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happiness is somewhere I have been before

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We were dancers in the long dance, the shifting arc of the universe. We burned brightly as we spun, our voices flinging out among the spheres—until we heard each other. Her song was a lovely shade of red, and it spoke to the icy core of me. I listened for her to know where I was in the sky, who I was on the spinning edge of the galaxy, and she became my song. We held each other in the tension of each passing note, until the day I listened but I could not find her. No echo of her remained. I needed her more than I needed the next step in my dance, and so I faltered.

So I fell.

My first step upon the earth was a stuttered one, a stumble, a breaking. I was no longer a dancer. I was human.

To have been a star once and then no longer was to wake shivering, missing my constellation sisters like a whelp misses the rest of his litter, a squirming, crying thing in the cold of a new home. But most of all, I missed her.

When I fell, I woke in a desert, under the light of strange stars, and they would not speak to me. iWe do not know you, they whispered. How do we know what to tell you?

I was dry and cracked, and I did not know the feeling of thirst or how to answer it. “Tell me where to go,” I begged them. “So that I do not die.”

Finally, after a long, murmuring silence, one of them spoke to me. Little sister, go to the sea. She is deep and dark, and you will find solace in her arms.

The desert at night was full of hidden mercies—a handful of water in the curled-up arm of a cactus, a dry, sweet pear among the prickles, and a tiny, trembling creature who told me that I needed both of these things.

“You are human, now,” she said, one soft paw upon my foot. “You must eat, and you must drink, or else you will die.” And she sat with me while I learned how to swallow, how to chew.

“It seems like so much trouble, being alive,” I told her, and she climbed up onto my knee, her tiny body a burst of warmth on my alien skin, like when my sisters and I danced close enough to feel each other’s heat in passing.

“It is worth it,” she said. “Others of your kind have learned this as well.”

“You know what I am?” I asked, my chin sticky with the sugary juice of the pear, my fingers red with its flesh.

“Of course,” she answered, her whiskers twitching. “You only have to see one falling star to recognize them. You are not the first to fall here, and not the first to seek the sea. But it is far from here, and you have a very long way to go.”

“I have danced from the zenith of the sky to the nadir. I have traveled far, and I will travel farther yet.”

“I will tell you the way, dear star,” said the mouse, “if you will promise me a favor.”

“You have given me much already,” I said. “Of course I will.”

She brought me a seed, large in her paw but small in my hand. “This seed wishes to grow, but it cannot grow in a desert. It came by way of a bat’s wing, and it fell into my house much as you nearly did. Will you take it with you?”

I tucked the seed into the pocket of the dress the sky had given me when I fell through it, and I promised the mouse that the seed would find a place to grow.

She told me the way to the sea – Follow the way the sun goes. In the morning, keep it at your back. – and I followed. But the distance of the earth is slower than a star’s, and the view from upon it is different than from above, and I learned that a body grows tired, and a mind grows lonely, and the longer I was a human, the less I could hear the song the stars dance to.

Without their voices to guide me, I found myself in a small gray town with a faded red bus that lumbered through every few days. I stood on the pale, dusty sidewalk and watched it lurch to a start, driving toward the setting sun, the people sitting inside it going closer to the sea—without me.

You could stay for a while, my exhaustion told me. It would be all right to wait. What is this sea, anyway? What makes it better than here?

And I thought that perhaps it was right. What was waiting for me? What would make more walking worth it? There was no one waiting for me. I was alone.

But I remembered the seed in my pocket, and I knew that nothing could grow in this dusty gray town, perhaps even less than it could have grown in the desert. I promised. I will.

At the edge of the town, I found a small piece of stardust on the ground, winking in the sunlight. It rolled gently in my palm, and I slipped it into my pocket beside the seed. Two steps later, I saw a woman with a matching spark of dust on her ear.

I reached into my pocket, opened my fingers to show her the bright stone in my hand. “Is this yours?”

She touched her ear, surprised, and some of the fog left her eyes. “Thank you!” She took the star back from me, pinned it to her ear, and fumbled with the red scarf around her neck. As thanks for returning her fallen star, she gave me a piece of paper that would let me ride the bus toward the ocean (“For your honesty”), and she gave me her long scarf (“For your kindness”).

I tied the scarf around my waist, and I pulled its fringe through my fingers on the long ride toward the ocean. What could possibly be there? my doubt whispered, and I rubbed my thumb along the soft fabric and answered, I’ll find out when I get there.

Long after my legs moved easily to my command, after I found my human voice, after I learned how to clothe myself and how to bathe, how to feed myself, how to speak to others, how to sleep at night and wake with the light of the sun—long after I became a human, I still missed their song when I slept. It was an emptiness that echoed inside me…until the day I heard her voice again.

In another town, still dusty but not as gray, its borders nestled up against the sea, I paused next to a shop window and stared, because her voice was coming from one of the tan boxes there, its buttons glowing softly. She was singing a sad song, burning the same color as the setting sun, the same color as her dress on a poster behind the radio, and I remembered who I was—I remembered what I was, every step of the dance, every flare of light that spun out of me into the fathomless echo of space. Her human voice woke me, and my lungs burned with the drowning.

In the photograph on the wall, I saw her standing on the rocks by the ocean, the crescent moon behind her in the dreamlight of the sky as the sun slipped low into the ocean, her hair shining as pale and perfect as any stardust, her eyes as dark as the night sky.

I closed my eyes because the glow of a star’s heart is too bright for a human chest, and because I had not thought I would find her. The music faded, and another voice came from the radio, jarring me back to my human body, to the town, the street, the store window.

“That was singing sensation Hoshiko Saito, whose whereabouts are unknown following a houseboat party last month. Next up…”

“Shame,” said a woman passing me on the street, her friend walking in step with her, matching small white purses on their arms. “She had such a pretty voice.”

“But all her songs were so sad,” her friend said, and I stared at the photograph, at the radio that was playing someone else’s songs now.

She’s here she’s here sheshereshesheresheshere—

I’d come all this way without knowing what I’d find except some place where maybe I could live instead of slowly dying in this human body not made to hold me – and she was here.

I turned down the street, away from the sign that pointed the way to the sea, and I found a record store.

“Do you know Hoshiko Saito?” I asked the man at the counter breathlessly, and he pointed to a large square album.

“She only cut one album, kid, and it’s right there.”

I touched the edge of the record cover as I might have once touched her face, if we had had faces in the sky, if we had had hands. “I heard on the radio that they don’t know where she is.”

He turned the record around, let me see the back, my star – Hoshiko – walking into the water, looking back at me.

“Last picture ever taken of her, as far as we know. Right down the road, right at that beach.”

The walk to the sea from that corner store was harder than every step out of the desert, than every jolted mile on the lumbering bus. What would I find there? Nothing, I told myself. Everything, I answered. I lingered at the edge of the park, afraid to finish the journey, afraid of what I wouldn't find. But the wind caught in the scarf around my waist, and my fingers brushed the seed in my pocket, and they gave me courage. I bent down to bury the seed in the earth where it was dark and rich, and I whispered thanks to the mouse in the desert and the woman in the town with stars pinned to her ears for their assistance, and I walked forward.

The sun was sinking toward the edge of the sky when I arrived at the small strip of desert between myself and the waves, their voices loud and whispering upon their sand. I took a heavy step toward them.

We are waiting for you, they murmured.

I stopped when they lapped around my ankles, when I felt the tug, when I knew that if I answered them I would no longer be human. I did not know what I would become. Would I still have a voice, a face, hands? Would I still know who I was, who she was?

We are still waiting, the waves said, rushing up to my knees. Your sisters—and her—and we.

Go the sea, the desert stars had said, but the water was cold where its claws ticked up the fabric of my dress, pulling with the weight of a world. Little sister, go to the sea. She is lovely, dark and deep.

There was a flash of red farther out, where the sea darkened, and I thought it was the setting sun until I saw it again, until I heard her voice trembling up through the water where it touched me, through my skin, through my bones.

“I have been waiting for you.” Her voice was the warmth of a hand curling around me, fingers prying me apart. It broke me open until I could feel the starlight leaking through my skin, could feel it slipping away into the ocean. I was a raw, open ache, the hollow chill of a light blinking out, fading seafoam on the rolling breakers.

“Do not look back, daughter,” the sea whispered. I felt fear for a moment when I knew that the slow death of my mortality would reach a sudden end, but I could still hear her, still see the sinuous twine of her in the waves, and I could not turn away. Not now. Not when I held my breath, my last human act, when the waves touched my ribs. Not when I could hear her song, new in places, broken and old in others, mingling with the voice of the ocean. “You will be human no more.”

“I have been a star, Mother,” I said quietly, and I didn’t choke when the water flowed into my mouth. “Humanity has no hold on me.”

Then she was there, scales and fins the shade of her voice, sleek and red and soft where they brushed along my arm, warm where they wrapped around my own, her hands on my scales and my skin. We have faces, I thought. And hands to touch.

“I’ve missed you for so long,” she said, her smile a constellation of hope. Her lips were warm in the cold of the sea when she kissed me, and her hands were graceful when she braided red kelp into my hair as a promise, and the dance we learned together was eternal and new and ours.