Silent Stars

Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal, from New York Culture Photos of the Year

Detail from image by Bryan Derballa, New York Culture Photos of the Year, Wall Street Journal

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the stars. For years, Sarah had taken Bethany up to the roof to look at them, to point out the constellations and tell her their stories. “This, this is majesty,” she used to say with a deep sigh, her eyes upturned and her face aglow. Bethany had watched her curiously, but with a lack of rapture that Sarah never noticed.

Because of those evenings together, Bethany grew up knowing the myths of the sky better than she knew the nursery rhymes and fairytales her schoolmates recited. Every now and then, she asked her mother to tell her a “normal” story, and while Sarah had obliged, she never stopped to wonder at the request.

Somewhere along the way between Bethany’s childhood and her teenage years, their stargazing had dwindled. Maybe that was when everything had started to fall apart. They hadn’t been up on the roof together in two years, other than that last time, a few days ago.

Now, Sarah felt both sickened and mesmerized to find herself looking up at the stars again in one of the church’s soaring stained glass windows. It wasn’t the usual holy scene, just a wall of glowing royal blue, flecked with tiny golden shapes. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.

She shivered from the cool dampness, momentarily aware of the hard wooden bench beneath her and the smell of furniture polish, lilies and candle wax. Despite the people surrounding her, she felt she was alone.

I should be paying attention at a time like this, she thought, but she couldn’t do it. The boys’ choir began to sing while she let her mind continue to wander. She yearned to get up and run away. To escape. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed on the window and thought of earlier times.

Sarah had always been a present and involved mother and Bethany a quiet, calm child. Anyone would have thought they had a deep bond. When Bethany started swimming competitively at school, Sarah became assistant coach, spending her free time composing cheers and ushering the girls to their meets. No one would have guessed there was a chasm growing between them. Sarah did what she could to reach out to Bethany but you can’t control another’s reactions. Her daughter never reached back; she was already fading away.

The choir stopped singing, dragging Sarah back to the present. The Minister would be getting up to speak soon. Sarah had given him something to read on her behalf but she didn’t think she could bear to listen, or to feel all eyes turn toward her.

Had Bethany been trying to get closer to the stars when she went up there? That’s what Sarah had thought at first, when she’d gone looking for Bethany and found her at the edge of the roof, teetering perilously with her eyes turned skyward. She thought maybe the roof had become Bethany’s refuge because of all those times she’d brought her up there as a child, that she went there when things became difficult because it was a safe place, full of happy memories.

But Bethany had released her from that illusion. Her parting words as she drifted out onto the air left no doubt. The stars, the roof, those childhood memories, they held no happiness for her. They never had.

“There was never any light here, Mom,” Bethany said before she leaned backward, her bright blue eyes locked on her mother’s.

At first, she appeared to be floating, suspended. Sarah stood and watched, marveling at her daughter’s beauty as her hair billowed out around her. In her shock, Sarah imagined that Bethany would never crash. But of course, she did. Her slow motion free-fall sped up like a film reel suddenly switched to the right setting.

Sarah never had time to speak. It was over before she even realized it had begun.

She is with the stars now, thought Sarah as she listened to the Minister reading the final line in her eulogy. They were the words she had never managed to say in the light of day.

“I’d do anything to make you stay.”



40 thoughts on “Silent Stars

  1. Soooo sad! Beautifully written–I could see the scenes and felt the church most prominently (probably because I remember hard pews and candle wax)
    The relationships between mothers and daughters are forever complicated…you captured it perfectly.

    • Thank you so much, Michelle. I almost didn’t post it because I thought it was too sad (where DID that come from!?) and just not so good, really. I picked it over a lot, abandoned it and wrote something else, but then came back to it. I guess it just wanted to be told. Having read about you and your daughter, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you found it captured that whole relationship thing in a realistic way.

  2. To carry on with Mama’s comment, I haven’t been either a mother or a daughter but I understand a bit more about the bond they share now. Thanks for that.

    • Really? That is so gratifying. I had lots of doubts about this one, partially because I was editing it in my notebook at work, in the absence of a computer. Not my usual writing ambiance. Thank YOU.

  3. The unveiling of the situation and the setting was done masterfully, Silver. Most excellent. There’s so much in this little piece; the smells of lilies and floor wax, the navy glass, the choir. All senses engaged. Just fantastic.

    • Nate, when I saw that you had commented, I had to click over right away (obsessively, when I should have been going to sleep). I was so worried that I had gotten stuck in the rut of telling rather than showing, or that I had been disingenuous or false in some way, so your thoughts were SO reassuring. Thank you.

  4. Beautifully told, seamless integration of the prompts. As the mother of two daughters–and no stranger to those feelings of estrangement–this makes my heart pound.

    • Wow. As I said to Nate, I was so worried this wouldn’t ring true. I really value your feedback so I’m thrilled this was something you could relate to – never mind that it made your heart pound 🙂

    • Thank you! I’m really not a troubled or sad person so I was a bit taken aback by the story that wanted to be told. Strangely, the idea came from a dream I had before I even watched the video. I had read the line, went to sleep, and woke up with the mother’s story on my mind.

    • Thanks, Christina. I know what you mean, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. As I just replied to Joanne, I was troubled by the tragedy that came to mind. I woke up one morning and the dream I had just had turned into this story. Not sure where it came from. I didn’t even think it was very good and I did try to write something happier but this one kept nudging me.

  5. What a heart-wrenching story. And so expertly crafted. I love the way you hint at what’s to come in the first paragraph, without giving the “what” away. And I love how you capture the dichotomy of relationships – just because you feel something doesn’t mean the other person feels the same. Even when you think you know that person. This one will haunt me.

    • Thank you so much, Suzanne. I love your insights into the piece. Those were all the things I had in my mind as I wrote and massaged it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d managed to convey them. Thank you for letting me know that I did. And, sorry, but I’m kind of pleased this will haunt you. I don’t know where the sadness came from – it made me sad when I re-read it – but it was a story that was there and wanted to be told.

  6. Gorgeous, Tienne! I really felt the disconnect between mother and daughter, and the way you left it at the end, it’s obvious that Sarah still doesn’t quite understand what went wrong. There was a great sense of foreboding all the way from the beginning. And the way Sarah watches Bethany fall – notices her beauty – gave me chills.

    • Christine, I’m so glad you got all of that from the piece. As I said to Suzanne, I write and edit and edit again with these kinds of things in mind, but I don’t always know if I’ve managed to convey them. It means so much to hear what you picked up from the piece, and it’s nice to know that I did convey what I had hoped to. Thank you for your wonderful comment.

    • It’s strange but I can’t fully blame Florence for this one as I dreamed Sarah and some of the story before I watched the video. I guess I was just in tune with Florence without realizing it! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  7. […] Silverleaf overwhelmingly took first place with her story about a mother who cannot reach her daughter, despite her loving attempts. This tragic story kept us hoping that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, even while we know in our hearts that those who belong with the stars will go there no matter what. Congratulations, Silverleaf! Don’t forget to email us the prompt, and while you’re at it, nab that pretty little winner’s badge on the sidebar for your blog. […]

  8. Silverleaf, a sad tale so very well told. And I love how your visual of the stars in stained glass fit so perfectly into the story. Which came first – the image or the words describing the image? Many congratulations on a well earned win 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I couldn’t believe it when I found the image. It was the last piece in the puzzle and I had almost given up when I came across it.

  9. So glad to see that you won the vote for this story – the intensity with which you observe the scenes throughout makes such a strong impression. Particularly well-written, I thought, was the fall from the rooftop, which might easily have turned clunky but in which you managed to suspend a moment of beauty and aching tenderness in the midst of tragedy before jolting the reader back to reality with “Her slow motion free-fall sped up like a film reel suddenly switched to the right setting.”

    I was also impressed by the fact that by only giving a few snapshots of the relationship you leave the question of culpability hanging. Yes, the mother was “reaching out” but, with her gaze so fixated on the stars, what exactly was she reaching out to? Not to her daughter, perhaps, even though that may well have been her intention. Or perhaps Bethany was always destined to be one of life’s victims, regardless?

    Again, well done!

    • Every week you give me amazing insight and feedback. Thank you, truly, for putting so much thought into my writing and into your comments. I’m glad I managed to describe the fall with the ethereal beauty that I envisioned. I thought it was important that it have a softness to it. And yes, I think your understanding of culpability is right; the mother was reaching somewhere her daughter was not, while the daughter was somehow lost, or un-reachable, in her own right. I’m always pleasantly amazed that the little subtleties in my thoughts do come through!

  10. What I love most about this is how you show Sarah’s obliviousness to Bethany’s true self. It isn’t done with malice and it isn’t unkind — clearly she loves her daughter — but she doesn’t *know* her. She thinks she does but she doesn’t. That is such a tricky line to walk in fiction, I think, and you do it so well. A tragic, lilting story, SilverLeaf. I’m so glad it caught everyone’s attention!

    • Aw, Meg, thank you so much for such high praise! That is exactly what I was trying to capture. I think it is possibly what is most tragic. Obviously, the suicide of one’s daughter is tragic, but the bewilderment of a mother who didn’t see it coming and can’t fathom why is what came to me as I was writing and I think it’s what made me so sad (so sad, I almost didn’t post the story!).

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