Written in the Stars


Written in the Stars
by Richard Scott Larson

I’m in Red Cloud looking at the stars. Hours after dark, the Nebraska prairie just south of town sweeps out toward faint distant lights marking the horizon below the glittering night sky. The darkness at this late hour seems flattened to the ground and cowering from the enormity of the cosmos, our bodies just shadows to each other as we crane our necks and try to see it all at once: the Milky Way and the Big Dipper looming over the whispering grasses, Cassiopeia on her throne. One shooting star, and then another. Someone finds Venus hanging low in the distance and each of us turns to look as we brace our bodies against a cold wind. 

I pass around my new phone to show off a photo of the sky that came out surprisingly well, the brightest of the stars like pinpricks of brilliant light through a blindfold. I text it to the group. But as we return to the car, my mind lingers not on the sky’s natural beauty, the way its magnitude calls up the distant past and hints at an origin story that none of us will ever fully comprehend. Instead, I’m thinking about how the sight of it had unsettled and transported me. After all, I was closer than I’d been in many years to the place where I grew up—the sweeping Missouri fields I see in my mind when I think of home—where the sight of the stars in the night sky had been a kind of agony for me, a reminder of everything I feared I would never have. 


We’re in Red Cloud as members of the first cohort of writers in residence spending two October weeks living and working in what was once the Cather family’s home. Beneath the stars together that night I’d wanted to invoke a scene from one of my favorites of her short stories, “The Enchanted Bluff,” to draw a connection between what we were seeing on the prairie and the literary past that had brought us there. After all, we were looking up at the same sky that Cather would have seen growing up in Red Cloud, an astral landscape that she returns to again and again in her work as if to paint her place of origin as one of myth, as well as a world now lost to the passing of time. But I couldn’t remember the exact phrasing, only the spirit evoked by the scene and how it always moves me to tears. Instead, I’m quiet on the drive back to the house, staring out the window as headlights from other cars briefly brighten the empty landscape just past the road before everything fades back to black.

Later in my room, still awake long after the house had quieted around me, I’ll consult my copy of Cather’s Collected Stories. The unnamed narrator sets the scene: “We lay back and looked, meditating, at the dark cover of the world.” He and his friends have gathered one last time together on a sandbar island in the middle of a local river before he’s to leave for a teaching position far from the boys who have come to represent the innocence and promise of his childhood. There’s a mood of beginnings, but also of endings. Everyone in the story knows that nothing will ever be the same again, including the narrator, who is writing from the vantage point of many years. One of the boys remarks that the constellations they’re trying to trace together across the night sky “always look as if they meant something. Some folks say everybody’s fortune is all written out in the stars, don’t they?” The story turns out to be about fortune and the futures awaiting us, but it’s also a story about the inevitable pull of the past—even as it disappears. “The stars glistened like crystal globes,” Cather’s narrator continues, with the words I’d wanted to share with the others, “and trembled as if they shone through a depth of clear water. Even as I watched, they began to pale and the sky brightened. Day came suddenly, almost instantaneously. I turned for another look at the blue night, and it was gone.”

The enchanted bluff of the story’s title refers to a legendary and now abandoned cliff-dwelling that had once served as a home for a long-extinct native tribe, and which the boys desperately want to someday see for themselves. In this way the distant past is very much alive in Cather’s work, as well as the theme of making a return and taking stock of what has changed. While thumbing through the shelves in the living room back at the house, I’d found an advance copy of Benjamin Taylor’s now published biography, Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather. The slender volume centers Cather’s artistic development through trial and error toward a kind of “grafting of later onto earlier” as a central theme, a careful temporal practice which she would develop and perfect here in “The Enchanted Bluff,” as Taylor notes, in a “little world of origins, collected in tranquility.” I was pleased that he had included the story in his survey of her most important and lasting work, and I started reading one chapter of the biography each night before bed, immersing myself in Cather’s own life story as I settled into my stay in Red Cloud, which had already begun to feel like a return home. 


Taylor traces Cather’s eventual move from Red Cloud to the more bustling university town of Lincoln to attend college, then to Pittsburgh to take a teaching position. She finally makes her way to New York City as her robust magazine career blossoms before she decides by the age of forty to focus solely on producing her own literary work, when the way forward finally seems clear. She has relationships that mark her and set her on course creatively, boosting her toward the highest levels of acclaim available to a literary writer. But even as she adopts a cosmopolitan lifestyle that would have been impossible to imagine back in Red Cloud, she also maintains close ties to those she left behind and, by extension, to the place itself, which ultimately—as a barely fictionalized setting—yields much of her best work. About Cather’s turn toward home and her origins in her fiction, Taylor writes that “she’d learn to love the parish by way of the world and the world by way of the parish; to love the place of origin by instinct, but in the light of wide experience; thus, simultaneously, from near and from afar.”

The window next to my bed at the Cather house looks south toward where my daily walk through the quiet residential streets takes me down to the old train station, the well-maintained red clapboard depot now a historical site with a marker explaining that “trains played a significant role in Willa Cather’s life and writings, symbolizing both escape to the world and the door through which the world came to Red Cloud.” I like to stand on the platform just outside the depot’s front door and imagine Willa setting out on her first grand adventures from that very spot, wondering what would await her when she lost sight of the town from which she came. There’s a photograph of her as a child on display at the Willa Cather Center in town, her young, rounded face looking off into the middle distance as the prairie sweeps back behind her. And that’s how I picture her here, squinting into the future as she stares down the tracks and catches her first glimpse of the train as it approaches. 

Many of my favorite stories by Cather are about artists who’ve left home to see what they might achieve outside the limited scope of their origins, embarking from small towns just like Red Cloud after waiting excitedly with their luggage at stations such as this one. These artistic dreams are the bright Medusas of Tayor’s chosen title, which riffs on that of Cather’s second book of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, where many of these often mournful narratives of the creative vagabond were collected. “[W]hat a lot of life one uses up chasing ‘bright Medusas,’ doesn’t one?” she writes in a letter to a friend around the time of the book’s release, as she also reflects on her years of dogged determination spent honing her craft in the lead-up to her first major successes. “It is strange to come at last to write with calm enjoyment and a certain ease, after such storm and struggle and shrieking forever off the key.” 

One of the most well-known and masterful of these narratives of artistic longing, “Paul’s Case,” is a lushly written story about “a floundering high school boy in love with beauty and make-believe,” as Taylor describes it in the biography. Paul’s peculiar, offbeat mannerisms and worldviews have rendered him illegible to his community, whose other members see him as, well, queer. “There is something wrong about the fellow,” remarks one of his teachers. And as he stands longingly outside a concert hall in the cold rain, unable to afford entry, Cather shows us how bleakly he imagines his future without some dramatic change to his increasingly impoverished circumstances: “There it was, what he wanted—tangibly before him, the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime; as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he was destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.” 

After failing at school because of the unwillingness of his teachers to accept his eccentricities, and instead being made to prematurely join the local workforce, he ends up stealing a large sum of money to abscond to New York City for however much time he can manage. For him, the city is a place of wonders and untold possibilities where he spends magical days enjoying the gardens of Central Park and the grandeur of his opulent hotel room, the orchestra greeting him as he arrives downstairs for dinner each night. He even has a dalliance with a boy from Yale who offers to show him “the night side of town,” with Taylor noting that “a homosexual encounter would be in keeping with the rest of the tale,” the brief interlude yet another example of Paul’s indiscretion in his blind drive to fully experience the world.

I love the attention that Cather pays to Paul’s pleasures and joys, the yearning glimpses of a life he might have claimed indefinitely if things had gone a certain way, rather than this haphazard grab at what was always destined to elude him. I love these details even as they remind me of the dangers of pushing the past and the future together too abruptly. Because of course the news of what Paul’s done to afford these extravagances has reached the newspapers back home by his eighth day in New York, and his brief escape ends tragically as he throws himself in front of an approaching train rather than face down the consequences of trying to take more from life than he’d been offered. “No summary can do justice to the delicate emotional accuracy of this tale,” writes Taylor, “which both reviles and sides with the poor boy’s fantasy life.” Cather is thus at odds with herself in her ending: she loves Paul, and she also wants better for him. Maybe she wishes he could have suffered more quietly, like she herself perhaps had done, the brazen act of stealing even this kind of short-lived and inevitably doomed joy something she knew would have wasted all her careful plans for the future. 

I think now of my own experience as a young boy waiting for a chance to escape my own small town and how there was a time I would’ve gladly given everything for what Paul had claimed for himself so brazenly, despite the consequences. But I never had his courage.


I’ve only in recent years begun writing explicitly and autobiographically about my own childhood and where it happened, which for me was a place like Red Cloud: remote and slow to wake, its borders all too clear when I squinted into the distance. And I’d never wanted to travel back there to see evidence of how it had shaped me, not even from the relative safety of the blank page on a desk in a city a thousand miles away. I didn’t want to look too closely at my own past and be forced to remember how hard I’d worked to leave it behind. In a quote about the material that becomes a writer’s chosen subject, unearthed by Taylor and presented in the biography, Cather once observed that

it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own. Everything is new to the young writer, and everything seems equally personal. That which is outside his deepest experience, which he observes and studies, often seems more vital than that which he knows well, because he regards it with all the excitement of discovery. The things he knows best he takes for granted, since he is not continually thrilled by new discoveries about them. 

I’ve spent my adulthood trying to forget who I’d been back there in my own small Midwestern town, a boy who looked up at the stars on summer nights lying on a blanket in the backyard trying always to get a sense of what my own story would be, already knowing it would eventually take place as far away from there as I could get. But I finally wrote a memoir that elaborates on the isolation of a queer childhood spent living in fear of what the world would make of my desires, as well as what my immediate environment told me that I couldn’t ever have for myself. I wonder if Cather also felt oppressed by the sight of the night sky as a child and adolescent, reminding her as it did me of the smallness of our own lives and circumstances. Taylor takes Cather’s queerness as a given and elides what has been an exhaustive scholarly debate about the subject, and thus he lends an elegance to her life story that spares it any sense of agony about desire, even as its absence in her writing is conspicuous when considering her ethos that “[w]hatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named.”

We are still new to Red Cloud and to each other that night looking up at the stars, and I wouldn’t that night have confessed to the others my fear of the vastness of the universe, how small we really are in the face of everything we cannot know. As a child under this same Midwestern sky I wasn’t afraid of aliens or comets or anything else that science fiction devotes itself to speculating about, but I was afraid of being alone, especially afraid of living a small life alone, and the sight of the stars back then had always made me feel so inconsequential—proof that everything I suffered made no difference to the world around me, that it was mine to bear in the face of all that infinity. The starry sky doesn’t do this to me in other places, other nights I’ve spent away from the lights of the city at writing retreats upstate or over a beach at night on vacation somewhere warm and far away. But the proximity to home had created the possibility for my feeling that night that we never really escape the places that make us. Maybe one reason for moving away to the city where I live now and building a life that would’ve seemed impossible to my childhood self—the city of Paul’s wild imagination, and the city where Cather also lived and worked until the end—was to erase the sky from my dark nights under the watch of those countless stars and replace it with more light than I ever would’ve imagined, and in that way make my world both bigger and smaller at the same time. The sky is different here because of how it boldly staves off thoughts about the insignificance of a single life with evidence of everything it might be possible for one life to achieve, the loneliness inspired by a sky full of stars made absurd by how they’re completely drowned out by the city’s almost incantatory glow. 

But I know now that I can’t have one without the other—a future and a past—which is what Cather understood as she gave her boys dreaming about the enchanted bluff a glimpse of their fates up there in that immaculate night sky, even as the stars gradually began to disappear, leaving behind only traces of the story they’d told and the future they’d written as the new day arrived and broke the spell. 


Now here I am in Red Cloud, and the stars are all I can see. I’m wondering what kind of Cather protagonist I would have been: not Paul, for better or worse, as my fire has been a slower burn, my journey more plodding and cautious. Maybe I’m more like Cather herself, looking ahead at what’s next just as I begin to look back. “Whoever gets to the Bluff first has got to promise to tell the rest of us exactly what he finds,” says one of the boys in Cather’s story before the heartbreaking coda reveals how each of their lives have played out. I like to think I’m still out here looking for it, even if no one is waiting for me to return and tell the tale.

Soon the morning will come when the residency will be over, and a few of us will wake an hour before dawn to leave Red Cloud behind and make the long drive to the airport three hours away in Omaha to say our goodbyes and fly home. I’ll have reached the final chapter of Taylor’s biography the night before and seen Willa to the end, all the work as finished as it will ever be. And as dawn breaks, I’ll sit in the back seat watching the sun rise slowly over the endless wheat fields and distant farmhouses, dirt roads leading down newly plowed fields and disappearing over the crest of a hill, cows grazing behind dark wooden fences as the first soft morning sunlight glints off metal farming machinery parked haphazardly in gravel driveways. I’ll remember long drives back home on two-lane roads as my family’s car headed deep into the countryside, looking out the window and counting horses grazing along the fence between the road and the open field. I’ll remember gentle hills stretching out past the winding roads, wide lawns leading up to lines of trees planted to shield old farmhouses from storms. 

I’ll remember county fairs and carnivals, the smell of the autumn harvest. I’ll remember the crunch of leaves beneath my feet as I walked down the hill toward the creek at my grandparents’ house, the surface of the lake on the other side of the woods shimmering through the trees. I’ll remember my body always aching to run as fast as I could toward the large crowds and bright lights of my imagination and the possibility of a different kind of life—a life in a place where a person like me had a chance to survive. And as I doze in and out of consciousness as sunlight overtakes the night sky once again and we start to pass by larger towns along the road leading us away from Red Cloud, there will be a moment when I’ll forget myself and travel in my mind back to when I used to ride in the back seat of my mother’s car as a child, late night drives home from wherever I’ve been sleeping while she’d worked the late shift at the bar. 

I’m half-asleep and dreaming of distant cities, foreign landscapes, places I’d be able to disappear into forever. In the memory, my eyes fly open as we hit a bump in the road, and for a split second I can’t recall where I am, too disoriented by being woken so late by my mother. There’s a quick and hopeful moment when the answer to the question of where I’ve found myself could be anyplace in the whole world, the moment between dream and reality when anything at all is still possible. But then I smell the old car upholstery and my mother’s cigarette smoke, hear the hum of the classic rock station playing at low volume from the speaker up front, feel my knees pressed hard against the back of the passenger seat as I jolt forward. My body slackens as I realize the truth of where I really am and how long it will be until I can get away to begin what I imagine my own story might be. I look out the window for some sign of how long it will take before we’ll finally be home, some landmark to tell me where I am. I’m already desperate to get upstairs to bed so I can fall asleep again and dream myself somewhere far away, making my escape if only in my imagination, like Paul seeing his one chance to make everything finally seem right and good for as long as he could manage to make it real. And at first I don’t see anything at all—just a black void stretching out forever past the road. Nothing as far as the eye can see, no way to tell how far we still have to go. 

Then my gaze wanders up, and that’s when I see the stars.




Richard Scott Larson is a queer writer and critic whose forthcoming memoir, The Long Hallway, will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He has received fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and his work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Harvard Review, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn.

Photo source: Jake Weirick/Unsplash

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