On Stars

Brett Thompson

Years ago, a kind and well meaning renter plastered dime store stars across the ceiling of the bunk room my sister and I shared in our family's vacation home. They were cheap plastic with a flimsy glue backing and couldn't have cost more than a dollar or so but in the night they glowed a pleasant incandescent yellow.  Like true stars they mostly stayed fixed and rigid but from time to time they would fall among the bunks. In the mornings we would find them on the floor like discarded slips of paper.  Still others would get lost in the tangle of sheets and my mother would discover them when she hung out the wash. Yet most nights, like the real stars, they were silent, full of soft light.  Mostly, we crawled into our beds early, exhausted, encrusted with sand and salt, and rolled over on our sides and shut our eyes.  But  it is the nights we spent with them that I write of now. Once a vacation or so, after our parents had tucked us in and gone off to do what they did once they thought we were asleep, we would climb out of our beds and curl together in the space between the bunks, our backs on the floor, my sister, my cousin and I, so close together that we could feel each other's breath.  And the ceiling of our bedroom became the the universe before us.  The stars had been arranged in no particular pattern so we created our own.  We named constellations, after our pet dogs, after our friends at school and when we ran out of names we made up own, a heterogeneous mixture of scientific, myth and nonsense,  maximus pole star, ivoronius crown, Heracles quiver. The names changed but the locations never did.  They were the constant above our heads as the years rushed on around us and the game of our nights grew and modified until exhausted with our teenage years.

But in those moments, back before our innocence and childhood was lost, there is a story to be told.  For in the center of those stars was the moon.  The brightest of all satellites we gave it no name or designation.  It was the moon, as it always was and will be.  It was a full moon then and it would never be crescent nor halved.  A perfect moon, a moon to waste away the night with talking and laughing and dreaming.  We never paid it much mind; the stars were always more interesting until the night my cousin made a discovery.  He had been quiet, unusually quiet.  I asked him what if something was wrong. It is moving, he said.  I ignored him until he said it again.   The moon is moving he said, the moon is moving.   We all looked up then.  It was imperceptible really but if you looked hard enough, if you squinted just right, with both your eyes mind you, he was right.  It wavered slightly as if unfixing from the very ceiling.  And as the hours went on, it seemed to be coming closer and closer to us, three children from the planet earth in a bedroom of a house by the sea with a foghorn in the distance sounding, the minutes multiplying as the universe approached.  The stars still fixed and rigid but the crescent wonder so close now that we could touch it if only our arms were not so short, our bodies not so young.  It was within our fingertip's grasp and at the same time 200,000 miles away. Transfixed under its gaze we said no words, we made no sound as the night broke into day and its glow receded like the silent ebb tide.

Older now, it has been years since that moon.   The stars seem lost to me now too.   The house of magic is for sale, the bunk room with its field of stars has been stripped and given a fresh coat of paint. The family that once gathered together in that house by the sea is shattered, has drifted apart into our own segmented, marginalized lives.   

Yet, if I could I would again wish to view the stars, marching out into my the street of my suburban neighborhood and demanding that the city dim the streetlights, shutter the business, cut the power to every house and domicile.   But would that be enough, to sift the gift through the haze of the mind and the years?   

I would want my young daughter to see them.  Not though the obtuse, muted lens of a computer screen.  Not through the fading and jumbled memories of others.  I want her to see the universe in all its glory, to witness the vastness spread around her like some great God took the bowl of the sky and tipped it over and scattered it into the multitude, that of potential and passion and faith and stars, stars.... 

So one night soon, in the fall, I think I will drive out into the country, past the  apartment complex where I lived when my wife and I were young.   I will head further up the hill. I will not stop until I reach its crest.  There is a field up there, quiet and vast.  I will bundle up my daughter and grab the blanket and pillows from the trunk.  There is nothing better than star gazing, I will tell her.  Laying down together,side by side, I will drink coffee out a green travel mug and I will give her hot cocoa.  She will say tell me a story daddy as she is apt to do. And I will tell her this:

Once when the world was younger than it is now there were a man and a boy.  The man was quite old, white haired and infirm.  He walked with a dark hickory cane and the boy had to help him everywhere.   He helped him out of bed in the morning when the man was feeling creaky and stiff and he fixed him breakfast and made his coffee black and strong, just the way he liked it.  In the late mornings, as the boy did his chores, the man watched from a window seat, sometimes his face pressed up against the glass, waiting for the boy to come back and talk with him.  In the afternoons, the boy read to him, wild magical tales of dragons and sorcerers from the books that the man had read himself as a child.  And the man would listen intently and tap his hickory cane against the floor whenever the boy came to a real exciting part.  And he would gasp like a child as if hearing it for the very first time. 

When the man got too sick to walk, to even rise from his bed, the boy still cared for him.  He brought him hot soup and changed him when he had soiled himself and held him close when he cried out in pain, the hickory cane rapping against the floorboards.

It continued like that for some time, the daily routine of menial small task  after menial small task for the boy that he did out of love for the old man.  It continued like that, always the rising with the dawn, and the chores of the household and the chores that meant making the old man comfortable until the day the hickory cane did not sound and the man's chest did not rise and fall anymore.

And in that moment the boy wept.  He wept with his face against the sunken chest of the old man. When he was done and the man had grown cold, he gathered him up as gently as one would cup an egg and transferred him to a rolling cot to be washed up and dressed in his best clothes.  As he washed him he honored him, staring into him like a mirror, fixing the man's face in his mind until his face became his own.  In the backyard would be where he would bury him.  At sunrise, when the grass was still cold and wet with dew he lowered him back into the ground, under a great tree, and sang funeral songs. 

 As for the hickory cane he kept it close always.  When he grew it old he knew it would become a great comfort, the feel of the smooth wood in his own infirm hands, the sound of the tapping like a beacon as he moved through the hallways of the world.

This is the story I will tell her.  It is not the only one.

It is the story of how under those stars will lead into a hundred other nights under those stars. The story of a lake in a house we rent, where we will sit on the dock, our white feet iridescent in the moonlight as they splash in and out of the dark lake like little silver fish.   Under the stars we will listen for the calls of the loon, haunting and tremolo they will echo over the waters.

And the stars will be there too when she has her first kiss and when drives for the first time alone in the dark.  They will be there when she graduates college and on her wedding night and every night of her life thereafter.

They will be there when I die.  

And in their light she will wrap them among her grief.  And she will look up there and wonder if I am among them in the scatterings of cosmic dust.  As I did once, when I was her and she was me. 

We are all children of our Grandfather's stars.  

About the Author

Brett Thompson has been writing since his graduate days at the University of New Hampshire where he earned a M.A. in English Writing with a concentration in poetry. He has been published in various journals, including Tilde, The Charles Carter, District Lit, The Literary Nest, Cobalt Review and Ink in Thirds. He teaches and lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two young daughters, who both love owls and anything purple.