For Christmas, Emmeline received a scooter and has apparently made a secret pledge to stop using her feet, preferring the ease and laziness of wheeled transport. One time she hopped out of bed, landing on the thin pink scooter platform, and somehow made her way to the kitchen without touching the floor at all. If I tried that, I’d probably need a new hip.
In the afternoon, she will sometimes snap awake from a nap, grab her helmet and head to the door, despite the appearance of scattered stars.
“There’s still time,” she tells me, “But we have to hurry. Before it gets dark.”
I see her amble down the front stairs, her red helmet bobbing atop her head and her eyes working across the gloaming, contemplating the sky, watching as fog curls over the western hills and the vault above her turns the color of a bruise.
“There’s still time,” she whispers, almost to herself, “There’s still time.”
She hits the sidewalk determined, gripping the handlebars and scoots maybe five feet before the front wheels buckle against a raised sidewalk crack and she goes flying.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she tells me, brushing herself off, “But I think it’s too dark.”
“You didn’t see the crack?”
“I think it’s too dark.”
She reaches up and grabs my hand, and because we’re already outside, we take a slow walk around the block, watching as the sky dissolves into purple with slashes of crimson and ocher on the horizon. There’s a twinkle hiding behind the fog and she squints. She takes a few steps, her head turned upward. She squeezes my hand.
“Tell me again about the dwarves and the giants,” she asks, and I begin anew a tale of galactic inhabitants. In my mind, it’s a tale of the unfathomable — a vast cosmos measured as much in time as distance; light skidding across coronal waves, surfing the edges of solar blasts and finally, billions of years later, reaching our eyes. But to her, the sky has become some stardust storybook, filled with brown dwarves and white, red giants and blue. I tell her about expanding solar colossi that consume the universe around them, and she makes me assure her that these are actually “friendly” giants. I tell her about black dwarves — the theoretical remainder of fully cooled stars — and she immediately puts them on the same plane as Pegasus and fairies, clearly visible but preferring to hide from all but the innocents.
“I see one,” she whispers reverently.
She points into the coming dark, a white star barely visible above the light pollution, and I take a knee next to her, leaning so my cheek rests against hers and we both look over the edge of her finger into the abyss.
“I think you’re right,” I whisper back, choosing to believe. It seems easier than explaining that a black dwarf will probably make its presence known only when humans have been replaced by whatever earth has in store for it next.
We start walking again.
“Tell me about the black dwarf and the red giant going for ice cream,” she asks, and I make up a tale that doesn’t seem so odd when it comes to the history of celestial bodies. If the Greeks could look skyward and trace the outlines of Andromeda or Cassiopeia or if the Navajo could see the workings of the sneaky coyote in the Milky Way, couldn’t we form our own groupings and forge our own stories? Epic tales of double scoops with sprinkles and hot fudge?
When I was 17, I spent the summer in Maine with my aunt and uncle. They had just purchased a wooded hunk of lakeside property where they envisioned building a house someday and retiring, but at the time, it was just a vacant lot of land on the edge of a state park. We camped there practically every weekend, fishing in the lake at day and sneaking up on beavers at dusk. When the last hue of orange and sunset pink faded from the sky, we’d put a lantern on the shore to serve as a marker and then push a canoe into the inky waters, cruising toward the middle of the lake. You could have read by the starlight, the sky was so luminous.
Part of me had always thought constellations were a big lark, the idea of half-seen dots forming creatures and telling tales across the universe. But at the time, in the canoe, gazing heavenward, all those formations and stories finally made sense. I could see the whole shapes. The dots connected. The constellations came to life. The darkness animated itself and ran in a sparkling movie reel across the night, forming magic in the welkin. There was Orion. There was Perseus. There was the Little Dipper I could never find at home. Years later, when I finally realized that all those formations, all those stories, were nothing more than a celestial mnemonic system, making it easier for astronomers and nerds to figure out, for instance, how to quickly find star Alcor (the bent in the Big Dipper’s handle), it sucked some last dreg of childhood out of me — like finding out at 24 that there is no Santa Claus.
It was a lot more fun to believe in magic.
One night in the canoe, my uncle handed me a Heinekin told me about the time he was in the Army. During the Vietnam War, he was fortunate enough to serve in Germany, but despite the relative safety of his post, he was still young and homesick.
“It was such a relief to look up and know I was staring at the same stars as my parents back home,” he sighed and then fell silent for a long time.
I hadn’t thought of stars as tethers in ages, not until walking along the sidewalk with Emme, whispering tales of ice cream-starved solar wonders.
Now I can’t see them as anything else, these dust clouds of fire and gas, constantly sending forth light, burning, expanding, imploding, dissolving with a whimper and always glowing across the known ages, tying viewers together across hemispheres and time. I feel the weight of her small hand in my own and realize her growth seems as unfathomable as the stars above. I briefly wonder where we’ll both be when she’s my age, and I try to picture her walking around some block at twilight, holding a hand in her own, maybe casting a glance skyward and remembering a time when we forged our own stories, when the universe was a rainbow of giants and dwarves and our lives were filled with magic.
Thanks for all the great comments on the giveaway post! I’m excited to say I recorded a KQED Radio essay on the topic this morning and will post an update here as soon as I know when it will air. Until then …
… Congratulations to Mama Cass of Life Delicious, our winner! I’ll be in contact about sizes and design.