Midnight low, after rain, and he is surrounded by the dead and dying. Sea stars of every color and size were vomited on the beach by the storm at sea and now in the ebb tide under the enormous moon they form a luminous crust of desiccating limbs over the still wet sand. They are purple, pink, green with ridges of orange bumps, red and bulbous with thorns on every club-like arm, some very like stars in the geometric sense and others in the celestial way, unnumbered rays shooting symmetrically from a dying body. A few are vertical in the sand, slumping back toward the sea in a palsied fist. Some are so small it would break your heart.
When the sun rises the gulls will come. They will tear every fiber from the glittering carpet of stars, but for now the fat moon is close enough to touch, intertidal itself, in gravitational embrace with the earth. The animals seem to glow, and he sees the sky-stars reflected on the water pooling in their upturned cavities as the tractionless tide recedes. The piscine fighters on their unfightable current, dissolving, crumpled, awaiting the pulsing gullet of some sea bird. He picks one up, turns it over in his hand, tries to match his fingers to its five arms. It seems to know in its invertebrate way that he is not a rock in pacific depths and doesn’t bother with a last ditch latch of tentacles on skin. He doesn’t throw it, not at the horizon in hope or at the sand in sadness or anger. He just puts it back on the sand and covers it with a frond of bull kelp. The rest of the beach crackles sickeningly, a pale taxonomy of ends.
It’s all so undignified even for a creature which eats by ejecting its own stomach at its prey. When he can no longer stomach the brittle death he turns back. The mudstone is slick with weed but he finds his footing on the barnacles and the odd mussel. The place is changing, he knows. The first tentacle of sunrise seizes the house. The biggest star of all is rising over the field of death. And we too are made of star stuff, of course, he was careful to think without assigning fear or comfort. Long dead stardust, in husks of flesh in our little world raising our arms to the current.
About the author:
K.P. Bushnell is a PhD candidate at the University of London and a college writing instructor. She has an article forthcoming in the Oxford Bibliography of Victorian Literature as well as several entries in a two-volume work on the sea in world history. She’s a California native and your friendly aquarium volunteer.