Every summer since I turned twelve, my grandfather and I would get a giant picnic blanket and lay it down in the paddock furthest from his farmhouse and, on the clearest of nights, we would turn our gaze to the stars above.
I was a true city boy, born and raised, but there was always something special about my grandfather’s farm. For some reason it held a magic in it, a wildness that, as a young boy, I craved.
On one such, cool, clear night, we lay down and gazed above. The sight I saw dazzled me.
“Are those really the stars?” I asked my grandfather, awed.
“Yes, my boy. Those are the stars in all their glory,” he replied.
“You never see them like this in the city.”
“No, you do not.”
Above me, the blackness was strewn with silvery points of light connected by a diaphanous ribbon that wove its way through. It was like the whole universe had opened up and was staring down at me.
“Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the constellations, yes?” he asked that night.
I nodded my head against the rough itchiness of the fabric.
“Well, there are so many constellations out there that no one can really name them all, but there are many you can see, shapes we have seen and meanings we have attached to them,” he began.
“Now, the first I can tell you of is the one we call Sagittarius, the Archer. You can see the long length of his bow, aiming for something in the heavens. In the myths, he was the sign of the centaurs, the proud and wise, half human-half horse. They were famed for their bows and arrows, for their knowledge of the stars and the world. They were expert navigators, able to point the way to travellers, able to divine the signs in the stars and the positions of the planets.”
“How did the centaurs know there were other planets?” I interrupted. “In the myths, there was no science to tell them that.”
“Ah, they were gifted with sight from Zeus himself. They saw that the Sun and the Moon moved, and the Dawn and the Dusk rose, so why not the very heavens above move, if not by gods and goddesses, then by something. They saw the skies move and knew there was more in the vastness above. Simply put, they looked at the world and saw it.”
I thought for a long moment.
“So, the Archer is the guide?” I asked.
“Yes, although for those who have found where they belong, it is simply a reminder that there is always more.”
“That one there is Scorpio, the Scorpion, with its long, deadly tail poised to strike,” my grandfather said.
“I once watched a documentary about scorpions in the desert. Apparently, they can kill a grown man pretty fast,” I said.
“Yes, they are very deadly, creatures. There is a story about scorpions. Once, long ago, they were worshipped by the people of the desert.”
“Worshipped? But they’re dangerous,” I said.
“They are, just like the desert, but beautiful too, in a wild way. The desert people believed that the scorpion represented their home. Its golden-brown colour was the sand dunes that rolled across the land; its lightning the speed the wild windstorms that swept across it; its two strong pincers the solid rock of the gorges and ravines that snaked through the desert; its venom the water that gave life to all that lived there.”
“Its venom was the water? But it was deadly,” I said, confused.
“Yes, but not all die from the scorpion sting. Those who survived a sting were believed to be stronger and the desert people had to be strong to survive, for their home was a harsh, dangerous place. That was what the desert people believed in. Strength. The strength of the Scorpion.”
“Now that one right there is Taurus, the Bull. Noble creatures they are,” he said.
“A bull like Toronto,” I said, referring to the gigantic bull that grandfather owned, the pride of his herd.
“Yes, just like him. You know in Spain they use them for bullbaiting?”
“What’s bullbaiting?” I asked
“Exactly what it sounds like. Baiting a bull. A man stands in an arena, brightly clothed, with a spear in hand and a bull is released, a wild one, a mad one. It is the man’s job to bait it with his colourful clothes and colourful taunts and then when the bull charges in madly, he stabs it with his spear.”
“What! That’s awful!” I exclaimed.
“It is, but that’s the sport. There is a lesson to be had from it though.”
“Don’t treat animals cruelly,” I said.
“Well, there is that, definitely. But think about it boy: if the bull didn’t take the bait, if it simply stayed where it was and refused to be goaded, there would be no sport and eventually the bullfighters would stop doing it,” he explained.
“Well, yeah, but the bulls don’t know that.”
“But humans do.”
“Capricorn is there, one of my favourites because nobody can quite seem to decide what it is,” grandfather said.
“What is it?” I asked, not knowing either.
“Some say a sea-goat, others say a mountain lion.”
“Which one do you think?”
“Well, I think a sea-goat is far more interesting. Is it a goat from the sea, or a goat that swims like a fish with a tail? Who knows. It reminds me of the chimera, another strange oddity.”
“I know about chimeras,” I said proudly. “We learned about them when learning Greek history. They are monsters that breathe fire and have the head of a lion, the head of a goat and the tail of a snake.”
“Yes, Capricorn, rather like the chimera, represents the dualities in all of us. Nobody, really, is all one thing. We are made up of different parts, of different places, different people, different memories.”
“Like where I come from. My mother is Russian and my father is from New Zealand, two totally different places,” I said.
My grandfather looked over at me and smiled.
“How are you coping?” my grandfather asked me one night as we lay down to observe the stars again.
I sighed heavily.
“Not well. It’s hard to sleep at night with all the yelling, and being in the house is like walking on eggshells. The slightest thing could set it off, and I’m stuck in the middle,” I said to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“It’s okay,” I said, looking over at him and smiling my first true smile in a while. “I’m glad to be here. It’s the most at peace I’ve been in a while.”
Grandfather smiled back at me and we resumed our stargazing.
“Well, since this one seems to be a part of your life at the moment, there is Aquarius, the Water Bearer, representing disruption.”
“That is rather accurate at the moment,” I hmphed.
“Disruption can be good though, not just bad. A clear picture in the water doesn’t change. It shows what is there, like a mirror does. But disrupt it, and once the image stills again, it could be an entirely different reflection staring back. Change happens for a reason,” he said.
“Do you think they’ll divorce?” I whispered to him.
“I don’t know, son. I don’t know,” was all he whispered back.
“How are things at home now?” he asked me next summer, the summer I turned 17, almost a legal adult.
“Quiet,” I said. “Mum still tries to be as she was and dad…I don’t know. He tries to talk to me, stay connected, but I get the feeling he just wants to leave his old life behind, leave me behind.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder in silent comfort.
“Pisces,” he said after a while, tracing his finger along the path in the heavens. “The two Fish, always in the opposite direction to each other, but still connected. Though their paths may lead differently, they’re still connected. Your father loves you still, and you love him. But your paths are no longer aligned.”
“Thanks, but your ‘wise words’ don’t really help me much right now,” I said harshly.
He was silent.
“How are you finding adulthood?” grandfather asked me.
“It feels just the same as last year,” I said to him.
“Ah, just you wait. You’ll get a job soon, or go to University, and you’ll move out of home. Trust me, 18 is a huge change. When I was 18…” he began.
“No, I am not hearing anymore of your ‘when I was younger’ stories. The world is different now, grandpa, not like when you were younger,” I said to him.
“My youth helped build the society of today. Should show a little respect, boy,” he said.
I sat up and looked down at him.
“I do grandpa, but all afternoon you’ve been regaling us with stories. I like listening to you, I do, but maybe wait until tomorrow for more stories.”
After some incoherent grumbling, amongst which were the barely deciphered words “headstrong” and “fool,” he pointed a gnarled finger to the stars.
“Leo, the great Lion, the greatest of the hunters.”
“I thought the Hunter, Sagittarius, was the greatest,” I said, somewhat slyly, “as he had a bow and arrow and all.”
I couldn’t see my grandfather’s face properly in the dark night, but I could feel his scowl.
“No respect,” he muttered, then cleared his throat.
“The constellation Leo was named after the Nemean Lion, sent to the heavens by Hercules as one of his great tasks. The lion had impenetrable skin, its golden fur impervious to any blade, spear or arrow.”
“Then how did Hercules kill it?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“He strangled it,” my grandfather said shortly. “Which is what I will do with you if you don’t drop this cheeky attitude,” he growled, but I could hear the laughter in his voice.
“Then he skinned it and wore its coat around his body to protect him,” I finished.
“Yes, so the Lion represents strength, masculine strength, and protection or armour. We are all fighters, fighting one battle or another, so it is good sometimes, to look upon the Lion and remember.
“I hear you’ve met a girl,” grandfather began.
“How did you know?” I exclaimed.
“Your grandmother tells me everything.”
“Not everything,” I muttered, picturing the cookies she had hidden away to soothe her sweet tooth when grandpa wasn’t looking.
“What?” he said sharply.
“Nothing, nothing. Yes, I’ve met a girl,” I said to change the subject.
“What’s her name?”
“What’s she like?”
“Amazing,” was all I said.
I could feel grandfather’s smile in the darkness.
“Well, since you’ve got a lady, we will break from tradition and I will show you three star signs, very important for relationships,” he grinned.
“The first one is Virgo, the Virgin,” he began.
“Grandpa!” I exclaimed.
“Settle down, boy. That isn’t the only context it’s used in you know. It represents the newness of things, things that are as of yet unblemished, but are pure and beautiful, like when a flower first opens in spring.”
“How poetic, grandfather,” I said.
“Enjoy young love,” he said pointedly.
I bit back a smartass retort.
“Next is Aries, the Ram, usually the star sign associated with women…”
“But a ram is male,” I interceded.
“True, but what shape, aside from ram’s horns, do you see it make?”
I looked for a while, straining my eyes to see the shape.
“Ah,” I said, finally noticing it. “Never looked at it that way.”
“Mmm, it is a strange one. But, if you know something of women, you know that, just like a ram, they’ll butt heads with anyone who annoys them, especially males, like husbands.”
“I can agree with that, living with my mother,” I commented dryly.
“Look at your grandmother. Do you really think your mother would be any less feisty?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said decisively.
“Which brings me to the third constellation I’ll tell you about. Gemini, the Twins, the partners, those who always have each other’s backs. That is what a relationship is about. Being a partner.”
“Artemis and Apollo were twins, the golden twins of Olympus,” I commented.
“You really have been studying your history. Yes, they were and as unlike as any two people can be. They complemented each other, literally. Sun and Moon. That’s what a good person does, a soulmate.”
“But they were brother and sister. How could they be soulmates?”
“A soulmate can be anyone. The definition of a soul mate is someone who understands you like no other. It could be a sibling, a parent, your husband or wife. It’s different for everyone. Either way, they embody the Twins.”
“Is grandma your soul mate?” I asked him.
He looked at me and I swore there was a twinkle in his eyes even in the dark.
“Do you think I would’ve stayed with that crazy old bat this long if she wasn’t?”
“I’m getting old, Joshua. I don’t like to admit it, but I am. These old bones can’t go on for much longer, no matter how much I will it.”
“Grandfather!” I admonished him. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Pfft. You’re only 20. I’m more than three times your age. I’m entitled to talk however I like,” he growled.
I remained quiet, knowing grandpa’s moods. I could tell something was bugging him, but I wouldn’t figure out what it was until he decided to tell me. Besides, I had other things to think about.
When the silence lengthened, I decided to broach the topic.
“Is 20 too young to get married?” I asked him.
His head swivelled towards me like a rocket.
“Why? Who are you marrying?” he asked.
“Sarah. We’ve been dating and…well, we click. Soulmates, like you told me last year.”
“I married your grandmother at 20, although them was different times.”
“So it’s not too young?”
“If you love her and she loves you, I don’t see how it could be too young.”
I smiled happily to myself.
My mother thought it would be too hasty to marry Sarah now. But I loved my grandpa the most out of anyone. If he thought it was okay, I could do it.
“If you’re going to be a married man soon,” he started slowly, “I want you to have this place when I pass on.”
“You’ll give me the farm?” I asked, surprised. I’d always thought the farm would go to my mother, or my grandma.
“Yes. Legally it will still belong to your grandma for as long as she lives, but you’ll be responsible for everything: the animals, the crops, the upkeep. You’ll have a home for you and your wife, if you decide to stay,” he said.
I looked at him, stunned.
“I-are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t have said it if I wasn’t,” he snapped.
I looked at the stars again.
“Libra. The Scales. Judgement, equality, fate,” he said, then dropped his hand with a slight thud.
I looked at him again. Something was definitely off.
“Fate,” he said, the word almost bitter.
“We make our own fate grandpa,” I said cautiously.
“Aye, we do. But some things we can’t escape.”
We lay in silence.
It was another warm summer night as I carried a ragged blanket down to the edge of the paddock. I felt the emptiness beside me keenly, although the golden band on my finger helped to soothe it a little.
I lay down the blanket and looked up at the stars again. There were so many constellations he hadn’t taught me yet, but there was one constellation in particular, one of the twelve, that I don’t think he could bring himself to mention.
The Crab. Cancer. I traced it with my finger, outlining the shape.
It took him months to accept it. He fought, mind, body and soul. We caught him walking around, lifting heavy loads, eating food he shouldn’t have, everything under the sun to deny it. It worked, for a while, and he seemed himself again.
But then its grip strengthened and pulled him back down again, each time closer to the darkness.
He was so weak in the end, all the great life nearly leeched out of him.
I remembered one of the last times I saw him and we sat together.
“I wish I could see the stars,” he whispered to me.
“They’re still there, always. I think you’d know the skies well enough to see what’s there, even through these walls,” I smiled.
He smiled back, his lips thin over paper skin.
“And congratulations on your wedding,” he rasped. “She’s lucky, you’re lucky...”
His voice trailed off and he seemed to slip back into sleep. I kissed his hand gently and left him.
I hated the word and shouted so up to the skies, although it wasn’t the stars’ fault, nor the crab’s, that it had been named so.
I knew it was silly, but I kind of hoped he was up in the stars somewhere, sparkling as part of some unknown constellation, having people look up at him and tell stories.
He loved telling stories. He loved telling me stories.
And like he had passed the farm down to me, I would pass his stories, his memories, to my children.