A duke marries starlight. They have one child: A daughter who is made of darkness.
A duke marries starlight. His father was a duke, and his father’s father was a duke, and his father’s father’s father, and all had married nobilities, women with long pearl strands, diamond-studded cuffs and silk collars and eyes green as seaglass, and all had produced dukes and duchesses, all had passed down land, jewels, velvets, art, had retained wealth and nobility, and this – this! – was the first breach in the bloodline. But such is the life of a duke. Such is life, period! All swivels. Insomnia kept him up nights, a thrumming in the brain and body, and it wasn’t sexual exactly, his pull toward the night sky.
He’d stagger into the dew-wet grass in the pitch black that wasn’t. And there she was, the starlight. All of her. Stretched to infinity. Distant and whole and magic.
He mapped her over the seasons. He tilted his head back and spoke softly to her and strained his eyes so long they wept. The starlight stood there in perfect stillness. Better than a woman! thought the duke. But not the duke’s father. Or the duke’s father’s father. Or their diamond-studded wives, daughters, granddaughters, their tiny jewel-slippered dogs.
For years he pined.
Pulled muscles from reaching.
His eyes started going from the strain.
The starlight stood still.
He proposed one early spring, snow still clinging to the shadows of things, the night sharp as corners. He took the silence for yes.
The wedding commenced at dusk, the duke all done up in a silver suit, beside a lake dark as the inside of a body, and reflected in it, the largess of bride.
All in attendance had to admit to it: the loveliness, the absolute appeal. They clamped their hands inside fur muffs, felt the wind rustling the grasses, easing in through their coat sleeves, sensed the largeness of the lake. The duke spread his arms and called out, I promise! To always love you! I love you today! And tomorrow! And yesterday!
A candle was lit and set to float across the water.
With this light, the duke breathed, panting now, bent half-over, I am yours and you are mine.
A light fell from the sky. Then another, and another.
What scientists call a meteor shower wasn’t. It was the gown coming off, the sequins scattering, the duke falling completely and happily to his knees.
They had a daughter. Darkness.
You could tell at once it was a daughter, by the flitting way she rounded corners, her high jumps, the way she stretched longly in the yard, how when she cried she disappeared down to almost nothing.
What’s with her? said the duke, watching her idling under carriages, fiddling in strangers’ pockets, tickling lizards out from large grey stones, squeezing inside cottages with all the blinds pulled.
The duke stayed up late with the starlight. Darkness was there, too, small and enshrouded in her mother’s seeming everywhere-ness.
What’s with parents? she thought. They never noticed her. So Darkness ducked into a berry bush all night and got herself tangled in a warren of rabbits. Darkness crept into the cobbler’s shop and tripped over two women who seemed to overflow with red fabric and arms and lips. Darkness tumbled down a well and pounded against the stones at the base but found herself with a body and no voice. Her mother had no voice but also not a body. Darkness felt so different. She wanted to be like her father, the duke. Her father was solid and certain. He laughed loudly. His whole body shook with sound.
When her body shook, she felt it growing. She grew dark enough to edge out of the well and into the deep shade of an apple tree.
Her father stepped right over her, into her.
The duke had Daughters He Was Proud Of.
A triplet of comets.
A golden-lighted daughter who looked just like God when the clouds parted a certain way.
The duke was thought of as a kind of saint. A soothsayer. One in touch with things beyond human understanding—and these other daughters were proof of that.
He never mentioned Darkness.
Even though Darkness was the oldest and strongest. Darkness had whole forests, animal insides, long hair she would shed violently once a year.
She liked to haunt the castle cellars, the sewers beneath the city, the bottom of lakes where her mother and father felt most distant. Darkness was an introvert. She was also furious most of the time. There was something about being the first of something that made it the most awful—something that made you an experiment and an expectation.
When she stood still in the starlight, she felt it. This not-enough-ness.
Darkness loved her sisters fiercely, loved the contrast they created. And they loved Darkness best of all, how—arms around each other—they were all of them their best selves.
I want to go down where it’s dark, said her sisters, in the language of light and shadows.
I want to go up where it’s dark, said Darkness. I’m sure there’s more out there.
And one night, full of not sexual energy exactly, she did.
Rose solid and mountainous.
Stood still and blocked out morning.
There was something heavy about it: the spring flowers frost-stung. The shivering confusion of honey bees. The U-turns of birds.
Darkness made a hood over the city.
Darkness opened that body she had, and stretched it ocean to ocean.
Ahh, so this is what starlight is like, she thought, twisting enough for her sisters to swim by, scurry up her back, check out the lights of the universe.
Her mother and father were not happy about this new development. She’s always been a troubled girl, said the duke. The starlight flickered, dimmed.
I’m getting too old for this, said the duke. She’s your daughter. Take her somewhere. Show her something.
So the starlight made a staircase. Something like a whisper came from the cosmos.
Darkness felt her head lift.
She felt her hands and knees on the stairs as if someone placed them there and said, Perfect. Just so.
Darkness started to crawl up them, biting her lips, balancing on the little diamond-stud steps, trying to make a sound back—a grunt, a snarl—but finding herself soundless. Her long hair flicked behind her like a tail.
She made it to the top of something.
The starlight pulled.
Not against exactly, but sort of into.
It was an actual sound, like a joint giving.
There was an edge they discovered. Exactly as it dislodged.
She knew the name of it right away without being told: Black. Whole.
It was surrounded by a cosmic purple x-ray-riddled cloud. It was enormous. Cavernous. Supermassive. Darkness felt herself pulsing.
Wisps of the starlight were being sucked in, as if a drain, as if a magnet, as if, as if. Words escaped Darkness. She felt the tugging even though she herself was not made of light.
The largest black holes grow faster than their galaxies, said the starlight in the language of light and shadows.
You can have the life I never could, said the starlight.
Darkness had never spoken with her mother this way before. Darkness felt herself pulled, and pulling. A wind rushed past her ears.
The starlight fought the pulling, backing away, her starshapes slipping off and collapsing into the void.
But Darkness—she leaned in. What she knew already: black holes were collapsed stars, and the smaller ones, the primordial ones, were small as an atom with the mass of a mountain.
A nothing containing everything. It’s what being a girl had felt like. Being a girl often consisted of wondering if you were everything or nothing. Everything or nothing.
Can it hurt me? Darkness wondered.
The Black Whole chuckled. A goddamned actual chuckle.
It had a voice loud as a supernova. Warm as a star. It said, Black holes do not wander around the universe randomly swallowing worlds.
Darkness thought, But I’m not a world.
But you are, said the Black Whole.
This feeling—it wasn’t sexual exactly. It was different. It was the opposite of hiding at the bottom of the lake. It was the opposite of being stepped into. Maybe it was a trick. But Darkness filled her lungs and let herself be pulled. Dove in dimple-first as a heron.
Melissa Goodrich is the author of DAUGHTERS OF MONSTERS and the chapbook IF YOU WHAT. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Artful Dodge, The Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, PANK, Word Riot, Gigantic Sequins, and others. Find her at melissa-goodrich.com and @good_rib.