The Stars We Raised
By Xiu Xinyu
Translated by Judy Yi Zhou
All autumn long, we searched for baby stars. Our scavenged treasures would be carefully placed in gauze-sealed glass fishbowls. The tiny rocks were still soft, their glow a faint green. They couldn’t yet fly: all they could do was worm around at the bottom of the bowl.
We would make a clearing in the sea of endless leaves to claim our share of the hunt. The brightest and softest baby star always went to Captain Wang, our class president appointed by the head teacher. Even outside the classroom, he acted like our leader and enjoyed the perks fully. He would split the rest of the baby stars among us. I would usually receive a yolk-sized one, but Jiang Yang would only ever get nail-sized pieces—dull and fragmented. That was the way it should be: after all, he was the smallest of our group, and the quietest, trailing behind everywhere we went.
Only kids with nothing better to do and the most stubborn scientists had the patience for this: going to whatever lengths to train a star, and believing that they might succeed.
We would have about four months. We would wipe the baby stars with melted snow, hoping the pristine water would wash away the dullness and make them shine more brightly. Some thought the icy cold air would make their baby stars stronger, so they would swaddle them with wet gauze and set them outside their windows to freeze. Others, under the belief that their baby stars could learn to understand simple commands, would cup them in their palms, hold them up like offerings, and talk to them every day.
No matter what we did or did not do, however, the stars always grew up. They became larger and lighter, and by the following spring, when the fields came back to life, the stars’ translucent fluorescent green would turn an opaque grayish brown. That was when our parents would try to get us to grind them into dust and sell them.
Parents always seemed to know exactly what they wanted from the start, as if their plan had been for the stars to grow up then be turned into dust and sold for money all along. When baby stars grew up, they became clumsy, boring and ugly, looking like nothing more than an ordinary rock. What’s more, if we didn’t tie them up with rope, they would float around slowly, making a nuisance of themselves.
* * *
It was only many years later that I found out when it all started: one summer over a decade ago. Some people had seen stars circling about in midair. They seemed to only appear in a few small cities at the horse latitudes—about thirty degrees north and south of the equator—including several villages in the United States, Australia, and China. At first scientists were not aware of this phenomenon, and nobody told us what to do. So some folks took things into their own hands, before they could be stopped.
When the stars first descended upon villages in Anhui, herds of journalists swarmed and dug up every possible detail surrounding them. Some Taoist priests had swung dirt around in the air while chanting mantras at the stars, and some crackpots had thrown themselves to the ground and kowtowed repeatedly until their foreheads bled.
Yet nothing happened.
And that was the best way it could have turned out. People tried everything they could to communicate with the stars slowly drifting through the air, but nothing worked. Only after several years were the scientists willing to admit that the stars were completely harmless. A few years later, scientists found a use for these stars: after they were ground into powder, the stardust could be made into a superior cement additive. Most started to think of it as nothing more than an ordinary natural resource, save for one or two cities that thought it would be a good gimmick to build a theme park with stardust cement.
If these stars had a message, no one knew what it was. We didn’t know where they came from or what kind of force sustained their constant flying. Perhaps there was some kind of magnetic or energy field—we just didn’t know.
Growing up in such a village, we were used to seeing stars hovering in the mountains. We often gathered under a street lamp to show off our stars, each of us carefully reaching into our pockets to bring out the baby star we had been training. Unsurprisingly, Captain Wang’s baby star would always be bigger, brighter, rounder, smoother, and softer than the others. He was the class president, tall and handsome, the pride and joy of his family since birth. Why shouldn’t his baby star be the best too?
That was why we all kept our silence when he stamped down on Jiang Yang’s baby star, throwing all his weight on it. None of us tried to stop him.
* * *
That day had seemed pretty unusual from the start. We would often set up a small hurdle on the ground with tree branches and stones, then we would excitedly cheer on our stars as they squirmed, struggling to make their way across the hurdle. Jiang Yang normally wouldn’t participate in this game. And in our village, secrets didn’t exist. Everyone knew everyone else’s dirty laundry: Jiang Yang had no mother and his father found a city job long ago, so he had always lived with his grandmother. She was a scary old lady, twig-thin and dry like a raisin. When she looked at you, she stared with such menace. In winter, she would wrap Jiang Yang in thick cotton coats. No way would she let her darling grandson out at night.
But that evening, remarkably, Jiang Yang did come out, and he was even zipped up in a brand-new red jacket. He almost seemed happy, if a little shy.
“My baby star is super fast,” he promised, reaching into his pocket for it. It was still tiny, but it glowed with a dazzling light. Its light wasn’t even the usual fluorescent green—it looked kind of pale. Who would have known that a baby star could be this bright!
“How’d you do it?” Even Captain Wang couldn’t help but marvel. He squatted down and scooped up the baby, squeezing it in his hand.
Jiang Yang stuttered as he explained he didn’t know how this had happened, but he quickly realized that nobody cared. By then, we could all see that Captain Wang didn’t plan on giving back the star anyway.
At this, Jiang Yang lost his mind and started wailing, digging his nails into Captain Wang’s wrist, pinching him. Captain Wang spat, then tossed the little star on the ground and stomped on it, snapping, “Your star is sick, you know that?! It’s radioactive, that’s why it’s so bright. It’ll make you dumb. And it will never grow up. You know why? Because it’ll use up all its energy before that!”
Jiang Yang leapt to cover the star with his arms, forgetting all about his new jacket. Captain Wang’s foot had nowhere else to land, so he stepped on Jiang Yang’s torso, furnishing the new jacket with a few fresh boot prints. Jiang Yang didn’t flinch. He stayed on the ground until those of us watching got bored and started to leave. Then he quickly stood up, clutching his star. I vaguely remember Jiang Yang still crying when he left, while we went on playing amongst ourselves. The particular cruelty of children gave us the unique power to turn a blind eye to all the miseries thriving in our own lives.
* * *
Jiang Yang never joined our games again. Nor did he ever show us his star.
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