Ann didn’t know where she was going, but it didn’t matter, so on she went on, deeper into the semi-dark of the woods. Shafts of moonlight guided her. She buried her hands in her pockets, hoping to disappear somewhere along the way.
Two hundred and thirty-eight thousand miles above her, the moon was not going anywhere. Fixed in place by the pull of the Earth, she heard—but did not heed—the many cacophonous rackets of human society. The bus-beeps. The over-phone arguments and the in-person arguments. Shouting, yelling, grumbling, seething. Dinging alarms to wake up, go to sleep, take dinner out of the oven, type that email (TAP-TAP-TAP), or change the channel from one jarring crash of noise to the next. Human-made music, blasted into ears, across rooms, through engine-revving, coughing cars.
The moon listened beyond all that…
Ann itched at the humidity in her hair. She’d left the ruckus of the indifferent city and its indifferent university behind her, at the foot of the mountains. Now, there was relative quiet. The birds had gone back to their nests. The first-chairs of the grasshoppers’ orchestra began their solos, and the crickets applauded them.
Stopping between tree roots, Ann tilted back her head to gaze at the stars. Polaris, Sirius, Betelgeuse—her only lasting lifelong companions. Even though they never did much for her, really. Only make her ache. Only make her lonelier on cloudy nights.
If Ann ever did go missing, no one would notice. No one would look. After all, what was a girl disowned by her family? What was a girl too cautious now to make any connection with anyone? She’d left no friends in her hometown and she’d found no friends at college. She ate less. She slept less. She cared less. She couldn’t carry on this way—financially, emotionally, socially, physically—so Ann willed herself to float away into the cold of the stars she’d worshipped all her life. To just fade off, quietly, into the purled stitches of the universe.
“Bastard of a thing!”
If any weevils were offended by the desecrated peace, they didn’t say. Once Ann recovered from the jump-scare of it, she only felt curious. Silence, isolation, sorrow—those were a dime a dozen in Ann’s life, anyway. It wasn’t every day that someone snarled “bastard of a thing” from somewhere deeper in the woods.
Ann followed the sounds of struggling. In a small clearing up ahead, she found a woman yanking furiously on a rope, the other end of which disappeared high into the trees.
She was a stray cat of a woman. Every well-worn seam of her clothes spoke of belonging nowhere to no one, yet her eyes burned with vigor. She and Ann were the same age, probably, but those twenty-three years hadn’t treated each the same. The woman’s wiry arms were strong; whatever she was trying to pull down from the trees had to be stuck damned good for her heel-grinding efforts to prove fruitless.
“For fuck’s sake.” The woman let go of the rope, sighing sharply. She put her hands on her hips and stared upward between the boughs, panting, reevaluating.
“Are you okay?” Ann asked, from the edge of the moonlight.
The other woman startled like a stray, too, hackles up and poised for a fight. When her eyes pinpointed Ann in the shadows, she relaxed. Ann clearly didn’t fall into the category of “threat,” with her braided pigtails and hike-bruised shins.
The woman with the rope sighed again.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “But I could use a hand.”
“With what, exactly?” But Ann was already hurrying over, dog-whistled by the wild-haired woman’s take-no-shit, give-no-shit voice.
“You’re a university kid, aren’t you?” the woman asked, instead of explaining herself.
Ann nodded, blushing. Was it that obvious? Did she have the face of a dork, the smell of dorm on her clothes?
“Then don’t bother asking.” The woman rubbed her fingers together. “You’d have some smart-ass thing to say about it, I’m sure. Percy, by the way.”
She held out a rope-raw hand. Ann accepted it, and maybe it was some fissure in reality or maybe she was going crazy, but it seemed as if the meeting of their skin added more music to the night. The last wakeful cicadas, the turning-over of dirt in mole dens, and this. Touch, spark, eyes meeting; someone stumbling miraculously into someone else’s life.
“Percy,” Ann repeated.
“Short for Persephone,” Percy explained, “which is loathsome, obviously. And you? What’s your misfortune?”
“Short for They Must Have Been Low On Ink The Day I Was Born.”
Percy’s laugh cracked out against the night-song, loud and real and wander-weary. She shook her head, but it was the kind of no that meant yes. Yes, that was a good one.
“Ann,” Percy said, another note in the symphony, “I’m trying to pull down the moon.”
Somewhere by water, a skeptical bullfrog went hrrmmm, hrmmmm into the silence.
“I’m sorry, what?” Ann asked.
“I’m trying. To pull down. The moon.”
Ann tried and failed to reconcile that sentence in her head. She could get by for the first two thirds of it. “The moon” sent it scattering out of her grip again, logic unspooled, no sense to be had. Pull down the moon? Was that supposed to be some kind of riddle? Not based on Percy’s expression: one brow raised, grimly awaiting a smart-ass retort. Ann fought against every urge to deliver it.
“But that’s impossible,” she said eventually.
“Impossible!” Percy scowled. “It was impossible for man to talk until he opened his mouth. Now it’s impossible to shut him up again.”
“You did say ‘pull down the moon,’ right?”
“As in, the moon in the sky? Waxes and wanes? We landed on it, once?”
“That’s the one, yes. Not any of those other shit moons you’re thinking of.” Percy’s haughty, straight-faced humor was in total contrast to the absurdity of her proposition. It made Ann giggle. It made her give in.
“Okay,” she said, “and why do you want to do a thing like that?”
To Ann’s surprise, Percy answered by grabbing her arm and pulling her close. She bent down a fraction, so their heads bopped together at the same level. Percy smelled like pine, like soil. A woman of the earth. Her temple fit flush against Ann’s.
Ann held her breath.
“Listen,” Percy whispered. “Listen….”
She pointed to the ground beneath their feet.
Ann couldn’t hear anything except the hoot of an owl some distance away, and then a fox yapping in heat or in hunger. The usual katydid musings. The moving of blood through her veins and the softer-than-soft ins and outs of Percy’s breath.
“The earth sings,” Percy whispered. “Not its critters. I mean, they sing, obviously. We sing. But the Earth herself—she sings, too, and no one listens except the moon, because she loves her.”
Ann gazed upward.
She couldn’t see the moon from that angle. But spread through the sky across from it, Ann could see the motley, mythos-soaked parade of constellations. She’d chosen Astronomy for a reason. The science of it. The incomprehensible complexities of the universe waiting patiently to be discovered, explained, understood. Most of all, she chose Astronomy for its history of yearning.
Everyone who ever lived looked at the same moon. The same stars.
Ancient heroes, little lost kids, misfits, kings, killers, lovers—every one of them gazed up at the red furnace fire of Antares. Did they know its name? Did they know it was the Heart of the Scorpion? Probably not. Many of them must have had their own story behind Orion and his triple-star belt. Still, they had all followed that same sky-locked hunter of the stars as he pinwheeled from one horizon to another.
Ann liked Orion, but she’d always preferred Cassiopeia. Beautiful, vain Cassiopeia, bound to her throne of stars, her world upside-down for half the year. A queen punished by the scorn of men and gods.
What would Cassiopeia do, Ann used to wonder as a girl, if she were free?
“Can you imagine,” Percy began softly, “being trapped in the gravity of your true love, but never being able to reach them?”
Ann didn’t have to imagine it. She’d orbited that agony many times in her life, paired up with Becky Marckle for macaroni art, swapping songs that cautiously bordered romance with Phoebe Fletcher in seventh grade, comforting but never confiding to Viv Ryner throughout high school.
But those weren’t true loves, were they?
True love wasn’t a mopey middle school playlist abandoned by eighth grade. It was a song you never grew tired of hearing. It was Andromeda, Lady of the Heavens, forever reaching after her hero in the night sky. It was Altair and Vega, two stars crossed in love, and the many magpies that came to bridge the rushing Milky Way river between them.
“Will you help me?” Percy asked.
Will I be a magpie for the moon? Ann asked herself, and put that way, there could only be one answer:
She took the limp end of the rope and wrapped it twice around her wrist. Percy unleashed a feral smile. Her eyes sparkled with the greenish-yellow match-flares of surrounding fireflies. She took the rope, too, wrapping it, bracing herself.
They heaved together.
The heels of Ann’s Nikes ground hard into the earth, and she tasted sweat off her lip. Behind her, Percy growled with stubborn determination. Humidity festered in their shirts. Their arms burned and began to tremble.
The utter insanity of what she was doing threatened to break Ann in half down the center, but if she had to go mad, she wanted to go mad like Percy: feral fighter for love, believer in impossible distances impossibly closed. She’d pull down the whole Goddamn fucking moon, or she’d give herself an aneurism trying. Her mother called her unnatural, once. Well, then, who better to break all the rules?
“Come on, you great fuckin’ beauty!” Percy screamed. “Fight for it! Just a kiss on the forehead! How long have you waited for this?”
And something gave.
The rope followed them a quarter inch, a half inch, a whole. Ann stumbled to catch herself. The full moon was obscured, leaving them in new moon darkness instead. The sky rumbled, bass and biblical, and one by one the crickets and katydids trailed off in their song. Silence swooped first through the insect world, then through the animal one, then even through the trees and the dirt.
Silence, like empty space.
Like someone holding their breath.
“Just a little more!” Percy shouted. “COME ON, BITCH, DON’T BE SHY!”
The sky screamed. Ann screamed, too, as blood slicked her grip on the rope.
Wind whipped up without warning, thrashing the trees, making them hiss like a raging storm at sea. Birds fell out of their nests, flapping and squawking in every direction. Next came a flash of light—blinding white fire—and cicadas screeching out in confusion.
Then, all at once, the sky stopped, and the rope went slack.
Percy hit the ground with a lung-emptying hnunn, and Ann fell on top of her, tears streaming down her face from the searing burst of light that still layered over her vision, even as the world returned to darkness.
“Oh, my God,” she said when she blinked the light away. “Oh, my sweet Jesus God.”
There was no sky left—not any that they could see. Instead, the trees crunched and groaned, the peaks of the surrounding mountains quivering under the weight of—of—
“The moon,” Ann gasped.
Like a grand balloon on a string. Like a dream. Like a this-doesn’t-happen-yet-it-has.
The Goddamn motherfucking moon.
Percy scrambled up from under Ann. She held out her hands as if for fight or flight or full attention. Silence. No bug dared to sing. No rabbit dared to burrow. There had never been a quiet like this quiet. Ann could hear her own heartbeat. She thought she could even hear Percy’s.
Percy dropped to her knees, crying.
“She’s quiet,” Percy whispered. “Listen. The tides are still. The plates are steady. There’s nothing but this moment.”
Moon kissing Earth.
Earth nose-to-nose with Moon.
The heroes and lovers of the sky looked on with amazement. And, Ann thought surely, with hope. Moon-dusted hope like hers. The realization that “impossible” was a thing love scoffed at.
A minute passed. Or maybe only a second.
Then the moon drew slowly away, rising heaven-bound back to its place in the dark. Life on Earth depended on their distance. That was the curse of their love, and they knew it, and so the lips of the atmosphere reluctantly unstuck from the moon’s craters.
The earth began to sing again.
Man screamed over her, out-blaring music with violence and wreckage and rules, and all the world’s critters made noise, too: the rustling of fur-soft slumbering bunnies below ground, the wheedling of brown beetles in bark, the dark’s finest night-hunters lurking through the undergrowth. Still, the moon heard the humming of her true love. Still, she teased her curling tides in return.
Percy picked something up from the ground.
“Look,” she said shakily. “It’s a moon rock.”
She brought it over to Ann, who was still gaping dumbstruck on the forest floor. She pulled Ann to her feet, supporting her when her knees almost gave out, and she shook the moon rock until Ann finally looked at it.
“Have it,” Percy whispered. “I’m an earth girl, not a moon girl.”
Percy pressed it into Ann’s hand. She didn’t stop pressing it into her hand. She was, really, holding Ann’s hand with a bit of the moon suspended between them. There was nothing but this moment, caught in one another’s gravity.
Ann stared moon-eyed into Percy’s face.
“Got something smart-ass to say, college girl?” Percy asked quietly.
Ann blurted, “Don’t go.”
Dots had come together, shining points of connected constellations, notes slurred along musical scales. Ann discovered herself for the first time, glittering, bound by some of the same stars as Percy. The opposite of fading. The other end of disappearing. She saw now that her story was one arm in a forever-narrowing V aimed toward an impossible point. What? Where? It didn’t matter.
Another wild smile unfurled across Percy’s face.
“My moon girl,” she said.
“Stars,” Ann whispered.
The distance between them closed with a bridge of magpies, and the moon and the earth and all the lovers of the heavens rang together in a celestial song only Percy and Ann could seem to hear.