Starlings in a Distant Garden
by Emily Calvin
Today, on my 24th rotation of the moon, I, Natalia Sumbi DeCant of the Capricorn Plutonians, will become the first female pilot of my planet. Astronomists might know my land by the name of Pluto, but Jillian, my Elder, raised me as a native of The Traveling Star. My ancestors, the Plutonians, instilled in us the importance of passing down oral creation myths through the generations.
Our nation was founded upon fire and water. The land started in two, and the fire people fought the water people for control. A huge war ensued where fire melted ice and ice froze flames. Thousands died in the name of their side, but in the end, fire won.
Burial grounds covered the land of water, and ice froze over the graves. Finally, when the fire people took over and the land began to heat up, they turned these grave sites into star gardens. Everyone cultivated gardens of stars and planets, and that is why today we still keep star gardens on our ship.
As children, all Travelers learn about the history of Pluto and how our homeland came to be The Traveling Star. Many moons ago, a globe my ancestors called Earth turned my planet into a dwarf star. Earthlings first called Pluto a dwarf, and then the United Planets (UP) ousted our planet from the UP because we no longer counted “in the grand scheme of things” (said the Earthling representative of the UP).
Instead of swallowing their fate and adopting a new identity as residents of a star in the Milky Way galaxy, the Plutonians traveled around the universe. The president at the time, President Wilson, employed scientists and pilots to turn the planet into a space ship and to teach him how to fly it. Within a year, Pluto had become The Traveling Star, and President Wilson had become Captain Wilson, the first pilot to fly the first generation of Travelers around the universe.
On my 5th rotation of the moon, we entered the Frozen Age, a time when Captain Perseus, unaccustomed to the volatile atmospheres in the universe, accidentally steered the planet into a galaxy of ice storms. At the time, the ship’s exterior consisted of scrap metal and could not withstand the pressure change.
The ship has improved drastically since then, with a genetically modified, bio-plastic exterior, and white, steel interior. Within the plastic casing, The Traveling Star has hotel-style homes, ten swimming pools, and palm trees.
The interior designer must have lived on Earth in what Earthlings call the Caribbean at some point, because The Traveling Star now resembles a space-age island. However, since the Frozen Age, we’ve been running out of people who are willing to risk their lives flying through the uncharted universe for the sake of the planet.
On my 8th rotation of the moon, I, and my fellow 8th-mooners, learned of Pluto’s two atmospheres, which created two extreme lands-deserts and ice lands. During transition, the Plutonians built a spaceship around the planet and terraformed it to provide the perfect climate: breezy, sunny, and always warm.
The Plutonians created a sun out of fire, explosives, and reverse-gravity and altered the atmosphere. Our moon, however, took control of its own destiny. Pluto had four moons, but when my ancestors built the ship around the planet, they created an atmosphere in which our moons were not equipped to survive. They let the moons escape and find their own orbits. One moon does hang in our sky, and this one joined The Traveling Star during the Frozen Age.
When Captain Perseus flew the Traveling Star, however, he did not have such advanced amenities, and the ice-storm galaxy trapped the planet in its claws for a decade. The Captain announced that everyone should stay indoors until he found a way to escape the ice storms and create a stronger exterior. The ship did not sustain a deadly amount of damage, but shards of ice flew through The Traveling Star sporadically. The risk of death turned all Travelers into temporary hermits.
My Elder, or what Earthlings call a mother, Jillian DeCant of the Leo Plutonians and a dazzling entertainer, suffered greatly from this house arrest, but I, at age six, did not mind all the extra time I got to spend with my Second Elder, or what Earthlings call a grandmother, Sophia Denal Menson of the Libra Plutonians.
Before the Frozen Age, Jillian performed ceremonial Plutonian dances in front of crowds. The dances came from the ancestors and were performed in order to keep the planet in harmony with the universe. Every night, she combed her hair into a frizzy poof, rested an orange top hat above it, and attached blue and green feathers to the hat. She looked like one of those tropical birds the Earthlings have in the Caribbean.
She wore more gold jewelry than I’ve ever seen in one jewelry shop alone, and she jingled when she walked. The traditional moves resembled Earthlings’ belly dancing, and when she swung her hips, she mesmerized the crowd with the intricate symphony of her jewelry’s chimes and bells. The gold and orange decor made her bronze skin glow brighter than the sun. I always envied my Elder’s skin — so dark and luscious.
My Second Elder looked the palest between the three of us, with her cotton-soft elephant skin bleached by the sun. My skin tone fell in the middle, and my Elder always compared my skin to “the glow of the ghost of Cepheus Flare.” When I got older, I began painting my lips with amethyst and lining them with plum skin.
The Frozen Age kept everyone inside, and the entertainment industry suffered greatly. My Elder never stopped wearing her costumes, but instead of dancing on stage, she swung her hips to the rhythm of the vacuum or the oven. Jillian the entertainer became Jillian the entertaining stay-at-home Elder... without the domestic partner.
“You’re not a bastard, sweet Sumbi; your father is,” she told me when I complained about my friends in grade school calling me a bastard child. Then she told me to go do my homework and forget about the kids at school.
Jillian always stressed about my studies because she wanted me to become a pilot. I shared her desire but not her anxiety. I knew I could outsmart all the boys in my class. They hated me for it. Jillian always wanted more for me than she had for herself, so she always pressed me to focus on my studies.
To be fair, all the elders worried about all the youngsters’ studies. It seemed as if their only job was to worry, but truthfully, they had just cause to stress: The Traveling Star was running out of capable, willing pilots, and without an adequate pilot, The Traveling Star would travel no more. Consequently, we Travelers would follow the fate of our planet.
I fear death for our planet every day. This is why I am going to be the pilot of our planet. This is why I am not afraid to risk my life. This is why I’m not afraid to die for my planet. If I don’t do it, I don’t know who will. Because of the urgency for more pilots, the elders, including Jillian, made sure all the children received a rigorous education including the history of The Traveling Star and in-depth piloting lessons.
During the Frozen Age, Jillian tried to home-school me in the cosmos. She taught me things we never learned in school, like the myth of Lyndina, the woman who saved all the stars from dying out by giving birth to the sun; or the story of Marina the Warrior, who fought off four hungry gods to save her children. I learned of all the strong mythical women and gods, and Jillian always reminded me how I could be a story an Elder tells her Younger someday.
She also taught me about the elliptical orbits of planets around the sun. I’d seen such planetary orbits in my studies and in our travels through the cosmos, and I always wondered how it would feel to be on a planet with such a rhythmic pattern.
I grew up accustomed to the sway of the ground, walls, and light posts as the Captain directed our planet from one galaxy to another according to the people’s daily “travel vote.” Every day, people can vote if they want to see another galaxy, and the pilot puts the options up on a big screen. Everyone submits their votes electronically, and a huge computer in the cockpit calculates the votes. Then the pilot figures out the quickest route to the desired destination. “When can I vote?” I used to ask Jillian.
She’d laugh and say, “All in good time, Sumbi.”
I would pout as she spooned lumps of coal into her cup of fire. She never gave me any sips. “Not until you’re older,” she’d say. “It’ll stunt your growth.”
She never let me ask too many questions.
Her tangerine skin always glowed from the fire in her mug.
I always wanted to be older.
When I whined about my age, Jillian’s face turned into a smile brighter than our sun, and I knew no matter what, Jillian would always smile that beautiful smile that makes all my fears and anxieties disappear.
She might not have been home a lot before the storm, but that smile made up for all the nights she left me alone with Sophia, my second Elder. Plus, I got to listen to Sophia tell stories of our ancestors all day long while stuck inside. My six-year old life couldn’t have gotten any better during this Ice Age.
Sophia never drank fire or told me I was too young for anything or worried about my studies, so I enjoyed her company.
I dream about Sophia a lot. I’ll never forget the days when I’d sit at her feet and daydream of life on an orbital planet while watching sheets of ice fly past the window. Sophia always dreamed of traveling to the galaxy of Parnassis and told long tales of its infinite beauty.
Her voice would crackle and hiss, her fire eyes — the same eyes Jillian and I have — would glaze, and the rhythm of her speech would slow. “When I was a child,” she’d begin, “we studied the constellations and galaxies, and my favorite galaxy was Parnassis. Oh, Parnassis,” and she’d rock back and forth and look into the ceiling for a moon cycle or two.
Then she’d smile a smile that would make the entire multiverse quiver. Moons would cower behind clouds in awe of her powerful joy. “Parnassis looks down on beaches of white sand, and its skies mirror the blue-green oceans,” she’d continue. “The moons look like islands, and there are so many stars they look like ocean waves. The stars move and murmur and sing and chatter and give off so much light, no sun or moon needs shine in the sky. I would do anything to be a star in the galaxy of Parnassis.”
“When I become pilot, Sophia,” I promised her one night, “our first voyage will be to Parnassis!”
She laughed and thanked me for the sentiment. She patted my curls and continued to rock while staring at the ceiling. Sophia wore a hat of tube-like hair spiraled and pinned with beads into a bun that shook and swayed as she rocked.
Once, I saw her let down her hair, and it spilled onto the floor, past her feet. I always wanted long, soft hair like hers.
Sophia’s arms and fingers were cloaked in gold jewelry, so when she patted my head, I heard a jingle like Jillian’s.
When the Frozen Age ended, I entered my 8th rotation of the moon, which hung like lace in the sky. Jillian returned to her entertainment, and I continued to spend time with Sophia. By then, I had told her all about the kids at school. I had told her how they made fun of me for not having a father and for wanting to be a pilot. They made fun of my hair, always teased into a poof by Jillian.
“I know just what you need,” Sophia said.
“A punching bag?”
“Haha no. A star garden.”
“I don’t know how to plant a star garden.”
“I’ll teach you.”
And she did. Sophia took me to our backyard, and we marked a space for the garden. Then she disappeared into the house and came out carrying a handful of glittering specks. “These are starlings,” she said, “or star seeds.”
She bent down, dug a hole in the ground, and placed one sparkle in the dirt. “Feed them fire, and they will grow into stars brighter than our sun.”
Then she handed me the rest of the starlings and watched as I placed each one in its own special hole and covered it with a small layer of dirt. I ran inside the house, grabbed Jillian’s pot of fire, and poured it on the seedlings. “But Sophia,” I said, “how will this stop my friends from being so mean?”
“Oh, it won’t my dear,” she said, “but if you listen closely, you can hear the starlings sing.”
“And they will keep you company, my sweet Sumbi, when no one else can.”
Copyright © 2012 by Emily Calvin