“The Last Time I Spoke to Penelope” by Matthew Maichen

She led me out of my house in the middle of the night. I went with her because she was moving away the next day, and because I loved her. I would never tell. I knew that she had a boyfriend, and regardless, she was straight.

We wandered down to the pond that bordered our houses. Back then, this town had things like that. I’m sure that it’s built over by now. I’m sure someone lives there.

But then, it was a grove. The trees blocked off the buildings so well that you’d think you were far from home. I remember playing there as a toddler, and pretending that I was a Fairy Queen in a faraway land. If anyone just called me a fairy, or a queen, I would be furious. I needed to be both.

When we first saw them, I thought they were fireflies.

But they were too big, and weren’t erratic enough in their movements. They were pulsing orbs of light, and they drifted upward too smoothly to be alive, too smoothly to be dead.

“What are they?” I asked her.

She looked at me with gentle eyes. “I don’t know.”

They came up from the rocks, the water, the trees, the flowers; their light reflected off of all those things. In their presence, the world seemed lit from the inside. Their touch made the night glow.

I walked over to one, and let my fingers run through it. It passed through my hand like fluid. It was soft,smooth; it had the texture of a silk blanket.

“They look like stars,” I said.

“That might be what they are,” she said, looking up. They looked white at first, but glowed a rainbow when you were close. They twinkled and blinked and for a moment you would think that they weren’t there. Just like stars, you weren’t really seeing them. You were seeing an echo of what they had been.

I ran after another like a child running after bubbles. It wobbled when I grabbed it, but kept floating upward. I bent down, and prodded another into my mouth. The texture rubbed against my tongue and the back of my throat. A warm glow flowed out through my face. With it came an uncomfortable building pressure. When I released it, it floated up faster, as if it were behind schedule and had to run to keep up.

“Who else have you shown this to?” I asked her.

“Only you,” she said.

“I’m the first?” I turned to her. She held one down with her palm, like a balloon against a ceiling.

“You’re the first I’ve shown it to. Not the first I’ve tried to show,” she said.

I reminded myself not be stupid. “Who did you try before?”

“My boyfriend,” she said, releasing the spark of light. It pulsed angrily, then floated up to join its siblings. “My dad.”

“And they didn’t believe you?”

“No. They did. They came here…they didn’t see them.”

I froze, and the tiny stars kept rising between us. They really were bubbles of light. We were underwater and the sky was the surface.

“Why not?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t think that men can see them.”

“That’s impossible.”

“I don’t think so. They see colors differently than us, did you know that? We don’t see the same things.”

“But this isn’t a color…this is…” I watched one of the star-bubbles rising again, trying to think of a way to describe it.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“How does no one know about this?” I asked. “Why haven’t people written about it? Why haven’t scientists studied it?”

She shrugged.

More rose into the sky. I saw them take their places, and freeze. Once they did, they gained a new clarity. They weren’t transient, anymore, they were undoubtedly there.

“Oh my god,” I said. “They’re the stars. They actually are the stars.”

“Maybe. Maybe some of the stars are suns. Maybe others are them. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no math for it. There’s no science for it. Science is wrong, I guess.”

I sat down, and watched them rise to the surface. She sat next to me. I restrained the rush I felt when her skin brushed my body. The stars weren’t quite as gorgeous once they reached the sky, I realized. They were still beautiful, but something had been irreparably lost.

“I heard a story once,” she said, watching as they arranged themselves into constellations.

“About this?”

“Sort of,” she said.

“What was it?”

“My mom told it to me. She said that every story in every place is different…but this is the only one that’s the same everywhere.”

“Tell it.”

She waited, I don’t know what for, then started to speak.

“Once, there was a Dragon, and above her was the Sky.”

“The Sky loved her. He came down and said to the Dragon: Please, let me join you. Let us become one and make the world ours. You will be the Earth, and our children will be born from you and walk upon you. And she said yes, because she loved the Sky, and because she wanted to be joined to him. So she became the Earth.”

“But thousands of years passed, and people told stories. In their stories, the Sky had conquered the Earth. Because back then, people were scared. Wolves, tigers, and bears would attack them, and trying to survive meant fighting the Earth. So the Earth became evil, and dragons were monsters who stole women from men. The Sky was heaven and the place of refuge from Her. Those were the stories they told. The Earth got angrier as they told more ugly stories, and as she got angrier, she got crueler, and finally they hated her entirely. They said that everything about her was wrong. They wanted nothing to do with her and they dreamt only of the Sky.”

“The Earth begged the Sky: ‘explain to them. Tell them that they should love me, too, because they are our children, not just yours.’ But the Sky wouldn’t listen. Not because he hated her, but because they loved him, and he could not help but bask in it. When they died, they floated up and became one with him, and the Earth was left alone. They would spit on her and cover her in mud, and she became angrier and crueler. Diseases spread. People died. But when they did they just floated up to the Sky and left her alone. Finally, she started to believe them. They told her that the only way to be good was to be their servant, and exist only for them, and she believed it. She gave them her wood and food and water, and they lived off of her, all the while cursing her, and thanking the Sky instead for the things that she gave them. She wept, but her anger had burnt away.”

“When the Sky saw that, he realized what had happened to her. How she was nothing but a husk of what she had once been. So he came down, and hugged her, and kissed her, and told her that he was sorry. No matter what he said, though, she still believed that she was ugly and horrible. She didn’t even believe that he loved her, because she didn’t believe anyone could love her. So he covered himself with

clouds, because he was more ashamed than he had ever made her, and wanted no one to see him. He cried, and his tears hit her body…but he would never touch her again. They broke apart forever.”

“But when she felt those tears, she remembered why he had loved her. She remembered when she had been a dragon. Flowers bloomed all over her surface. Trees grew everywhere and her oceans filled and she turned green. She didn’t care what they said about her anymore, because she knew that she was beautiful. She didn’t return to the sky, whom had hurt her, but chose to remember his love over his disdain. He cries because he misses her, and when he does, to this day, she blooms all over.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Maybe that’s why.” She finished, watching them rise. “Maybe she’s crying, too.”

I followed her gaze, and watched with her. They passed through the clouds. When they hit a tree-branch, and had to move around it, they seemed flustered by their impediment and sped faster to keep up. I saw them reflected in the pond near us. They glowed so brightly that I couldn’t wonder what they were. They simply were. A part of the world, older than dirt.

“Dragons are gone,” I said. “I don’t think they were ever there.”

“They might have been,” she said. “Once.”

“I don’t believe in God, either. If that’s what you meant by the Sky.”

“You don’t have to,” she said. “Most people don’t. They just don’t admit it.”

“Then the story doesn’t explain anything,” I said, as politely as I could.

She smiled, holding one of the lights in front of her face. “I think it explains everything.”

“But it isn’t real.”

“Since when did being real make something true?” She asked.

It wasn’t something I’d considered before. I stopped arguing.

Instead, we watched the stars rise into the sky until the night ended. The sun rose and black turned to a vibrant array of colors that all burned away into blue again, the stars with them. I almost told her when that sky turned orange. My mouth opened, words came. But when I tried to say them, they all turned to a gasp, and drifted into the sky just like those lights.

We said our goodbyes. I shambled over to my bed and slept for two hours. When I woke up, Penelope was gone. She’d given me no phone number, no address, nothing to find her by. I realized only then that she’d never told me where she was going.

The next day, it rained.

Matthew Maichen writes about sad things and women.

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