“What the Stars See” By Alexia Tolas

I was husked tonight, hollowed out, and ground to powder. The dry leaves of a barely ripened fruit ravished lies in agony beneath a blazing galaxy. I can feel the stars and their enormity, the light of a billion eons glaring down on my chest where patches of broken blood vessels advertise my shame. Cotton hides my disgrace from the universe. It knows why I did it. It knows why I had to.

I went to the stars once. I went in a paper shuttle all the way to that orbiting mass of celestial rock that circles our world. I roamed its craters on my father’s back as he lifted me higher and higher to the gleaming gods of the night. My hands trailed a comet as it sailed past, icy crystal streaming from its back. I went to the stars and brought back their dust for my mother. She didn’t notice it, though. Her eyes couldn’t see the billions of stars, only the billions of zeros on the mortgage statement.

I went to the ocean, too. Thousands of times. Not the beach, people go to the beach every day. People come here for paradise, for sun, sand, and sea. My father took me underwater. He took me below to explore the lost city of Atlantis. I’ve touched the pebbly flesh of a manta ray as it soars through the cerulean clouds. I’ve battled the kraken with my plastic trident. I’ve scourged the mountains of silt for gold buried beneath the waves. I’ve revived what the hurricanes had killed and set the sun on the pirates’ hoard once more. On our last adventure, I brought a piece of eight for mother, but she didn’t notice. She only saw the red stain that the mermaid left on my father’s collar. Mother asked me about the mermaid, the mermaid who took my father through a door that read “Employees Only.” I would always go to the fountain when he went with the mermaid. At the fountain, I thought that I would be a child forever. But every time we went on an ocean adventure, I heard more and I wished my ears hadn’t grown so much. I’d splash the elixir of youth over them, but the moaning got louder every time. I told mother about the mermaid when I found out mermaids were just make-believe. That’s when the adventures with my father stopped.

My father liked adventures. He loved to pretend, to take me around the world as we snuggled in our sofa cushions. We feasted on the myths of the ancients, traversed the unspoiled jungles and multi-verses of the spectacular. My father loved fantasy. It was reality that didn’t suit him. He preferred the seats of a Roman stadium to those of a school auditorium. He preferred the lion pits to primary school graduations. He preferred the name Daddy to Gus, because people didn’t know which Daddy was my Daddy. But they knew Gus. A lot of women came to congratulate me on achieving salutatorian. A lot of men came looking for Gus. My mother likes to play pretend when people talk about Gus. She likes to pretend that he doesn’t exist.

My mother took me on a real adventure when I was old enough. She didn’t pretend like my father did. She emptied the house and packed me and my sisters up, then she smuggled us onto a boat. I was a pirate for two days, swabbing the acrid, red dust from the decaying steel shell. I bathed in a tin sink and fended off drunken sailors with a body-scrub brush. I soothed my baby sisters when the shell groaned and wailed. I protected them from the centuries of ghosts the water drank. I protected my mother from her ghosts, too. Her ghosts were harder to thwart, however. Her ghosts knew that she had changed addresses.

My father called a couple of times when we first moved, but we never answered. Truth be told, my mother never answered the phone. There was always someone calling for Gus, for Mr. Chronis, for Mrs. Chronis in regards to Mr. Chronis. Once, a little girl a year or two older than my younger sister called looking for Daddy. I told her that Daddy wasn’t here. No one’s Daddy was here. The little girl’s mother called a few months after she did. She told my mother that my father had fled the country. She needed child support to take care of his kid. She said my mother had to pay it. My mother laughed until she sobbed and hung up the phone. She sobbed for years after that phone call. She had to cry; she was Mrs. Chronis, after all.

I grew up after that phone call. I couldn’t go on adventures to the stars or underwater anymore. Those luxuries were for children. I stopped being a child when I began helping my mother get rid of those zeros on the bills. She had tried to do it herself. She sold our house, sold our car, sold her jewelry. The dents were too small to cut my father’s debts, however. So she got two jobs, and I became mother for a while. I bathed and clothed my sisters. I cooked them eggs and macaroni and cheese. I mopped and swept and washed dishes. I told them stories, stories that were once told to me. Eventually, I traded my space helmet and cutlass for posters with my age and qualifications.

My name is Mel.

I’m thirteen years old and great with kids.

I have two years of experience babysitting children.

I can cook light meals like eggs, rice, canned soup, macaroni and cheese, pasta and meat sauce, etc.

I specialize in make-believe and story-telling.

My rate is $10/hour.

A lot of people answered my posters. On a small island, there aren’t many responsible thirteen-year-olds, and no babysitters so cheap. People know how hard my mother works, and people know how smart and responsible I am. They know that I like to read, and that kids like me. Tonight, I found out that fathers like me too.

The mother had flown to the city for a week to aid her ailing mother. The father wanted to have a night to himself without his four kids. His four kids are a handful, so after I got them cleaned and bedded, I decided to take a dip in the family’s pool.

There aren’t many pools on the island, and none so close to a marsh, but the nearby swamp made my midnight dip all the more exciting. The salty mud permeates the air and turns the pool into an underwater world. I am a nymph, floating through the reefs in search of a sunken ship.

“Well ain’t that a beauty,” comes a gruff, hoarse voice. Startled, I turn in the water to find the father stooping over the side of the pool. A half-filled beer bottle lolls between his chubby fingers. He’s been there for a while. “Having fun?” he asks. I nod sheepishly, feeling the scolding coming. Instead of berating me for using the pool without his permission, however, he beckons me up. “I want to show you something.”

He wants to show me something near the marsh. It is unceremoniously hot out here. The air hangs low and heavy, and the gloom of the moldering swamp sends shivers up my spine, but then the gleam of gold catches my eye.

“It’s a telescope,” the father tells me, as if I’ve never seen a telescope before. Actually, I’d never tangibly seen a telescope before, and even though I knew what it was, I give him the satisfaction of my awe just to touch it.

“Take a look,” the father tells me. He leads my hand to the optical tube and then gently pushes my head down to peer through it. At that moment, my heart burst into a cloud of sparkling embers as waves of excitement surge through my blood.

A kaleidoscope of galactic magic pulses through the tube. Stars explode millions of years away, radiating in vociferant death songs of ceaseless bliss. The dust of the ages ebbs through the titanic pillars of creation. Hurricanes rage on Jupiter’s surface, drowning its own sailors in sulfuric waves. Galaxies vanish in the gaping darkness of the singularity hidden among the vapors of space. The cadence of the universe undulates under my fingertips, and I am an explorer once again, trailing the comets for crystals and stardust.

“How do you like that?” the father asks.

“Very much,” I reply, breathless. He laughs throatily, his hand trailing down my back. It isn’t until it cups my backside that I tore my gaze from the stars.

“What are you doing?” I demand.

“Don’t be scared,” the father tells me, trying to coo. His breath is thick with liquor, sizzling the hairs in my nostrils. “There’s nothing wrong with a little touch.”

“I think I should leave,” I tell the father. He catches my hand as I turn, squeezing lightly, almost…playfully.

“Don’t go, honey,” he says, “We were having fun, weren’t we? We could have some more fun if you stay.”

“I don’t like this kind of fun,” I explain, pulling away from him. Then suddenly, his hand delves into my bikini bottom and a wad of paper crinkled against my skin. It is the thickest I’ve ever felt.

“I take care of my friends,” the father whispers as I freeze in place, taking my petrified body into his fleshy arms. “Think about your mum. Think about your sisters. I can help you if you just stay and have some fun with me.”

“I-I-I,” but I stop. I reach into my bikini bottom and pulled out the paper. Three hundred dollars sit in my hand. The father grins as I close my hand over the bills and shove them back into my bottom. All I have to do is pretend. I pretend that he leads my hand to the optical tube again, and that when he forces my head down, it was to peer into the eye of God once more.

I don’t go inside when I return home. Eventually, my mother comes out onto the porch to sit next to me. She is worried, she says. I’ve been out on the porch for a long time.

“Were the kids good?” she asks, twirling a finger through my curly tresses. I shoo her hands away. His hands have just been there. I couldn’t have her dirtying her hand.

“Was Mr. Maurie nice?”

He tried to be, but he couldn’t control himself. I got two-hundred more dollars because of that.

Mother finally gets the hint that I am not interested in talking. She lies down beside me on the porch, gazing up at the roadways of stars that scorched through the ebony sky. Out here, you can see all of the stars. They aren’t as extraordinary as the stars through the telescope, but they’ve seen more tonight that those pillars of galactic omnipotence have in millennia. Or perhaps the pillars of creation saw my desperation as well. Perhaps Jupiter caught the scent of my virginal blood. Perhaps I should go on one more underwater adventure and scrub my body clean before the stars can truly forgive me. Maybe it’s too late. The stars have seen everything.

END


Alexia Tolas is an aspiring Bahamian writer raised on the capricious shores of Long Island, BHS. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature in 2015 from The College of The Bahamas. An ardent reader of science fiction, fantastic literature, and social realism, Tolas explores the past, present, and speculative future of The Bahamas, drawing heavily on Bahamian myths and history to convey realities silenced by tradition and trauma. Her work has been featured in Black Girl Magic Magazine and the forthcoming issue of WomanSpeak Journal. 

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