Back in a time when these sorts of things happened, the ground was littered with stars. They fell soft through the eaves of the edge of the woods, smelling smoky and pure in the sweet summer breeze. The shimmering holes in the star-cut shadows of branches, made real.
He picked one up and it was warm to the touch and flawlessly smooth, a little bead of pulsing white. They’d make a beautiful necklace. A perfect gift.
He filled his pail with stars until they sloshed and ran down its sides. He held the pail aloft and walked out of the woods in overflowing light.
In the village he found Muoli the Cat asleep on his old workbench and he sat the stars beside her. He plucked an old needle from a drawer of broken tools and a spool of gossamer thread that he’d bought from a wanderer and he joined them and pierced the first star.
It squirmed against the pads of his fingers and flickered but did not go out. He turned the thread and it slid along like a teardrop, plump and almost liquid. He pierced another, and another, and each slid down to the twinkling last. Soon a constellation dangled from his hand.
He tied it off and set it down, and then picked it back up. Better go now. Else the sun come up and wash away his stars.
Necklace in hand he walked the quiet road through town. Past the schoolhouse, Yallow’s apothecary, old Aldo Morginsaw. Gideon’s forge was dormant and cold, but at side-eye it looked almost ablaze in the warm scattered glow of his stars.
He came at last to her house. She lived alone, now, or sometimes with Perecia, but her door was never locked. He let himself in.
He held the necklace up like a candle and stepped around the creaks in the floor and up the narrow stairs to her room. He spun one of the stars between his fingers and squeezed it and knocked.
She opened the door.
“God. It’s you?”
“What time is—it’s the bowels of the damn night.”
“I went on a walk tonight, and—“
“What do you want.“
“I found—I made—something. For you.”
“What?” She looked down at his hand. “You know what, I—“
“It’s a necklace. Of fallen stars.”
“I don’t care what it is.”
He held it up and her face in faint starlight was beautiful.
“It’s a necklace of stars. I found them in the woods.”
“It doesn’t make a difference what it is.”
“But—just try it.” He lifted the necklace to drape it over her head.
“No! Just leave. Please. Let me sleep.”
She crossed back to the distant side of her doorway.
“I don’t care where you go, just don’t be here.”
“It’s a necklace of stars.”
She swung shut the door.
He stood for a moment, rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, felt his limbs crawl up inside him like a turtle. He stuffed the necklace deep into his pocket.
“God.” She was talking to herself. “That boy.” Footsteps. “I don’t know what he expects.” She sounded different, behind the door.
He went numbly down the stairs and out the door to the road and saw a lantern burning at the far end of town. Next to his house. He squinted.
Not next to his house. Under his house. On his workbench, smoke pooling up around the eaves and the overhang.
Like a jolt his legs returned and he ran down the road. He grew closer and the flames grew larger.
His pail was alight!
Muoli the Cat sat next to it, whiskers flickering in the firelight. She pawed at the flames. Curious.
He reached his house, his footfalls loud with urgency, and Muoli the Cat startled and leaped and slipped on the spool of gossamer thread which flew out and her back legs spun and she twisted and grasped and caught the thin handle of the pail and they fell together off the workbench onto the rough-planked floor and white-hot stars flew out at his house and across the road and everywhere else to start their own tiny fires.
Muoli the Cat landed with a yowl and was gone, a black streak through leaping orange.
The workbench was burning.
He ran across the road to the well and wound the crank and grabbed the hook at the end of the rope and hooked it on the handle of his pail—
He looked around for a bucket.
The forge must have one. Gideon was prepared like that.
He ran down the road. People were waking up. Someone had opened a window, shouting smoke and fire.
He reached the forge and tore it apart. No bucket. A washbasin too wide for the well. He ripped a stand of tools from the wall and shoved aside a table. There.
He grabbed at it and turned to run and knew he was too late.
His house was a candle. His neighbors’ too, dripping timber like wax. He stood and watched the creep of the flames and, yes, a dappled vanguard of grounded stars, rolling, shooting along ahead, tails of fire on the planks of the road.
People were running. Away, down to the sea. He recognized their flame-licked silhouettes.
There was Vilme, holding up her skirts as she skipped around mud and fire in the road. The weaver Elias with his children, one over each shoulder and the baby in his arms. Aldo Morginsaw hobbling away from his house as it crackled and fell. The first of many.
He stood there in the middle of town and watched the flames and their spiraling embers and felt the ground hot beneath his feet.
He could not. The trance of the fire...
The trance of the fire was strong. It pulled him, that incorporeal urge. To swim among the flames. To twist and bend and wisp away above, to—
“Move!” He spun around.
There she was, gorgeous still in the firelight. Perecia was pulling her away.
“You idiot! Move!”
That did it. His legs awoke and took him away across the amber-lit grass to the cliff at the edge of the sea.
He breathed and breathed and looked out at the sky and the sea, at the arc of the Dappled Eaves reflected sharp and clear in the gentle swells far below. He could almost forget, for a moment, in the sound of the waves on the shifting rocks. He inhaled and tasted salt and exhaled and inhaled and tasted smoke.
“You— You selfish— Selfish monster! You— You’re a coward, is what you are!”
She stood there, glaring at him. Perecia held her.
“You did this! I saw the stars in the road. You did this! This— This was you!”
She was shaking. He couldn’t tell if Perecia was holding her from collapsing into herself or from pushing him into the sea.
“Why.. How— How could you do this! We had lives! We all.. We had a life!” She leaned back into Perecia, half-limp now. “Why?”
“You.. I did it for you.” He stood there, numb again. “It was for you.”
She glared at him and although the flames were behind her he could’ve sworn he saw them dancing in her eyes.
“It was always for you.”
“Is this enough? A big enough hint?”
Smoke in his eyes.
“Leave! Leave! Just get out!” Fire in the tears on her cheeks. “If I never see you again I’ll be happy. I am happy. Leave. Please.”
She fell to her knees as Perecia was holding her head and stroking her hair and looking out at some middle distance between the grass and the stars.
“Leave. Please. Just.. Just leave.” She was mumbling, now, quiet, self-defeated. “Leave, leave, leave.”
Her and Perecia were laying, now, in a heap that looked like one and her muttering almost sounded like the crackling village behind them.
Eventually she looked up at him again and the fire flared in her eyes a final time and she gasped a final leave and the distance between them was broken and he turned and ran and didn’t look back.
When he couldn’t run anymore he stopped and kneeled and watched his town burn. The people he had known all his life were huddled silhouettes along the edge of the cliff. He watched his town and he watched its embers twirling up to the sky to join the stars.
He felt a heat against his thigh and remembered the necklace and pulled it out. He looked at it, cupped in his own two hands. A puddle of light.
A single swing of his arm and it was diving, flying, tumbling down to the sea. He leaned out over the cliff’s edge and watched it land, almost weightless, on the water’s surface. It sizzled and cooled to look like the reflections of the stars above.
And then, in a twist and shimmer, it was gone.