Starlings in a Distant Garden
by Emily Calvin
I sat down in the dirt, and fiddled with the starling. I stared at the ground, and Sophia went inside. I listened hard and heard nothing. Then I made out a soft jingling, and I assumed Jillian had returned from her performance. I looked around and could not find her. I bent my ear to the dirt, and Sophia was right. I could hear the starlings singing. It sounded like a chime. It sounded like the murmurs of a large crowd far away. It sounded beautiful.
Sophia and I tended to that garden for two moons.
On my 10th rotation of the moon, I watched Sophia bend over to plant a starling, freeze, and fall over like a scarecrow. I ran to her and screamed her name. I screamed for Jillian.
Jillian ran outside, grabbed Sophia, and rushed her to the clinic. Neither Jillian nor Sophia returned that day. Both of them suffered from heart failure: Sophia, from working too hard, and Jillian, from watching Sophia die.
I was left alone, ten moons old, and all I could do was follow everything I learned from my Elders. According to custom, I buried their bodies in my garden so they could live amongst the stars. I refused to cry because I knew the boys would tease me.
I shoved it all down my throat and spent all my free time in that garden, and the rest of the time I spent studying how to fly The Traveling Star to Parnassis. We did flight simulations. They re-enacted the Frozen Age, and we had to dodge the ice shards. I was the only student who completed the course without a single scratch on my virtual ship.
We memorized planets and galaxies, and I was the only student who got perfect marks on all our exams. We wrote essays about our history of pilots and drafted courses through uncharted galaxies. Edgar, my only friend, cheered me on while the other students looked at me with disdain. I loved every second of my training.
After grade school, most girls quit schooling and married themselves into a wealthy household, but I studied astronomy and cosmos travel for eighteen moon cycles. I refused to let Sophia’s wish die with her, and I refused to let my people become a distant memory.
Jillian may not have been around a lot, but her entertainment connected her to our ancestry, and she instilled in me a pride for my planet and its history. She never let me forget from whence we came. “We are descendants of the holy Plutonians, Sumbi, so act like one,” she always said.
By the time I graduated from the Academy of Traveling Pilots (first in my class), my star garden had grown into a bursting display of fireworks and glitter-sparkles covered empty space. I would run through the garden and catch the stray fire with my gloved hands. Then I’d plant some more and watch the starlings grow.
I looked like a government official. I had begun to comb my curls and tie them in a tight ponytail. I wrapped hair around it to hide any elastic, and my hair hung down to the middle of my back in a slick, straight line.
On the morning I went to take the Piloting License test, I put on my most professional Traveler’s suit. We wore tight, black leather, so I wore a black, leather dress and topped the look off with gold stiletto boots.
Ready to take over the planet, I took the Piloting License test, and although everyone passed, I scored the highest in the class. The men who had just recently been teasing me, fumed as they realized my high scores meant I would become the first female pilot of The Traveling Star. I would soon be addressed as Captain Sumbi.
“We’ll see how well you pass the test when it’s that time of the month,” a red-headed idiot teased when we prepared for the exam.
“Look, Sumbi,” a rather handsome and arrogant classmate tried to reason before the exam, “you might be the smartest, but don’t you want to have a baby?”
I laughed. “That’ll be Captain Sumbi before you know it.”
And so here I am, after the inauguration ceremony, making my first order of business as Captain Sumbi: a voyage to Parnassis. I planned the trip with my wingman, Co-Pilot Edgar. I may not have many friends, but I had chosen my co-pilot. Although he didn’t talk much and kept to himself, he never scowled at me or rolled his eyes like the other men did.
Co-Pilot Edgar was my first and only friend that I didn’t grow in my garden. He was the only one who was there for me during my studies, and he has stuck with me thus far.
After careful planning, we have decided to travel through Cassiopeia, which will lead us straight into Parnassis.
Cassiopeia provides a shorter route to Parnassis and a change of scenery for the Travelers, who deserve a break from the view of the speed of light. All we ever see out the windows while traveling are streaks of light. I think it’ll be nice to give the Travelers a view of the pink and purple clouds dotted with diamonds and fireballs.
Truthfully, I think I can collect some good starlings for my garden also. See, before Sophia died, she told me the best star seeds lay in the heart of Cassiopeia, but she neglected to tell me the dangers involved. She neglected to tell me the reason Cassiopeia presented the best star selection: stars fly through it all day and night without mercy at unmatched speeds.
As we enter Cassiopeia, I notice the pink and purple clouds and then the jolting sound of our engine being struck by something.
“What was that, Edgar?” I ask through the intercom.
Co-Pilot Edgar is doing his routine rounds, making sure the ship is sealed and safe. “I don’t know, Captain Sumbi,” he answers, “but it sounded like the engine. I’ll go check.”
Co-Pilot Edgar is the smartest engineer in the ship. I could’ve asked someone else, but as my companion, partner, and the smartest scientist, he will be the best judge of what is going on.
The voice clicks off, and I imagine the Co-Pilot, an odd man with hair the color of Cassiopeia and fuller than Jillian’s hair, and eyes the shape of half-moons, sleepwalking through the crowds of Travelers, bypassing their questions with his glassy eyes, sneaking into the office labeled “PRIVATE,” and crawling down the tiny, dripping, rusted ladder that leads to the engine in the center of the star.
He complained about the water the other day, but because we have to keep the engine surrounded by ice to stop the core of the planet from burning the engine into oblivion, we cannot stop the dripping. I wonder if he gets goose bumps the way I did when I walked down that ladder once.
Every pilot must enter the engine chamber at least once before the end of training, and I got chills down to my toes when I went in there. I can never do it again, and I always convince the Co-Pilot to do it for me. He always does my dirty work willingly and honorably because his Elder knew my Elders closely.
He comes back on the intercom: “Captain?”
“The engine has a hole through it.”
“There’s a ball of fire resting next to the hole.”
“A ball of fire? What do you mean a ball of fire?”
“A ball of fire, Captain. It looks like a star. A tiny, dying star, but a star, nonetheless.”
“And you just left it in there? What about the engine? What about our people? You know what the ancestors said about balls of fire!”
Does Edgar not know about the danger of stray stars? How can he leave that star down there! The gods will be here soon, and everyone will die! Oh I must be the worst pilot in the history of time.
“You’ve got to get that star off of this planet for the sake of the people!” I yell, and grab the steering wheel.
The steering wheel is made of plutonium: a metal mined from the core of the planet. It is round and connected to rudders on the outskirts of the planet. The thrusters flow back and forth in whichever direction you steer. I have no direction but out, so I turn the wheel to the right and hope for the best. A star has never infiltrated the planet before. I have no training for this.
Of course, I steer us right into the worst: dark matter.
“I got the star out... but... well... I mean...”
“Tell me! I’ve got pressing matters up here!”
“Well, I didn’t really do anything... I crawled back down to the engine, and... the star was gone.”
“What do you mean the star was gone?”
I think my face turns the color of a burning moon. That is it. A god has eaten it, and soon, we’ll all be dead.
“It disappeared. I don’t know. And... well... and...”
“And the engine disappeared with it.”
“The engine... it’s gone.”
I can see the gods eating the star, but what do they want with an engine? I remember when Sophia said, “The gods eat stars off of toothpicks, Sumbi.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means, be very careful with your stars. They can destroy a planet if a stray one ends up where it does not belong.”
“A god might reach a hand down and snatch that star up for a snack, but the problem is, these gods of ours do not satiate easily. Once they get a taste of your garden, they’ll want more and more and more, and soon, you’ll no longer have a garden. These gods are fierce and to be feared. We never know when they’ll attack.
“Once, a woman planted a star garden for her newborn babe, and as soon as the gods got a taste of one star, they ate the whole garden, her, her child, and her home. The family was devastated. That is why, sweet Sumbi, we never allow stray stars on our land.”
I look around and see nothing. Less than nothing. Dark matter. Where are we? It feels like my eyes are being sucked into my skull.
Everything around me looks like rainbow static: every color and no color stuffed into negative space. This makes no sense. It feels like someone attached suction cups to my ears and is violently ripping them off, but the suction cups refuse to give up their grip. I wonder what will give first: the ear plungers or my eardrums. It sounds like the opposite of silent...
I hear negative sound, like the ringing in your ears you hear when everything goes completely silent, and the ringing grows louder and louder and louder until you begin to feel like you might go insane. I hear the sound of black. I hear the sound of emptiness... the echo of silence. The louder I scream, the louder my ears ring.
I try to speak, and it feels as if my ears swallow the vibrations of sound. I’ve never felt such a headache, and I’ve never heard such blasting silence. My head wants to implode. Have my eardrums popped or expanded? You know the whooshing sound an object makes as it flies by where you stand? It sounds like that, but in my head.
Copyright © 2012 by Emily Calvin