Amanogawa: Milky Way, lit. "Heavenly River".
Obaasan / Obaachan: Grandmother.
Tanabata Matsuri: Celebrated on July 7th to mark the annual reunion of Hikoboshi (Cowherd Star) and Orihime (Weaver Princess).
Molly has never spoken of it to anybody else. Not even to Mommy. But with the coming of each summer night, she dreams.
A river like the track of a serpent was running parallel to the quiet stone road. Specks of clear white danced lithely across its surface as Molly squatted by the nearest bank, and stared. Reflections moved and changed, sparkling like a hundred tiny transport beams, or like the shape-shifting spirits of her grandmother's evening stories.
"If you look very hard into the shadows of the forest, you might just catch a glimpse of them by moonlight. But they're slippery ghosts, Molly-chan, and they've never liked venturing far into the towns. They love to make mischief, and change themselves into rocks or foxes, or any number of devilish shapes to trick people's eyes like yours and mine."
Mommy had listened to these words, spoken quietly with the twilight of evening. But her dark eyes carried the portents of an approaching, troubled storm.
"They'll be all right, Keiko," Obaachan had said. Mommy nodded, eyes closed, but with clear salt water sparkling against the black of her lashes. Her lips were even tighter when she tried to smile.
Obaachan's voice was sweet and slow, and cracked at the edges like tattered cloth. Yoshi slept in peaceful silence, head bowed slightly and just close enough to touch his mommy's chin while Molly knelt at a low table with a crayon in her hand, with the old woman's tale drifting quietly around the living room.
"Do you want to hear the story of this festival, Molly-chan?"
Smiling, Obaachan rested against the top of her high-backed easy chair, and clasped her tea in her knobbled brown fingers. She gazed fondly into the distance. "Where to begin?" These first words were always the same with every tale she ever told. As she lifted both hands for a sip of her tea and briefly closed her eyes, only the song of chimes broke the silence from outside.
"This story comes to us from so many years ago, before the oldest person in our world was barely even a seed of a dream to her ancestors. It starts with a princess called Orihime, whose face was white as unmarked porcelain, and whose eyes were so dark that they seemed to hold the soul of all the universe. And her hair… was just like yours, Molly-chan, long and gleaming with the light of a thousand stars."
Molly's hand was tight around the bright green crayon. "Was Orihime really that pretty?"
"She was, indeed." Obaachan smiled, her cup still in her hands, and matched her voice to the rhythm of the hanging chimes beyond the window. "Everyone knew of the cloth she would weave, as fine as spider thread, by the banks of the Great Heavenly River. And her father was a powerful king, whose realm extended far across the sky. But the only young man whose love she could return was Hikoboshi - the handsome peasant youth who would guide the king's cattle from star to star.
"A short time after their wedding, Orihime's father quickly noticed that something was wrong. Young lovers, you see, are always thinking of each other - even when they are light-years apart. You'll learn this too when you are older. The princess stopped weaving her beautiful cloth at the banks of the river, and Hikoboshi ignored his flock, and left them to wander untended all over the sky. The king tried to reason with them, but the only voices they heard were those of each other. So Orihime's father came to a terrible decision. He would separate his daughter from Hikoboshi, and confine them both to opposite corners of the same impassable river."
"But they were a family," protested Molly. "He couldn't make Hikoboshi stay away. Could he?"
"He had no choice." Obaachan's eyes - brown fading to dusky blue - were melancholy and distant, as though peering onto an imaginary stage. Only the softest of whispers now accompanied the tuneful chimes.
"Orihime cried-" continued Molly's grandmother, and glanced around at the others in her family. "But what else could the Sky King do? He couldn't have let them abandon their duties, even though they were so very young. He relented, on seeing his daughter's tears, but even then he could only allow them to meet for a single night of every year. And that, dear Molly, is why our ancestors have celebrated this festival, since before we even dreamed of travelling through this galaxy of ours. At all other times, the princess and her husband are kept apart forever by that Heavenly River as it flows between the stars."
Obaachan's voice soon drifted away, like the final refrain of a quiet, slow lullaby. But Molly had already looked up sharply, her crayon clasped in five tight fingers. Hikoboshi, and Orihime. Another family divided by a galaxy of changing fortunes…
Just like Mommy and Daddy.
She dreams of a river. Flecked with silver-white. Sparkling like the gleam of tears in Mommy's eyes. Circles of gentle disturbance expand towards the river-banks until these too are nudged from existence by the slow, stubborn current. Ripples of movement beneath the sky, cutting between the blackest fields that she could ever have imagined, mark the places where water shifts and flows.
Branches extend from either side. They twist and reach as far as they can go, to embrace each other like interlocking fingers. Moving closer, the girl finds streamers hanging from this bridge's delicate but sturdy rails. Their tips barely caress the upper surface of the stream.
"Hurry, Molly." Mommy waits at the point where the two sides meet, with Yoshi firmly encircled in her arms. "Hurry - it's almost time."
"Mommy! Don't go." Molly's feet slide, tripping over cracks in the wooden surface. It is steeper than she thinks it should be, and her legs are tiring even as she dreams. Branches underneath her begin to unravel. At the distant summit, their tendrils are sharp and ragged. But, Mommy and Yoshi… Waiting there. Descending shadows obscure their faces, which retreat still further with every desperate step of the girl's short legs.
"Molly!" A clear, familiar voice quickly snatched her away from the memory of Hikoboshi's story.
Her mother stood by the lowest step of Obaachan's front porch. She leaned to her left, pushed slightly askew by the weight of Molly's baby brother. One pale, chubby leg had wrapped itself around each side of Mommy's hip, and the baby's head rested sleepily against her chest. Mottled shadows settled through a canopy above, covering the pair in alternate patches of light and darkness.
Stepping away from the river, back onto the smooth, grey road, Molly twisted around until she had located the house with creepers snaking up its walls. "Are we going to see the streamers?"
"As soon as Obaachan is ready," Mommy promised. "Now come away from there. It's almost time to go."
Streamers hung from paper lanterns, one - or sometimes two - for every tree that lined the smoothly cobbled path. Molly skipped ahead, sensing the weight of her hair as it rose and fell behind her. There would be a festival, Mommy had said. Children would make wishes, and neighbours would converge in open spaces once the approach of twilight had eased the midsummer heat.
Slowing to a stop, she watched the course of drifting clouds. The Tanabata streamers were slender and delicate, light enough to be lifted by even the laziest breeze. Primary colours adorned them all, as gaudy as the sky above. All precisely arranged, dancing to the secret rhythm of the wind and to the sun winking brightly through the foliage of sakura trees.
Perhaps Orihime's garden is like this as well. There would be a bridge outside the palace, with an arching footpath, or a balcony beside a gleaming pond. The princess would wait there, teasing the water with her fingertips, and watch the horizon or glance down at the hazy glow of koi beneath its surface.
Sometimes Molly thought that she remembered her mother's garden - the one on the Enterprise, with green and blue and bright, clean -edged recollections seemed to come to her - the ripples on a pond, or the lush, tickly feeling of grass against her legs. She had still been very small when her family had left the Starship Enterprise. But after that had been the months on Bajor - arranging their camps between narrow, dusty cliffs, or exploring the land around them with Mommy or Sovar.
Daddy's face had been so tight in the days before they left their home behind. Continuing to smile with every chance he got, but with very little joy behind his eyes. He had to stay and fight the monsters - Mommy had explained in a hushed, sad voice. But he wanted Molly and Yoshi to be safe, to find a place with Mommy's family, far away, where the sky was quiet.
Mommy walked slowly, trailing behind her daughter so that Obaachan would not have to struggle to stay at her side. The old woman shuffled along the level path with her feet wide apart, each step short and halting. She responded with a smile of gentle pleasure - as Molly's high voice called out to her.
"Watch me do cartwheels."
Sovar had taught her the stories of his world, and about the things that he and Mommy had discovered, and shown her the playful tumbling of harecat cubs. There were no open spaces in Daddy's quarters. No sunlit days or bright and colourful gardens - no places for Molly to practise cartwheels. But her life's real centre had always been the station, the only place she remembered calling home.
It had been two days since Daddy's smile had last been seen on Obaachan's subspace monitor - small and sad, but still touched by welcome recognition. "Hi, Molly."
Molly found that she was suddenly anxious, staring as she told Daddy about Yoshi's new jacket, and the sweets they'd eaten after dinner, and how she would make a wish for the Festival of Tanabata. "Will you call us again tomorrow?" Her query was as plaintive as the anticipation in her wide, brown eyes.
A shade of melancholy crept into her father's voice. "I wish I could, honey," he told her quietly. "But I'll probably be going away for a while."
"Because of the war?" guessed Molly.
Daddy hesitated before he answered. "Something like that. But we'll talk again as soon as I'm back at the station. That's a promise. Okay?"
"It's getting late," Mommy told her, glancing over her daughter's shoulder as Obaachan sat in her fading sofa and continued to smile, with the same warm tea cooling gradually in her hands. "Don't forget to pack away your crayons before bed."
There was a thread of swirling blue in Molly's new picture. There were bright green spiral trees in double rows along its edges, their foliage swirling into spirals. Behind them, the sky revealed a vista of crooked yellow stars. There was a fortress at the corner, where a man stood, waiting. But he smiled across the river - at the far distant garden of sakura petals, and the image of a lady, who had been waiting just as long for him.
"I haven't finished." Huddling defensively over the table, Molly left streaks of bold sapphire between her two orderly forests. Her hand was beginning to ache with the pressure of every stroke. But she was not done fashioning her paper world.
"You can finish in the morning."
Molly's scowl turned to one of fierce determination. "I'm still colouring."
"Don't argue, Molly." Mommy's voice was soft, but tense, much lower than Molly remembered from recent days. Her hand reached forward to halt her daughter's progress and her eyes held the promise of a barely hidden storm. "Tomorrow, you can finish."
She opened up the container for her daughter to put every crayon back inside.
"Mommy - wait!"
Molly's dream-legs falter, stumbling hard against the bridge's outer edge. Bursts of fireworks overhead are closer than they have ever been. Heat touches her skin and hair. Flames trail to smoke, and fade into darkness like the tails of festival streamers. The bridge is coming apart like a broken ship, rocking uneasily as the waves begin to churn. Molly crouches as low as her body will allow, clutches the rail with both tight arms. Sobs and trembles, startles at the repeated flashes of colour in her eyes. The branches underneath her continue to unravel.
But none of this is real.
The illusions won't leave her, even as she reminds herself that she is dreaming. Why can't she wake to the security of her room - Obaachan's home, Earth, and the familiar landscape of toys on the table beside the bed?
"Molly," says a voice at her ear. "The festival is starting. Come with me, before you miss it all."
And slowly, the lights of fireworks are receding. Stars glimmer sharply, like cool white reflections on a string of dewdrops. The bridge is gone. Molly is riding on all fours on a raft on bamboo and broad, sharp reeds with water lapping against its sides - dark, deep, and calm.
"Not long now."
She looks up at the sound of this gentle reminder, to see a pale, smooth face with twinkling brown eyes, a long nose, and shallow groove at the centre of this stranger's chin. His eyes sparkle as though they have gathered all the starlight from overhead. But he has settled easily on the drifting raft, smiling at the child - whose heart is calmer now, but who still hasn't risen from her frightened crouch. "She's waiting on the other side. We'll see each other soon."
Righting herself from her eighth full, giddy spin, the young girl stood and brushed a shower of pebbles from her hands. Each had formed a crater the size of a freckle, and slightly red against the smooth light brown of her open palms. She squinted along the path, where other visitors were starting to gather at intervals. The sun was still low and the shadows still long across the horizon of this decorated garden. And Molly O'Brien held back a gasp.
A shadow was approaching - exactly as tall, and exactly in the shape of her absent father. Standing where a long yellow streamer was brushing against her shoulders, Molly glanced back at the rest of her family. None of them had told her that Daddy might be coming to Earth. Her heart was racing, stomach turning somersaults - and she wondered how it was that she had managed to hold back the ecstatic cry that was fighting for escape.
Resisting an urge to bounce on her toes, Molly glanced behind her. Mommy had shifted towards another decorated tree, Yoshi watching securely in her arms. Obaachan chuckled as the baby pointed up at a second long streamer tangled in its branches.
At the centre of the path, Molly waited alone, with her back as straight as a metal bolt. She endured the ache of a low morning sun directly against the back of her eyes. Daddy was in the park. He was coming closer with every step, and she refused to look away.
But very soon her smile had faltered, teetering on the edge of failure. Why had Daddy still not called to her? Other shadows faded to ghosts on the very edges of unreality. And the features of this one lone man were gradually becoming clear.
His hair was twisted into curls, like Daddy's. But it was shorter, when he came close-to - black, fading in places to silver grey. His skin was an even mix of brown and butterscotch, the line of his nose was straight as an arrow, and his sparkling eyes were small and dark.
He smiled, a smile that was not at all like Daddy's, and only barely catching Molly's gaze. Without a word, he had passed her by.
Her hold on the raft is timid and precarious, but the girl's balance matches the motion of shifting waves. She focuses her attention on the man at her side. "Are you Hikoboshi?"
Still as a frosty, windless morning, the other passenger kneels upon the reeds. He gazes directly in front of him. Anticipating. But Molly knows that she is right without ever needing to hear his answer. A hat of blue velvet rests on top of his head, above the leather chord that binds the strands of his neat black hair. The sleeves of Hikoboshi's kimono are creased like paper, their ends reaching only slightly further than his fingertips.
We're going home. Molly understands, joyful recognition flooding every part of her. There are fireflies dancing on the opposite bank, circling, rising, and coming together to form a much brighter, steady yellow glow. The raft glides silently to where a shadow is waiting - revealed by lights from behind as the frame of a large round portal.
Mommy and Daddy be crossing the river behind them, to meet very soon in the same distant sector. There would be no war. No further reason for their family to remain apart. And Molly would tell Daddy all about Obaachan's stories of the Tanabata Festival. The airlock of Deep Space Nine rolls ajar, as if Molly and Hikoboshi are returning from somewhere no further than the forests of Bajor.
The people waiting for them smile.