Way up over the mountaintop, a star had shone cold and bright as a watchful eye.
“It’s an honor to be chosen by the star,” the three men said, when they came for Esther.
They stood in the doorway, framed by the heavy veil of night that blanketed the afternoon. The preacher with his pressed black cassock, the circuit judge with his riding clothes still dirt-stained from the road, and the sheriff with his glinting bronze badge were like a trinity delivering Esther to her damnation.
Esther spewed a string of curses so blasphemous the preacher’s freckled face turned white as his hair.
They were God-fearing folk. The whole town turned out to the white-washed chapel every Sunday. But there were some things up here on the mountain that couldn’t be explained by the Good Word. The star was one of them.
As children, the girls in town had sung, “Fox teeth, owl call, star white light, stay out in the dark, no not on my life.”
As she had grown into a young woman, the star had been a threat: “Wear your stockings, Esther, you don’t want the star to notice your long bare legs. Wear your hat, Esther, you don’t want the star to notice your raven hair.”
Esther had been so careful. But the star had noticed her anyway.
Behind Esther, Grandma Edy wept. Esther knew the story of poor Lottie Johnson, Grandma Edy’s girlhood friend chosen by the star, some fifty years ago. Lottie had the loveliest voice, Grandma Edy claimed, clear and bright as she sang “How Great Thou Art” in service on Sundays, her voice growing quiet as she shyly lisped on her s’s. The day Lottie Johnson danced with the star, her voice crackled like a flame, screaming behind a locked jaw.
Esther’s mother, who had already buried her husband and son, whispered, “All right.” And again. “All right.”
The preacher, the circuit judge, and the sheriff stepped back into the murky darkness outside to give privacy to Esther’s swearing, and Grandma Edy’s weeping, and Esther’s mother’s quiet shock.
Esther’s mother opened Esther’s hope chest, and removed a white cotton dress patterned with pink rosebuds. The sight of the dress saved for her wedding stopped up Esther’s flood of curses. This was a wedding of sorts—the star her fatal bridegroom.
When Esther’s mother set out a pair of delicate, embroidered slippers Grandma Edy swatted at her.
“You damn fool,” she wept. Grandma Edy pulled Esther’s brother’s boots out from the back of her wardrobe and an armful of wool socks.
“We must protect your feet,” Grandma Edy murmured, as she eased Esther into a chair. One by one, she rolled each sock up and over Esther’s calves. The most gruesome details of Lottie Johnson’s dance with the star, Grandma Edy had revealed only once, when she was delirious with fever. As Esther had cleaned her grandmother’s face with cool water, Grandma Edy had screamed that flayed flesh sloughed off Lottie Johnson’s feet.
“They must be wrong—they must be lying,” Esther insisted, gripping the edge of the chair as Grandma Edy laced her feet into the heavy boots.
“The star chose you,” Esther’s mother breathed, her voice already in that far-away place of grief.
Chose. That’s what the men said at least, but Esther reckoned the star lacked a human tongue among its fiery brilliance, and she couldn’t figure how the preacher, circuit judge, or sheriff had learned the language of the cosmos in the last two days. If they were going to interpret that Esther was the star’s chosen partner, surely they could interpret that it was someone else.
But who—who else was she willing to sacrifice so she’d never have to smell her own seared flesh? Motherless Beulah, raising her five younger siblings? Skittish Annas, round with a child and unwilling to say whose it was? Or sweet Coree, who had tangled her fingers in Esther’s hair when they had kissed beneath the May Day pole, long after the rest of the town was sleepy with springtime and moonshine?
No—they all deserved to live as much as Esther did.
Esther’s mother fixed the glass buttons on the back of Esther’s dress. Esther tugged on the too-long sleeves, the dress not intended to be used for a few more years. She was starting to sweat through the thin fabric, but why did it matter? After all of this, Esther—her long legs and raven hair, her fine dress and heavy boots—would be reduced to ash.
“I’m sorry, my sweet girl, I’m so sorry.” Grandma Edy wiped her own eyes with a handkerchief, then dabbed the sweat on Esther’s brow.
If you’re sorry, then do something, Esther wanted to shout. But instead she wrapped her arms around the old woman kneeling in front of her.
“Stay here, won’t you?” Esther held her close. “You don’t need to see this again.”
Too soon—far too soon—Esther’s mother and Grandma Edy stopped their preening. In the darkened glass of the windows, Esther caught her reflection—the too-big wedding dress, the ungainly boots, her raven hair plaited and woven through with ribbon. She looked like a child playing bride, and it made her stomach clench. Surely, she was too young to die.
With a final embrace from Grandma Edy and a nod from her mother, Esther stepped outside. Though it was only noon, a midnight darkness shaded the packed-earth road. When the star had descended two days ago, it had pulled the night sky down with it. A veil had been cast over the mountainside—the sun did not rise, the wind did not blow, and anyone who tried to leave through the narrow rocky pass was lost to the shadows. The star would return to its seat in the sky—bringing back the sun and wind and light—only when the townsfolk offered it a young woman for a dance. And the star had chosen Esther as its dance partner.
On her stoop, the preacher, the circuit judge, and the sheriff regarded her blankly, and she curled her lips in the feral smile of a wolf. She would gladly trade the lives of any of these men for her own. Behind them, it seemed the whole town had gathered with flickering candles, the still air heavy with the meaty scent of tallow. Esther peered into each of their faces—the men with pitiless gazes as though they looked upon a hog ready for slaughter; the women with relieved tears, grateful that they and their daughters had not been chosen.
They were glad that Esther was the sacrifice. She could not begrudge them this—she would be glad too, to stand in the safety of the crowd, holding a tallow candle. Instead, with a gesture from the circuit judge, she stumbled along the uneven road in her dead brother’s too-big boots.
The candlelight pressed closer as the people formed a procession behind Esther and the judge. Esther allowed herself only one glance backward toward her mother and Grandma Edy, hoping to see them silhouetted in the doorway of the house, her mother leaning on Grandma Edy to help her hold her grief. But the crowd was too dense for her to see them.
As they wound their way up the switchbacks, the crowd’s shuffling steps fell into a clean, marching rhythm. Esther tried to drag her feet, willing the walk up the mountain to take as long as possible. This would be her last chance to witness the waxy, white dogwood petals beaming through the dark or smell the sweet anise hyssop that bloomed along the trail. Slow, she willed everyone, I will walk slow to my death.
The steady pounding reverberated at the base of Esther’s skull, and she ground her teeth against it. But the sound traveled through her, and her own gait—uneven in borrowed shoes and layered socks—joined the march of its own accord. She tried to stop in her tracks, but her body kept on stomping.
She wanted to beg of the judge, “What is happening to me?,” but she was forbidden to speak now, and she knew he would not answer even if she could.
Behind her, the preacher prayed under his breath, his words hammered to the march of the crowd. “Bless us for doing what is right, though it is hard. Bless us for trading one life for the potential for life. Bless us for accepting the mysteries of this world, and women’s place in it.”
The preacher did not seek a single blessing for Esther.
They climbed switchback after steep switchback, until there was little mountain left except spruce firs and some long-abandoned cabins. The sky around them grew lighter, and for a moment Esther wondered if they had found the sun’s hiding place. But they made the final turn in the road, into a clearing surrounding by a copse of trees, and there shone the star.
Its white light seared Esther’s eyes so that she saw its shape when she closed them—a form vaguely human, with limbs of live flame. Esther tried to look away, seeking the dark relief of shadow, but found she could not move her head. The throbbing in her skull grew louder, now echoing through her veins as though her own heartbeat had been replaced by a foreign pulse. The crowd pressed into the clearing, the rhythmic march up the mountain faltering as they came upon the star and its brilliance. Between the blotches in her sight, she saw the townsfolks’ downturned heads and hands shielding their eyes from the light. They still had control of their bodies, and yet they chose to be here to witness Esther lose hers.
Esther let scalding tears well until the star before her was a prism of light, broken and refracted across her vision.
The whispers began, rippling around the clearing. Esther imagined the breeze had returned, and no one asked her to give up her body for theirs. She could live as she always had, with her mother and Grandma Edy and the memory of her brother and father. She could kiss Coree down by the creek when the moon hung low and ripe. She could forsake her hat and stockings, and the star would not notice her.
But then the music began.
It started as a hiss, high and soft like escaping steam. When the star took a step towards Esther, footsteps scorching the grass, the hiss rose in volume and pitch, until it was a blaring whistle. Esther longed to cover her ears, but her arms were dead at her sides. No one else moved to block out the screeching.
“Can’t you hear this?” Esther tried to demand of the crowd, but the words died behind her closed lips.
The hiss settled into a constant ring, and a warm crackle joined in like fire leaping from a log. Then a rhythmic crash, low and deep like mountains crumbling, that Esther could not hear as much as feel. And at last, clear, bright notes that streaked through the night like stars across the sky.
This was the music of the heavens, Esther realized, of planets colliding and new stars bursting to life. And this was the music that would send her to her death.
The song grew louder and more chaotic as the star crossed the clearing. With each of the star’s smoldering steps, Esther’s skin blistered. At five paces away, Esther’s lips dried and split. At three paces away, her hair shriveled against her scalp. At one pace away, the star bowed.
When it placed its hand on Esther’s waist, Esther screamed from behind her clenched teeth. She had expected heat and burning flesh but this was worse. The star’s deathly cold touch tore through Esther like razor-sharp teeth. Her skin shrank taut against her muscles in the dry air radiating from the star.
The music in her head crescendoed, and her arm raised against her will, as though someone had pulled the string of a marionette. She cried out again as her palm landed on the star’s shoulder, the burning cold shooting up her arm and into her locked jaw.
For a moment, the music stopped. In that silent second, Esther held her breath. Perhaps that was all she was meant to suffer, perhaps she had survived.
All at once, the music began again, and the dance started.
Esther’s body was no longer her own. Her limbs moved to steps she had never learned and that humans hardly seemed capable of—spins so fast the earth stood still, great leaps that hung suspended in mid-air. It was as though something had taken root inside her body—the music or light or star itself—and now controlled her every move. Though the star seared Esther’s flesh with touch as cold as the farthest reaches of the sky, it was the invasion of her body that made Esther rage with every motion.
Her feet stomped against the earth as though she were trying to kick down to the center of it, until the bones of her feet shattered. Her arms stretched so wide, her shoulder pulled free of its socket. Esther swore, despite her jaw clenched so tightly her teeth shattered, and she choked on the shards. Gasping and throat bloodied, Esther incanted curses like prayer until her wordless shrieks were indistinguishable from the star’s high-pitched hiss.
Esther’s every nerve gleamed with incandescent pain. An open wound, her whole being throbbed, raw against the dry air. Muscle had torn from broken bones and glistened, exposed through sloughed skin—yet still she moved. Her body was a rag doll, tossed about by a petulant child. She wanted her body back.
“Damn you,” Esther cried—cursing the star, the crowd, the too-close night sky—everyone and everything who witnessed her torment and did nothing. She could no longer see or hear the townsfolk gathered in the clearing, but she knew they were there. She could feel them gazing inside her—the horror at a body torn apart, the relief that their own was whole. “Next time it will be yours—next time it will be yours,” Esther cursed.
When the dance had first started, Esther had longed for her mother and Grandma Edy to appear in the crowd, for their warm soft hands to pull her free from the blistering cold star and rub salve onto her split skin.
But now Esther was past salvation, and if she could not be saved, she did not want anyone to be. Esther did not have a body anymore, only pain and light and cold that bled from the star and into her. With every curse on her trapped tongue, Esther grew brighter—brighter, brighter—until the flames on her skin licked at the dark sky.
And the star grew dimmer.
The strange music shifted, taking on recognizable shape and language. The hiss became a voice, and Esther cried out as she recognized the star’s song. “How Great Though Art” rang clear as crystal and bright as starlight, with the slightest lisp on her s’s. Though Esther knew nothing beyond pain and fury and her own white light, she knew that the star was Lottie Johnson.
Lottie would change Esther, turning Esther into a being of burning cold. And Lottie—not Esther—would turn to ash. This was a dance of death for Lottie—fifty years too late. After a lifetime spent alone and smoldering, Lottie would burn out and send Esther into the sky to take her place. And in another fifty years, Esther would descend from her lonely agony, until she found a girl who burned brightly enough to take her place.
Stars bore stars bore stars. Esther suffered because Lottie suffered, and Lottie suffered because a woman before her suffered. But because they had always been the sacrifices, did that mean they had to keep sacrificing?
Poor Lottie Johnson, dancing the sky bright for half a century, with no one to ease the cold or the aching memory of her body that had once loved and been loved. That was the future that awaited Esther, all because once, a being of the heavens decided that the women of their town belonged to the sky.
Esther flexed her new limbs of light as she would have her arms of flesh and blood. And these new limbs—these searing limbs—moved. Esther did not have a body, but she bent the cold light to her will and clutched Lottie Johnson to the place her heart once was. Pieces of Lottie crumbled like charcoal.
Esther spoke—sound rolling from her in beams of terrible light as she rose from the ground—“I’ll make this right.”
The dying star that had once been Lottie Johnson smiled. Her light flickered and flared like a guttering candle. When Lottie spoke, Esther heard the exhaustion of a star, shining for too long on a place that had never deserved its light. Lottie’s once-lovely voice whispered, “You look just like Edy.”
Then Lottie was gone, ash ground into the scorched earth.
Esther was the star now.
The children would sing of her, “Fox teeth, owl call, star white light, stay out in the dark, no not on my life.”
The mothers would warn of her, “Wear your stockings. Wear your hat. You don’t want the star to notice you.”
Esther could feel the pull of the sky, the push of the dawn, urging her upward toward that cold and lonely height. She would rise as all the stars before her had risen, bringing back the sun and the wind and the light. And in fifty years, when Esther fell back to earth, exhausted, the town would give her another girl to take her place. In the meantime, they would have forgotten about her—except maybe her sweet Coree who would speak of Esther only when in the throes of fever, as Grandma Edy had of Lottie.
Esther had suffered the burning of her body, the dissolving of herself into star-stuff. Esther would not suffer being forgotten.
She shrugged off the sky. She shoved away the dawn. She planted herself in the land that had born and forsaken her.
Esther gathered the air around her, pulling the darkness close, sucking the trees and the grass dry. Over the roar of the heavens that echoed in her thoughts, human cries rippled dull and muted. Still Esther grew brighter, colder, until her light spilled from the mountainside and into the valley below.
The dim shadowy figures of the townsfolk blurred in panicked motion. But Esther reached out, fire and gravity holding them fast. They wept against her burning cold touch, but it sounded to Esther like a puff of steam.
She had promised them, hadn’t she? That next time it would be their body?
Esther let her rage burn until the shadows stilled. Until the hiss of steam ceased. Until the pull of the sky—shocked by what she had done—relented, and the weight of the earth beneath Esther made her feel almost human again.
She was satisfied. Her fury cooled and hardened, the flames of her limbs slinking back toward her core. Without her anger, Esther simply ached. And she could do what Lottie and the others had been denied—she could sleep.
She let go of the light and the cold and the memory of long legs and raven hair. And with a sigh, the star burnt out.
Way up over the mountaintop, a star had shone cold and bright as a watchful eye.
No one’s seen that star crest the night sky in years, but women of a certain age look up at that quiet, dark space where it once hung, and caress old burns. For their body—wrinkled, burned, pocked, and wizened—will always be their body.
Because they know the story—those it’s changed, its orbit shifting over the long years—of the young woman, danced to death by the star, and the dozens of souls swallowed in her blaze.
Copyright 2022 Erin Keating