DO WHAT YOU DESIRE
by Elad Haber
I saw the stars and I cried. I’d never seen them before.
Centered on a canvas bordered with branches and leaves, they shone like bullet holes in black paper, too numerous and bright to be real.
I’m used to the city. The mega-cities that once were states. I was born and raised in the city of California, one of the largest in the world. The mountains to the east and the water to the west buffer the city; a burn-mark across half the coast, dark as scorched earth during the day, alive as a sparkling disco-ball at night.
My parents always warned me against leaving the city. “Daniel,” they’d say, “stay away from the country, it’ll swallow you up. There’s nothing there. Blank space between here and somewhere else.” They never said anything about the stars. They had no idea.
Try to see the stars in the city and all you’ll get in return is the piss-color-yellow of light pollution. Look up. There’s nothing there. An absence. An absence of stars. The light of the city negates them, scares them away. Maybe that’s why cities feel so lonely.
Back in the country, the everywhere-stars embraced me in their warm, white, everywhere-light. Like holy light but without the holes. I could see my reflection up there. Connect-the-dots: It’s me. It’s me walking, alone. Then other figures, other shapes, quivered into life as if out of nothing. I recalled their names like long lost friends. The figures moved, danced, played, slowly, as methodical and mechanical as an automaton. An archer pulled back his bow. A knight-on-his-steed galloped forward. Orion grabbed the Big Dipper into his hand, scooped up the brightest star, and ate it.
Then he looked down at me.
And I shivered.
Words appeared now, formed from the negative space, bright stars next to not so bright stars. Letters and nonsensical sentences, random and strange like fortune-cookie-fortunes or high-school-paper horoscopes.
Do what you desire.
This is a glorious beginning.
GET OUT OF THE CITY.
The stars spoke and I obeyed.
First, I went to Canada. I figured north = closer to the stars. There was still wilderness in Canada.
I bought supplies. Suitcases full of books; a telescope; maps of the universe, I taped them to the ceiling of my car.
Hilltops work best, I’ve discovered. Not mountains. Mountains are like the Tower of Babylon; sacred, dangerous. Too close. The stars would not approve.
Down at the bottom of the hill, I could see my car, silent, enjoying a well-earned sleep while I sat in a hard-backed chair with loud Scottish music playing on headphones, my telescope set up beside me, scattered books at my feet like dirty clothes on a dorm room floor. A woolen fleece and, of course, strong coffee.
The stars woke then, as if they felt the caffeine coursing through me, and began to percolate. I tossed the coffee aside, scorching some nearby grass, and stood. Staring straight up, I twirled about like a child in a House-of-Mirrors. No images this time, but long slashes of white against the darkness. Words coming slowly like someone just learning how to spell.
The stars said, Go East.
So I did.
Toronto: the size of a province, where I had to drive for five hours just to get to a decent lookout-point. Cities were the only places I could find jobs. And it wasn’t just me.
Urbanization had spread like The Plague. Highways went from congested to deserted, as more and more millions of people escaped the heat and pollution of the “wide open spaces” to huddle together for warmth and comfort in the shade. Cities now resembled a floor full of upright dominos, tall building after tall building, at roughly the same height, pushed up right next to each other. The city, more so now than ever, had become pure shadow.
New York City: like the open eye of a whale, the brightest and largest of the dots of light, a city the size of pre-secession-Texas. I stayed at the edges of it, worked temp jobs in downtown office buildings (all of them covered with massive black UV-protection sheets), and drove out to what once was the Midwest to see my stars.
I kept my nights free, always. I made no friends and those I once had, I lost contact with; or they lost contact with me, I can’t remember. I stared at the stars every night (weather permitting), yet they denied me.
I told myself I stayed in the cities for the jobs, for the money: for batteries, for food. But I’m a liar. I’m a cityboy, accustomed to nameless strangers shoving me, getting in my way, waiting in line behind, being afraid of. Bothered by. Cuddled by (every once in a while).
The stars had singled me out, separated me from the multitude, chosen me. But now… were they upset? Angry at me?
The thought strangled me in my sleep.
So. One shadowy afternoon, I packed as much of my belongings into my car as I could and drove out of the city, heading south.
To the coast of Florida and a sailboat.
As the sun set in a marriage of blues and oranges and fire reds, I set out, on a boat as white as a tooth, with a single sail and a tiny motor. It took me far enough.
The stars were unshackled above the ocean. They posed and pranced about just to see their reflections.
Hopeful, I reached out like an infant, trying to touch the untouchable, but they never let me have them. The stars were chaste.
And silent. For years!
Rejected, I felt like a broken button, or a light switch connected to nothing: useless.
I almost gave it up.
Burning inside, I told myself, if they’ve denied me, I will deny them. I won’t be their bitch-puppy, muzzled and house-broken, playing nice in hopes of getting a treat. I stood up on the rocking-chair-like-boat and shouted my rage at them.
“Fuck me? No, fuck you!”
Grief-stricken, I immediately apologized and begged for their forgiveness.
I went away again.
I smuggled myself, hidden like the Trojan horse in a crate, from Atlanta to the European Coast.
I had a thousand dollars and a backpack.
I left most of myself in America. Novels I had loved since childhood, worn photographs of my family, my car/best friend, favorite TV shows, favorite foods. Things that had, somehow, glued themselves to me as I crisscrossed the continent for the past two decades.
I’d become an old man without my consent. Years of little sleep and minimum-wage-labor had carved lines and crevices in my skin. A cragged cigar-smoker’s face at thirty, a sunken-eyed cancer patient’s at thirty-five, a bum’s grime and grub-filled skin at forty.
I was not as timeless as my stars. I showed my age.
Crouching, hidden and freezing, in the bowels of the ship, I told myself, This is going to be good for me. A new beginning. Just what I needed.
Then I went up a deck and scavenged the trash for food.
Immediately, I got as far away from the Eastern European Metropolises as I could, hopped trains, northwards, till I hit water and chilly Norway.
Snow settled on every inch of ground, house, tree, and bush. Sometimes the temperature dipped below twenty, Celsius.
I longed for my car and its sunroof. I learned hiking and cross-country skiing. But the travels were tough and slow-going. It took half the night to trek up a nearby mountain just to sit and stare for less than an hour and then rush back before frostbite had me bedridden.
I took up drinking. Just for the warmth (really). I went out with my books, my maps, and a thermos full of Vodka: The Russian-Blood-Warmer.
And it worked. No more biweekly colds and bedrest. I could keep up a consistent vigil, stay out for whole nights if I wanted too. At work, the next day, answering phones and gophering from desk to desk, my movements and reaction times were sluggish. My mind was distant, heaven-bound. Occasionally, gentle coworkers would ask me out to join them for dinner or dancing or drinking, but I’d decline. I was always, always, busy.
I spent a year and a half in Northern Europe without a word or gesture from them. Maybe it was a language problem?
I left again. I continued east, towards the Middle East, by way of Turkey.
Some desert-heat would be a welcome change of pace, I told myself.
I settled, this time, in Israel, on a Kibbutz in The Negev: a wide, triangle-shaped slab of desert separating Israel from Saudi-Jordan to the east, and Cairo to the west. The Kibbutz was a self-sufficient community, every resident was expected to work for their food and lodgings.
It was perfect for me. I no longer worried about my dwindling cash or finding sheds or abandoned farms to sleep in. I had a small apartment with no kitchen and two rooms. A job tilling and seeding. Three meals a day. I even kicked my vodka-habit.
To see the stars, I only had to walk for ten, fifteen minutes, into the shrub-farms surrounding the Kibbutz.
Look up. There they are: calm and peaceful in the wilderness, in the joyous lack of humanity. No one for them to be afraid of here, so they smiled at me. Forms of light, resembling a woman, then a man, embraced, spilled milk merging on black linoleum, and twirled across the night sky, like Beauty and the Beast.
I dreamed up an imaginary woman to sit with me.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I drew attention in the small community. In a city, you’d be fortunate (or unfortunate) to know everyone’s name in your building. Even that was unheard of. But here my strange sleeping patterns and distant and anti-social personality drew me out into the open: a news-item. A topic of conversation.
The people were polite in their concern. They never spoke to me directly, and since I never initiated conversations, I never spoke. They secretly peeked out their windows at night and watched me tiptoe through the thin cobbled streets. In daylight, they whispered to each other as I passed.
I saw them, some nights, stepping out of their homes in the dark, looking up, straight up, just like I do. Hoping to see something unique instead of just the stars. (They took them for granted.) Maybe they were hoping for a comet or a spaceship, but they weren’t patient enough. Stay out there for a few hours, a few days, then, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get something to talk about. Or keep to yourself like the comfort of a secret.
The stars, maybe sensing the increased eyes, remained silent.
Finally, the people of the Kibbutz, politely, but en masse, asked me to leave. When I asked “why,” because I knew they would be honest, they said, “You’re scaring us.”
Your parents probably told you, “Don’t stare at the sun, you’ll go blind.”
They never said, “Don’t stare at the stars, you’ll go crazy.”
But they should have.
I wandered Asia for an indecipherable amount of time. Cloudy time. Hazy time.
The people I met were mostly country folk, kind to an old traveler, not prodding with endless questions. They didn’t want to know all the sad stories of all the sad wanderers in this sad world.
Sometimes, though, they would ask me. Badger me with parental-sounding questions, like: “Who are you?” “What are you doing?” “Where did you come from?”
They could see the mark of the stars on me. I indulged them. I whispered things about a “quest,” a “mission,” a “destiny” and a life-long-adventure.
Lies, of course.
But adventures were so rare these days.
Once, I tried telling the truth.
I was a little drunk and a little curious. Would they believe me? Pity me? Or just laugh?
I was in Thailand at the time. A village of mud-colored wood huts and dark, warm, people. They were used to strangers. People came to this country to get away from everything else. The mainland was sparsely civilized while the coast was dotted with a long trail of lonely dots, like a sleeping serpent’s tail.
The people were warm and friendly. They took me in. When they first saw me, trudging up the beach from some rundown train station a few miles away, I had my backpack slung over my thin shoulders, my clothes ripped, grayed, and filthy and I reeked of garbage, oil, and sand.
The villagers lent me a small hut. It had a real mattress, child-sized, with embroidered blankets and pillows, with American hotel insignia. I slept, curled in a fetal position, for thirty-six hours straight. Then they fed me: jasmine rice and little strips of chicken, seasoned with peanuts. They gave me American-brand razors and a bottle of shaving cream. I used them gladly. They were the kindest people I’d met in the whole world.
Later, sitting with them around a campfire, drinking mug after mug of a strong beer-like-brew, lulled by the heat and hospitality, I began to talk. My voice was hoarse and rough, dust growing like mold in my mouth over the years. But I gave it my best shot and spoke slowly. One of the teenagers, a boy of eighteen or nineteen who worked as a waiter at one of the hotels, was my translator.
“One night, I saw the stars, for the first time in my life, and I cried.” The boy whispered the translation, the language shooting forth extremely fast like machine-gun-bursts. “I was just… happy to be witness to something huge, bigger and better than me. But then, as if they knew, they woke from their astronomical sleep. They spoke to me.”
Whispers from the audience; shared looks of doubt. I answered their looks with a steady stream of truth. “No loud, booming voice. No burning bush. But simple words. They told me to go, to leave my life, and to follow them.
“I don’t know why. I don’t know why they chose me. All I know is I… I had to listen. My purpose in life became clear, perfectly clear like water, and there was no more doubt. There was no more questioning who I am. I knew exactly what I had to do.”
I paused for a few long minutes. The boy, and the crowd, looked up.
“I’ve sacrificed everything I had. I have nothing left to give up. I’ve wandered in search of answers for a lifetime. Sometimes, though, I wish it would stop.”
Night-silence. The crackling of the campfire.
One of the old men in the audience, face and body shadowed in rags, whispered some machine-gun-words to the boy, who looked at me with a smile.
He spoke in a very accented, floral, English. “You can stay here.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“You can stop.”
“I… I would be honored.”
I looked up then, at the static stars. It had been so long since they spoke to me, I had forgotten their voice. They didn’t move. They didn’t talk. They didn’t inspire.
“Yes. Yes, I accept.”
I was so happy, I cried.
Later that night, I went out to say goodbye to my stars.
(I know. I shouldn’t have. But I did.)
They blazed as if burning. Phosphorescent brilliance. Faces appeared, scratched onto the night sky as if in chalk. Appearing, then disappearing, quick, like an Etch-a-Sketch. Me. And me. And me again.
My faces. Me at twenty; at thirty; at forty; at fifty, progressively darker and scarier. Like a ripple in a lake, the images shimmered and were replaced by a sentence. Wide columns of lights for each letter: a boldface.
It’s not over yet.
I stayed in the village another day, enjoying the food, the warmth, and the shy smiles from the women. The next night, I sneaked out while they slept, heading north, to find a plane or a boat to take me eastward.
To America, and the massive California Colony, recently succeeded from The States.
The city was darker than I remembered.
No traffic whizzed past on the streets. No cars lined up beside the pavement. No overflowing restaurants, bars, or clubs. There were darkened windows showing empty businesses. I looked in, hopeful for even a hint of other humans, but saw nothing. Starless-sky-nothing.
Look up. To see a dull sheen of blue behind semi-transparent black. The city, fed up with blocking out the night, now focused on the day. Cancelled it out.
I wandered the empty city like a character in a science-fiction-nightmare. I shouted, but it only echoed back at me, again and again, bouncing off the buildings, like clothes trapped in a dryer.
What happened? I wondered. Where is everybody? Even lost in the global mess of time-zones, I would have heard of something like this. A nuclear scare? A mass exodus? A war?
I walked down streets with recognizable names. Sutter. Rodeo. San Francisco. Streets that stretched like highways, from the border of Mexico-City to what-once-was Oregon (now part of the city of Sealand). I walked and walked. The dim day became black night. And, above, shining now, my stars.
I stopped, and stood, dumbfounded. The stars were moving, racing, actually. More images than my eye could see on a canvas the size of the Heavens.
Charged, I ran into one of the abandoned buildings. Leaped three-stairs-at-a-time, until I reached the door to the roof. There I hesitated. My body was tingling, an incoming rush. Like when you’re about to get too drunk but you’re well, well, on your way and there’s nothing you can do to stop. So you close your eyes and hope for the best.
I opened the door, stepped out into the chilled night air. The stars wrestled with each other. A laser-light-show complete with distant music. I glanced around…
And that’s when I saw them, the others. Congregations of stargazers, fifty to a hundred per pack, standing on every other rooftop for as far as I could see. A few of the rooftops whispered music. The people stood as if in rapt attention, their necks craned all the way back (it hurt to even see), eyes and mouth wide open, inhaling the stars. They looked like zombies at a car-less drive-in.
And that’s when I noticed the words. At a close level to the rooftops, a snaking river of words, like a news-ticker at the bottom of a television screen. The phrases were similar to the general, but seeming personal, fortunes and inspirational phrases the stars had first greeted me with. But upgraded. The phrases had names attached, like songs dedications over the radio.
Dennis, You will find happiness soon.
Kelly, You are right. He is wrong.
Rachel, Caring comes before passion. Be patient.
It took me a few minutes to process. The names were like graffiti painted on the walls inside my brain.
The stars were not just talking to me.
And that’s when my reality went supernova.
I fell to my knees, beaten. Clutched my heart in case it fell and broke, like everything else. Like my childhood, my past, and my future.
I closed my eyes, but they wouldn’t stay closed. The city continued its silent worship. Something about the ease of the others as they watched the stars had a gasoline-like effect on my anger. The way they just stood there! They didn’t need to discover anything, adventure anywhere. Like sheep!
I felt, in the tumult of conflicting emotions inside me, cuckolded.
I took off my overstuffed backpack, huge and ugly and over fifty years old, and let it drop like a stone onto the rooftop. It broke, ripped, and spilled. Decaying books and coffee-stained-maps of the solar system, obsolete now. DVD-discs: Archaic pieces of technology. Souvenirs of a wasted life. I picked up everything I could and threw it over the side, rushing about like a love-crazed teenager, or a man possessed, until there was nothing left. People in nearby rooftops watched me from the corner of their eyes.
I thought about suicide.
But then, a familiar image, not a face or a horse or an archer, but a name, a name as lost as my youth: My name, another fragment of the past from someone else’s life. The name was connected to a phrase, caught in the river, circling about me like a stubborn mote of dust.
Daniel, you are special. You were the first.
My mind raced.
“Did I fail you? Why did you abandon me?”
The stars sounded remorseful. We didn’t. We were protecting you.
“From what?” I shouted.
I looked away, then. Down below, I saw darkly-dressed men and women streaming out of buildings and scattering, a dreary, wasted, look to their movements. Faint sounds of car engines and distant vendors. That ting of a bell from an old door, in an old Mom-&-Pop. The smell of hotdogs. Cigarettes. Dogshit.
City sounds. City smells. They all came flooding back as if, somewhere, a dam broke.
And that’s when I realized the city was not dead or abandoned, just sleeping. The city had actually stopped. For the stars. For my stars.
It’s like, when you were a child, coming home smelling like alcohol or cigarettes, and your parents berated you with cliché after cliché after cliché; like, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you, too?”
Yes, Mom, I would. I’d jump first.
Elad Haber is an IT guy by day and a fiction writer by night. His work has appeared in pindeldyboz, The Fortean Bureau, Ideomancer and Interfictions Online.
“Do What You Desire” originally appeared in “Say… What’s the Combination?” published by The Fortress of Words.