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Star, Fish

By Cameron Walker

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Terrain.org 11th Annual Contest in Fiction Winner

My children are turning into sea creatures, as the sea is the only place it is safe to go.

 
The voices of the teachers come through the computer speakers: each child must pick a project. My oldest son picks the state of Oregon. My middle son draws pictures of mythological creatures: a Minotaur, a Pegasus, a dragon. My youngest son is not yet in a class, so he picks flowers out of the flower bed and replants them back in the same soil. “More flowers, Mama,” he says.

I pick a project, too. I decide to study starfish. There is a tattoo of a starfish on the inside of my left wrist. I got it when my brother disappeared. “They’re called sea stars,” my oldest son says. “They’re not fish, they’re echinoderms.”

Echinoderms. I look it up online. These include sea stars, brittle stars, sand dollars, sea urchins, and crinoids. I look up crinoids. There are two kinds, feather stars and sea lilies. My sons say they would like a snack. I find a knife and cut an apple into thin slices. I arrange the slices around the edge of a plate and put grilled cheese sandwiches in the middle.

When my children ask about my brother I say that he was a marine biologist. He went to distant research stations with names that sound like flowers: Kaikoura, Moorea. I show my sons on a map.

Each day of the quarantine they become slightly less human. We are avoiding a virus that turns people’s lungs into liquid, but instead my children are turning into sea creatures, as the sea is the only place it is safe to go. We walk there every morning, far from people. The dark green water pulls at my throat like a magnet. It seems to be pulling, too, on the saltwater deep within my sons’ cells.

At the beach, I find a stick and draw labyrinths in the sand. At first my sons are interested in following the path, but then they realize that the way in is the same as the way out. They stand at the water’s edge and let the sea lick at their toes.

There is a tattoo of a starfish on the inside of my left wrist. I got it when my brother disappeared.

My oldest son writes that Oregon is a place with beautiful trees and an interesting history. He has been there once and remembers nothing except that we watched movies in the car. We do not know when we can travel again, so instead I show the boys the postcards that my brother sent me from all over the world. On a postcard from Tahiti, there is a photo of a flower that looks like an open hand. On the other side, there is a printed caption: Legend has it that the tiare apetahi is the hand of a girl who believed her true love would never return. At the top of the sacred mountain, she broke off her arm and planted it in the earth to represent her love. Then, overcome with sorrow, she threw herself from the mountain. People have tried to grow the flower elsewhere, but these attempts have been unsuccessful. Fewer than 100 flowers remain.

I do not show my sons what my brother wrote. He had scrawled scientific names and a series of numbers on the back, as if he had been taking notes instead of writing to me.

 

Climate change may be good for feather stars. One scientist finds that feather stars regenerate their arms more quickly as the water warms. Another scientist argues that if coral reefs die, the feather stars will vanish, too. Feather stars are 200 million years old. After a day when everyone works on their projects, I feel even older.

My oldest son grows small, pale-blue tentacles above his upper lip like a mustache. My middle son, the artist, begins collecting colorful things—marbles, strands of yarn, LEGO pieces. He glues the things he finds to his back, which seems to have grown rounded and hard. My youngest son looks for more flowers to cut and replant. He has taken everything our garden has.

Perhaps I should be worried, but I can’t stop watching videos of the feather stars. They are like a dozen windmills made of down, each circling and falling and rising through the water. My oldest son tells me it is not screen time any more. He says he wants a snack. I pour different cereals into tiny bowls and arrange them on the table in concentric circles.

Legend has it that the tiare apetahi is the hand of a girl who believed her true love would never return.

Sea lilies look like feather stars, but they have a stalk that connects them to the substrate. They can move on their stalks—usually slowly, but one video caught a sea lily running at 140 meters an hour. That is how long it can take my youngest son and me to walk around the block. When I walk, I feel as if I am dragging my own stalk through heavy water. But when I look down, I find I still have two feet, skin and muscle, ligament and bone.

We walk to the beach again. If we go early we see hardly anyone else. A good thing, because people have started wearing masks and it frightens my sons to see people who are only bodies and eyes. It might frighten people more to see my sons. The youngest is sprouting new, feathery limbs from his shoulders.

My boys walk alongside each other. Often they fight, but sometimes they take each other’s hands and step into the water, my youngest looking at the older boys as if they were twin suns. I remember when my brother and I were like this. He was the big one, I was small, and I looked at him the same way. My heart squeezes in on itself. I draw the lines of another labyrinth and place a round, flat rock at its center.

 

“Starfish are brutal,” my brother told me once. “They stick their stomachs out through their mouths. They can pry open clams and dissolve the insides into digestive goo.” My parents still talk about my brother when I call them in Florida. He was the oldest, he glowed with promise. My father still knows the names of the species my brother studied. Pycnopodia helianthoides, the sunflower star, slowly dying along the Pacific coast. Acanthaster planci, the crown-of-thorns, destroyer of coral reefs. Stichaster australis, a keystone species that holds its ecosystem together.  

My parents don’t know all the other things my brother studied, the ones that studied him back. Flunitrazepam, methamphetamine. They believe he is still on an expedition, that when my brother returns he will bring something marvelous and strange. My parents’ faces blur and stutter on the video chat. They do not ask to talk to my children, and for once, I am relieved. I do not want them to see what I have let my boys become.

When I was young, I used to lie awake long past my bedtime until my brother was done with his lab reports, his intricate diagrams of algae. We would climb out through his bedroom window and onto the roof. We looked at the constellations and talked about the future. My brother wanted to be a famous marine biologist, like Jacques Cousteau except not French. I wanted to be an astronaut. We could sometimes see the space shuttle launch from where we lived. As the shuttle glowed and then disappeared into the sky, I wished that someday I would be going with it.

Now I am a mother and he is almost certainly dead. I imagine him drowning in crystal-blue water. I imagine his own stomach swallowing him after it grew tired of what he was feeding it.

My parents don’t know all the other things my brother studied, the ones that studied him back. Flunitrazepam, methamphetamine.

The virus spreads, both around us and within. My oldest child is the one that stays most human. So many tentacles, but still he has arms and legs and a mouth. He asks for a snack. I make an egg white. Then I make another egg white, and two more fried eggs for his brothers. I try to get each yolk perfectly in the middle, but every time I flip the egg, the yolk slips off center and runs across the skillet.

Now I have to haul the youngest boy to the beach in the wagon because his feathery limbs no longer support him on land. I draw a big labyrinth on the sand and my middle son clatters through it, sideways. He cuts a piece of yarn neatly off his back with the larger of his two claws. I follow the yarn and find that he has shed his entire shell and left it in the center. When I look again, he inhabits an even larger shell, this one iridescent, protecting all his softness. It is better than a mask: I can’t even see his eyes.

 

At home I take out the last postcard I got from my brother. I have never shown the boys this one. My brother scribbled over both sides of the card, his writing even covering the photo of a beach somewhere in Bali. The writing is in a language I do not recognize. The only familiar part is my address.

I trace the sea star on the inside of my wrist. My brother always could see the smallest fissures in me, the ones that no one else could. A few words from him could be the edge of a lever, fracturing the world I thought I’d made. When he disappeared, there was no one left who could break me.

At first I was relieved. Now I miss how well he saw me more than anything—more than teachers in their real classrooms with my children, more than a world where everyone has faces and can hold each other by the hand.

When the boys ask for a snack, the only way I recognize them is by their hunger. I see the knife on the kitchen counter, ready to cut an apple into slices, a carrot into sticks. The silver blade makes me shiver, but I know what I need to do.

When the boys ask for a snack, the only way I recognize them is by their hunger.

My oldest son binds up the wound. “The capital of Oregon is Salem,” he tells me. My middle son finds a picture of Medusa. He puts a crayon into his claw and writes “Mom” on the picture. He adds a crooked heart. They watch while I plant my hand in the garden. My tattoo disappears under the dirt.

Then they ask for a snack. I press a jar of peanut butter against my ribs with my bandaged arm and open the lid with my hand. I arrange crackers on a plate and place a spoonful of peanut butter on each one. Outside, the tips of my planted fingers reach toward the sun.

 

When my flower grows bigger, I take it down to the water. At my wedding, I stood at the edge of another ocean with a rose. I tossed it into the water to remember all those who weren’t there with us: my grandfather, my new husband’s mother, a few beloved friends. My brother had flown in from the South Pacific. His skin was the warbled texture of tree bark, his breath sweet with rum. It was the last time I saw him.

This time, when the flower of my hand floats out to sea, my children follow. The sun reflects so relentlessly off the waves that it is hard to even see their outlines. For a moment, I imagine the world if my children had never been, and whether the things I had lost—my left hand, my brother, what I thought was my life–would reappear to take their place.

I miss my brother so much. I call his name without thinking.

And then I can’t stop. I call the names of the sea stars, the names of the drugs. The names I gave my sons before they were born. The names I gave them when they emerged from the watery world inside me. The names of the creatures they are now, anemone and decorator crab and feather star. I step into the water, soaking my running shoes, my yoga pants, the thin shirt from a concert I went to 20 years ago. I have been wearing these clothes so long that I no longer recognize myself, that I no longer would know my own name if the sea gave it back to me. The water swirls around my empty wrist.

Then my sons, my creatures, surround me. Their claws, their tentacles, their hands caress the stump at the end of my arm. Do sea stars tingle like this when they feel a limb go missing? Is there somewhere that the vanished part still exists, even when something new grows to take its place?

Is there somewhere that the vanished part still exists, even when something new grows to take its place?

My hand does not reappear. But my children do. My youngest son rests his face against my belly and there is no brush of feathers, only skin. “You went swimming in your clothes,” he says. “I want to do that, too.” He is still a child after all, with pajama bottoms and sleep-matted hair.

At home, my sons take photos of their projects and upload the photos to their online classrooms. The teachers give each project a tiny image of a heart. My middle son sheds his last shell and reorganizes his art supplies. My oldest son’s eyes are round and watchful, like you always are after something has changed you.

My youngest son asks me to take a picture of the flowers he has replanted in the garden. “More cheese, Mama,” he says. “Now give me a heart for my photo, like my brothers.” I touch my fingertip to the image of the empty heart on the screen, and it fills up. Together, my son and I water the flowers. He looks longingly at my other hand.

 

Fiction Contest Judge Joy Castro says...
“Star, Fish” offers a singularly eloquent evocation of the mysterious mutations and metamorphoses of life under lockdown, of a family laced together by love, of a mother and three sons, a mourned brother, the sea. A surreal tale of the intimate dance of grief and regrowth, “Star, Fish” probes the balance between a restless, ecstatic quest for knowledge and our need for the stability of love.

 

Cameron WalkerCameron Walker is a writer based in California. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Mycorrhizae, and she writes regularly for the science blog The Last Word On Nothing. Her essay collection Points of Light, winner of the Tamaqua Essay Collection Award, is forthcoming from Hidden River Press.

Header photo by abcphotosystem, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Cameron Walker by Sara Prince.

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