Star Mother

 

On my twelfth birthday, I snuck outside to lie on my back in the grass and watch the stars. The Milky Way bloomed across the Connecticut night as my eyes adjusted to the dark. The aspen in a nearby grove whispered back to the light breeze, their flat bodied leaves shaking back and forth. Populus tremuloides. Quaking aspen, for the rounded leaves that twisted in the wind; a tree that cloned itself and sprouted saplings through its roots. The towering trees next to our house were the copies of one plant. I used to think it was the loneliest tree in the world to create its own family with root systems entwined underground like neural pathways. Like me, it had no mother.

Staring up, I tracked the passing glimmer of the International Space Station with one eye closed, finger pointed, and was connected with something greater than myself. I felt suspended, as if the blades of grass were the only ties preventing me from falling upwards. The ground was cold and wet with dew under my back, my childish hips, but I shivered rather than go back inside. The corners of my mouth were sticky with chocolate frosting from the two helpings of cake I’d eaten. On that day celebrating life, I was thinking about death.

Earlier that day I found a book, The Ancient Egyptian Afterlife, in the library while I waited for Father to come home from working late and finish my home schooling lesson. The book used words like ‘soul’ and ‘after death’. The ka was the part of someone that didn’t die with the body. But where did it exist while the body was still living? I thought it must’ve nestled somewhere in the hollows of the pelvis, next to the ruby bone marrow in the hip. Was it visible to the naked eye? What colour was it? Was a cat’s soul different from mine?

When Father finally returned home, it was a few minutes past sunset and the sky outside was a fading lavender. I heard his car, the squeak of loose suspension, as he pulled up the drive. I was waiting in the living room, with a book on Buddhism facedown over my skinny knees, when he walked in the front door.

“Are you ready to start?” he asked, setting his briefcase on the coffee table, referring to the delayed lesson for the day. “You’ve chosen a book, I see.”

He walked to where I was sitting on the sofa, having spent my solitary hours reading everything I could find on the afterlife, and leaned down to pick up the book in my lap. Light from the table lamp shone like binary stars in his eyeglasses as he read the title. One shadowy eyebrow arched up; the only sign of his surprise in an otherwise stoic face.

“Where did Mother go after she died?” I asked. With Father, the scientist in him was best addressed directly and pointblank. He respected the forthright. Nonetheless, a few moments passed in silence before he assumed a scholarly pacing across the rug in front of the sofa and answered with a contemplative frown. In his lecturer’s voice, he explained to me how there were many religious doctrines with a variety of theories about what happened to us when we died, the Egyptian religion one of the oldest.

Any other child would, at that point, have pestered him with questions. But I was a product of his teachings in more ways than one. It was, I know now, the greatest lesson he ever taught me: the power of patience. At such a young age, when I was simply imitating his reflective pauses, I never guessed how the ability to wait in silence would serve me for the majority of my isolated life. So I waited for him to finish his lecture, watching the formulation of thoughts behind his pale eyes.

“As a scientist,” he began, and then hesitated while reaching up to loosen his striped tie so that it hung slightly off-kilter across his chest. “As a scientist, I must acknowledge that no religious theory has ever been proven fact.”

His hand came up to straighten his glasses. The pauses were unlike him, and I thought he was just tired from the long day at work. In reality, he was searching for the best half-truth to satisfy my curiosity. He began comparing the Egyptian afterlife to that of the Native Americans, who believed that the soul was carried into the sky after death and became a star. Their ancestors looked down on them from above, much like the soul did in the modern Christian version of heaven. Father turned and walked to the large window overlooking the porch and front lawn. The sky outside had darkened to a deep blue and the first stars were making their nightly appearance. He slid both hands into the pockets of his slacks and fiddled uncharacteristically with loose change.

I thought his posture and tone communicated grief. For a very long time, I believed him capable of feeling loss. Because I knew nothing else or maybe my childish notion of love could too easily imagine a dashing prince, face tilted up to the heavens, pining for a star. After the lesson was over and dinner had been eaten, Father surprised me with the birthday cake. Later, as I lay in the grass stargazing, I tried to guess which one was my mother. I chose the brightest star, Polaris, in the constellation Ursa Minor; she could be no other than the light that guided the lost. To the rest of the world it was the North Star, Navigatoria, Star of Arcady, Alpha Ursae Minoris, SAO 1762, but I knew it as Mother Star. That birthday was the last one I can remember.

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