From the author: An astronomer ponders her celestial love.
I laughed at your question in the glittery grass, our only cover the mantle of twilight. Is a dahlia jealous of the sun, or an elephant larger than your imagination? The universe, every light from the passage of eons cast onto our celestial sphere and spun upside-down onto the backs of our eyes—versus you. Oh, Darling, the stars I can predict, but not you!
But I'll humor you. The stars cannot love. They do not caress my face and sing to me and tell me of the woods and lakes. They would not deign to ask their status in my eyes. They recede faster than we can ever reach, without any knowledge of my—our—existence. When I stare at the skies I see a puzzle to be solved, not a cauldron of desire. We are purely platonic, a cold geometric relationship, all perfect angles.
There is far more beauty in imperfection, in your bony elbow digging into my ribs at night, the same spot again, my long hair flailing over your face. Five years ago on this very hill, this very night, Perseus shot one of his silver arrows toward the earth. You appeared there over that grassy knoll, that very spot, the most beautiful person I have ever seen. I thought you my fallen star. But you were even more impossible—you stumbled across the dewy field, so brave even at the end of your reserves, and swooned into my arms a swan. It must have been fate.
I have known the stars far longer than I have known you. Since the Egyptians carved the pole star into the stone flesh of their tombs. Since the Mayans built their pyramid for their serpent god Kukulkan to descend the staircase every equinox. Since the Babylonians plucked the stars from the sky onto their tablets: the Lion, the Twins, the Scales, the Great One who holds an overflowing water vessel.
Do you see now? The whispers of my ancestors is in my genes and on my tongue, from the nameless ancients of millennia past to Aristarchus of Samos, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus of Nicaea, Zhang Heng, Aryabhata, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, Johannes Kepler, Edwin Hubble, Vera Rubin—a few brilliant scintilla out of countless many weaving an unbroken golden braid. Yes, the constellations and eclipses have been with me for many millennia. The 21-centimeter line of Hydrogen is a constant hum in my ears. When I set eyes on a new galaxy cluster it blossoms into a new composition in an ancient tune, and I weep in absolute sublime joy. What is our five years compared to that?
This is a trick question, is it not? For our very selves come not merely from our mother's wombs but from billions of years of transmutation in the stellar nursery—even you, my swan maiden. Every star child must love their parent. Eventually, we will become fully of this Earth, spinning around the Sun until that, too, must end and become its next natural thing in the tapestry of the universe. The world is its own miracle, as great as the one that brought you to me. And so to love the stars is to love you, your every feather and atom.
Why, the very stars tell our story. Even a scientist with her head in the rational sands can admit that the coincidences are beyond poetic, and after all, are you not the very living proof of magic beyond our mortal knowledge?
On our fateful meeting five years ago, Cygnus was overhead as she is now but occluded by a dark cloud. The centaur archer, hiding on the horizon, fired his arrow Sagitta toward you, and in your last desperate attempt at life, you leaped into the shape of a human. How fortunate that I was there to catch you, just as the constellation Lyra is pressed against the stellar swan. Oh, if only I were like the stars, to be in the right place at the right time always!
The months that follow I only remember by the state of my heart, flashes of every emotion still imprinted like tree rings. How it stuttered to the beat of your feeble breathing as I tried to stop the bleeding. How it strengthened in joy as you recovered, new feathers like stars over the dark bullet wound, leg straightening in my homemade cast. And the night you spread your wings into the dark I felt it bruise itself against my ribs, slamming into the prison bars again and again, wanting escape to bring you back. Not for you—you were far safer away from humans—but selfishly, for its own survival. It fell back in my chest, despondent, drained of blood and color.
But not ten muted gasps of my heart elapsed before you came back, and when you turned into your woman form again and touched my face… For the first time in a long time I cried over a terrestrial event. Who else but you could love a human despite what we have done to you?
I've been called smart on some occasions, but I made an absolute mess of this question, haven't I? Because no, you were not asking about the stars. Layers upon layers, like your beautiful feathers, and I've finally peeled your question to the core. You would never ask me to choose you over the stars; no, your selfless heart is afraid that you've confined me, that the cost is too great.
So let me be clear, my love. Yes, there are a million things I wish I could do with you. Stroll by the beach, hand in hand. Introduce you to my family. Nap under my childhood willow tree, your head in the crook of my shoulder. Just go outside, the two of us in full sunlight—how lovely you'd look, the light glinting off your black skin and white feathers—and cast off the shroud of worry on our heads. But none of that matters compared to you.
I have regrets, but only that I haven't done right by you. If I were always in the right place at the right time, my love, I could have saved you from the day that changed the course of our river lives irrevocably. Last December at the bakery—your first taste of so-called civilized life—the man wearing the face of a hunter turned you back to a flurry of feathers, inchoate panic struggling to take flight. On that day Orion held the Blood Moon in his arms to cast its dark magic, and I wondered how a mere human who spends her days staring at the sky could possibly protect you.
That's why we went back to your home, the starlit lake in the woods. But the trees were gone, the lake a putrid brown. The few remaining swans no longer recognized your scent, and when you told me you felt neither avian nor human it broke my heart anew. All too often I find myself the odd one out in the world: the only woman in a room of stargazers, the peculiar hybrid fruit in both my mother and father's trees with foreign eyes and skin and hair. Together we are a pair of liminal passengers, skirting between worlds but never belonging to any save our own. We choose the stars whenever we can, you and I, not that we have a choice. They are the only ones who watch us without judgment.
Look, the Perseids are still radiating above, oblivious to all our mortal struggles, reminding us that time slowly erases the pain and terror for us to replace it with love. Perhaps the solution really is that simple. I know the past and the infinitely distant future, but everything in between is ours alone. For a very, very long time, Cygnus will fly next to Lyra, the way we should be.
Alas, I solved the puzzle only after hours of slow revolutions of my sleepless mind, when even the Moon herself has set. I cannot bear to wake you now, my love, and scatter the dew clinging on your lashes. I will have to tell you when the sun crests over the horizon, first with my eyes, then with my words, then with my hands and lips and all.
You and I, we love. The stars twinkle in their thrones in the heavenly firmaments, and everything is in its place.
This story originally appeared in Helios Quarterly Magazine.