That Great, Vast Canvas

By: Joseph Clardy
 
The night was alive with the dancing of flames. They cast a warm light over the two figures that sat around it – a boy and his grandmother. The boy was worried. His grandmother had just told his parents to return to the house. She wished to speak with him alone. His parents had obeyed the command without question. He could not think of anything he had done wrong, but this did not console him. He began to fidget with the cuffs of his jacket, stealing the occasional glance across the fire at his grandmother. She sat staring into the flames for a long time. The boy was working up the courage to ask her what was wrong, when she gently lifted her eyes to meet his. Her eyes twinkled in the firelight, and her mouth had curled into a benign smile.
“You aren’t in trouble, my dear,” she said. The confused relief that filled the boy’s face sent her into a fit of soft laughter. His face grew hot with embarrassment.
“I remember being your age,” she said, “on a night just like this one. When it seemed that at any moment it could break out into snow, but it wasn’t so cold that a good fire couldn’t warm you up. My grandfather sat me and my brother around the fire then, just like I’m doing with you now.”
She returned her gaze to the fire. The boy did so as well. He wasn’t sure what his grandmother’s point was with all this, but he was disarmed by the gentleness of her demeanor. The flames continued their mesmerizing leaps and flutters, moving to the beat of the crackling wood fueling their existence. A loud pop pierced the stillness that had settled around them. It sent a barrage of sparks climbing up into the night sky, disappearing after a time. His grandmother’s smile deepened.
“Look at them all,” she laughed.
“The embers?” he asked.
“No, not the embers. The stars.”
The boy looked up, scanning the dark sky speckled with dots of light. He didn’t understand why his grandmother was so fascinated with the stars; they were just specks on the surface of a deep, unfathomable emptiness.
“There’s definitely a lot of them,” he said.
“Yes. There are many. And each one has a story to tell.”
“A story?” he asked.
“Yes,” his grandmother replied. “Do you know the constellation Orion?”
“I know Orion’s Belt.”
“That’s good enough. Find it, please.”
He looked around for the constellation, finding it just above the treeline to his right.
“It’s there,” he said, pointing to it.
“Do you see that flickering star below the far left star in the Belt?”
“I think so.”
“That star is the story of a poor farmer that lived long ago. One day, while tilling his fields, he discovered a buried pouch of gold bearing his King’s crest. He knew he needed the gold badly, but he was a good man, and he took the pouch to the King. The King was moved by the farmer’s display of kindness and honesty, so he awarded the man a lordship.”
“But it’s just a star,” the boy said.
“Exactly,” his grandmother replied.
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“You’ve heard the stories about the constellations, right? Like how Orion was a mighty Greek hunter and things like that?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“It’s like that, only on a smaller scale. Ancient Greek poets called their creative source the ‘Muse’, a spirit that blessed them with their stories. We know that the influence of the ‘Muse’ comes from the stars, not a spirit.”
“How can you even be sure of that?” he asked.
“I can’t pretend to know that, my child. This knowledge has been passed down through our family for centuries, and I’m afraid parts have been ‘lost in translation,’ so to speak.”
The boy was not sure how to feel about this. He had never heard of anything like this before, but his grandmother seemed to believe in what she was saying deeply. She had never spoken to him like this before – like they were almost equal.
“Is this what your Grandfather told you and your brother when you were my age?”
“Yes. The grandparent tells the grandchild when they reach thirteen. It has been that way in our family for a very long time. Your father will tell your children, should you have any.”
His grandmother’s eyes were glistening with tears. He realized that she must be reliving that night with her grandfather when she was a child.
“So every star has a story?” he asked.
“Yes. But I cannot say that I know them all. Quite the opposite,” she said.
“Was that story about the farmer your story?”
“No, it was your great-great-great-great-grandmother’s. She told it to my grandfather, who told it to me, and now I’ve told it to you. People who are influenced by the stars are able to tell exactly what star gave them their story. Those that know the truth about the stars, that is.”
“Have you been influenced by a star?” he asked.
“No, I’ve never been good with that sort of stuff. But your father always has been.”
She wasn’t lying, his father had always told the best bedtime stories when he was younger, and he never had a book open when he told them. An important question rose to the top of the boy’s mind.
“How can you tell if a star is influencing you?” he asked.
“Your father describes it as being like a sudden image thrust into your mind, which never really goes away until you write it down.”
The boy looked down from the stars and into the fire. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask next.
“What am I supposed to do with this information?” he asked, finally.
“That is up to you, my dear. You may disregard it, or you may keep it in the center of your thoughts for the rest of your life, it really doesn’t matter. As long as you keep up the tradition by speaking with your grandchildren as I have done with you, then you may do with this knowledge as you wish.”
With that, his grandmother smiled, got up, and walked back into the house. He remained there by the fire, staring at the flames for a time, before returning to the house himself.
 *    *    *    *
He never forgot that night by the fire. In time, he began to understand more and more about what his grandmother had told him, though he harbored some doubts for a long time. His family soon realized that he was skilled at storytelling, just as his father was. He was so skilled, in fact, that he found himself a published author in his adult years. On the night his first book was published, he noticed something shimmering in the corner of his eye, seeming to come from his bedroom window. He looked out to see what it was, and noticed a star that was just a bit brighter than the others. In that moment, all doubts he had had concerning that night by the fire were erased.

Finally, 65 years since that fateful night, it came time for him to pass the torch on to his own grandchildren. He was sitting in his backyard with his family, a fire burning in the firepit, when he saw the first star appear as the sunset neared its end. He asked to be left alone with his grandchildren, and couldn’t help but smile a little when he saw the nervousness in their eyes. He laid his head back, and looked up into that great, vast canvas that sprawled out beyond him, and it didn’t seem so empty anymore.