Nova and the Moon
Stars wink and shine in her hair as Nova nods her head to the strains of music playing in the store. It is indistinct and tinny as grocery story music should be.
“She is terribly peculiar,” Mrs. Klatsch whispers to her friend, as they wait for Nova to place their items in stiff paper sacks.
“Yes,” Mrs. Sladder agrees, a little louder, and adjusts her heavy purse for emphasis. The patent leather purse is a veteran weapon, oft swung at hooligans on the sidewalk.
Nova smiles, despite their observation, and everyone can agree that Nova has a fine crooked smile, the kind that makes a plain girl pretty.
“Have a wonderful evening, ladies,” Nova beams, and the two women sniff in unison.
“Well, it’s morning, young lady!” Also in unison.
Among the waiting customers are Nils Manen — librarian, avid tea drinker — and Erik Saule — blonde, tall, elementary school principal. Their gazes are both firmly fixed on Nova who, according to the Nox sisters, is without romantic attachment.
Mr. Manen would like to leave her bouquets of soft white flowers. Mr. Saule would like to leave his wife and take Nova in her place. But only for a night or two, he does have a reputation to worry about.
Nova does not notice either of them most days. Not at first.
Ava Nox watches from her own register, notes Mr. Saule’s grin — wide, if the witness finds him charming, toothy if not — and wonders what might happen if Nova chose one (or both) of them. Mr. Manen is a smarter choice in theory, being the sort of man who will fall in love, but Mr. Saule has the sort of appeal that accompanies those who are largely indifferent to the feelings of others. In short, he might be a good time. Ava strokes the dark feathers peeking out of her sleeve absently as she spins the possibilities around in her head.
“That girl. Look at her,” Clothilde Nox remarks, passing Ava with a red cart full of produce that needs to be arranged. Nova is twirling in her lane, maybe even dancing, now that her queue of customers has been attended.
“I know,” Ava says. “I like her.” They both nod and return to their duties.
Ava and her sisters agree that perhaps it is unusual for Nova to pin her hair up with midnight-captured stars: unnamed constellations twinkling in the dark waves. Sure, lining her eyes with summer-harvested indigo night from a small tin pot is uncommon. And she does lace her heavy boots with pink burning strands of sundown.
“Why don’t you let Mr. Manen take you to dinner?” Clothilde sighs, in the break room of the North Star Grocery store as she unbuttons her wrinkled navy smock and places it in the grey locker.
“He’s handsome enough, he has a job. He only comes here on the days you work. You deserve to have at least a nice night.” Lacy Nox’s own buttons are a straight line marching down her ironed manager’s shirt.
Ava smiles at Nova and shrugs.
“Mr. Manen has never spoken a word to me, let alone asked me out. Besides, I’m not looking for anyone to take me to dinner.”
Clothilde and Lacy titter and tsk over Nova’s prospects as she makes her signature strong coffee in the aging French press. Hints of cardamom and cinnamon drift through the room. Because Nova is often sleepy, she brews a pot at the beginning and ending of every shift. She has confided in Ava that she just prefers the hours after midnight. A bit of a night bird herself, Ava understands.
Clothilde and Lacy would like to see Nova settled with Mr. Manen, who is polite, and nice to look at, but not too nice, which would never do. Nova has made it clear in her string of recent rejections that she is inclined towards shy men, but not fearful ones, and that she doesn’t care for dandies.
“I prefer the less cologned type, I suppose,” she once stated after Mrs. Sladder’s son, Jeremy, left without the expected acceptance of a date at the cinema. Clothilde took it upon herself to console him through a double showing and the rest of the night.
“What do you think of Erik Saule?” Ava asks, while she and Nova stroll on their lunch break along the wooded path around the store, gathering milkweed pods. Mr. Saule has taken to leaving Nova small trinkets and gifts at the grocery store.
“I really don’t think of him at all.”
Lacy decides that she and Clothilde will speak with Mr. Manen where he works. Ava joins them, though she is not convinced that Nils Manen will be a more interesting choice. She does not wonder at the idea aloud.
“Oh. My. Can I assist you ladies with finding a particular book?” Nils Manen asks nervously, as the Nox sisters bear down on him. He has seen this shared look of intent on their faces before, and would prefer not be their victim again. He once tried to pluck a feather from Ava’s long neck, on a dare, and he paid quite dearly despite his failure.
“Mr. Manen,” Lacy begins, voice pitched low, as is wise in a library. “We would like to discuss Nova and your intentions.”
“Oh dear.” He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket to attend to the sudden beads of sweat on his forehead.
The three sisters discover that Mr. Manen is not sure he would like to take Nova to dinner because he doesn’t like to eat in restaurants, but he would like to talk to her, maybe take a walk. He reveals that he doesn’t care for the way Mr. Saule is often at the grocery store, waiting in Nova’s checkout line with his basket full of wine and his hungry smile. Ava absentmindedly knocks a pencil cup over as he makes the statement. Jealousy. She finds the concept interesting.
“Nova’s really lovely, isn’t she?”
“She’s not just lovely,” Ava states, with a faint look of distaste.
“She collects fireflies and owl feathers and scraps of twilight. She has a jar of moonlit water from high tide,” Clothilde explains.
“She catches her own stars, you know, just takes them right out of the sky. And she reads late into the night. And she tells terrible jokes.” Lacy pats Mr. Manen on the shoulder. He does a fine job of not flinching.
“Her whole house is blue! Every room. Her bedroom is as dark as blue can be without being black, and she hangs her stars from the ceiling at night,” Clothilde volunteers.
“You’ll have to speak to her, of course.” Lacy does not look convinced of his ability to pull this off. “Actually converse with her. And perhaps make eye contact.”
“I know. I mean of course. I have spoken to her, you know.” Mr. Manen does not look confident. “Would she like flowers? Or a picnic at night?”
All three women shrug as one, and then Ava startles her sisters by stating, “She dreams of the moon every night and would like a comet to pin on her blue wool jacket this winter. But the picnic might work, too.”
“How do I purchase a comet, then? And where?” Mr. Manen’s voice rises and studious patrons shush him.
“You can’t buy one,” Lacy laughs. “How ridiculous.”
“You have to catch it, or coax it, or steal it,” Clothilde explains.
“How do I that?” Mr. Manen considers, not for the first time, that perhaps he is out of his depth, that perhaps Nova is not a girl he can court with any measure of timidity.
The three women gather around the bespectacled librarian. Clothilde dictates the list of ingredients to Lacy, who jots them down on a slip of paper in her neat, angular cursive. Ava sighs and explains the spell again, exactly as she once explained it to Nova. Mr. Manen goes home that evening with the list and a dizzy feeling.
As instructed, Mr. Manen carefully traps shy night-blooming flowers. He saves a few blossoms in a thin vase to accompany his gift. Mr. Manen gathers his own small jar of moonlit seawater. In addition to feathers, fireflies and slivers of dusk, he gathers newspaper, glue and chicken wire. These items are not on the list, but he has his own secret idea to tend.
Twice a week Mr. Manen buys his usual eggplant, plums, deep purple grapes, and a single star fruit. He waits in Nova’s line, pays for his groceries, and revels in the single upturned corner of her mouth and the dwarf star winking in her hair. He tries to find reasons to go more often. He buys smaller bottles of milk, single lemons to slice for tea.
“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Manen.”
“It’s nice to see you, too, Nova.”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
After months, Mr. Manen, now accustomed to speaking to Nova as he checks out, asks, “Nova, would you like to take a walk with me?” He has practiced the request ad nauseam for weeks.
“Thank you, Mr. Manen, but I have plans with Ava.”
He is disappointed; the sisters assured him that she would be interested. He begins to ask, gently, at every encounter, if she might like to have a picnic, or perhaps he could bring her a marvelous book? Nova declines, often for plans with the youngest Nox triplet, but does not seem bothered by his quiet insistence.
By spring they are having short chats about the weather, and then brief discussions about different types of owls.
“Are you familiar with the Athene noctua?” Mr. Manen gazes at his own nervously tapping fingers.
“Of course! The little owl. I do prefer barn owls though. They have such beautiful faces, don’t you think?”
“Miss!” Mrs. Klatsch interjects. “Could you please check the rest of us out?”
“Sure, just a moment please. Mr. Manen, how do you feel about the long-eared owl?”
Mr. Manen invites Nova to the library while he works and, solemn as a priest, he bestows upon her a renewed library card. Sometimes he joins her at a heavy round table and they sit across from each other reading. Nova prefers long travelogues and wishes she could drink coffee while sitting in the cushioned wooden chairs, sipping as she reads about women who travel to India and Milan. Mr. Manen joins her for his breaks, reading fairy tales and biographies, peering over the edges of his books to catch the way Nova’s lips purse when she is concentrating.
He almost holds her hand once on the way down the wide stone steps as they are leaving, but panics at the last second.
Nova agrees to meet Mr. Manen at her house at midnight for a surprise. She smiles at him when he comes into the store anyway and fumbles at a bottle of champagne while placing it on the checkout belt.
In line behind Mr. Manen: Mr. Saule, wedding ring tucked into a trouser pocket even though Mrs. Saule is not a secret. He chats with Nova, treats her circumspect responses as an invitation to keep bringing her small gifts. After her shifts Nova distributes bracelets, blushing roses, and silver earrings to the other women.
“What do you think of Mr. Saule’s gifts, Nova?” Clothilde takes and places a bangle on her own slim wrist with the others after he completes his purchase and heads for the doors.
“They aren’t my kind of gift, but I suppose he’s trying to be nice?”
Clothilde gives Mr. Manen a small wave as he exits and then turns back to the customers waiting for her attention. Lacy winks, but he does not see it.
Ava follows Mr. Saule out into the parking lot. Mr. Manen notices them speaking as he places his bags into his aging car, but does not have time to wonder at their conversation.
He picks his rarely worn suit up at the cleaners and hurries home.
At midnight, per the instructions, Mr. Manen begins to walk from his home to Nova’s, next to the old school house on Greenlawn Avenue. In one hand he has a basket with the necessary ingredients for the enticing a comet and a wooden box in which to place it, assuming he is successful. He has some doubts. In his other hand: a paper bag containing his own secret contribution. He is wearing his neatly pressed suit and shirt. His bow tie is a little crooked, but he looks quite charming.
As he walks down the sidewalk he approaches Nova’s two-story stone house. Nova is standing in the doorway and Mr. Saule is handing her a large jewelry box with light pulsing through the cracks. Mr. Manen considers then what Ava must have been telling Mr. Saule in the parking lot.
Crushed, he turns around and slowly walks home thinking that it would be a perfect time for rain.
Mr. Manen misses Nova’s firm rejection of the offered gift– a piece of costume jewelry with a blinking light attached. He does not see her pacing and waiting on the front porch, finally going inside.
When Nova appears at the information desk, confused, he says, “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to chat today.”
“Oh. Well, perhaps another time? I thought we-”
“Nova. I have things to do.”
He takes to hiding from her until she simply stops trying. He starts shopping at the big store just outside of town.
On the day of her last attempt an angry Mrs. Saule meets her at the front doors of the grocery store. She slaps Nova, hard, and says, “People saw him at your house. They say he gives you presents. That he waits in line to talk to you.”
“No, that isn’t true. I mean, he leaves me things, but I told him no! I sent him away!”
Mrs. Saule is as tall, toothsome, and svelte as her husband and together they look striking. This is what people in town talk about — the way they look so good together. How beautiful their children are, how wonderful their life must be.
Mrs. Sladder observes the scene outside of the store and immediately tells her son Jeremy, as well as her good friend Mrs. Klatsch. And while they do talk about how often Mrs. Saule has perhaps had to slap the tender faces of her husband’s conquests, they also talk about Nova.
“What was she thinking?” Mrs. Sladder exclaims to the butcher’s wife on Main Street.
“She really should have known better, poor thing,” Mrs. Klatsch tsks, while her hair is setting.
Lacy quietly suggests to Nova that she take a few days at home to let the dust settle. Instead she thinks she might take the season, traveling to Chicago to visit her mother.
Still, she finishes out the day. She looks for Mr. Manen to come through her line, but he never turns up.
Nova returns to North Star and the lights seem to dim in her presence. Even the older women who routinely whispered and gossiped about her odd appearance are concerned.
“Whatever is the matter with that girl?” Mrs. Sladder exclaims.
“I don’t know, but she doesn’t seem herself,” Mrs. Klatsch responds. “She has been gone for a bit, hasn’t she?”
“Since May, dear. It’s been months.”
Nova’s fine crooked smile has disappeared.
The coffee is bitter.
“No, I was foolish to listen to you,” Mr. Manen exclaims when the Nox sisters corner him outside of the library, the autumn air as brisk as his tone.
“You don’t underst-”
“You have to-”
Mr. Manen continues to walk away as the women try to speak at once.
He finally goes to peer at Nova, to see how Mr. Saule might have stoked the warm glow of her. He decides he will choose a different lane in which to check out — he’s not insane.
Not seeing Nova’s telltale sparkle and shine, Mr. Manen still gathers his usual fare in a basket, as well as a yellow notepad and a jar of honey. He meanders a bit through the store, hoping to avoid the Nox sisters, and Nova herself if she happens to be around.
The girl at the register is Nova, but not. The constellations are absent from the dark field of her untidy hair. There are violet smudges under her eyes, rather than indigo night. There is no sparkling comet pinned to her breast.
“Hello, Nova,” he says.
“Are you well, Nova?”
“That’ll be 22.76, please.”
“Where are your stars?”
“Gone. 22.76, please.”
Mr. Manen pays for his groceries and leaves.
Nova still dreams about the moon when she sleeps: the moon, splendid and shining, extending an opalescent hand, or the moon, apple cheeked and hawk-nosed, crowning her with flowers and fireflies. She is draped in silver-grey lengths of sky. The resplendent face backs away until all Nova can see is a gleaming disk in the sky overhead. When the dreams end she feels as if she’s been flung back to earth from great heights.
Nova pours her jars of moonlit sea into the sink. She gives the pot of indigo night to the Nox sisters to share. The stars with which she once pinned her hair up are discarded with the feathers and flowers and the rest of her rubbish. Nova resolves to be sensible. She buys plain black laces for her boots.
For reasons she cannot fathom or explain she pins the cheap imitation of a comet that Erik Saule tried to press upon her onto her blue wool jacket after she finds it, still blinking, under her couch.
As summer arrives once again Mr. Manen decides that he will acquire for her a real comet.
At the same time, Nova is tired of being sad, of being quiet, of being still. She wonders if maybe a small cluster of stars– not to wear, that would be too much– might lift her spirits a bit. She would like to replace the pin on her blue wool jacket with a falling star or a real comet. It is time to stop wearing the gaudy reminder.
Separately, they both approach Ava, Lacy, and Clothilde. They both gather flowers, feathers, water, and light. Mr. Manen digs through his hall closet and pulls out the discarded paper bag from the year before. He performs a few minor repairs on the item and once again dresses in his pressed suit. His bow tie is crooked. He has a spot of grey paint at his temple. As before, he looks charming.
Mr. Manen thinks, as he nears Nova’s house on his way to the field, that perhaps she might like to be a part of the capture. He sees her walking through her door and stops, uncertain if he should call out. He doesn’t want to frighten her, nor does he want to intrude on whatever plans she might have.
“Mr. Manen,” Nova calls, seeing him standing still on the sidewalk a few houses down. “What are you doing here?”
He waits to answer until he’s a few feet away. Stopping, he says, holding his basket out, “I was going to try and catch a comet. I thought perhaps you might, well, that is to say, perhaps you might join me?”
“Nils, please. I wish you would call me Nils.”
“Nils.” Nova sorts through the basket with deft fingers, noting that the items mirror her own. “What’s in the sack?”
“Would you like to see?” Mr. Manen– Nils– is nervous. He starts to wonder if she will think him silly when he shows her the efforts of his labor.
“Yes please, Nils.” He likes the way his name rolls out of her mouth as he sets the bag and basket down on the sidewalk and very carefully extracts a large paper mache sphere. As he straightens Nils places the sphere over his head, and settles it onto his shoulders.
Nova lets out a small gasp, not too dramatic, but noticeable. Standing in front of her, hawk-nosed and apple cheeked, is the moon.
“Mr. Manen,” Nova says, inching closer. She runs her fingers over the mask, marveling at the uncanny accuracy achieved with paint and paper and glue. She straightens his bowtie.
“Nova.” The mask muffles the sound. “What do you say?”
Through the eyeholes in the mask, Nova’s fine crooked smile appears to him at last.
Across the street, crouched in Ava’s bushes, the Nox sisters watch as the pair gather their baskets back up and head for the field. It pleases them to see Nova casually reach up and pluck a small handful of stars from the sky and pin them in her hair.
Ani King is an oddly reliable whisky drinker located in Lansing, Michigan.