By Yoelena Tkebuchava
Once upon a time, man learned to exist without oxygen; he developed more complex contraptions to take him to Venus, to Saturn, to planets hundreds of milky ways beyond ours. Through the natural processes of evolution, his body organically adapted to these new frontiers. Some settled in the neighboring solar systems on planets with climates that resembled Earth’s, not so much from necessity but the comfort of familiarity, while the adventurous ones sailed further on. And still, there were some who remained on Earth for any number of reasons.
It was a warm and quiet May night when I saw him flash across the sky, passing stars which hung heavily in the dark, twinkling at us from the quiet depths of space.
I was sitting on the swing set which stood at the edge of the field of our town’s public high school – which I had graduated 6 years prior – and Larissa was sitting on the swing next to me, leisurely looking out at the nightscape. I could have been contemplating any number of things which the night sky tends to inspire within us, but I wasn’t. I was simply looking out at the twinkling stars, a part of me loving the bejeweled Orion’s belt which was the only constellation apart from the Big Dipper I could recognize. Before us stretched an open field, and behind us was the edge of a small strip of forest on the other side of which was the main street, quiet now in the suburban late hour.
“What do you think it’s like out there?” I asked.
“Exactly what it looks like, dark and empty,” Larissa quipped.
“You think so?”
Larissa gave a deep sigh. “Come on Gina,why do you care so much? I don’t get why you’d spend so much time thinking about it, if you’re never going to see it anyway.”
“I know. But I’m still…curious. Don’t you wonder what it sounds like?”
“I don’t know. You’re weird.”
I didn’t say anything after that, but I knew Larissa was right. She and I were Catchers. Our job was to catch any celestial beings that entered the earth’s troposphere, to neatly note the date of their arrival in a file, along with the reason and length of their stay. Our jobs and our lives were here, on earth.
We both noticed the streak of light flash across the sky at the same time. I quickly recited my wish under my breath before it disappeared, a habit carried from childhood. But the shooting star, passing its expected vanishing point, continued its trajectory through the sky, leaving a faint white trail in its wake.
“That comet’s sure a close call,” Larissa mused. I could hear the frown in her voice and almost as well see her wrinkling her nose. “I’m sure they didn’t report it on today’s news.”
“Not sure,” I said and thrust my body forward as I started to swing again. Larissa followed, swinging up behind me.
With a leisurely curiosity, we traced the flight of this strange light, partly from force of habit, partly from the very simple fact that it was the brightest and most animate object in the sky and we were two girls on a Saturday night who would jump at anything that offered the slightest promise of adventure.
“It’s moving too quickly to be a comet,” I observed. Larissa shrugged, but I could tell her hands had tensed around the chains of the swing.
The light was becoming brighter and brighter and had in that exact moment entered the troposphere.
“It’s falling very quickly. It doesn’t look like a comet.” Larissa leaned forward, her voice laced with measured excitement.
“Mmm maybe just some malfunctioning space junk that’s lost its calibration,” I suggested, kicking the air harder as I swung up.
The light object was now several hundred meters from the ground. I squinted and leaned forward in my seat. The swing reached its zenith.
“Larissa, it’s a man – ”
“What? But it’s so bright…No, that can’t be…Oh. It is.”
“Oh” It was a single syllable, but it was enough to crush what remained of the enigma.
I leaned back in my seat. Larissa released her grip on the swing’s chains.
The rate at which he was falling was gradually slowing; at around 500 feet above the ground, he was drifting down, as if he weighed no more than a feather.
“I’ll catch him,” I told Larissa and jumped off the swing.
“But it’s your day off!” she called after me. I shrugged as I walked into the field.
Two objects moving across their respective plains from opposing directions are destined to meet, their moment of impact decided long before their will. And yet, the manner in which he sank into my arms was so effortless, so natural, that I thought I must have practiced catching him thousands of times leading up to this one. His warmth spilled into me, spreading to my chest, my legs, to my feet; in my knees, I felt a rigidity settling in. His right arm – pale and smooth – listlessly hung off to the side while the other lay on his chest. His head, crowned with golden hair that had affinity to curl, hung limply back, his Adam’s apple prominently jutting out from his milky neck.
Is he an angel? In moments like this, our mind jumps to scenarios which we would cast off as impossible on any other day. I quickly dismissed this thought and brought my ear to his lips.
“That’s weird.” Larissa walked up behind me. She stopped next to me, glancing at his limp hand while sifting a palmful of dirt through her fingers. When there was just enough dirt remaining to cover the heart of her palm, she brought her cupped hand to her mouth, made a circular movement with her lips, and spit. I tightened my arms around him. As she started to reach out with that hand, I swung away.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Trying to wake him up of course!” She pounced again, and I twisted away once more.
“He needs to come in contact with something from this earth to revive,” Larissa demanded.
“But do you have to spit?”
“I don’t have the tonic with me today. What’s the matter with you? It’s not like you’re doing this for the first time.”
“I know, it’s just that –” I tilted my head forward and looked down at his dark eyelashes.
You feel like the earth, you feel like me. Your breath feels as familiar as the shifting sands, the rustling of leaves. We are neither celestial nor human; we cannot live simple lives content with what we see, in ignorance of the worlds around us – we live in and across many worlds. But, neither are we immortal like the ever-expanding universe. Our existence titters on the edge of immortality, trailing its long shadow.
Larissa started to reach towards him and it was too late by the time I pulled away. We both stared at the shadow of dirt which lingered on his skin where her hand had touched it. A moment passed. Then a minute. Then another. Larissa pursed her lips.
My eyes trailed down his pale arm. “Look, his fingers. They’re moving.”
Sure enough, his fingers, his entire body had started trembling, a friction which formed a thin band of light around him, as if his body was chemically reacting to its surroundings. He was also growing heavier; the light body I had easily supported in my arms was now weighing down on them; and as his chest rose as he came into his full being, I, in turn, was sinking closer to the ground.
Larissa, the swings, the surrounding field, the speckled sky, the bundled silhouettes of the pine trees blurred into a mirage around me, fading in and out, humming in a frozen moment which repeated itself, incessantly springing forward and thrown back as if a great wall were blocking it from moving forward.
Why do I feel as if roots have grown through my shoes into the ground, and that I must hold you and keep you from touching the ground, however close it may be?
I felt that he had pulled me with him into this helix of which he was the center and I should not let go lest I were sucked into the blur of ambiguity he had created around us. He himself remained very still, as if there was something which was hooked to his core and anchored him down, unlike everything else that now flayed violently around us. My arms and knees strained under his weight, the ligament burning from the exertion.
Then, just when I thought my knees would give way, everything went still – the trees, the sky, the swelling ground– as suddenly as bubbling water stills once the heat source is removed. I looked down at the delicate curve of his brow, the lock of light hair falling over his brow. It could be that he had been sleeping for millennia, unknowingly drifting into our world, and would dream on for another millennia, frozen in time in his sleep.
But no, his eyelids trembled, his eyelashes fluttered, and then, he opened his eyes.
I stared at the man in my arms. To be more exact, at his shirt collar. My forehead burned, but I was terrified of lifting my gaze any higher. I was afraid of what I might see. I thought I had known him, felt his presence as acutely as my own, but in the critical moment, I couldn’t even look him in the eyes.
“You caught me.”
Our eyes met. They were serene, dark, with flecks of gold in them.
“Of – of course. Are – are you alright? Do you need anything?”
His eyelashes fluttered, and he lifted the hand lying on his chest to feel the air with his fingers, as if it were made of silk. She shook his head and started to prop himself up on his elbow with his other hand. The warmth followed him, escaping my arms.
“It usually takes travelers a couple of hours of rest before they fully acclimate. Is there nothing I can get you? I mean, it’s part of my job.” I stood up, facing him.
“Job?” He looked down at me, curiously.
“Sorry, I should’ve introduced myself. I’m a Catcher. We catch celestial beings – like yourself – who fall through the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Catchers…You saw me falling through the air?”
“I thought you were a shooting star at first. You more like floated down though. You see, it’s my responsibility to take care of you. I mean, until you’ve acclimated. I’ll bring some tea with hibiscus leaves, or a painkiller? Do you have a headache?”
“No, no that’s alright. I’m not staying here for long.”
“You’re not staying long?” I repeated. “But, you just got here.”
At those words, he looked up, taking in our surroundings for the first time. I watched his gaze sweep over the landscape and stop at a point behind me.
For the first couple of minutes, Catchers are very attuned to the feelings of whomever they catch; it is because at the moment of impact the consciousness of the two physical beings are briefly conjoined; nothing is exchanged, given, or received – a fleeting opportunity when the physical constraints of our bodies become negligible in the face of a greater existence within us.
Up to this point, his emotions were undulating, collapsing unto, and flowing away from each other, waves sinking under their own weight as others surge over them. But in that moment, they calmed, and from the turbulent aftermath, emerged a single word.
Hesper. “Hesper,” I repeated his name out loud. It fizzed in my mouth.
“Yes, Gina?” He turned to look at me, his eyes lighting up with recognition.
“You know my name?” I took a step back.
“Of course. In the same way that you know mine.” He smiled at me as he reached out and took my arm.
“Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
There was an inextricable force that pulled me to him and prevented a distance of more than five feet to grow between us. But as I followed Hesper, I felt another force pulling me in the opposite direction. It told me that I had yet to write his name in the registrar, that I should have brought some painkillers in case he suddenly started to feel the after-effects of the trip, that I was breaking every rule in the book.
We walked across the field, and when he stopped, I saw that we were standing in front of the swing set. I stared at him, at the swings, back at him. He sat down, and I was pulled into the seat next to him. I stole a glimpse at him, but he was looking up at the sky.
“You want to leave Earth, don’t you?”
“Me? Well, I’ve never left. I’m so curious about those twinkling stars – how many there are, who lives on them, whether they’re similar to me. I wish I could leave. ”
“Then, why don’t you?”
“Because my job is here, as a Catcher.”
Our swings had fallen into rhythm.
“If I were you, if I had the chance to leave, I’d never come back here. When everything is so infinite, why would I? I want to see anything and everything”. I looked over at him. “Hesper, why did you come back here? To Earth?”
“I wanted to swing.”
“You mean, you came all the way over here just to swing?”
He chuckled, looking at me with no trace of defensiveness
“The universe is vast, but it doesn’t have everything, Gina.”
What a strange boy, I thought. “I guess not. If I were you, if I had the chance to leave, I’d never come back here. When everything is so infinite, why would I? I want to see anything and everything.”
“But it doesn’t matter how much you travel, no matter how much you see, you still feel as if you haven’t seen anything at all. Or rather, it all becomes the same.”
I looked up the dark winking expanse above us and gripped the chains of the swing. “But, I’m still curious.”
Our swings reached the pinnacle of their height at the same time.
He held out his hand to me as we swung back down.
I shook my head. “I’ll fall!”
I squeezed the chains before letting them slide through my grip. As we started to rise up again, I felt myself slipping forward in my seat. His palm met mine from below.
“So then, are you ready?”
I looked at him, startled; then down at our hands; then, further down at the grooved earth under my feet; at the building behind me where there was a registrar that was still missing Hesper’s name and time of arrival, sitting on top of fifty other documents which needed to be filed and put away in their respective cabinets. And then finally, up, at the beautiful darkness blanketing us. I looked at Hesper, and silently nodded.
He grinned and his eyes, like pieces of a clear summer sky, left specks of light in my vision, momentarily blinding me. I was violently flung up. A group of birds flitted past. The sky was rippling through myriads of shades of blue, growing darker and darker, and the wind whistled through my ears.
A tinkling resounded through the twinkling darkness.
Hesper smiled down at me. “Well, is the universe as you imagined?”
I looked out at the glittering expanse around us. Gossamer threads streaked the darkness. That is, they were invisible, until a bead of light would travel on one’s back, glinting silver, disappearing almost as suddenly as it had appeared, like an afterthought of a dream. I approached one and tapped it with my finger. To my surprise, it responded to my touch and lightly swayed.
“Who made these?” I asked, turning to Hesper.
He reached out and touched one running parallel to mine. It vibrated and more beads of light ran down the string.
“They’re coagulated stardust. They are drawn to each other, attracting other drifting particles, but they rarely achieve a thickness greater than this.” He held the gossamer string between his thumb and index finger. Sure enough, a sprinkling of silver dust broke away at his touch. I trailed the string with my eyes as far as I could before it disappeared into the darkness.
“They connect the stars.”
I stared at Hesper. “You mean, constellations really are connected? Like in story books?”
“Just like in the story books,” he repeated, head tilting to the side as the corners of his mouth curled up into a smile.
The tinkling started up again, this time growing louder as if it were coming closer.
I looked around me, as if expecting whatever was creating this sound to have suddenly appeared. But all I could see was the swaying webs of the coagulated stardust.
“So then.” At his voice, I turned towards Hesper, who was now standing closer to me than before. The force between us which I had first felt on earth seemed to have grown stronger out here.
“What would you like to do? The universe, as you can see, is at your fingertips,” Hesper said, waving a hand around him.
I caught my reflection in his eyes, a girl wading through a dark sea. I had dreamed of coming here for so long, but I hadn’t really thought about what I would do once I did.
“Anything you can think of,” he prompted.
I gazed out into the glittering expanse.
“Well…I’ve always wondered what it would be like to slide down the handle of the Big Dipper.”
He smiled. “Then, why don’t you?”
“Well, is it…” I hesitated, searching for the right word. “Respectful?”
He chuckled. “Of course not, but it’s a lot of fun.”
I straddled the string, the one Hesper had pointed out connected the handle of the dipper to the left corner of the spoon. It was sturdier and slightly thicker than the others.
“Are you ready? Lean forward,” Hesper instructed, sitting behind me. The tinkling momentarily ceased. I tightened my grip on the string. And let go. Immediately I felt myself pulled forward into the dark. On earth, the wind whips at your skin as you pick up speed, as much force is exerted against you as you are exerting against it. Out here, the universe pulled you forward, deeper, further in, into its very heart of existence. It desires all because we are all a piece of it.
We continued to accelerate, faster and faster.
At first, we flew through the uninterrupted glittering void.
“Look down, Gina.”
I did so, and saw a milky clustering of twinkling specks. “That’s the neighboring galaxy,” he explained. I continued to stare as we passed over it, until it too faded into the darkness. When I looked up, I noticed a bright speck ahead of us, a little ways to the right. It was growing brighter and brighter, at first a silvery white, which transformed into a blazing orange before fading into yellow hues. I felt my cheeks and my arms heating up; the light radiating from it lit up the darkness around us, gilding my arms, hands, the thread with its glow. I looked to my right as we sped past it. Its core was a ghostly blue. “That’s the brightest star in this galaxy. Clarissima.” And I continued to stare at it until it also faded into the void.
We passed many other stars. They bloomed into bright explosions past us, each approaching star birthing an endless day. The boils bubbled and burst on their blistering surfaces, eternally perfecting themselves into lanterns of the universe, and in seeking perfection, flowering towards their own destruction.
“There’s the first star of the Big Dipper,” Hesper pointed to the speck of light which was now the size of an acorn in the distance. Like the others, it was a silvery white from a distance. I leaned forward. It had barely started tinting orange and I already felt its warmth on my cheeks, my neck, my arms. The tinkling I had heard in intervals had erupted into a continuous tintinnabulation.
“Wait, Hesper. If that’s the first star of the big dipper, and we’re riding the handle of the big dipper, then that means –”
We were moving closer and closer to the hot, bubbling mass. Its scorching heat covered me with a lather of sweat. But we were moving too fast – I couldn’t jump off this string even if I tried.
The globular lantern was growing, eating away at the darkness, expanding until it had blocked out everything else. The string was burning my fingers, and I closed my eyes, grabbing Hesper’s arm. “Hesper!”
Just as I thought we were going to dive into the scorching, bubbling mass below us, I was thrust up again. A coolness, that felt like a breeze on a hot summer day, swept over my face. I opened my eyes, to the expanse which was pulling me up, awaiting me with open arms. Yet this time, it was Hesper’s arms which caught me.
I gazed into his dark eyes which held the entire universe in them, and the realization came to me that I cared very little of the darkness above me, or how many stars and solar systems spun around my head, that it was just pure, selfish curiosity and the only universe that mattered was the one contained within me. Does it matter whether scientists identify another constellation or the star in Virgo finally flickered out? Why do you question the universe? The stars? Our existence? We are inextricably one and the same. Men questioned when they were in ignorance; now we know all, see all. Our purpose is to exist, and to accept.
And I wondered, since when had I become so greedy, since when had the universe ceased to be enough?
“I love you, Hesper. Does that mean anything to you when the universe is so vast and infinite around us?”
He smiled and a familiar warmth I had felt when I first touched him washed over me.
“Gina, we are made from the same patch of the universe. How could I not love you?”
His large, dark, clear eyes held an infinite amount of space and time in them.
“Hesper, I have this strange feeling. I first felt it on earth, a sort of force that pulls me to you. But, out here, I’ve felt it grow even stronger.”
A gentle smile spread across his lips. “But it’s only natural. A line is defined by two points. The distance between those points may expand or diminish, they may move and shift, but as long as they exist, so will the line between them.
I looked down. The star of the Big Dipper was now a dark, twinkling speck below us. It had gotten dark again.
A breeze pushed me forward on the swing. Among the tall grasses, the fireflies were winking at each other. But they were dimmed by another glowing form slowly taking shape above them; it looked to be made of myriads of tiny golden particles of the star dust I had seen earlier. I held out my arms and they floated towards me, into me, illuminating, as they passed through, the spaces in between the platelets of my skin.
One thought on “About Stars and Their Catchers”
Compelling and imaginative; thank you Yoelena Tkebuchava for an enjoyable ride!