“Once upon a time,” Hilda says, then opens an eye and peeks over at me. “Watch the stars,” she says, “don’t look at me, you have to keep your eyes on the stars or the story won’t work properly. Now.”
I look up at the sky and try to focus on the constellations penciled up there in the murky blue, and not on Hilda’s scratchy breathing beside me.
“Once upon a time,” she begins again, and pauses an instant, probably looking at me to make sure I’m not looking at her, but my eyes are glued to the sky.
“There was a man who thought he owned the world. Actually this man didn’t own much, just a cow and a few sheep and a field of wheat. Maybe a frog or two, if you can count frogs. I tried keeping frogs once, but that’s another story.” She laughs, then coughs, and I start to turn to her, but her bony hand grips my arm.
“Keep still, I’m just getting started. So yes. This man owns almost nothing, but he thinks he has everything, and it makes him very happy. ‘The World is mine,’ he said to his cow while he milked her. ‘The world is mine,’ he said to his sheep when he took them out to pasture. ‘The world is mine!’ he sang to his wheat as he walked in his field. But when he looked up into the sky at night, he didn’t feel so sure. The stars were too many to talk to, and too far away to hear, and as he lay watching them, the man’s heart grew sad, because his cow and sheep and field seemed small. And the man thought that if he could have a star, just a little one, for his very own, to talk to and hold in his hand and keep in his pocket, he would be happy again. With a star he would truly own the world.”
Hilda pauses for a long time, and I risk looking at her beside me, lying tilted up on the shape of a hill. The night damp of the grass slides up under my sweater, and I’m sure it’s long since worked through her thin dress. She turns to me, and when she finds me watching, she smiles and reaches over and pulls a strand of my hair over my face, guessing my thoughts.
“And then what?” I say, tasting the words through the grit of my hair, the stars a blur above me. I could stay here all night with her, I want the story to last forever, but I’m afraid that at any moment she might slip away. I’m desperately hoping that isn’t her plan.
“Where was I? Oh yes, the man wanted a star. Well, of course he knew about wishing on shooting stars, so he decided to wait until he saw one and wish on it. Night after night he lay on the hilltop, waiting and watching. He watched so long and hard he memorized the constellations. He recognized familiar stars, the planets’ steady shine were his neighbors, he knew their names, some real, some he gave to them from his own head.”
All of Hilda’s stories go back to the stars. When I was smaller, she used to say they were beautiful, bright people living up there sending light and dreams to Earth. When I was older, she said they were extra suns, in case ours burned out. She said they were lighthouses spacemen had built to light travelers’ way through the dark, she said they were stories, songs sung by angel people, but most of all she said they were wishes. I had studied astronomy in textbooks, but the textbooks never explained how balls of fire millions of lifetimes away make us feel magic when we lift our eyes at night.
“Eventually he came to know so much about the stars that the people in his village held him to be some sort of philosopher and wise man and asked him hard questions. He thought about the questions as he lay under the stars, waiting for one to fall, but he couldn’t think of any answers. This made him sadder still, for a man who owns the world should have the answers to all the questions in the world.
As the nights grew longer and colder, and the stars shone ever brighter, the man became a shadow. He no longer said, “The world is mine,” when he milked his cow, and when he herded his sheep and tended his field, he just looked thoughtful and depressed.
“That’s what comes of too much knowledge,” his neighbors said. But it wasn’t that he had too much knowledge, it was that he didn’t have enough. And he still wanted a star.
Then at last one night he lay looking at the stars spread out across the sky, and he realized he knew nothing of them. If someone had a list of the names of them all, and they read it to him, he wouldn’t have enough time to hear them all, and his head wouldn’t have room to hold them all.
So he gave up and went to sleep where he lay.
He woke to blinding, burning light. The stars were falling. He sat up, half blinded by the paths of fire ripping the black sky, and he chose one, and he wished. Now if he had stopped to think about it, he might not have believed it would work, especially after his earlier despair, but he didn’t think. He wished. And it seemed that one of the stars fell apart from the others and came towards him. It fell further and faster, a blurring streak of light, it lit through the air, down through the sky above the man’s field, and struck his chest with a soft, fiery force.
The man lay stunned for a moment before sitting up. He looked in the grass all around for the star, but he couldn’t find it. That’s when he noticed that his chest, hot from being hit by the star, was glowing. He pulled open his shirt and looked down. Glowing warmly, he could make out the shape of a star. The man had a star in his heart.
He went back to his cow, his sheep, and his field. The star settled comfortably in his chest, warming him and always glowing.”
Hilda stops and studies the sky, her eyes darting among the points of light. I think of when we met, me the little girl next door, too ordinary for noticing. Hilda was the opposite of me. She was old and loud and everyone noticed her. She wore crazy dresses, stuff that looked like she’d cut haphazardly through patchwork quilts, purple corduroy overalls, enormous rubber boots with ladybugs, plaid leggings, great ruffled aprons over pajamas, (in the street!), and whatever she wore, she looked just right in it. She never seemed to notice her own clothes. She planted flowers between her rows of vegetables. She baked bread in the shape of little bears and left them out for the mailman. She threw brussels sprouts at the dogs that dug up her yard, and then at their owners. In summer she walked to the store, in the winter she hitchhiked. When she opened her mouth, people stood up straight to hear what she would say.
I met her the day I decided to draw attention to myself by wearing a sweater I found in my great aunt’s attic to school. The violent stripes of color in that sweater were so shocking I was sure no one could help but stare at me. I wanted to be made fun of. I wanted people to laugh.
But no one said anything. No one even laughed. The bullies seemed to decide I wasn’t worth it. There were more different people to pick on.
When I got home my parents weren’t there, and I went into the yard and dug a hole. I was lowering the sweater into it when Hilda looked over the fence and said, “Honey, if you don’t want that sweater, may I have it? I think it would just go with an old pair of shoes of mine.” She stood at the fence, watching me while I hesitated. I really wanted to bury the sweater. But then Hilda said my name. Somehow she knew.
“Give me the sweater and I’ll give you some cookies and coffee.” I wasn’t allowed coffee. That settled it.
Every year since, Hilda knit me a sweater. She taught me the wonders of coffee. We planted daisies in old boots. She showed me the stars. With her, I owned the world.
But she’s leaving me.
“So?” She says, as if I was the one telling the story.
“So?” I say. “What happened to him?”
“What do you think? Do you think the star was enough? Was owning a star the world to the man?”
I think about it. Most fairy tales of this sort are like parables with morals, and the person who gets what they want finds it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Probably not,” I say. Hilda shakes a finger at me, trying to disguise its trembling. She leans close to me and whispers, “Oh, but it was. Know why?” Her breath smells like spearmint from the gum she keeps in a wad in the side of her mouth.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I’m crying, because all the stars she’s given me aren’t enough.
“It was enough because he made a wish and it came true.” She lies back.
“That’s the end?” I say.
“But why—” I start, but she clamps a hand over my mouth. She holds up her wrist and presses the button on her watch that makes it light up. She grins at me like a cat in the green glow. She points at the sky, and I see.
The stars are falling.
Shooting across the sky in streamers of red flame. It’s a meteor shower, they aren’t really stars, but the magic is strong enough for them to be.
Hilda leans over to me. It feels like the end of everything, this fire in the sky. And it is so beautiful.
“Wish,” Hilda whispers, her lips against my ear, her leathery skin crinkling around the word. But they’re blazing in my eyes and I don’t know what to wish. I can only think of one thing and I know it’s impossible, and she knows it too. So why does she tell me to wish?
The meteors blur through my head and I forget about wishing and smile and bite my lips and think, this is what life tastes like.
At last, when the last stars have fallen, Hilda says, “Well?”
“You didn’t wish more life on me, did you?”
“Good. Because, honey, then I would have had to live longer, and I’m ready now just whenever it comes.”
I don’t look at her, but I know she’s looking at me.
“Yes,” I say, but I’m not sure what I’m agreeing to.
We lay there a long time, and I wonder if we’ll stay until morning. I would like that.
“So?” She says at last, “What did you wish for?”
“Nothing,” I say, “I couldn’t think of anything.”
“Ah.” She breathes a sigh of satisfaction.
“I was hoping for that.”
Hilda taps my face with her fingers and smiles at me. I see the white shine of her dentures in the dark. I fold this year’s sweater closer. It will be the last.
“There’s only one reason a person is unable to wish.”
“What’s that?” I ask, but I already know what she’ll say. What she’s been trying to tell me since she looked across the fence between us and saved the sweater.
“It means the world is already yours.”