallie settled easily wherever we stayed, even if only for a day or two. In December, we stayed in a small cabin a short distance from Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. Daily we flagged a bus and rode the curved road to the beach. A long walk from the bus stop to a shallow creek and a shorter walk beyond took us to the park entrance. Once inside, we walked another trail through the woods to a small shell-shaped cove.
On the trail we saw white-faced monkeys, iguana, and even coatimundi. But Hallie's favorite animal was the small crab, looking like nothing more than an empty shell that sat in the dry leaves along the path. Their shell shapes ranged from twisted coral spirals to round domes of brown enamel. The instant our shadows hovered over them, the crabs would pull their pincers inside to appear vacant and still.
Hallie didn't pick up the shells. She flopped down in the late-afternoon shade and began to build. Her site stretched a good distance, four square feet at least. She had no shovels, buckets, or spades. Using her hands and the cooler sand near the tree roots, she shaped turrets, roads, moats, and thick walls.
Eventually, two or three crabs would sidle over, climb one of the walls and scuttle along the roads, sometimes disappearing into a cave Hallie had carved in the floor. Free to come and go, the crabs often spent entire afternoons in the enclosure. Hallie took breaks to walk to the waterline and watch her brother, Dylan, dive through the waves. In the wet sand, she bent to examine shells the color of sunsets, iridescent fans, and cream-colored coral. She held spirals up to the sun as if to judge the capability of the space inside to hold a tenant.
During those fluid days, we stayed until the park ranger indicated the gates were being closed just before sunset. Without a backward glance, Hallie jumped up and started home. A few crabs walked her roads, but most had returned to the dry leaves. If her castle was there the next day, she'd set to making repairs or building additions. If the tide had come to the trees, the buildings would be a memory. She would start to build again.
We left in January, month of new beginnings. We made the cabin ready for someone else. Hallie packed a wisp of feather she'd found in the woods, a few shell fragments, a round rock, and some crisp leaves that had scattered on our front porch. She looked back only once for a final wave to the family who owned the cabin, but the cabin itself didn't get a glance.
"That," she said, "was a great place."