Fear of the Night Sky
The night sky scares me. It began when I was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, California. I was skinny then with long braids that crisscrossed at the top of my head. There was a big gap between my two front teeth. My sisters teased me about it, so I was conscious about smiling too much. I tried to cover my smile with my lips but it made me look silly, so I just smiled.
I loved to go outside and gaze at the night sky. Back then, my sisters and I could see so many stars. That was in the late 1950s. We were all readers, but I was a dreamer, more inquisitive, and more talkative. I invented stories.
The summers were hot, but we lived on the farther reaches of the Westside, just in the margins enough to feel the cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean and hear them rustle through the broad green leaves of our big sycamore tree growing in our front yard. We'd play outside until the sky turned a dark blue-black. One evening when our mother came to retrieve us from our front lawn, we all decided to tilt our heads back and stare into space. That was when Los Angeles skies were clear of pollution, and we could see the stars. We searched for shooting stars streaking across the sky and chatted as our eyes roamed over the blanket of bright celestial bodies. We took turns pointing at stars and shouting, "look that's mine" as we tried to recognize constellations we had seen on our school trips to Griffith Park Observatory; Orion's Belt, the Big and Little Dippers, and then we found the North Star, the brightest star in the sky. I had heard that the North Star never moves, it always points north. My grandmother told me stories about black slaves watching the North Star for a pathway to freedom.
The stars seemed white hot. It felt like I was penetrating space, alone away from my close knit family, my familiar, and all that I had known about life on earth, in this city that stretched from the mountains to the sea, and in this neighborhood that had quickly turned from white to black.
I remember wondering how slaves knew where to find the North Star because I couldn't always tell where it was. I knew that it was somewhere around the Big Dipper, but most times, I couldn't get my bearings right, until after singing the Drinking Gourd song in Sunday School one Sunday when my teacher told me a story her mother told her. My teacher was a stargazer herself. It helped that she was black and had migrated from rural Northern Louisiana to Los Angeles, like my family. She knew the stories about family members fleeing slavery. They were the kind of resistance stories passed down from one generation to the next. So, she knew what to look for in the sky and on the ground—she knew that moss grew on trees facing the North Star. She told me to look for the Big Dipper group of stars also known as the Drinking Gourd. The two stars farthest from the handle pointed straight to the North Star.
As I stood on the sidewalk, not speaking, eyes fixed on the sky, searching for the Drinking Gourd—silence shrouded me, and I began telling my sisters my fantasy about traveling among the stars. I went on and on thinking they'd interrupt me at any second and make some snide remark or at least comment on my story, but they didn't. Turning to where I thought they were, all I saw was the sky, so I tried to see them, perhaps houses, and my street, out of the corner of my eyes but I couldn't. My sisters were not next to me, and everything was gone. All I could see was blackness and stars. Fright seized me as I realized I was alone with the night sky.
I thought that I was on earth, but I couldn't see it anywhere from the black hole where I found myself, lost among the stars. I wanted to go home. I thought of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. How did she get home? My problem was, she had help, but there was no one around to help me. No one could tell me to click my heels together and say, "There's no place like home." Floating away, I flailed my brown legs wildly trying to pull them together close enough to click my heels. I yelled out loudly, "I want to go home," but there was no one around, that is, that I could see. Then I felt unseen eyes watching me. My imagination ran wild. Did the stars have eyes? Finding myself on my own with the night sky, and realizing that I got myself into this and only I could imagine myself back to earth, I closed my eyes because I didn't want to see what was coming next. Lowering my head and fearful that the ground below me was gone, I accepted the fact that I might levitate in a sea of stars forever. Then I thought, no, I'm not staying here, wherever “here” was, without a fight.
It turns out all I had to do was to will myself back home, and I did. When I opened my eyes, I looked around and saw my familiar return. The big sycamore tree stood in front of me—its long outstretched branches with broad green leaves welcomed me home. I gazed to my right and left and saw the little California bungalows that lined our street with ascending pillars like elongated pyramids on each side of their porches, standing at attention like sentries protecting the dwellings and the families within, but it was silent. I twirled around to the warm glow of the porch light on my house. I realized the aloneness that I felt with the stars was real. I was alone. My mother and sisters had gone indoors, but I could also see that I was safe and while I was no longer terrified, I was angry.
I wondered why my sisters didn't call my name or grab my arm to come inside? Was this a cruel joke, leaving me alone with the night sky? I climbed the steps and rang the buzzer on the white door trim. My sisters opened the door laughing as I entered the bright space of our living room. When I asked them why they left me outside, my puzzled mother didn't realize they had abandoned me. She cut her eyes across the room at my sisters who continued to giggle until they felt the displeasure of her cold glare. They sheepishly bowed their heads. "We were just kidding," they chimed. Perhaps a childish prank for them, but for me, it was a moment of terror. I had gone on a journey with the night sky, among the stars that seemed to call to me as I admired them from afar. But the aloneness that ran through my entire mind and body was unsettling, a feeling that I never want to repeat. Now, I wonder, was my encounter with the night sky a "close encounter of a second kind”? I thanked my lucky stars, especially the North Star, for my safe journey back home. But, from that night on, I fear dark open spaces where there are no lights. I do not like shapes I cannot make out in the dark, and although moonlit nights call to me, I do not go out alone and gaze skyward.
Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins: "I often state that I am new to creative writing. While this is relevant to my writing, it isn't entirely accurate. As an academic writer, I frequently wove storytelling elements into my scholarly writing.
"I attribute my keen sense of observation and my ability to see and describe, to my background in visual culture. I began my professional career as an artist and later a curator and art historian.
"In 2012, I limited my curatorial projects to concentrate on creative writing. The process of changing my writing style from academic to creative writing has been like learning a new language."