We came here not for the stars but for the sea. That’s what we were told back then, strange as it seemed to leave one watery world for another. We didn’t know, then, the way the stars would take hold. This new land held a sea that stayed calm, they told us; no water would rise up in the night to wash away everything we’d ever known. We were saved by the Mothers, and by the men we once called Fathers. It’s hard for us to remember now, us girls, after all that’s happened—after the burning, after the men and boys fled on the boats that brought us here. We wondered then, in secret, why we were leaving one flooded world for a land surrounded by sea and marsh and mud so thick it stuck to the soles of our feet. But we trusted them, those men who collected us. We were younger then, even the oldest of us girls, too young to protest but old enough to know not to ask questions. There was nothing left for us in the old life. It had all been drowned by the rain and storms that kept us awake at night when we huddled in the brick building up on the highest ground, away from the villages we had been lucky enough to escape.
Some of us remember the voyage here, while for others it is a blurred mist of memory. Rainer, a girl who would not wake up one day, said the Mothers had a map that would lead us here. She and Yetta were always holding hands and telling secrets they did not share with the rest of us. They remembered the roughness of the seas and the chests filled with supplies in ways the others of us could not, or would not. We are no longer sure which. There is so much we do not remember of that other life, a life of houses on hills and warm sheets and sugary breakfasts that stuck in our teeth. There was no choice but to leave, the Mothers told us in the nights when we could not sleep, after the night when the sky fell in on us and we yearned for the homes we would never see again. We left the drowned world not only because there was no choice, but because this world had chosen us to be here.
What we might have known of the stars before we arrived here in this sandy, sea-filled place, we could not say. We learned to measure their brightness and their closeness, as we began to see them slowly moving closer to us. We forgot most of the things we had learned back in that other life, whole histories, stories of wars and uprisings and death. The forgetting came easily to us back then, when we first landed and climbed out of the boats to wash our hair and feet in the sea and to sing the songs the Mothers taught us night after night.
In the beginning, we lived on fish and oysters that the Mothers cooked nightly after the Fathers returned in boats filled with their bounty. There were endless crabs. Mollusks. Bass and carp. Each day, we girls worked with the Mothers to line the huts with the bedding they sewed from old quilts and stray pieces of cloth they had salvaged from the floods. Everything smelled of the sea, salty and warm, after being dried by the fires that were always lit. We’d never seen such fires, blazing in wood pits the Fathers and boys dug. We gathered eggs from wild chickens the boys fenced in, learning to grab their eggs while the hens slept. When we weren’t called to work, we played with the boys, Theo and Matthias and the quiet Leif, chasing each other from pit to pit, laughing and dancing and crunching shells under our feet. The sea did not rise, and the sun stayed warm but not hot. The rains were light when they came, and didn’t leave our skins covered with ash. The land was dry. We were safe, happy even. We were filled with light and sun and sea.
And we swam. We leaped and dove into the sea with our eyes open, even as our eyes burned. The salt water held us up, buoyant. We cradled the younger girls with our hands behind their necks and taught them to let go, to trust in the sea. Like this, we said, Rainer and Yetta and Fae and Keiko and the rest of us lying on our backs to demonstrate. The sea held us, even at night, when we lay on our backs with our arms spread out, minnows swirling at our heels. The sea never got cold, not even in the blackest of nights when the stars went into hiding, as they sometimes did. We’d lie some nights for hours while we waited for the Fathers and boys to come back on the boats with sugar and flour and yeast, which they would scavenge from a land that still held supplies, even after the floods. The Mothers would bake bread then, in the stone hut the men had built to safeguard the supplies from dampness. The breads filled and warmed our middles.
Sometimes the Mothers called for us to come out, come out of the water and help them. You need to learn, they told us, pressing our salty hands into the water and yeast as we kneaded and pressed. We’d crack eggs into bowls chipped with age and stir the flour and eggs with our fingers before the men fashioned us utensils out of wood. Sometimes we felt the sea calling us back and snuck away when the Mothers slid the dough into the fires. We longed for that feeling of floating, of being held and rocked, even though we realized we were too grown up for such yearnings.
On the nights when the Fathers were gone, the Mothers left us to float. They huddled together over the fires with their shawls draped over their heads like mourners, the kind who had moved through the watery streets of our villages in the old days, moaning and swaying as they called the names of the missing and the drowned.
They weren’t our Mothers, not really, but they had told us to call them our Mothers and Fathers in those long nights when we hid in the brick building up on the highest hill. It was there that we girls found each other. Some of us remembered the sounds of other women’s voices in their dreams, bits of scolding or warnings or even songs that shook us awake at night in the huts. We told ourselves it didn’t matter whether they had been our Mothers back when the world was dry, when we had beds and stuffed toys and houses and board-games. Our own mothers were gone, our fathers too, all of them drowned by the river we used to walk beside day after day in our villages. The rains and the river had taken them all.
When those flashes of memory come to us now, even after all this time, we head out into the sea and let it hold us. We are too old to want to be rocked, we tell ourselves, but the waves swaying us side to side, the salt holding us afloat—they wipe clean all those memories of screams and rising water, of running up the hill, back when we didn’t know if there was any way to be saved.
On those nights when the Fathers were gone, we waited for the boats to return while we lay on our backs in the sea. Maybe this time they’d bring back more sugar, we said, or even pieces of rock candy. In the beginning we asked some of the boys to tell us where they’d gone, but they laughed and splashed us in ways that weren’t playful. Wouldn’t you like to know? Tristan would say, one of the oldest boys, with thick hair and a scratchy voice. Yes, yes, we want to know, one of us would say, usually Fae or Marin, since they were brave. And he would taunt us with his arms folded and then pull some of us under by the legs and hold us down until we came up sputtering.
We do not miss Tristan. Sometimes we miss some of the others, but never Tristan.
We girls were never invited on the trips back to that other land. The Fathers told us the journey was not meant for girls. They thought us undernourished, weak. They said there were men in that other land who would not see us as girls, as daughters. We weren’t sure what they meant. Some of us were angry at being left behind, and some of us were relieved not to have to go.
One night, not long before the burning, Lula hid herself in the bottom of the boat behind the crates the men used to carry supplies. One of the Fathers, with a long, ashy beard and a jagged tooth, pulled Lula from the boat and carried her as she thrashed up to the sand, where she slithered out of his arms and ran for the Mothers. We stopped floating and stood in the water to watch. Hattie tried to run after her, but we pulled her back and blocked her with our arms. After the Father had come storming back and hoisted himself into the boat, he stood in the bow and pointed his finger at us. No girls on the voyage to land, he shouted. Ever!
We watched as the boats disappeared. Then a jellyfish stung Marin, her leg burning and streaked with purple. Willow and Hattie helped her up to the huts, where the Mothers applied salt to her throbbing leg. The rest of us went back to floating.
Let them go, Genevieve said, and we floated for a long time, until the sky turned orange, then purple, and the stars began to appear. It was our favorite time of night, when the stars first peered down at us from the sky. We stared up at them without blinking. The water lapped at our chins and made swooshing sounds in our ears.
That night we didn’t wait for the Fathers to return. We left the sea and stood drying ourselves by the fires while the Mothers wrapped us in shawls. Go to bed, they said. They told us not to worry, that the Fathers would be back soon enough with more yeast and sugar, more rice, more of the things we needed to stay strong. We didn’t tell the Mothers that we weren’t worried. We were already strong, we knew. We wished the Fathers could see that in us.
That night, when we were alone in the hut, we tried to comfort Marin. She could feel her heart beating in her leg, she said. Lula, though, kept her back turned to us and didn’t join in the whispers. She hated the Fathers after she’d been pulled out of the boat. We didn’t blame her. The rest of us didn’t hate them, not yet. But part of us hoped they would not come back.
One of the younger girls slipped into the hut and knelt down in the middle of the floor, which was lined with blankets and odd, sewn-together pieces of cloth that had come over with us from our other lives. Birdie—so little then. She was one of the girls who worried most about the Fathers, back when we still thought of them as Fathers.
Why don’t you want the boys to come back? she said.
Genevieve sat up and scolded her, told her to stop listening. She said Birdie should go back to her hut before the Mothers found that she wasn’t in her blankets.
But they’re our brothers, Birdie said.
We could see her lip trembling in the shadows. We wanted to tell Genevieve to leave her be, that we didn’t need any more tears, not tonight. We were always deferential to Genevieve, since she was the oldest, a fact she reminded us of nearly every day. She had memories we didn’t have, she claimed. She understood things we couldn’t. What things? we wanted to know. But Genevieve would never say.
No, she told Birdie, in a low voice that startled us. Even Marin, with her throbbing leg, turned over in her blankets. They are not our brothers. Now go to bed before I make you.
Marin sat up then, even though her leg still burned, and Lula too. Rainer and Yetta held hands, as always. We didn’t want Birdie upset. There had been enough upset for one night.
But we are sisters, Birdie said, crying now. We are sisters, right?
Genevieve stood up, stepping over us to take Birdie by the hand. We are sisters, yes, but those boys are not our brothers.
We didn’t protest or contradict her when she shooed Birdie out of the hut. At first Rainer sat up as if to follow Birdie, but Yetta reached over to pull her back down, then slid over and wrapped her arms around her. We could hear the gentle cooing that Yetta so often used when Rainer grew tearful. Yetta and Rainer had come together to the building on the hill, hand in hand, and had rarely let go of each other since.
Some of us stayed awake to listen for the sounds of the Mothers rushing in to reprimand us for our meanness, for upsetting poor little Birdie, who had dragged sand and seawater into our hut, dampening the blankets with her worry. Genevieve had a hardness to her. Every bit of softness the younger girls had, and Willow too—she was the softest of us—Genevieve matched with bite. We had sometimes been the objects of the meanness that erupted in her.
As we lay there, trying not to listen for the sounds of the boats returning, we thought about the boys. Some of them had tried refusing to go on the boats in the beginning, after we first landed. But they hadn’t been given a choice. It was true that they chased us around the fires, teased the little girls with splashing, but sometimes they brought us conch shells or sand dollars they’d found on the shoreline. Did that make them our brothers? Some of us agreed with Genevieve. They were not, we thought. Some of us were less sure.
When the boats returned at dawn, we heard the Mothers rejoice. We heard the men whooping and laughing about the bounty they had brought back for us. Whatever anger the Fathers had harbored for Lula, for stowing away in the boat despite their warnings, whatever disdain they felt for us for being weak—it had all dissipated, at least for a while. But instead of rushing out of the hut to help them unload the sacks of rice and sugar, the bits of metal they would hammer into spoons, the cloth for bedding and shawls, the old cans and battered crates for storage, we remained in our hut, listening, not moving.
We were tired that night, more tired than we’d felt since we could remember, even in the flashes of memory we still held of wandering in the drowned world we’d left behind. That night the Mothers did not summon us as they usually did. They left us alone in the hut to rest, as if they knew then how much strength we would soon need.
The Fathers made many more trips to that other land. How many we aren’t sure, as we try to count our memories of them, even now when we’re distracted by thoughts of the floods or of the burning. Enough to keep us fed, not only on fish but on rice and, once, whole lambs they slaughtered on the boats and carried, bloodied, in their rough hands. Enough so that, at times, we were not only full but feasted. Enough to bring us bits of clothing, sometimes only a sleeve or a piece of rubbery elastic for the Mothers to sew into short pants for the boys, enough dented cans to hold the rice and salt we needed, lye for the soaps the Mothers made, baking soda that we used both for cooking and for rubbing against our teeth with our fingers.
After one particularly long trip that lasted many nights, they brought back so much that it nearly sank the boats: dishes that were chipped but still solid enough to use, hammers and saw blades, thick pieces of wood for building and for the fires, bottles of soapy liquids, heavy cans of soups that had spoiled but could be washed out for storage, dry bags of rice and flour. Medicines, too, syrups and pills that they kept hidden in the stone building, even coffee grounds that the Mothers boiled over the fires, the smell wafting into the huts and making us remember mornings back in that other land, filled with the same bittersweetness.
The Fathers wanted what was best for everyone, the Mothers told us, and we’d nod quickly and run to thank the men for all they sacrificed for us, over and over again.
Once, on a trip that took them away for several days, long enough to keep the Mothers up at nights, pacing the sand and worrying, they found bundles of elastics for our hair and two hand mirrors, cracked in spots but intact enough for us to see our own startled reflections. We passed the mirrors between us—Keiko, Marin, Willow, and Lula marveling at the darkness of their skin, Ailynn and Fae turning the mirrors to look at the streaks of brightness that had lightened their hair. Genevieve and Hattie saw their cheeks turned pink from the sun, pink as with new life. Rainer and Yetta giggled at the sight of the freckles dotting their once smooth skin. When we had finished with the mirrors, we hid them in a corner of the hut and combed our hair, using pieces of old brooms the Mothers had fashioned into brushes. There were enough elastics to braid all of the younger girls’ hair, even our own. We sat with the littler girls in our laps—Oona, Birdie, Tasha, Villi, and the youngest of all the girls, whom we called Daisy because she couldn’t remember her name but had carried a yellow flower into the brick building where we’d sheltered. We took our time with their hair, twisting end over end with our fingers. Even Genevieve laughed that night and helped with the braiding, didn’t turn away and leave the hut, though she was the first to untie her hair and let it fall loose in waves down her back.
Have you ever seen such beauty? the Fathers boomed. Look, look, how beautiful they are!
We didn’t always feel beautiful then. We still don’t, not often. That night, though, when they handed us those elastics and mirrors, we took them in our hands like jewels, and later we paraded across the sand with our long swishing braids, hands on hips, leaping as the men clapped and the boys did too, but not in ways that made us feel squeamish. We bowed to the Fathers and rushed up to kiss their cheeks, tasted the salt of their weathered skin.
Back then we measured time by the moon and by the tide, coming up and down. With the days always warm and the sea quiet, never angry the way the river had been in the floods, we let the days pass until we stopped making marks on the side of our hut with bits of shale. It was a relief not to measure time. In that other life we had feared time, wondered when it would come for us.
On the night before the stars fell, we danced. We held the hands of the boys, Nico and Matthias and Leif, the quietest and gentlest of all of the boys. Only Tristan didn’t dance, Tristan who was always surly and sat alone on the rocks by the sea. We swayed in time with the Fathers, let them lift us up by our waists, our long dresses flying out as they whirled us. We fell on the sand, held our stomachs with laughter. Again, again, the younger girls shouted, and the Fathers picked them up and tossed them in the air. The sky split with their giggles. The stars blinked more brightly than we’d ever seen. The Mothers led us in song. With our necks tilted, we lifted our voices to the sky, breathing deep in our bellies to send our song all the way up, straight into the sky, the way the Mothers had taught us.
When we were tired at last, we drifted back to the hut. Yetta and Rainie skipped ahead, then Fae, who made circles with her shawl in the air, next Lula, Hattie, and Marin, arms around each other’s waists. Keiko and Ailynn kicked up sand, and Genevieve followed, head down but smiling all the way. In the hut we pulled off our dresses and hung them on hooks to dry as we did every night, then hurried into the blankets.
That night we slept a sweet and dreamless sleep, empty of water and memories of that other world. We slept on our backs, for once not pressed close together as if that other world might chase us here, with the rush of rain that had cracked open windows, with bodies floating face up by the banks of the river. That night we slept with open mouths and splayed arms, legs and middles free of the blankets we usually pulled over us to keep us warm and help us forget.
In that clear and quiet night, the stars began to fall for the first time. Some of us say they saw the stars even in sleep. As the Mothers tell it, they felt themselves pulled outside into the night for reasons they didn’t understand, not then. Now we know that feeling, that pull of the stars, but then we couldn’t yet imagine such a thing.
They waited, but each time they held out their cupped hands, the stars slid down into the sand to cool—even as they lunged forward, raced around, trying in desperation to catch them.
We awoke to the sound of the Fathers’ screams. The world, they screamed, the world is ending, don’t you see? You stupid, stupid women! And when we ran down to the sand, we saw the Mothers on the ground, the Fathers with their fists held up, and we screamed too, hurled ourselves at the Fathers, who slapped us and cursed the Mothers for causing the stars to fall.
Catch them, catch them, the Mothers called, and we ran away from the Fathers to the clearest space in the sand, and there we stood in a line and caught each star as it fell.
This novel began for me with a first line that knocked around in my head for several months, a line that ended up appearing later in the novel: “Back then, there was little to do but look at the sky.” Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, I found that going outside and looking at the sky was one of the few things that brought me a sense of calm, a balm to the anxiety that often ruled my days. Each evening, I’d sit outside on my back deck and watch the sunset, a kind of ritual that I continued through the fall and winter months. Sometimes I’d call my kids outside with me. Sometimes, late at night, I’d sit and look up at the stars and think about that line, about who was watching the sky and why, exactly.
This is how all of my novels have begun for me, with a line or an image, and it is only through the process of continuing past that line that I can find the story that has begun to form, in its gauzy way, in my unconscious. This time, it became clear eventually that it was a group of girls staring up at the sky each night, and as I continued I discovered that the girls spoke in a collective voice, a “we,” which was a point of view I’d always wanted to try. At this point in the writing, the novel is written solely in this voice, though there may be times when it becomes necessary to break into “I.”
The ten girls, three of whom go missing—one willingly and two whose bodies split open to spill hundreds of stars into the sea—soon begin to feel a pull toward the stars, as if they have some inexplicable connection to them. Later they find that they can also birth new stars, after experiencing a strange bleeding of starlight. A giant fish arrives, filled with starry eggs. The sea lights up with the stars the two girls have delivered. The “Mothers” of the girls, who helped them flee the flooded world they left behind, reveal a prophecy that these girls possess a new power, and this eventually leads to the girls’ need to forge their own path, away from the Mothers.
The novel, thus far, circles around a number of themes: internal power and resilience; the need for community and sisterhood; the separation that occurs in mother/daughter relationships; the will to survive; and our human need to assign meaning to inexplicable and often traumatic events.
Laurie Foos lives on Long Island. She is the author of eight works of fiction, including the novels Ex Utero and The Blue Girl, as well as two novels for Gemma Media’s Open Door series for emerging readers, which pursues the mission of increasing literacy. She teaches in the BFA program at Goddard College and in the MFA program at Lesley University.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021