Starfish Men (I/II)

Martin stares at Jane.

“Why do you care about starfish men?” he says. “They’re gross.”

Jane holds up two fragments of Necessity and touches them, one against the edge of another. Some of the roughness matches. “I think this story’s got Meredith in it,” she says.

This is the story of the starfish men.

Once upon a time, in 1975, a young girl meets and marries a starfish man.

Her name is Clarissa.

Here is how they meet. Clarissa is a runaway. There is a shelter not too many blocks away from the starfish man’s house. She’s noticed that nobody ever goes in to the starfish man’s house and nobody ever comes out. She’s noticed that all the lights are off except that one witchlight burning in the upper window. So she’s figured that something’s happened to whomever lives there, probably something fatal, but maybe just something that needs help.

So she breaks in.

It’s not a very nice house but it does have some nice stuff— sculpture, mostly.

She finds a room.

At first it seems like it’s full of corpses. But it’s not. It’s just full of weird corally lumps. That’s the kind of misapprehension that can happen when you look at a room of weird corally lumps in the dark!

Then she finds the starfish man.

That happens like this. Part of her knows that if she wants to steal things, there’s one room she absolutely shouldn’t check— that room upstairs with the witchlight shining. Conversely, if she wants to maybe help someone, that’s the one room she totally can’t miss. So she figures, making a compromise between the two sides of her nature, that she’ll open it up really quickly and peek in, then run away.

She opens it up really quickly.

She peeks in.

She stops and just stands there staring.

The starfish man is very old. He is sitting very still. He looks just like a human, pretty much, except that his skin’s a little lumpier and his eyes are black.

He’s looking at the door and his eyes capture her.

“Who are you?” she says.

“I sit here every day,” he says. “When one of my limbs rots off, I grow a new one. When the tax man tries to confiscate the property, I grow more taxes. When I’m hungry, sometimes I will eat the roaches, and sometimes I will eat one of my fingers, but I am not hungry very often.”

“Oh,” she says.

His irises are jet black, she thinks, like two little lumps of coal.

“It must be lonely,” she says. “So I thought I’d check up on you. Also, I thought that if you were dead, I’d steal some of your stuff.”

“Dead,” he snorts.

“Well, yes,” she says. “Most people can’t live on fingers and bugs.”

He cracks a smile.

In a rough voice, he confides, “I also have a certain quantity of Twinkies that I picked up long ago.”

She laughs. She doesn’t know why.

“I don’t like people,” he says. “I am practicing to be a bodhisattva, but I am very bad at it, and I generally hurt the people that I encounter.”

Clarissa has no idea what a bodhisattva is.

“Lots of people hurt people,” she says.

“Then you may stay,” he says. “And we will talk.”

She visits him now and again for the next few years. It’s too freaky not to. He’s a starfish man. And eventually he presses her down against the bed and has sex to her, and because she does not resist she considers this process a binding obligation upon her, and they are wed.

They are happy.

Clarissa likes having a home that is always warm and a husband of spartan needs. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child, because he is still and slow and almost lifeless and sometimes he is cruel. Their house has no picket fence, no children, and no dog. If something causes him to lose a limb or other convenience, he waves away her expressions of concern. Irritably, he tells her to leave him alone for a time and the offending limb or article regrows. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child— but it is functional enough.

For the starfish man, the wedding breaks his loneliness. He is a reclusive man and finds her presence grating; but also he finds it warmer than the long years of sitting in the upper room slowly regenerating. So for him also it is a mixed but functional thing.

In any event, it has happened, and both of them consider that they must adjust.

One day, he finds that the endless stepping and breathing and swallowing and burping and scratching and swishing and sitting noises she makes around the house are unbearable intrusions. Rising, wrathful, he forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He becomes lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“I killed you,” he says. “I’m very sorry. I’ll try to do better. It was not appropriate to my compassionate oath.”

“Um,” she says.

She wraps a blanket around herself. She goes to her room. She takes out some clothes and puts them on and then she sits in her room staring at the wall for a few days.

“I am going away,” she tells him.

So she goes away. It is easier to return to the streets because she does not get hungry any more.

He is lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“There was an accident,” he says. “That is why you are confused.”

“Oh,” she says.

They are happy.

Clarissa notices that she is not hungry any more, and that when she is, a roach or a Twinkie can conveniently calm her hunger. She notices that she does not get cold and that when she loses a bit of flesh it regrows with uncommon speed.

She does not ask the questions that this poses to her. The implications make her hyperventilate with horror so she simply tries to be a good wife.

Eventually it occurs to her that she should seek work outside the home, which she does, and in the process becomes unfaithful to him with Timothy, an associate.

Wrathful, the starfish man forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He is lonely.

In 1985, Clarissa is struck by a burst of spring cleaning fervor. She airs out the rooms of the house. She dusts everything, even under the refrigerator. She tackles the great project of the sloughed-bits room, and there she finds more than a dozen corpses, each of which bears her face, each of them peculiarly dry and stiff in their death and grown over with starfish mold.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, dear.”

She stares at them for a long time. Then she gets the starfish man drunk on a sour mix of vodka, lemon, and brine, sets fire to the house, and leaves.

Clarissa works odd jobs long enough to put herself through DeVry and qualify as an electrician. That accomplished, she establishes a new life.

One day she finds a lump at the end of her hand and she sets her job aside for a time. She sits on her bed— unworried about the utilities, which turn themselves on whenever they are turned off; unworried about food, which she does not need; unworried about her friends, whom she suspects now will be better off without indulging in her company. She sits on her bed and she watches the starfish man grow.

“Everything is connected,” she tells him, when the time of gestation is complete and she may cut him from her hand.

“It’s true,” he says.

This is the first step on Clarissa’s road to enlightenment, and so the whole experience might very well be considered a net good for her, except that when he kills her she forgets.

10 thoughts on “Starfish Men (I/II)

  1. That’s a cranky starfish, man. Huh, I wonder what happened to the first Clarissa-That-Escaped? Also, perhaps Last-Clarissa shoulda started her starfishman off with “Don’t be a dick,” instead of a gnomic semi-koan.

    Another also: Poor inter-incarnation information transmission is a significant problem for many creatures and their respective quests for enlightenment. Perhaps some soul-crafting entity should look into remedying this.

  2. My theory is that Clarissa-That-Escaped is somehow related to Meridith.

    But that’s just ’cause Jane said Meridith was in this one.

  3. It seems to me that the starfish man is not going to achieve any sort of enlightenment, and will become more of a vehicle for Clarissa to achieve enlightenment.

    And my money’s on Meridith showing up in part II as Clarissa-That-Escaped’s daughter or assumed name.

  4. The morality of murder gets a lot fuzzier when you can regrow the dead. It rests primarily on the question, is the regrown Clarissa still Clarissa?

    Suppose, for a moment, that the story begins in the middle rather than the end. Clarissa, in exploring the house, was already a Starfish-person genetically identical to the Starfish man. This casts aside much of the genetic ambiguity involved in the establishment of Clarissa’s cloned identity, and remains particularly viable if she had already “forgotten” – triggering her curiosity and such. If Clarissa and the starfish man are fundamentally the same in this sense, their capacity for mutual regrowth fits rather cleanly.


  5. I have concluded that the story does not start at the middle.

    When each of the starfish-person-Clarissas notice that they no longer require much food, this is expressed as a different and new thing for her.

    Thus, the evidence at hand suggests to me that, prior to the beginning of the story, she was not a starfish-person. I, too, have a liking for truly cyclical stories. I liked the Oedipus-influenced Hitherby story with the two possible orders of reading the lines, for example. But this doesn’t seem to be one of them.

    This is, I declare, actually a good thing. See, this is a history, rather than a legend. As such, it must fit within the larger universe of the histories and stories. Now, a truly endless and cyclical entry couldn’t do so, at least without much larger amounts of the god-related equivilent of technobabble*. Barring something like that (which would spoil the focused nature of the story), this narrative must have a beginning, if perhaps not an end.


    *I’m not sure what word is most appropriate for the technobabble of applied theology, but I suspect that the Delphic oracle was the first practitioner of it.

    The obvious implication of this, a version of Star Trek set in ancient Greece with the Delphic oracle serving as the Scotty-analogue, is left as an exercise to the reader.

  6. If the story doesn’t begin in the middle, then my first thought resumes – is the regrown Clarissa still Clarissa?

    Supposing that she is Clarissa, for some other reason than Clarissa always being a starfish person (which was the purpose of my second thought), then did the starfish man do wrong by killing her when we consider that he regrew her, and thus Clarissa’s state of being dead was only a temporary setback compensated by a reduced need for everything?

    Supposing that she is not Clarissa, but simply a clever look-alike with similar behaviours and mannerisms translated into a starfish person’s existence – did the starfish man do wrong by killing the first Clarissa, considering he later went through the efforts to replace her to the best of his abilities?

    That’s the fuzziness I was talking about.

  7. I was thinking about this one recently so I came back an reread it. It’s even creepier than I remembered! I mean that as a compliment. It’s extra chilling because it makes you think and stays in your mind.

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