They’re Harvesting Stars, You Know?
It’s half-past ten and September is blowing by us on a stuttering breeze. We’re lying on our backs in a small clearing, lost some place it took us hours to find and I doubt we could ever find again. Out among the manzanita trees, kinky wooden hands with skin the color of dry red cake, growing out of dusty soil nearly the same shade.
I’m lying here and she’s beside me, our shoulders touching so soft that I could easily forget if not for the hint of warmth and the rustle of fabric when she fidgets. If not for her scent fluttering past me on the frail September breeze. Orange blossom soap. Warm sweat. That all too sweet smell I find behind her ear whenever I wrap my arms around her waist.
I hear her breathing, a gentle rush of moist air like a silk ribbon sliding back and forth. It catches sometimes, reverses direction when some strange thought strikes her fancy. It’s a laugh that never quite escapes, a bubble that pops and evaporates at the back of her throat. A private musing for her and her alone.
I ache to ask, just to know what weird idea is bobbing across her brain, but I think better of it. It’s enough for us to be alone and together, wrapped up loosely in the quiet of the night. Hearing the leaves rattle in the trees. Listening close for the half-dozen lazy clouds as they crawl across the sky.
I scratch the side of my nose, trying to ignore the small stone digging into my shoulder blade, and she stifles a yawn. Quiet, contented, dreamy. She’s laid out at my side beneath a blanket of clouds and starlight, thinking a thousand things I could never guess.
She says, “They’re harvesting them, you know?”
This is why I don’t ask; because she always tells me when she needs to. “Harvesting what?”
“The stars,” she says, and another tiny yawn murmurs on her tongue, breaks across her teeth. “They’re just gobbling them up like fruit on a tree.”
The sky is filled with them, droplets of white paint spattered across a dark cloth, and I couldn’t recognize a constellation if I tried. “Who?”
“Does it matter?” I can tell by the tone of her voice that her lip is twisted, nearly tied in a knot, and I’m sure her nose just twitched. “Everyone,” she says. “Kings and queens. Men with pickaxes and dirty hats. A hundred billion stars, gobbled up and spat out as if they never even mattered.”
I try to see what she sees, but I don’t think I can. Maybe once upon a time when my eyes were sharp, and I could still see abandoned castles hidden behind every hill.
I stretch and ask, “How can you tell?” and my arm brushes hers as I lay it back down. I find her hand with mine, lace them together, feeling the pudgy flesh on the underside of her fingers squish like overripe grapes; the webbing between them draw taut as a painter’s canvas; the loose folds on the back of her knuckles rumple and slide. Silken and chill to the touch, her fingertips cascade in a wave before relaxing along the back of my hand.
She says, “You can’t feel it. I always forget.” Words as sad as wind chimes in an old forgotten yard, they tinkle and cry.
“Well,” I say, and I turn my head an inch, enough to see her staring up into the night. “Tell me what it feels like then.” A lock of hair tucked behind her ear is spilling out and over, and her eyes are glittering. Always glittering.
“It’s like… something going away.”
I turn back, knowing that her eyes will soon be wet. I look again to the stars scattered across the blue-black sky and try with all my might to feel this thing she’s feeling.
Another second later, she says, “It’s like my hand.”
I feel her muscles tense and slacken in microscopic ways, as though the tiniest of her regrets are echoing in her bones, and I know. I know she’s about to pull her hand from mine. And she does.
Her fingers wriggle free and her arm lifts up and up, a graceful curve like a scarf dangling from a clothesline. She extends one finger and points into the darkness above, where all our hundred billion stars twinkle and shine.
“Do you see it?”
I do. I think. A single lonely star resting on her fingertip.
“Watch,” she says.
“Just like that.”
Her arm floats back down and she snuggles up against me, hugging my shoulder tight and resting her lips against old cotton. She sniffles, and I feel like I need to cry. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I felt it just then… the feeling of something going away.
“It took a thousand years for the light to reach us,” she says, with sleep creeping into her voice. “A thousand years, and it doesn’t even matter. In a thousand more, they’ll all be gone.”
So I lie here, out beyond the manzanita trees in this spot we’ll never find again, just listening to the sound of her breath brushing against me. Feeling September drift by us on the faltering wind while a hundred billion stars vanish from sight.
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