Painting by Frederick Leighton
All summer long, the pale sisters meander across the sky. Every night they gaze upon the mortal world, enthralled: twittering and twinkling and laughing, and wishing with all their hearts.
One night, as they were close to the end of their journey, they asked a boon of their mother, the moon.
“Could you send us there, to the world below?”
“Could we walk on the grass and smell the flowers?”
“Could we eat the mortals’ food and taste their wine?”
“Could we dance with them and hear their song?”
“Could we be them, just for a day?”
Saliente’s sigh rustled trees and filled sails and worried half-sleeping mothers across the land.
“I could. But it won’t be as you think.”
They begged and pleaded until finally she relented.
“I will. Under one condition. One of you must stay, to hold your place in the sky.”
They eagerly agreed.
Saliente smoothed a bit of night into a shimmering doorway. “Cross at first dawn. You must return by nightfall.” She looked each of the sisters in the eye, and opened her mouth as if to say something. Then she slipped between the shadows and was gone.
Only later did the sisters realize their dilemma, their terrible choice.
The first sister hushed the others. “I am the eldest. I will stay. You four can go without me.”
The second sister chimed in. “That won’t do. You are always too generous with us, too selfless. I could not stand knowing you were here, sacrificing this. No, I will stay.”
The third sister protested. “That won’t do either. You are more fascinated with the land than any of us. How could I enjoy the dirt between my toes knowing you could not experience it? No, I will stay.”
And so it went, around and around, until all five sisters agreed that all the others deserved to go more than they did. Eventually they began imagining another option. The more they imagined it, the more it seemed the only reasonable solution to their dilemma. They would all five go together, hand in hand, and ask the Bear to hold their place in the sky.
At the break of dawn, they huddled by the doorway. The fourth sister was the bravest, but the eldest insisted on going first anyway, just in case. When she stepped across the threshold, she was transformed into the guise of a human woman, lithe and soft, her beauty marred only by her deadly pallor. She ran her hands over her hair, her face, her arms, reveling in touch. Her diaphanous robes floating around her, she beckoned for the others to come through.
As each crossed over, they marveled at their new bodies, laughing with joy. Then the fifth came through, the youngest. At first, she also took the same form as the others, until her back foot slid through the doorway and she was fully in the mortal realm.
At that moment, she cracked from head to toe, like ice. For a heartbeat, her sisters gazed in horror at her anguished face. Then she shattered. Tiny glimmering shards exploded in all directions, spraying the sisters, flying past them to land on grass and mountains and beaches.
The eldest was first to react. “We have done our dear sister a terrible misdeed. Come, we have until nightfall to right it.”
“We must gather every piece we can find.”
“We must be single-minded.”
“We must be brave.”
All day the pale sisters searched, collecting one shining spark after another, never looking up from their task. The sun shone on the lake; they did not see it. The bread baked in the village; they did not taste it. Even the sand beneath their feet did not exist for them, except that it might hide another missing piece of starlight.
As dusk fell, they returned to the door. Each sister poured her findings into the skirt of the eldest. The pile was not nearly large enough. They had not found every piece. They had failed.
They had no choice but to return to their place in the night sky. As each crossed the glowing threshold, she returned to her normal self. The eldest came last, cradling the remains of her sister in her skirt. Two stars emerged from the other side as the doorway collapsed: one fully bright and one tiny, weak, dim. The other four gathered around their injured sister, crying their apologies, begging her forgiveness. She was too shocked to speak.
Knowing that they must confess their crime, they called for their mother.
Saliente appeared, looking more sad than surprised. She immediately took the youngest sister in her arms and rocked her. It soothed the sister’s pain and shock, but she was no brighter, no fuller.
The four sisters spoke all at once, each taking full responsibility, each begging to give up some of her own brightness to heal her sister.
Saliente kept stroking the youngest, unresponsive to the babble around her. Then she shushed them. “She cannot be healed now. You will sleep soon, through the long winter. When you wake again, she will be whole.”
The eldest spoke for them all. “We promise we will never disobey you again.”
Saliente’s sigh flickered candle flames and ruffled children’s hair and stirred half-forgiven memories.
“You will. In your long sleep, you will forget. And next year, or the year after, or ten after that, you will ask again. Nothing I do changes it. The cycle will repeat.”
The five sisters sparked and flashed in their distress. Saliente touched each of them, calming them, and cooed to them all that night.
You may say this is just a story. We were not there. We are not gods. We cannot know.
But I say, watch the pale sisters as they reach the horizon late in the season. If the last one blinks and fades, almost to nothing, look for the shattered pieces, sparkling on the grass and mountains and beaches. If you find one, give it an honored place on your altar. For we are not gods. We cannot know.
Written for Jane Dougherty Writes’ microfiction challenge, Looking for Pebbles. l’m not sure if this counts as microfiction, but it’s the story that the painting inspired.
This adds to my collection of Star Stories, about how the various peoples of Eneana see the constellations and link them to their tales.