“Watch it!” my brother yelped as I stumbled into him, tripping over a small strategically placed rock on the deserted path, my elbow connecting solidly with his head as I flailed wildly for balance.
“Sorry!” I felt as though I could barely breathe; the night was black as velvet and just as thick, closing in on all sides. “We really should have remembered a flashlight; I don’t know why we couldn’t have come out when it was brighter!”
“It wouldn’t work if there was a moon, I told you that” he muttered. “You are the ‘big’ sister, you should have remembered the flashlight.”
I looked up, my eyes slowly adjusting in the absolute darkness. “Bobby” I breathed, “look at all those stars!” My eyes roamed over the millions of luminous dots in the sky, focusing even more as I saw they were not still. “They are flickering!”
Bobby glanced up, impatient. “We need to keep moving, I want to do this!”
“What are you going to do, anyway? You never did tell me,” I queried as I started walking again. I was genuinely curious. All that he would tell me was that he needed to go out on a clear night when there wasn’t a moon, and he needed me to go with him, because mom wouldn’t let him out so late at night alone.
“You will see. Just wait.” Still no answers, then. Bobby sure could be stubborn.
I didn’t really mind, though. The night was clear, cold, and beautiful, our breath crisp and quick as it puffed out of our mouths, disappearing in a faint cloud in the dark sky. Bobby’s cheeks and nose were rosy red, and his navy parka was saturated where he used his sleeve to wipe his dripping nose.
I followed Bobby; his slight form barely visible on the path just in front of me. He leaned forward as he started up the path winding up the dark hill. I stopped short when he abruptly quit walking, just barely avoiding slamming into him again.
“Dude! A little warning would be nice!” I snapped.
“Maybe if you would pay attention…” Bobby trailed off as he looked around, the argument fading as rapidly as it had begun. “This is perfect! I can see all of the stars from here.”
Bobby threw his Batman backpack on the ground, and he plopped himself down beside it, so I sat too. As we sat on the cold, dry grass, our breath crystallized as it escaped our mouths. I curled my fingers into tight fists under my mittens to make them warmer, my nails digging into my palms, fingers numb.
My brother had wanted to go to this hill late at night ever since Christmas, but he always refused to tell me why. He wanted to be able to see the stars, he said, and the moon was always too bright. Bobby was only ten years old, so I chalked it up to the whims of a kid, and I went along with it.
“Are you warm enough, Bobby?” I asked my brother as he coughed into his hands.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” he replied, a little grumpily. His voice was still scratchy from being sick. And he hated to be questioned, especially by a nagging older sister. “It was only a little cold, stop worrying about it, I’m not sick anymore.”
He stared in awe at the stars. The silence grew louder as a gentle wind whispered through the trees. The spicy scent of pines filled the air, which was crisp with the onset of winter.
I looked at Bobby. His pale hair had a faint, washed out glow from the stars. They swept away all color from his body, making him appear a little supernatural. Starglow. That’s what we called it. It was different from moonglow, which lit up everything it touched.
He shifted and reached into the Batman backpack. I watched in confusion as he pulled out an old bb gun and a large glass jar. He held the bb gun reverently. Mom had let us pick something of grandfathers to remember him by after he died a few months ago, and Bobby had chosen the old bb gun that grandfather had had since he was a little boy.
“Remember the story grandfather told us about this?” Bobby asked, tears standing in his eyes as he thought of him.
I had to stop and think. Grandfather used to tell such tall tales; it was difficult to remember one about a bb gun.
“He found that when he was out playing in the woods when he was little?” I ventured, memory dancing in around the edges of my mind. “That’s right, he said he thought it was magic!”
“Let’s just see what it can do!” Bobby jumped up; a decision made.
“What are you doing?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. He ignored me.
I stared, falling under the spell he cast. He glanced at the star-studded sky again and loaded the gun. He raised it to his shoulder and aimed at Orion. The shot rang clear in the air, and Betelgeuse, a star at the end of the constellation, streamed down through the sky, landing on the withered grass near us. Bobby ran and scooped it up in the glass jar. It shone dully at the bottom, lost.
He repeated this process until the jar was full and the sky was empty. The jar radiated an intense white glow that swallowed everything near it. My brother looked like an apparition as he held it in his hands, triumphant, his hair standing up all around his head, like a halo. Or like a madman. His eyes were cast in deep shadows, dark, but the whites gleamed with reflected starlight.
I couldn’t believe that this was happening. It was like an old wives’ tale, or something out of an ancient myth long ago forgotten. Then the memory came crashing back into my mind all at once. I remembered the story grandfather had told us about finding the gun when he was about Bobby’s age. He had told us the gun was magic. He found it in the thick primordial woods behind his childhood home, where he claimed fairies and ghosts and everything supernatural roamed. He claimed that he never missed anything when he used that BB gun to shoot it, that it was a part of his body, heart, and soul. But he always said everything was full of magic, I never believed that the stories were actually true! He had told Bobby that the gun would be his one day, and now it was.
I remembered the words our wizened grandfather had uttered in his gruff, gravelly voice when we were so young. I shuddered.
“If the night is moonless and clear, the stars shining, the right person can come along and pull the stars from the sky, and if the right time, place, and person align at just the right moment, then the person who pulls the stars from the sky will be made immortal, all-powerful. Every wish granted.”
As I studied Bobby, dumbfounded, his face twisted into someone unrecognizable. His eyes squinted into slits; his mouth pulled into a sneer. He looked ancient, wizened; on second thought, he resembled our ancient grandfather, back when he told us this story. His eyes gleamed with malice, his blonde hair shining white against the dark starless night. Our grandfather’s hair had looked much the same, colorless. Time flickered; Bobby was there, then grandfather, then Bobby…
“Bobby!” He flickered back; his dark eyes met mine briefly. For just a moment I glimpsed the sweet little boy he truly was, then just as quickly he morphed back to the ancient specter of our grandfather.
“I can feel the power” he mumbled, his mouth stretching as he started to laugh. “I didn’t know that I would have so much power!”
The sky was pitch black now. I couldn’t see anything except my brother. It was as though I closed my eyes when I turned away from him, it was so dark.
I heard the silence again. This time nothing moved. Nothing spoke. The world was dark, and my brother controlled it. He held the light of the night in his hands. The velvety darkness was heavy now, as if the weight of the world rested on my brother’s shoulders. Time stood still.
The stars cried to be let free. Their voices were silent screams of agony. Their light flickered and waned. They would die, trapped in a jar, leaving only the sun and moon to light the world. But the moon hid. The sun wouldn’t rise. They couldn’t find their way through the night without the guidance of the stars. They wandered off their well-worn paths.
“Bobby, look!” I pointed at the glass jar that held the stars. It was still flickering with light, but now images started to form on the glass itself, then those images started to project into the air, shimmering images that hung suspended in front of our awestruck faces. It was like an old black and white movie reel, the images there, then gone. We saw glimpses of friends and family, but as soon as we tried to focus on them, they were gone. We saw the hill we were on, but it was bare and dark; in fact, every image that flitted in front of our eyes was getting darker and darker.
Bobby’s mouth dropped open, his hands still clutching the jar, his knuckles white from the relentless hold he had on it.
We were trapped in this moment in time. We could feel what should have been time passing by the heaviness of the air, the weight of it pressing down on us. We watched the shimmery images from the stars, we saw the world spinning out of control….
Bobby jolted, the static from the images building up and sparking, and as I looked at him, I could feel fear and excitement radiating off him, which made him rash.
“I control everything!” He tilted his head back and whooped, still clutching the jar as he danced around, “I can do whatever I want!” His small figure danced in the dry field; his Batman backpack a small dark shape where he had so casually discarded it.
“Bobby, wait…” I tried to intervene, but as always, he tuned me out.
“Grandfather was right! I am a GOD!”
Bobby could see as a god would see and feel as a god would feel; the story grandfather had told was true. But grandfather never meant for one little boy to have all this power in his small hands.
I stood next to him; our faces lit by the eerie glow of the anguished stars. I looked at the stars in the jar. “Bobby, look at how the stars are suffering,” I pleaded, “they are flickering and fading, and they need to be let go.”
But Bobby was immersed in his newfound power. My little brother, who was always so kind and gentle to everyone, could not see the suffering of the poor stars.
“I wonder…” Bobby mused, “I wonder if we can travel.”
He closed his eyes, the starglow dancing over his face, and concentrated. “Take us to the beach, now!”
It worked. In the blink of an eye, we were at the beach, standing on the cold sand. Bobby opened his eyes and laughed, “I did it!” He hunkered down and pulled his shoes and socks off, despite the cold.
But it was very, very cold, and so dark. The ocean did not wave at us, the water was still and silent. The silence was unnatural. Nothing moved. The joy of the ocean was gone.
“Make it daytime!” Bobby ordered the stars, annoyed by the stillness. But apparently this power had limits that grandfather didn’t mention in his story; the sun did not rise. Bobby could travel where he wanted, and he could see what he wanted, but without the stars the sun was lost. It could not find its way. Even Bobby could not direct the sun without the help of the stars making their map in the sky.
It was immensely, powerfully, endlessly dark. Bobby stood on the sand, forlorn, the cold gritty feel of it rough against his bare feet, but the beach was not the beach he remembered from numerous summer vacations. No one played in the still water, no one walked on the sand. No colorful umbrellas shaded blankets and chairs; there was no sun, no light. Bobby put his shoes and socks back on, brushing the sand off his feet angrily.
“Bobby, this isn’t right. You can’t do this, grandfather was wrong. We are hurting the stars!”
Bobby squeezed his eyes shut again, refusing to listen, enraged. He wanted to go somewhere else. “Take us to the cabin!”
In an instant we were looking at the small log cabin we stayed at so often, where we had so much fun playing in the wild creek, and where we had explored the many paths twisting through the woods.
It was dark. Silent. We walked close to the cabin, which was shrouded in shadows. Nothing moved, except for us. We were alone, not an animal or bird stirred. We walked to the stream. It was still and quiet. The happy babbling we were so accustomed to was gone. We tread cautiously; we could barely see each other, let alone any obstacles on the path before us. The trees loomed over us, their branches drooping down, silent sentinels of the night. Disapproval radiated from their immense boughs. Sadness. Despair.
“Make it right! I am in charge, make it like it was before!” Bobby shrieked at the stars. The only response was a faint glimmer from the jar. Bobby’s face flickered; first grandfather, then Bobby. I watched in awe as the flickering changed with Bobby’s distress. Grandfather wanted to take over, but Bobby would not let him. He refused to listen.
Bobby’s face contorted, and he started to shake with sobs. “Take us back to the hill! This is not right at all; I don’t want this!” his shoulders slumped, he trembled and turned away.
He returned us to the field with a thought and dropped the jar, the glass making a dull thud as it hit the ground and rolled away, coming to a stop against a small rock. The faint starglow illuminated the withered grass, a small white light encircling the jar.
I looked at Bobby. But it wasn’t Bobby now, it was grandfather. The ancient face with its many lines and creases was clear now, in the starglow. Grandfather looked very sad.
“This is not a power for little boys, Bobby,” grandfather rumbled, the deep sound coming from Bobby’s young throat. “The story I told you was to be used for good, not as a game for a child to play.”
Bobby’s face flickered back into view, devastated. “Grandfather, I only wanted to be close to you again,” he sobbed. Grandfather hid behind the mask of Bobby’s face, the power of the BB gun pulling him from the afterlife, but the sorrow of the theft of the stars ravaging his face, and above all, his love for his grandson shining in his eyes. That love fell from his eyes in teardrops full of pain.
Bobby wanted his mommy. He was still young enough that he sought comfort from her arms. “Take me to mom!” he ordered the stars.
In the blink of an eye, we could see our mother, shifting uneasily in her sleep, kicking her covers off until they were scattered all over the floor. The room was so dark, the covers twisted on the floor like big snakes.
“Mom!” Bobby cried. We stood in the dark room by her bed, so close but so distant. She muttered in her sleep, but she did not wake.
Nothing woke, it was as if the stars were a part of everything, and when they were stolen by my brother the world shifted into a state of slumber, like a curse. With this heightened vision, this all-knowing sight, this power, my brother was in control. He reveled in it, but he was in control of a sleeping world. No one moved. No cars rumbled through the streets; no planes left their white trails in the sky. It was as if the world had ended. The images that the stars cast continued in the shimmering air, showing over and over the continuing devastation as the world succumbed to the darkness.
“Take us back to the hill!” Bobby’s voice broke. His sadness was overwhelming. He didn’t know what to do with the stars now that he had them. He had wanted to capture the stars the way he captured lightening bugs, so he could watch them flicker in a glass jar, to be used as a flashlight of sorts. The unexpected power that he had acquired was dizzying, but overwhelming. He curled up on the cold grass and just stared, grief weighing him down.
Grandfather had told him the gun was magic, and he missed grandfather so much! He felt him inside, where his heart felt like an open wound, and he felt the disappointment that grandfather felt.
The stars were dying. Bobby hadn’t anticipated the confusion of the sun and the moon, and the silence of the people, of the world. Why did the world sleep? What would happen when the stars finally died? Would we die too? Where was grandfather, why was he so sad?
“Bobby!” I cried. He wouldn’t look. He didn’t understand, so he ignored me. He watched the cold, faint glow in the jar. He knelt and sat the jar upright, small rocks digging into his knees, the grass cold and crunchy beneath his weight. As the stars slowly died, the glass grew colder and colder to the touch, until it burned. Bobby stared at the jar. He seemed to be suspended in time, time that was not moving forward.
The glass of the jar reflected despair. The stars shone visions for us to see, for Bobby to see. It was like a small TV showing the death of the world.
“Mom won’t wake up. The beach and the cabin are all wrong,” Bobby spoke in a monotone, defeat etched into his young face. Grandfather faded as hope faded, slipping away, back to the void.
Bobby became scared of this power he couldn’t control. He turned his red eyes toward me, his face swollen with tears; he was a little boy, after all. He came to me. “Help me!”
“Let the stars go,” I gently told Bobby. “They need to be free. They miss their mother, the sun, and their father, the moon. They miss their home, the sky. They are a part of the world; they need to be able to do their job. Their beauty is for everyone, not just for one small boy to trap in a jar.”
Bobby looked at me, intent, focused on what I was saying. The smallest glimmer of hope shimmered in his eyes; grandfather flickered in and out of view, subtly.
“Bobby, think of our mother, our family. We need the sun to come and wake us up, so that we can be a family again. We can go to the beach and play in the sun, the sand, the water. We can all live again.” Bobby finally listened to me; his head bowed under the weight of his mistake. He realized that he was hurting the world by being selfish. He didn’t want to hurt the world!
He looked at me, then slowly nodded. He walked straight and true to the faintly glowing jar. The stars inside glimmered, sensing freedom. He put his small, bare hand on the lid, forgetting the cold, and unscrewed it. He was thrown backward as the jar sent up an explosion of light into the sky, tossing light to every corner of the world.
Grandfather stood, rising from Bobby’s small form, his arms extended wide, joy radiating from his entire body. Hope rushed out with the light of the stars, covering everyone and everything. “I love you both, and I am so very proud of you! I will see you both again someday.” Grandfather became brighter and brighter, until everything was a bright golden white light, and then he simply disappeared.
The stars regained their rightful places in the sky, and the moon smiled down on the earth once more. Time started up again as the sun saw its path and followed it around the earth, warming it as it had done for all time. A line of pure sunlight chased all the darkness away.
“Let’s go home,” Bobby said.
He grabbed his backpack and put everything back in, the seasoned bb gun, and the cracked glass jar that had held all the stars. The tiny lid was lost, but Bobby never intended to trap anything in a glass jar ever again, not even lightening bugs! Nothing deserved to be caged. The happy trees swayed, the sun shone through the dark green pines, catching all the color in the world and magnifying it with pure joy. Birds sang their joyful songs, squirrels scrambled up the trees in play. The world was alive with so many small moments of life, the small moments making up the mosaic of all life, which hummed with energy, all interacting with each other as it was meant to be, for all time.
We walked back the deserted path, from which we had come at the beginning of our adventure. But this time the walk was well-lit with the beauty of the sun, no hidden obstacles tried to trip us. My brother felt remorse. But we were wiser now; the stars forgave him, the world forgave him, and he started to smile his gap-toothed smile, joy radiating from his little body. He understood his place in this world was to be a part of the world, not in control of it.
We slipped back into our small slice of life, our legs burning as we raced back to our home, our mother waiting with wide open arms and tears of pure happiness on her face.
Bobby became a part of the memory of the fabric of all life, where he belonged. Where we all belong. We will all meet again when our energy becomes free, intertwining with love and joy and pure happiness.