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A Brief and Fearful Star

Mama did not talk about her journey west very much; the circumstances had to be right. When she did—in the electric moments before rainfall, if a rabbit crossed clockwise against our path, if she found me flipping through the battered almanac from the year of my birth—she described it like a painting she was viewing through a fever.

“The light,” she said once, when we encountered a set of twigs that had fallen into the shape of a cross. “It was like being underwater, all blue and soft and bright.”

“It was so cold and I was sick with you,” she said another time, digging a splinter out of my palm with a pocketknife. “Everything felt wrong. I was very afraid.”

Then, once, just before I turned 10, when a brush fire lit up a distant ridge and it burned through the night: “Your father drove our wagon, of course. Sometimes I would lean against him and look up at the sky and—”

The way her eyes went empty, it felt like watching her die. The next year, when I did, all I could think was how it felt like watching her talk about the sky.

Before the light left her, we lived—just the two of us—on a patch of prairie. Our house was the center of it, a pip in a magnificent apple.

With no natural borders save the creek, the boundaries of our land seemed to move every time I visited them. I often imagined that my right eye was soaring above me, clutched in the talon of a large and terrible bird, the earth below expanding and contracting like a heartbeat.

The sky was open and alive above us, too. Storms boiled across the sky in the summer, and in the winter the mean snow landed on my face and refused to melt. I loved our fragment of wilderness. Every season we’d get a few traders—offering us cinnamon, flour, silver hand mirrors, gingham, chirping automata that sang and told the future—but otherwise we lived untouched, binary stars in our own private universe.

I was a nervous child. I gasped when flint was struck, and when sparks flew whimsically out of the hearth. Mama tried to help—once, she caught the spark and showed it to me; a speck of ash marring the planetary surface of her palm—but I could not explain that, while I understood the principles of the thing, there was something about the erratic arc of it; the suddenness, the wild, alien dive, that awoke a terror within me. There were other fears, too: a crevice in the wall near my bed that corralled a beam of moonlight into my room at certain times of the month; the way water spiraled around gullies and divots. It was a kind of motion, a kind of gravity, the way the light bended to its own ends. I felt I knew terrors that lingered just beyond my vision; as if their very existence was seared into my cells. At night, when I cried, Mama came to me and weighed me down with her torso until calmness filled me. “Come back to me, my mouse,” she’d say.

There was something else that haunted me, too. When I lay in bed at night, I perceived giant, ancient creatures moving just outside our walls; rumbling and snarling, darkening the windows, blotting out the moon. Though they lingered just beyond my vision I knew them to be true, though I could not understand them.

“There’s something outside,” I told her, the first time I sensed them.

“There’s nothing,” she said. “I’ve been sitting by the window.”

“They’ve always been here,” I said. “Monsters.”

She brought me, then, a small box, and from it removed a claw, a set of teeth, a slender bone of rock, all things she’d pulled from the land on which we lived. “This is all that’s left of them,” she said. “I know it feels like we are the first people on this land, but we have been preceded by monsters and men alike.”

I had questions about those monsters, and those men. “But outside—”

“They’re gone, mouse. They were here but they’re not anymore.” And for a moment, calmness filled my fear, like a gorge flooding with rainwater. But when it abated, the gaping ache in my chest seemed to me how animals must feel, how they must have always felt, lowing for the muscle and ferocity of their mothers.

I don’t remember coming to the farmstead. Mama had joined the caravan west swollen with the promise of me, and I was born, over two days, along the trail that led us here. (‘What of my stars?,’ I asked her once. ‘You moved beneath the sky as you were born, she said, and therefore have no clear celestial map.’) “It was a mad time,” she said. “Everything seemed alive. The trees and brush made promises they could not keep. The wagon moaned in its sleep. Animals spoke to us. An oxen told me I’d have a little girl. Even Bonnie chatted. She told on your papa when he broke my mother’s clockwork map; the one from Switzerland.”

“Bonnie doesn’t talk,” I said, though my voice curdled with doubt. As if to underline my confusion, Bonnie emerged from a shadow and sat before both of us, her tail twitching with purpose but otherwise silent as you’d expect.

“She did, once,” Mama said. “But the day you were born, she shut right up.”

Mama made jokes but sometimes it was hard to say what the joke was about. Was the joke that my body silenced Bonnie, or that Bonnie made words, or that Bonnie cared about me at all?

Sometimes, I try to imagine that I remember the dioramas that moved around us when I was still tangled up in her. I imagine that the walls of her fine strong animal body glow with light, and that I can hear the soft and muffled testimonies, the confessions and laughter, the camaraderie of the wagon train.

(‘Do you know she’s a banker’s daughter?’
‘The rivers are too high.’
‘Even bankers have daughters.’
‘Did he tell them about the tack?’
‘The sky is the color of milk, and it is not promising.’
‘Olga promised me.’
‘I’m hungry.’
‘Don’t you know they’ll stay that way if you don’t stop?’)

And then, behind their chatter, something terrible. Something in the sky, burning.

Even on my 11th birthday, Mama took me with her to move the cattle, who were pulling up dirt and refusing new grasses. As I followed her outside, I wondered if my father had ever imagined his wife and girl-child alone out here (‘We each need a hatchet, us and the baby,’ my father had told her), the wagon turned to dwelling, the cattle’s calves grown and sired and birthed and died many times over.

Mama disappeared over the hill with a switch in her hand. I watched but did not follow. The horizon was milky and amber, and I saw the beginning of a figure there —a wagon, a dark shape against the light. When Mama returned with the herd, their shadows had joined into a single many-legged creature. I stroked their velvety pelts as they trotted by. (Mama had been rich before she came married by father and came west, though you’d never know it by her labor. ‘What did it mean to be rich?’ I asked her once. ‘It meant money had too much meaning and yet none at all, she said.)

Award-winning author of 'In the Dream House' & 'Her Body and Other Parties'. Finalist for National Book Award. Essays in NYT, New Yorker & more.