From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

When We Were Stardust

We make a picnic in the sparse woods beyond the park, the four of us, with our baskets of breads and pâtés, waxed apples and a jug of sparkling cider. My husband Abe keeps close behind me. Keith and Janelle are our neighbors in a cul-de-sac. We have the assurance that by the time our picnic is finished it will be dark, and we will trip back in our middle-aged clumsiness to our cars over anthills and tree roots.

As we walk in the sunset beneath the weeping willows we murmur small things to each other, and it is not what we say that matters; it is the sweet and soft volume, the cadence like our footsteps. This evening is a relief and a pleasure. We pass the baskets from hand to hand, and we look for a good spot to settle and lay the woolen picnic blanket down.

I am glad to be taking a break from the lab. I have buried myself in there lately, among the hot lamps and observation boxes. But the hamsters can observe themselves for an evening. I am tired of hard science.

We come into a clearing, if you could call it that—we are not so much in a woods as a grassy field punctuated by a great number of trees. We stop and toe the grass. “Lucy, how is this spot?” asks Abe, and everyone looks at me.

“Well, it’s fine,” I say. “Are there bugs in the grass?”

In a past life, I imagine Abe was a king. He ruled over his African tribe with a passion that I can still see in his eyes now, as he vacuums the stairs, or comforts me with his large hands. He had skin so dark it shone in the sun. He wore a beaded headpiece. He had fingernails that grew and grew.

A neighboring tribe encroached upon my husband’s tribe, and they were greater in number, with sharper, heavier spears, slingshots that hoisted boulders, and deep growls that shook the savannah.

They came in the night. What did they want?

Even Abe, the king, didn’t know. It was unfair. They went to battle, and before my husband was brought down in his prime by a spear hurled at his heart, he saw his tribe reduced to the bewildered children, the women (who were raped), and the old men, who huddled against trees and only half-wished they were strong enough to fight.

The four of us grab the corners of the blanket and pull until it is taut against the grass. It is quiet here, and there is the smell of flowers. The dark makes me nervous. If there weren’t so many trees we could see straight across the sound to the damaged New York City skyline.

Janelle, who is tall and slim and honey blonde, was probably an Aztec in the 1500s. I can see it in the way she holds herself, in her narrow, straight back, the plush of her lips, her prescience about the weather. She, rather, he grew cacao beans and cotton. He squatted in the sun and sifted his fingers through the damp dirt. It was like silk in his hands. Janelle is quick to fury and so was he. When his children became sick with dark red spots on their bodies and skin hot enough to boil a river, he threw jars and plates around the hut, the objects making whipping noises in the air and spilling liquid on the floor. There were shards of clay in the corners as his children died. And soon he and his wife were stricken with smallpox too. They lay on straw pallets on the floor, whisking their hands through the air across their fields of vision, watching the light divide and merge around their fingers. I think about what it would be like to watch my own children die and I wonder if Janelle carries that pain with her, from life to life: if she will never outrun it.

Each life is another layer of bark on the tree; we gather our joys and traumas around us like skins and reach nearer toward the heavens. Maybe there are dozens and dozens for each person. Time goes back forever, and I’m beginning to think we were always here, in a human body, in a mammoth body, in a single cell, in stardust.

We open the baskets and set out plates of food. The bread is crusty and the fruit is sweet. We pour the cider into paper cups. My hand comes into contact with Janelle’s and I feel a little bit of lust for her fierce Aztec self, and then I pull back.

I look at Keith across the picnic blanket and I see a peasant wife in The Middle Ages in England. She scrubbed, and she cooked, and she gathered crops in the endless fields, and she tended to the children, of which there were too many. When she could, she sent her children out to be apprenticed by anyone who would take them: the shoemaker, the doctor, or the shipbuilder. Once she had a baby who wouldn’t stop crying, who had a bluish tinge to its lips, and she carried the baby into town and left it in the gutter, and the filthy water that ran through carried it away to someplace else. Perhaps Keith tries to make up for it in this life. After all, he is a pediatrician.

Abe says, “Are we doing okay, here?” I lay my head on his shoulder. We clink paper cups together in a toast to the sky. It is dark through the tiara of shifting leaves and branches above us.

“Did I tell you what happened at school today?” Janelle says. She is a math teacher at the high school, where my two oldest children go. She laughs and takes a sip of cider. “There was a fight between two of the kids, I think they’re sophomores. A boy in the Persian tough-guy crowd and a white boy, one of the Latin club geeks.”

“A geek got into a fight?” asks Abe.

Janelle brushes her free hand through her hair. “It was surreal. They were in the hall just outside my classroom in fourth period, the Persian one looking ready to whip out his brass knuckles, and the nerdy boy bouncing on the balls of his feet, his jeans tucked into his socks—”

“What were they fighting about?” I ask.

“There’s this girl named Sylvia and all the boys want her. She’s got the looks. The pouty lips, the long hair. She’s not extremely bright but she works hard. She’s always in my office hours. She’s blameless.”

I imagine myself in high school, as we all are, picturing where we would have fit into this scenario, in that past life. The handsome dark-skinned macho, the weak nerd, the beautiful girl, or an onlooker pressed against the lockers.

“And so, somehow, this girl had taken a liking to the nerd.” In the dark, one of us gasps, and then we all laugh. “They’d been making out in the stairwells during class. You know, getting a bathroom pass and smooching for those few minutes they had.” I cannot imagine such a scenario.

“I don’t believe you,” says Keith. “Why would the beautiful girl choose the nerd?”

“I did, didn’t I?” Janelle says, and Keith laughs and smacks her. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “I think he bought her a puppy. Anyway he had pledged his love to her, and from what I gathered, she had done the same.”

“Where does the other boy come in?” Abe asks.

“Well,” says Janelle, and shifts her legs on the blanket. “This other boy had picked Sylvia out to be his. I don’t know exactly how that works, but there you go. He was popular, she was beautiful, and he took offense when he found out what was going on between her and the geek.”

It is now officially dark, and we can only see silhouettes of each other. We pass the pâtés and plastic knives to spread them with, onto the bread and crackers. “And that’s about it. They got into it, right there in the hallway. They were circling each other like gang members about to pull out knives. The geek was hopping on his toes, he was so mad.”

“So what happened?” Abe asks. “Who won the fight?”

“Well the Persian boy did, obviously,” says Janelle. “Actually it wasn’t much of a fight. This was the best part. The nerd took a swing at the macho boy, who dodged it very well, and the nerd swung all the way around. A full one-eighty! His fist slammed into the lockers so hard the halls rang.” I can see it. It is every high school scene to ever occur. I decide that Janelle was an orator in a past life. “He broke his fist, I think, all the fingers and whatever other bones are in the hand, and he doubled over in the hallway, screaming. He was crying like a baby. The other boy ran.”

“What did he expect?” I ask. “This is what happens to you.”

“Exactly,” Janelle says. “We got the school nurse up there right away, and she took one look at his purple paw and shipped him off to the emergency room. But still . . . ”

“What?” I ask. I can hear Janelle shift on her blanket. I realize that it does not make sense, this picnic in the dark.

“I just feel awful,” she says. “It’s my job to protect these kids from each other. But I was afraid to be in the middle of it and get hurt myself.”

“It’s not your job to protect them!” Keith says. “It’s your job to teach them math. Beyond that, what happens to them happens to them.” We are quiet for a few moments.

“Unbelievable,” says Abe, finally. “And what did Sylvia decide to do? Did she stick with her man?”

“Oh,” says Janelle. “I don’t know.”

In another life, Abe might have been a slave in Louisiana. It was early in the nineteenth century. He would have been a woman slave. She was the daughter of two slaves who had been shipped over to America from Nigeria, and she had nine siblings and half siblings, although she hardly ever saw or thought about them. And she didn’t think about meals, which were always broth and bread, or sex, which would have required far more energy than she had after a day in the fields, or love, because who can love when they are filled with such a pure despair, such a powerful helplessness? That’s not true, either; she felt all of those things, all of the time. Hunger and lust and love. She lived a long life, bearing four children who were sent off to other plantations. When she was old enough that her joints swelled and creaked, she was relegated to the household chores. She died in a slave bed in the slave house, with the master looking on and wanting to pat her tired head and her old feet, but standing back and waiting, instead.

In this life I am living now I was raped in the dark in the parking lot outside the hamster lab. In the following weeks I thought about my three children, who were already in their teens—Janelle’s students, Sylvia’s peers—and this new child who had nothing to do with them. I thought about my dear vasectomized husband who was willing to go along with whatever I chose. I was sick all day every day, staying close to the bathroom lest I vomit on the rug, but this was not morning sickness. This was a twisting, aching dilemma that gripped at my guts and pushed my food back up my throat. I aborted her four days ago.

In another life the baby in my womb was my wife and we scaled mountains together. We climbed the Alps, calling out to each other through the snow and thin air. And in another life my baby and I were twin boys in a shtetl in Poland. We swam the river and buried dead birds in the dirt beneath the rockrose bushes. When the Nazis came we were too busy chasing each other in the cornfield to hear our mother calling.

I let out a cry and lay my head down on the picnic blanket. Cups of cider spill. “What is it,” Keith asks. I feel hands rubbing at my back. My husband gathers me up into his arms. “She had it done the other day,” he tells them. There is a hush. Why are we here in the night?

These three people are the ones who met me in the emergency room after the police brought me in, and who stayed with me all of that dark night and all of the next day and in shifts for the week after, running a bath and reminding me to eat. In another lifetime, in the years before I was raped, I can’t remember if we were friends or neighbors.

In the moment that my baby was removed from me I felt a strange visceral pain that I was sure I recognized. Then I remembered with a tidal wave all the lives I’d lived before this one. I had never thought of such a thing before. All the times I had lost her. In the Alps, in the shtetl, in the streets of Paris, in the early settlement of Australia. And before that too. When we were stardust we traveled together through space, watching over the universe.

I bury my face in Abe’s warm shirt. I can feel his thundering, tribal heartbeat against my temple. He is and always will be a good man, even if he is not her. I wonder why it must be that I lose what I need, again and again. Is this what happens to us all? The four of us are speechless and cold in the dark, and we wait for me to stop crying.


Rebecca Epstein is twenty-six years old, blonde, then brunette, then blonde again. Then brunette. She grew up in New York and is now getting her fiction MFA in Tucson, Arizona — a very dry, very warm, very languid sort of place. She lives with one parrot, one female dog who lifts her leg to pee, and one male dog who does not. She also has this old guy with enormous wings who hangs out in the chicken coop in her backyard, and sometimes she throws rocks at him.

Rebecca has been published in The Sycamore Review and Arts & Letters, won the 2006 Silent Voices Short Story Award, the University of Arizona’s Beverly Rogers Fellowship, and this year is nominated by her MFA program for the Best New American Voices award.

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