The Star Maiden, by Roshani Chokshi

 

A star maiden is not an actual star.
If you split her open, you will find neither crumbled moons nor milky pearls.
A star maiden is a sliver of heaven made flesh.
She is an orphaned moonbeam clinging to one possession only:
A dress.

AT NIGHT my Lola liked to stand beside me and look out the window. Her hands—snarled with veins and rose-scented—would grip my shoulders tightly, as if I were the only thing anchoring her to ground.

“Do you see that empty space, anak?” she would say, pointing to a sky dusted with pinpricks of light. I could never quite see where she was pointing, but I would nod anyway. “That space is mine. That is my home.”

I used to laugh. “No it isn’t. This is your home, Lola.”

maiden1Always, she would turn and stare at the apartment that she had lived in for as long as I could remember. I could trace her gaze as it fell on the bowed heads of wooden statuettes—a Madonna wreathed in a fluorescent rosary, a Santo Niño with golden robes staring frank-eyed from its porcelain face, a kneeling Francis of Assisi beside a dusty candle. I could see her lips purse when she looked at the bright parol lantern with its oyster shells polished to translucence and strung with lights. I could see her eyes gleam at the sight of my late grandfather’s portrait in his military uniform, her husband unsmiling and handsome, age and sunlight now dulling the hair that had once been black as jet. Then, she would look beyond the photo, to her refrigerator, and a crayon drawing I had made in kindergarten. In the drawing, Lola and I both had wings and the night sky was a scrawl of indigo. I had run out of colors and left her dress a blank and pristine paper-white, outlined only in thick black marker.

When I gave the drawing to her, she wept.

But no matter how long my grandmother stared at the apartment, she would always turn back to me and say, “Even so. This is not my home. Not really.”

And then she would lead me inside, the balcony door swinging behind her like a sigh.


A fallen star maiden dies two deaths before she returns to her celestial haunt.
First, when the dress that she had laid by the banks disappears.
Second, when the hope of reclaiming it vanishes.

Whenever I think about home, the first memory that jumps to mind is neither my bedroom, lined with the portraits of broody boy bands, nor the warmth of our family couch, where my dog once brought me a dead vole. I picture my grandmother’s kitchen in the small apartment where she lived alone. I can feel the crocheted seat covers against my skin like a second flesh. I can smell the worn incense of that memory—old potpourri in a glass lotus-shaped bowl, bananas with brown peels, rice frothing on the stove. And I remember Lola.

Lola was meticulous.

Each night, she pressed her clothes for the next day and zipped them in protective plastic skins lined with lavender sprigs and rose petals. Everything in her cabinets—from a saltshaker shaped like a rabbit mid-spring and an ancient bottle of Jufran banana sauce, to crystal phials of eucalyptus oil and a jade box for the pearls Lolo had given her on their fiftieth wedding anniversary—was pristine. If it could be labeled, it was. If it could be compacted, it was. Our family joked that Lola’s first language was Tagalog and her second was Tupperware.

“Why are you so organized?” I had once asked.

I had not inherited any such trait and I was jealous. I remembered leaning against the countertop, my sunburned cheek cool against the granite. Lola had just finished pouring the puto rice cake batter into cupcake molds and had set them on the stove to cook. Tendrils of steam uncurled in the air, perfuming the kitchen with the soft-sweetness of cut banana leaves.

Lola was polishing silverware, and her hair—white as sea foam—had begun to frizz out from the steam, forming a cottony aureole around her head.

“I do not want to lose anything,” she said. “Not again.”

“What did you lose?”

I already knew what she would say. To anyone who would listen, she would tell them the tale of how she had floated down from the heavens to a secluded forest pool and how, there, my grandfather had fallen in love, captured her, and wedded her shortly thereafter.

“Your Lolo stole my dress when I was bathing,” she said matter-of-factly. “I could never fly back home. Without her dress, it is the star maiden’s curse to live out a mortal life.”

She crooned a little song before looking at my grandfather’s picture on the wall. “Salbahe,” she said, scolding the picture affectionately. “Your grandfather was very mischievous.”

When I was younger, I believed everything she said. I believed that a tikbalang slunk through coastal shantytowns, its ghost hooves crusted with sea-salt, its body twitching and hungry for virgins. I believed that a shadow in a tree meant a wakwak was preening and that its smooth-skinned witch familiar was nearby. I believed my Lola was a star-maiden who once wore a constellation in her hair and yearned to press her feet in the warm loam of the Philippines. Later, my parents would tell me that Lola had lived through the war and had lost everyone. If she chose to mask slain family members with a myth, then that was her business.

At the time, however, the one thing I couldn’t believe about my grandmother was why she stayed on Earth.

“He stole from you! Why did you stay?”

Lola shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps I was curious. I was a foreigner, after all. The first day he saw me, he gave me a mango. I had never had a mango…it was masarap. Like eating a sun. He was a good man. And he had the most beautiful singing voice.”

Later, I would discover that things less powerful than sweet mangoes and lovely voices could grasp your heart. But at the time, I was quietly outraged. How could my grandmother—who knew a thousand ways to lull someone to sleep, who knew that the moon wore a coronet of solar flares, who knew what a star looked liked without its husk—fall for a song? Then again, perhaps I could understand. I remembered Lolo’s voice. He sang to me once when I was eight and had fallen off a bike. My head against his chest, his voice—exquisite and velvety—wrapped around us like gauze, soothing my bruised knee and scuffed elbow until I was bobbing my head with the rhythm, garbling the lyrics and trying to sing with him.

“Did you ever find it?” I pressed. “The dress?”

“Oh yes,” she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “He was so messy. He could not find his own nose without my help.”

“But you stayed.”

“I loved him. I still do. Mahal ko siya.”

“But he cursed you by taking your dress,” I pointed out.

“Oh anak, that is not the curse,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “The curse is to love, to be loved in return, and still have to leave.”

maiden2

The heavens have a weakness for music.
The empyrean cities of heaven are cold, cleaved pearls, lined with thuribles of moonstone.
There, music is a myth and its secret language of cadence and rhythm weigh on star souls.
Desire—for sound, for water, for skin—are a powerful pull.
A star maiden can spend her whole life staring at Earth.

Lola told stories the way people breathed—naturally.

She said trees and plants withered at the touch of a pregnant woman because the enkanto within the blossoms and limbs would sour with jealousy. She said paying a debt at night attracted bad luck because a multos stalked in the shadows. She said green objects summoned the sarimanok bird, whose shadow brought gold and whose feathers left rainbows in their wake.

But her favorite story was the one where I would dance with her in the sky. We would skip over planets, our feet glowing in the echoes of things that had burned for eons. We would dine in a kingdom carved out by the waters of impossible oceans and feast on translucent sea creatures with flesh as clear as glass. She would introduce me to her sisters like some souvenir from her brief, mortal sojourn. It was something she talked about as casually as other people discussed trips to the dentist.

Sometimes, when afternoon visits stretched into nighttime, Lola liked to clear the space in the living room and play an old record.

“Come here, Tala,” she would say, summoning me with an imperious flick of her fingers. She was a princess in another world, after all. “I am going to teach you to dance.”

I could not dance. My feet always slipped out from under me, as if they would rather be tentacles or fins. At seventy-nine, Lola was more graceful than most ballerinas. Her neck was slender, her fingers long and expressive. When she danced, light clung to her. Lola’s dance hummed with magic and the precision of her grace—not practiced, but perfect; not taught, but transcendent—infected me with envy. I tried to follow her. But I was no star maiden. My movements were labored with earth. Where her blood ran silver and glass, mine was ruddy with roots and red.

“This is how we shall dance when you visit me in the sky,” she would say. “Side by side. Two star souls going home.”


The star maiden can gift—just once—the secrets of flight to another.
It will never be her dress, for that is her soul’s extension and cannot be remade.
A harrowing task lies before her,
Like dancing iron shoes into silk slippers, like kissing nettles into cotton, like dying.
But for one she loves, one who can follow, one who is a star herself,
She will accept any trial.

I was almost fifteen. My body had bulges and dips. Things seemed to smell different. Look different. Sometimes I couldn’t recognize myself and would have to look twice. Who was that lost girl in the mirror? Did she even belong in this world? On the cusp of fifteen, my world tilted. Boys smiled at me. I lent out other students’ secrets in exchange for a place to sit during lunch. Around me, homes cracked like teeth. And the only constant—Lola with her ridiculous stories—began to grate.

Lola wasn’t brilliant. She was batty.

She wasn’t magical. She was manic.

When I got my period for the first time, she didn’t tell me I was now a woman. She didn’t tell me about her first time or tell me how to soothe my cramps. Instead, she started gathering materials. If I asked her what she was making, she would hush me with a simple “Hoy!” and bat me away. “It is a surprise,” she would mutter every time I asked about the zipped up, opaque plastic bag that held a prized place in her closet.

She started collecting strange things. Uncut hulks of milky quartz, creamy aventurine pendants, heavy spheres of moonstone. There were boxes filled with plastic pearls, metallic thread, and garish sequins that caught the light and refracted it into ghastly splotches across the walls. More often than not, Lola looked tired. Bothered. Her hair, once smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, began to thin. Her words sounded cottony. Whatever otherworldly grace had once limned her movements began to wear and tear. She shuffled across the floors, gnarled hands filled with pearls. Her back bowed under the impossible weight of a mysterious task.

“She’s getting old,” my parents would whisper and tap their temples. There were more and more brochures in the house for facilities with sunny names and flat exteriors. I began to hate going there, and yet I wasn’t allowed to stay home by myself.

“Your grandmother would be so lonely without you. She loves you, Tala,” was my parents’ go-to response. “What are you going to do at home anyway? What if she fell? Just wait until we find a place for her.”

I hated being cooped up there. I hated how her apartment always smelled like fish and rice. I hated how forgetfulness and loss sleeved the rooms. Mementos of the dead, the pearls from my grandfather, island tribal knives. But more than anything, I hated its familiarity. I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror, or consistently pronounce my own name to people, or decide whether I wanted to be “American attractive” or “Asian attractive,” and yet in Lola’s apartment—in that demesne of stories that couldn’t be true—I was unequivocally at home.

Sometimes, Lola would begin to tell me about the sirenas beneath the ocean, how they yearned to dance and would cleave their fins bloody in their desperation for legs, but then she would see my face—taut and bored—and lapse into silence.

Sometimes, Lola would tell me about the first time she felt ground beneath her feet. How the support of something bolstering her upright was the first time she felt safe. How Lolo had guessed what she was and instead of frightening her, instead of claiming her, had first tried to make her smile. But I had stopped listening and my response was always the same: “You’ve told me this before, Lola. I don’t need to hear it again.” And always she would nod tightly, pat my head and say, “Of course, anak. You are so smart and lovely. You do not need to hear the same tales over and over again. They are in your blood.”

Sometimes, Lola would coax me to dance with her. And maybe I was bored, or maybe I just wanted her to stop talking, and so I would.

“We will dance like this in the heavens,” she said for the thousandth time.

“How?” I groaned after one of our practices.

She grinned widely at me and her skin—like light seen through topaz—folded in hopeful wrinkles about her face. “Do not worry about that.”


In the tales of the Igorot people, the star-maiden always leaves.
Even when she wants to stay, she has no choice. It is a soul-tug to return home.
And Earth, despite its music, is forever a foreign city with which she is at odds.
It takes great effort to remember solidity, to forsake keening novas and wintry nebulas.
It takes great pain to age, to force oneself to surrender a body it has come to love.
It takes great love to abandon the ghosts of a life now shrouded in “once upon a time.”

When I turned eighteen, I didn’t have to go to Lola’s apartment after school. I could go home or to a friend’s house. Sometimes I found myself walking toward her street even when I didn’t want to go there or didn’t need to be there. It was habit by then. And each time I stopped and wrenched myself from the path to her home, a thousand needle-sharp bites snagged into my skin. Eventually, I grew used to it, that constant gnaw of wrongness, like something that fit too tightly. I grew used to wearing a second skin and pretending that I had won the right to wear it, like a victorious pelt.

Then, one day, Lola fell. Her hip broke in two places and she was considered too risky a candidate for surgery. I remembered her face in the hospital when they told her. She didn’t cry. She just raised her chin and stared straight at the physician:

“So, I cannot dance anymore?” she asked.

The physician looked taken aback. “No. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Do not be sorry,” she said, with all the imperious benevolence a queen who had found her living quarters not to her liking.

After that, my parents didn’t think it was safe for her to live by herself. We didn’t have enough room for her to stay with us. Even if we had, there would be no way we could afford a live-in nurse to take care of her. Mom told her she would have to move into a home nearby where they could visit her every week. Where she would be safe. Lola didn’t fight. But she had one request before she left the apartment.

maiden3A party, for her eightieth birthday.

“Tala will be my guest of honor,” she said. “She is my prinsesa after all.”

We bought a tiered cake laced in white frosting and ornamented with stars of spun sugar. We rented out the gymnasium at my high school and decorated with blue streamers, fake pearls and the flags of the Philippines. My parents spared no expense. Hundreds of cards went out, pale cream and bordered with blue, Lola’s favorite color. Dad ordered an entire lechon, its skin crisp and glistening from the roast. Tiers of steaming puto, violet sapin-sapin and pan de sal adorned the tables. On the main stage, our local cultural organization performed tinikling with great bamboo sticks. Outside, Mom had set up a table for guests to sign their names and express half-hearted endearments to see Lola again soon. Music filled the air, jovial rondalla music and old love songs. And at the head of the room was Lola’s seat of honor—a great wooden chair strung with bells and ribbons stole the spotlight. Like a throne.

In the days leading up to the party, Lola could not stop smiling. She would stroke the plastic leaves of the plants on our dining table and pat the television set like it was a friend. She told my Dad that he was a fussy baby, but a good boy. She told my Mom that she was welcome to anything of hers and that she was as good as any daughter she could have had. But she had a special message for me. “Soon, we shall dance and I will give you a constellation for your hair,” she would croon to me any time she thought no one was listening. Sometimes I would catch her bent over the suitcase she had brought containing all the things she would take with her to the retirement home. Each time she looked inside, her face seemed transfixed with light and I could see—for the first time—what she might have looked like when Lolo met her. Astral and incandescent.

On the day of the party she called me to her room. She had brushed her hair back and into an elegant twist. She wore a maria clara gown with stiffly starched pearl sleeves. At her throat lay Lolo’s necklace and when she saw me, her hands fluttered to its strands. She was sitting by the window, a white dressmaker’s bag slung across her lap.

“I finished it,” she said quietly.

“Finished what?”

“Your dress, anak.”

I looked down at my outfit. A simple black dress with a choker I borrowed from my friend. “I already have one, Lola.”

She tsked, “Not that. A real dress, for a bituin, a girl from the stars.” Grinning, she held the bag to me. “Open it. It is for you.”

The dress was long and white, with a high neckline and mismatched sleeves. A haphazard array of sequins covered the neckline and the hems were glitter-dipped and frayed with metallic threads. A crazed white stitching covered the back of the dress in the outline of wings drawn in a shaky hand. A second layer of cloth wrapped around the waist, small stones—nephrite, quartz and moonstone—glue-spattered to the material.

It was hideous.

“I want you to wear it for the party,” said Lola. Her voice was so pleased, so full of pride with her work. “It has taken me years. It has taken its toll. But I do not mind.”

“What—” I steadied my voice, trying to hide my disdain, “—what exactly is this, Lola?”

“It is your dress, of course! It is what you will wear when we dance in the heavens.” She looked at me as though I was some wild animal that had wandered, unwelcome, into her room. “Tonight, we go. Together. After the party. I have my dress too, I have been saving it for today. And now you have your dress, and we will fly up into the night and—”

“Can’t you just let it be?”

“Let what be?”

I waved my arms, as if it could encompass every story she told. But the words wouldn’t follow. “You want me to show up to the party in this?”

“Afterward, you will come with me,” continued Lola, unfazed. “You will love it, I know it. I know you.”

I know you.

I lost my calm. I thought about the people who would be there. The friends we’d invited. I thought about them laughing at my stupid dress and eccentric grandmother. I had escaped everyone’s attention so far. I moved so quickly from friend to friend, class to class, hobby to hobby, that no one could ever get a good look at me. No one could ever catch that I had stitched a second skin across my alien self and spent every minute wondering if any part of me was showing. But if I wore that dress, that invisibility would be gone. Too many eyes.

“No. I won’t do it.”

“Trust me, anak. It is lovely. Like you. And after—”

“What, we’ll just rise up in the sky?” I said, my voice shaking.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes shining. “Just try it on. Please. For me.”

And so I did.

I tore the dress from her and yanked it over my head.

“Tala, be gentle!” she warned.

I would not be gentle. I pushed my arms so forcefully through the sleeve that I heard stitches scream, gemstones moaning as they hit the ground in handfuls.

“What are you doing?” cried Lola.

The chair scraped against the wood as she rose to a stand. I could hear the edge in her voice. But I couldn’t stop. I dug my fingers into the cloth, into the veil…and I pulled with the weight of years and stories steeling my nails. The dress gave way like water. And when I had wrestled it limp and useless and slung it around my body, it hung off my shoulders like ripped flesh. My other dress—shiny and glittering and black—peered through the tears like wounds.

“There,” I said, my head turned from her, my voice so cold I felt icicles blooming across my neck. “I tried it on.”

When she returns, the heavens rejoice and the Earth licks its wounds in solitude.
She receives her sisters’ embraces and dusts off her throne of crystal.
Star maidens are never the same after a long absence.
The solidity of Earth clings to them in thick shadows.
They recount their travels, their lovers, their children.
And sometimes they lean out, silver hair brushing against the ether of other worlds,
Searching for their bloodline. Lulling their loneliness to sleep.

Lola died a week after the party. I tried to bury my apology with her, but by now it was a ghost trailing a broken hem and always I heard it softly moving over the floor where I walked, pinning itself to the mirror when I tried on clothes or settling on my shoulders like a pall. Sometimes I thought I saw quartz and sequins swinging from white silk out of the corner of my eye.

When I got to university, it was easier to shrug off the skin of high school. It was easier to breathe. After years of refusing to speak in Tagalog, I started taking courses in school. I discovered I was pretty good at languages. To me, they felt like sheathed daggers on my tongue—strange and powerful, able to knife through pain or confusion in a matter of seconds. When that second skin finally shriveled to a husk and fell off, nobody knew the difference. But even though it felt good to be myself, I carried the ghost of Lola’s dress and the worn weight of her stories.

One day I met a man by a pool, and even though it was at the local gym and not a forest, it felt magical. When he asked me to marry him, he hadn’t hidden a dress in a bamboo flute or a loose board in the ceiling. I loved him, even though he couldn’t sing worth a damn, and I wished I could tell Lola about him.

The week before my wedding, Dad sent me a package in the mail. It was light, the edges softly rounded with age. The scent—lavender sprigs and rose petals—diffused in my room. I sat cross-legged with the half-opened box. Dad’s terse note said it was Lola’s wish that I receive this before my wedding. At first, I thought it would be the strange mementos of her apartment. The set of knives inscribed with tribal names. A salt and peppershaker with the chipped, wary faces of ceramic rabbits. What I didn’t expect was a letter in Lola’s shaky handwriting—

maiden4

Beneath her letter, wrapped in thin sheaves of paper, was a dress the nacreous white of a cleaved oyster. The silk shone iridescent beneath the weak lights of my apartment, and its color—the pristine glow of a star’s pith—crept under my skin and stayed. I lifted it reverently, my hands trembling and my breath coiled tight and hot in my throat. The dress was so cold, as though it held the memory of the star-spangled skies. I pressed it to me and my soul fluttered against the fabric. There were no wings on the fabric. No magic shimmering in the air. But for the first time in years, I believed Lola. What would happen if I wore the dress?

I thought back to our last conversation, my chest tightening. Since that night, I’d kept a useless apology in my heart. Now, my apology had gathered moss in its edges. It had collected dust and stains and fissures. Even if the dress didn’t catapult me to the heavens, even if the cold silk was just cold silk, the hope…of what it could be… was precious.

At night, I listened for the sounds of the city. My moving boxes were stacked against the walls. My pictures were wrapped, my silverware cocooned in towels and stuffed in containers. Next week would be the start of a whole new future, but I still had tonight to say goodbye, to make amends, to kindle the oldest of dreams.

I washed my hair and curled it so that it hung across my shoulders. I wore a simple necklace with a single pearl. I cleaned my engagement ring until it was sparkling. I considered wearing a pair of shoes, but thought better of it.

I moved like a ghost knee-deep in memory.

That night, I slipped on the dress and it clung to me like water.

I walked to the balcony, seeking some newly filled space in the night sky where I thought she would be. I don’t know what I wanted in that moment. Did I want to be proven wrong and end up laughing at myself? Or did I just want to tell her that I loved her and that I was sorry I had not visited sooner?

Eventually, I saw a cradle of stars tucked into a square of night. I thought I heard music. The ghost of a song rilled across my skin. Lola.

Slowly, my feet lifted off the ground…


In the empyrean skies of heaven, a world-weary star rejoices.
There are gifts exchanged—silver constellations and sea-glass flowers—
And words lingered over—of love and light, woes and weddings—
And when all is said and done, they prepare their farewells in dance.
Their feet light, fingers touching, two star souls at home.
end_of_story

unnamedRoshani Chokshi is the author of the upcoming Young-Adult Indian fantasy, The Bride of Dusk and Glass, from St. Martin’s Griffin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Book Smugglers (“The Vishakanya’s Choice”), The Feminist Wire (“Antyesti”) and Fiction Vortex (“The Moira Sisters’ Inn”). She grew up in a pocket of the south and quickly discovered that boiled peanuts are the next best thing to ambrosia. Although her mother speaks Tagalog and her father speaks Gujarati, she knows only a smattering of curse words. But what she lacks in her family’s language, she makes up in stories. Twitter: @NotRashKnee. Web: www.roshanichokshi.com.

 

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10 thoughts on “The Star Maiden, by Roshani Chokshi”

  1. Wow, what a wonderful story. I loved the tension you built up, how she fought something she didn’t really want to fight. The ending was bittersweet.

  2. Tala’s story sounds like a song itself … so Lola‘s legacy will stay in one more way at least.

    Curiously, there is a similar belief about stealing the dress of the samodiva, a dryad-like being in Bulgarian mythology. Is the mythical creature here called sirena or does she have another name?

  3. I loved the story, very powerful! I was never close to my lola’s, but somehow this story still resonated with me. The story felt like my own… I felt like I was Tala. Thank you for letting me escape to the heavens, even for just a little while! 🙂

  4. You have created such a vision and empowered my inner Asian guilt to come out! I can completely understand why it moved Nicole so much! You are very talented and can’t wait to read the full length book!!! Mrs. R

  5. Absolutely adored this exquisite story. Made me cry first thing on a Sunday morning thinking of my own Lola, whom I miss every day. Thank you for this.

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