Poems Written While

I believe in stars. I may be alone, my body a minefield and my life a fucking farce, but at least I have that.

The night is humid and warm, sticks to our skin like a wet T-shirt. Luz pokes the fire with a piece of scrap metal she found lying by Gunner’s feet. It sends a swarm of sparks flying into the air. Taking that as an invitation, others come flocking to our little circle. No matter the temperature, the kids gravitate towards the fire at night, so I always try to have one going near sundown.

“Give us a poem, Daddy?” the new kid says, one of Luz’s strays. His name is Roy. He’s probably a little older than Luz. Maybe in his twenties.

I think of asking for something in return—the kids need to learn the rules of this world, and better I teach them in my way than someone else in theirs—but I hold back. Just this once, I feel like giving one away.

I lie down, my back pressing against the concrete, and I look at the empty sky above. I try to imagine the stars, what they looked like. My parents had seen them. They said they looked like little fires in the sky.

“All right,” I say.

The kids hold their breaths. I can hear nothing but the fire’s crackling. I imagine it’s a fallen star.

Which one should I choose?

“William Shakespeare,” I decide. “Sonnet 14. It starts like this:

‘Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;

And yet methinks I have Astronomy.’” I pause, searching for the words, but they, inexplicably, escape me. I know these verses by heart, and yet. And yet.

“And then?” Gunner prompts me. “And then what does it say?”

“It talks of plagues and famines and being unable to tell what the future holds.”

They nod. These things my kids know well.

“How was this one written?” they ask then, as always.

“It was written while admiring a young man’s beauty,” I reply.

They nod at this too, as if they know what it’s like to look at something beautiful, stars or no stars.

Luz and Roy exchange a look. It warms me and scares me, that eager folly of youth.

“Daddy, tell us another,” Luz begs, even though she knows it hurts me to tell her no.

I watch the moon flicker briefly into view—a dull light in the quagmire of sky.

The cement is letting go of the day’s warmth, burning my back. I push myself up. “Not tonight, mi señora de la luz,” I say.

Luz scrunches her face. Because I go by Daddy, she’s taken to calling herself Kid. I told her she doesn’t have to do that; she insisted she liked it.

But she’ll always be Luz to me.

“Perhaps tomorrow.” I wink at them. “For the right price.”

Collecting star poetry is not what it used to be. I grew up on that shit. It was a cult, an underground culture, a spiritual thing for many of us who were born just after the first disaster, back in the ‘40s. It’s how I met Yanni and Sylvie, too; brought together by the dreams of starry skies lost for good, stuck together because our bodies fit in ways that made sense. Sylvie left us early; moved away to found the trans woman anarcho-communist utopia she always yearned for. I don’t know what happened to her, but I like to imagine she did, that she’s out there somewhere with the other girls, planting potatoes in the winter and batteries in the summer, dancing naked on rooftops under the new moon, howling at the hole in the sky. Though I haven’t heard from her in—what? Twenty years? But Yanni and I stayed in the coven at the old planetarium with the others.

We were very different, Yanni and I—I don’t know if we would have even been friends had we met under different circumstances. Yanni hadn’t made any changes to his appearance; a lot of the guys judged him for it, which I found cruel coming from people who know what it’s like, who know that the thing you do to your body out of love can also be the thing that’s hurting you. Yanni had a large chest and bad lungs, so binding was extremely uncomfortable and causing him more grief than it relieved, but he also refused to experiment with the nightmare batches of homebrewed T we cooked for ourselves back then. I on the other hand was willing to shoot up, slather, or suck on whatever crap I could get my hands on in exchange for a beard. It didn’t matter. For a time, we loved each other’s bodies fiercely, desperately—because, if not us, who else would?

We parted years later the way lovers do. It was ugly and tender, but nobody died, so I count it a win.

Anyway. The point is: the poetry thing was never just a fad for us. It brought us together and bound us, a generation of people whose parents spoke dreamily of star-studded nights, who still put us to bed singing, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” and we were left wondering, wide-eyed, at that betrayal of a sky.

Kids these days just think it’s cool. Retro hip. An old man’s quirk.

Either that, or they humour me, let me pretend this is how I make my living, exchange T and batteries for old starry rhymes that speak of things none of us are old enough to remember. I’m sure most of them don’t even believe stars ever existed at all; and, in the end, what do I have to convince them other than the ramblings of old romantics, star-shaped symbols, orphaned of referents? For all they know, stars could be a rumour, a trick played on us all by a generation who had everything and then went and fucked it all to shit.

I leave the kids behind and retreat to my room at the far end of the factory, using the light of a torch to avoid the junk that’s piled up along the way.

Even though it’s hot as a jungle, my walls and ceiling sweaty with moisture, I close the door, close my body inside this space I’ve carved for myself, pried it piece by piece from the tight fist that is the world. I wiggle out of my binder, take three deep breaths, cough. The thing is coming apart at the seams, my body bulges in ways it shouldn’t; I need to get my hands on a new one soon, or get Luz to keep an eye out for some KT tape on her scavenges. Prop myself back up, hold me together for as long as possible. Don’t scatter now on me.

Before I sleep, I sacrifice five percent of my laptop battery to read myself a poem. Over two thousand years old, written by Sappho the Lesbian, while she reclined, alone, under the rising stars.

It’s worth every drop.

In the morning, I go out to the old barracks on a tip from one of Luz’s contacts. They said they glimpsed a box of books and discs stashed in a bomb shelter that resurfaced when the latest quake rearranged the marsh around it. This has been the main way I get my hands on anything new for a while, since I’ve combed the area multiple times over. So it’s either quakes, or new people coming inland from the shores, lugging along their junk in hopes of meeting weirdos like me who are willing to trade them for it.

The box turns out to be full of porn and the odd nature documentary. Years ago, I would have wondered who saves a boxful of porn when catastrophe hits, but I’ve since wised up. People get by how they get by, and who am I to judge.

Back home, I stop at the fence to get rid of the marsh that’s still clinging to my boots. Luz greets me at the entrance and I immediately know something’s wrong, even before I see the deep cut on her forehead. She has that guilty look on her face. Someone has already cleaned the cut and slathered iodine on it, so I can afford to be mad at her.

“What have you done now, Luz?”

“Don’t get mad, Daddy.”

“Just tell me.”

She’s brought home another stray. That kid is too kind-hearted for her own good. All I’ve wanted was to show her how to survive, but it looks like I’ve been going about this all wrong. You’re a shit teacher, Daddy.

“She was in a car accident,” Luz mumbles.

“Wait, she has a car?”

She points to the back. “We hauled it, but it’s not working.”

“All right,” I say. “Show me.”

They put the woman on the spare cot we keep in the boiler room. She has a nasty bruise on her cheek but otherwise looks fine. Beyond being unconscious, that is.

“The nighters got her,” Luz explains. “A nail trap.”

“What did they take?”

Luz shrugs. Not much, by the looks of it. She even has a pair of good boots on.

I point at the woman’s bruise. “Did they do that?”

“Nah. She crashed into a tree.”

“And your cut?”

She shakes her head. “It was stupid. I cut myself on a piece of glass pulling her out.”

“You shouldn’t have brought her here. You shouldn’t have gotten involved at all.”

Luz looks up to me, more disbelieving than disappointed, I think. “What should I have done?” she asks.

What, indeed, Daddy?

“Okay,” I say. “Okay.” She’s here now. Might as well. I kneel next to the cot and inspect the woman’s head for bleeding, then check her pulse and airways. She must be close to my age. Maybe a bit younger. Forty, forty-five? Pretty (shut up, you creep). “Has she woken up at all?”

“No.”

“Was she conscious when you found her?”

Luz nods.

I shake the woman’s shoulder gently, and when that fails, I slap her lightly on the unbruised cheek.

Her eyelids flutter open. As soon as her eyes focus on me, she flinches backward.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I say, and my voice briefly slips into that feminine cadence I used to hate. “You’re safe.” I motion for Luz to come over.

Seeing a familiar face seems to calm the woman a bit. “You can call me Daddy,” I say. “This is Luz.”

The woman licks her lips. “Nora,” she says.

Luz offers her some water from a bottle with a straw, and she gulps it down so eagerly I have to tell her to take it easy.

“Okay, Nora.” My face is level with hers. “We’ll take care of you until you feel better. You can sleep. I’ll be sure to check on you regularly.”

“Thank you,” she says. She raises her arm, angling it at the elbow, as if intent on touching my face in thanks, but she drifts back into her slumber along the way, and her arm stays there for a moment, mid-air, like a half-finished sentence.

I tuck her arm next to her body and turn around to sit properly on the floor, my back resting against the cot. Luz has fallen asleep on a mat next to the boiler, exhausted. I look at the cut on her forehead again and my chest caves in with guilt, because she put herself in danger and I, big man, protective Daddy, house jester, was out there looking for word of useless lights in the sky because a mother twenty years dead used to talk about the stars, and then it’s all my fault again, I’m guilty of everything, this woman’s accident, my mother’s death, my father’s death, and Luz’s death when it comes, that will be on me too, because no light escapes me, I am the black hole that eats the world.

I punch the floor.

Get off it, you self-important prick.

Nora spends most of the day and night flicking in and out of sleep, but the next morning she’s upright and apologetic about taking up our space and our time and our kindness. Luz waves it all away and practically drags her to breakfast. It’s a nice day, not too hot and not too humid, so we gather at the big bench in the yard. Each of the kids brings whatever they have hoarded to share, boiled pulses mostly, but Gunner has got his paws on some eggs, heaven knows where, so I light the gas stove, and we make a proper feast of it.

Nora is sitting next to me with a plate in front of her, but she hasn’t touched its contents.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You can eat. We won’t put you to work for a plate of food.”

She glances around at the kids attacking their food, joking with each other, laughing. “You have a good thing going here.” She says nothing further, and I don’t ask. I don’t have to. I’ve seen the shit people do to each other elsewhere. I lived in a few of these places myself before making it here, before finding Luz, before she started collecting strays, before I was Daddy.

“Yes,” I say. “A good thing.”

Finally, Nora picks up her fork and brings a piece of fried egg to her mouth. She nods towards Luz. “Is she your daughter?”

My daughter?

The word comes to me like a flood. I thought I’d excised it from my vocabulary for so long that, if I heard it again, it would be meaningless, just a jumble of letters, signifying nothing. But I hadn’t, not really. I’d just carved a careful trench around it, made of it an island, far-removed and inaccessible, but always there.

When I told my mother, she mourned her daughter for days, wore black, paced the outlines of our home mutely, circling the trailer again and again and again, like a planet.

I let a week pass and then assembled myself back into a person solid enough to ask her, “Why are you so sad, Mama?”

And she said, “I’m sad because I love you. I’m sad because you’ll never have what you want.”

I remember thinking she was wrong.

“No,” I tell Nora. “I don’t have any children. But I’m everyone’s Daddy.”

“Oh,” she says. The bruise on her cheek has started to turn deep blue. It reminds me of the sea.

Have I ever seen the sea?

“And you?” I ask. “What’s your story?”

She says she used to have a husband. They were separated during the Middle Wars and she thought he’d been caught for stealing medical supplies and killed. She moved to the other side of the country after the truce. Two months ago, she got word that he’s still alive and looking for her. Now she’s trying to get back to the South. Never mind that half the country is underwater and impossible to cross.

“How were you planning on getting across the Great Wash?”

She shrugs. “I’d figure it out when I got there.”

“A fellow dreamer.” I laugh, but then my heart sinks at my own cruelty and the guilt threatens me with her teeth. “I’m sorry,” I say, and I mean it.

She shakes her head. Smiles sadly. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, we’re fixing your car. Gunner there is our expert. He’s already patched up or replaced what he could, and he’s printing the parts we didn’t have on hand. Should be ready to go in a day or two. Might even last long enough to take you all the way to the shore.”

She starts to mouth words of stunned appreciation, but one of the kids cuts her off.

“I want to buy a poem, Daddy,” Rebecca says, beaming. The others hush. This is the first time Rebecca has had something to trade. She’s fifteen and madly in love with Roy, although he only has eyes for Luz (and is too old for her in any case).

She tosses me a packet and I catch it in the air. Androderma patches, long expired. They make my skin bloom with angry welts, but I’ll take it.

I climb onto the bench, proper thespian-like. “Shakespeare again,” I say. “From Romeo and Juliet. Written while recovering from an earthquake:

‘When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’”

I bow deeply and blow Rebecca a kiss. She catches it in the air, trying not to look at Roy.

My kids are becoming experts at this game.

“That was something,” Nora says. She turns to look at me, her eyes shiny and wet.

I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’t. She’s retreated to some hidden place of herself, where I can’t reach.

Later that day, when we’re sitting by the fire, she asks me if I’m on T.

“When I can get my hands on enough of it to last me a while, yes,” I say. I’m only mildly bothered she clocked me. I know I’ve never quite passed and never will. If anything, I’m impressed with the forthrightness. “Why so surprised?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “It’s that you’re so gentle, I guess. Tender.”

Ah, that old chestnut. “Testosterone does not cause toxic masculinity, you know.” Et tu, Nora?

“Oh god,” she says. “That’s not what I meant. I’m so sorry.” She hides her face with both hands.

Great, now you’ve made her feel terrible. I laugh. “It kinda is, though, what you meant, isn’t it?” I faux pas, you faux pas, baby, let’s dance.

And why does my skin suddenly feel tight?

“You’re right,” she says. She reaches over and touches my knee in apology, sending a jolt up my leg. She glances at me and then withdraws her hand and looks back at the fire.

I catch myself noticing the way the flames cast long shadows on her face, the way she gathers her hair behind her ear, the soft curve of her jaw. Just like that, the ancient wound in my middle gasps, and I’m too old, too old and too out-of-use for this, but I fall. Head-first, I fall and fall.

“Will you sell me something?” she asks. “Just a couple of lines?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

Because I don’t want you to pity me, I don’t want your charity, I want to be able to give it all away with open arms and open chest and open bloody wounds.

I say none of this, but then she takes my hand in hers anyway, there by the fire, under the vacant sky, and my mind fills with poems.

Then it rains for five days straight. We spend most of that time sitting in my room like teenagers, sweating along with the walls, the ceiling raining on us, and I recite every poem I know by heart, the Keats, the Plath, even the Rumi

(“’tis the time of the sky’s levee,
The stars that were hidden come forth to their work.
The people of the world lie unconscious,
With veils drawn over their faces”)

and then I drain all my batteries and open all my books for her. I empty all my treasure at her feet, and it’s still not enough.

On the fifth day, just as the rain subsides, or maybe because it does, Nora pushes me back on my cot and straddles me as my heart goes supernova and explodes.

I’ve forgotten how to be touched, I want to say, but I don’t. I bring a hand to my crotch, out of reflex. I’m still packing.

“It’s all right,” she says to a question I haven’t asked, shrugging off her top.

My mouth is fire. I’m choking on a sun.

She looks at me, and I don’t know what she sees in my expression but it makes her face go serious, almost scared. “Is it all right?” she asks. “Is this all right?”

“Yes,” I whisper, breathless. Yes, yes, yes.

Then later, much later, she finds a piece of chalk and fills my ceiling with five-pointed shapes.

I give her a poem about stars falling, written while begging a sudden lover to stay.

Nora leaves that morning. Luz rides with her to the marshes and shows her which road is more likely to take her to the shore of the Great Wash. I stay behind, hide in my room, don’t even wave at her from the fence, don’t even watch the car disappear in the distance, don’t even say goodbye.

The chalk stars do not fade, despite the wetness dripping from the ceiling. But I know, one day, they will. The chalk will fade, this body will fade, the kids will scatter, the sun will swallow the Earth.

One day we’ll be extinct and all that’s left will be poems.

Poems written while beating the ground

Poems written while staring at the sky, looking for the ghosts of stars

Poems written while stretching your skin against the world

Poems written while lovers, while your body, while

Poems written while

Poems not written at all

(Editors’ Note: Natalia Theodoridou is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Natalia Theodoridou

Natalia Theodoridou is a queer writer and editor, the winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and a Clarion West graduate (class of 2018). Natalia’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nightmare, Fireside, and elsewhere. Rent-a-Vice, Natalia’s first interactive novel, is out by Choice of Games. For details, visit natalia-theodoridou.com or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.