The Behavior of the Stars
Mark stared up at the night sky, but there were no stars to be seen. They were probably hiding; they often scurried behind clouds and laughed at him, which was unbearable.
He had seen them move. Sometimes they skipped across so fast that he just caught a glimpse from the corner of his eye, but more often they winked across the sky, sending a series of messages that he couldn’t decipher.
“Please,” he would beg, knowing his voice to be ignored. “Please tell me!”
Sometimes he could not stand it and would cry, burying himself miserably in his filthy sleeping bag. Then, in the morning, when the stars had stopped teasing him, he walked on. Mark didn’t know where he was going, but his feet seemed to have some plan. The rest of him was reassured as he trod firmly along paths, across fields, over hills. He lived mainly on nuts, of which he had gathered an immense number in autumn, plus any wayside greens or fungi that he could eat raw. He was getting very thin, and had to tie a piece of cord round his trousers to keep them up.
Mark had a pack and a beard and just about knew his own first name, though it was edging slyly away from him. He even had something to live for, though it was a rarity for him to get it. Most of his time was spent in cold and bitterness and confusion.
“Why do they leave me?” he wondered, aching. “Every day they leave me. That’s if I see them at all.”
He wasn’t well, he supposed. He had a vague but persistent sense of a whole other life happening elsewhere, maybe to someone else. The questions, “Where am I? Why am I here?” fell into this category, and Mark could not see them; his mind blurred over all such things and left him with only an inarticulate feeling of existential unease. The words,
‘lover’, ‘friend’ and ‘home’ never entered his consciousness.
“Cold, cold, cold, alone,” said Mark over and over in a song-like manner as he walked through the hours of the day.
But every so often, on the most bitterly cold nights when he almost lost everything, the miracle would happen.
He could never be sure, at first.
One star would come out and take a look, and then another, and they would whisper together and giggle. Mark would try not to get his hopes up. After all, this could go on all night until he fell into dreaming, just this piecemeal giggling in ones and twos. But on the special nights they would all turn up, every man-jack of them, until the sky blazed down on Mark. Countless, they waited, and at the time of perfect light and fullness they would stop the gossip and laughter and there would be a moment of absolute stillness.
When that silence fell, Mark knew what was going to happen. His throat would constrict and his eyes would well with tears, which he would wipe away hastily, desperate not to miss anything.
The stars began to sing. One clear voice would start it, pitched somewhere between a bell and a choirboy (though Mark had neither word), a single note without end. The star that was singing would shine extra brightly with it. Then another would pick up and shine and sing in harmony, and then groups of two or three would add in more and more streams of heavenly music, until the whole sky sang and shone and throbbed with it, a canopy of exquisite sound. A thousand orchestras and the most sophisticated lightshow could not have come close to it.
Mark would watch and weep with joy. Once or twice a phrase would drift into his consciousness: ‘the restatement of the theme’, or ‘rapt, atmospheric coda’, but he shrugged away the ugly, clunky words that failed to connect with the grand euphony of the sky. He didn’t want the old words that sometimes nagged at the edges of his mind. The stars covered the sound of a woman crying somewhere in his memory.
Every element worked together; every element was in harmony, even the dissonances.
Sometimes, hours in, Mark would fall asleep. Then he would dream of the song, and wake to the diffident microscope of noon. But sometimes he would be so drawn in by the music – which wasn’t a performance but merely one of the stars’ modes of existence – that he would join in, a simple baritone note that carried on as long as he could hold it before drawing breath and starting again: “Baaaaaaaaa!”
For once, he fit in with them, and they sang together. It would go on and on until the dirty grey and pink of dawn came to mute the stars and their music. Mark would fall asleep then, deliriously happy.
This joy would last him for days, and he would be particularly active. He would wash in rivers and drink deeply, whistle to himself, keep an eye out for good or useful things, and walk with a skip in his step. But gradually the joy would seep away, only falling off more quickly if he tried to hang on to it, as each night the stars watched him distantly and made no further sign. Mark knew that they talked about him behind his back.
How could they be so magnificent and yet so petty?
Troubled, he walked on. One day it would all become clear. It didn’t make any sense at the moment, and he was mostly alone and afraid. But you have to keep going, to believe. He had to trust that one day the stars would explain everything, and invite him to join them. Everything lived life in this way, he thought, moments of beauty making the whole of life bearable.
The stars laughed at him. They had their own plan, and Mark didn’t stand a chance.
Cathy Bryant worked as a shoe shop assistant, life model, civil servant and childminder (among other jobs) before writing professionally. She has won 27 literary awards and writing contests, including the Wergle Flomp Humorous Poetry Contest, the Balticon SF Poetry Contest and the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Cathy’s work has been published all over the world in such publications as Eye to the Telescope, The Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Futuredaze. She co-edited the anthologies Best of Manchester Poets vols. 1, 2 and 3. She has published three books of poetry: Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature (Puppywolf, 2010), Look at All the Women (Mother’s Milk, 2014), and Erratics (Arachne, 2018).