a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
She took me inside and lingered me there. She was the guide, I was the guided, and on that we did not vary. My lady could hold me tenderly; my lady could work me hard. Sometimes, while I moved inside her, she’d gaze beyond me into that reflective glass on the wall, a most beguiling work of art. I knew my utility was but brief. Still, she saved me. Without her, I made no love.
When at last my indifferent lady cast me out, I found relief in the decision. Still, I spent the early part of my freedom adrift on its vast surface with an acute lack of purpose. Mine was a monotonous, shimmering, seasick solitude until at last, I discovered the kind hospitality of a reef. Orange and slender, I was camouflaged by the coral’s colorful crannies. Even so, an octopus once woke me in the night with a clumsy arm sweep. A mouth-breathing eel nearly took me out, first with his ranky sea-breath and then with his seven-foot tail. A confused cleaner fish even tried to scrub me, as if she, too, were a toothbrush.
But I clung to my tenancy, and was soon left in peace, the grateful spectator of a perpetual parade of luminous stripes and two-toned crew-cuts. Far from a dumping ground for the superannuated, the ocean hosted an ex-pat community of toothbrush emeriti whose value was no longer determined by the human hands that had held them. At first, in this brilliant profusion of preening hipsters, I felt like a knitter in a nightclub. And yet, I was among my own, abundantly companioned as never before. From my rainbow domicile of tentacles and sponges and polyps, I could come and go as I pleased. Gone were the smooth white antiseptic surfaces, the bleak medicine cabinet where I had spent interminable days and nights, longing to become briefly useful. Into the ocean, I had been carelessly discarded and mercifully released. I no longer lived for precious minutes, but for all of the hours, day and night. And I no longer remained vigilant for my lady’s reach when she couldn’t sleep. Instead, I accepted the suppling of my own rigid body and the fading of my bold color, even reveling in my burgeoning pinkitude. All became fluid, including the he and she of me. I nested and foraged and neatened and fended. I would have both sired and gestated if summoned for such a mission.
Meanwhile, the daily beauties swam by: confetti white and fluorescent green; straight-spined or contoured. But I was content to simply live among them in this lush underwater splendor.
With his tapered physique and ribbed tunic, he made pass after pass, each closer than the last. Was he threatening to infiltrate my prized crevice? Help himself to my newfound hollow? Did he flatter himself that I would be wooed by his nifty thumb-rest? Dazzled by his hypo-allergenic, anti-microbial properties and the popular brand name silver-stamped on his spine? We bantered, too, about his color—I called it plum violet; he called it royal purple—but all the while, I had resigned myself to the unlikelihood of this brilliant stunner of a toothbrush having a genuine interest in me, a mere favor in a take-home party bag from the dentist. At first, we only pretended that the current had spontaneously delivered him. But soon enough it became true, and in the middle of a harrowing junk storm of water bottles, soda cans, and crinkled sunscreen tubes (debris with which we are callously classified), I pulled him in. He was younger than me, but had spent more time in the sea. Up close, I was relieved to find that his purple sheath was torn rather than fashionably cut; his blue flat-top had gone charmingly gray. Later, he would confide that it was not my real estate, but the shape of my shank that first caught his attention. I would confide that his sober pragmatism sustained me. He had not romanticized his human or seen himself as a loyal, devoted servant; he was an instrument, not a companion. While I had fancied myself a martyr to love, he had dreamt of retirement. While I had sulked over my disposability, he had celebrated his freedom.
Together, we attended each other like shrimp and goby. We sunbathed on seaweed and chased cool currents. We took a cue from the seahorses and danced courtship every morning.
Is it sounding a bit too good?
Riding a magic carpet (known to the uninfatuated as a plastic bag), we got caught on the jagged protrusion of a sunken boat propeller. Diving down, I pried the bag free, just as a giant sea turtle mistook our magic carpet for a jellyfish and swallowed it whole, along with my beloved. Could I pogo-stab the turtle’s throat on a rescue mission? Or might my lover be vomited to freedom like Jonah from the whale? Might he survive digestion and escape through a different orifice? Or might the cartilaginous creature simply die open-mouthed from the obstruction, so that I could safely enter and liberate?
While I pondered ineptly, an enormous shark gave chase. The turtle swam in a circle on its side, presumably to seem larger. But then, another shark appeared from below, sunk forty-eight mouth daggers into the turtle’s meaty hind flipper, and proceeded to rip into the shell the way my lady used to rip into a bag of organic corn chips. More sharks arrived, three, four, seven. The turtle carcass floated belly up. From my hiding place in a torn sneaker half-filled with sand, I watched the food frenzy above me, willing my lover to sink unnoticed into my impromptu sanctuary. Even as the inky blood-cloud billowed, I imagined us two, looking back from the future, telling an “early” story of a narrow escape.
I spent the night in the sandy sneaker. The next morning, I saw a flash of violet in the distance and sped toward it, only to find that a wrasse was tangled in the polymer remains of my lover’s tunic. The wrasse flailed, unable to shake it off. When I offered to help, she darted out of reach. Again, I approached; again, she darted. It was only when she recognized me as the new-in-town toothbrush she had once tried to scour, that she allowed me to free her from the tunic. She was grateful for the rescue. I was grateful for the remembrance, however tattered, of my abducted he-lover.
My long-ago lady used to leave her television on to discourage intruders when she went out. Alone after love, I began a similar practice, arranging my coral domicile to appear as if it were still occupied by two. When the weeping hit me, I didn’t know what it was, only that I had seen my lady crumple with it. The listless staring and compulsive cleaning; these, too, had been hers. What loss of human love had she suffered while I was resenting my insignificance in her life? In mourning, colors became more vivid; sea sounds, more potent. And while a renewed sense of discovery pressed me onward, these heightened perceptions were a reminder of the void that had produced them.
Often, I returned to the sneaker to mourn. Seeing me loiter, the wrasse eventually employed me at her scrubbing station, where I learned to service the big-fish clients by removing parasites and dead tissue from fins and foreheads. Eventually, I graduated to oral cavities; it was, after all, my specialty.
By this point, I was well ensconced in my coral community and always knew when Jubilata was nigh. Our reef, with its chronic chatter of clicking and bubbling and crackling and snapping, would grow reverentially quiet. Then one night, when the moon was on the wane, the swollen polyps would begin their synchronized release, expelling thousands of sperm and eggs charged with finding each other in the ascending sea galaxy of tiny bright lights, unions at once arranged and spontaneous. Jubilata produced no “my sperm/your egg,” only countless combinations and the fate of our future, floating magnificently before us.
It was during one such dreamy aftermath that I did venture to love once again. Hinged in the middle for travel, she could forward-fold herself in half, the most yogi toothbrush ever. Transparent from the waist up and translucent from the waist down, she was a master at camouflage. Having stayed with her traveling human for a full year, she had weathered curvy roads and turbulent flights, had gazed through bathroom windows at stone bridges and medieval turrets, had delighted in the clang of cathedral bells and the sharp clop of boots on cobblestone, had eavesdropped sinkside on her human enjoying a steamy shower with a stranger. Then, one day, she was ineptly dropped onto the floor of a hotel bathroom and kicked into a corner, where she could only watch as her lookalike replacement was removed from the packaging and immediately employed. Like me, the yogi ended up in the ocean.
But my new love deemed my coral domicile a pretty prison. Firstly, she observed, I was still attached to the home my murdered he-lover and I had relished. Secondly, she claimed the reef was bound for ruin. Not the beautiful aged ruin of a stone abbey or storied shipwreck, but one caused by an abrupt plague that had decimated distant reefs and would find this one as well. In short, she insisted, we must flee. I dismissed her warnings as the apocalyptic fancy of a newbie who had yet to appreciate the ocean’s expansive refuge and rhythmic taming of time. Here, I argued, slow evolution had produced a wondrous multitude of species. I perceived no immediate threat and could muster no wanderlust to meet her wooing. As pleasing as my yogi she-lover was, I saw her spacious raft as a mere container-lid for triple-washed spinach. I had already seen a romantic adventure culminate in disaster. This time, I let my lover ride away without me.
To the extent that solace was possible, my occupation provided it, though the wrasses belonged to a harem and had little time for socializing. Their presiding male was as territorial and quarrelsome about them as I had once been about my lady. When he died in yet another duel, however, my wrasse friend did not seek me out for widowed commiseration, but instead, became stoic. Her sister wrasses, for the most part, took this in stride, for they understood that when she began to boss them, and the small bump on her forehead grew into a veritable noggin knot, and her greenish shimmer turned explicitly blue, she was merely bowing to her biology. As the high-ranking female, she had grown some gonads of her own and taken her dead master’s place. Our easy lunch-buddy laughter was gone, along with the interspecial experiment of my employment. (Call me the token toothbrush among cleaning creatures.) I understood their transformation and had to admire their adaptability: her acceptance of her own extinguishment, his commitment to his own genesis.
At this point, I had lost three lovers, my kindest sea friend, and nothing less than the means to realize my life’s purpose. Dejected, I returned to the comfort of my reef. The corals, slow-growing with a wide welcome, reminded me that my losses, though keen, were the inevitable product of time. My ultimate incarnation, I could not then know; my initial one, however, deserved remembrance.
Underground, in the chilly damp, we waited, eager to unfurl. Rooted fast to our places, we had no helmets or masks, only scant body armor. Armed but weaponless, we pushed up into the light, but could not ambush or aggress or even return fire. We could foliate, but not leave. Through flame and flood and sleet and scorch, through lightning and lava, we soldiered on. Some of us lost limbs. Some were split in two and thoroughly blackened. Fallen friends were buried beneath other fallen friends. Our best hope—our only hope—was to stand tall, lest we join them.
During peacetime, we fluttered with sweet songs in our heads. Wide was our reach; accommodating was our canopy, innumerable were those we fed. After countless cycles of branching and blooming, we began to notice the two-legged newcomers. Like the quadrupeds who had long grazed and lazed in our cool shade, the bipeds were muscular. But in place of woolly pelts, they had only scant fur. Instead of two-toed hooves, they had five-toed feet and not yet opposable thumbs. Their snouts were short, nostrils right up next to the cheeks. A glowering bone ridge above the eyes made them look angry, even while they slept. Too, their heads were elliptical; their brains, the size of an orange. They had no head-butting horns, but carried hunting spears in their hands.
We tried to set an example, wooing each other with fragrance and tiny missives on the wings of insects in the balmy breeze. But the bipeds emulated the quadrupeds instead, chasing and mounting smaller compatriots who would then thicken and multiply. The bipeds ambushed quadrupeds for food, eventually running entire herds off the cliff to be butchered at the bottom. In this way, they fed themselves, but (perhaps, absurdly) attracted other predators as well. These upright newcomers drank our sap, ate our fruits, and chewed our bark for medicine. They ground our nutshells for teeth cleaning; they felled our friends for fire. They decorated themselves with leaves and bird feathers; their caves, with charcoal figures. They dug graves and covered them with our flowers. Slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, we began to follow their dead, sinking, sinking, sinking into our own buried sleep.
Extracted from a vast underground reservoir, pureed into plastic, and poured into a mold, I awoke to the presence of a new bipedal species. These had fine fingers and small noses; these would sing and speak and stand up straight. They built sidewalks and sang along with the radio; they combed their hair and ran scented strings between their teeth. I, too, had changed profoundly. No longer expansive and venerable, I had become small and light. With a life expectancy of three human months, I was delivered to the jewel-fingered hand of my lady.
Having learned now of my origins, are you prepared to witness my grand and noble denouement?
Sorry to disappoint.
Unnecessary and unremembered. Stinking and surrounded by stink. Born to eradicate decay, but doomed to become it. I have lived too long, my greatest isolation arriving most cruelly with my greatest frailty. Once an audacious orange, then a practical pink, I am now the yellow of a timeworn toenail. Spare me, kindly, all reference to the “sunset years.” My abode is quite literally a dump. I love not. I penetrate not. I bear no fruit, provide no shelter. I serve not, but shift aimlessly without breeze or current. Or companionship. Or beauty. I witness nothing remotely jubilant. Mine is the kind of conclusion all discerning creatures dread. Often am I buried, but never am I dead.
Just as my roaming she-beauty had warned, the corals succumbed to a warm demise. By the time the biology students evicted me, the reef was a ghost town of bleached skeletons and sea goop. I, too, was brittle and infirm, but that didn’t stop the ecological earnesters from “repurposing” me. Brandon from California was my particular tormentor, scrubbing those cruddy diving masks until my bristles frayed and fell out.
And what then became of my devoured beloved. Him who had been enshrouded by our magic carpet. Him I could not rescue; him I still mourn. Was he crushed between a shark’s terrible teeth? Or did he find himself in some other putrid scavenger belly, strangled by a tangle of fishing line or mummy-wrapped in duct tape? Did my he-lover die in a burning, churning colonic maze? Or does he survive, like me, daily disintegrating? Are there granules of him in the shark liver oil that health-conscious humans like my lady consume in hopes of staving off death? Or does he sparkle on sunlit waves where marine birds mistake his plastic particles for lunch? Only yesterday, a gull pecked a pellet from my once-beautiful shank, thinking it a delicacy for her chick. Before that, a pigeon extracted the remaining half of a staple that had secured my bristles when I still had them. Mute and immobile, I hold this awful knowledge.
Forever ago, I begrudged the young suitor who had wooed my human lady away from me with lights and bleeps and supersonic speeds. This battery-charged sibilator had a small round head that spun vertically and was, for added freak-show value, interchangeable with its identical siblings. I deemed this creature a cruel usurper. Not that I had harbored a molecule of mercy as I—fashionably featherweight with a nylon coiffure—had usurped my own predecessor, those boar-bristled, bone-bodied cousins.
I’ve long since renounced any pride in the dubious merit of everlastingness. But to the extent that my essential nature is to survive, I hope it’s the part of me that forgets to worry about my importance. I hope it’s the part that remembers the tree in me. And I hope, more than anything, it’s the part of me that cherishes, without reserve, having been reached for on a sleepless night.
Lisa K. Buchanan’s writings have appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Fourth Genre, Narrative, New Letters, Punctuate, and The Offing. She likes Brahms’ short waltzes, spinach with mango, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three.