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This story was initially inspired by the scene at the end of "Vincent and the Doctor" where they all lie down and hold hands and look at the sky. It ended up someplace entirely different, but that initial hope and love remains.




How To Fall Upwards
(or Starry, Starry Night)

E.K. Johnston




They say that if you find the perfect place, where the heavens line up with the earth, and the ground sticks out in just the right way, and the sky gets the right colour of dark at night, they say a person can fall into the stars.

Those places are hard to find, of course, few and far between, but my daddy says it’s more than worth the time spent looking. He says that the dark is the place to go, especially if you’re looking for the light. It stands out better there, put apart by what makes it different. Easy to see, to imagine, but hard to get to. More worthwhile. The dark and the quiet is the best spot to see the light, and my daddy loved the light.

After Apollo and walking on the moon, my daddy decided that one day, he was going out there, out with the stars. He didn’t want to join the army, and he hadn’t the head for astrophysics or engineering, but he loved the sky. He told me that getting put in a rocket and sent up with fire was all right, but that the real trick was to do it by yourself, by your own powers. The real trick was to find that place and fall.

We moved around a lot, my daddy and me, searching for that place. In the beginning, we lived on mountaintops, where the fingers of the world reach up to touch the sky and have to content themselves with the embrace of the clouds. I liked living in places where every direction was down. The road home was more difficult that way, but my daddy always kept a light on to show the way back. I know now that the light was also to let the stars know he hadn’t given up.

Mountaintops are the first places they build towers. Once, long ago, they’d be watchtowers, with stacked pyres ready to become signals of smoke and fire at a moment’s notice. No one builds watchtowers any more. Instead, they build cell phone towers, TV towers; receptacles for those satellites my daddy had seen launched when he was a boy.

With towers come lights, and once there are lights, people start to follow. The lights blocked out the stars, and so my daddy moved us away from the mountains. We looked for other places where the ground met the sky, other places where we might find the right colour of dark.

Mostly we lived too far north for fireflies, places where there weren’t even trees to block the sky and the soil was so thin it could be scraped off the bedrock like peeling off a scab. When my daddy was old enough to die, I took him south to where we might find some fireflies. We’d lived so long on cold rock by then that my daddy had almost forgotten how to lie out all night and look up at the stars. His bones were so stiff that he couldn’t manage it for as long as he liked to. He could manage it with the fireflies, though. It was warmer, and the grass made a softer place to wait.

I buried him in the corner of a cemetery where the stones stood on rippled ground. The grass felt springy under my shoes, like it was being pulled upward toward the sky. I picked the spot carefully. During the day it was pretty enough; all muted grays and bright greens and sky blues. At night, the fireflies came out, and the sky was a special kind of dark purple I’d not seen anywhere else.

After my daddy died, I kept looking. I looked all over the world, in places he had never gone. There were too many cities in some places, too much life in others. The fireflies had been all right because they were soothing and quiet. Crickets want to tell you things like the temperature and how far away the thunder is. They make it hard to lie still and wait. I needed a place that was empty of nearly everything.

I landed in the desert on a clear night. There were lights aplenty, but I could see great gaps between them, and I knew that I’d found a place that excelled in the kind of emptiness I was looking for. Even after the sun came up and burned the dark sky away to blasted blue, I could still feel it. This place was mine. This was where I would fall into the stars.

I went into the desert until I found a place that was shaped like a bowl. Rock faces stood around it, lining the edges, but they’d been standing for so long that the wind had worn them down to rounded smoothness. I could feel it in the air as I stood there; the pricking of a thousand gentle pins against my skin as the wind lifted up those hills, piece by tiny piece, and carried them away into the sky. I knew that every grain of coarse ground sand beneath my feet remembered height, remembered what it felt like to fly.

All that day I soaked the feeling in. The sun burned above me, scorching sand and the rocks as it had forever, and me like I belonged with them. For hours in every direction, there was nothing but small villages, encampments, which rationed their generator produced electricity away from lights to more practical things. I waited for the dark to see if it would be that perfect colour.

Sunlight clings to desert sands with increasing desperation, turning more and more to fire until, at last, there is a sudden capitulation and an all consuming dark. Beneath that stillness, one generator hummed, kilometres off and a comforting reminder of the ground beneath me. In the sky, the stars were bright, brighter than I’d ever seen, but for all their light, the moon shone brighter still. It filled the sky with a soft whiteness that reflected off the sand and magnified, filling the desert sky with white light.

I despaired. Even here, in the starkest place I have never known, there was too much. I unbuckled my bedroll and spread it out on the sand. It was like the desert, deceptive, looking one thing and being another. It was soft in my hands but hard to lie on. And the desert was empty and yet so full.

I do not remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking. It was cold, the deep chill of a desert night that comes on all at once because there is nothing to hold the heat close to the ground. Everything goes up, except for me. I fumbled for a blanket and drew it over me. I lay curled on my side for a long while, shivering against the cold. At last, I rolled to my back and, out of habit, looked up.

And I forgot how to breathe.

The moon was gone and with it, the soft white light that had so cruelly obscured my beloved dark. The stars blazed above me, old friends and newcomers I had never been in enough dark to see. My hands closed around the edges of my bedroll, the coarse sand beneath reminding me of everything I loved about the world I walked on.

They say that if you find the perfect place, you can fall into the stars. They never said that all those places are the same. My daddy went with fireflies and soft, spring grass, and I didn’t even notice. My heart pounded blood everywhere in my body, but no place more than my fingertips, brushing against the sand. It was mine to choose, and of course it was no choice at all.

I closed my eyes and saw more clearly in the dark than I’d ever seen before. I took a breath and looked again. The stars hadn’t changed. If anything, they were brighter and more welcoming. I counted each stitch on the seams on my bedroll, and then I let go.

For a moment, nothing happened, but I did not worry. I waited a heartbeat.

Two heartbeats.

Three.

The sky was so bright.

And I fell into the stars.

fin

+++

This was supposed to be August's story, but I was a bit busy for a while there. Thanks to Colleen and Laura for the quick edit.

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ek_johnston

October 2011

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