Melissa Wiley


He said his collarbone was broken as a baby, and I said no wonder he cried so much. Though I have hardly heard him snigger, much less weep. Much less fresh from the birth canal, twin sausage legs still slick from placenta. But then he says so little while I say so much, I who buy tea at his shop, he who sells it to me in an ivory cup. So I added that his bones were like sea star arms. That all good things grow back in the end.

Then he laughed, so my cilia quivered like brittle leaves inside my ear. When he repeated, "Yes, like sea star arms," and sat on a stool crossing his arms at their elbow and concealing half their length, hiding his hands in folds of coral flannel. While I waved mine about like sea anemones, because I had nothing more to say but no wish to stand still. Because whatever we were once we were sea stars no more.

But we were speaking only of baby bones, as we could not hope to regenerate now. Then I pretended to trip over a fallen napkin by way of demonstrating the damage that could be done, the bones that could break were we to fall too hard across some stray swatch of cotton rolled like rope. And then I sneezed and said I loved him, I loved him always, while turning to pour some milk in my tea, exhaling as little air as I could to keep the words within my ribs. Though the milk had since run out and I turned, twitching my uvula with a burlesque waggle and asking him for more. He asked what kind, and I said anything from a cow would do. Just so long as it's white. Just so long as it flows from someplace warm.

Sea stars, which are not fish and therefore not starfish but bejeweled bodies of light—amber and amethyst and sometimes a grim artichoke green—have no blood and no veins, only suction cups for feet. Some subspecies are hermaphrodite. They desire only parts of themselves, a pink knot of wholeness at their navel always there to meet their needs, while groping seafloor sands. So that there is altogether far less pain shooting out their arms than ours, because hurting is for fragile things. And say what you want about echinoderms: If they regrow limbs outside of utero, they're stronger than you think. But then what is pain is good for if you have no blood to show for it? Blood always such a bright, bracing color too. Everywhere but beneath the sea, where all runs blue in the end.

He unfolded his arms then extended them over the counter looking sinewed as almond branches. But they are only two, neither with a chance of regrowing a finger at its end were one to break off or be bitten by a shark. He like me without much chance of encountering more than a weak trickle of stars at night, living as we do in a city that has to pitch steel tents to manufacture any darkness for people with broken bodies to make any love. People wearing more black than they need, just to address the imbalance.

Sea stars are easier to see here than stars held aloft in the firmament, so long as you visit the aquarium, arriving early of a weekday to avoid the crowds. Provided you press your face close against the glass, smudging your nose level with the puffer fish. Until you leave a small snout spot aside the air pump on the glass, a barrier washed transparent with Windex but still a barrier no less. So that you can't reach your hand in and break off any echinoderms' arms.

Real stars, though, have no arms. Floating limbless, walking nowhere, grasping nothing within their palms, they are light and light alone. They are powerless all their lives to grasp any food stowed deep in any cupboards, to open or spread any peanut butter on any slice of bread. Living without legs or torsos or collarbones to break when flying out a birth canal then fuse a few months later in a life of near endless sleep. But emitting light pure enough to poison any person who stands too close, who stares too long at the fires alight in the sky and doesn't stay put inside her tent.

Fire is a devouring, gnawing always on its own fingernails, and you are a fire yourself. Burning always with the lust certain subspecies of sea stars are lucky to be rid of.

No wonder we are hungry beings, we with starlight spinning all our atoms around, we with only two arms that will not grow back when they fall off in time, leaving us nothing but a talking, burning stump. We who scald none but ourselves into a pile of cinders in the end.

So love someone while pouring milk into your tea that is already milky enough, yes, but do not speak more about your missing arms than you need. Do not mention much, if anything, about your bones, where they've broken and where they've melded under an unholy fire, making certain movements less labile than you like, the extension of your arms shorter than they used to be. Putting jam jars in high cabinets just out of reach.

Do not ask him to look too close at your skin and examine the joints beneath, there in the marrow where your blood is made. Because the starlight roiling inside your rib cage is just bright enough for you to read by but apt to burn onlookers' retinas. Because you are not both sets of sex organs congealed into one pink, larval mass as you might wish, but still your fire is hot enough to cook your food and roast a few marshmallows, filling the gaps between your teeth, where you otherwise whistle when you speak. So do not beg another body close, with lips you open but do not seal shut, blowing cool air over already tepid tea. Do not attempt to merge your severed parts when there's no more hope of healing now. Kinder, then, to order your tea and leave. To not enquire too closely into any splintered collarbones long since healed.

Better, all things considered, to stand with your legs and arms outstretched wide as rays of light on a slippery sidewalk rent with tree roots rising toward the sun. To trip on a constellation of twigs, bruise your knees, and walk the faster on. Better to use your suction cups to walk up the side of a steel tent then fall from a couple stories up rather than cling to another sea star already growing as many new arms as he may wish, so he can pour his pots of tea the faster. He whose clavicle may not have sealed itself entire for all you know. That still may be loose in some places.

But then it's difficult to be better than you are. And I am of a chatty sort.

So sipping tea as as full of milk as it could hold, I said that I used to sleep beneath a blanket of a thousand stars, with sheep orbiting the barn lot like planets swathed in wool. I told him this and no more, not that the farm is long gone and the family too. Not that I lost, as some might say, the whole shooting match, when I was still young enough to grow back part of an arm and shoot something myself but didn't bother to. Not that I was too tired, too weak, and too lame to bother repairing myself while I still had the chance. This when my missing fifth arm is already clear as daylight. When my brokenness walks before me everywhere I go, so why even mention it? When all the world and he behind the tea counter with it is too accustomed to broken souls to register any real surprise. People hobbling about everywhere with invisible canes made from fallen tree arms but still canes no less. People whose necks are bent too low to look up and see any stars at night even if the streetlights hadn't blurred them all into a pale coat of paint.

Me only one of an endless stream of souls with more severed limbs than they'd like. All of us not what you'd call prizes, but still pulsing our little share of light.

I said I missed the stars but didn't tell him why, that they're never coming back, because there are other customers besides myself, I am well aware. Other thirsty people with their weight shifted slack to one hip in line with cash in hand. Life a little too busy always for too much talk of sea creatures so early in the afternoon.

And then what of sea stars and their arms when there's so much light to see by as it is? Light the great revealer, there like our sex beneath our clothes. Light streaming down his nose's length and telling me everything I need to know. He standing beneath the same phosphorescent tubing as I to illuminate all the missing arms on me he likes. Conversation only a poor kind of poultice when I've already claimed my share of healing. When I've stood here long enough.

Though I wanted to keep talking, about fallen things.

So I told him that my hair had broken in the snow. Because I knew that he would laugh. Because broken bones may be serious, but broken hair is not. Several strands had snapped off clean as stalactites during yesterday's storm, I said, after half an hour's walk. Snapped because my hair is brittle as well as my bones, though it will grow back, I'm all but sure.

I may talk more of hair lost in the snow, but I won't mention the stars anymore. In the sky or in the sea. Because say "stars" too many times and anyone can see that you are asking him to love you. You who burn hot enough to singe anyone who comes too close. You with more milk in your tea than anyone else would ask. Milk that came from the cow warm as an oven but has kept cold in the refrigerator at his heels. Heels now propped on the lowest rung of a stool he has claimed either for rest or to listen to you the longer. Because he likes the sound of your voice or is waiting for the conversation to end, you can't tell which, because there is not enough light in this shop.

So I left it there, the sea stars who were neither his nor my concern, mentioning the new ice-skating rink just across the park instead, pointing left with both arms in case one wasn't enough. The rink close enough for him to skate for a solid 20 minutes at lunch if he liked. But he wasn't interested, he told me at once. Because he could break a bone and never heal. Could not work for months and lose his house, the house where he slept with legs curled tight as a seahorse tail against a woman with hair too strong ever to break in the snow. No, he didn't need that, broken bones that would only break other things apart.

Then I waved goodbye, as if it were the only thing my arm could do, saying "See ya soon!" though I knew I would not be back for a good long while. Because I had invoked the stars when I should have left them alone, smoldering behind the crown molding carved with small, stippled suns. Because of all that falls, stars are the most wondrous, so I threw my head up toward the ceiling tile just before I left, until I could see a blistering white against an impossible emptiness. And I watched as his eyes followed mine, his mouth hanging open so I could see his uvula rocking itself into a subaqueous dream, and his face broke out in a rash, of knowing, I think. Because I had asked for more milk in my tea than any sane person would want. Milk that came warm as an oven from the cow but kept cold in the refrigerator at his heels.

Because you cannot ask someone to look at stars boring holes through tea shop tile more than once and hope to have anything more to say that is not love and love alone.

And then I had to be off. To the dentist, I confessed, who tells me my gums are receding into a nothingness. Who reminds me they will not grow back, that soon she will have to graft some tissue from a body that has just lost its breath. Who after scraping the plaque off each of my teeth in turn says she has to see another patient but asks if I would like to sit upright, to read a magazine, perhaps, or just let the blood drain from my head—she will happily adjust the chair. No thank you, I reply. I'd like to keep lying with my toes level with my nose, so my nostrils can fan themselves like sails against the heating duct. Reading no magazine while letting my blood leach farther from my vital organs, a little less vital each day. Staring at the moss-colored napkin pinned to my chest while watching it rise and fall with my breath, a gentle wave rolling out to sea.

Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago who flies her sailboat-shaped kite at close haul. She plays a nice mouth harp while aspiring to play a mean and nasty one and go-go dances at craft fairs with cookie crumbs stuck between her teeth. Her work has appear in literary magazines including Lowestoft Chronicle, Tin House Open Bar, Great Lakes Review, Storyacious, Crunchable, Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, the museum of americana, and Livid Squid Literary Journal.

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