OK, so as constellations of stars go, I’m not the easiest to find. I hang somewhere in the region of Orion’s vast crotch, like a diamond codpiece. But, those three sisters of Fate are forever busy with their spinning, weaving and cutting. There are always new faces on the scene. The heavens are cluttered with myth, all proudly twinkling away, and getting across each other.
All those eyes looking up and searching for patterns in the stars. They’re like a group of lonely teenagers, desperate to have their heroes looking down on them. The eternal night makes the ultimate poster wall. Problem is, there is only so much sky, and with every generation, one end of the world to the other, coming up with the latest and greatest characters, it gets pretty crowded up here. We are stuck hip to hip; hand in hand; claw to toe; with one Greek looking glass thrust into the path of a Chinese dragon’s flame trail. There are crabs, Minotaurs, Gods and, of course, us Beauties, all crammed together into a finite space. You can see it’s a recipe for chaos.
Me, well, I’ve had quite a number of names over the years, all variations on a theme. They say I should be grateful: I’ve had more constancy than most. But none of the names seem to have really stood the test of time. It’s me that’s done the standing. Try holding a pose for a millennia, it’s exhausting.
And don’t think I don’t know that the others up here are trying to push me out. They think I’m past it. Well, I may be an old gal now, but there was a time, my dears, when I was the centrefold of the skies.
It was my thirteenth birthday that started it. I went to fetch the letters and the post-boy fainted away at my feet. I gave him a little kick, but he wouldn’t stir. The next day there were a group of men gathered at the gatepost; they wept when I went out to hang the washing.
Apparently this was love.
More and more of them kept showing up; Dad had to go down to chase them off the veggie patch, where their tears were killing the turnips and the cabbages. My brother played in the puddles that formed and my mother washed her face in the salt water, which she said she found very refreshing.
Word must have got around, because soon there were finely dressed gentlemen in the crowd who pressed gifts of ropes of sliver and bright jewels into my palms like kisses. Dad took these from me and wrapped them in his handkerchiefs, storing them away under the floorboards and behind the brickwork in the cellar.
Safely hidden for a rainy day.
Poets posted sonnets through the door, which my mother said made useful kindling, and artists presented me with portrait after portrait. The paintings were all different of course, but none of them really looked much like the girl I saw reflected in the salt lake their tears had formed at the bottom of the hill. They got rather huffy when I pointed this out. It was impossible to reproduce such perfection, they said, particularly when I kept moving about all the time.
Breasts and hips started to swell under my cotton frock and the crowd grew with them. When I walked to the bakers in the village, they cut up the turf under my feet and posted it off to Paris and Munich, where the squares of grass were put on display in the city squares under a selection of my portraits. They chopped down the damson tree, in whose branches my brother and I liked to play, to make carvings of me playing in a damson tree. At night, two men crept into the milking shed and sliced the udders off our cow, because my perfect hands had gripped them. The flesh was cured and sold at great price to make a leather pillow for an African prince. My father had to dig me my own privy in the back kitchen. They would have drunk my piss if I’d let them.
But they never touched me. Sure, they came in their thousands to press their suit, swore oaths and presented me with proofs of eternal devotion, but I think they liked me best safely behind that garden fence. Contained and safe as a vase on a mantelpiece. Unreachable and unspoilt.
Soon we were stranded on a mere postage stamp of brackish land with only the gathering throng of weeping men for company. The village was abandoned. Three harvests had failed and the only things that would grow were glassworts and cordgrasses. Pink footed geese started to winter at the lake. My admirers sang ballads of the birds that flew from distant lands to witness my beauty and then killed and roasted them over their braziers and campfires.
While they were feasting, my family began to starve. The men still brought their gifts: golden cups, fine linens and beautiful dresses – our house heaved with buried treasure – but not one of them thought to bring me an apple or a slice of bread. My brother walked the crowds, exchanging locks of my hair for scraps of food. Soon I was quite bald. The poets crooned over the ethereal turn to my beauty. The wives and daughters who had accompanied their men to our hillside cut their hair and starved themselves to get in line with this latest fashion. I was a hairless bag of bones and still they worshiped me. The nights were filled with tattered minstrel’s songs and the sounds of men’s keening sighs as they stared up at my darkened window. We could get no sleep. In desperation, my father built a boat out of portrait frames and set sail on the salt lake, his pockets filled with a selection of my most expensive gifts, which he hoped to exchange for food in some distant town. He was mugged before he reached the horizon. The testicles which produced such a daughter were ripped from his body and carried off by the crowd. He limped home, empty-handed and howling.
I ran into the garden pleading for help, but could not make myself heard over the cries of delight; the bawling; the odes of their own composition. I screamed abuse at them, kicking at the scraps of sea lavender which made up what was left of our lawn, and the men laughed and danced as they sang.
The morning my mother died, the Raja arrived from India, bringing ships of bright flowers across the lake. He’d heard about me kicking the sea lavender and decided I must be fond of flowers. The men distributed the blooms between them, opened the gate and poured through toward the house. They wound jasmine round the window frames, stuck lilies in the chimney pot and threaded ox-eye daisies through the keyholes. Some bright spark – I suspect one of the poets – laid a path of cut roses from the door to the gatepost.
I had not eaten for sixteen days.
As I staggered from our house of mourning, a rose thorn rooted itself in my heel. It dug deep and could not be dislodged. The wound quickly became infected and stank to high heaven. The artists gathered around my death bed, their faces muzzled with rags soaked in scent, to paint my final breaths.
My family tried to bury me alongside my mother, but my body was dug up three times and pieces of me cut off and carted away. Soon, only my stinking foot remained. This, my father wrapped up in the very best of his handkerchiefs and dropped down the now unused privy in the back kitchen.
Safely hidden for a rainy day.
They refused to forget me though, those weeping men. They missed their days on the hillside, I shouldn’t wonder. It must have been fun for them: singing, crying, loving and camping. All boys together.
There was bickering for a while over the bits. They all wanted to claim their right elbow as the true right elbow; the divinity of the knee-cap they kept displayed on a velvet cushion. If you took that lot’s word for it, I would have had three heads, seventeen fingers and crawled around like a crab on all my extra limbs.
It was some old greybeard that pulled the old gang back together. He was the one with my pinkie finger quietly rotting in his top pocket. They all knew that finger was real, because they’d seen him sever it from my dead hand with his own front teeth. Anyway, he came up with the idea of losing the shrines and the body parts and arguments. Why not hoist me up into the heavens for everyone to enjoy? It would be just like old times.
It didn’t take much of an effort; as with so many of these things it was a case of location, location, location. And they had the whole sky to play with and they’d always liked me best from a distance. There wasn’t even the need for ropes or pulleys. They didn’t have to hammer in a single nail. It was just a matter of will power and a few official looking, well-drawn charts. They were very professional about it. Believe me, there’s no get out clause. They were soon toasting their success. One of them even found a surviving flock of pink footed geese, which were swiftly plucked and braised to be served at a celebratory banquet under the stars. There was much laughter and reminiscing, along with the rich food. They even shed a couple of sentimental tears as they admired me over a drop or two of the finest brandy.
All those boys together again. Only this time they were camping in style.
And so here I am, butcher-birded on a handful of stars for all time. Thankfully, the distant sun representing the fatal thorn in my heel burnt out a couple of centuries ago and so I’m finally able to wiggle my toes again, but I’m never quite comfortable. They never were able to get the image of me quite right. The circlet of stars around my midriff cuts into my ribs and the bolts through my nipples, that hold me to the sky, suggest a symmetry that has me lurching to one side. It is cold up here and the unmarked void between my hips seems to channel the breeze.
Like I say, it’s a jumble in the night sky. Some of newbies still think it’s something to be proud of; think it’s nice to be looked up to. Me? I’m begging to be forgotten, but there’s always some Smart Alec ready to churn me out.
The excuse for a cheap date.
‘Look up there. Just above the horizon, do you see it? The little loop of stars with the three next to them. No, not those, silly, to the left a bit. Do you see now?’ His arm creeps around your shoulders, lips wet against your ear. ‘That is the constellation of the most beautiful girl in the world. Everyone who saw her fell in love, but no one remembers her name.’
And then he turns and looks at you. I know that look. I scream. I scream my warnings and my curses. Black as night from my black mouth.
Nobody hears a word.