© Nevit Dilmen
© Nevit Dilmen

The Myth of the Starfish

by Amy Watkins

When my brother Cye was small, he found a starfish on the beach, orange and purplish-gray, alien and alive. He held it flat on his palm, the podia, a million little feet, prickling his hand where its graceful arms drooped.

Our grandmother, a great collector of marine life, wanted him to keep it, to bleach it and dry it and begin, with this marvelous find, a collection of his own. Hers was a prized possession, housed in a recessed coffee table our grandfather had built, labeled meticulously and preserved under glass, and Cye was her favorite grandchild. But he didn’t want to keep the starfish; he wanted to save it. He held the fragile-limbed creature close to his body until our grandmother relented, then hurled it back into the waves with all his little boy strength.

In the family, we tell this story over and over: how he resisted our grandmother’s temptation, how he returned the starfish to the sea. We tell how, a few minutes later and a few feet down the beach, a stranger found the starfish and kept it, delighting in the prize Cye refused. We imagine this story tells us who he is, a defender of the helpless, a helpless defender. Cye grew up to be a nurse, daily carrying the dying back into the tide of life, if only for a little while. In the family myth, he is a tragic hero, and I am–what?

Here is a story no one knows: when I was five years old, I lost my kitten, a black and white tabby, twin to my brother’s cat. We searched the yard and I found him first, under the porch steps, still and silent. I left him there and let my mother find him. I never told. I let her think I hadn’t seen him, hadn’t touched his cold fur, hadn’t watched the ants already crawling in his nose. Almost 30 years later, my daughter’s pony dies, and when I begin to break the news, she cries, “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me.” Braver now and crueler too, I tell.

Cye found a baby dove once, newborn, fallen from its nest. He warmed it under a light bulb, fed it with an eyedropper–careful, always careful–the little bird so fragile and ugly. And our sister. He tried to save her too. When the car struck, they say, he must have been holding her hand. He doesn’t remember. He swears he doesn’t remember. When he woke in the hospital, he asked for her. Our mother said, “She didn’t make it.” Cye said, “Just like the baby bird.”

When I was ten, I found our rabbits dead in their cages. This was after our sister died. The summer before, Cye and I had dug a hole in the back pasture until we hit water. Once we got past the dry sugar sand, it had been easy, like building a castle on the beach. I couldn’t save the rabbits, but I could hold a shovel. I knew already the feel of dead fur.

The day Cye spent in the hospital after the accident–x-rayed, monitored, dilated–I climbed the pine tree in the back pasture, climbed as high as I dared, high enough to feel the subtle motion of the wind, and clung to the small branches for a long time. No one looked for me. Cye was in the hospital and Stacey was dead and Mistie was small and fussed over by relatives, and I was alone for what seemed like, maybe, the first time in my life. My first fuzzy memory is of the day Cye was born, and between that memory and the pine tree, it was always the two of us.

I buried the rabbits alone. It was days before our mother realized they were gone. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, and somewhere inside I said, I wanted to save you, even if it was only a little pain, but I didn’t have the words then. You should have seen the way she looked at me: hurt that I didn’t need her, afraid that I’d chosen loneliness, that I always would. I didn’t have the words yet, but somewhere inside I began to tell myself this story.

About Amy Watkins

Photo on 2013-02-19 at 10.47
Amy Watkins grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, the kind of upbringing that’s produced generations of southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl, and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. Her work has recently appeared in GenerationsBarely South Review, and Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Small Poems.

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