Music From the Stars - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

We are all stardust. From the stars all life came, and to the stars all life returns. The question is: what kind of stars will we become? Will we be bright burning flames that light up the night, or small dwarves hidden in the nothingness of the universe? Orion shone down on me. I could picture him staring, eyes narrowed and focused. He notched an arrow and took aim. Thwack. Did it hit me? Was it flying through space, heading toward me, the girl who only knew how to hide out in the open? Would it burst into silver droplets around me the way I hoped, or would it miss?

Stars were never something I felt a connection to. You can’t see them where I grew up, the city lights drowned them out. The moon, on the other hand, has always been there for all to see, all the time. Instead of the bloodied arrow of Artemis’ archer, there was Chang’e, Goddess of the Moon, watching over her people from her lonely home. I used to practice violin just as she would appear. On the roof of that old apartment building, the pale early moon my only audience. Chang’e and I, we were both loners for life. I spent hours with her; I grew accustomed to her light. The lights of mankind were always too harsh, for how could cold, neon signs ever compete with her warm, silvery glow?

That was the problem with practicing outdoors. It ruined me for everything else. The harsh light of school classrooms and the dissonant chord of 700 students left me drained and tired, with one exception—Katherine. I called her Nectarine, or Tangerine, or Tambourine, anything that ended with -rine. She called me Maya because that’s my name and she wasn’t a pretentious little sycophant. That was my job; hers was to be a bubbly teenage girl with incendiary wit.

Chlorine was a giant romantic. She would blush whenever her crush walked past our classroom and would spend hours lying on my bed talking and dreaming of a future filled with love and happiness. I was a romantic in the other sense of the word, a romantic with a capital R—Mary Shelley, Theodore Gericault, skulls and dried flowers, all that jazz. I lived on the music of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, on their passion and skill and beautiful despair. We were both romantics, just different kinds. We still clicked, though, fitting like puzzle pieces lost from the rest of their set. For Marine, we would hang out in my room (or a McDonald’s if she was suffering from a broken heart) and talk about her crush before moving on to memes on Instagram or homework. For me, she would sit on my bed and listen to me practice, or we would go out to the living room and play a duet on the piano. We would always pick pieces too advanced for us and scream as we watched our fingers stumble and trip. Those jam sessions never ended in quality classical music but in tears of laughter and sore stomachs.

I never understood my best friend, how she could have crushes and heartbreak over and over again in vicious cycles of dreams and tears and unkept promises. My heart belonged to the moon and the music, things that I knew would never leave me. She put hers in the hands of cruel and immature teenagers. They always broke it, and every new one seemed worse than the last. I could hear her crying, my mind playing memories like a neverending Philip Glass opera.

“He’s an idiot, Rine. Don’t let him break that shining spirit of yours.”

“No funny nick...name this time? Are you fi...finally running out?”

“ You wish, but since you asked, he’s an idiot, Latrine. Don’t let him break that shining spirit of yours. There we go, there’s the laugh we love so much.”

“Curse you. Thanks...”

“Yeah, yeah. You feeling better? Want to go get badly made fast food burgers? Yeah? Okay, up you go. I'm buying today.”

I wish I could say I was a good friend to Wolverine then when she needed me most, but that wouldn’t be true. While my best friend was picking up the pieces of her broken dreams, I was off chasing my own. A soloist position had opened up in the youth orchestra, and my heart was set on getting it.

So I practiced. And practiced. And practiced.

Ultramarine was a better friend than I. She sat by me when I cried over my audition piece (Sibelius Violin Concerto) and spent hours going over recording after recording. I went to her when I needed her and never stayed to see if she needed me. I retreated to the walls of music and the light of Chang’e. Under the drapery of wispy clouds and nighttime with the noise of city streets below, I traded my sanity for clean chords and my humanity for crisp tone.

As the day of the audition drew ever nearer, I stopped practicing as much. The last few weeks of manic anxiety fueled playing had taken their toll. My hands were tired, and I missed my human friend. I looked for her in the library Friday after school. Submarine was sitting in the corner with a frown on her face as she glared down at her math homework. I could hear her muttering as I approached.

“Substitute x for y, and use that to find angle ADE, ADE opposite EDG…” I dropped down onto the seat in front of her.

“Hey.”

Her responding smile didn’t match the look in her eyes. “There’s my love.” A pause. “Your audition’s on Sunday. What are you doing here? You have chords to fix.”

“I don’t feel like practicing. Also, I’ve missed you and your boundless hatred for math.” A lie and two truths, I could live with that. She rolled her eyes and threw her pencil at me. It missed, so I knew I still had some grovelling to do. I tossed it back. “You free to hang out today?”

She bit her lip and twirled the pencil. “Hugh has a basketball game at 5:30. I kinda want to go just to root for the other team. If we leave now we can get boba tea before heading to the court.”

I nodded. “Sure, let’s go bite our thumbs at your ex-boyfriend like the petty demons we are. Sounds fun."

She yelped and threw her pencil at me again. It hit this time, and I smiled. I was forgiven.

“Come on, what are we waiting for?”

As we walked from school to train station to tea shop to stadium, I felt like one of the girls eight-year-old-me scoffed at. Just look at me, not practicing two days before a big audition, sipping bubble tea and going to see a boy’s basketball game with my best friend. Still, even as Peregrine and I laughed and talked about everything and nothing, my mind returned to my music and my violin tucked away in its case. It felt wrong. Was it wrong that I never understood Sapphirine? Was it wrong that I loved “inanimate things” like my violin and my silver moon more than I did people? Was it wrong?

“Something’s wrong with me.”

“Honey, there are a lot of things wrong with you. Please be more specific.”

“I don’t want to fall in love.”

“Yes, and?”

“What?”

“I know you want a lot of things in life. You want that soloist position. You want to sit in a room with bookshelf walls staring into a fireplace while stroking some hopefully fake skull. Cool. We all want different things in life. You’re being dumb, Maya.”

“I love you too.”

“Ew. Anyway, what even was that assignment? No one cares about angles. We have to stop normalizing math…”

We arrived at the court five minutes before the game began. Figurine dragged me to a front row seat and gave me a quick recap of the game’s rules and procedures. Apparently, I just had to cheer when she did, and I would be fine. Basketball was something I knew nothing about. In my eyes, it was a bunch of jocks trying to throw a rubber sphere into a circle. I had no understanding of the details or nuances of it all. The action and visuals made no sense to me. Is this what other people felt when I ranted about classical music? Awkward and out of place, a lonely cloud looking out at a host of golden daffodils. I gave up trying and focused instead on the rhythm and pulse of it all. The bounce of the ball on polished wood, the roar of the crowd when someone scored, the sounds of the game. That I was comfortable with. With my best friend’s laughter and the cheers of fifteen other excited teenagers in my ear, there was nothing stopping me from being a “normal human being”, and I was going to hold on to that as long as I could. Forget my world of calloused fingers and moonlit eyes; this was Flourine’s world of wild emotion and non-stop movement.

Still, with every bounce of the ball and every roar of the crowd, the moment of truth ticked ever closer. The conductor stops for nothing, and neither does the rhythm of life. The music must continue. Margarine knew something was off when I missed a cheer. She shoved me and said “Bet you lunch that Hugh misses that two-point shot by a mile and falls on his face,” I laughed as our section erupted with cheers. She was right, he missed. Shame he didn’t fall on his face though.

The weather on the day of my audition reflected my emotions. It was stormy. I could hear the pitter patter of raindrops as I walked into the otherwise silent hall, cringing at every squeak my shoes made on the smooth wooden floor. Smiling my well worn performance smile, I bowed at the Three Fates sitting across the room. They smiled back. I felt some relief at the laugh lines around their eyes. The young ones, lacking the mercy and empathy of age, were always the harshest. The music soared, and I could feel Chang’e smiling down from the other side of the planet. I could feel my muscle memory taking over as the end of my excerpt drew near. I had done well so far. Don’t mess up now.

“I did it.”

“Of course you did it, you funky little musician.”

“Thank you. For everything. Thanks for keeping me human.”

“You are such a sappy nerd, ugh... It’s true though. Without me you’d have run off to die in the wilderness with tear stained sheet music years ago.”

“I will chuck you off a bridge Victor Hugo style.”

“I dare you to. Anyway, the bonsai park we visited in fifth grade is nearby. Let’s go stare at funny trees for an hour. I’m sure you can find a way to ruin it with some depressing little quip.”

“Books are just dead, tattooed trees.”

“Listen here, you-”

I received my audition results a few days later. It didn’t take long for the joy of having a solo to descend into fear of having a solo. Once again, my practice sessions became longer and longer and longer. That seemed to be a recurring theme with me, and I don’t think it’s one that will go away anytime soon. But this time things were different. This time, I wouldn’t let myself neglect my friend. I had learned my lesson, and Terrine seemed to enjoy Vivaldi a lot more than Sibelius.

I didn’t ask her to come to every show, but I got her free tickets and she did. Knowing her, she probably would have been to every single one even if I hadn’t. She was there after all five performances, ready to tell me my notes were sharp (they weren’t) or that my E string whistled (it did). We took turns walking each other home, two girls moving across a loud city, their laughter ringing through the traffic and hustle. It was four days of pure joy that went by in the blink of an eye. After my last show, my family planned to go camping for the long weekend, and before I knew it, I was in the backseat as my mother drove, the sound of an applauding concert hall still ringing in my ears.

There was no moon, only stars as far as the eye could see. I stared up at the swirl of the Milky Way and the vague constellations I knew little about. It felt foreign and unnatural, and I was lost in the middle of life and nowhere at all. I wondered which stars I’d join when my bones stopped being my own and my ashes returned to the nothingness of the glorious universe. I think I recognized Orion somewhere among the diamonds. Wasn’t he good friends with Artemis, the Greek moon? Wasn’t she the twin sister of Apollo, the god of music? Wasn’t she content with nighttime and her art while her brother chased after love and light?

There they were in the lonely and ancient landscape of nature. My heart, my soul, my humanity. There they were in the horror and beauty of nowhere. My moon, my music, my friendship. There they were.





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