The Reality of the Stars
It had always been Legs who came to Maddy, rather than the other way around, at least when they were younger. She would shimmy up the side of Maddy's house, her pale narrow face close up against Maddy's bedroom window as she knocked on the glass, asking her to let her in, let her up, it was okay, wasn't it? And of course, Maddy would not deny her, would not be able to calm the thrill in her heart that Legs Sadovsky had chosen HER, had trusted HER to be the one to give her shelter in the night.
But this night it was Maddy coming to Legs, seeking not a place to lay her head at night, as Legs had always done, but instead to simply join Legs, to be with her through the night and into the morning, to insure she would not be alone today of all days. No one should be alone in Christmas Eve, especially not Legs Sadovsky; Legs should never be alone again, if she didn't want to be. And Maddy had every intention of making sure this would be the case.
The walk from her own home to the dilapidated house that Legs and the rest of Foxfire now called their own was a long one, and in the blackness of the night, the bitter chill biting the air, Maddy had shivered with nearly every step from nerves as much as from cold. She was intensely relieved when she finally saw the house's loosened shutters and peeling walls from a distance, and she quickened her steps, anxious to get inside. Its door was always locked, often boarded, for Legs lived there alone when not with the other members of Foxfire, and so Maddy approached the side window rather than the sunken porch steps to seek access to the inside. The house was unheated and often had no running water, but for the price Legs and the other members of Foxfire had managed to scrounge up for it, it was a prized acquisition, one they were all very proud of, and as Maddy hoisted herself up to balance precariously on the window ledge, peering inside its dirty glass, she was aware of her heart pounding with nervous excitement as she raised her fist to knock.
"Legs?" she whispered, and knocked again, a little harder, when there was no immediate reply. "Legs? It's Maddy."
There was still no reply, though the window Maddy had chosen belonged to the room Legs most often used for her bedroom. Maddy pressed her face closer against the glass, and not seeing Legs approaching, seeing that the mattress inside was empty, its blanket tossed aside, she knocked again, wondering if Legs was home at all. Could Goldie or Rita or Violet or any of the others already come by for her, had they taken her out around the town, or home with them? Was Maddy too late?
She knocked again, the jealousy she felt at this possibility surprisingly intense as she raised her voice. "Legs!"
When two bony hands, then a face suddenly appeared over the side of the rooftop, staring down at her, Maddy gasped, barely managing to grab onto the underside of the windowsill to keep herself from falling off. Legs's long scraggly hair hung partly over her face, her lips were badly chapped, and her nose was red at the tip as she blinked down at Maddy, dark blue eyes wide with her shock to see the other girl.
"Maddy! What are you doing here?" she blurted, delight coloring her tone as much as surprise, and Maddy, still holding tightly to the windowsill, craned her neck up towards her, relieved to see her even as her heart continued to beat too rapidly in her chest.
"It's Christmas Eve…I couldn't leave you here alone," she tried to explain, and Legs's face broke out into a smile that was almost a grin as she continued to regard her nearly upside down.
"Really? Damn, Maddy-Monkey, you didn't have to…I was all right…"
"Couldn't you sleep? You must be freezing, it's COLD out!" Maddy exclaimed, shivering, even as she continued to concentrate on balancing herself below the other girl.
She knew better than to ask why Legs was on the roof; it was well-known to her and all the other girls of Foxfire that Legs derived both inexplicable comfort and a delicious rush of adrenaline from being up high, inviting death at the slightest stumble. Any time Legs was upset or angry, sad or lonely, the top of a treetop or telephone pole or any given building's roof would be the first place to look, if you wanted her to be found.
"Nah, I'm good," Legs shook her head in response to Maddy's comment about the cold, avoiding the question about sleep straightened slightly, looking down at her now without actually hanging her head over the side as she sat back on her haunches. "Damn, Maddy-Monkey, you sneak out of the house or what? On Christmas Eve? That takes balls," she said with admiration, and Maddy glowed at this praise. To hear such a thing from Legs Sadovsky, who was stronger and braver than anyone Maddy had ever known, was a compliment that she, little Maddy-Monkey Wirtz, cherished above all others.
"The other girls coming too?" Legs asked, and Maddy shook her head, proud to be able to answer in the negative.
"No, not until later tomorrow like we planned…it's just, I kind of wanted it to just be us…you and me," she blurted, looking down at her dangling legs and studying her ripped tennis shoes before daring to look back up at Legs.
Legs was smiling, a softness to her features that was not usually there, that Maddy rarely saw come out around anyone but herself. So she liked it, what Maddy was saying…and as Maddy continued to smile, Legs held out her hand, beckoning.
"Well, come on up," she said. "Don't worry, I'll keep you warm."
Once, before Legs, Maddy had been frightened of heights, and even now they still made her uneasy if she thought too much about her location or looked down too frequently. But to state such a fear around Legs, to let her see any part of her with such a weakness, would be not just embarrassing but shameful, and Maddy had steeled herself around her often enough by now to be able to take Legs's hand, pull herself to a standing position on the windowsill, and allow the other girl to help her pull herself up onto the roof. She never doubted that Legs would never let her fall.
Once Maddy had been pulled to a standing position beside her, the wind whipping more insistently through their hair and biting at their cheeks from the greater altitude, Legs pulled Maddy into her arms and hugged her fiercely, so close that Maddy could feel Legs's heart beating against her, the strain of Legs's ribs through her thin jacket. Legs, considerably taller than Maddy at 5'9, had to bend her neck down to give Maddy a light love nip at her neck, a "jungle kiss" as she, whom the rest of Foxfire often called by the nickname Sheena, after the comic book Queen of the Jungle, referred to it as. Maddy shivered, her cheeks flushing, before Legs pulled back slightly, nuzzling her nose against Maddy's jaw.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said with feeling, looking with intensity into Maddy's eyes. "I missed you, Maddy-Monkey."
And Maddy glowed, knowing from her tone, her expression, that Legs meant more than just for this night. She meant it with all of her heart as she said back to her, "I missed you too, Legs."
It seemed the right time to do it then, so Maddy reached inside her jacket, where she had laid as flat as she could the notebook pages which were her Christmas present to Legs. She felt her cheeks flushing again as she handed them to her, self-conscious, almost ashamed. She had written as neatly as she knew how, writing and rewriting, and still it all seemed terribly stupid and childish, not a present worthy of giving to Legs at all.
"It's…my present for you," she muttered, unable to look Legs in the eye. "It's a poem. It's stupid…I didn't know what to get, and…"
Legs shushed her without hardly looking at her, waving her hand towards Maddy as she held the paper close enough to be able to make out the words in the darkness. Maddy bit the inside of her cheeks, remembering the words with growing embarrassment as Legs read.
She is my guide
Taking me to far off lands
And unknown worlds
Without ever leaving the small town
In which we were born
She is my eyes
Opening my vision to
Within the ordinary
That I have always overlooked
She is my mouth
Speaking up the words
I could never say
Defending others- defending me
From those who cause injustice
She is my heart
Beating strong and pure
With the courage and conviction
With the passion and love
I always wanted, but never quite felt
She is my legs
Always moving me forward
She is my Legs
She is my wings
Maddy's throat was dry as Legs read, and though she was standing near her, she couldn't look at her or reread the poem at the same time. It would have made her anxiety soar to see the words at the same exact moment that Legs was, to be criticizing and judging herself, her ability, her phrasing, even the very sentiment of the poem itself at the same moments that Legs was seeing it for the first time. Instead she shoved her hands in her pockets and looked past Legs's shoulder rather than at her or anything specific, and knew that her cheeks were crimson. She could feel heat spreading through her neck and chest and suspected they too would be reddened.
What would Legs think of this? Was it too much? Too little? Too stupid? Would Legs think it was silly or babyish or-
But when Legs looked up, meeting Maddy's reluctant eyes, her own glittered with emotion- with what Maddy was almost astonished to see looked like a sheen of controlled tears. For a few seconds Legs just smiled at her, the hands holding the paper shaking slightly, and then she hugged Maddy with such strength that it popped something in Maddy's back. Maddy slowly closed her own arms around Legs, then held her more confidently, an almost dizzying relief and then pride surging through her. It seemed to have been enough, after all.
"Thank you," Legs breathed into her ear as she finally released her, and she gave Maddy a kiss on the cheek, so close to Maddy's ear that the smaller girl shivered. "That was beautiful, Maddy. Thank you."
She turned her head slightly for a few moments, and Maddy wondered if she was still controlling tears, maybe blinking them back. But when Legs turned back to her, her eyes were dry, even as her shoulders slumped and she grimaced with seeming embarrassment.
"Shit, Maddy-Monkey, I'm sorry, this makes my present for you look stupid."
"Oh, it wasn't anything, I just-" Maddy started, knowing that absolutely anything Legs could give her would be more than she expected, exciting and treasured simply because she knew that Legs had given it to her, that she had thought about her enough to want her to have it. But Legs shook her head, cutting her off firmly.
"No, it's EVERYTHING. Everything."
She pulled back, starting to walk towards the side of the building where she had earlier helped Maddy up, speaking to Maddy over her shoulder as she went. "Let me go get mine for you anyway, alright? It's dumb, and I didn't spend shit on it because with Muriel pregnant and all and she doesn't have a job, and Ab isn't giving her much…you know when the baby gets her it's gonna need a ton of money so I'm trying to sort of be ready for that, have some stuff to help her out, you know? So I'm sorry, but I didn't spend a lot and your present kinda sucks."
"No, no, don't get it yet, we can do that later….and no it doesn't. It won't," Maddy insisted, following Legs and grabbing hold of her arm to stop her. "The baby needs it more than any of US, and anyway, it doesn't matter…I like whatever I get, just because it's from YOU."
She knew she was blushing as she ducked her head briefly, then raised her eyes back up to Legs's, saying more softly, "Just you being here is enough…I…I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're back."
It wasn't something they talked about often, the fact that a very short time ago, Legs hadn't been here at all. She had been at Red Bank, a correctional facility for girls, for nearly a year- a year that for Maddy was excruciating in its passing, so she could not even imagine, even with the bits and pieces of her time there that Legs had shared with her, how it must have been for Legs to endure. Bold, beautiful Legs, who never could sit still for long, stuck in a cell all day long, Legs who wouldn't take anything off anyone forced to obey barked orders and be issued harsh punishment that no one, especially Legs, deserved…Legs, who so keenly felt for women who had been mistreated, who so strongly desired to be an advocate and leader to others, with girls who didn't want her help or agree with her views of their statuses as equals, as potential sisters to each other, girls who would think nothing of harming her or stabbing her in the back-literally or metaphorically.
That year had changed something in Legs, something that went deep within her in a way Maddy could not define. She had seemed fragile upon emerging from Red Bank, emotional and physically vulnerable in a manner that was astonishing to Maddy- Legs, who had always been the tall and strong, if underweight, almost as much as Goldie "Boom-Boom" Siegfried. And yet in the weeks that came to past she seemed to harden into someone who was harsher and more aggressive in her behavior and views, as though she had learned to quickly adjust herself to meet head on a world that only wished to crush her. Legs seemed angry in a manner that was more enduring and central to her core than it had ever been before, and sometimes it frightened Maddy to see this in her, a girl who had once, in spite of everything, possessed such charisma and joy.
She said nothing further about prison, did not imply anything more than her relief to be with Legs now, and though Legs's eyes darkened for a moment, she soon smiled again. And when she moved to sit down, tugging Maddy to sit beside her and slipping her arms around her, pulling her close against her as though to share her warmth, Maddy too smiled, relieved to see that Legs was not upset.
But it seemed that Maddy's comment had provoked thought in her after all, for after a few moments of silent snuggling, Legs spoke up, her voice soft, but measured, showing little emotion.
"I'm so happy I'm here," she said. "Last year, on Christmas, I got socks. I was supposed to be allowed to have a visit…but you know Ab never would other than that one time. I knew they wouldn't let you and the rest of Foxfire, but I thought maybe Muriel…Ab wouldn't let her."
Maddy was silent as she twisted her head to look at her, letting Legs talk at her own pace. She was afraid to say anything, for it might be the wrong words, the wrong timing. She never asked about Legs's time at Red Bank, instead choosing to listen very carefully each time Legs did talk about it. It was never very detailed, what she spoke of, and Maddy suspected that Legs was telling her only small bits of some of what must have been terrible things that had occurred there, that she, Maddy, was the only one she trusted with even this much. It was an honor, to be trusted, and yet it was a burden too, to think of how dark and still Legs's face grew each time she spoke of it, each time she said in words Maddy knew to be a lie that they had never hurt her there.
Maddy's own Christmas last year had been her worst. At the time she had been staying with an aunt, for her mother was too mentally ill to care for her, and with this arrangement as well as Legs being gone, she had felt terribly empty and alone, unable to stop thinking of Legs and imagining how her own Christmas must be. But Legs was talking of it now, and she remained quiet, letting her continue if she wished.
But Legs seemed to be finished, as she looked down at Maddy, smoothing her hand over her hair.
"It doesn't seem real I'm here sometimes."
She let her eyes drift out to the stars beyond them, slowly scanning the vast array sprinkled through the night sky, and she was still regarding them as she asked Maddy, "Remember that priest I used to talk to?"
Maddy nodded, remembering the homeless, alcoholic old man that at thirteen, Legs had been deeply fascinated with and respectful of, as she was with so few others, the way she had listened and taken to heart almost everything he said, though they had seemed babbling and incomprehensible to Maddy. Legs nodded absently too, still staring out at the stars as she spoke in a voice that was soft, almost dreamy.
"Star of David…Virgin Mary and Jesus and all that…he said it was all true, you know?"
Maddy nodded again, wondering where she was going with this, thinking again that the man had been homeless and alcoholic, that she, Maddy, was skeptical of religion and religious figures even if they were not living under his circumstances. Still, this was Legs speaking, and she showed nothing of her skepticism as she asked, "Do you believe him still? You think he was right?"
Legs shrugged, one hand absently stroking up and down Maddy's sleeve as she continued to regard the stars. "Don't know…maybe. That one out there…had to pick a Star of David, that would be pretty close, you know?"
Taking Maddy's cold hand gently in her own callused palm, she held it out to point towards a star that was especially large and bright. She continued to hold Maddy's hand even after she had lowered it again, squeezing it gently as she continued. "Maybe…maybe not."
"That star isn't real," Maddy said without thinking, and off the startled look Legs gave her, she tried to explain, "it's probably dead. Most of them died like thousands of years ago…it just takes that long for the light to travel here. So by the time we can see it, it probably already died."
Legs gave a startled laugh, shaking her head, and said in a mutter that seemed aimed towards herself more than to Maddy, "Figures…that's about right. Because I don't really feel all that real either most of the time."
Maddy turned her head back towards her, facing her now and frowning softly as she kept her hand in Legs's, responding though she knew that Legs had not been speaking to her. "But you are. Real. This, here, now…it is. All of it." She paused, then had to add, "Well, except for the stars."
"Except that," Legs agreed, and she grinned, though her eyes still appeared darker than usual. But when she stood, then hauled Maddy to her feet as well, holding out her arm, her face was obscured in enough shadow that Maddy could no longer tell if this were truth or only her imagining.
"Dance with me, Maddy-Monkey. Come on…I'm not gonna let you fall."
And as Maddy moved forward, letting Legs take the lead, they danced, two girls surrounded with simultaneous reality and unreality in the moment as evening became the dawn of Christmas Day.