Editor’s Note: Look for more holiday stories in coming weeks from the students of local resident and creative writing instructor Christine Fugate.
“Mommy, mommy, I see a crab!” Heather peered closer into the clear waters of the tide pool and cautiously extended a chubby finger.
“Careful, you know you shouldn’t touch anything in there.” Heather dutifully withdrew the finger and almost toppled over as she leaned in more, to assess the marine life.
Petra smiled, enjoying the sight of her 4-year-old daughter doing exactly what she had done in her own childhood: investigate Laguna Beach’s tide pools, marveling at the microcosm of life in its own tiny world. Back then the pools they were exploring, were off-limits due to the trailer park. Now, Treasure Island Beach was open to everyone, bringing joy to residents and tourists alike.
“Mommy!” Heather yelled again. “I see a starfish, but it’s broken.”
They both stared into the water. Sure enough, not just one but three starfish appeared to be struggling in the small tide pool. One had lost two legs, which floated pitifully on the surface. The other two looked bleached and brittle, moving purely because of the wave motion in the pool.
Her heart sank. This was the result of the starfish wasting disease that was scouring the western coastline from Alaska to Mexico. No one knew for sure what was causing it, but the results were devastating. Hundreds of thousands of sea stars were dying.
“I know sweetie, it’s really sad,” was all she could muster.
“Can we take this one home and look after it?” her daughter pleaded, eyes as big as Puss in Boots.
“No, we have to leave it here. There’s nothing we can do. I’m really sorry Heather.” Her daughter’s bottom lip started to tremble – a meltdown was imminent. Fast action was required.
“Hey, take a look at this tide pool sweetie. I’m sure there are more crabs in here.” She tugged on Heather’s hand, desperate to draw her attention away from the carnage. Heather wasn’t convinced, but trudged after her mother until they were both kneeling to investigate another watery world.
“Look, I see a tiny fish!”
“But mommy there’s another starfish with its legs coming off,” Another husk of a sea star was drifting in the shallow water, one leg floating up to the surface.
“OK, time to go.” Petra scooped Heather up, even though she was getting way too big for this.
“Mommy I’m sad. Why are the starfish dying?” Petra kissed the top of her head gently, inhaling baby shampoo interspersed with salt spray.
“I don’t really know,” she replied. Heather sighed into her mother’s shoulder and said nothing more until they reached the car.
“Can I draw some pictures when we get home?”
“Of course, darling, that would be great.”
Sitting at the dining table with paper and wax crayons, Heather was engrossed as Petra bustled around the kitchen making dinner.
“I finished mommy.”
Petra surveyed the drawing silently – starfish in all shapes and sizes, some with no legs, some with one or two legs, and piles of legs at the bottom.
“Oh honey, that’s a very sad picture. Why don’t you add some happy starfish with all their legs?”
Heather shook her head stubbornly. “No.” Petra knew better than to argue.
“OK, I promise you we will go back to the beach soon and look for happy starfish. When we see some, you’ll draw them. Deal?” She raised the pinky finger on her right hand.
Heather intertwined her own pinky. “Deal.”
Thanksgiving Day walk on the beach was an annual tradition. The morning broke clear and sunny, and the ritual continued. Petra strolled along the sand heading for the rock pools on Treasure Island Beach. Heather ran on ahead, stopping when she reached the nearest tide pool and crouching down.
“Mommy, mommy, look! The starfish are back!”
Petra raced toward the pool, and knelt down. It was true: tiny sea stars were clambering over the rocks and swimming in the calm water. No bigger than a fingernail, the creatures appeared to be healthy and thriving, in various colors of peach and purple. Her heart leapt with delight.
“Wow this is amazing. Well spotted! Will you draw me a new picture now?”
“Deal.” Heather was engrossed, watching the baby starfish. Petra smiled.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Heather.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mommy.”
Sally Eastwood is the author of “101 Things to Love About Laguna Beach.” She peers into tide pools any chance she gets.