a story about finding a path home through the stars, and falling for the frosty sky.
*xiao-nu-er = daughter
ma-ma = mother
look up, she says. see?
one by one, they disentangle themselves from the night: disorderly rows of glimmering commas that scoop up mischievous channels stray far from home, back into the arms of an ancient sea spilling through the air. five turn into fourteen, fourteen into thirty, no, fifty-seven, a tentative eighty. the two voices resolve on an uncountable infinity.
primeval tales were once told there, the older voice hums. great tales, of angels and dragons, audacious bears and naive doves, a boisterous hunter that dared vex the grounds.
there is no lush meadow to sink into and no sandhills for fashioning into pillows, so the taller shadow elevates the other in a backward piggyback. just like that, the universe unfolds. resting her ebony hair between her mother’s shoulder blades, xiao nu-er genuinely sees, for the the first time, silver trails that settle over the trees and rooftops and telephone poles, assembling and reassembling, until the whirling sky in her mind is indiscernible from the real one.
tell me more, ma-ma. about the doves and hunters.
a melancholic inhale, as if the entire world was breathing in the last of spring.
i wish i could, nu-er. the apologetic voice crackles of honey. but i don’t know these tales, either.
there is no yellow kingdom tonight, no princess chang-e and her steadfast rabbit. the only luminescence is a streetlamp, and it is nearly old enough to evaporate in wisps of flame. one particular constellation, shaped like an ‘e’ or possibly an arrow, flickers into view with unprecedented luminosity. inside the little girl’s chest pulses something bigger. she can hear it acutely; an unadulterated ache to know, to pluck pearls from the heavens. to bridge the stars into her own riveting mysteries.
these stories, they’re from the west, aren’t they?
west, west, west. it doesn’t quite dissipate like the rest. a long silence shapes ‘yes’ out of the night breeze, the weightless vapor reverberating in four ears that would someday become three. ma-ma‘s spine curves a little more: the weight of a pristine hot air balloon yearning for flight still latching on, curious, but not quite ready to let go.
they do not first meet under a splatter of opalescent stars; rather, the fateful encounter takes place in a vacant classroom, the room they both rushed to in a surge of last-minute determination to make the 8am applied physics 216 class. the building is wrong altogether. it takes a pregnant three hundred seconds of heaving panting and surging confusion until this realization strikes. the two take this as an ominous sign, opts for some decent coffee instead.
what’s unexpected is how quickly the basic introductions blink by. artlessly delving into each other, the two embark on a treasure hunt for trivia through atolls and archipelagos that, admittedly, serves more as an excuse for unceasing conversation. they discuss spring weather and music, pick at the new grading system, debate whether the indie low-budged flick or blockbuster-of-the-year deserves an oscar. sometimes, her clumsy lips would inadvertently conjure some controversial statement, hanging between them like coffee steam – but the quietness that followed was neither superficial nor abrasive; it was simply there until it wasn’t, as if his patience had absorbed the candidness and carved each stroke of her rueful expression onto his brain instead. his tolerance for her was bewildering, cryptic, even. she had never met someone who could listen so intently, whose words were almost physical, like she could actually feel the weight of each word irrevocably washing over her. cups of americanos – one with extra cream, the other without – go cold.
have you ever been in the air? their previous conversation has just died down when he abruptly asks, as if the words slipped from the back of his throat. like an debilitating seagull, his facade is ocean-hazed, dipping one talon in nostalgia for a brief moment.
one flight, she avoids elaborating from where. but i dislike heights.
it may be her imagination, but she notes the slackening in his jaw, an olive shadow grazing his features. the old-fashioned brass bell by the window clangs as the door swings open, heralded by a gush of quicksilver wind, and half a dozen glance up before promptly returning to small talk.
she chews her bottom lip. because i know, that nothing up there will ever be within reach. foreign lands. the thought pendulates inside her head, rattles the crates of her skull.
or maybe, he begins. you’re afraid you could be so attached to the sky, that the ground seems too inferior to return too, his gaze is fixated on the vortex forming in his mug. a knowingly sad smile haunts the corner of his lips.
oh, i don’t know about that. heaven might not have coffee.
or extra guac.
or new episodes of riverdale.
that, he laughs contagiously, a set of subtle dimples manifesting, and her smile stretches just a little further up her cheeks.
in the buzz of the cafe, their knees touch under the table. she has never opened up so to a complete stranger, never felt so unabashed in sharing her past, her insecurities in identity. appreciation fills her like much-needed oxygen when he doesn’t bat an eyelid at her complexion, her hair, her slurringeverysyllableofhernametogether in the inexplainable shame only few understand. i don’t come from around here, i’m not one of you — she almost strikes up the courage to tell him at one point, but nothing seems to bear weight this time. he himself seems afar from the others. he whom, an hour ago, was an entire stranger, offers to show her around town in a heartbeat, promises to chauffeur her to wherever she wants to go.
is there a planetarium around here? she suggests. something about him rekindles the dauntless little girl that once was. the choice comes naturally, as if a firefly once simmering below the water, finally set free.
but unexpectedly, he casts his gaze down to the tiled flooring. a different kind of quietude threatens to creeps up on them, and she rushes to hinder it — not before his amber hair flops across his forehead and there is grinning in his voice, his eyes, sweeping all the warmth in the room.
the best in the state, just for you.
it is the first time in a while, that she has wanted to see the stars with someone so badly.
in his car (a honda accord, the latest model – or at least, when I bought it, he sheepishly laughs at the futility of his attempt to boast while nonchalantly leaning against the trunk to cover three large dents), at the entrance of the planetarium (he double checks just in case, are you sure we don’t have to pay, thank you so much), inside what she thinks may be the largest dome ever (they tiptoe in – the show has already started) – she recognizes a like-minded soul, beneath a hundred mismatched preferences, beyond birth, background, blood. trapped in the shell of a proud man, not yet grown out to fill his confinement. still longing, to feel the spring rain trickle past her ears, fresh coldness lick the tip of his nose. they are not so different. her mouth doesn’t feels parched searching for the right words to say, not with him – every syntax fits in place, puzzle pieces she never knew she had.
so she knows she cannot lie – not when his russet pupils dilate so in the onset of languid darkness, as if he is refocusing on another veil of reality and it engulfing them whole; not when the ceiling blooms into an continuum of ember-speckled spacetime and she hears a sharp breath drawn beside her; not when their fingertips meet just in the middle – when she thinks he is beautiful.
and as they gazed up at the stretched sky, she could hear her heartbeat thump, thump, thud – fall for him, like all the shooting stars above.
they never found the need to exchange numbers. it was as if he had came in with the spring rain once and for all, buoyant as the blooms deepening in color on visceral ships of white and rainbow. there had been an unquestionable spark between them from the very beginning, burning friction and connection that made little sense but was too captivating to look past. their exchanging conversations soon blossomed into whispers, suggestions, promises – all under the eclipse of diffuse sunlight.
she learned to know him over time like the back of her hand, tracing every dip and curve of his collarbones; then down his spine, to the oddly positioned freckles on the right stretch of his back. these dots urge a distant memory in her, an assembly of stitches that would refuse to interconnect. a nagging reminder of the seams that would someday come apart.
she does not notice the empty patch of ebony up north. years later, she would discover him by the windowsill, mutely staring into the starry stratosphere while crisp winter air floods the room, and realize there are enigmas about this man she could never unravel.
the frost-laced grass crunches beneath her boots as she strays from the gravel, meandering around gravestones and memorials lined up in uneven mazes for child-play. it’s close to eleven and the night its approaching its darkest, but various lamps illuminate the trails, some flickering their last embers as moths dance around like sycamore seeds. peeking out from over the brow of a slight hill, she could make out the naked branches of an elm tree, stretching up to the stars like pleading arms, and she swallows down the knot of emotion in her throat.
the night is so silent that she can almost hear the abandoned leaves whisper on snow-burdened branches, the steady streams of blood rustling through her inner ears. it doesn’t take long before she reaches the corner of the graveyard, where the majority of graves are centuries old. all the flowers that blanketed the soil beneath her feet has wilted away, or been consumed by decades of january frost. an oak tree stands, solemnly guarding the mortality beneath its roots. she isn’t sure if the winter is especially long this year, if it is for her sake. a harsh gush of wind messily sweeps a few strands of silver hair behind her earlobe. just where your nimble fingers once were. her frayed skin cannot help but tingle, in the faint hopes of encountering an old friend.
shivering as the cold air now harass her exposed ears, she turns to a headstone far newer than its neighbors. but you are an ancient entity. one arm is stretched out to trace her trembling finger across the epitaph as tears roll down her cheeks, too many to count. an uncountable infinity. i remember.
“come back,” she says in the darkness, the silent tree her only companion. “everyone misses you so much. the kids, the grandkids. the little ones still don’t understand why grandpy’s gone. me neither. i never could understand you enough, could i?”
she manages a brave laugh in between sniffles.
“the family is doing fine, though. um…i went to the coffee shop we first went to the other day, do you remember? and it was being torn down. i think the city’s buying that area to build a new library,” she babbles absentmindedly. “little andromeda’s started school just last fall, her first report card was overflowing with a’s. i told her, she must have inherited her grandpy’s intellects.”
in the corner of her eye, a comet cascades from behind the clouds.
“she desperately wanted to show you, and i told her i’d pass the message.” she pauses. “so here i am.”
she twists the stem of the evening primrose in her hand; a whisper of the first kiss of spring she still waits for, even after all these years.
“reason insists me into believing you were a phantom, or some fruit of my insecurity. but you were more real than any dream ever was,” she says in a broken voice, like a radio beyond repair. “no one listens anymore, not in the way you did. they try to help, the kids, but i’m still so, so lost.”
pulling a handkerchief from her waist pocket, she hastily dabs her moon-eyes and crouches to drop the primrose on the ground. as the delicate petals touch dirt, a golden hue of moonbeam seems to cast upon them, her and the flower and the listening grave.
“i’m too selfish. i shouldn’t be missing you this way. not when every corner of the winter sky needs you.” she murmurs. an owl hoots, disrupting silence for the duration of a single heartbeat. “but i don’t think I’ve got long, you know. i’m tired all the time. my legs don’t work like they used to. i can’t even write those torrid poems you used to laugh at. not when all of them are about you.”
i just want to see you again, she is about to say, before the sky nudges her to look up. it is as spectacular as ever to the naked eye, an accumulation of childhood dreams and wishes from when she was still ma-ma’s xiao-nu-er, every hue of the spectrum warbling from light years away into a masterpiece – but her eyes always finds him first, the most radiant of all universes.
“you made the sky my home, Perseus,” she says. “save me the spot next to yours.”
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
this short story was inspired by an encounter one night with a sky similar to the one described in part one, and some personal insecurities as a child, not quite assuaged even now.
thank you for finishing reading, and do tell me what you think – i live in a mostly non-english environment with no source of feedback, so comments honestly make my day, no matter what kind. of course, feel free to be as sweet or harsh as you can be, as long as there are hints of constructivism 🙂
– a devious lucy