Stars, Part 1
by Liberty Gilmore (4/01/13)
Whenever my grandmother used to talk about the stars, the others used to get this sad look in their eyes and talk to her like she was a frightened child.
‘Meimei,’ they used to say, respectful still, because she was old and once important, ‘there are no stars.’
It made me furious, but it made Gran laugh.
‘Listen to them,’ she said to me, ‘talking like I left half my brain behind on my Pilgrimage. I didn’t leave it behind, I woke it up!’
She was eighty when she passed. A good age, but I was bereft. At her burial they said she was a creative, imaginative lady, which is just a polite way of saying someone’s crazy. We’re always polite about the dead in our village.
Years passed. I grew from an awkward child into a young woman. Seventeen. My friends dreamed of the husbands and children they would soon have.
I dreamed of the stars. Unlike Gran, I knew to keep quiet about it.
Like my friends, I would be married soon. It was expected, and I was pretty, so the boys were prepared to overlook Gran and how her crazy ways might have influenced me.
There was one boy in particular – Brant – who liked to let me know he was keen. Of course it was the responsibility of the Meis to pair us, but they weren’t above a nudge or two, and Brant was the son of the village’s leader. It was never said, but widely understood that Brant and I would be wed.
He would talk to me sometimes, about the harvest and the trees and his father’s vision for the village and the responsibility of that vision that he would one day inherit.
I did try to make an effort, nodding in all the right places, letting him speak. But more often than not my mind would wander, and I’d gaze at the blank blue sky, or the dull grey clouds, thinking of things Gran told me.
One day he said, ‘Tell me what you are thinking of.’
And in the interest of honesty with my future husband, I said, ‘My grandmother.’
‘Is it the anniversary of her passing?’
I shook my head. ‘The thoughts just strike me sometimes.’
And because he was trying to make an effort with me, he said. ‘What are stars?’
‘Gran said they floated in the night sky, glittering, hundreds of years ago.’
‘What were they made of?’
Gran had tried to explain this to me before, but I was only young and didn’t understand. We had this joke about it, where we would say each star was a garden full of fuchsias, glowing with brilliant light given off by the flowers. I’m not sure where the joke came from, but it made me smile to think of it.
I didn’t want to share that with Brant. So I said, ‘I don’t know.’
The ceremony of the harvest came and went, the time of marriages drawing near. My friends and I received our life partners and no one was surprised when mine was Brant. While my friends talked excitedly, I felt myself shrinking.
Thinking about it, accepting it, had been easier when it wasn’t so close. Now it had an officialness, a certainty, it terrified me.
There was only one way to get out of a marriage that was an option for me. Pilgrimage. A spiritual journey of self discovery, usually taken at a moment of great personal challenge for the pilgrim. Not wanting to marry Brant didn’t count as a great personal challenge, which meant I had to lie and invent one.
‘Meimei,’ I said to the spiritual leader, Sheamea, ‘I fear…’ And I said what I knew they feared most of me. ‘I fear that I am more like my grandmother than I should be.’
Brant’s father may have taken care of all the logistics of village life, but Sheamea was responsible for our spiritual health and she had just as much power, probably more.
‘What makes you say that?’ she asked.
‘I have… thoughts.’
‘About?’ Her voice was gentle, coaxing, but I feared her, and the power she had over my life. I spoke my next words to the floor.
‘About ideas. About being better than I am. I fear I need to get away. To have nothing for a while in order to appreciate what I have. I fear I will not be a good wife.’
The thought of being anyone’s wife brought tears to my eyes and I let them fall. They helped lend sincerity to my words. I thought of Gran in the Otherworld and sent a quick prayer asking for her forgiveness. I imagined her laughing at me for even feeling the need to ask.
I was trained for my pilgrimage for two months before I could leave. I was taught the right routes to take, how to hunt and forage, build fires and shelters. I learned to handle a small knife as a weapon and a tool.
My friends got married. I watched them go through the ceremony one by one, each time questioning my choice and each time feeling no envy for them, making me sure my choice was right.
Brant vowed to wait for me, even applauded my actions. ‘You need to work through these things before they cause problems,’ he said. ‘It’s wise of you, Sunia.’
I smiled and thanked him graciously for his kindness and patience. I tried to feel bad about it, but couldn’t.
When the time came to leave, I followed the marked trail for three days before taking out an old map Gran made after her pilgrimage, marking her route. Using the skills I’d been taught in preparation for my journey, I worked out how to get back onto her route.
Her voice was in my ear, telling me about the landmarks she saw – an ancient tree, the bones of some long extinct creature, the spine of a mountain. And then the fountain of knowledge, where she’d learned about the stars.
I thought I’d missed the ancient tree, but if I walked in a north-easterly direction, I would come across the bones. Then I could make my way to the spine and the fountain.
It was hard work. Feeding myself took up much of my energy, the terrain was rugged, the conditions harsh. There was not much with which to build shelters. But the thought of Gran’s voice, her stories, the sparkle she got in her eyes when she told them, spurred me on.
After three further days, I found the bones.
They twisted around like the body of a snake, only this snake must have swallowed whole villages. Its bones were mostly intact, though in some places there were gaps, and a red-brown colour. I touched my hand to them. They were cold, but hard. Time hadn’t worn them even close to dust yet. I wondered how such a magnificently sized creature had died, and why there were no others. It must have been lonely, I thought. Perhaps it died of a broken heart.
Knowing I was on the right track helped me push on further, faster. My legs ate up great distances every day, until I passed the spine – an enormous spire that shot into the sky, so tall I could hardly see the top of it. Vine plants curled around its base, clinging to its jagged edges, but they ended less than a third up its height, defeated by the altitude. Birds circled around it, a little higher, but not much.
I made camp there that night, knowing I was close, lighting a small fire to combat the absolute darkness of the starless night.
The fountain was the only thing Gran had not described to me in great detail. The tree, the bones, the spine – these were fixtures of my childhood stories, though seeing them in real life was an entirely different experience. The fountain, I knew nothing of, except that it was less than a day’s journey from the spine.
I looked for a body of water, and found nothing. I looked all day, sure I’d gone past it sometimes, other times thinking I hadn’t gone far enough. As the darkness started to settle in, wrapping around me, a soft rain began to fall and I looked for shelter. There were no trees out there, no convenient branches to construct anything with.
I retraced my steps, back to a small cliff face I’d walked along earlier. There was a small cave formation at one point that would do. I walked quickly, the slippery ground and increasing darkness making the journey perilous. I was ready to cry with relief when I found the cave.
Inside, I used a little of my stockpile of kindling to light a small torch for myself. It cast a soft light on the rocky interior of the cave, illuminating a path that cut deep into the cliff face. I followed it back, away from the cold rain. As I walked, it felt as though it was getting warmer and I thought it was just the rain drying from my skin.
I’d walked far enough into the cave to set up a decent bed for the night, but curiosity kept pushing me forwards. The air seemed to hum with energy, the temperature now noticeably rising. I followed the path further back, until I came to a cavernous room, the darkness of which, my torch barely dented. I thought about turning back, but took a step forwards instead.
Light. Harsh and blinding light struck me with near physical force. I snapped my eyes shut, grabbing my knife from my belt, wielding it wildly in front of me, attacking ghosts and other enemies I could not see, my heart pounding in my chest.
When nothing struck me, and my blade continued to cut only thin air, I risked opening my eyes, a fraction at a time to let the light in gradually. As they adjusted, I saw that the room was empty, except for a pillar of glass. The light came from the ceiling – a hundred or more small globes, glowing with light brighter than the sun. I wondered if they were Gran’s stars.
Gripping my knife tightly, still, I walked to the pillar. As I came close, the humming in the air intensified, and then a flicker of colour shot across the pillar. I jumped backwards from it, knife held in front of me, but when it did not move, I risked stepping closer.
Suddenly, a face appeared from within it. A bland face – no colour, no personality; features that just happened to be there, not creating any character. It looked at me, and I wondered what sort of ghost or monster this creature was.
Then it spoke.
‘What would you like to know?’
Its voice was soothing, as bland as its face, difficult to know whether it was male or female. I looked around me for signs of movement.
‘What would you like to know?’ it asked again.
There was nothing else I could do.
‘Tell me about the stars,’ I said to it.