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The Cornelian Prize for 2000


I slept through the storm. The next muggy morning met me with news of trees blocking roads, power outages and general chaos. On the main strip, McDonald’s and Burger King had grown axons of people lining up out into the parking lots. Apparently they still had electricity.

With its different routine and sense of adventure, the day passed quickly. As the Indian summer evening approached, the preparation for the feast began. The refrigerator was silent and dark. As there was no ice to be found in the county, the food had to be eaten. Neighbors were beckoned and friends who could get out of their driveways were invited. We watched the smoke from the grill as elusive and formless as pond algae float into the branches above us and into the night sky. Everyone was chatting and eating. The candles flickered with the questions about how long it would be before things returned to normal and how bad it was down on the coast.

Wandering around the corner of the house, I saw the neighbor’s kid stuck as if watching a rocket launch or howling at the moon. Being that still is highly unnatural for a seven-year-old. I walked up to him to follow his gaze and quickly realized I did not have to gawk upwards. The sky had exploded. A billion-year-old supernova millions of light years away had just saturated the universe with new stars. The hurricane had sucked up every layer of our atmosphere and exposed it to the cosmic elements. I was sure that this was the last thing I would see before every atom of our oxygen dissipated and I would float to the ground with those pinpricks and knife wounds of light still piercing my eyes. I was sure those stars had never been seen by anyone on earth. I was a human caught in starlight. This new sky was not thousands of cubic miles of vacuous space visible with tiny light waves radiating towards me. This was a solid dome of uncountable eyes peering into this fishbowl at the boy and myself. I had never felt so crowded, watched or dissected.

Suddenly my static state altered and the vision before me flickered as if someone changed the channel. The house lights came on, the air conditioner roared to life, and a cheer went up from the back yard. Since the younger you are the easier you accept transmutations of reality, the boy simply scampered away. I stood very still, but the stars that now umbrellaed over me were old, familiar and worn around the edges.

“Stars” copyright © 2000 by Stephanie Holt Helmer

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021