(The following is a short story I tailored for an anthology submission, but it admittedly got away from me and took on a life of its own. Even so I like the story just the way it is, and I like Maisie and Alice just as they are. I hope you enjoy it!)
The Soft Constellation
I knew I loved Maisie McCorkindale the moment she picked up that shovel. Something about it was so wrong—not the fact that she was going to dig a hole to bury my Roy, but that she somehow seemed solid to me for the first time, her who was all soaring clouds and shooting stars. It was like she had come down to earth just for me.
She pretended to spit in her palms and winked at me when she drove the spade into the ground, and anything in me that might have held back that love gave way.
We would laugh about it after: me seven months pregnant, squared up like a gunslinger in front of Roy as he staggered off the porch of Maisie’s summer cabin, emptying his daddy’s pistol into his chest. Maisie had given me such a look, a look that said she was exasperated, a little bit proud, and more than a little bit tickled. “Oh, Alice, why’d you have to go and do that?” she’d said, shaking her head with her hands on her hips. “I killed Roy ten minutes ago.”
She tried to shoo me away, sent me to wait inside, but I wanted to see it through to the very end. I think Maisie recognized that need in me, so she let me keep her company while she laid him down. She huffed and puffed as she dug, working up more color in her cheeks than I’d ever seen, but she kept talking to me as if we were up at the big house, me tidying up the living room or fixing her dinner.
“The stars told me you were coming, you know,” she said, and I could see that twinkle, the mischief in her. She knew I didn’t go in for all that, but she’d always liked to tease me.
“I should have known they were talking about you,” she said, pausing just long enough to tie her hair back and point to the sky. “Just look at how bright Spica is up there in Virgo—might as well be written in neon! But I was all wrapped up in what they had to say about the when and how of seeing to Roy.” She eyed him and made the grave a few inches longer. “I slipped him night-blooming jasmine and Japanese star anise in the whiskey I keep for company—my little way of saying goodbye.”
When she was ready to cover him up, Maisie paused and waited on me, but I shook my head. Everything I ever needed to say to Roy had already been said. I might have let him hit me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him hit my baby girl. I told him so, and when he took a swing at me I twisted his arm behind his back and drove his face into the wall a few times. He had all the answers he was ever going to get, and the look of surprise on his face told me they were not the answers he expected.
Maisie and I drove to the quarry outside town when Roy was in the ground, and she threw the gun into the cliff side of the lake, her talking the whole time to fill up the quiet and put me at ease. She told me how she’d managed it: how she’d invited him up to the cabin, offered him a stack of cash to skip town and leave me be, how she’d brewed a pot of tea but he grabbed her whiskey, just like she knew he would, and how she’d let him wheedle for more money, let him play at being a big man for as long as he liked, right up till the poison started clutching at his gut.
I sat listening beside her with my head back and window down, holding my belly, feeling sick to my own stomach. I hadn’t made any plans for after the cabin, didn’t really know what was supposed to come next. Maisie took me back to my apartment and walked me inside like it was any old April night. I grabbed her hand, and she let me hold it.
“Don’t you fret, Alice—everything is going to be just fine,” Maisie said, setting me down on the edge of my bed and looking me right in the eye when we were inside, then turning to pack up a couple of bags with anything that looked like it might be important to Roy. “Smell that?” she asked. “That’s a good rain coming. It’s going to make everything new for you. And by next week you’ll be up at the house with me.” She scanned the room and nodded, as if everything were settled.
I can’t say exactly when I fell asleep, only that I fell asleep believing her, fell asleep to the sound of rain.
The police didn’t come round until Roy missed his Friday night poker game, which was maybe the only commitment he could ever bring himself to stick to. Deputy Dunning glanced at my belly, saw Roy’s clothes and needfuls were gone, and sized things up pretty quick. I told him what Maisie had told me to say, and we drove up together to see her at the big house.
He was a world different up there, wiping his shoes, holding his hat in his hands, sitting where he was told, saying “Yes, Ma’am” to every line Maisie fed him. She told him the whole unvarnished story, save for the killing. The deputy didn’t even pretend to write anything down. I had plenty of questions myself—about Roy’s car, about the blood, about all the evidence any half-assed search would turn up at the cabin. But Maisie’s story lined up with everything Dunning already believed about Roy. And that was that.
Maisie brought me up to live with her in the big house midway through the next week, just like she said she would. She settled up the last months of my lease and fitted up the guest bedroom next to her own as a nursery, had Jack Hansom knock a hole through the wall and put in a door. Folks said it was the least she could do, rich as she was, hard as I’d worked for her. And once Birdie Nash said it was a good and proper thing—just like when Dottie McCorkindale took in in Ida Underwood after the war—there was nothing more to be said.
Maisie paid no mind to town talk herself. Telling tales about her family had always been a popular pastime in Embry. She never said a word about all the arrangements she made for me, either, except when she wanted to know what I might like, what I might prefer. She never said a word when I crawled into bed with her the night she moved me in. She just made a space for me in her big bed, curled herself around me, stroked my hair, kissed me like I needed to be kissed. At last she said she’d always loved me, and I knew it was true.
When Astrid was born the joke around town was that she was Maisie’s natural daughter. There I was, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, freckled, suntanned, and callused from fifteen years in gardens, yards, and kitchens, and there was my Astrid with her blonde curls and blue eyes, like an old-fashioned porcelain doll, a perfect miniature of my Maisie. It felt so good to see them together it made me ache.
Maisie urged me to leave off keeping house for folks in town, to get some rest and enjoy myself, and so I tried. It took some getting used to—it had been a long time since I’d been with someone who wanted me around as much as she did. She wouldn’t let me tend to all that needed doing in the big house, either. She took up a share of the daily chores and hired Cecily Fox to come by twice a week, though that arrangement only lasted about a year, until Cecily’s daddy told us she was setting aside all her pocket money for nursing school. We sent her off in the fall, Maisie paying for her schooling and her daddy paying for her room and board, and we got a little better at cleaning up after ourselves.
All the while Maisie kept at her work, which was more like a calling than anything I had claim to. She’d wanted to leave off, to spend more time with me and Astrid, but folks spread out over three counties knew to visit Miss McCorkindale if they had a big risk in mind or thought they’d found a sweetheart worth keeping. She’d sit with them in our parlor, working out her charts of the stars, and tell them how things looked for the long haul. She was just too soft-hearted to send anyone away, especially when the stars always had something to say about luck, or love, or all the things in this life that really matter.
I didn’t know what to do with myself, but Maisie insisted that I needed time to be with myself, time I had never had much of. So I did what I did when I was a girl, back when spending time with my daddy outside was pure pleasure. I kept busy in the garden and the orchard in the spring and the summer, though I made plenty of time to go fishing, too. I hunted deer in the fall and grouse in the winter. I did a bit of woodcarving—just simple things, animals and such. I even tried my hand at tanning deerskin leather, setting up a rack behind the summer cabin. I got good at it after about two years.
And when my days away were over, I’d walk or drive back to the big house and find Maisie and Astrid waiting on me. The best part of going out on my own was having a family to come home to.
We spoiled each other for nine years, the sweetest nine years I could ever imagine. I took Astrid out on long rambles some days, and sometimes the three of us went out together. Sometimes we’d spread a blanket at the edge of the orchard so we could watch the clouds roll by and get caught out in the rain on purpose.
Astrid had a green thumb like I did, and she loved our days in the garden, but we could tell early on her head was in the stars. She never got tired of watching Maisie draw her charts, and the refrigerator was covered with the ones she worked up herself, all white crayon on black construction paper. On fine nights we would spread our blanket out just after dark and watch the sky, Astrid nestled between the two of us.
On one of those unseasonably warm March nights Maisie pointed out Spica in Virgo, one of the few stars I knew on sight. “There’s your momma’s star!” she said. “Look how brightly she’s shining tonight!”
“So that must be you,” Astrid said, sure of herself, picking out another bright star nearby, “and that’s me over there!”
“That’s exactly right,” Maisie said, leaning in. “That’s a bit of Corvus and a bit of Libra in the old-fashioned way of reading stars, but what you’ve picked out is what I call a soft constellation, the most important kind. It’s a map of the stars we draw with our hearts.”
I cuddled our girl between us then, reaching over Astrid to squeeze my Maisie’s hand, and for the first time, with an intuition that rolled over me like a cold wave, I could feel Maisie fading.
By the end of the week the doctors confirmed what I already knew: Maisie would only be with us for a few months more. Maisie had herself a good cry in my arms at the doctor’s office, but she was her old self by the time we got home to the sitter.
As for me, I could only manage a brave face when we were together with Astrid. I was more than a little ashamed of myself—me who should have been comforting her—but it couldn’t be helped. Nine years wasn’t nearly enough. I wanted nine lifetimes.
Eventually we sat Astrid down and told her together. We were ready with all the comforts and consolations we could think of, but she surprised us both. “It’s okay,” she said, sitting between us and holding our hands. “I talked to the stars about it, and they promised you both would always be here to watch over me—stars in the sky, just like them.” She nodded, looking at us as if we would be silly to think anything different, and then went back to playing.
I swear I wouldn’t have done what I did if Maisie hadn’t proposed it. I was afraid I’d get it wrong, but if she’d asked me to pull the moon down from the sky for her I would’ve. And when I understood what she really wanted and why she wanted it, I loved her all the more.
The time Maisie spent in Embry with her doctors, lawyers, and old friends I spent in the library with Astrid, figuring out how to do what Maisie needed me to do. At night we treated ourselves to whatever we liked for supper and dessert, and then we snuggled up with Astrid to watch movies or play games. After we put Astrid to bed we would slip out into the yard and make love until Maisie fell asleep or pretended to, always in my arms, always under our stars.
When Cecily Fox got word about how Maisie was doing she signed on to be her home nurse, stopping by every morning to see her before she left to start her shift at Fairlawn and every evening on her way home, though the big house was well out of her way. Cecily was a first-rate nurse, and if there was any pain to be faced, Maisie didn’t feel it. She even made sure Maisie had her daily colloidal silver at our request, though she wasn’t one to go in for alternative medicine. Together we asked Cecily if she would help us when the time was right, and she promised us she’d do as much as she was able.
And the right time was set to come too soon. Maisie worked out one of her charts with Astrid by her side, and she settled on a night in mid-May, a night when the moon would be full and the sky would be clear. I had myself a good cry in private most every day after that, but Maisie caught me and held me and told me to feel whatever I wanted and to cry whenever I liked. “You’re mine and I’m yours,” she said, “and that’s the way it will be till the stars go out. When I’m inclined to cry, Alice, I think back on the years I’ve had with you, and I can’t help but smile.”
The night Maisie was meant to pass on we fixed it so Astrid was away at a slumber party with her friends in town. We’d let her sleep between us in the big bed the night before, making much of her and holding her close, saying everything shy of goodbye. Cecily came and went, right on schedule, and I got myself ready.
We drove up to the summer cabin and watched the stars come out, me holding her as tight as her body could bear. Maisie seemed so happy, so radiant, and she looked to my face and looked to the stars in wonder, as if they were one and the same.
Like she promised, Cecily had helped as far as she was able. She had left a syringe full of morphine for me earlier in the week, and when Maisie was ready—when she saw Spica, held my hand, and nodded, I gave it to her. And then the two of us said “I love you” again and again and again, making sure those were the last words we’d ever hear from one another. I kissed her and she kissed me, and she raised her hand to touch my face. When her hand fell away I caught it and pressed it to my heart, and she smiled the sweetest, dreamiest smile as she drifted off.
When I was sure she was gone I let myself cry, burying my face in Maisie’s hair. It took me a half hour to collect myself, but when I felt able I gathered her up in my arms, walked halfway down the drive, and presented her to the stars. I couldn’t compose myself enough to say “thank you,” to say all I wanted to say, but I felt sure that they knew what I meant.
Then I brought Maisie inside the cabin and got to work.
Though he took some convincing, Mr. Osborne at the funeral parlor at last let me have my own way. Part of it probably had to do with the distinction of making the arrangements for a McCorkindale, which was a big deal in Embry, but when he saw how I’d settled Maisie down in the satin he realized he had no cause to worry about his reputation. She looked joyful, luminous, almost holy, just as she looked when she left me.
Close to three hundred folks came to the service, which obliged some of the men to stand in the back so we could squeeze them all into the church. Only about thirty of us went to the cemetery to lay her down in the family vault and pay our respects, and while we were there Maisie’s sister June took me aside to let me know that she’d talked it over with the clan and they meant to save the place beside Maisie for me. I’d managed to hold myself together for most of the morning, but that kindness did me in.
Folks came up to the house in the afternoon, and we played some old country music and ate little chicken salad sandwiches and swapped stories until the sun dipped low. June, Cecily, and a few friends helped me clean up, and Astrid and I went to sleep early in the big bed, with her being careful not to let her little body slip into the space that belonged to Maisie.
When Astrid was ready to return to her own room a few nights later, I tucked her in, put out the lights, and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Her eyes were half-closed, but when she saw what I’d done she sat right up and held me tight. Together we looked at the shining silver stars I’d made and arranged on the ceiling above her, the soft constellation we had grown up around us—her, our Maisie, and me. At last the tears she’d been holding back came, and I stayed with her there all night, the two of us missing Maisie and looking up at those shimmering stars while they watched over us.
For almost ten years Astrid slept beneath them, and she’s since gone off to college to study astronomy, which I’m sure would tickle Maisie. Sometimes when I’m missing her I’ll sit out on our old blanket after dark and look up at the stars, imagining how they look from where she’s standing.
And on those nights when I’m alone in the big house, feeling it echo and creak with my own footfalls, I slip into Astrid’s room and stretch out on her old bed. It always makes me feel better—closer to her and closer to Maisie. Above me I can see the bits of Corvus and Libra that Astrid claimed for us, pulling us together in our own pattern, like a little promise the stars made when they first caught fire.
There’s so much of my Maisie in that pattern, the whole of it glowing soft and silver just like she did when I carried her into the cabin, but when I drift off I always find myself gazing on Spica, the star Maisie picked out just for me, and holding my hand to the place above my heart where I cut it loose on a sweet night in mid-May to join her in the night sky.