Stars, Your Light Belongs to Us
by Jen Julian
Mother always reminded me that imbibing can destroy you. Even though our distillery was reputable, and even though nowadays you can find any suburbanite’s child shooting back weak, tin-flavored signs at parties for fun, what we did was, on the books, illegal, and it is hazardous to invest your livelihood in an art—a transcendent art, I stand by this—which could be taken from you if the tides turned, if one of those suburban children, for instance, had too much and lost themselves.
But we were not dabblers. My great-great-grandmother distilled signs from desert stars in a copper bathtub, back when such a venture could get your throat cut by outlaws or agents, government men who believed that nobody should be that interested in the sky who wasn’t affiliated with a church. What are they finding up there? What are they doing with it? Can’t be anything good. Nonetheless, we were in business for nearly two hundred years. Delivered quality product. This was my legacy, and though, by all accounts, I am a sour-faced daughter from a long line of absolute rags—acid-in-the-breastmilk types, complete joyless cunts—I still believe they made beauty, and that Mother taught me how to make beauty too.
She died sixteen years ago, from an abscessed tooth she refused to get looked at. She said to my face that I’d be worthless to continue operations in her absence, but I did, out of spite.
Then, at fifty-one, with a scoliotic spine, I found the distillery too taxing to keep up alone.
That’s why I hired Odds.
• • •
As in, “I like them odds.” So he said upon our introduction.
But from the start, he was a risk.
• • •
The ad I put in the paper was for a cleaner, all grunt work, and here Odds showed up with two dozen books on astrophagy in a trunk large enough to hide a body, plus lots of unsolicited opinions and theories. He was twenty-seven, but looked like a teenager. Curly black hair. Gray eyes with large dark pupils. He was born in July, a Leo, the King. But it didn’t matter if I didn’t work well with Leos, he said. The ancient calendar has been out of sync with the night sky for a thousand years. He was actually born under Sagittarius, the Explorer. And it’s contested anyway, this idea that your own sign has any effect on anything, that it can alter how you respond to imbibing. Did I know that? Have I been keeping up with The Research?
I showed him to the broom closet.
Here’s the squeegees, I said. And chamois cloths and bleach and ammonia. Here’s the scraper to get that gray residue off of the inside of the stills. Here’s the wire brush for clearing starling nests off the distillery dome. You’ll want to wear a mask so you don’t get bird shit in your mouth.
• • •
The month Odds arrived, I was distilling Aries, and the whole place smelled like cinnamon.
• • •
There are several telltale physical signs of a dedicated distiller: swollen red knuckles; fingers stained green-black with copper tarnish; dry skin; nearsightedness from endless work in low light; back problems (hello, scoliosis). From the time I was old enough to climb a ladder, Mother had me going up and down the dome so many times I would climb that ladder in my sleep. I would wake and find myself curled like a dumpling on the catwalk, the sun blazing, a red-orange knife through the eyelids.
The sun always seemed so vindictive to me. I was six or seven before I found out that most people are awake during the day and sleep at night, and I thought, why?
Odds understood. He was pale as a fish, not a single freckle. Sleep in the day, distill at night—he acclimated quickly. Rose dusk, right after sunset, is when the shutter lifts. A distiller wants that early, agile starlight—it helps the sign bind, condense, manifest, quicken.
• • •
As soon as the Aries set that winter, he wanted to taste it, but that’s a dicey one to start with. That can send you into town looking for a fight. For young men especially, it feels good to throw punches on Aries.
But I’ve imbibed it before, he said.
No, not like this you haven’t. You have never had one this pure.
The thing about Odds is that from the beginning he was convinced of his specialness. As a kid, he painted glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling and would move a bedroll around the room as the seasons changed. Now sleeping under Gemini. Now sleeping under Cancer. Now sleeping under Leo. His parents didn’t understand him, or see the wonder in having access to the heavens, in altering, not just the mind, but the self. On his fifteenth birthday, he went down to the wharf and snorted star-snuff—that’s the residue we scrape out of the stills—and for a while he existed outside of his body and the river before him filled with syrupy light. The vendor said it was Gemini, though it sounded to me more like Aquarius. For months after, he had nosebleeds. It’s impossible to regulate the intensity of star-snuff, so you never really know what you’re getting with it.
I was surprisingly angry thinking about him doing something so dangerous, but I received all of his formative stories without any display of emotion. It was never my plan that we would sit down and imbibe together, me and my worker, my little drudge, but I would be lying if I said his enthusiasm didn’t charm me, or that sixteen years of loneliness didn’t ebb when he was there.
Instead of Aries, we had Virgo, which I’d distilled back in April. Blushy-beige in color, smells like the warmth of an engine purring away inside a factory building, tastes a bit like malted wheat.
This one hasn’t aged quite long enough to achieve her full strength, I said. Virgo needs time to sit and get comfortable when she condenses. But you can still feel her at first sip, that puffy spiking. Hold it there on your tongue. You feel that pull in your core? She’s binding to you.
Virgo made Odds calm, grounded. His jitteriness eased away.
I’m so grateful to be here, he said. Before this my parents wanted me to go into the army, get an education. But this is where I’m meant to be.
After a silence, I said: In the old days, mothers would mix a few drops of Virgo with castor oil and give it to crying children. It pipes them down.
Geez Louise, Odds said. They gave this stuff to kids?
• • •
As it’s written in my great-great-grandmother’s diaries, when she first distilled Leo out in the desert, she was surprised to learn that he tasted sweet. She had expected him to be charred or spicy, to burn her mouth like a hot pepper. But no. He’s sweet—a rich caramel flavor. All the fire signs, in fact, are varying degrees of sweet, as perilously edible as chocolate, which led my dour ancestors to think of them as decadent, like films with happy endings. These are the signs of people-people—politicians and evangelists and salesmen with suitcases of kitchenware. A toast to our success and charisma, ¡salud! And of course fire signs are popular among the youth, imbibed at the kind of woodsy gatherings where people dance all night and fuck in the mud and get infections. Aries for dominance, Leo for charm, Sagittarius for courage. But, contrary to popular belief, these are not aphrodisiacs.
Taurus is the aphrodisiac.
I first had Odds on the dome, rose dawn, the end of his shift. We sipped from warm clay mugs. Taurus tastes like rose hips and dirt, smells like those flowering trees that pollinate with flies. Like semen.
The sex didn’t seem to surprise him. It definitely did not surprise me. I’ve had delivery people, roofers, maintenance men. Some deputy sheriffs, who helped misdirect attention from my business in exchange for cash or product. The property inspector, who always came around politely ignoring the gigantic distillery sitting just behind the trees. On her form she wrote Catering Business, after I ate her out in the cellar. Mother always said, any skill that could help keep the distillery going was worth learning. And yes, she was a gorgon, but she was hardly a prude.
Odds sat in the rising light, a flush on his pale face, the smell of tarnished copper and ammonia on his skin. I’d been telling him about the Rag Brigade—Mother, and Mother’s mother and so on—and he listened, rapt, as if I were revealing trade secrets. Maybe I was, in my way.
Do you think it’s ironic that they were all so miserable? He asked. You’d think if this was their calling—I mean, when you’ve spent your whole lives helping people enhance themselves, unlock new pieces of themselves, their potential…
It didn’t feel right then, to school him. He had, from the beginning, a highly optimistic understanding of what imbibing actually was.
He grinned at me, spidering his fingers down the sideways curve of my spine. But you don’t seem miserable, he said. It didn’t take long at all to crack you open.
With Odds it was all stars all the time. Endless twilight searching. He loved expansive things, vistas, revelations, wanted to experience them, wanted to give them. I wanted, for once, to receive.
• • •
Capricorn was the first sign I ever imbibed purely. I remember that bitter heat, like radishes. When I was a teenager, Mother would give her to me at breakfast so that I’d spend the day with an unquenchable need to feel useful. As a rule of thumb, the earth signs are about getting ready, getting done, getting off. The three P’s: Prepare Produce & Procreate.
When Odds imbibed Capricorn, she hit him hard. He needed projects. Never enough to clean, to sweep, to scrape. The brass condensers were as bright as I’d ever seen them, the stills spotless. He organized the supply closet alphabetically. He loaded pallets in record time. He began dealing with the delivery folks, signing for packages, taking calls from distributors. By autumn, I had allowed him to operate the condensers, and by winter, he was taking notes about his own ideas for blends—Scorpio and Sagittarius, a voyage of self-discovery; Aquarius and Taurus, a tantric sex experience.
They’re doing it in Europe, he explained.
Good for Europe, I said. We don’t do blends here.
Undeterred, he kept working. He built a new trellis for the primroses and fixed the sign on the mailbox and assembled a tile mosaic on the north wall of the distillery, a cheesy tableau of him and myself holding chalices to the night sky.
You’ll burn yourself out, I told him, but in the spring, he was still burning.
• • •
Sometimes, before he went home to his tiny apartment by the wharf, we would eat breakfast on the lawn—ripe summer berries, walnuts, a tiny bit of Gemini, his lightness and pepper-onion flavor brightening the flow of conversation. Odds decided once that he would read to me from one of his textbooks. How well did it stack up to my own lived wisdom?
He cut a romantic figure then, standing naked before my fireplace, the book balanced in his hand as if he were performing Shakespeare. A star is synonymous with power, he said. It is a place where the cosmos tightened up and bit down until it burst.
Sounds about right, I said, and tugged him toward me.
He kept on: The astrophalogical advances of the last ten years alone have opened up possibilities never before imagined, for individuals and communities alike. This distiller holds to the democratic adage of old—Stars to the people! Their light is ours!—and the belief that every human contains the entire universe within. So says Kindred McCreery, celestial guru. I mean, there’s a couple chapters in here where she’s a bit of a crank, but those aren’t bad sentiments, are they? Better than your old Rag Brigade.
I went quiet, felt swayed. These were the words I myself had used to describe my matrilineal line, but hearing it from someone else still stung. I think he saw that in my face. He set his book aside and settled down next to me, and we didn’t talk about it anymore.
The summer came and went like that, easy, and in the fall it was a year since he’d joined me, his absence now unthinkable. Aries in October: cinnamon again. Aquarius in November: sage and smoke. Pisces in December: brine and sea air. That was when I came down with one of the worst flus of my life, and a bone-deep ache settled into my crooked upper vertebrae like a slab of iron. Then fever. Delirium. I would try to get up and complete my nightly tasks, but I’d end up standing in a doorway, forgetting what I’d been trying to do, forgetting even where or when I was. I thought I saw Mother walking the lawn, hauling two huge crates of bottles like she used to, one under each arm. I tried to climb the ladder to the dome and ended up clinging to it, struck with the sudden fear that I was actually hanging off the mast of a sailing ship. Pisces didn’t help. Her sour droplets filled the air, making me feel sentimental, at sea.
Let’s get you to bed, said Odds. Gently, he hooked his arm in mine and guided me back down the ladder.
There’s too much to do, I said. The delivery men have not been paid. I need to go into town—
No, no, he said. It’s taken care of.
Once he had me tucked in, he brought me a cold compress and a mug of something—strange smell, stranger taste.
What is that?
Mostly tea, he said. But a little Cancer, little of the Pisces from last year. Bit of Virgo too, for healing.
Cancer, that prickly buttermilk flavor.
Odds cupped my boiling cheeks in both hands, as if delivering a kiss. Trust me, he said. I’ve watched you, I’ve learned from you. I can handle it.
When he left the room, I saw Mother, crouched at the side of the bed, her face distended from the abscess in her jaw. If I were alive, she said, I would slap the shit out of you.
I know, I said, and rolled away from her.
• • •
The water signs always do funny things to my memory. Cancer, Pisces, Scorpio. They’re slow-setting and slow-burning, building their intensity over time. My great-great-grandmother revered them as signs of personal development, and while they are not as sought-after as some of their more crowd-pleasing counterparts, those who do seek them are willing to pay more. Artists. Poets. Men and women with wandering hearts, wandering spouses.
Mother used to take Scorpio with hot lemon cider, all acid and citrus bite—good for focus, she said, the suppression of all the fluffy emotions. She had little use for Cancer, which opens the heart to nostalgia and longing, and which, when I imbibe her, makes me sink into a cloud of voices—all my dead matriarchs, rumbling like lake monsters, but I don’t speak their language anymore.
• • •
Mother was, herself, a Cancer. The Mother, coincidentally. Though she was not really Cancer. The night sky has been misaligned for a thousand years. Actually, she was born under Libra. The Judge.
• • •
I will not lay out all of Odds’ plans here, numerous as they were—all his strategies for innovation, the expansion of our customer base, the diversification of our product, a partnership with a monastery up in the mountains that distilled a more intense variety of Aquarius, due to the altitude. You might think Odds was doing all this for money, but I honestly don’t think he was motivated by wealth any more than I was. He never complained about his janitorial wages, never seemed to think about money at all. If he sold the star-snuff he scraped out of the vats to university students and musicians at the wharf, that income all came back to the distillery: new air filters, stainless steel tanks, borosilicate tubing that would not shrink or expand with temperature changes. You’re a blessing, I told him, constantly. I could not imagine going back to the way things were before, when I ran everything myself.
He took a trip up to the Aquarius monastery while I was sick on my back, which I only found out after I’d recovered. Don’t be angry, he said, and relayed his tale, how you could not drive up the mountain but had to rent an alpaca and ride up through fog and thorn bushes, how there the distillery dome shone silver-white under the winter moon, and the condensers were black—painted with some strange sparkly lacquer that supposedly sharpened signs’ effects. The monks themselves wore robes of fungal-green, and the whole monastery was steaming hot with that herby, smoky Aquarius smell; they boiled the stuff continuously in stone vaporizers.
I met with the head monk, Odds said. Or the abbot, I guess. I don’t know his official title. But the whole time I was there I could definitely feel that glowing out-of-my-body-ness, like I was floating along the rafters. Wowee, that stuff is pure. Incredible. The abbot said his sect has been using Aquarius as a means of spiritual purification for some two thousand years. The founder of their movement was grilled alive over it.
And the partnership? I asked.
Well, Odds said, scratching the side of his face. I noticed a hint of trouble in his eyes. The head monk said maybe. He said he’d think about it.
That’s all he said? That he’d think about it?
I mean, Odds said. He was sort of—chuckling. I didn’t get the sense that he took me very seriously.
I thought of Odds, coat shabby, curls untrimmed in his guileless face, gait wide-legged and ungainly from his alpaca ride. Here he comes, hobbling up the monastery steps to offer this religious zealot a not-so-legal entrepreneurial opportunity.
He went on: And something else strange happened as I left. I noticed—there was this gaggle of monks that had been following me since I got there, and they’d been laying these little bones down wherever I went.
What kind of bones?
Just—little white bones. I’d walk a few feet and they’d put one down, so there was this long trail of them, from the door to where I met the head monk and back. In the end, I asked what that was about, and this woman monk—a monkette—
Nun, I suggested.
We both giggled. We were distilling Taurus, sensuous earth smells abounding. I was loopy from the aftereffects of my illness, Odds from the aftereffects of his trip.
Okay fine, he said. A nun. She pointed to the trail of bones. These are all the versions of yourself you left while you were here, she said. And she put one into my hand. She told me, you can have this one, but we get to keep all the rest.
He reached into his pocket and produced the bone in question. I held it up against the brightening sky. A knuckle bone, maybe. Or a worn-down tooth.
Do you think they were laughing at you? I asked.
No, he said. Well, they were all smirking. But I figured that was just monks being monks.
I had no experience with monks. I couldn’t say either way.
So all in all, it was a maybe, Odds said, concluding his story.
• • •
Air signs like Aquarius are the most finicky to distill and can have a range of unpredictable effects, but they fetch the highest prices from experienced imbibers, spiritualists, scholars, those who live the life of the mind and soul. They have a savory flavor that balloons alarmingly inside the mouth, leading some novices to panic and spit. Gemini, while he can encourage meaningful connections with others, can also, with long-term use, result in an imbiber no longer recognizing himself in photographs, or, like a vampire, failing to see himself in a mirror. And Libra—my great-great-grandmother called him her “bane”—can bring about the most nourishing comfort, but also the most maddening spells of obsessive compulsion. Mother used to tell the story of how she ended up on the floor of her bedroom organizing all of her belongings into groups of prime numbers, and feeling forced to start over every time she lost count. Often, it is air signs that set imbibers on the path to losing themselves, though an excess of any sign can result in numbness, blindness, ennui, anxiety and obsession, a bottomless emptiness, a lack of purpose.
None of this is safe, I remember Mother saying. The stars neither take nor give. They are simply live wires we can touch to shock ourselves. I always wondered what scornful things she might’ve said to Odds, or to his pop guru Kindred McCreery. A true distiller knows—as I’m sure the monks in their remote monastery know—that imbibing is not about adding to the self or optimizing the self. If anything, imbibing is about the release of the self, the dissolving of the boundaries between one’s own innate apparatuses and the mysterious pull of the beyond, those forces we can’t see. This can be—I admit—a meaningful and transcendent process, but the truth is that the self, by itself, with all its flaws and deficiencies, is all that separates us from oblivion, from the veiled place where we all eventually go, and where Mother’s septic tooth unceremoniously dispatched her.
Every human contains the entire universe within, yes, but given the chance, the universe will swallow you up from the inside.
Is that why my matriarchal lineage became so hardened, why those women clung so tightly to their own bitter souls and observed the young, their own children, with such contempt? They knew what could happen. They’d seen it all.
• • •
June came around. Libra steamed the air with the smell of fair food, fried dough, buttered popcorn, and I noticed a new agitation in Odds. He left tasks incomplete, came into work looking unwashed, wilted, sweaty. I convinced myself it was only the residual energy of all our new ventures, but I soon woke in the middle of the day to find him scrounging frantically in the office. I was not surprised. It made me sad, how not surprised I was.
When he saw me, he turned and smiled so big my own face hurt to look at him. One of his cheekbones was split open.
He was looking for—oh, something he’d left here the night before, a wallet, a change purse. Or maybe he dropped it on his way home. And no, he didn’t need money—or maybe he did, but just tram fare. That was all. It wasn’t anything I needed to worry about.
I watched him from the doorway, squinting in the scathing daylight. On the desk: bottles of Leo, Scorpio, Gemini, signs of charisma, persuasion, communication, which Odds had taken from the cellar. He had a limp, grimacing like an old man as he searched the drawers. I knew he was looking for the key to the walnut cabinet, where I kept my cash and pistol, and I hoped he was after just the money, that this was the blunt solution he thought might get him out of his obvious predicament, and not the other.
Odds, I said. You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?
No! he said. No, go back to bed, it’s no trouble.
But already his face was crumpling.
I wouldn’t lie to you. You’ve been so good to me here, I would never.
Did something happen? I asked.
Yes, something had. For a moment, he stilled his nervous movements, and I could see now that he was trying not to weep. I should have warned him, or maybe I had, but not enough, not forcefully enough. Mother told me stories. She had played out her own small rebellions, imbibing freely with friends and lovers. She recounted those nights to me. Aquarius catapulting her through space, filling her mouth with a bubble of heat and sage; then also, Pisces, hollowing her out to be filled; then also Sagittarius, wild berries and raw sugarcane, charging through her blood; then also, Taurus, a rhizome of carnal desire shooting up from her ankles. If you try all twelve in a night, it’s said you achieve the enlightenment of an ancient mystic. But no one can do this and remain themselves.
The young woman Odds sold to, the one whose family was now after him, had consumed so much snuff that her toes and fingertips turned black—the mark of cosmic power escaping through her extremities. Some weeks ago, they’d sent her to a sanitorium, where she spent her days pacing the halls and the garden, stooping to the floor as if searching for something she’d dropped.
It made me think of the monastery, Odds said, how the monks laid down those bones when I came through. I told the family to try laying down something for her to find, maybe rocks or trinkets or pictures, something to reconnect her to her old life. They thought I was joking, laughing at them. I tried to explain, but her two brothers held me against the wall and beat me, and they would’ve done more, might’ve killed me—but I got away and ran here.
He sniffed. More tears.
I was helping them, all of them, he said. I always undersold, always could’ve made more, but I wanted to share. Now none of it matters. They chased me through the streets like I was a devil.
And your plan was to buy the family off? I asked. Shoot them?
Geez, no, of course not, he said. He gestured to the signs he’d pulled from the cellar. Only to get them to sit down, to listen. To find any way to—to talk, I thought if I could only explain, they’d see I was just trying to help.
But they won’t listen to you, I said. Not about this. No sign can fix this.
You cocking fool, I thought, furious.
I wanted to try, at least, he said. I didn’t want to involve you. It was all on me, my fault.
And did they follow you here? I asked. Do they know where this place is?
He shook his head, covering his mouth with his hand. No, no, he said. I don’t think so.
• • •
I never had much contact with our customer base. Nor did Mother. My great-grandmother did all our networking in town early on, though she did so out of necessity, not enjoying it. We are unskilled salespeople, working, when we can, through middlemen.
But there is something Zen to me about the way we produce our wares and send them off to people we don’t know and never particularly want to see or hear from. You put your whole self into the distillery, your sweat, the whole span of your young, lonely life, and then bits of you get sorted onto pallets and shipped on trucks into town, where it’s consumed by others. They’re all imbibing signs, but they’re imbibing a little bit of me too, and I always liked that idea, even if it also made me feel a little emptied out, even if I never knew whether those people truly appreciated what they’d been given. I never asked Mother what she thought about this, if it made her feel accomplished or sad or maybe nothing at all.
• • •
I fired Odds. He apologized, begged on his actual knees, but I held firm. I didn’t cry. Three days later, in the night, that young woman’s family got a group together—maybe fifteen, twenty, not big enough to be considered a mob. I should have expected as much. I could feel it, the hostility of the town palpable in my interactions with the delivery folks, a quieting of calls, loyal customers suddenly guilty and fearful. Rumors flew; someone was looking to string up those deputies who’d given me the look-away; that crooked property inspector had fled town. Everybody knew my family had been sitting somewhere outside of town like a spider, poisoning them for years. What are they giving us, which we willingly consumed? Can’t be anything good.
That night, Odds burst into the distillery—Out, out! Get out!—right before the great smashing of the windows. No, not a mob, but it felt like it at the time, the awful, violent noise they made, all that hooting and laughing when they dumped the Libra in the stills and set it on fire. Fried dough and butter smell rose like a wave, spilling out into the night, expelling the marauders, coughing and watery-eyed, onto the lawn. Odds and I escaped unseen through the backdoor, and he led me, dazed, into the trees. A hidden tent, a doused lantern, line of clothes drying by starlight, bottle of half-drunk something on a blanket in the weeds. Odds wore only his coat and a set of dirty underclothes, and I wondered if he had been forced out of his apartment, or if he had simply decided to stake out the distillery, keep guard.
It’s all right, it’s all right, he whispered, settling down with me in the underbrush. Libra-smell. All comfort and peace. My mind was eerily still, but my body was shaking. Odds, misunderstanding, put his coat around my shoulders. I itched in the June heat. In the pocket, I found the bone he’d brought back from the monastery, felt its shape with trembling fingers. It felt good.
The marauders were affected, too. All the anger and wildness that had led them to this point dissolved on the air. They sat in the grass like children, watching the distillery fire with starry eyes. Occasionally, one would murmur something to another, or cough when smoke blew into his face, but otherwise they were quiet. Nearly a half-hour later, the firefighters arrived from town, trucks blazing, and they inhaled the smoke too and did their job with a competent serenity, glassy expressions. Once the fire was out, and the distillery dome was scorched and dripping, and the marauders began wandering mindlessly away, the firefighters called my name along the perimeter of the trees. Star lady, they said. You out there? I stayed hidden, Odds beside me.
We watched from the woods, and when the sheriff and his deputies arrived, and began picking through what remained of my distillery with rags over their faces, I began to feel the scrape of loss in the back of my mind, prodding like a finger. Wordlessly, a spasm of pain spiking in my back, I crept to the half-empty bottle on the ground by the tent and uncorked it. I didn’t even know what it was. With the smoke so heavy in the air, I couldn’t smell it.
Odds saw me and scrambled for his bag. Wait, he said, I have cups, and he handed me two glass jars.
Star lady, one of the deputies shouted from the lawn. Where’d you go?
I poured for both of us, Odds and me. Salud, I said. He said, Salud, and took the glass carefully, as if I might bite his hand. But would you know it, I forgave him? Just like that? No crushing sorrow, no bitter rage, the scornful ancestral voices, which have occupied my head since childhood, shocked silent. I forgave everything. You’re thinking it was the smoke that did it, or whatever was in that bottle, but no, it was me. I was tired, and the woods were so quiet, and I couldn’t find it in me to do otherwise.
Copyright © 2022 by Jen Julian