A young astronomer follows her mother’s dying wish and leaves her rural home—hoping her unique connection to the stars will help find a cure for a mysterious new illness that’s begun to spread. A Wilderness of Stars, the latest novel from Shea Ernshaw (The Wicked Deep), charts this perilous journey, and io9 is excited to share the cover and first chapter today.
Here’s a bit more about the book:
If magic lives anywhere, it’s in the stars…
Vega has lived in the valley her whole life—forbidden by her mother to leave the safety of its borders because of the unknown threats waiting for her in the wilds beyond. But after her mother dies, and Vega sees the fabled twin stars in the sky, it’s an omen she can no longer ignore, forcing her to leave the protective boundaries of the valley. But the outside world turns out to be much more terrifying than Vega could have imagined. People are gravely sick—they lose their eyesight and their hearing, just before they lose their lives.
What Vega keeps to herself is that she is the Last Astronomer—a title carried from generation to generation—and she is the only one who carries the knowledge of the stars. Knowledge that could hold the key to the cure. And so when locals spot the tattoo on Vega’s neck in the shape of a constellation—the mark of an astronomer—chaos erupts as the threats her mother warned her about become all too real.
Fearing for her life, Vega will be rescued by a girl named Cricket who will lead her to Noah, a boy marked by his own mysterious tattoos. On the run from the men who are hunting her, Vega, Cricket, and Noah will set out across the plains in search of the cure the stars speak of. But as the lines between friend and protector begin to blur, Vega must decide whether she will reveal/safeguard the sacred knowledge of the astronomer. Or if she will risk everything to try to save them all.
Here’s the full cover reveal—the cover design and illustration is by Jim Tierney, and the cover art direction is by Sarah Creech—followed by the first chapter of A Wilderness of Stars!
ORION, Gamma Ori
+06° 20’ 58”
A hundred years ago, the first Astronomer looked up at the night sky and made note of what she saw: horseshoe nebulas and spiral galaxies and dying star clusters. But she did not yet know what lay hidden in the shadowy darkness between stars. She was not a seer, a fortune-teller, as was common in the old world but rarely talked about now. Instead she used the circular glass rings of her telescope to make sense of the dark; she used physics and chemistry and science. She drafted charts and measured distances and sketched formations like Pleiades and Andromeda onto wax paper.
Maybe if she had believed in fate. If she had listened to her gut—that hollow twisting beneath her lowest ribs—she might have feared what she didn’t understand.
She might have known that the shadow concealed more than dust and particles of broken moons.
She would have looked closer.
Mom is dying, and we both know it.
She’s been sick for almost a month, the consumption shredding apart her insides, clouding her eyes and making it impossible for her to breathe without an awful rasp.
On the roof of our small house, I lie flat on my back, breathing in the cool, windless spring air—the night sky a riddle of stars above me—but inside the cabin, through the open window, I can hear Mom dozing fitfully: fever making her sweat and toss and mumble in her sleep.
I press my palms against the roof beneath me, as if I could push away the awful sound, push away the sickness inside her. I count the constellations, naming them in my mind—a ritual that Mom insists I repeat night after night so I won’t forget—and it calms me, the pattern of unaltered stars, their position always right where they should be. Unlike Mom, who is slipping away. Beyond the row of blue spruce trees on the far side of the summer garden, above the valley wall, I trace Clovis and Andromeda with my fingertip. I find Orion, the hunter from Greek mythology, and Rigel, a bright blue-white supergiant shimmering near the horizon. Each one tells a story. Each one has some secret to be shared, if I have the patience to look.
I follow the simple line of Aries, the golden-fleeced ram, my finger making a slight arc through the midnight sky. Sometimes I let myself fall asleep on the roof, to be closer to the stars; sometimes I stay awake all night, searching for something up there that might bring me hope.
I search for something that isn’t there.
An owl lets out a low, somber cry from the toolshed; the wind slides across the roof, stirring my long, dark hair, curled slightly at the ends, sending gooseflesh across my scarred, copper skin. And I wonder if it’s all for nothing. All the knowledge I keep safe inside me—patterns and sequences and the names of constellations—all of it useless if I never leave these valley walls.
Heat rises behind my eyes, but I push it down, counting the stars of Leo, the lion, killed by Hercules with his bare hands and placed in the sky. Stories threaded and stitched in the starlight. But I wonder what stories will be told about me: The girl who stayed safe in her valley. Who never left. Who died like her mother, taking all her knowledge with her.
I wipe at my eyes, hating the tears, willing the stars to show me something—begging. But the sky sits just as it always has—unaltered, unchanged—and I know I’ve been forgotten by the stars, by the ancient gods. Abandoned. They do not see me as I see them.
I press a hand to my ear, a soft ringing in my eardrum, an ache so small that it’s hardly there—scratch, scratch, like an insect in my skull—but when I swing my gaze back to the sky, blinking away the wetness, a thin, rainless cloud slides along the valley walls, pushing north . . .
And something catches my eye.
In the darkness, in the space between stars . . .
A light. Small at first. Where none should be.
To the east.
I scramble to my feet, tugging my sweater close across my chest, squinting up at the unusual light. Light that shouldn’t be there.
It glows a shimmering whiteness, but its position in the sky makes no sense. I blink and recenter my gaze—as Mom taught me—but when I scan the horizon, it’s still there. There. Only a flicker at first—like a dying ember in a campfire—but after a moment it grows brighter, rising above the treetops.
Not a falling star.
Not a comet.
Something larger. A shiver skips up into my throat—a knowing—like the telltale scent of moisture in the air, hours before a single raindrop has fallen from the sky.
I’ve stared at this patch of horizon countless times, and seen nothing: only darkness and tiny pine-needle pricks of ordinary starlight. But when I rub my palms against the hollows of my eyes, then look again to the east . . . I find it. Still there.
A star . . . where no star had been the night before.
My heart begins to ram against my rib cage, thoughts crashing and tumbling over one another, wanting to be sure. And then I see it: the star isn’t alone.
There are two.
One fainter than the other, smaller, but they rest side by side: twin stars shivering an amber light from the middle of our galaxy. And as they rise higher above the horizon, they appear so close, it feels as if I can almost reach up and pluck them down, hold them in my palm like an August firefly, golden and pulsing, then carry them inside to show Mom.
Two delicate orbs.
A hum of excitement and disbelief vibrates up into my chest, behind my eyes, and I swing myself down from the roof, perching my foot against the wooden post, then landing on the front porch with a thud—something I’ve done hundreds of times—then dart through the front door into the cabin.
A fire still burns in the stone fireplace, the scent of cloves and rosemary heavy in the air from the herbs drying above the fire, and I drop to the floor beside Mom’s bed, taking her skeletal hand in mine. My fingers tremble, and her eyes flit open, damp and bloodshot.
“I saw them,” I say softly, voice catching on each letter, as if I might choke on them. “On the eastern horizon . . . two twin stars.”
Mom’s eyes struggle to blink, her skin the color of sun-bleached bones, but her hair is still long and dark and wavy at the ends. Freckles sit scattered across her nose, and her mouth is the same shape as mine, like a bow tied from rope. I see myself in her—but she has always been braver, fearless, mightier than a winter storm. And I worry that the things that bind me to her, to our ancestors, don’t live as strong in my bloodstream.
But now, as I stare down at her, she is half the woman she once was, weak and addled with sickness. And I’m afraid of what’s to come.
She tries to push herself up, to crane her head to the window—she wants to see the stars for herself—but her elbows buckle and her dust-thin body falls back to the mattress, teeth rattling. I place a cold cloth, dampened with river water, on her forehead to wipe away the sweat. “Are they—” She coughs, pinches her eyes closed, starts again. “—in alignment with the pole star?”
I nod, tears dripping from my eyes.
“Sister stars,” she mutters, a small twitch at the corners of her pale mouth—an almost smile—something she hasn’t done in weeks. “It’s time.” She squeezes my hand and her eyelashes flutter, her sight almost lost completely. She only sees shadows now, waves of dark.
“We can leave in the morning,” I answer, my nerves like fire in my veins—we will finally be leaving the valley. I will finally be going beyond its sheer cliff walls.
But she shakes her head and swallows. “No.”
A small fire burns in the fireplace, but the cold night air still catches at the back of my throat. I already understand what she means: I can see it in the dampness of her eyes, the tight pinch of her mouth. She will not be leaving the cabin. Or the valley.
She wants me to go alone.
“I can help you to walk,” I urge, feeling the anxiety clotting in my chest like mud. We will go together, like we’ve always planned. She and I. Venturing beyond the valley walls at last.
But she only blinks, tears rolling down her cheekbones. “I’ll be too slow.” She coughs and clutches a hand to her trembling mouth, and more tears fall from her chin. “You already know everything,” she whispers, eyes straining to see me through the winter fog of her vision. “You don’t need me.” Her eyes flutter. “Go to the ocean,” she instructs, words I already know, that she has told me so many times, they are like a song in my ears, repeating, repeating, without end. “Find the Architect. Don’t look back, Vega.”
I grip her hand tighter, as if I can already feel the miles, the space widening between us. “I’m not leaving you here.” She won’t be able to bring up water from the river or even pull herself out of bed. If I leave, she’ll die quickly. Of thirst and pain. She’ll die alone.
Her jaw clenches along her cheekbones, and I can see the woman she once was: strong, toughened by the land, by the years, some of that fight still left in her. “There’s no time,” she says forcefully, straining against the words before sinking back against her pillow.
I lift my eyes, wet with tears, to the window, where the twin stars hover against the dark. I knows she’s right. Time is already slipping away, hour by hour—the twin stars won’t be visible forever. Days from now, they will arch away, out of sight, and it will be too late.
Another hundred years before they come into alignment again.
I think Mom knows I won’t leave her, senses I won’t let her die alone in the cold of the cabin. She knows I’ll stay as long as she’s alive.
Because in two days’ time, the evening after a rainstorm drenches the valley, she lets the consumption tear apart the last of her lungs, her heart, her eyes. She stops fighting. “Leave the valley, Vega . . . ,” she sputters near the end, fingers twitching, then mumbles something about black feathers falling from the sky, birds dropping to their death—fevered words.
I brush the dark hair from her face, feeling like my own heart is about to give out, and I watch her features pinch tight, freckles massing together on her forehead while the sunset burns sapphire and pale and colorless through the small cabin windows. At last I hear the air leave her lungs. Feel the slack in her hand.
And just like that, she’s gone. A soundless letting go.
She gave up. She let herself die.
To make sure I’d leave.
To make sure I’d live.
I bury my mother before the morning sunlight breaks through the treetops and sparks across the blades of grass. I do it swiftly, before her body has time to stiffen, wrapping her gently in the cornflower-blue bedsheet, then stitching it closed with a needle and thread. I carry her down the hill from the old cabin and place her in the ground.
For a moment, I feel like I might be sick, the dimmed night sky whirling and tilting above me, but I stumble the five paces from her grave down to the river’s edge and wade in up to my knees, feeling the strength of Medicine Bow River carving its slow, ancient path through our protected valley, walled in on two sides.
I know what I have to do.
The stories of my ancestors like a ticking clock against the soft place at my temples.
In the cold river, I scrub away the dirt from my hands, my fingernails, wishing I could strip away the hurt rupturing inside me like a dying star. But it’s marrow-deep, cut into me now. I take another step toward the fast-moving center of the river, the water glacier-cold and deep, and I dig my toes into the gravelly river bottom, feeling the weight of the planet beneath me, anchoring me so I don’t drift away. Without gravity, we’d all float up into the stars light as dove feathers, Mom would say. We’d spend nights out here beside the river, peering through her telescope—the one she built herself with plates of glass fastened at perfectly measured angles. She’d tell me to recite the names of constellations and orbiting moons and comets always breaking through our atmosphere in dazzling trails of light. You need to know the sky as well as the valley; you need to be able to chart a course using only the stars to navigate, she’d explain. She taught me the shape and structure of the night sky. She made sure I’d never forget, even after she was gone.
With my shaking hand, I reach toward the moonlight, freckles making a pattern from my thumb all the way up along my forearm, and I try to see her in my own skin—I am made of her, after all. The same cells and atoms, blood of my blood. But it isn’t enough. She was brown eyes flecked with green, fingernails always cut short, dirt pressed into the creases of her knuckles. She was both the soil and the sky, a kaleidoscope of parts.
My knees give out and I sink into the icy water, sitting cross-legged on the river bottom, water up to my throat, tears shedding down my cheeks. The cold could kill me; the roaring current could drown me. But I don’t feel any of it. I tilt my head back while tears break against my eyelids, and in the pale twilight sky, I find the southern pole star, dim and flickering just above the treetops—the navigational point that will always guide me home, no matter where I am, the star that connects all the others.
“The sky belongs to you now,” Mom had whispered right at the end, fighting to keep her eyes open, coughing and then spitting up blood. But even the anatomy of stars are woven with memories of her. It’s all her. This valley and the cliff walls and the starlight that drapes over me like a ruthless, unmerciful hand. But through the awful blur of tears, I find the twin stars again—Tova and Llitha—sister stars, caught in their own kind of gravity. Bound to each other. The old folklore stories say the sisters were banished to the night sky by their father after they refused to marry two underworld princes. Now they are two points of light hovering in the east. Whispering their ancient words, summoning me closer—to a place beyond the valley where I’ve never been.
To an ocean, at the edge of everything, across forbidden land.
All my life, Mom had warned of the world outside our valley—it’s dangerous and cruel, she would say. But we are safe here, far from it all. We remained in our isolated valley, studying the sky, marking our charts and maps, where no one knows our names . . . or who we are descended from.
But now she’s gone and the twin stars gleam in the night sky.
Now . . . I have to leave, travel to a place where my ancestors have never been. As if it were that easy. As if my legs could carry me beyond this valley when they can barely carry me back up to the cabin from the river.
My body shakes, hands milk-white and numb, and I push myself up from the water—my long cotton nightdress clinging to my skin, the front hem stained with dark, ruddy soil from digging. It will need to be scrubbed, set to soak. Or maybe I’ll just burn it, bury it, leave it behind. What use will it be out there, anyway. Beyond the walls.
I stagger back up to the shore, arms hanging wet and limp at my sides, and collapse onto the grass. The night sinks away, and the sun begins to rise, bright and terrible and unforgiving.
I could walk the day’s journey to Mr. and Mrs. Horace’s place—our closest neighbor, our only neighbor—and tell them Mom has died. I could sit at their kitchen table while Mrs. Horace brings me flattened corn cakes and hot tea, then touches me with her worrying hands, straightening the hem of my shirtsleeves, fussing with my long, coiled hair. Mr. Horace will stand at the door as if there were some way to set this right with nails and hewn boards—the only remedy he knows. But they would not want me to leave the valley. A girl of only seventeen shouldn’t be on her own, I imagine Mrs. Horace saying. They will insist I stay with them, sleep in the narrow loft of their timber house. They’re good people, but I cannot make a life among their stock of goats and cattle and dogs.
I rub my hand across the back of my neck, searching for a reminder—for courage—and I feel the smooth skin that is marked by ink. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there—Mom had the same mark, a tattoo that assures me of who I am: my mother’s daughter. Linked, bound to each other even after her death.
You’re descended from brave women, she used to tell me, as if she knew someday it would come to this. I scrub at the corners of my eyes, not wanting to feel the tears, when a flock of starlings tear away from the sagging oaks near the riverbank.
Something’s startled them.
They screech angrily, wings beating away toward the west, but in between the sound . . . I hear the distinct thud of hooves against the hard ground of the road.
I turn, gazing up the hill, where the road winds along the valley, and a plume of dust furls into the air.
Someone is coming up the road.
My eyes flash to the cabin, body still shaking from the cold of the river. I could run up the hill and duck inside, feel into the top chest of drawers for the old revolver Mom kept hidden there, load it like she taught me, then wait at the window with the barrel pointed up the road. Or I could hide. The tree line is only a few paces from the river; I could be inside the sparse oaks within a few seconds. I could make my way up the ridge to the Horaces’ place and be there by sundown.
But instead my legs don’t move. My insides too numb, my chest too heart-shattered.
The sound of a horse, of a wagon, rattles up the road, vibrating at every stone and divot, echoing up across the valley, becoming its own kind of disjointed birdsong.
I lift a hand over my eyes, straining to see, lungs stilled—the cold writhing down my joints—and when the horse appears over the last rise, drawing the old box wagon behind it, I let out a long, shaky breath.
Salty lines of tears spill down my face, the relief sudden and heavy in my chest.
After almost a month away, Pa is home.
We stand over Mom’s grave—my hair dripping with river water.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Pa manages, kneeling down to rest a sun-darkened hand against the dirt. His chin dips, reddish-brown beard quivering, and he wipes at the corners of his eyes, catching the tears before they fall. I look away, not wanting to see the pain in his eyes.
“She’s been sick since you left,” I tell him, biting back the sob waiting at the top of my rib cage, the hurt like floodwaters inside me, almost too big to contain.
Pa nods at the dark soil, the morning wind singing through the cattail reeds beside the river. “Nothing you could have done.”
We stand this way for a time—silent, staring at the place where her body now rests—as if each of us is cycling through our own pain. Finding ways to tuck it away. Pa is a quiet man, more comfortable with uncrowded roads and the silence of an evening spent alone, than with consoling words. An owl lets out a somber cry from the woodshed, just as the sun breaks through the trees, inching higher in the sky. And at last Pa pushes himself up, knees creaking, eyes still damp at the corners, and we start back for the house, each of us silent. I can meet Pa’s stride now, nearly as tall as him, legs like reeds and arms swinging at my sides. Almost as tall as a tree, Mom liked to say, braiding my oak-brown hair down my back, her fingers brushing the dark ink of the tattoo at my neck—the tattoo she gave me years ago.
At the cabin, Pa lights his pipe and eases himself into one of the porch chairs—chairs he himself made when I was small. I still remember the smell of wood shavings, mottled dust, a sweet nutty scent. Normally, when Pa returns to the valley, I ask him to tell me a story from the outside, about distant towns and foreign people and the unusual places he’s seen: two-story buildings and deep, calm lakes as warm as bathwater and strangers with eyes as blue as the June sky. They are good stories, tales I sometimes think can’t be entirely true—Pa’s cheeks grinning, eyes shimmering with some faraway memory. My knowledge of the world has been shaped by Pa’s stories. And also by Mom’s warnings.
But I don’t ask for a story now—I ask something else. “Where will you go, after here?”
It’s been nearly a month since he was last in the valley—when the snow still insulated the ground and hung from the eaves of the old cabin—but now spring has crept in over the land, turning it green and soft, the approaching of a gentler season: long, sunlit days, crisp carrots from the ground, frogs singing from the mucky banks of the river in the evening. Something I won’t be here to see.
“North,” he answers, his tired, creased eyes focused out over the valley, to the slow-moving river winking under the morning sun. “To the market.”
“When will you leave?”
“Tomorrow.” He releases a puff of tobacco smoke into the air. “I need to be back on the road in the morning.”
Beside the porch railing, I run a hand down Odie’s neck—Pa’s mare, a black-and-white appaloosa who has found a patch of clover sprouting up in the shade of the porch deck. Pa never hobbles her with leather straps around her ankles, or ties her to a tree when he’s here. He says she has no reason to wander; all the good pasture is near the house.
“How far away is it?” I knit my fingers through Odie’s coarse mane, then down to her black velvet nose.
“A week’s journey, maybe a few days more. Depends on the roads.” Smoke puffs from Pa’s nose, wheeling up into the night sky, and he touches the wiry strands of his beard, his mustache.
I cut my eyes away to his wagon—sitting near the shed—with its tall wooden sides and flat top. Painted along the wood slats are black, swooping letters—much more elaborate than the straight, perpendicular letters that Mom taught me to write when I was younger. But the words on Pa’s wagon are meant to draw people near, to catch their eyes, to entice them to trade a coin or two for what he sells inside.
Pa’s Cure-All Tonic Elixir, it reads, and a small blue medicine bottle has been painted beside the words with silver stars erupting from the top. Beneath this is a list of the ailments that Pa’s tonic will cure: headache, heartache, cough, fever, hair loss, tooth loss, arthritis, lethargy, dizziness, sleeplessness, drunkenness, toe aches, warts.
I shift my gaze back to Pa, his eyes drowsy and distant. I think of summers past when Mom and Pa and I would sit on the porch and watch the sun fade while we peeled baskets of peas and listened to Pa’s stories. A time lost to us now. I clear my throat, stuffing down the tears. “I’m coming with you.”
But Pa immediately shakes his head, not even considering it. “The road isn’t a safe place for you.”
I lower my hand from Odie’s muzzle. I know Pa doesn’t understand why I need to leave. He doesn’t know the stories that Mom whispered to me at night when he was away. The women in our family have kept our secrets for a hundred years, she would tell me softly, as if she didn’t even want the stars to hear. They are dangerous secrets; they put us at risk. So we keep them to ourselves. “I’m stronger than I look,” I say, shoulders straightening back, my left hand scraping along my neck, fingers tracing the tattoo.
Pa’s brow tugs downward as he eyes me, his expression hidden beneath the wiry strands of his overgrown beard. “No,” he answers sharply. “You need to stay in the valley, where you’re protected.”
“Mom wanted me to leave—” I say, clenching my teeth. Mom and I spent most of our life in the valley alone—the two of us with our stories and constellations and a language only we understood—while Pa spent his life out on the road.
He removes the pipe from his mouth, exhaling, a softness to his eyes—a sadness—like he understands the need I feel, but he thinks I’m being foolish. A girl who doesn’t know what she’s asking for. “Your mother has taught you many things, but she hasn’t prepared you for what’s out there.” He taps the toe of his dusty-brown boot against the worn boards of the deck.
I turn away from him, feeling the threat of tears against my eyelids, and lift my eyes to the sky—to the place in the east where I saw the twin stars, now lost to the morning sunlight. The owl, who had been perched on the woodshed, extends its broad winds, and tears away over the river, beyond the valley walls.
“I’ll go on my own,” I say.
“You don’t have a horse.”
“I’ll walk.” I had planned on walking anyway, marching out of the valley on foot.
He exhales through his nose, eyes clicking up the road. “It’ll take you a week just to reach the nearest outpost. And your feet will be raw as hide by then, blistered down to the bone.” There is a growl in his voice, a grittiness, as though he’s recalling the harsh, unending stretch of roads beyond the valley. Recalling long, hot days when he pushed the wagon on, exhausted, throat coated in dust. And he doesn’t wish the same for me.
I kick at a small rock and it skitters under the porch. Odie lifts her head, wide-eyed, before resuming her methodical chewing of the clover and bunchgrass.
Pa rests the stem of the old pipe at the corner of his mouth, mustache twitching, the fragrant smoke—cloves and cinnamon—coiling up into the rafters of the porch roof. “It’s easy to think the world beyond what we know is better than what we have, but trust me, Vega, your life here is safer than anything out there.” He leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees, gazing out at the road—this day has already worn him thin, down to bone. “She kept you isolated here for a reason.” He tamps out the tobacco in his pipe onto the rough boards of the deck, letting the burnt leaves fall between the cracks, then stands up. “I’m sorry, Vega, I can’t take you with me.” He gives me a quick nod, his shoulders bent forward, bearing the grief of Mom’s death heavy in his tired frame, and before I can say anything else, before I can protest, he walks down the porch steps and strides out toward the river, toward Mom’s grave.
My heart should sink—I should feel the hard slam of despair and hopelessness landing in my gut. But instead I feel something else: a new story weaving itself together like starlight along the dark night of my skin. The story of what comes next.
What I have to do.
Pa is asleep in his wagon, nighttime once again folded over the valley, and Odie stands beside the porch, head dipped low, huge eyelashes twitching softly like reeds of grass.
I press my fingertips to the glass beside Mom’s empty bed, nervously counting the constellations out of habit, reciting them in my mind: Crux, Perseus, Leo Minor, and even Cepheus—a broad formation of stars that has always looked like a bow and arrow to me, even though Mom said it was named after the mythical king Cepheus, husband to Cassiopeia, father of Andromeda. My reflection peers back in the glass, the swooped shape of my nose, my ears set low, skin like amber—it’s all her. Reminders of Mom everywhere. Through my reflection, I stare out at the twin stars to the east, like lanterns burning in the sky. My ancestors spent their life waiting for them to appear—Tova and Llitha—for a sign that it was time to leave the valley. They watched the sky each night, studied it, and waited. A hundred years have passed since the twin stars last swung this far on their orbit across their galaxy, and found themselves close enough for us to see. A rare event. One that almost seems impossible—one I started to think might never happen. Only a folktale passed down by the women in my family, a story that had lost all meaning. But the stories were right.
And at last the waiting has ended with me.
I drop my hand from the window, my fingerprints left on the glass—the last part of myself I will leave behind.
I already know what I will do.
I move through the house, gathering a loaf of bread and hard biscuits, preserved blackberries in glass jars that clink and rattle in the burlap sack. I eye the shelf of books near the fireplace: an old book of Scottish poems, a wild foraging cookbook, and several about astronomy. Mom said books were rare, hard to come by. But I know the astronomy books by heart, their pages useless to me now, and I have no need for the others beyond the walls of the house. So I leave them all behind.
I pull my favorite sweater over my head, the color of wheat and flax—the one Mom has mended dozens of times over the years, the one that once belonged to her, and her mother before her—then grab my gray canvas coat from the hook by the door. I fold the quilt from Mom’s bed, tucking it under my arm, then pick up the lit candle. My lungs breathe heavy, doubt scratching at my skull. I can still feel her within these walls where I drew my first breath: where I learned to chart the stars, to read while sitting at the small wood table pressed against the corner, where Mom and I have carved our names into the low bench—like the white heron stacks pebbles beside the river to mark its territory, to warn other birds that this is its home. Mom taught me how to survive, to make fire and cut my own hair and mend my own shirts.
But I have to do this—it has to be absolute; otherwise I might change my mind.
I need there to be nothing left to return to.
I lower the candle to one of Mom’s pillows, and the flame catches instantly. It springs across the sheets to the curtains, igniting on the pile of stacked firewood beside the stove. It lunges up the log walls, turning hot and ashy in minutes. How voracious fire is. How unstoppable. It destroys without thought.
With the burlap sack over my shoulder, I shove my feet into my boots, not bothering to lace them, and walk out onto the front porch, feeling the flames growing hot and angry behind me. Like something coming alive, devouring my childhood, my entire life in this cabin. Leaving nothing. I fight the urge to run to the river with a pail and bring back buckets of water, dousing the flames.
There’s no turning back now.
The sky is still dark, a belt of clustered stars running from north to south. But when I lower my gaze back to the wagon, Pa is awake, a hand held over his brow. Odie has backstepped away from the porch railing, dust rising around her hooves, ears jumping forward and back, frightened of the snapping flames.
“Vega . . .” Pa peers past me at the cabin, at the flames now licking through the doorway. “What did you do?”
Bravery is not summoned overnight; it takes several almost moments until the one that finally sparks a need bright enough that you’re willing to burn your old life to the ground.
“My home is gone—” I say down to him from the edge of the porch. “I should probably go with you now.”
My name—Vega—means dweller in the meadow. Mom would say that my name was a reminder that this valley was my home, that I was safe here, like a bird tucked into the cavity of its nest.
But with smoke curling up into the dawn sky behind me, flames chewing apart the cabin where I was born, I leave the valley behind.
For most of my life, I have feared the unnamable longing that has pricked at me like a briar caught in wool—a curiosity about what lay beyond the valley. The world out there is wild and savage and unkind, Mom would tell me, eyes trained up the road. We won’t leave until it’s time.
Low, mangy oaks dig their pointed limbs into the side of the wagon, shrieking against the wood, but Pa coaxes Odie on with a soft click of his tongue. In the back of the wagon, the glass jars filled with Pa’s tonic rattle a constant chorus of clinks and clangs—a sweet smell emanating from the wood crates.
The valley walls shrink away around us, and we emerge into the flat rangeland rolling out endlessly into the distance—a stretch of road dotted with bull snakes and dry scrub brush and rocky terrain known to hobble good horses. But this view isn’t new—I’ve seen it before, when Mom and I would make the rare trek to the Horaces’—though this time it’s a length of land that I’m not merely seeing from a distance, but that I will be entering into. My chest feels tight, anxious, but I refuse to glance over my shoulder and see the smoldering embers of the cabin behind us. I’ve made my decision.
Don’t look back, Mom told me once. You’re not going that way.
We slip free of the crowded oaks, and the sun becomes a scowling eye, bright and watchful. I wish we were traveling at night so I could see the stars, the comfort they bring, the reminder that no matter how far I travel, I can always use them to chart my way back to the valley.
We pass the Horaces’—a modest farmhouse set back between four shaded elm trees, with a low creek running through the land behind it. The barn is another forty yards beyond the creek, and the Horaces’ livestock of goats and sheep and cattle have gathered near the fence, watching us. Odie slows her gait, head craned toward them, but Pa snaps the reins to prod her forward. My body vibrates, a wave of nausea rising in my belly—I’m now farther beyond the valley than I’ve ever been.
Pa makes a grumbling sound, low and disapproving: He thinks this is a bad idea, taking me with him, letting me leave the valley. But he stays quiet. Maybe he knows there are reasons tucked inside me that he doesn’t understand—the whispered words shared only between Mom and me. Or maybe he can’t bear to leave me in the burnt-out remains of the cabin. So we travel in silence across the open plains while the hours tick by, the sound of the creaking wagon becoming an ache in my ears, watching birds fly in slow patterns overhead, crows and ravens out looking for unfortunate field mice and jackrabbits.
It’s stark, unwelcoming land, and I push down the knot tightening in my stomach the farther we travel from the valley. From Mom buried in the ground. From everything I’ve ever known.
Because I don’t have a choice.
When we finally leave the long expanse of rangeland and move into the clotted hills, it’s well after dark. A coyote lopes through the elms beside us, fur the color of gunmetal, paws thrumming against the soft earth. It follows us for a time, eyes darting at me as if in warning. Turn back, it cautions with its golden eyes, before it finally slips back into the briars and woodland.
It must be near midnight when we emerge through the scraggly oaks and Pa slows the wagon. “It’s called Soda Creek,” he says, nodding ahead at the barren wash, not even a trickle down the center. “It ain’t much now, but in a week or so, it’ll be flooded from spring rains. Muddy and violent, not safe to cross. We came just in time.”
Pa urges Odie through the low, dry channel and up the other side, the wagon cutting back into the trees along a shallow ridge. My eyes have grown heavy, my throat dry from the dust, and I crave sleep with the same sort of immediacy I used to crave the cool river on an unbearably hot summer day. The wagon heaves up the last rise, and we find ourselves atop a ridge, overlooking a long, open prairie. Pa pulls Odie to a halt. “We’ll camp here tonight.”
“Shouldn’t we keep going?” I press, not wanting to stop. Every hour a hammer in my eardrum, knowing there are so few left.
“It’s not safe to travel at night.” He lumbers down to the ground and begins unhitching Odie from the harness.
Ahead of us, I can see all the way down to the valley beyond—a long stretch of grassland framed by more hills in the distance.
And situated in that prairie landscape is a town.
I lie folded in Mom’s quilt watching sparks from the campfire pirouette up among the stars, comforted by the unaltered arrangement of the night sky, the placement of the Milky Way and star clusters exactly where they should be—while the dry, sparse landscape around me feels entirely foreign, smelling of strange plants and far-off winds. Just beyond the firelight, I can hear creatures moving among the dark, the flash of their eyes through the low oak trees. An eerie, ghostly feeling against my skin.
Even though sleep tugs at me, and I crave a long night’s rest, I worry that we’re traveling too slow. It took us an entire day, and we’ve only just reached the outskirts of a town in the distance.
How long will it take me to find the Architect? Days? A week? A man I’ve never met. He could be anywhere. Impossible to find if he’s in hiding, if he doesn’t want to be found. He might even be dead. But Mom always assured me that if one Architect died, there would be another to take his place. The lineage would never be lost. Just as she taught me the stories of our past to ensure they wouldn’t be forgotten, the Architect would do the same.
Somewhere out there is an Architect—and he will know the way to the sea.
I just need to find him.
Briefly I let my fingers stray to the back of my neck, tracing the lines of the tattoo, then drop my hand back to my lap and continue counting the stars above me, marking their names in my mind. “You can see Bellatrix tonight,” I say softly to Pa, pointing a finger to the west, just above the treetops. “It’s the third-brightest star in the Orion constellation.”
Pa lifts his head from the campfire, where he’s placed a cast-iron pot filled with water and dried pinto beans to boil, and looks up at the sky.
“Bellatrix means female warrior,” I add, lowering my hand. “Some stars are easier to locate, like Orion’s belt or the pole star. But Mom said you have to observe all the constellations if you want to know the full story.” From a single point in the sky, you should be able to map the rest of the universe.
Pa makes a paltry sound, like he doesn’t want to think about Mom, the grief tucked away in his barrel chest. Maybe he feels guilty he wasn’t there when it happened, knelt beside her bed, a hand to her pale, hollowed cheek, a chance to say goodbye. But he has never been a constant in our lives—he is like the wandering coyote, better suited for long, dusty roads than a life within permanent walls, only stopping in the valley every month or so, when his route brings him close. Yet it’s also what I admire, envy, about him: his freedom, the ease with which he comes and goes.
His life wasn’t built around Mom—not like mine was. He didn’t wake each morning to the soft murmur of her recounting the mass and luminosity of stars, or fall asleep to the sound of her laugh, deep and forceful like a man’s—that I swear made the slatted roof of the cabin tremble like she was the winter wind itself. She had a gravity about her, and she was more complex—like a series of strange, unending riddles—than Pa will ever know.
He dips his head and resumes stirring the pinto beans, adding a little salt and unknown herbs. Odie wanders among the oaks, nibbling on bunchgrass, tail swishing through the night air. “When we reach the next town,” he says, eyes still low, “don’t talk about this to anyone else.”
“The stars, constellations, all the things your mom taught you.”
My eyes trace the carefully stitched seams of Mom’s quilt—a blanket that was once her mother’s, passed down to her after Grandma died. And now it belongs to me.
“They won’t understand,” he adds, flashing me a look to be sure I’ve heard him, that I understand. Like he’s still considering taking me back to the valley and leaving me there, letting me sleep in the smoldering ash of the cabin. Where I’d be safe.
“I know.” My mouth flattens, a stone rolling around in my chest. I grew up discussing the geography of stars every evening—the row of planets in our solar system, the constellations that spun across the axis of our sky each night—knowledge that Mom was carving into my bones, into my mind, because it needed to be remembered. But out here, she warned, our knowledge means something else. It threatens to unearth a past that some would like to remain hidden—forgotten. While others covet it in a way that makes my very existence dangerous.
Again, the nagging fear creeps up inside me, the old warnings scratching at my insides, telling me that I shouldn’t have left the valley, I shouldn’t be out here in the wild of this unprotected terrain. But I don’t say any of this to Pa—I’ll reveal no weakness to him, the doubt that keeps wanting to surface as I peer out into the dark of the forest surrounding us. I keep it tucked inside me. Unspoken.
After we eat, I lie on my side, the quilt tucked up to my chin, and I stare out through the clearing to the small town beyond. There are no lights, no stirring noises in the distance, only the rooflines visible against the dark horizon.
I’ve never seen a town, but I’ve imagined the way homes might sit crowded together, people living side by side, neighbors only a few steps away.
The fire sputters beside me as Pa snores, but an anxious knot twists and contorts inside my gut, making it impossible to sleep.
What if I can’t find the Architect in time? What if I’m too late.
Excerpt from Shea Ernshaw’s A Wilderness of Stars reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
A Wilderness of Stars by Shea Ernshaw will be released November 29; you can pre-order a copy here.
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