Microcosm

by Sheila Hurst
She lay awake listening to her husband and dog snore. During her husband’s brief silences, the dog filled in with snorts of his own. This resulted in one long and everlasting cadence. It seemed it would never end. Two happy beasts making music together and they didn’t even know it. If they happened to hear the song later, they wouldn’t know it was theirs.

The sound and their marriage could be one in the same. They both had their highs and lows, stops and starts, more passionate and quieter times.

They did have passion, she thought she remembered, especially back in the beginning. Without knowing where they were going, they felt along the unknown territory, remembering, tracking, driven onward, always onward, by the promise of discovery. Just like the explorers she once learned about in school.

In their New World, they used winding paths to cut through the unknown, through a wilderness that they did not understand, a wilderness that at times threatened to overwhelm them. They built bridges and roadways to overcome any obstacles and find all possible connections. By the time they had designed their rudimentary maps, they thought they knew everything there was to know and the exploring stopped. Then came the superhighways. The footpaths still meandered through some beautiful scenery, but it took too much time and energy to travel down them. The superhighways that cut through the scenery did just fine. Everything just became too easy, too civilized.

They used to talk more, they used to explore more. They used to sit around campfires and tell stories. That’s all history now. But history is supposed to teach us what not to do again. History isn’t supposed to be something you long for once it’s gone. You move on, you try to somehow make things better, but mostly you move on.

The bedroom felt infinite in the darkness, so dark that she could look through the walls and not see them anymore. Jill felt that if she stretched her arms up, she could reach past it all and grasp at least a few of the mysteries.

A tuba blast broke her trance and combined with the dog’s higher-pitched tambourine rattle. Even just a year or two ago, she might have leaned into her husband and let the warmth and snores lull her back to sleep. Now she peeled the blankets and sheets down and disentangled herself from the folds. She felt her way out and down to Emily’s room. The musicians played on behind her. And they didn’t even miss a beat.

Lying down on Emily’s made-up bed, Jill clutched her daughter’s pillow and breathed her sweetness in. She closed her eyes and the home movie of her mind reeled: Emily drinking from the garden hose with blond curls bobbing; Emily jumping through the sprinkler, the ruffles of her bathing suit flying up with the water streams; Emily holding up their poor old cat, her face one huge smile, his resigned to letting his body hang in midair; Emily with blueberry pie smeared all over her face, in her hair, on her hands. Emily playing gymnastics on the front lawn, and always laughing, laughing, laughing…

She woke up laughing in her daughter’s empty room. The snoring continued from down the hall. Soon the birds would start chiming in. One would start with a tentative chirp, then silence, then another peep would float through the air like a question. Then a song would burst from the sky. Building off of each other, they would all be singing with high-pitched tweets, low floating warbles, and a few audacious cackles. Together they would form a cacophony, a roar, a celebration for each new day.

At least it was the weekend. That meant she could try to get a little more sleep while her husband read the paper downstairs. Upon her downstairs arrival, she would be greeted with tidbits from the newspaper: gray news of more and more killings, bombings, hatred. Enough to make anyone want to turn around, go back to bed, dig down deep beneath the covers and listen only to the birds.

It happened as she predicted. While her slippered feet still plodded down the stairs, he looked up.

“Hey, did you hear that all the honeybees disappeared?”

“All of them?” She questioned while yawning, rubbing her eyes, and shuffling over to the coffeepot.

“Yeah. Well, most of them I guess. It says that beekeepers everywhere are mystified and that the honeycombs are suddenly empty.”

“Maybe the bees decided to live in the wild.”

“Why would they want to do that when they’ve got everything they need in the honeycomb?”

“I don’t know,” she sighed, pouring the coffee.

“Well, they’re not sure if the bees died or if they all decided to go someplace else because they haven’t found any bodies.”

“Bee bodies? You mean someone’s actually out there looking for bee bodies?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said while looking at the newspaper. “It says here that we need the bees to keep pollinating our crops, that bees pollinate about one-third of our food.”

“Sounds like a science fiction movie warning of the end of the world or something. Is anyone doing anything about it?”

“I don’t think so. What can they do anyway?”

“I don’t know. Something. Someone should do something,” she said as she sat down at the kitchen table with her coffee.

“Well, maybe the bees will find their way back.”

“Yeah, maybe.” She held the coffee mug between both hands and sipped the warmth, feeling it travel through her body.

He didn’t seem very concerned. He acted as if nothing at all was wrong with their marriage. Yet everywhere there were signs. So, she deduced, he either doesn’t think it’s possible for it all to end or he just doesn’t care. They had been together for 24 years now and they just kept going along with it: working, coming home, eating dinner, sleeping and snoring. Everything inevitably became mapped out as they went on with their lives. They still traveled the roads they had built to become closer to each other, but they traveled them now out of habit, barely noticing much of anything along the way. And there seemed to be nothing they could do about it. She took another sip of her coffee.

The plants needed watering. Their floppy green leaves flopped down too far as if moping in protest. She usually watered them on the weekends but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Sometimes she purposely forgot to water them, thinking that they would become stronger that way, dig deeper, perhaps become more appreciative when water finally arrived.

Her husband turned the page of his newspaper, causing it to crackle. He looked so intently at it, as if trying to memorize every idiotic word. She leaned back and put her feet up on his chair, causing her bathrobe to open and reveal her bare legs. He didn’t notice. Sometimes, it seemed, he made sure not to look. As if he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. As if it had all become some kind of a game or power struggle. She imagined him suddenly admiring her legs, possibly even reaching out to touch them. Instead, he kept looking at the newspaper. She sat up and leaned over to grab a section away, but he held on tight.

“Come on,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I just wanted a section.” Comic strips, HELP WANTED perhaps?

“I like to keep it all together to read it like a book. You know that.”

“But it’s not a book.”

“But it’s better when it’s kept all together. You sound like Emily whining like that.”

“I’m not whining.”

“Now you really sound like her.”

“What is so wrong with sounding like Emily? There should be more of that, more of her around here, not less.”

There had always been fighting, as if necessary for the very survival of their world. At first, there were only skirmishes here and there, amounting to few losses for either side. When the maneuvers became more complicated, they followed the rules of engagement and attacked each other in a civilized fashion, although this did involve point-blank aggression.

As time went on, their weapons evolved and became more subtle. They watched each other and discovered secret weaknesses, using their newfound knowledge to sharpen and hone their tools, crafting the very ones that would do the most damage with the least amount of effort. As if to keep each other guessing, they began to creep up on each other. At times when it seemed blue skies prevailed and there could be happiness after all, suddenly a bomb or missile would drop from those skies. The victor might stand by and watch the victim crumble. Oddly then, the victor always helped the victim. After bringing each other to the brink of disaster, they would pretend it never happened and live happily together again for a while. Of course, no wars are ever truly forgotten. The memories of those old wars and the atrocities committed become the weapons of the future, stockpiled and held in abeyance until called upon later.

Jill sipped her coffee and looked around the room. Their house had an open floor plan. When they first decided to build, they liked the sound of that. Open. Now it looked too open, too enormous. She sat in the kitchen, just beginning to open her eyes while the living room shined impolitely at her. The cathedral ceilings should be in a church, not a home. She shivered. Any hot air they generated traveled up too far and hung there: an ozone layer providing little warmth. Their voices and footsteps echoed. The hardwood floors looked hard and bright.

She remembered other places, their first apartment in an old Italian neighborhood, complete with an old Italian couple living downstairs. That tiny attic apartment pulsated with heat no matter what the season, forcing them to wear shorts all year long as if always on vacation. Their heads grazed and occasionally bumped into the slanted ceilings. The kitchen was about the size of a bathroom while the bathroom was the size of a closet. Jill used to make cookies in that kitchen and would bring some to the couple downstairs. The old woman always looked annoyed when the door first opened but then a smile would wiggle through when she saw the homemade cookies.

Later up in the attic apartment, Jill and her husband would snuggle together on the futon. Baking the cookies made her hair and the apartment smell like melted brown sugar. Their windows gazed out over rooftops and into the sky. She wondered what had happened to that futon.

Over the years, they had collected so much: smiling framed pictures, overstuffed couches, leafy plants, piles of magazines and books. And that’s just what was out in the open. Whatever was hidden in the closets, forget it. She had wanted their world to grow but now it felt crowded with growth. With each new thing they brought into their world, she remembered thinking: now I’ll be happy.

“I think I’ll go to the mall today,” she said, only just then deciding.

“Go to the mall and get mauled?” Her husband chuckled while still looking at the newspaper. “I thought we’d go out to lunch or something.”

“You can come with me.”

He winced. “No thanks. I’ll stay and watch the game instead.”

Emily would always be excited for a trip to the mall. “Let’s go get mauled!” She’d exclaim, and then they’d go and pick out clothes and perform fashion shows for each other. Suddenly, Jill didn’t want to go to the mall without her. She felt old and tired and took another sip of her coffee.

When Emily was born, it felt as if they would all be young together forever. Everything held such promise. They wrapped her up in pink. They watched her sleep and breathe and dream. They began to see the world through her eyes and felt like children discovering everything all over again. Their backyard held such wonders. They would examine a grasshopper or a spider or a worm and watch each one carry on, making a world of its own out of their backyard.

“Mama,” Emily would say in her sweet voice, “what’s he doing?”

And then she would explain everything to her.

The real joy left along with Emily when she went to college. Sure, she came back for vacations still, causing everything to bloom with laughter again. Whenever she did come back, they would revisit all the good memories. Emily would point out things here and there, flowers growing undetected right in their garden full of weeds. Noticing these again gave Jill hope and made her think that things could change, that everything could get better somehow. But then Emily would go back to college and the flowers would wither and she’d forget about them all over again. Their daughter was no longer really a part of their world. She floated off and away, a lone trajectory seeking other worlds to inhabit.

Emily studied biology at college. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with a biology degree yet, she only knew that all life fascinated her. During one of her trips home, Emily mentioned that bird populations in the United States keep declining. Some species have dropped by 80 percent or more. The causes range from pesticides to habitat loss. Jill wished she could help them, but kept feeling the more immediate effects of her own potentially threatened habitat.

She turned to her husband. “Want to go for a walk on the beach instead then?”

He looked up, smiled, and closed the newspaper.

Once upon a time, they treated each other like royalty. They held feasts and banquets, delighting in the bounty of the land and sea. They sat back and laughed at the jesters invited to share in their glory. Of course, there were occasional dragons to contend with, but they teamed up and fought them off together. They believed in magic. They toasted each other and thought the frivolity would never end.

At times and often for no reason at all, a glimmer of that golden age still shone through. They held hands as they walked along the beach. The waves tumbled over each other as if they had no idea what they were doing as they kept reaching and taking the sand away.

Shadows walked toward them and gradually took the form of two adults and two children, all windswept and tan. When the two groups were close enough, they acknowledged each other with a nod.

“There are all kinds of starfish down there if you feel like collecting,” one said with a sweep of her hand across the beach.

Then Jill saw them. Plastic shopping bags full to overflowing with starfish. Each one of these people carried a shopping bag full of starfish. Piled one on top of the other, the starfish began to curl their arms around each other. Jill had never seen any starfish at all on this beach, where usually only polished glass or tiny seashells could be found, and she had never seen so many starfish all in one place.

The starfish arms that poked out of the plastic shopping bags looked dark purple with life. Jill didn’t grab the bags from those women’s fists and release the starfish back into the ocean. She didn’t question the women. She didn’t ask what they were going to do with so many starfish. What could anyone possibly do with so many? And who was she to tell people what to do?

Instead she walked away and, like usual, took her frustrations out on her husband.

“What’s wrong with people? Why does everyone have to keep taking so much? Most of those starfish looked like they were still alive. First the birds and the bees start disappearing, now all kinds of starfish are washing ashore so that they can be picked up and added to people’s collections of dead sea life. What’s next?”

“Maybe it was a mass stranding, like with whales,” her husband said.

“What would make starfish strand themselves?”

“I don’t know. Could be pollution or boat traffic or some kind of starfish disease. If they can’t adapt, it’s just one of those inevitable things.”

“So we screw up the world and they’re supposed to adapt?”

“Well, they’re going to have to.”

“Why don’t we just stop screwing up the world instead? Make things better for a change. We should at least try. The world is worth that much of an effort, isn’t it?”

They looked in the area the woman had waved toward, the supposed starfish area. Only seaweed and a discarded beer bottle decorated the shore. No stars could be found. The people had wiped out an entire population with their shopping bags.

Then Jill saw one. A star sprawled out on the sand as if it had fallen from the sky. She stood over it and wondered if the bright orange dot in the center could be called an eye. She looked into the eye but saw no recognition there. She picked the starfish up, surprised by the weight, by the fullness of it. One of its arms began to curl on her open hand, the spiny tentacles bristling and tickling.

For a second, she wanted to take it home and keep it for herself. But then she threw the starfish back into the ocean like a Frisbee, its arms absurdly spinning in the air before plunking in. A falling star. Make a wish. She watched, wanting to see it swim far away to safety. But this starfish just stayed there beneath the surface, watching her with its orange eye. Was it looking for others now, letting the waves carry it back to shore in hope of landing near the warmth of family or a friend?

Emily once told her that if a starfish arm breaks off, that arm can eventually develop into an independent individual starfish. She said when fishermen haul up their catches of clams or mussels, starfish are inevitably latched on and in the process of eating their catch. Because the fishermen think of the starfish as pests, they pry them off, cut them
up with a pocketknife, and throw the pieces back into the water. Little do they know that doing so only makes the starfish population multiply. Jill liked the idea of that, of creating instead of destroying, even if it happened to be by mistake. This starfish just might be able to repopulate on its own.

Her husband walked up to her. “Saving the world, one starfish at a time?”

“Maybe,” she answered. “Maybe.”

But she didn’t save the world. She continued to float through her days like a shadow, affecting nothing and no one. She took more than she gave and all too often thought only of herself. When she did think of the world, she hoped somebody else would do something to help save it.

Then one day she woke to the sound of nothing at all. There were no birds, no songs, just a distant howl; the sound of the wind searching for something now gone.


Somehow they had created a world. A world filled to overflowing with love and indifference, laughter and sadness, playing children and snoring dogs. A world made up of mountains to climb and turbulent oceans to cross just to become closer to each other. It was a wonderful world. What a wonderful world it was.
Sheila Hurst grew up in Michigan and Massachusetts, contributing to a
split personality involving a love of farmlands and the ocean. Her stories
are available at: http://www.sheila-hurst.com.

© 2011, Sheila Hurst