Fiction: Astronomy Lessons by Corey Farrenkopf

At first the creatures took small trinkets Lawrence had no desire to keep. He watched from his bed, patchwork quilt pulled up to his throat. He contemplated stopping them from ferrying away Heather’s old hair brushes, Fleetwood Mac albums, and ballroom gowns. He hesitated, laying back against his pillows that had long since lost her scent. What am I going to use them for? He asked, eyes on the ceiling, feeling the open space of his king-size mattress empty around him.

He drafted a list of missing items: fleece sweaters, floral tablecloths, three succulents he couldn’t name, a glass butterfly diorama, stockings, her violin. He stopped after a few weeks, uncertain what the list represented, what good it would do him to remember. They didn’t have theft insurance and who’d go into the woods to verify his claims against thieving sprites?

The creatures moved on to other things, less personal to Heather, more necessary for Lawrence’s existence. Frying pans and toilet seats. Kitchen stools and the microwave. When they pulled the hot water heater from the basement, he chased the little creatures out into the yard, scrambling through moldering flower beds. Damp petals from decayed hydrangeas stuck to his bare legs. He tripped over an oak root and lost sight of the water heater as the creatures disappeared into denser foliage.

***

One day, houses started appearing in the open field next to Lawrence’s property. Small, shoebox sized homes, direct miniatures of his own. To complete construction, the creatures yanked copper wire through sheetrock, plucked shingles from his rooftop. It began to leak. Drafts billowed to sweeping gusts.  When he heard them sawing beams in the attic, he dragged the bed closer to the patio door, just in case. The creatures ran quicker than their little legs would suggest, or at least what Lawrence assumed were legs. It was always dark. He struggled to see them in the shadows.

Heather would have told him to leave their tiny homes alone, to ignore his desire to flatten them with a shovel. But Heather had been dead for two years. Only faint whispers of encouragement floated through his thoughts. Her quick syllables fluttered like copper butterflies somewhere deep inside him, pushing him to action, to abandon the moss growing on his bones. Its weight was immense, each step like cement seeping between muscle and ligament, atrophying, forcing him to the floor. The mattress was warm. The sheets recently laundered. So in bed he stayed through the demolition of his miserable estate.

***

When he could see stars through gaps in the roof, chickadees nesting in cavities that were once windows, Lawrence decided to move to the shed, the last structure the creatures hadn’t dismantled. It was big enough for his bed, a small table, a micro fridge filled with milk and eggs, a single burner stovetop. In a way, he liked it more. The fear of the roof collapsing was gone. The house no longer had heat or running water. Most of the electrical outlets had been stripped of filament and function.

Autumn wind wicked through crevices in the shed, thick with the scent of leaves and rain, a welcome replacement for the familiar smell of old upholstery. Bathing in the river was colder than he liked, but the shower head was one of the first items to go, the porcelain tub one of the last. He saved one picture, propping it up on his nightstand. He and Heather on a jetty jutting into frozen waters, arms wrapped around each other, glacial ice butting against the rocks. It was one of the few items left. Every night he hid it between mattress and box spring in case the little creatures decided to pay another visit. They could take everything else, but not that.

***

Another month and the house collapsed. The sound of splintering boards echoed through the valley. Metal whined as pipes wrenched off walls, bending into twisted roller-coaster heaps. Dust and grit flecked the shed’s lone window, a five minute sandstorm before particles settled. Lawrence was frying eggs, a smile on his face, happy to watch the place slump into the grave. He never intended on stepping foot back inside.

***

The creatures walked in pairs through miniature doors, hands bound together, looking at the pale night sky. They were like clouds, scraps of memories floating in familiar colors and scenes across the lawn. They were swaths of silk ties and floral dresses. Lingerie and ballroom gowns. Kitchen utensils and old notebooks.

From the front stoop of the shed, Lawrence watched as they gazed up at the sky. One pointed, tracing a slew of segmented lines, speaking in unintelligible tones. His companion leaned in, head on shoulder, following his fingertip. A memory came to Lawrence: stars viewed through a skylight, Heather reclining in his lap.

“What do you have to do to get a constellation named after you?” she asked.

“Send away fifty bucks,” Lawrence replied.

“I don’t mean like that. I mean like Greek myths, but today.”

“I’m not sure there is anything.”

“Well, slaying lions and killing hydras are out of the question.”

“They named some after lovers. Andromeda and Perseus.”

“So I guess that’s our only option,” Heather said, drawing an outline of stars to mimic their bodies, Lawrence’s interstellar arm tucked beneath her celestial waist. He laughed when she pointed out their constellation, claiming she was stealing from Ursa Major and Orion. But in the end, he accepted the twin doppelgangers hanging above, kissing, forever entwined.

Sitting by himself, Lawrence looked out at the creatures and wondered if they were mapping the same constellation. Could they see Heather? Or were they devising their own legends, just shrunken, more compact. He didn’t know their language. Still he rose and strode into their midst. They parted for his heavy boots, allowing him room to crouch down, leveling himself with their translucent eyes. In a tight circle, they tilted their heads towards him at a curious angle, images of Lawrence’s memories floating across their skin.

Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle, and works as a special education teacher and landscaper. His fiction has recently been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Gravel, 45th Parallel, Sleet Magazine, Literary Orphans Journal, Wraparound South, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com

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