Michael’s eyes, the biggest, bluest eyes imaginable, glazed over with absolute ecstasy as he beheld the sand-crusted sea treasure sprawling in his hand. The creature squirming on the toddler’s pink palm writhed and stretched, its legs curling as they reached towards the weak, cloud-strewn blue sky—slowly, painfully—until its motions became too much, and it lay still, defeated.
Michael plopped himself down in the grainy white sand as I looked on. He prodded his find with a chubby little finger and at its twitching response positively squealed in delight. His giggles drew the gazes of other beachgoers, and they beamed at the child while some restrained their own teary-eyed kids. The parents with particularly difficult charges gave the twisting, screaming young people of whom they were in charge looks that clearly said, “Why don’t you stop whining and behave like that darling angel over there?”
Indeed, Michael looked angelic, his white-blond hair falling in those stunning eyes of his, as he sat placidly on the beach with his discovery, while behind him green-blue, foam-crested waves gurgled and frothed blithely But the water was deceiving, I knew; it masqueraded as a little bit of relief from a scorching afternoon, when really it was a claimer of lives, shoving innocent beings into the rays of a haze-blurred sun, then receding with a mirthless chuckle.
I took a step towards my brother, my footing uneven, and began to plan my argument. Michael knew me well enough to guess my intentions, and he scrambled to his feet with a cry of, “No! He’s mine.”
“But Michael,” I reasoned in the voice I reserved especially for him, “Michael, if the starfish doesn’t go back in the water, he’ll die.”
Michael’s glistening, round eyes narrowed in suspicion, as if he was unsure about trusting me. Michael understood the concept of death—to him, dead meant the caterpillars he collected back home when they stopped crawling up his arm and simply quit moving. Michael knew enough to figure out that if his little ocean dweller were to die, it would cease to be of any amusement.
His mind made up, Michael flung the five-legged invertebrate back to the sea. It landed with a soft flump in the wet brown sand close to the water, and the next wave gobbled it back up to where it belonged.
Michael shrieked in glee, possibly because this was one of the few times I was actually permitting him to throw something. He reached up and clutched my palm, his tiny pale hand appearing even paler in the grasp of my slender, browned fingers.
“Come on, dister,” Michael urged me, once again failing to produce an adequate “s” sound at the beginning of his spoken word. He tugged at my arm and began to bound over the sand, spewing white clouds that wafted into nonexistence behind him.
We ran the length of the Block Island beach until Michael’s short legs couldn’t support him anymore, after which I hoist- ed him onto my shoulders. He bounced around from his perch, crying, “Wook, wook!” whenever he saw something of interest—a seagull feeding its babies on the top of a scraggly, grass-topped dune, a lone sailboat dipping and diving on the horizon. Our destination was still obscured in the distance by the heat rising from the sand: a clump of black rocks cluttering the beach like dozing giants.
Soon the ceaseless grumble of the ocean lulled both my brother and me into a sense of quiet tranquility, and we absorbed our surroundings silently, like insignificant sponges with pores to our minds and our hearts.
Before we came to the rocks, it started to happen. The starfish were suddenly there, all around us, tumbling from the white-topped waves into our midst: dozens of them. Hundreds.
Michael got down from my shoulders and took it all in, while his eyes—black ink blots in samplings of sky—saw in a way no adult had ever been able to see.
What we saw was life, so much life that the beach pulsed and throbbed with it. But there was death, too.
I scooped up a starfish at my feet; it was large, with lean, pimpled arms that had lost the will to move. Turning it over, I observed its underside, with the myriad, miniscule tentacles, oozing out to stick straight up in the air. They were waving and elongating, frantic.
And I realized: the starfish was pleading, simply imploring for its release, and for me to let it live.
I could almost see it, then—the faint line etched ever so carefully between being alive and . . . not being at all. I was suddenly and staggeringly filled with an overwhelming sense of power.
Life was in my hand, and it was my choice whether I wanted to sustain it or toss it away I had a choice, and it may not have been one that affected things on a global scale, but it would affect me, who I was as an individual, and it would affect the little bit of living matter squirming in my hand. I had the choice, the freedom, to do what I wanted with something alive and real.
So I took the starfish to a tide pool, where it glided in the misty water to plaster itself on the bottom of a rock festooned with algae. I got no thank-you, no acknowledgement at all; but I felt better inside, somehow more . . . alive . . . as if preserving a life had increased the intensity of my own. But maybe I was just over-thinking things.
So, who really cared about the existence, or lack thereof, of a purple starfish among millions? That’s easy.
The starfish cared.
Michael bustled about the crowded beach, flinging creatures in the general direction of the water; I assisted him at a distance. Some were visibly gone, baked by the afternoon sun. And when I would come near as he was dealing with the still ones, Michael would read my thoughts like always and hiss, “He’s not dead! He’s sweeping! Shhhhh!” And he’d put a stubby finger to cracked lips, his face wrinkling in annoyance.
Michael knew that I knew that he knew some of the starfish were beyond saving. But it was more fun to play the ignorant toddler, as there was less pain that way.
Michael would have to grow up eventually But for now he could be the baby boy Though he didn’t yet have the authority to eat what he wanted or wear what he wanted or do a lot of the things he wanted to do, Michael still had that freedom of choice when it came to those things no one really considered important. But the truth of it was, those things could be life-changing to someone else. It was just necessary to look with the proper eyes.
Michael and I headed back when the sun began to hang low over the water, bleeding magnificent colors into the oncoming dusk. We were getting hungry, and knew that freshly grilled hamburgers awaited us on our return, to eat with the people we loved under a sickle moon and sprouting stars.
“Come on, dister,” Michael said to me, tugging me along, after tossing back one last starfish. He began to head for the comforting familiarity of the twinkling harbor lights, with one last glance at the heaving sea. Then he set his sights towards home, and started walking. Gently, I squeezed his hand, and I followed.