Illustration by Nora Wildberg

If you look up “starfish” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, you’ll be redirected to a page titled “Sea star – echinoderm”. And if you’re lazy and ignore the fact that you don’t know what “echinoderm” means, you’ll start reading the first line, which says: “Sea star, also called starfish, is any marine invertebrate of the class Asteroidea (phylum Echinodermata) having rays, or arms, surrounding an indistinct central disk. Despite their older common name, they are not fishes.” Does anyone think it’s a fish? Did you?– you ask yourself.

You know you’ve been to the right beaches if you remember, in your childhood, digging sand pits when your fingers come into contact with something spiky and hard, but also fleshy at points, and you run away screaming until your father come to show you what exactly you have touched, holding it gently in his palm. If the creature is fortuitously positioned upside down, the curious joy of watching it bend five hollow arms at impossible angles to right itself would be enough to captivate even the most hyperactive six-years-old.

Similar to fish, starfish live in the sea and need saltwater to survive. But unlike fish, they have no membranous body parts to propel themselves through the ocean’s five levels of depth (epipelagic, mesopelagic, bathypelagic, abyssopelagic, and hadalpelagic zones, i.e. the sunlight, twilight, midnight zone, the abyss, and the trenches, respectively). Instead, they are restricted to the two-dimensional bottom. Starfish walk without giving any indication of walking except the change in distance, its outer shell as still as wood while underneath, tiny transparent legs push in unison like rowing oars along the sand. In other words, it moves like a young princess learning to walk with a book on her head.

Starfish’s arms (usually five of them, unless it’s a Sunflower Overlord, the largest starfish species, which have 16 to 24) are as dispensable as friends. If one arm is cut off – no contacts, no feelings – starfish simply focus on eating and growing another. However, they cannot live without the disk in the center of their body that houses all the organs, including mouth and anus. Considering the small distance between those two body parts, it is understandable why starfish’s movements are so careful and slow.

Starfish are not fish, and neither are they stars because stars do not eat, but starfish do. Their diet varies by species, some going full vegan and others full cannibalistic. The ones who have sworn to follow a more environmental-friendly path would eat by sweeping collected particles from the corners of their arms into their mouth (taking care to avoid the other hole.) On the other hand, the ones who were born in more economically abundant areas, such as North America, aim for higher-quality food and avoid eating from their armpits. They hunt smaller creatures, including mussels, clam, and even other echinoderms (what does this mean!) such as sand dollars. Sand dollars burrow into the sand to escape their bigger bullying brothers, who would not only chase them around the house when Mom isn’t there but also encircle them and digest them alive. Although sand dollars’ only recommending quality is the will to live and not efficiency, starfish aren’t known for expedience either. To watch such a hunt between them in real time requires kindergarten-teacher level of patience.

Like people, starfish often reproduce heterosexually. But unlike people, in some cases they have both male and female sexual organs and can reproduce by themselves. Marriage really is just a social construct. They can also reproduce by division. Cut off a limb, and have a baby that looks just like you! Isn’t that the dream?

But starfish are selfish (like all other species of “fish”). Reproducing is more like a chore than a desire or even a choice for them. They hold pouches of reproductive materials at the base of their arms (they really make use of armpits) like carrying mail packets and release them in the presence of an opposite sex starfish, trusting that, in the power of number, at least one egg is fertilized and is not washed away by the currents nor eaten by a fish. The process can be as emotionless as splitting in half, not anymore eventful than regrowing a lost arm. Starfish, whose name marry the sky and the sea – the opposite ends of the world – also have in them a bit of both: the practical will to live of fish, as well as the saintly detachment of stars. And those who carry such immense responsibilities – divinity in the body of simplicity – must have already learned the dangers of passion. For to be passionate is to be vulnerable, and starfish are only vulnerable when they walk, poking their soft legs around feeling the sand, always seemingly in search of something. You can never verify this, so just let it be a secret between you and me, but starfish have spent thousands of years scraping the bottom of the ocean looking for their eggs – the only ones of their children that had survived, like how stars crawl across the sky in search of the sun. Godliness is nothing in the face of parental love.

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