The Fallen Star
Written as a Christmas present for my cousins in December 2001; published in a limited handmade edition of 19.
Once upon a time, oh my darlings, my little ones, there lived nineteen cousins in one great house. There were big cousins and little cousins and teeny tiny baby cousins. There were smart cousins and strong cousins, solemn cousins and merry cousins — why, in that house there was every kind of cousin you could think of — and if there weren’t quite yet, well, you just had to wait for the babies to grow up, and they’d be sure to be just the kind of cousins you were looking for.
Now, these cousins were the children of eight sisters and one brother, and if you want to know why those people aren’t in this story…well, that’s another story altogether. This one is about the cousins. It may be a little difficult to keep them straight, so you’ll have to try hard to remember their names. They were:
Amirthi and Mirnalini and Sharmila and Romala and Neelmini and Pamela and Adrian and Shantha and Senthil and Pradheep and Dharshini and Sharlini and Joshua and Zaneta and Jehan and Ryan and Dylan and Serena and Ashwini…
…and that’s a lot of cousins!
They all lived together in a great big house. It was so big, that you might as well call it a castle, though it wasn’t made of stone. It was made of strong red bricks, and it had nine stories. Each story had nine windows, and there were nine steps leading up to the next story. On the first story were the nine bedrooms (so that in the case of an emergency, they could get the babies out quickly), and each bedroom had its own window looking out into the wide wide world. On the second story, there was a kitchen, with a great big dining table with nine sides (a nonagonal table, as they say), and many many chairs, some soft, some hard, and all of them just right for the person sitting in them. On the third story, there were nine bathrooms — some of the cousins thought it would have made life easier if there were a bathroom on every floor, but the house was built the way it was built, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it now. They were nice bathrooms, though — each one a different shade of greeny-blue, with mermaid mosaics on the bottoms of the tubs, and fluffy white clouds painted on the ceilings.
On the fourth story, there were nine offices, for when the oldest cousins felt like getting some work done. On the fifth story, there were nine craft rooms, one each for: spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, carpentry, glass-blowing, candle-making, and finally, both beginning and advanced magic. The middle cousins were especially fond of these rooms. On the sixth story (safely away from the offices) was the playroom, with nine carpeted pits, each full of wonderful things: balloons, brick-a-brack, building blocks, basketballs, bangles, bubbles, and best of all, bugs (safely contained) — not to mention all the various other bits and bobs. On the seventh and eighth floors was the library, with ninety-nine shelves holding at least nine thousand books. And on the ninth floor, the very top floor — there was a garden.
No one could count how many plants were in the garden — probably some multiple of nine, but it was just too hard to tell. The roof of the house was made of a special kind of glass, that let lots of sunshine in, but kept the rain and snow and ice out. It was the best kind of glass for a ceiling over plants, and the plants were so happy underneath it, that they just bloomed and grew like crazy — it was a regular jungle in that garden, with plants every which way, up and down and sideways and underneath and over-the-top and occasionally backwards. You can understand why it was hard to get an accurate count. The cousins liked all the rooms in the house, though some cousins liked some rooms more than other cousins did. But all the cousins loved the ninth room best.
The cooking cousins and the reading cousins, the basketball cousins and the glass-blowing cousins, the computer cousins and the diaper cousins…they were all at their happiest in the sunny garden room at the top of the house, and they all spent as much time there as they possibly could, among the daffodils and bright bougainvillea, the elegant irises, the pansies and pinks, the shoeflowers and climbing roses and sapphire lobelia, the snapdragons and love-lies-bleedings, the tulips and cheerful daisies — even the humble dandelions, which are so much fun to puff into a thousand little fluttering stars of fluff. The ninth room at the top of the nine stories of nine steps each — that was the heart of the house. Which was why it was such a terrible tragedy when a great burning star burst through the exact center of glass ceiling, shattering it and sending glass flying everywhere. Luckily, through sheerest chance, none of the cousins were in the room at that moment. If they had been, they would have been hurt horribly.
The Fallen Star
It wasn’t a really a star — only the sad remnant of a star, a little bit that had gotten lost and been flung off into the deep blue sky, there to catch fire and fall down, going faster and faster as it got closer to the ground, burning up from the outside in, until there was only the smallest tiny shred of star left when it hit the cousins’ ceiling — which was just as well, because if it had been any bigger, it might have taken down the whole house! Instead, it burst the ceiling and tore a great hole in some poor green viney plants that liked to climb across the glass. It landed on the brick floor, and there it burned merrily away until one of the middle cousins, who had been the first to race up the stairs at the sound of the crash, thought quickly and commanded that buckets of water be sent up from the third floor bathrooms. The cousins quickly formed a bucket brigade, and all the ones who were big enough to carry buckets without spilling too much spaced themselves along the spiral staircase and passed full buckets up the stairs and empty buckets back down, until plenty of water had been flung onto the last fiery remnant of what had once been a star (or a meteor), and it had been safely put out entirely.
So the first crisis had been taken care of — the house was in no danger of burning down. But there were at least two more crises left to go — there was glass all over the garden, making it impossible to take even a single step into it without the danger of your bare feet being terribly cut-up (all the cousins preferred to go barefoot inside the house, as their parents had before them; it was a tradition). And worse than that — the last leaves had just fallen off the trees the day before; autumn was ending, and winter was just around the corner. If they didn’t do something quickly about the ceiling, all the plants and flowers would die, withering away in the snow and sleet and ice. (And though only the oldest cousins realized this, the cousins might be in some danger as well, with a bitter winter wind racing through the great house; their parents had come from a warmer country than this, and their blood shivered at the thought of a winter without a roof to their house.) A convocation was called — a convocation of cousins, in the kitchen, now the warmest room in the house. Everyone quickly ran downstairs, gathering the babies on the way.
Once they reached the kitchen, everyone ran around, talking as loudly and quickly as they could. The babies woke up and started bawling; it was much too loud for them. The cousins who liked taking care of the babies shushed everyone else — but no one could hear them shushing, because the cousins with great and grand plans for getting rid of the glass and fixing the ceiling were much louder than they were. Finally one of the smallest cousins climbed up on top of the table; she took a big big breath, and then just shrieked! As loud and long as she could — she sounded just like a fire alarm that went on and on and on. That shut everyone else up. Then she asked them to please sit down at the table. And they did. And she climbed off the table and sat down too. She thought she had done her part, and for such a small cousin, she had done it very well.
The first problem, everyone agreed, was how to get rid of the glass. They couldn’t even reach the ceiling to fix it otherwise. But how to get rid of it? Picking up each and every piece would take a very long time, and many cousins would probably be cut in the process. They could sweep — some of them were quite good at sweeping. But that still wouldn’t get rid of every little bit. A few cousins volunteered to at least get started on the sweeping; they put on shoes (which took a while to find, since not one of them had gone outside in months), picked up brooms, and ran up the nine flights of stairs to start working. It was a first step.
Magic seemed the only solution for the tiny pieces — but only the middle cousins studied much magic, and they couldn’t do that much of it. Magic was terribly hard. One cousin did have rather a knack for levitation though — lifting things up in the air. That seemed like it might be handy. She offered to go up when the sweeping was done, and try to lift all the extra glass off the floor. She wasn’t sure if it would work on the bits she couldn’t see, but it seemed worth a shot. Another of the middle cousins was a weaver; he had just finished a bright red Christmas cloth that he had planned to use for a tablecloth. He said that he could spread it out on the floor after the sweeping and levitation, and then all the bits of glass could fall into it, where they’d be easily seen. And when they’d finished that, they could wrap the plants in lots of his blankets so they wouldn’t get too chilled. This also seemed like a decent plan, so the two of them tromped upstairs as well. With five cousins gone for sweeping, that left twelve cousins at the table — but three of them were babies. Nine cousins were left to solve problem number two — the big hole in the ceiling.
The Big Hole
It was getting cold in the house; the baby-minding cousins ran upstairs for extra blankets from the bedrooms and wrapped up the babies nice and tight. A bitter wind blew down from the hole in the ceiling, occasionally bringing light objects with it — torn leaves, flower petals, pieces of paper from the library and offices, bits and bobs from the playrooms. Ribbons and yarn and thread and scraps of fabric. Sand from the glass-blowing studio — because glass starts with sand, that you heat up really really hot, until it melts, and then blow into whatever shape you want. The nine cousins left agreed that eventually, they would want to fix the hole with glass, just like it had been before. But glass-blowing is a slow and patient art — only one of the cousins was any good at it. With time, he could make the most amazing things; dancing pink elephants on the heads of pins, silver dragons in gold bouncing bubbles, horses black as midnight, racing across fields of sparkly green glass grass. But it took time, lots of time, and more importantly, it would be particularly hard to manage with a cold wind creeping under doorframes and gusting into the great bubbles of blown glass. Glass at the beginning, and glass in the end, but right now, something else. Something else to patch the hole. But what, what, what?
The Glorious Quilt
It was the second oldest cousin (a very good thinker) who finally came up with the solution — a big quilt. A quilt made of all the things that all the cousins knew how to do — or all the useful ones, at any rate. Everyone (except the babies and the baby-minders, who stayed in the kitchen by the cheerful fireplace (but not too close, for fear of sparks)), ran up to the fifth floor (where, you’ll remember, the workrooms were). There was no time to weave, but there was plenty of fabric already woven — silks and cottons and velvets and much much more. Some pieces were bigger and some pieces were smaller and some were so tiny that you couldn’t see them unless your eyes were very good indeed — but for a quilt, a crazy quilt, any size and shape will do. The sweepers were done with their sweeping, so they came and set to sewing — that was the first step in a crazy quilt, sewing and sewing and sewing all the pieces together. When they got tired, they rested, and other cousins stepped in. Not all of them could sew well — but everyone could manage a needle and thread, which was all you really need for a crazy quilt. The middle ones helped the little ones thread their needles and fit silver thimbles over their fingers, so they wouldn’t prick themselves too often. The big ones organized, saying — more velvet for softness, more silk for beauty, more cotton for strength. They could have made the whole thing out of cotton, of course — but where would be the fun in that? No, they used every kind of fabric they had, making a quilt many layers thick, soft and strong and lovely.
It took several hours, and as it got colder and colder, the cousins huddled closer and closer together. They lit candles they had made, and worked through the night by candlelight, and in the morning by sunlight, and in the afternoon with a good lunch inside them (because a few of them had run down and cooked, since no one can work well on an empty stomach — beside, the babies had to be fed.) They started getting very tired in the evening, and some of them wanted to stop, but the oldest cousin started singing, and soon they were all singing along. One of the cousins was particularly good on the flute, and while they worked and sang, he played an accompaniment that danced up and down and around their voices, sometimes cooing low like a tired bird, sometimes shivering up high, like a flame, or a star.
As they worked, they added bits and bobs — a few carved lengths of wood, to form a frame, so they could more easily nail it into place. Seashells and silver buttons, to mark where the fabric was sewn together. Bits of mirror, to reflect the light from below, since none would be coming through from above. Shining ribbons in criss-cross patterns — red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ochre and peach and ruby and olive and violet and fawn and cream and crimson and silver and rose and azure and lemon and russet and grey and purple and white and pink and orange and many many more. It was not a particularly tasteful quilt — but crazy quilts aren’t really meant to be tasteful. They wouldn’t be happy if they were.
By the time night fell, and the first stars were coming out in the dark sky, they were done. And now, without wasting any time, it was time to hang their fabulous crazy quilt.
The New Ceiling
They all helped carry the quilt up the stairs; even the babies put their hands on it. And maybe nineteen cousins working together have a little magic of their own, because the quilt got both lighter and stronger as they climbed up the many steps to the garden. By the time they made it to the top, it was as light as a single sheet of silk, and almost as strong as thick glass — and much sturdier. When they got to the garden, shivering along with the poor plants, all wrapped in blankets, the third and fourth and fifth oldest cousins stood right under the big hole. And the sixth and seventh and eighth oldest cousins climbed up on their shoulders. And the oldest cousins passed up the quilt, and the middle cousins passed up hammers and nails, and the youngest cousins cheered loudly as the big quilt was nailed, right over the huge hole that the star had made as it came crashing through. In less time than it takes for you to read this tale, they were done with their hammering, and slid down their cousins’ backs, to stand in the garden, looking up, and admiring their good work.
The Fallen Star
They put the babies down on the smooth wood floor, and went around taking the blankets off the plants. The poor plants had had a difficult day of it, and many were more than unhappy — they were shedding leaves and petals, turning brown and wispy. The cousins stroked them and watered them and talked to them anxiously — they weren’t sure that many of the plants would survive. It was still nighttime, and the light of the moon wasn’t enough to heal unhappy plants. They were all very busy, coddling the ailing plants, and so it was the babies who found the last remnant of the star, the black boulder of it, still sitting in the center of the floor, still wet from the dousing it had gotten earlier. They played with it, rolling it round and round and round on the floor, shrieking with pleasure. At first the older cousins took no notice, but then one of them came over to see what the babies were doing. And you know what he discovered? The black rock was still warm! Not hot enough to burn a baby’s hands, but quite warm to the touch, like fresh toast, ready to be smeared with butter and cinnamon and sugar, or perhaps jam, if you prefer. He picked it up — but the rock was smooth and slippery, and it slid out of his hands — plop! It fell to the floor, and cracked open, just like an egg. And nestled in one shiny black half, there was….
A baby star.
It was the tiniest of things, smaller than your finger, smaller than your fingernail. But it shone so bright — it lit up the garden brighter than it had ever been lit before. And all the plants turned towards it, their remaining leaves reaching out hungrily to feed from the light of the star. They looked greener already! The cousin who had dropped it reached down and very carefully picked up the black half of rock that had sheltered the baby star, and carried it over to one of the sickest plants, the ivy who had had so many of its leaves and vines torn off by the falling star as it came through the ceiling. Before any of the cousins could blink thrice, the ivy had started shivering — but in a happy way. It shivered and shook and then it sent out shoots! Hundreds of little shoots running up and down the walls and across the ceiling and weaving a pattern under the big quilt, there where it hung in the center of the room. They were still small and fragile shoots, without any leaves as of yet — but the ivy looked so much happier already that they were sure that it would soon be quite well.
The Shining Lantern
No one was sure which cousin actually had the great idea. I think it might have been the ninth cousin, but I may be sadly mistaken. But what’s important is that in the end, they all agreed. Over the next few weeks, the glass-blowing cousin took the shards of glass that had fallen from the ceiling (the special glass, designed to bring the most light to the garden plants). He heated it up, and blew it into bubbles, and shaped it into plates — almost clear glass, but with a certain under-the-surface sparkle to it. He cut the plates into panes, and set the panes into frames of copper, and with the help of a cousin who was particularly good at metal work, made a lantern of the frames, and a hook to hang it with, and a hinged door. And then they opened the door, and very very carefully placed the star (still in its nest of black rock) inside the lantern. And then they carried it upstairs, and hung it from the center of the quilt (which was quite grand and glorious, and which they had all decided was a perfectly good piece of ceiling, now that they had a star to bring the plants lots of extra light). And at night they covered it with a purple cloth, so that the plants could sleep peacefully. But in the morning — oh, every morning the oldest cousin would uncover the lantern they had built, hanging from the center of the glorious quilt, and the light of the baby star would spill out into the garden room, filling each and every corner, and the cousins would sit drinking tea and coffee, eating toast with butter and cinnamon and sugar (and sometimes jam), basking in the warmth of their fallen star.
They lived quite happily ever after. The end.