I am Nova.
I have the heart of a star beating inside me.
I am not long for this world.
I would prefer to live.
As a child, I would look up at the stars and wonder what they were. I always asked the storytellers to tell the stories of the stars.
In ancient times, it was believed that the stars were the spirits of people who had lived and died. The brightest stars were the ones who left behind some grand legacy in the world.
That was the reward for good people and blessed people. Those who had done ill deeds did not ascend into the sky and become stars. They either wandered the earth as formless ghosts or sunk below the earth into the netherworld.
After hearing the stories again and again, I came to think that living as a star seemed quite a harsh punishment, not a reward. They were fixed in the sky, invisible when the garish sun shone his light during the day, barely twinkling at night. It seemed a sad fate to spend eternity watching the world and all its creatures bustling about. Just watching and burning.
When I would say so, some storytellers would hush me, and others would tell me that it wasn’t so. The stars were not fixed in place. They could travel about visiting each other and all the other worlds in the night sky, and even worlds beyond our sight.
But I wondered if this could be so, for I was also taught that our sailors measured their position according to the stars, the ever-faithful and fixed stars. If they trusted their very lives to the fixity of the stars, then those storytellers who said the stars could wander must have been making it up, perhaps to silence me. Or more likely to give me hope. Hope that living as a star was an end to be sought and treasured.
My mother would tell me to be a good girl, else I might not end up as a star and might instead sink into the netherworld. When I asked her what was down in the netherworld, she hushed me by saying it was too terrible to speak of. When I asked the storytellers what was in the netherworld, they would tell me that there was a great and always broiling sea. Not like the seas of the earth. Not a sea of water, but a sea made of some material that we in the world above could not fathom. The people who sunk below were always drowning in that sea.
So my choices were to burn or to drown. I thought it better to continue living.
I asked my father once what he knew of the stars. Father believed that after we died, our spirits simply faded, dispersing into the ether.
Burn, drown, or fade away. Indeed, I thought it better to continue living.
I never fathomed that I would find out what the stars truly were. But one day, they came. A wizened old man with a great grey beard that almost touched the ground, and a tall willowy woman with dark hair and dark eyes that glittered from within. The old man was jolly. His laughter, like a warm fire against a cold evening. The lady was calm and serene, serene as a star-filled sky at midnight. They were not storytellers.
Yet they did tell me a story…
Every star gives birth to its next self. In its own heart is born its own future. But curious a thing indeed is what must happen before that star can emerge and rise to its place in the sky. There is a time in the cycle of that budding star’s life when it must be incubated in the heart of a human being.
This came to be because long ago, the stars were a people. A proud and luminous people. One day, one of them was a bit too proud. One of them insulted a being who was visiting them from the netherworld that existed beneath all earthen worlds.
The tale of how this insult came to be is lost. But the slight was made against the wrong being. For this was no ordinary netherworld being who visited. This was the ruler of the netherworld. A being who possessed great cosmic powers.
He cursed the star people. He swept his godly gaze across the cosmos until he found the basest and most primitive of peoples, the humans of earth.
To humble the star people, he cursed them to be forever bound to the humans of earth. As before, fledgling stars when first they were conceived, would be nurtured within the heart of the mature stars from whence they came.
But after the curse, those fledgling stars could not safely emerge from the heart of a star that nurtured them without dispersing and dying. There was only one way to keep the young stars safe until they were ready to emerge. They had to be carried, incubated, in the heart of a human being.
It was a cruel curse, for the netherworld being knew that the star people would perish. He knew that the human beings of that time were too weak to bear the burden of carrying a star, even a fledgling star, within them. For stars were bursting with powers and energies beyond the experience or even imaginings of the primitive humans.
It was a cruel curse for the humans as well, for in that dawn age, long before the ancient times, all human souls descended to the netherworld. The netherworld being would have his vengeance on the star people, and he would have the souls of any humans who died trying to serve the stars.
The star people despaired. Then three heroes came forth. An aging star that was red as human blood. A young yellow star much like the one that lit the earthen home of the humans. And a dark star who was beyond age. The three vowed to find a way to save their people. They would go to the earth and help the human beings, prepare them.
They took forms according to their favor and bound themselves to the earth. The red star was a flaming beast, half-bull and half-bear. He taught us to build fires for warmth and light. Then for cooking food. Then for forging metals into tools. He taught us to chisel rock and shape earth into bricks so we might build shelters. Then towers. Then monuments. He taught us to collect rain so we might drink even when far from puddles, streams, and lakes. To direct streams and rivers so we might grow fruits, vegetables, and grain. He taught us to run and to swim.
The yellow star came as a golden youth with locks of buttery hair and bronzed skin. She favored the human form and taught us how to sing, play sport, and measure the world about us. She taught us to go beyond the fear and suspicion we had of the beasts that shared our world. To learn from them and be humble before them, for they had powers that we did not possess.
Finally, the dark star came and took the form of shadows and whispers. Traveled on the air and inspired humans to learn philosophy and magic.
The three stars shared their wisdom, their patience, their courage, their compassion. Over many an age, they strengthened the humans, and when the humans had become able to understand, the star people asked them for their help.
Several thousand years had passed for the humans by that time, though for the stars, being long-lived, not much time had passed at all. More and more of the star people had descended, joining the first three. They were impressed with how quickly humans learned and adapted, though they were dismayed that not all humans were kind and trusting. Some were suspicious of the stars. But they were well-meaning in their suspicion, wanting only to protect their own people. Others were disruptive, reminding their brothers and sisters that many might die—would surely die—because the stars had foisted their curse upon another people. Primitive as they were, they were undeserving of being so ill-used. The stars could not begrudge any who spoke out so.
But most humans were grateful for all the stars had done for them and taught them. They wished to keep such wise and powerful allies in such an unforgiving and cold world. The strongest, noblest, and bravest among them agreed to try to bear the burden of holding a star in their hearts.
Among them, seven were chosen, all women, because the humans reasoned that if women could bear human children, perhaps they were more fit than men to carry and bear star children. Seven were far less than the number of new stars that were waiting to be born. But neither the stars nor the humans wanted to risk any more lives, until it could be proven that humans could withstand the star-bearing.
They did not die, these brave seven, upon receiving their stars. Indeed, they became stronger than they once were, fitter, wiser. They glowed with an inner brightness at night. Their laughter was sweet. Their forms beautiful. They became heroes of their world, for all used their star-like powers and energies to help and to save.
There was wisdom in the stars. More wisdom still that they wished to share with us.
They brought light into our world. We brought life into theirs.
Seeing the seven so blessed, many more came forth to help bear new stars. The wise among the star people and the human beings warned that none yet knew how the trial would end. Still, the stars were losing their young. And it came to be that many more humans were given stars to carry. All was well for many a year.
After a few decades, it was time for the first seven to bear the new stars that were within them. The star people sang a song both solemn and joyful. The song caused the seven to weep, and in their tears were born seven new star beings. There was much celebrating, but it was not to last long.
The seven, after a few months of bearing their stars, seemed to lose their vibrancy. Though they were still too young to show great age, they began to look and feel aged. Backs grew bent. Dark lush hair turned wispy and white. Smooth voices turned hoarse. Worse still, their moods grew dark and sad. They complained of being blind though they could see and deaf though they could hear. They complained of feeling nothing, nothing but a weight pressing upon them, the weight of their loss. The loss of the star within. They did not live long after they bore their stars. All seven were gone before the year turned.
Some of the later carriers—custodians, they came to be called—survived. But most perished as the first seven had. For their part, the stars did all they could to save the seven and any else who had volunteered to carry and bear their young. It was not just for the sake of their own people, but for ours. We two peoples were true friends. They had given as much as we had. They had much more to teach us, for they were not bound to the earth as we were. They were not bound to a form as we were. All that knowledge and wisdom would be lost if their people died out. We humans would never benefit from it. The stars in the sky would abide, but they would be empty shells without the core of the living being within. The empty stars would abide long, long after humans faded away, unless we too learned to became enlightened as the star people had become.
In the thousands of years of our friendship with the stars, we learned much for ourselves beyond what the stars taught us. Some of it was knowledge the stars had forgotten, for it had been long since they had been an earthbound people. Some of it was ill-natured. For we did not just forge tools, but weapons. We did not just build monuments, but walls to separate ourselves from each other.
We entreated the stars to help us toward a path to peace and away from conflict. Perhaps it was the potential for ill intent within each of us that made us poor vessels for carrying the fledgling stars. Perhaps if the stars could help us to burn away that wicked part of ourselves, we would survive upon bearing their young.
The stars had studied us and studied the cycle of their own lives closely since being cursed, and they made a most terrible discovery. No being could survive the breaking of its core. A star’s core was its heart. A human’s core was its soul. A human being could survive a broken heart but not a broken soul. And a star could mend its souls if broken, but not its heart. It was the stars’ hearts that bloomed and beat within us. Their precious cores that needed guarding. When a human bore a star he had been carrying, wept the star out in his tears, his soul would break. Even being imbued with a new fledgling star could not mend such a break. Nothing, it seemed, could mend such a break. Nothing could stop human custodians of young stars from dying after they bore their stars.
Yet there were some who did not die. There were some humans who survived the birthing of the stars they carried. They did not descend into despair or madness. For they were already in despair. They were already mad. Carrying a star within them did not change their afflictions. But they did change the star their carried within. Such stars were born dimmer than was typical. Weaker and hazier. Sick. And the folk who bore them did not die of a broken soul because their souls had been broken long before they took a star within them.
Most such folk were no danger to other folks or other stars beyond the ones they carried. But a few were. A few did not just have broken souls, but twisted souls. A few humans were even found to have no souls at all. It was these that were dangerous. It was these that were evil. Their natures tainted the stars they carried. The star people did not discover their mistake in choosing such custodians until it was too late for some of the stars. For the first time since they had ascended up to the stars, the star people had enemies within their own people in the form of these wicked twisted stars.
There had been one soulless human in particular, whose mother died giving birth to him, and whose father died of horror when he looked upon his son. He was taken in and raised by the star people, who for all their great and far-seeing wisdom, did not see what the father must have seen. They did not see that the baby had no soul. They raised him and when he was old enough to be asked, they asked him to host one of their young.
He agreed and all seemed well for a while. He grew in power and strength, as all custodians did. But when it came time for him to bear the star, he refused to weep. The songs that were sung did not move him. What moved him was the anger he felt at the thought of losing his power. He refused to bear the star. He was the first to refuse. There had always been some who refused to carry young stars when asked, and the star people respected such wishes. But none who had agreed to carry a star, who had felt the star glowing and growing within, had ever refused to bear it.
It was said that the soulless man could feel the star within him struggling to emerge. He could feel the pain of its confinement in such a cramped and limited form. But he did not let the star go. He kept it trapped within as he drained its essence and used it to grow his powers and retain his youth. The stars feared to attack him, for they feared to harm the star within him. The humans feared to attack him for they feared how powerful he had become.
Bold and drunk upon the energies of the young star within, he went down into the netherworld and destroyed the netherworld being who had cursed the star people. He somehow destroyed this being who was so ancient and abiding that even the stars could not remember a time without the being. It was not out of noble intent. He desired to break the curse so that no more humans would gain the powers of the stars. He became the sovereign of the netherworld. It was rumored that his rule was far crueler and more brutal than the rule of the being who abided before him.
Such rumors came not from the humans who knew nothing of the netherworld until they perished, but from the stars, who could see below. The star people could not stop the soulless man. They could not rescue the star that lay dying within him. But they did think of one means to save their human friends. When a human’s mortal body perished, the stars took hold of the human spirit and carried it up into their realm, the realm they called the cosmos. They carried the spirit far out of the reach of the abomination they had created.
That was how the stories began of the reward after death of being turned into a star.
The star people were greatly weakened. They fought the wicked ones among themselves. They carried off the human spirits to keep them from falling into the netherworld. And they fought the sovereign of the netherworld himself, for he would rise up to the earth to spread his foul intent among humans, and he would rise up even farther into the skies and to the stars, to do battle with the powerful but gentle star people.
Then there came a day when the soulless one left the netherworld and the suffering souls who abided there found a way to bar him from returning. Enraged when he found he could not return, he wandered the earth, ravaging and destroying. He incited wars, and rage, and bloodlust.
The star people left the earth, hoping to draw the soulless one away. Hoping that human beings would learn and grow on their own, without the aid of the stars. They succeeded, and the soulless one left the earth. But the star people paid a dear price. For the soulless one had nearly drained his star of all its essence. He hunted the star people so he could devour more of them. And so he did. Five more he drained, and among them were the brave red star and the valiant yellow star.
The curse on the star people was not broken. The star people still needed human beings to carry and bear their young. As the generations passed among humans, the star people faded into legend and then myth. They faded out of common knowledge. Thereafter, they could only visit the earth if disguised, and they only kept their presence known to a select few, who were called the Guild of Stargazers.
The star people did not ask human beings with unbroken souls to carry their stars anymore. For they had never discovered how to keep our souls from breaking when we bore their young.
It was then that I knew why the wizened man and the tall silken lady had come to see me. I was not special in any way that I had earned for myself. Not yet. But it seemed I was special in a way that was of use to them.
I had not meant to kill her. I did not know, could not have known, that I was doing it. But as I passed into this world, the mother who bore me passed out of it. And it was thus that my soul was broken even before I took my first breath.
In time, my father found love with another. This woman did not bear me, but she was and is my mother evermore. She loved me and raised me. And my father told both of us that the mother who bore me would have found great joy and comfort in knowing that he and I were being cared for and loved so well.
I could not fathom how my soul could be broken. It did not feel broken to me. But I knew about such old village tales, about the souls of children whose mothers died in childbirth. The storytellers were too kind to tell me. But I had learned such stories anyway.
I gazed upon the guests in my father’s house.
A wizened old man with a great grey beard that almost touched the ground, a member of the Guild of Stargazers. And a tall willowy woman with dark hair and dark eyes that glittered from within. A star.
Long had I wondered about the stars, and now these two had told me the truth, for I knew it was truth. I was one who could carry and bear a star without harm to my soul, for it was already broken, and yet I lived and even thrived. I was not maddened by despair or anguish beyond the ordinary. And I did not seem to them to be a person of ill character. I was a rarity. A broken soul that would not corrupt the star she would carry. A human who would survive the bearing.
“There may come a time when we are able to bear the stars within us without breaking our souls,” the old stargazer said. “Or there may come a time when the stars are able to teach us how to heal our broken souls. Or a time when we learn to heal our souls ourselves. But alas, that time has not yet come.”
When I was a child, I wished I had known the mother who bore me. I still wish I had not killed her as she bore me. Though I scoffed at and feared such a fate now, I had once taken some comfort in knowing she was watching me from above. That she had turned into a star and sparkled eternally above us. That she was too vast and powerful for any earthbound creature to ever harm or hinder her again.
I thanked my guests, for they had restored in me that hope and comfort. When they asked me if I would come with them, join them, and help them, I agreed. Even when they told me that they wanted more than for me to simply carry and bear a young star, I agreed.
For long had I wondered about the stars. And I deemed it was time to stop wondering.
I received my star without much ceremony and returned home. I thought the star would grow within me for many decades, but only a year had turned before I was called away to bear it. A wondrous year. I never grew ill. I was stronger, faster, my thoughts quicker and deeper. I felt the heart of the star beating within me, within my own heart. At night when I slept, I saw the faintest glow beneath my skin.
After the year turned, I was brought to a sanctuary near the snow-capped peak of the nearby mountains. There were others like me. It was a morbid task for those who did it, to find grown children whose mothers had died in childbirth and judge if they were fit to bear a star.
It was there that I met again the wizened stargazer and the tall lady star. It was there that I learned the true intent of the ones who had found me.
“She must not master you and you must not master her,” the star lady said. “Though she is but a baby by our measures, by yours she is already infinite. She was born long before your people walked this earth.”
I heard a voice speak to me, to my mind.
The voice of the star inside me.
Sister, grow strong with me. You are not meant to die, sister. And I am not meant to leave you until we are mended and whole, until we join together and protect our people from the menace that walks upon your earth.
This was what they intended. For us to face the great evil that walked in our world and stalked among the stars. An evil that the netherworld rejected. An evil that had swallowed six stars and drained them of their power. An evil that even the first champions of both the star people and the humans could not stop. This evil had consumed the aging red star, even taking his form, and it had ripped apart the young yellow star who defiantly faced it alone. Only the dark star remained among the heroes of the star people. Shadows and whispers traveled on the air, teaching and protecting human beings, even as it entreated them to help, help as they once did.
I had heard those whispers in my very soul. My broken soul. I had heard those whispers through my youth and looked up at the starry night.
Do not fear, the star within me said. You were chosen for the strength of your soul, not the weakness of it. I know this, for my progenitor told me so. I am the child of the dark star. And I have much to teach you, perhaps even some things that our enemy does not know.
I began to weep then, for I was afraid. Then I stopped in panic, afraid I was weeping out my star before her time was due. I wiped away the tears, but they appeared no different than they always did. The star was still inside me. I felt amusement from the being within me and a swell of comfort and sympathy. Then I remembered that the songs had not been sung and the magic had not been woven to make ready my body and my tears for the emergence of the star I now carried.
I felt her heart beating within me, within my own heart. It did feel strong. Already the effects of carrying the star were transforming my body, my very being. I knew it would not matter. I had been chosen to bind with a star for some reason I could not fathom. But likely it was because I was someone who could be spared, a person of no repute. Someday, a true hero would rise to destroy the evil altogether. Perhaps my sister star and I could help that hero before I died. Perhaps I could be brave enough to weaken the soulless evil.
You will be, Nova, my sister star said. We both will be.
So it began. I did spend decades with my sister star. I thought I was grown when first we merged, but I was wrong. I did not have the wisdom of humans, much less the wisdom of stars. We grew up together. She asked for a name, a human name. I named her “Gloria.” For she was glorious. We grew in power, wisdom, knowledge. We learned of our enemy, though sometimes our teachers were not as forthright as we needed.
I asked the silken star lady once if the soulless one was half-human and half-star, like Gloria and me.
Her dark eyes flashed when she answered. “He is not half-star. To say so would mean that the being he has become is a shared being. The stars are his captives, his slaves. At worst they are merely his food, for he drains them of their powers, their energies, their cores.”
The lady’s serenity cracked as she spoke her last words, and I saw within that crack the raw white-hot fire of a star. Not with my eyes, for my eyes would have burned if they beheld such a sight. I saw perhaps with my heart, or my soul. I could not fathom it.
“Nor is he a man,” the lady continued. “To say so would defile the name of men. Nor is he like you. You do not feed from each other. You bolster each other. You are not Gloria and Nova. You are Novagloria. You are Glorianova.”
One day, our teachers deemed us ready. They sent us to our task. Though I knew we would go alone, though neither Gloria nor I were soldiers or warriors, I imagined a field of battle, and I feared. We were bound, my sister star and I, because of my broken soul. She filled the space within the break. It was a danger for any star being to come close to the soulless one. But not if that being was already bound to another. That was what the star people hoped after watching and studying the soulless one.
When we found the soulless one, came face to face with him, it was a strange encounter. We found not a towering hideous monster, or a wicked and unkempt despot, but an ordinary-looking man. We did not have a grand scheme. We would use an old plan. One that we hoped would still work. In all the time that my sister star and I were training, and even before then, the star people had built a prison in the cosmos. They hoped to hold the soulless one there until he used all the essence of the stars within and at last perished, leaving nothing behind.
We were warned not to come too close to the prison, for it was not just for the soulless one. It could trap any being. I had not seen it, but had heard of it. A great black whirlpool, the energies within it so powerful, that no being, once trapped, could escape it.
We were to draw the soulless one toward it. My mortal body would rise up into the skies and past them into that eternal night of the realm where the stars lived, the cosmos. Bound to Gloria, I would suffer no harm.
We felt the pull of his power, trying to strip Gloria away from me. I resisted and leapt away. We were a new thing. A new thing that this soulless wandering creature had not seen. His curiosity and vanity made him follow as we leapt and taunted and climbed higher and higher, up the mountain, and onto the clouds. Beyond the grasp of our earth.
The soulless one took on the stolen form of the red star who had perished battling him. Red flames erupted from his skin, and within those red flames, the form of a beast emerged. Half bull and half bear. He pointed his great horns at us and rushed toward us, trailing red flame.
I was afraid when we were walking in the wood, searching for our enemy. I was afraid when first we met him and in his ordinary eyes I saw nothing at all.
But now, in the cosmos, where Gloria and I believed we were living the last moments of our lives, we were both unafraid. Gloria was exuberant. She was never born, so I never saw her face or form, and I never would. But I saw her in my mind. As tall as our teacher, the lady star, but golden, like the yellow star who first came down to the earth to teach us song and story. Sometimes, I imagined that she glowed with many colors. I shared these thoughts with her now, thankful and silly thoughts, as we were being chased by a soulless being, racing toward a trap that might capture us as well as our enemy.
We expected him to be faster and stronger than us. We expected him to catch us. We expected—hoped—to put up a meager battle. But as we drew closer to the trap, he slowed then stopped. He would come no closer to us.
As we feared, my sister star said. He is soulless but not witless.
We have no choice, I replied. We must grapple with him and pull him in with us.
It happened quickly then. We startled him, for we did not flee. We rushed toward him. We wore both our forms. A small human woman, clothed in the luminous pulsing garb of a star.
We grasped him and pretended to struggle as we moved him, and ourselves, closer to the whirling pool of black that was hidden close by.
But then he broke a hand free and placed it on my chest…on my heart. And Gloria’s heart.
I have the heart of a star beating inside me.
I am not long for this world.
I would prefer to live.
Gloria began to burst within me. In my mind’s eyes, I saw a white star, tinged with all the shimmering colors at the edges. I lost my grasp on her mind, her heart. I felt something crack. Surely, it was my soul. My sister star had healed it. But she was leaving me now.
I began to weep and will her to leave. She could survive if she left me. Even without the songs and spells, I must bear her, as my mother bore me. I must tell her what my mother could not tell me. That she would not be broken. That she must not mourn me. My sister star. I must tell her…
Upon the earth, the darkness of the midnight sky filled with a sudden burst of bright white light. Those who were keen of eye caught strange sight within the wondrous sight. A flaming red star fell from the sky and struck the earth, so hard that it must have pierced the netherworld. Many thought it an ill omen, though they could not say why.
The burst of light remained for many days and nights in the sky. On the seventh day, a gentle rain misted all the lands that could see the light burst. A white star fell from the sky, its edges glimmering with the colors of the rainbow.
This star struck the earth in a village square and yet made no mark upon the earth, so lightly did it land. When the white glow subsided, the people of the village saw the figure of a young woman standing before them. She wore the same humble garb they wore, and in as many colors. Yet she was a stranger to them. She had many cuts and bruises upon her face and hands. And one of the colors upon her garb was the red of her own blood. The villagers were frightened, though they could not say why. It may have been the wild flashing of her eyes.
One child dared to ask the strange woman who she was. The woman seemed to think a moment. She placed a fist upon her heart and lowered her head. When next she looked up at the villagers, her eyes belied a gentle and sound soul. And she answered the child.
“I am Nova.”
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel.