The Arm of the Starfish

Madeleine L'Engle

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Arm of the Starfish
1
A heavy summer fog enveloped Kennedy International. The roar of the great planes was silenced but in the airport there was noise and confusion. Adam wandered about, trying not to look lost, keeping one ear open to the blaring of the loudspeaker in case his flight to Lisbon should be called or canceled. His bags had long since disappeared on the perpetually moving conveyor belt, and he was too excited to sit anywhere with a book. All he could do was walk about, looking and listening, caught up in the general feeling of tension.
An extra load of business was being conducted over the insurance counters and at the insurance machines. Adam debated between a machine which would give him insurance and one which would give him coffee, and chose the coffee. Holding the paper cup in one hand, and his battered school briefcase in the other, he walked through a crowd of agitated people who had come to meet planes which were now being deflected to Boston and Philadelphia.
The hot, sweet coffee finished and the carton disposed of in a trash can, Adam headed for a row of phone booths, but they were all occupied by frustrated people whose plans had been changed by the July fog, so he decided against trying to call any of his friends. Probably no one would be home, anyhow; they were either away for the summer or busy with summer jobs.
So there was no point in trying to impress anyone with his job which had come up suddenly and gloriously after he and his parents had moved to Woods Hole for the summer and he was already set in the familiar routine of sorting and filing for Old Doc Didymus.
Doc might be ninety and doddering, but it was he who had said, the second day Adam reported for work, "Adam, I'm letting myself get dependent on you in the summer and this isn't good for either of us. My young friend, O'Keefe, is doing some rather extraordinary experiments with starfish on an island off the south coast of Portugal, and I'm sending you over to work for him this summer."
Strangely enough it was almost as easy as it sounded, parental permission, passport, inoculations, and a ticket to Lisbon.
Adam, like every biology major, had heard of Dr. O'Keefe, but the scientist was only a name in the boy's mind. To work for him, to see him as a person, was something else again. He was full of questions. 'Young' to Old Doc meant anywhere between eight and eighty, but Adam had early learned that one did not ask Old Doc anything that did not pertain directly to marine biology. Adam's father, who had also worked for Old Doc in his day, knew this, too. He said only, "If Doc thinks you're ready to work for Dr. O'Keefe then it's the thing for you to do, and I'd be the last person to hold you back. O'Keefe has one of the extraordinary minds of our day. Your mother and I will miss you, but it's time you got off and away."
Over the loudspeaker Adam's flight was postponed for the third time. He started for an emptying phone booth, but a woman with three small children beat him to it. The children huddled together outside the booth; the eldest, bravely holding on to the hands of the two littler ones, began to cry, and Adam, to his own indignation and shame, felt a strong surge of fellow-feeling with the child.
He turned quickly away and walked up and down the large, noisy main hall of the air terminal, trying not to be disturbed by the loudspeaker calling, people rising from couches and trying to listen, annoyed men heading for the bar, mothers trying tocoax babies into sleep with bottles of milk or juice. The main thing, he finally acknowledged to himself with a feeling of deep shame, was that he'd always had someone's hand (figuratively, of course) to hold, his family's, or Old Doc's, or the teachers', or the kids' at school, and now for the first time (for shame, Adam, at such an age), he was on his own, and just because his flight kept being postponed was no reason for him to start feeling homesick and to look around for another hand to hold.
Adam Eddington, sixteen, going on seventeen, out of high school and set for Berkeley in the winter, had better be ashamed of himself if a crowded airport, heavy with fog and tension, could put him on edge now.
It was after his flight had been delayed again (but not yet canceled) that he became aware of one person in the enormous, milling crowd, a girl about his own age. He was aware of her not only because she was spectacularly beautiful in a sophisticated way that made him nervous, but because she was aware of him. She looked at him, not coyly, not in any way inviting him to come speak to her, but coolly, deliberately, as though looking for something. Twice Adam thought she was going to come over to him; it was almost as though she had some kind of message for him. But each time she turned in another direction and Adam decided that he was being imaginative again.
He started to go for another cup of coffee, then looked back across the echoing hall, and now not only was the spectacular and enticing girl looking at him, she was walking toward him, and as she came closer she smiled directly at him, and held up one hand in greeting. His palm was slightly moist against the handle of his briefcase.
"Hi," she said. "I know you."
Adam gave what he felt must be a rather silly grin and shook his head. "No. But I wish you did."
She frowned. "I know I know you. Where?"
Adam was aware that this was a rather outworn opening gambit. However, he felt that this girl really meant it; she wasn't just casting around for someone to amuse her until her plane should be called or canceled. With her looks in any case shecould have had any man in the airport with the lift of an eyebrow; Adam saw several men looking admiringly at the naturally fair hair, that particular shining gold that can never be acquired in a beauty parlor, and which shimmered softly down to slender shoulders. She wore a flame-colored linen dress and spike-heeled pumps. A leather bag was slung casually over one shoulder, and Adam no longer felt even the smallest need to hold anyone's hand, except perhaps the girl's, and that would be a different matter entirely. He was overwhelmingly proud that out of this vast conglomeration of people she had singled him out for her attentions.
"I'm Adam Eddington," he said, "and having met you now I'm not likely to forget it."
The girl laughed, with no coyness. "I admit I'm not used to being forgotten. I'm Carolyn Cutter, called Kali. Where are you off to? That is, of course, if we ever get off."
"Lisbon first."
"Oh, sharp! Me too. Where next?"
"Well, I'm going to be working on an island called Gaea. It's somewhere off the south coast of Portugal."
As he said 'Gaea' she frowned slightly--perhaps she was thinking of Gôa--but she said, "What on earth kind of work could you possibly find to do in Gaea?"
"There's a marine biologist working there, Dr. O'Keefe. I'm going to be assisting him."
Now the girl definitely frowned. "Oh, so you know O'Keefe."
"No, I don't know him. I've never met him."
Kali seemed to relax. "Well, I know him, and if you'd like the lowdown I'll give it to you. How about going into the coffee shop and having a sandwich and a Coke or something? I was counting on eating on the plane and heaven knows when we'll get on that. I'm starved."
"Me, too. Great idea," Adam said. He put his hand against the firm tan skin of her bare arm and they started across the hall to the coffee shop. Suddenly Kali stiffened and veered away.
"What's the matter?" Adam asked.
"I don't want him to see me."
"Who?" Adam looked around stupidly and saw a middle-aged clergyman holding on to the hand of a gangly, redheaded girl about twelve years old.
"Him. Canon Tallis. Don't look. Hurry."
As Adam ran to catch up with her, she said, under her breath, but with great intensity, "Listen, Adam, please take this seriously. I'm warning you about him. Watch out for him. I mean it. Truly."
Adam, startled, looked at her. Her lovely face was pale with emotion, her pansy eyes clouded. "What--what do you mean? Warning me? For Pete's sake why?"
She tucked her arm through his and started again toward the coffee shop. "Maybe the simplest thing to tell you is that he's a phony."
"You mean he isn't a--a--"
"Oh, he's a canon all right, you know, a kind of priest who floats around a cathedral. He's from the diocese of Gibraltar. But I didn't really mean that." She turned her limpid eyes toward him, and her hand pressed against his arm. "Adam, please don't think I'm mad."
"Of course I don't think you're mad," Adam said. "I'm just--well, for crying out loud what is all this? I don't know you, I don't know your canon or whatever he is, I think you've got me mixed up with someone else."
"No," Kali said, leaning rather wearily against the wall. "Let me tell you about myself, and then maybe you'll understand. But first I want to know something: how do you happen to be working for O'Keefe?"
"I'm majoring in marine biology," Adam said. "My father's a physicist, teaches at Columbia, but we've always gone to Woods Hole for the summer and I've worked for Old Doc Didymus there ever since I was a kid."
"Didymus?"
"You've probably read about him in the papers and stuff," Adam said with some pride. "He's one of the most famous marine biologists in the country, and he's still going strong,even if he is ninety. Anyhow, he got me this job. It's a marvelous opportunity for me."
Four people at the head of the line were beckoned to a table and Adam and Kali moved up. Kali looked around at the people ahead of them and behind them, then said in almost a whisper, "Oh, Adam, it's terribly lucky I met you! I've absolutely got to talk to you. But there's no point here--you never know who might be listening. Maybe on the plane--. Anyhow, I'll tell you something about myself now, because at this point if you thought I was a kook I certainly wouldn't blame you."
Looking at Kali standing beside him, at the pale radiance of her hair, at her hand resting lightly on his arm, Adam did not think her a kook. As a matter of fact, it didn't make the slightest difference whether she was a kook or not. She was a gorgeous girl who for some unknown and delightful reason had chosen him out of all this crowd, and what she was saying was only a soprano twittering in his ears. Most girls' conversation was, in his opinion. She chattered away, looking up at him confidently, and he sighed and tried to give a small, courteous amount of attention to her words.
He had always, with a degree of arrogance, considered himself sophisticated because he had grown up in New York, because his friendships cut across racial and economic barriers, because he could cope with subway and shuttle at rush hours, because the island of Manhattan (he thought) held no surprises for him. But, trying to listen to Kali, he saw that his life, in its own way, had been as protected and innocent as that of his summer friends who lived year round at Woods Hole, and with whom he had always felt faintly worldly. Kali, it seemed, crossed the ocean as casually as Adam took a crosstown bus. She knew important people in all the capitals of Europe, and yet she talked about them with an open candor that kept it from being name-dropping. Her father had extensive business interests in Lisbon and on the west coast of Portugal; they had an apartment in Lisbon and were intimate with everybody in the American and British embassies. Because Kali had no mother she acted as her father's hostess for all his entertaining. "Andwe do lots and lots of it," she said. "Daddy's a sort of unofficial cultural attaché, only lots more so. I mean he's ever so much more important. Good public relations and stuff. Fine for business, and fun, too."
As Adam listened, his mouth opened a little in admiration and awe. Her light, rather high voice, fine as a silver thread, spun a fine web about him. He felt that at last, here in the international atmosphere of the great airport, he was truly entering the adult world in which Kali already trod with beauty and assurance. She gave him a sideways glance, and her fingers pressed lightly against his arm. "I do love being daddy's hostess," she said, "and I really do very well by him. I mean I have a flair for it. I'm not bragging or anything; it's just what I'm good at."
Adam could easily picture her being gracious and charming and radiant and having every man in the room at her feet.
There was a group of six young people ahead of them, three boys and three girls. Adam felt that the boys were conscious of Kali's exotic beauty and envious because it was his arm she held, and that the girls were conscious of the boys' consciousness, and annoyed by it--Those jerks, he thought.--I wonder what they're doing here anyhow?
The harassed coffee shop hostess moved through the crowded room toward the line and held up her fingers. "Two?"
"Oh, good, that's us," Kali said. "Come on, Adam."
They were taken to a dark table in the corner. A waitress wiped off the wet rings and crumbs and stuck menus at them. Kali ignored the menus. "I just want a cheeseburger and a Coke. That okay by you, Adam?"
"Sure. Fine."
Kali waved the menus and the waitress away with an airy command that just barely missed rudeness. She leaned over the table toward Adam. "This was luck, getting a corner table like this. I guess we can talk a little if we keep our voices low. This--what's his name?--Diddy--"
"Didymus."
"You're sure he's all right? You can trust him?"
"Of course! We've always known Old Doc. He's--he's like my grandfather."
She pressed the tips of her long, lovely fingers together thoughtfully. "I wonder."
"What?"
"I wonder how well he knows O'Keefe. If he's ninety--"
"There are no fleas on Old Doc. You'd never take him for over sixty."
"O'Keefe has a reputation all right," Kali said. "I mean, he's a scientist. That's no front."
"Why should there be a front?"
"Oh, Adam, it's so complicated! We are on the same flight, aren't we?"
They were not.
Adam was going Swissair and Kali, Alitalia. She looked at him blankly. "How long are you going to be in Lisbon?"
"I don't think at all. I'm being met there and flown right on to Gaea."
The waitress plunked their orders in front of them, slopping their Cokes. Kali looked at her sweetly. "I'm so sorry to trouble you, but would you mind wiping the table, please? Thank you so much." Then she looked somberly at Adam. "This is bad. I've got to see you somehow. Do you think you'll be coming to Lisbon at all?"
"I don't know. I rather doubt it."
"Then I'll get to Gaea. I'll manage. Because I can't--" She held up her hand for silence as the loudspeaker blared. "That's my flight, Adam! The fog must be lifting. Come with me quickly, and I'll tell you what I can."
They left their untouched food and Adam picked up the check. Kali waited impatiently while he paid and got change.
They hurried along the echoing corridor. "Listen quickly," she said. "I can't really tell you anything now, but just watch out for O'Keefe, Adam. He's in thick with Canon Tallis. That's O'Keefe's kid with Tallis now."
"Dr. O'Keefe's!"
"Yes. I told you they were in cahoots. He has dozens of kids.O'Keefe, I mean. O'Keefe and Tallis are against us, Adam. Don't let them rope you in. I'll try to get you to meet daddy somehow or other as soon as I can. I'm not being an alarmist, Adam. I know what I'm talking about. Believe me."
Adam almost believed. In spite of the wildness of Kali's words there was something about her that carried conviction. And Kali, with her sophistication and beauty, did not need to invent stories to get attention.
They reached the Alitalia gate and through the window Adam could see the big jet waiting in the rain that had driven away the fog. Kali took her ticket out of her bag, turned anxiously, and, to Adam's surprise, kissed him quickly on the cheek, saying again, "Believe me."
Adam stood watching as she hurried through the door. People brushed rapidly past him. He looked vaguely for the canon and the redheaded child, but did not see them. Oddly enough he felt excited and elated as well as bewildered. He did not have the faintest idea what Kali had been talking about, or what she was warning him about, but this was adventure, adventure in the adult world. He had graduated, all right!
He stood watching, bemused, as Kali's plane wheeled around and moved like a cumbersome bird down the runway. He could hear the blast of the jet as it slid out of sight into the rain. Slowly he walked from the Alitalia gates to the Swissair waiting room. There he saw Canon Tallis and the tall, gangly child, Dr. O'Keefe's child, standing with silent concentration licking ice cream cones, side by side, each bowed seriously over the ice cream.
THE ARM OF THE STARFISH. Copyright © 1965 by Madeleine L'Engle Franklin. All rights reserved. Printed in April 2011 in the United States of America by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.