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Be Mine, Starry Night
By Zhuoyan Li
Look up, she says. See?
One by one, they disentangle themselves from the night: disorderly rows of glimmering commas that scoop up mischievous tangents stray far from home, back into the arms of a gentle sea spilling through the air. Five diamonds turn into fourteen, fourteen into thirty, no, fifty-seven, a tentative eighty. Finally, the two voices give up on numbers, and 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 are no lush meadows to sink into, and no sand hills to fashion into pillows, so the taller shadow elevates her daughter in a backward piggyback. Just like that, the universe unfolds before the young one’s eyes. 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 becomes 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 crumble in wisps of flame.
One particular constellation, shaped like an ‘e’ or possibly an arrow, flickers into view with unprecedented luminosity. It seems so far, so alien, that something starts to pulse inside the little girl’s chest. She can hear it acutely; the unadulterated ache to know, to pluck pearls from the heavens. To bridge the stars into mysteries into her own, and not bashfully borrowed from another land’s ancestors.
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 both of their ears. The weight of a youthful hot air balloon still latches on— curious, but not quite ready to let go—and ma-ma‘s spine curves a little more.
They do not first meet under a splatter of opalescent stars; rather, the fateful encounter takes place in a vacant classroom. in a surge of last-minute determination to make the 8am applied physics 216 class, they both rushed in, only to find that the building is wrong altogether. It takes an awkward three hundred seconds of heaving panting and surging confusion until this realization strikes. The two take this as a sign, and opts for some decent coffee together instead.
What’s unexpected is how quickly they clink. artlessly delving into their backgrounds and personalities, the two embark on a treasure hunt for trivia through atolls and archipelagos that, admittedly, serves more as an excuse for unceasing conversation. He introduces himself as Perseus. She does not remember that blinding constellation she saw years ago.
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 cigarette smoke—but the quietness that followed was neither reprimanding nor abrasive. It was simply there until it wasn’t, as if his patience had absorbed her candidness, and carved each stroke of her rueful expression onto his mind instead. His tolerance for her was bewildering, cryptic, even. She had never met someone who could listen so intently. His words were almost physical, like she could actually feel the weight of each word irrevocably washing over her. Their 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, insecure in her roots. 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 home to me. 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 knowing 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 as a pair of dimples reveal themselves, and her smile can’t help but stretch 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 yellow-tan complexion, her ebony hair, her hesitance to say her non-conventional name in the inexplainable shame only outsiders 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. up in the clouds, she thinks. 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, like a tadpole simmering below the water finally set free.
But unexpectedly, he casts his gaze down to the tiled flooring, in an almost melancholic manner. 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 now 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.
They are both still longing, to feel the spring rain trickle past her ears, fresh coldness lick the tip of his nose. They are not so different. their mouth do not feel parched searching for the right words to say. For her, every syntax fits into place, like 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 shyly—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.
From that day, 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.
Over time, she learned to know him like the back of her hand, tracing every dip and curve of his collarbones. On his spine, she finds oddly positioned freckles on the right stretch of his back shaped like an ‘e’. These dots urge a distant memory in her, an assembly of twinkling stitches that refuse to fully connect: nagging reminder of the seams that would someday come apart.
She does not notice the empty void up north in the sky. 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 might never unravel in time.
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 lover.
Shivering as the cold air now harass her exposed ears, she turns to a headstone far newer than its neighbors. You truly 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 now.
“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, one familiar star peeks 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. “A constellation. Why didn’t you tell me?” Pulling a handkerchief from her waist pocket, she hastily dabs her moon-eyes and crouches to drop the primrose on the ground.
“No one listens anymore, not in the way you did, making the alien feel familiar. The kids aren’t as insecure about their origins, but sometimes, I still feel so, so lost.”
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 T don’t think I’ve got long, you know. I’m tired all the time. 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.”
*xiao-nu-er = daughter
ma-ma = mother