Natural Order

Elin Hawkinson

An earthquake destroys the bulk of a coastal European city. Eve is still young, so it is in a time before the 24-hour news cycle with its gushing stream of horror and pleas for foreign aid. But the quake makes the papers because a photographer from National Geographic is there to document the reproductive process of a rare breed of starfish, and he survives to capture the devastation.

From the safety of an over-stuffed armchair, ten-year-old Eve flips past pages of starfish to a single image of chalk-dusted bodies laid out on the sand. She reads that five hundred and thirty-nine people are confirmed dead, several hundred more still missing. Interestingly, the bodies belong to tourists, mainly, and the wealthy, crushed beneath the weight of their many-storied luxury hotels, their hilltop marble manors. The poor, packed like sardines in squat hovels and unregulated tenements, were simply swept out to sea. Fifteen years later, the photographer revisits the city and finds it restored and bustling, with only a vague memorial sculpture to mark the loss of life.  Fractured streets have been repaved; rebuilt hotels have doubled in size. The photographer writes that there is very little visible difference between before and after the tragedy, with one notable exception: the many tons of debris that washed into the ocean killed the rare starfish population.

Eve comes across a copy of the magazine in her gynecologist’s office. The updated photos show the memorial, a cluster of bright seaside cabanas, and an aerial view of the city. For some reason, National Geographic has chosen to reprint the photographer’s original shots in black and white. The starfish, which Eve remember as a pretty salmon pink, appear pale and sickly, while the water—which had seemed so clear—looks murky, cold, and tinged with an angry froth. Lit by harsh fluorescence, all the pictures take on an iridescent quality. Eve rubs her thumb across the page, half-expecting it to come away coated in slime.

From across the waiting room, the receptionist mouths: “Just another minute.” Eve flashes a thumbs up. Everything here is done in near silence. She puts down the magazine and picks at the cuffs of her blouse, which is new but already beginning to pill.

There’s no reason to be nervous; it’s a routine visit after a miscarriage, and she’s in the “young and healthy” category, with all the other women whose pregnancies vanish with no discernable explanation. Her husband picked up the phrase and uses it on her now, in a way he intends to be comforting. “Young and healthy.” For a little while it was. Lately, Eve feels the weight of it more and more, both the responsibility and the unspoken “for now.” She won’t be young and healthy forever.

He had promised to come to the appointment today, but it looked like rain. The grass was due for a mow. Eve doesn’t really mind—she doesn’t need him to hold her hand. But the longer she sits there the more the burden inflates, like a balloon in her empty belly.

There’s a faint beep from the front desk. The receptionist stands and motions Eve to follow her through the swinging door.

Once settled in the stirrups, there is nothing for Eve to do but breathe deeply when instructed and listen to the crackle of paper beneath her hips. She recalls describing the experience to her husband as similar to a mechanic’s shop—she feels tinkered. When the gynecologist reaches for the speculum, Eve winces, out of habit. He asks her to relax.  

Eve closes her eyes and imagines the coastal city in the days before the earthquake. The air is heavy with humidity and the scent of oleander. The water is salty enough to sting her nose. She pictures herself lying naked on the beach surrounded by thousands of starfish. How long have they been waiting here, Eve wonders. Her skin and the starfish flesh are a similar color.

Some sort of magnetism draws the starfish to her. They move en masse, a blind swell of rippling limbs. Before long, she feels the first sandpapery arm caress her ankle. Soon they all but cover her, until only her nostrils remain visible so she can inhale their silty smell. Then, in a burst, both male and female starfish release their sex cells. Trillions of them. Eve believes the sensation is closest to anointment with gallon after gallon of holy oil.

Before she is ready, the starfish begin to glide away. The beach slowly empties. Her body is left cold and slick with wasted ejaculate. Eve calls out, asking what she should do. But the starfish do not return. A hundred miles deep, the earth responds with a rumble.

Elin Hawkinson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University, where she served as a fiction editor for Willow Springs magazine. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Lilac City Fairytales, and others.