Spaces Between Stars

Cheryl Walsh

Cheryl Walsh

Cheryl Walsh is the author of the novel Unequal Temperament (American Buffalo Books, 2023). She earned an MA in history at Cornell University before giving in to the tug of fabrication and pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. A native of Flint, Michigan, she now lives and writes in Iowa City, Iowa, USA. Follow her on Twitter @IrishRoad.

Space was tight at the farm in Ohio, and worry piled up in the small rooms, even though Win's grandparents doted on her and were pleased to have her daddy back. It was 1934, and Win's Uncle Ray was back on the farm, too, and he and her daddy, Spencer, set about building two new bedrooms at the back of the farmhouse. Then, to supplement the farm's nice big outhouse, they also built a bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and a big claw-footed tub they bought cheap at a foreclosure auction two counties away. It was good to have more room, but sometimes it seemed to Win that it just made more room for worry.
That first summer her family spent in Ohio, eight-year-old Win was frightened by the night sky. In their town back in North Carolina, where Spencer had to close his once-thriving haberdashery, it had never been so dark. There were street lamps, automobiles, lights from neighbors' windows. Sounds, too. Nights in Ohio were so quiet beyond the crickets, and the quiet amplified the darkness. Even with a moon, the sky was a huge black basket full of stars tumbling over one another, and Win felt like they would tumble down on her, or she would tumble up into the blackness between them and get lost. She wasn't afraid of the dark, but she was afraid of the night sky, and she had hated having to run to the outhouse on clear nights, even if she had a lantern. She was probably even more relieved than her pregnant mother to have an indoor toilet again.
As the summer passed and autumn crept in, the darkness came earlier and earlier until it was truly nighttime well before Win went to bed. She would make herself stand at the window of the darkened parlor and look out at the night from the safety of the house. The longer she looked, the more stars she could see in the sky, and the dizzier it made her feel inside.
One evening, Win's mother, Eliza, came looking for her. She pulled a straight-backed chair up to the window and sat down heavily next to Win. She was tired and huge with the baby that was due that month.
"What're you watchin' darlin'?"
Win could hear the worry in her voice. "Not watchin', really," she replied. "Just lookin'. There's so many stars, and it's so dark out."
"You wanna go out 'n' see the stars?"
Win shook her head solemnly. "It's not like North Carolina. The sky's so black, and even though there's so many more stars, there's always more black."
Eliza nodded and pulled Win close to her. "The spaces between stars," she mused. "My mama always used to tell me that's where the adventure is. The things you don' know and can't see." They both looked out the window for a while, and then Eliza said, "Let's you 'n' me take a walk."
Win looked at her suddenly, almost in alarm.
Eliza laughed. "You woul'n't be scared with me, would you, darlin'?"
"No, Mama. I don' think so."
Though the days weren't too cold yet, it got chilly after sundown. Eliza bundled up in two sweaters, and she brought out Win's winter coat from a cupboard high above the stove. The girl had grown over the summer, of course, and it was a little small. Eliza frowned her worried frown, but she smiled beneath it. "It'll do fo' tonight, but we'll have to find somethin' else fo' you this winter. Gets very cold up here in the North."
Win nodded. "Yankeeland," she said without thinking.
Eliza laughed, but Grandma Kellogg clicked her tongue behind her front teeth and shook her head. "This is America, Winifred, not Yankeeland. We're all one country, don't you know."
"I'm sorry, Grandma," Win said. "I forgot."
The older woman had never known her father because he had died in the Civil War. Living just over the river from Kentucky, she was very sensitive about the Union and slavery. Win knew not to say "Yankee" around her grandmother, and she didn't say it at school, either, but she sometimes forgot when she was talking to her mother.
"I'm sorry, too, Mother Kellogg," Eliza said. "We don' mean any disrespect. Just a bad habit we're tryin' to break. We are tryin'."
"I know you are, dear." She smiled, but there was still a furrow between her eyebrows. She shook her head and that seemed to clear her expression. "But why are you two going outside in the cold?"
"Winifred still isn' used to it bein' so dark, or the sky bein' quite so big out in the country. I thought we'd take a little walk, so she could rest a little easier with the nighttime."
"Ah, the night sky." Grandma Kellogg smiled then, looking wistful. "You had better hurry up, then, if you want to see the stars in their full glory. The moon's about to rise."
On the flagstones outside the kitchen door, Eliza and Win stood for a few moments to give their eyes time to open wider and let their ears adjust to the quiet. They walked across the yard toward the chicken coop. They could see it outlined against the sky, outlined with the absence of stars. There was a gate in the fence next to the chicken coop, and a pasture beyond. They followed the trail that led out to a pond.
"Watch out fo' cow pies," Eliza said. "That's the biggest thing to be 'fraid of out here."
Though Win's shoes were well-worn and too tight, she didn't know when she would get new ones, so she picked her way with special care around the cow pies, focusing on the ground rather than the sky. But she could feel the sky, and something else, too, something looming behind her, and a sense of dread grew within her. She looked back toward the farmhouse and saw a huge ominous mass welling up behind the house, blocking the stars. She couldn't imagine what it was, and it felt like her parents' worry, some unknown mistake or tragedy sneaking up on her family, something she didn't know and couldn't see. She tightened her grip on her mother's hand and shivered. Eliza stopped but didn't say anything. Then she squeezed back and started walking again.
They reached the edge of the pond and saw the stars reflected in it. There was a bright fuzziness on the farther edge, and Win realized it was the glow of the moon from behind the trees on the horizon.
Eliza let go of Win's hand and turned slowly around and around, looking up. Win followed her lead and did the same. It wasn't enough to make her dizzy, but just enough to feel the rotation of the universe all around her. She made herself look into the sky, and she kept the stars moving above her, slowly. They didn't fall. She heard her mother's feet moving next to her, and she stretched her arms out wide to brush her mother's sweater as she turned.
The moon slipped over the horizon a moment later, and suddenly there was light in the landscape. Win could see trees and fields, hills, the corn patch next to the house. She could see the house itself, and the chicken coop and paddock fence. And, towering majestically behind the house and buildings, there was the old oak that shaded the drive to the road.
Of course, Win thought, that's what that big black monster was! In the growing light of the rising moon, she could see the trunk and the golden leaves in their autumnal glory, lit up clear as day.
"Oh, a magnificent thing," Eliza said. "We are in a magnificent place."
"A magnificent place," Win echoed, and she understood that light did reach into spaces between stars, and the darkness would not smother her.

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