By Katie Duane
The first time I saw them was last winter, just before dawn, outside of a yellow house with green shutters, not too far from Lake Ontario. It was cold, too early to be up, the sky a deep indigo when they registered at the edge of my vision. They floated perhaps thirty degrees above the horizon, a small cocoon of glittering lights, trapezoidal, a collapsed version of the Big Dipper.
Pleiades, I said aloud, not having realized that I already knew their name.
I drove to school that morning craning my neck skyward, trying to find them overhead while navigating the slippery darkness. I spent my free periods learning about the Pleiades instead of preparing for classes. I learned that the visible members of this cluster are called B-type main sequence stars. I learned that they are young stars, and that they won’t live very long because of their mass, because of how much hydrogen they must burn in order to sustain themselves. They are extremely luminous and hot and blue—it had not been the sky that gave them their color. In some ancient cultures, the ability to see more than six made one a good candidate to be a hunter.
But truthfully I didn’t really think much about the Pleiades after that first day I saw them. I took note of their place in the sky each morning when I got into my car, until they disappeared into the light of spring. I had no use for stars—my life seemed permanently stalled out. Nothing worked, despite repeated attempts to fix various parts, to restart, or reignite. I’d never had a harder time finding people I could connect with. I had not painted or written a poem in years. I spent every evening alone, watching reruns of my favorite TV shows. I had memorized all the lines—they were people I could predict, people I liked, people who would always be there. I spent most of my evenings with them. I spent every Tuesday from four to five with my therapist, weekends trying to make friends in real life, and once a month I’d drive an hour-and-a-half west to see the people I loved most in this world: my family.
By summer, though, I’d had enough. I was threatening to leave Rochester, to leave teaching, to do anything but this, to be anywhere but here. And yet I could not pull the trigger; I had no plan.
Everything shifted on a Thursday that fall. I was home from work, curled up in a tight ball on the love seat, my computer glowing a few feet in front of my face. The hours ahead of me felt naked, undecorated, bearable only because they had to be. I paused an episode of The Office to read an email from my friends in Denmark. I looked at the pictures of their life that they’d included in the email: at the ice cream shop with their kids, at the beach with friends, at home with each other. In each picture: smiling. A palpable spark of zeal and joy in their eyes. The last time we’d all seen each other I’d imagined a very different sort of future for myself—it looked nothing like the reality I felt trapped in at present. The last time we’d seen each other, I was certain there had been zeal and joy in my eyes, too. I called my mom, in a panic, as I could not understand why I felt so terrible after reading such a happy email. I can’t live like this anymore, I kept saying as I sobbed with startling intensity. It was suddenly undeniable: that I was living for the wrong reasons. That I was probably in the wrong career, and most certainly in the wrong city. I vowed to change my life, to leave Rochester at the end of the school year, plan or no plan.
Not long after I made that vow, the Pleiades came to visit me in a dream. I don’t remember anything about the dream except for the fact that I could, with my naked eye, see twelve of the fourteen brightest stars. Most people can see five or six, some seven, eight is a stretch. In my dream, I could not believe my eyesight. I was running around telling everyone, “I can see twelve of the Pleiades! I can see twelve!” When I awoke I remember staring at the ceiling from under the covers, feeling like I’d just found something I had not even known I was hunting for.
The name of the star cluster Pleiades is derived from ancient Greek, probably coming from the word plein, ‘to sail’. The cluster’s heliacal rising—their first visible emergence above the horizon just before dawn—marked the beginning of the nautical season on the Mediterranean during ancient times. Another possible explanation for the root of the name “Pleiades” is the Greek word pleos, translating to ‘full’ or ‘many’; indeed appropriate for a cluster of stars. A final option is peleiades, or ‘flock of doves’.
I often wonder: where would I ask a flock of doves to take me?
Greek Mythology offers another story about the origin of the Pleiades. The most visible stars are named for the seven heavenly sisters and their parents, the god Atlas and the goddess Pleione, for whom the constellation was named. The sisters were Maia (also mother of Hermes), Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno (the mother of Poseidon), Sterope, and Merope. According to the myth, the hunter Orion began to pursue all of the sisters, and as a defense, Zeus transformed them first into a flock of doves, and then into stars. The myth says that Orion continues to pursue the Pleiades across the night sky. Modern science tells us that it is the Pleiades that will eventually crash into Orion.
It was once hypothesized that the stars in the Pleiades formed separately and then came together in some kind of major cosmic event. But in 1767, the Reverend John Mitchell calculated that the probability of so many stars coming together by chance was roughly one in five hundred thousand. By this model, all of the stars in the Pleiades, all one-thousand-or-so of them, the hot blue giants and the cold brown dwarfs, had to be physically related. Later studies proved they were all moving in the same direction across the sky, and at the same velocity, further evidence that they were, in fact, relatives.
Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that my sisters and I are related. Other times, though, when Ellen answers the phone and I hear Hannah, or when Hannah smiles and I see my own two front teeth, it’s plainly obvious. For all the years of my life that I’ve wasted worrying about the deaths of my parents, I secretly know it’s the deaths of my sisters that would send my life into miniature and disparate shards. That some of those shards would slice through the blue dome of sky and disappear forever into space. But I have always been shadowed by the belief that I will not survive the deaths of anyone I truly love.
This is why I came back to this city, and it is also why I have stayed. As a teenager, I could never wait to leave, but when I finally did, it’s possible I went too far. I crossed entire continents, followed by oceans and international borders, and then all I wanted to do was come home. To be near the only human beings on earth to whom I am physically related. To be near their bodies while they still have them. I am starting to ask myself, though, if this is a valid reason to go or stay anywhere.
But the Pleiades are so close to the Earth, astronomers say. They are approximately one-hundred-and-thirty-five parsecs from our lonesome little planet. Which is approximately four-hundred-and-forty light years. Which is a number of miles I can’t even begin to comprehend. Still, telescopes insist, the Pleiades are in our galactic neighborhood, hurtling through space relatively alongside us. They are neighbors we’d never arrive at in a lifetime of traveling, in hundreds of lifetimes of traveling. Glinting blue points in the sky is how we will always know them.
The Pleiades’ purpose was once telling people when it was time to go—when the waters were smooth for sailing. They indicated when the season of navigation could begin, but they were never used as a means of orientation or direction. They hang from the sky like an exit sign, but without any arrows indicating to where. If not here, then what city? How far is too far? And what will I do? How will I explain this?
Despite the fact that I’ve lived almost my entire life in the north, that all of my ancestors come from cold places, I often find myself dreaming of somewhere southern. Of a heat that is heavy enough to hold me, of insects that persist, and flowers that bloom when I’m accustomed to snow still falling. There aren’t any cities in the south that have all the things I want—and this has plagued me. But, the last time I moved away from my family, I ran for the most distant edge of our continent, for the coastal mountains of the Pacific Northwest. There I can have it all, I’d thought, everything I have ever wanted. And yet there, I felt more out of place, more alien, than I have anywhere else. So I wonder if getting everything that we think we want is not what we want at all. I wonder if human beings are designed, meant even, to long for things, a little bit.
My sisters are beautiful. Not terribly different from stars. They each glow: golden hair, green eyes, silky almost-black hair, eyes dark like mine. We don’t share identical features, but then none of us looks terribly different. There are freckles, long lashes, skin that burns and then tans. Each of us has a larger, more pronounced front tooth and a gummy smile. We laugh with our whole bodies, and loudly. We have bad circulation. We were all curled up on pillows on the floor last Christmas, together, to watch our favorite holiday movie. All three of us make thunderous noises when we belch. Further evidence that we are, in fact, relatives.
The visible stars in Pleiades are much younger than our own sun, having formed only within the last one hundred million years. It is an open cluster, and although they are physically related, the stars will not remain gravitationally bound for their entire lives. Astronomers say that some stars will be ejected, some will be stripped away by tidal forces, and some will be knocked loose by interacting with giant molecular clouds. Their rather unstable location on one of our galaxy’s outer arms does little to help them. Most calculations give the cluster about two hundred and fifty million years to completely disperse. Many of the articles I read used the word “demise”. Someday, they will be just stars, alone in the interstellar medium, without their sisters or mother or father. Some other, more distant day, they’ll be gone—long before our own sun goes. Our sun, our small and ordinary yellow dwarf, will outlive the Pleiades in birth, and in death. You and I will not know even a hair’s width fraction of that.
The Greeks were not the only ones with stories about these stars. The ancient Aztecs of Central America based their entire calendar upon the Pleiades. They called it Tianquiztli, meaning ‘marketplace’, probably because the stars’ location in the sky predicted their growing season. In the Andes, they called it Qullqa, or ‘storehouse’. The Monache people claimed the stars were once women who loved onions more than their husbands. The Onondaga say they were lazy children who preferred to dance and play instead of doing their daily chores. In Celtic mythology, the Pleiades were with associated with mourning and funerals. In Japan, they were called Subaru, which means ‘coming together’. In 1771, the French astronomer Charles Messier gave it the name “Messier 45” , or “M45”, making it one of the many comet-like objects he observed and cataloged.
Does it signal something amiss in me that I find the facts more enchanting than the myths? Than the stories? That, for me, the name em-forty-five is the most beautiful name of all? That I think about the uncountable miles between our planet and the stars of the Pleiades and I am overcome with a longing that has no cure? I imagine them, all being born together, all collapsing within the same molecular cloud to become huge and blue-glowing stars. I imagine them slowing drifting apart, despite the fact that they share so much, and it is my favorite story of them all: that they have no choice in the matter; they go where they must.
Because the fact is that even if I stay here, each of us will still, eventually, meet our demise. My mom, my dad, my sisters, myself: we will still be dispersed. The fact is: we are mortal. So is everything: every star in the Pleiades, every myth scored across the night sky, our own sun, our tiny planet, and everyone and everything on it. So if I move a few hundred miles away, even a thousand, couldn’t we still call that close? Couldn’t we still say that we’re neighbors? Will it have to be painful, leaving them? What tidal force, what sort of gravity, will there be to blame for my departure?
There are various myths about a lost Pleaid; some say it was Electra, some say Merope. Some blame the fall of Troy, others the death of a loved one, or, having fallen in love with a mortal. But in all the myths, the lost Pleiad did the same thing—having become absorbed in and ashamed of her grief, she pulled the night sky over her so that she could not be seen.
In returning to this place, I feared I’ve pulled something dark and heavy over myself. Perhaps not the entire night sky, but some sort of weighty fabric, some opaque and stubborn substance. I have felt, for years, subdued, dimmed, like a dial turned back, turned down, a flame flickering orange and yellow instead of hot blue. Like a star that could not accrete enough mass in order to ignite—becoming instead a heavy and humming sphere emitting only a few thin bands of pale light.
I can’t really blame Rochester, its buildings, its people, nor its sky. I can only blame my reason for being here, for staying: to be as close as possible to the people I love most in the world, my parents, my sisters. To be near them for as long as I can be, until they are taken from me, or I them. To avoid loss to the best of my earthly abilities. But it is a life of grasping, holding on, of perpetual fear, and the belief that I cannot live without my family. It is a life made of fighting the natural order of things, fighting all of the forces at play that are endlessly larger and older than I.
My time is up, living this way: half-covered, flame low, a partial existence caught in the wide expanse of fear’s shadow. The forces that send any of us anywhere, the bring us together and tear us apart, that render the world one of light or one of darkness, of warmth or cold or wind or calm—they are beyond our reach. The ancient Greeks knew that. They did not set sail whenever they wanted, they waited for the stars to tell them when they could start their departures, when the seas were ideal for navigation. I am not following star charts or setting foot upon any ships or crossing any ocean, but the Pleiades have only ever had one word for me: go. The forces that usher this movement are still nameless, unknown to me, but I will learn them along the way.
M45 will set soon, within the next month or so, as our planet spins to gaze at another section of space, of endless black pasture. But its stars are our galactic neighbors, they’ll still be traveling through space alongside us, alongside our sun. I will not be able to see the Pleiades, but they’ll still be there, and when they rise again next winter—when they make that first appearance just above the horizon, just before dawn—I’ll be somewhere else.
Katie Duane is a writer, painter, and former teacher living in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work tends to revolve around the things that interest her the most: faces and figures, the great outdoors, geology, gravity, impermanence, astrophysics, and our faulty and fascinating human natures. Formally trained as an illustrator and an art educator, Katie spent eight years teaching art and art history in Oregon, Ecuador, and Upstate New York. She’s currently serving delish french food and wine on Atlanta’s east side as she reassembles her professional and creative lives. M45 is her first published piece (and we are thrilled to have it!).