This story is based on a writing prompt that I found in February 2015 and have since lost and completely forgotten (I’m great like that). Please leave a comment if you liked this or if it was the worst thing you’ve ever read!
“We named you Nova for the moon,” Mother told me, but I didn’t believe her until the day they came tapping at my bathroom window and told me it was true.
“The new moon,” the men said. Their faces hovered in the dark and their voices sounded like a crowd of thousands whispering to me.
“Luna Nova,” is how they called me.
“We need you,” is what they said.
I suppose I should have been frightened, but I was sixteen and already life’s disappointments had hardened me to most things. Instead I sighed and shook my head and told them I had things to pack. They shook their heads right back at me and told me to leave them.
I told them to meet me round at the front door, mostly so that I could see their shapeless bodies in a better light. When they whispered to me from the square black box of a window at the top of the basement wall, all I could see was a formless mass of black. A startling sight, to be sure, but I had seen stranger in my dreams.
I went round and opened the inner door, but not the glass and screen barrier outside. There were no faces atop their pale, slightly glowing necks. Their bodies were man-shaped, but only in the vaguest way, and trailed fractionally behind them when they walked. I thought of light bulbs sprouting limbs and shivered when they reached out with their gaseous limbs to touch me. There were a dozen of them or maybe more.
The men didn’t tell me their names. They didn’t even say they were men; I could just tell they were by the way they hardly spoke, and that they didn’t deem it of any import for me to bring along a hairbrush or a clean pair of socks.
The grass was wet on my feet where it came through my sandals. The sky was black without stars. Solidarity with the moon, I thought, which was also absent. The men walked ahead of me, though I could see no feet of theirs touch the earth. They led me to a wide field and the edge of our subdivision. I began to cry quietly, but without fear, because I knew what came next.
Mother never told me much. She was always saying the worst things, the untruths, when she was around. When she had enough life in her to say anything at all. She hadn’t come around for quite some time and I thought I knew why, though Sister Anne never said. I couldn’t stand the Sisters—their worn faces, so much like Mother’s but less hollow, somehow. When she looked at me, Sister Anne’s eyes burned with hatred, a hatred for what my life was because of Mother. I hated Sister Anne and all the rest of them because they could never understand.
Around the time I turned eight, and ever after, the Sisters had taken to asking me, “Why would you want to see your mother like that?” This question following every one of Mother’s short stays and departures, which I always wheedled and pleaded and sulked against. I had stopped spitting back, “She is my mother,” long ago when I realized that they would always ask, no matter what I said.
Mother loved the stars and the sky at night with the moon and even the clouds, which sometimes came scuttling in so fast and puffy that they cast their shadow over every other part of the sky even as they limned it with their whiteness. She said the clouds looked like smoke, like God himself was puffing on something sweet. She was always very poetic after she got her fix. That was more regular, now. Our visits were monitored by contract workers, because regular caseworkers were too busy with their desks and emails to do the little jobs. On general principle, contract workers prefer to have a quiet smoke outside the facility door, peering in from time to time to make sure it all looks right. They don’t make too much of a fuss over Mother, as long as she shows up mostly on time and with her feet under her.
More often than not Mother would come with the glaze over her eyes, so much so that I began to wonder if I would even be able to recognize her without it. She was still beautiful, then, and she’d brush out my hair in gentle strokes until it shone. Making me look like her, I thought, with our flaxen hair all light and blonde.
“Super Nova,” she’d call me, because that was one of her stories about my naming. “We named you for the ultimate destruction of things as old as the universe itself. Blowing up stars. Super Nova girl.” She savoured the words. Her face was closed, a mask covered in a sheen of sweat. I knew better than to ask who ‘we’ was and risk getting a slap—or worse, bringing up the fog in those glassy eyes that presaged tears.
“We made you up in the front seat of a car,” she’d sometimes say. “Your hair and your eyes and even your crooked tooth. We made you up before you were born and we knew exactly who you’d be.” She’d smile sweetly, unfocused, at me.
I knew what to say next, and so I asked, “What kind of car?”
“A Chevy Nova!” she’d exclaim, as if she’d only just thought of it, and then she’d clap and her face would light up vivid as a lightning strike. I never heard her laugh except for then. The sound was pure, sweet joy.
I held onto the memory of it now as the flat field gave way to crops of canola that tickled my shins and left slick wet marks on my ankles. The flowers glowed of their own accord, a vibrant, sickly yellow even in the absence of light. The men hovered above them silently, pressing forward at their implacable pace. My tears stopped of their own accord, the last of them sitting lightly on my cheeks. My thick hair was tugged strand by strand out of its elastic by wind gusting across the field. The Sisters hadn’t let me cut it since I was too young to remember.
One of the light bulb-men stroked my arm and it felt like a cloud of dry ice drifting over my skin. The gesture might have been meant to comfort me. I pulled my arm away, wondering how close we were. Mother’s favourite untruth was the moon story. In all her telling it to me, she had never finished it. Her words always trailed off halfway through.
“We named you for the moon,” she’d say and sigh a little wistful smile that meant nothing to me at 8 years old other than showing me another way in which I’d never be as beautiful as my delicate mother, all paper-thin white skin and elongated, hollow spaces contoured by sweetly sweeping bones. “We made you up inside a field, a big canola field with bright yellow flowers. They glow from the inside, you know,” she would tell me conspiratorially, as if it was a crucial secret, “like fireflies. Even at night.” Then her face would get heavy, as if the hard part was coming, and she’d go somewhere inside herself and straighten up in preparation. Here it was, coming now. The big secret. The biggest untruth that she had.
“We made you up inside the field of canola flowers, and the moon saw, and it was so, so jealous,” she’d insist, her voice rising in pitch. Almost like she was defensive. I didn’t know it then, but she was asking me to forgive her, begging me to understand. Sometimes she’d cry. “Your hair,” she would tell me, reaching out to grasp some of it now as if for comfort, “your gorgeous hair, baby, the moon was so jealous.”
I was eight and I was scared. The contract worker had to end the visit, he told me, it was his prerogative to end visits when something didn’t seem right. He said Mother looked upset and I was scared, wasn’t I? I nodded yes but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know how scared I was until just this instance, with them leading me into the middle of this maze of sick-bright canola flowers. Was it my hair the moon wanted? Was that why they’d come for me? I tugged the at the loose strands, trying to mute the pale shine of it under my grubby fingers.
There was a small cairn of stones grouped in the middle of a larger circle, a ring of canola flowers cleared. Around the edges their stalks all dipped in toward the rock pile, as if they were bowing. The men gestured to me from underneath their diaphanous coats and told me in their whisper-voices that I should get on top of the rock pile. Only they called it a ‘cairn’ and touched me gently with their foggy hands so that I didn’t have a choice. My eyes were wet again.
All at once the moon came out and it was as dark and furious as I’d ever seen it. It cried out to me with longing in its voice and all the stars trembled in their shiny white cages to see it hurt so. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to cover my ears, but gauzy hands like tendrils of fog somehow had substance enough to hold down my arms straight and tight to my sides.
A scream burst out of me but the field was as silent as the thousand green and yellow stalks of canola that witnessed my terror.
The moon listening pulled the word why right out of me like a gasp. That wicked orb met my question with renewed purpose and it shrieked its rage back down at me. I couldn’t understand how the world could be sitting so still and hushed while I writhed like a frothing mad dog in the grip of the faceless men with their misty arms and the moon screamed into my ears and my mind.
I felt the hair on my head try to stand, and then again and again until it finally became vertical. My hair, my hair, I thought, panic turning my thoughts to babbling. The blood rushed from my head and face face, away from the mad torrent of thoughts. The entire world around me seemed black and grey with the exception of the canola flowers, still dancing sun-yellow blinking bright all around me—
For the first time through the black rage screaming I heard the moon whisper, in a keening, high-pitched whine, so like my mother’s—
You were mine.
Sister Anne’s face suddenly flashed in a carousel whirl round the inside of my eyes and I saw her worn, wrinkly face, then those of the other Sisters; their greying hair, their wet, sad eyes. That sadness had a weight, a gravity; from seeing so many kids in care, bad parents, bad system, bad kids broken so they never had a chance. Their lives were heavy with grief. Their faces real with the senseless wrongs of the world. So different from my mother whose face I saw now, all vapour and flash. A hollowness around the eyes that only increased with the inhalation of whatever noxious substance she could transmute into smoke.
My mother so frail and angular, all light and wistfulness and disconnect.
My mother with the pale hair the colour of starlight filtered through the smoke of cigarettes.
My mother with the hollow spaces between her bones that no other mother, no other father, none of the Sisters, no matter how tired or worn or skinny or fit or sick, ever had.
And I saw what the moon saw, on the night I was born.
There was a car in a canola field. It wasn’t a Chevy, or a Nova; it was old and rusted and so generally bombed out it could have been anything. Its flaking paint was the colour of amber and that didn’t seem to matter to the man and woman who sat on its hood. They passed a glittering glass tube back and forth, laughing as they issued alternating streams of smoke from their mouths that might look, to an unknowing observer, like moonlight made tangible. The woman’s head fell to the man’s shoulder and soon they were singing, some old song about love and heady nights and before long they were both lying, legs intertwined, his hand cupping her face as she wept softly and he promised he’d be there forever, if she wanted.
Time passed. Moonlight filtered through a bank of frothy, wind-whipped clouds for hours until finally inky blue night deepened to the darkest black that comes just before the sky starts to lighten. The moon was still visible ‘til long after the sun rose, keeping vigil for the prone, still figure. When she lifted her silver-blonde head, she was alone in an empty field. The bombed out car and the man were gone.
Sucking like a drain unstopping for the first time in 15 years, realization gripped my heart and threatened to pull my insides down and then up through my mouth. Instead, I wretched and thrashed against it. The luminous bulb-men held me upright even as I bucked and folded at the waist.
My mother had told me once, in a rare moment of lucidity, that the moon had waited up with her all night before I was born. I’d learned enough from the internet and books to know that a walk 20 miles from the middle of a desolate field full of nauseatingly yellow flowers might well trigger labour. And he’d left her there. That man. I couldn’t even think the other word, the one that might give him more significance in the story I was piecing together—the story of me. My wordless scream matched the moon’s for rage.
More time passed without any obvious indication other than the aching in my limbs. The sky remained quietly, stubbornly dark, a void into which the moon continued its wordless roar. My knees buckled and my body slumped forward and still the men kept me there, arms tight to my sides, perched atop the cairn. The clouds seemed to scuttle across the sky backward and forward. The intense volume of the moon’s keening faded to a dull, continuous roar. I’d never heard the ocean but imagined it might sound like that—or like some great mechanical fan, expelling a blast of icy-hot air without cessation for all eternity. I cried until my body ran out of moisture, and even then, my eyes tried valiantly to leak.
It occurred to me that I might die out there in the windy night with the moon’s anger bearing down on me and a cluster of light bulb-headed men holding me still. The Sisters didn’t make it a rule to check beds after midnight and the men had knocked well past 1.
The more I tried to pin down a single, rational thought to hold onto, the more my head spun and threatened to drown me in sense memories. I felt my mother’s fingers tangle in my hair. I smelled the sharp, sour tang of coffee reheated from last night’s pot in the charity home’s kitchen each morning. The hem of the cheap, social aid-issued pants I wore, too short by inches, chafed against my calves. The longer I stood, the more the confines of my skin, my hair, my aching eyes suffocated me. My mind rebelled and triggered a flight response to strong, my legs spasmed and my pulse quickened. My body seemed to both press against me and pull away, as if afraid.
I felt a space in my chest I hadn’t noticed there before. It spread further down my collarbones and gently pried apart my ribs before settling in with a lovely coolness. It was like drinking the largest, coolest glass of milk. It made room in me, for myself. I no longer felt constrained, but contained. Then I realized the moon had gone abruptly silent.
Without so much as a whispered platitude the men fell away from me and I toppled ungracefully onto my the heap of stones. The sun was coming, but I felt the radiant coolness within me, shoring me up against the heat of the arriving day. I had a sudden, inviolable purpose.
I picked myself up and began to walk, my chest swelling with renewed strength. My stomach swelled, too, and as I began the some 20-odd mile walk, I swear I felt the coolness inside give a little kick.