They knew he loved it, and so it became a weekly thing, a sacred time, like a prized family jewel secretly polished and admired in the comfort of one’s bedroom, hidden away from grasping hands and inquisitive eyes.
His mother was a surveyor for the government, and she’d found the field quite by accident, driving home from another long day measuring some hill or other and discovering she’d gotten lost. She had thought nothing of it; but one night, when the boy’s father was ill (or so she said), she bundled the boy and herself into the car and drove. Drove until they came to the field.
Now, the boy does not remember much from that first night; but who remembers their first anything if it is one of many? It was a long time ago, and the memories of that night have faded away into the pattern of stories woven along the surface of his mind, though some stand out like errant thread, stray, fragmentary bits of weave. He remembers, for example, his mother’s face, and the sound of her sniffles punctuating the still air like sweeps of a broom on a dusty floor, but cannot remember if she was ill too, or if perhaps she was crying. He remembers the bruises on her arms and neck, but cannot remember how they came to be, if she fell, or if they’d been there already when they were in the car. He remembers laying down in the field, and just gazing, upward, skyward, star-ward; but he cannot remember how, or why, they came to be there, or for how long.
But that was his first night with the stars, and no matter how many, one does not forget the stars.
The field itself was quite ordinary, apart from its one, redeeming characteristic of being entirely unknown to the world. But a bed of grass, a blanket of night, a tree or two to lean one’s back against, and a map of the unknowable sea and all its lighthouses; who could need more than this?
When they returned, again, another night, with his father this time, to lie on their backs and peer into the recesses of the night and its occupants, he knew some of them. Not all, not many, but enough to point them out to his mother and father, and say which had moved, and which had vanished, and which were exactly the same.
And the third time they returned, the boy had a well-thumbed copy of Book of Fixed Stars clutched in one hand; though of course, it was quickly forgotten once the fingers of soft grass had met his tufts of wavy black hair and his eyes were filled bright and full of star-shine.
His father bought him the book, of course, an exercise in observation and identification; but when your mother is a geographical surveyor, your mind has already developed an irresistible, almost magnetic compulsion to uncommon characteristics and peculiar attributes, and all that remained to be reaped from the tome were the names. He knew them all after a few months; the bright and easy ones, like An-Nasl and Ar-Rijl and Al-Qaus, but the less well-known and obscure too, like Az-Zubana and Adib and Dhanab ad-Dulfin.
Of course, the boy knew how to make them into constellations of his own design; but each time he pointed out a manticore or a mosque or a minaret, his father would shush him and point out the Crab or the Lion or the Bear. At first, the boy was affronted; but as he grew older he came to realize that his father valued order, and what already existed, because it was clear, and present, and unchanging. And the boy understood that, though deep inside he preferred to create his own constellations, his own images of the fires in the night. What was wrong with that, if no one owned the sky? So he kept all these things in his heart, and in his mind’s eye his own map of the night sky grew.
The world grew and changed, and stayed the same. The boy grew, and changed, and stayed the same, and so too did his parents. Some nights there was only the boy; most nights, only his parents. Some nights there was no one at all. Some nights, they would rage furiously in the abysses of their souls, each in their own individual way, at the stars, at their lives, at each other; other nights they would tremble in the face of the vast emptiness that lay before their eyes. Always did the stars look down upon them, and always did the boy find a place in his heart to wonder at their infiniteness; but on some nights his heart did cry out for a better place beyond the dread and horror of the world of humanity.
War came, in time, to their country, as they all knew it would; and as it happened, their land was besieged by invaders, a neighbouring nation determined to reclaim what they believed was rightfully theirs. Still they would creep away from the air raids and sirens to the field, for the field was their own, a shelter of its own kind from the rockets and the death, a sanctuary from the war.
But even then, war found its way into their hearts.
Could the stars see the pain his father fought with all his might to subdue, when bombs in the mosque carried away his grandfather and uncle? Could the stars feel the misery his mother walked amidst, no longer a surveyor, but now pressured into the uncertain role of a nurse, tending to the dying and the already dead? The boy had been there, and the deathly, sterile white of the hospital repulsed him: its cold, pale floors, its ethereal, apathetic fluorescent lighting, the white upon white of static, final death, the bleached, emancipated carrion claws of death reaching up around every stretcher and every bedframe to grab away what fleeting life twisted and fought to remain.
Always the stars were his faint, twinkling comfort; candles flickering in a cloudless night, hope never burning thin till many, many years in the future. Who could say, of course, when bright Al-Nasr or fair Al-Maisan might just one day disappear, snuffed out by interstellar hands unseen? So it was, too, with life, never certain, always an instant away from the terrible permanence of death.
Yet the stars, too, seemed as permanent as death itself; and so too, did he hold to the faint, shimmering hope that his life, and the lives he knew, might too be the same.
And then, one night, the field was suddenly no longer only theirs.
“You don’t talk to those people,” hissed his father, as they got out of the car after twenty minutes of sitting there in terrified silence. “They’re Christians. They’re the enemy. They cannot know who we are.”
The boy wanted to point out that the license plate of their car clearly indicated who they were, but he wisely chose to remain quiet. Who knew for sure if they were from across the border, anyway? Sure, it was close to this area, but he’d never seen a Christian before. As far as he could tell from where they huddled next to their car, the other family looked quite normal to him, two adults, two children, a boy and a girl. They too, were stargazing, seemingly unaware of their approach, although the boy was certain that the sound of a car engine probably had provided awareness enough.
Then he noticed what his father had seen: a glint of silver, a cross tucked securely around the girl’s neck.
They shared the field in this way, for many months, two little ragged clumps of humanity, divided by nation and belief, making as grand a use of the size of the field as possible. Never did they speak or make eye contact with each other; though, on occasion, if the boy sneaked a gaze from the corner of his eye, he swore he could see the boy and the girl incline their heads ever so slowly toward them at times.
Christians, his mother would say, once they were back in the safety of their car. Killers. Murderers. They burn children and behead women. Should I be so lucky as to be killed by a Christian, God would surely forgive all my sins.
His father would shake his head, and the boy would, in the absence of his own words, agree.
For such a primal, snarling hate existed in his heart for these thieves of life, these bandits who had dared to take the lives of his grandfather and uncle, these invaders who filled hospitals and entire worlds with death and hate.
And when they lay on the ground, his wrath would rise in the storm of his heart like a torrent of comets flung against the stars, molten bodies of hot, pure, seething anger at the death and destruction these people caused, and how dare the stars let these monsters share a field with us. How dare they let these people share a world with us. This land was theirs. His great-great grandparents had fought long and hard to claim it as theirs, and it belonged to them, their blood, and their sweat, and their stars.
In such times, death rises to claim whoever it can, whenever it can. Without remorse and with a scythe as long as the ends of the universe, it takes whatever it so feels is rightfully its to take.
He woke late that morning, and so heard the news late, when it was already wailing and weeping its way through his neighbourhood, and pounding on his door.
They’d both been in the car, driving through the market, when it’d been hit. Not by a rocket, but by a bomb. A man, dressed in all black, leading a small child by one hand, they said. Carrying a small paper bag in the other. A cross around his neck.
Sixty-five people, including his two parents.
That afternoon, he locked up the house, carrying nothing but his key to the front door, and left.
It was five hours to the field on foot, but he didn’t really care.
Afternoon bled into evening, and he broke down, and got up, and stumbled on, wiping dust and moisture and hope from his face.
Evening melted away into night, and he was at the field at last, the stars like pebbles scattered across the sky. His hands shook; he dropped his key, and groped in the dirt for it, laughing listlessly to himself.
The scent of wildflowers, cool and soothing, not unlike a fragrance his mother used to wear, meandered lazily towards him, and he wept, collapsing to the ground, his fists full of earth, and tears, and hate.
After a time, he rolled onto his back, and blinked away the world.
He named all of them, choking up tails of scorpions and wings of pegasi and hooves of horses, every name a memory of a night now lost forever.
A part of him knew she was there, but he hadn’t cared till she approached him, her footfalls on the dry undergrowth like crackling machinegun fire, sounds that scratched their way across the stillness of the night.
She stopped, her feet inches away from his body.
Maybe a part of him dimly registered that she was alone; maybe she was here to kill him too; he didn’t care. They’d taken everything from him.
But he would have his eyes open when he died, because even if she took his life, she couldn’t take his stars.
Then he realized that she was crying too.
Do it, he thought.
He wanted to get up and take whatever weapon she had, and thrust it into his heart, because it was aflame with pain, like a miniature sun gone nova in his heaving, shuddering body.
But he did nothing.
And she lay down beside him.
His despondency turned to rage; how dare she, after what her kind had done. How dare she.
His hands drank in fistfuls of earth; his eyes shone with white, gleaming hate.
But he did nothing.
Keen were the eyes of the serpent-bearer, and the huntsman, and the archer. The maiden and the elephant and the young lion. The hare and the swan. The wolf and the eagle and the king. Brighter than his eyes of hate, they blazed, flames in the abyss, lights in the night sky.
The stars looked down upon the boy, and his anger fled behind the dark side of his heart.
The field was their place. Their gift to him and his family. A place of peace. A place of wonder and marvel.
To take another life in their name, in their place, was no marvel. Anger for anger, hate for hate, death for death…these were no wonders. Any man could do them.
And life had enough of them. He had enough of them.
For a while they lay there, as if drifting along with the currents of the night, borne aloft on the tides of the sky.
And the boy wept anew, for he could see them both now, his father and mother, in the waters of the unknowable sea, galaxies away but painted in his mind’s eye with the shining resplendence of a dozen distant suns. Free from hate, and prejudice, and all the ugly things of this world, and transfused with the light of eternity.
He called out to them, there and then, in the voice of one beyond anger and hate, in the faltering cry of a child, a boy lonely and orphaned in a storm of war, sick of grief and loss, and with a soul exhausted from it all.
And that was when the girl, quiet by now, turned to him, and in the hesitant voice of one unfamiliar with the words, told him that she, too, had lost someone.
Had lost everyone.
Her father had been the man with the paper bag, he was to find out, and her brother the child clutched so tightly to her father’s side. Her mother had been in the crowd, watching. Waiting. Exulting, in one glorious moment.
She had refused to go.
And the boy found that he did not hate her for it, for he felt her pain. He knew her sorrow. It was as keen as his own, and to know that the enemy could feel in a way that he did made her no enemy.
There was no anger, too, at her father, only a deeper and more abiding sadness. A knowledge that people do terrible things to protect the ones they love from monsters they create for themselves.
Later, when they were older, and he had learned her language better, they would speak of peace, and hope, and unity, and all those other earthly things.
Why create monsters, after all, if from the stars you can draw marvels?
But there and then, he showed her the manticore, and the mosque, and the minaret, and she in turn showed him the crocodile, and the phoenix, and the steeple.
And he knew then, without her saying it, that her family was in the stars too.
And he discovered that she knew them by different names, the bright and easy ones, like Gamma Sagittarii and Rigel and Kaus Borealis, but the less well-known and obscure too, like Acubens and Thuban and Deneb Dulfim, and that they weren’t that different from his. Some were the same.
In the end, he felt, they were just names for the same thing.
She was alien to him; a different language, a different face, a different soul.
But their grief was the same, and so were their stars, that looked down upon them with such indifference, and that they marveled at in such wonder.
Who could say, of course, when bright Altair or fair Meissa might just one day disappear, snuffed out by interstellar hands unseen? So it was, too, they knew, with life, never certain, always an instant away from the terrible permanence of death.
And he knew now, that nothing was permanent. Not even the stars themselves. Even they too would one day disappear. So too would his life fade away some day, a song once heard and then forgotten, a candle once lit and then melted down.
But that did not make it any less of a wondrous life, a beautiful song, a burning flame in the darkness that, while it lasted, was to be marveled at and reveled in. A constellation of experiences and memories and hopes and dreams, drawn in the unknowable ocean of one’s own soul.
The stars belonged to no one, for who could reach up and take them?
But the field belonged to all who so wished to lay back and delight in the splendour of the universe. A bed of grass, a blanket of night, a tree or two to lean one’s back against, and a map of the unknowable sea and all its lighthouses; who could need more than this?
Kevin Martens Wong is a second-year English Language and Linguistics major at the National University of Singapore. He loves books, bicycles, languages, most marine animals, the colour orange and outer space, and hopes to become the world’s first astrolinguist before advanced human civilisation ceases to exist.