Doris Liou

“A Brief and Fearful Star”

A new short story from the author of the award-winning short story collection Her Body and Other Parties.

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2018: Memory.

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Mama did not talk about her journey west very much; the circumstances had to be right. When she did—in the electric moments before rainfall, if a rabbit crossed clockwise against our path, if she found me flipping through the battered almanac from the year of my birth—she described it like a painting she was viewing through a fever.

“The light,” she said once, when we encountered a set of twigs that had fallen into the shape of a cross. “It was like being underwater, all blue and soft and bright.”

“It was so cold and I was sick with you,” she said another time, digging a splinter out of my palm with a pocketknife. “Everything felt wrong. I was very afraid.”

Then, once, just before I turned 10, when a brush fire lit up a distant ridge and it burned through the night: “Your father drove our wagon, of course. Sometimes I would lean against him and look up at the sky and—”

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The way her eyes went empty, it felt like watching her die. The next year, when I did, all I could think was how it felt like watching her talk about the sky.

* * *

Before the light left her, we lived—just the two of us—on a patch of prairie. Our house was the center of it, a pip in a magnificent apple.

With no natural borders save the creek, the boundaries of our land seemed to move every time I visited them. I often imagined that my right eye was soaring above me, clutched in the talon of a large and terrible bird, the earth below expanding and contracting like a heartbeat.

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The sky was open and alive above us, too. Storms boiled across the sky in the summer, and in the winter the mean snow landed on my face and refused to melt. I loved our fragment of wilderness. Every season we’d get a few traders—offering us cinnamon, flour, silver hand mirrors, gingham, chirping automata that sang and told the future—but otherwise we lived untouched, binary stars in our own private universe.

I was a nervous child. I gasped when flint was struck, and when sparks flew whimsically out of the hearth. Mama tried to help—once, she caught the spark and showed it to me; a speck of ash marring the planetary surface of her palm—but I could not explain that, while I understood the principles of the thing, there was something about the erratic arc of it; the suddenness, the wild, alien dive, that awoke a terror within me. There were other fears, too: a crevice in the wall near my bed that corralled a beam of moonlight into my room at certain times of the month; the way water spiraled around gullies and divots. It was a kind of motion, a kind of gravity, the way the light bended to its own ends. I felt I knew terrors that lingered just beyond my vision; as if their very existence was seared into my cells. At night, when I cried, Mama came to me and weighed me down with her torso until calmness filled me. “Come back to me, my mouse,” she’d say.

There was something else that haunted me, too. When I lay in bed at night, I perceived giant, ancient creatures moving just outside our walls; rumbling and snarling, darkening the windows, blotting out the moon. Though they lingered just beyond my vision I knew them to be true, though I could not understand them.

“There’s something outside,” I told her, the first time I sensed them.

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“There’s nothing,” she said. “I’ve been sitting by the window.”

“They’ve always been here,” I said. “Monsters.”

She brought me, then, a small box, and from it removed a claw, a set of teeth, a slender bone of rock, all things she’d pulled from the land on which we lived. “This is all that’s left of them,” she said. “I know it feels like we are the first people on this land, but we have been preceded by monsters and men alike.”

I had questions about those monsters, and those men. “But outside—”

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“They’re gone, mouse. They were here but they’re not anymore.” And for a moment, calmness filled my fear, like a gorge flooding with rainwater. But when it abated, the gaping ache in my chest seemed to me how animals must feel, how they must have always felt, lowing for the muscle and ferocity of their mothers.

* * *

I don’t remember coming to the farmstead. Mama had joined the caravan west swollen with the promise of me, and I was born, over two days, along the trail that led us here. (‘What of my stars?,’ I asked her once. ‘You moved beneath the sky as you were born, she said, and therefore have no clear celestial map.’) “It was a mad time,” she said. “Everything seemed alive. The trees and brush made promises they could not keep. The wagon moaned in its sleep. Animals spoke to us. An oxen told me I’d have a little girl. Even Bonnie chatted. She told on your papa when he broke my mother’s clockwork map; the one from Switzerland.”

“Bonnie doesn’t talk,” I said, though my voice curdled with doubt. As if to underline my confusion, Bonnie emerged from a shadow and sat before both of us, her tail twitching with purpose but otherwise silent as you’d expect.

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“She did, once,” Mama said. “But the day you were born, she shut right up.”

Mama made jokes but sometimes it was hard to say what the joke was about. Was the joke that my body silenced Bonnie, or that Bonnie made words, or that Bonnie cared about me at all?

Sometimes, I try to imagine that I remember the dioramas that moved around us when I was still tangled up in her. I imagine that the walls of her fine strong animal body glow with light, and that I can hear the soft and muffled testimonies, the confessions and laughter, the camaraderie of the wagon train.

(‘Do you know she’s a banker’s daughter?’

‘The rivers are too high.’

‘Even bankers have daughters.’

‘Did he tell them about the tack?’

‘The sky is the color of milk, and it is not promising.’

‘Olga promised me.’

‘I’m hungry.’

‘Don’t you know they’ll stay that way if you don’t stop?’)

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And then, behind their chatter, something terrible. Something in the sky, burning.

* * *

Even on my 11th birthday, Mama took me with her to move the cattle, who were pulling up dirt and refusing new grasses. As I followed her outside, I wondered if my father had ever imagined his wife and girl-child alone out here (‘We each need a hatchet, us and the baby,’ my father had told her), the wagon turned to dwelling, the cattle’s calves grown and sired and birthed and died many times over.

Mama disappeared over the hill with a switch in her hand. I watched but did not follow. The horizon was milky and amber, and I saw the beginning of a figure there —a wagon, a dark shape against the light. When Mama returned with the herd, their shadows had joined into a single many-legged creature. I stroked their velvety pelts as they trotted by. (Mama had been rich before she came married by father and came west, though you’d never know it by her labor. ‘What did it mean to be rich?’ I asked her once. ‘It meant money had too much meaning and yet none at all, she said.)

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“Someone’s coming,” I said, pointing. She squinted against the light and then nodded. “I hope it’s a trader,” she said. She didn’t say who else it might be. When we went inside, Mama gave me a cake she’d made special—cinnamon, raisins, a glug of rum from the bottle hidden beneath the floorboards. I pinched off a little and put it on the floor for Bonnie, who sniffed it contemptuously. From the wall, a brown mouse dashed and seized the cake, bounding back to safety while Bonnie looked on. She did not hunt anymore. She was bony and slow; too old to chase after the mice who were endlessly birthing new mice to replace them. What could she do to stem that tide? They existed with impunity. Mama huffed through her nose like she did when she was displeased; she did not like that I’d helped the mouse eat, and she did not like that the mice existed at all.

When the shadow arrived, just after noon, it was, indeed, a man bearing a wagon of goods. We had never met him before. We saw so few men that each one was like a minor nightmare, as strange and unknowable as the creatures that I saw outside my windows. This man kept his beard shorter than some of the others, but I did not like the broadness of his shoulders, which seemed so natural on my own mother but so alien on him. “Flour?” he called, as he pulled the horse to stop. “Bacon, seeds, cloth, coffee? I have some more exotic wares, too, if that interests you.”

“Exotic?”

“A brazen head I picked up in Kansas City. A jade necklace.” He glanced upward, as if to aid his recollection. “Tinctures, tonics, an astrolabe, and a pneumatic gewgaw that recites Scripture.”

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Mama rubbed the back of her neck. “The normal goods will do,” she said. “Come in; I’ll take a look.

Inside, he rolled a pack open on our table so that we could examine his offerings. “I have more in the wagon,” he said, “if this doesn’t satisfy. I could—”

“My husband is out with the cattle,” Mama said brusquely, to discourage the question. She examined the offerings solemnly as a scholar, peeling a corner of fabric from its bolt, smelling a bottle of oil. I sniffed the oil, too, though I did not know what I was smelling for; it was pungent and unpleasant, in a pleasant kind of way. The man glanced around the room at our three hatchets, our iron stove, Bonnie snoozing on the quilt, the daguerreotype of my father on the dresser. I did not like his staring, that he was seeing so many things and drawing his own conclusions about us.

“It’s my birthday,” I told him.

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He turned and appraised me over the sharp angle of his cheekbones. “Perhaps your mother might like to get you a present?”

Mama glanced at me, and I looked at the table, which held so many strange and specific objects that it felt like a test before a cosmic judge. I ignored the doll—a childish thing, and I was not a child anymore—and the thread, the spices, the candles, and the recent almanac. Then Mama pushed aside the doll and I saw what rested beneath it: a short-handled knife the length of my hand. She lifted the knife and examined it from every angle; she then balanced it on her finger, as if an alchemist performing an obscure science. Her mysteries filled the room; both the man and I watched her with a stillness. She nodded.

Outside, the trader returned his pack to the wagon and extended his hand to me. “May I show you something?” he said.

I looked up at Mama, who was standing in the doorway. She nodded, and I handed him the knife. He kicked a small rut into the dirt and lopped off the head of a thick of grasses next to the house. He tucked them into the divot and then lifted the knife upward. “Knives do more than cut,” he said. The blade caught the sunlight and brought it down toward the earth. The motion of it—the slow turn of the metal, the way the light sharpened to a point and then fell toward us, toward me—made me gasp and buckle. I realized I was screaming after it began, and I ran into Mama’s arms like the child I was.

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The man stood over what he had created. Smoke curled into the air. “I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said. “I didn’t realize you were afraid of fire.” He stamped out the fingerlings of flame and offered it back to me, handle-first.

When I did not move, Mama took it from him. “She’s not afraid of fire,” she said. “But thank you.” I listened to the rest of the transaction buried in her skirts; the oil and knife were now ours.

He mounted his wagon and did not wave goodbye, as so many of the others had before.

Mama watched him as he retreated. She worked her jaw as if chewing a knot of sinew, but I did not ask what she was thinking about. When he was swallowed up by the horizon, she went inside to apply the oil to the baseboards. “Perhaps it’ll discourage the mice,” she said.

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Soon we would discover that she was wrong. Attracted to the sharp scent, they soon began creeping toward the stains in curiosity. She cornered and caught them in jars and drowned them in buckets of water. Some escaped, scuttled back into the walls, only to sire more, but she kept at the impossible labor. There was something about seeing her, sleeves rolled up, heavy with the task, that filled me with joy. How I loved her, my mother, and the stories within her.

(My father loved my mother’s dark hair, the smoke-smell of it, the way it frayed and curled into a lustrous halo around her head. At night, he whispered into it, ‘My blessing, my blessing.’ This was a secret, even from her.)

* * *

The fever came up on her a few days later, quick and hard as a storm. She pressed a damp rag to the back of her neck upon waking, and by evening she lay on the bed chattering and moaning. I stroked her head and kissed her face. She slept, and woke, and slept.

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“Mama,” I said to her. “You must get better because you still haven’t taught me how to make the cake. I don’t know how to butcher an animal yet. You haven’t told me who lived on this land before us.”

She did not speak, but instead drew a slow and shaking finger from her sternum to her navel.

When she woke for the last time, her pupils were so wide and black I felt like I would fall into them if I wasn’t careful. It was as if she had dipped below the water’s surface, and in that in-between place she saw everything she had ever known.

“It was a star,” she said to me, faint as a heartbeat. “The star came and everything moved.”

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“A star?” I asked. She had never spoken of a star, not once in the entirety of my life. Yet suddenly I realized that I had known of the star, that my fears and dreams were star-shaped, that the star had been burning a terrible hole through me ever since the day of my birth.

“Everything moved to the side and all was clear,” she said. “I could see everything.”

“Mama,” I said into the dampness of her skin. “Mama. I still haven’t learned.”

She kneaded my hand weakly and looked at me from beneath heavy lids. “You are my mir—” A mirror, a miracle? The word never ended. She descended into herself and did not emerge, though I lay on top of her, to bring her back from where she’d gone.

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* * *

Her absence gaped, and through the wound of it you could see everything: the horror of my circumstances, the sharp cramps of grief that appeared and disappeared and reappeared again. Her body was still and pale, and I kept thinking of parsnips and the way they slept in the soil. I could not bring myself to bury her. At night, the shadows passed by the windows, and I lay breathing and staring at the ceiling, praying them away.

The third night after her death, something killed one of the cattle. I heard it just before I fell asleep: a wet and curdled sound, like a calf being born in reverse. In my dreams, the star flew over the earth like a bird, leaving a black burning trail in its wake. When I woke, I was damp, my mouth hot with stink and gritty sweetness. Bonnie was sitting on my chest, tail twitching. She dropped a dead mouse onto my chest, and stared at me with serenity and purpose. I sat up and flicked the corpse to the floor. Bonnie dropped down and scooped her paw into the hole in the wall.

I took a deep breath and lay down on my belly to peek inside. Tucked to the right of the entrance was a tiny nest of fluff and thread; in it, a small pack of baby mice, crawling over each other. They were pink and cricket-small, their eyes dark as blood blisters and shut against the world.

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“Bonnie,” I said, laying my cheek to the floor. “You terrible creature. Now there are a dozen orphans in this house, instead of just one.”

Could I lure them out, nurse them, somehow? From the back of the cupboard, I pulled the vial of oil Mama had used to try to dispel the mice, the one they had loved so much. When I dribbled it on the floor next to the nest, the baby mice scattered like water in a griddle, as if the scent carried some terrible story. “I’m sorry,” I said into the wall, and left them to make their own way.

I went outside and stood over the cow’s mauled body for a long while—listening to the flies, watching their beetle-black bodies alight on its bloodied flank. The wind over the grass sounded like the way Mama used to idly rasp the onionskin pages of her Bible when she was thinking about something blasphemous. I didn’t know what she hadn’t taught me. I’d have to learn another way.

* * *

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Bonnie was curled up on Mama’s still chest, purring softly. I packed my knife, the sampler she had brought with her from Virginia with the embroidered alphabet, the remaining cake. I kissed Mama’s waxy forehead and gestured to Bonnie as I left.

“Do you want to go outside?” I asked her. She didn’t move, and I closed the door behind me.

I walked to where I’d known the edge of our land to be, and for the first time in my life, stepped beyond it. It was still early; my shadow was long and cut the path before me. I could not tell if I was casting it or following it, or if there was any difference at all.

When I crested the ridge half a day later, I saw a coyote worrying over something in the dust in the valley below. She glanced up to where my silhouette met the sky but didn’t move from her tiny plot. I thought: She must be starving, to not run from me.

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Down among the rocks, I lifted my skirts and waded into the river. The water seized the cotton and tried to carry me away. (Though my mother never said, this was what had happened to my father, I knew. The river wrapped hungry fingers through his trousers and shirt and took him under in half a breath.) I slipped the twisting layers off and watched them float away, like a drowned woman. In that moment, I imagined the bird lifting my eye into the air and saw myself from above—the way my hair was sliding out of its pins, the nature and shape of my wildness. When I returned to my body, I was holding a silver fish who muscled this way and that.

On shore, I knocked a rock into him until he stopped moving, then dug the sweet flesh off the bone.

* * *

I moved slowly in the sun, stripped down and sore. The coyote watched me from a distance—following me, I guessed. Waiting for me to die.

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I slept with the knife in my hand and woke from the sleep with a bolt of knowledge. When I looked up, catastrophe had been replaced by a sense of ferocious, unimaginable calm. My body bent under the memory of Mama’s weight pressing on me in the dark.

Above me, in the sky, a beautiful fragment of light rippled through the darkness. It was, like my grief, two things: a bright, white ball of fire and an incandescent, milky trail, both cutting open the night. I did not know it was coming and yet I had known all along. It was awe and primal, searing terror, like crossing a landscape you had only imagined, a landscape you couldn’t possibly have understood until you stood at its precipice.

Everything moved. For the briefest of breaths, a curtain twitched. I saw the creatures, my creatures, for the first time with clarity: heads and tails like skinks, but the size of 10 oxen. Some stood together, docile as cows. Others gazed upward at the light in the sky. They had eyes like polished stone and teeth like the teeth my mother had once collected—terrible, large as my fist. (They lived and died and no man gazed upon them.) Then I saw a cluster of men being slaughtered by other men, blood spilling black into the soil and illuminated by the star, the air frenzied with violence and horses. (I did not belong here, on this land. The way was paved for me and though I did not pave it, I followed it nonetheless. How did I never know? Had I always known?)

Then, I saw a young woman kneeling on the ground and working a knife into her breast with the steady rhythm of embroidery, as if she was trying to set something within her loose. She gazed into the sky, and then turned and looked at me, and her mouth made the shapes of words that I perceived though I could not understand them. (The radiance is the passage.) Then another young woman, in a room so white my eyes burned. (I would never live to see her.) Then the curtain fell back, and I felt something slacken within me, as though I was about to soil myself. Everything that I was dropped out from my center and was replaced with molten iron.

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The coyote trotted past. Her muzzle was stained with blood, and a dying hare hung limply from her mouth. She dropped it at my feet and then ran. Its sides shuddered and I could see what was beneath, the slickness of muscle and bone.

(‘Child,’ the hare said. Not with its mouth, but with its wound; like the sing-song of stale air exhaled from a deep cave. ‘Child. Welcome. We’ve been waiting.’

Behind me, I heard the grasses rustle. ‘Go home. Your mother is there and waiting. Go home.’

Beneath me, tunneling moles cried out like a tinny chorus. ‘It’s here, it’s here, it’s here again.’)

I lay down on the moonlit prairie and listened until sleep wreathed me. Tomorrow, I would be born into the morning.

If I had dreamt that night, I imagine it would have been with an understanding of the past: my young mother, her pregnant belly swollen with my small limbs and her wide eyes brimming with the dark sky and its terrible star. The chattering animals, the heaving ribs of the wagons, the lying flora and prophetic fauna. The architecture of her spasms, her body laboring against the cold and the loneliness. Or possibly I would have dreamt of the future: a young woman waking from her own dream in some white and eerie palace, a sigil burning high above her, splitting the sky in two. Or perhaps I would have dreamt some in-between place: destiny as a city on a hill. My mother carrying me down one of its many avenues, and then my heavy footsteps as I walk that avenue alone.

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But I did not dream after the star appeared in the sky. I would never dream again.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

• “Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
• “Safe Surrender” by Meg Elison