The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him.
Maria Isabella had just turned sixteen then, and each set of her padrinos had given her (along with the sequined brida du caballo, the dresses of rare tulle, organza, and seda, and the diadema floral du’l dama — the requisite floral circlet of young womanhood) a purse filled with coins to spend on anything she wanted. And so she’d gone past the Calle du Leones (where sleek cats of various pedigrees sometimes allowed themselves to be purchased, though if so, only until they tired of their new owners), walked through the Avenida du’l Conquistadores (where the statues of the conquerors of Ciudad Meiora lined the entirety of the broad promenade) and made her way to the Encantu lu Caminata (that maze-like series of interconnected streets, each leading to some wonder or marvel for sale), where little musical conch shells from the islets near Palao’an could be found. Those she liked very much.
In the vicinity of the Plaza Emperyal, she saw a young man dressed in a coat embroidered with stars walk almost surely to his death. In that instant, Maria Isabella knew two things with the conviction reserved only for the very young: first, that she almost certainly loved this reckless man; and second, that if she simply stepped on a dog’s tail — the very dog watching the same scene unfold right next to her — she could avert the man’s seemingly senseless death.
These were the elements of the accident-waiting-to-happen: an ill-tempered horse hitched to some noble’s qalesa; an equally ill-tempered qalesa driver with a whip; a whistling panadero with a tray of plump pan du sal perched on his head; two puddles of fresh rainwater brought about by a brief downpour earlier that day; a sheet of stained glass en route to its final delivery destination at the house of the Most Excellent Primo Orador; a broken bottle of wine; and, of course, the young man who walked with his eyes closed.
Without a moment’s further thought, Maria Isabella stepped on the tail of the dog that was resting near her. The poor animal yelped in pain; which in turn startled the horse, making it stop temporarily; which in turn angered the qalesa driver even more, making him curse the horse; which in turn upset the delicate melody that the panadero was whistling; which in turn made the panadero miss stepping into the two puddles of rainwater; which in turn gave the men delivering the sheet of stained glass belonging to the Most Excellent Primo Orador an uninterrupted path; which in turn gave the young man enough room to cross the street without so much as missing a beat or stepping onto the broken wine bottle; which in turn would never give him the infection that had been destined to result in the loss of his right leg and, ultimately, his life.
Everyone and everything continued to move on their own inexorable paths, and the dog she had stepped on growled once at her and then twisted around to nurse its sore tail. But Maria Isabella’s eyes were on the young man in the star-embroidered coat, whose life she had just saved. She decided she would find out who he was.
The first twenty people she asked did not know him. It was a butcher’s boy who told her who he was, as she rested near the butcher’s shop along the Rotonda du’l Vendedores.
“His name is Lorenzo du Vicenzio,” the butcher’s boy said. “I know him because he shops here with his father once every sen-night. My master saves some of the choicest cuts for their family. They’re rather famous, you know. Maestro Vicenzio, the father, names stars.”
“Stars?” Maria Isabella asked. “And would you know why he walks with his eyes closed? The son, I mean.”
“Well, Lorenzo certainly isn’t blind,” the butcher’s boy replied. “I think he keeps his eyes closed to preserve his vision for his stargazing at night. He mentioned he had some sort of telescope he uses at night.”
“How can I meet him?” she asked, all thoughts of musical conch shells gone from her mind.
“You? What makes you think he will even see you? Listen,” the butcher’s boy whispered to her, “he only has eyes for the stars.”
“Then I’ll make him see me,” she whispered back, and as she straightened up, her mind began to make plan upon plan upon plan, rejecting possibilities, making conjectures; assessing what she knew, whom she knew, and how much she dared. It was a lot for anyone to perform in the span of time it took to set her shoulders, look at the butcher’s boy, and say, “Take me to the best Kitemaker.”
The butcher’s boy, who at fourteen was easily impressed by young ladies of a certain disposition, immediately doffed his white cap, bowed to Maria Isabella, gestured to the street filled with people outside, and led her to the house of Melchor Antevadez, famed throughout Ciudad Meiora and environs as the Master Builder of aquilones, cometas, saranggola, and other artefactos voladores.
They waited seven hours to see him (for such was his well-deserved fame that orders from all over the realms came directly to him — for festivals, celebrations, consecrations, funerals, regatta launches, and such) and did not speak to each other. Maria Isabella was thinking hard about the little plan in her head and the butcher’s boy was thinking of how he had just lost his job for the dubious pleasure of a silent young woman’s company.
He spent most of the time looking surreptitiously at her shod feet and oddly wondering whether she, like the young ladies that figured in his fantasies, painted her toes blue, in the manner of the circus artistas.
When it was finally their turn (for such was the nature of Melchor Antevadez that he made time to speak to anyone and everyone who visited him, being of humble origin himself), Maria Isabella explained what she wanted to the artisan.
“What I need,” she began, “is a kite large enough to strap me onto. Then I must fly high enough to be among the stars themselves, so that anyone looking at the stars will see me among them, and I must be able to wave at least one hand to that person.”
“What you need,” Melchor Antevadez replied with a smile, “is a balloon. Or someone else to love.”
She ignored his latter comment and told him that a balloon simply would not do, it would not be able to achieve the height she needed, didn’t he understand that she needed to be among the stars?
He cleared his throat and told her that such a kite was impossible, that there was no material immediately available for such an absurd undertaking, that there was, in fact, no design that allowed for a kite that supported the weight of a person, and that it was simply impossible, impossible, impossible. Impossible to design. Impossible to find materials. No, no, it was impossible, even for the Illustrados.
She pressed him then for answers, to think through the problem; she challenged him to design such a kite, and to tell her just what these impossible materials were.
“Conceivably, I could dream of such a design, that much I’ll grant you. If I concentrate hard enough I know it will come to me, that much I’ll concede. But the materials are another matter.”
“Please, tell me what I need to find,” Maria Isabella said.
“None of it can be bought, and certainly none of it can be found here in Ciudad Meiora, although wonder can be found here if you know where to look.”
And so he began to tell her. Sometime during the second hour of his recitation of the list of materials, she began to take notes, and nudged the butcher’s boy to try to remember what she couldn’t write fast enough. At dawn the following day, Melchor Antevadez stopped speaking, reviewed the list of necessary things compiled by Maria Isabella and the butcher’s boy, and said, “I think that’s all I’d need. As you can see, it is more than any man could hope to accomplish.”
“But I am not a man,” she said to him, looking down at the thousands of items on the impossible list in her hands. The butcher’s boy, by this time, was asleep, his head cradled in the crook of his thin arms, dreaming of aerialists and their blue toes.
Melchor Antevadez squinted at her. “Is any love worth all this effort? Looking for the impossible?”
Maria Isabella gave the tiniest of smiles. “What makes you think I’m in love?”
Melchor Antevadez raised an eyebrow at her denial.
“I’ll get everything,” she promised the Kitemaker.
“But it may take a lifetime to gather everything,” the artisan said wearily.
“A lifetime is all I have,” Maria Isabella told him. She then shook the butcher’s boy awake.
“I cannot go alone. You’re younger than me but I will sponsor you as my companion. Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” mumbled butcher’s boy drowsily. “After all, this shouldn’t take more time than I have to spare.”
“It may be significantly longer than you think,” the artisan said, shaking his head.
“Then please, Ser Antevadez, dream the design and I’ll have everything you listed when we return.” She stood to leave.
That very day, Maria Isabella told her parents and both sets of her padrinos that she was going off on a long trip. She invoked her right of Ver du Mundo (when women of at least sixteen years, and men of at least twenty years, could go forth into the wideness of Hinirang; sometimes to seek their fortune, sometimes to run from it). They all gave her their blessings, spoke fondly of how she used to dance and sing as a child, saluted her new right as a woman and full citizen of Ciudad Meiora, accompanied her all the way to the Portun du Transgresiones with more recalled memories of her youth, and sent her on her way. As for the butcher’s boy, he waited until she was well away and then joined her on the well-worn path, the Sendero du’l Viajero, along with the supplies she had asked him to purchase.
“I’m ready to go,” the butcher’s boy grinned at her. He was clad in a warm tunic in the manner of city folk, and around his neck, for luck, he wore an Ajima’at, a wooden charm fashioned in the form of a wheel.
“What did you tell your kinfolk?” Maria Isabella asked him, as he helped her mount a sturdy horse.
“That I would be back in a month or so.”
It took almost sixty years for Maria Isabella and the butcher’s boy to find all the items on Melchor Antevadez’s impossible list.
They began at Pur’Anan, and then trekked to Katakios and Viri’Ato (where the sanctuary of the First Tree stood unmolested by time).
They traveled north to the lands of Bontoc and Cabarroquis (where the Povo Montaha dwelt in seclusion).
They sailed eastwards to Palao’an and the Islas du’l Calami’an (where the traders from countries across the seas converged in a riot of tongues).
They ventured westwards to the dark lands of Siqui’jor and Jomal’jig (where the Silent Ones kept court whenever both sun and moon occupied the same horizon).
They visited the fabled cities of the south: Diya al Tandag, Diya al Din, and Diya al Bajao (where fire-shrouded Djin and the Tiq’Barang waged an endless war of attrition).
They entered the marbled underworld of the Sea Lords of Rumblon and braved the Lair of the M’Arinduque (in whose house the dead surrendered their memories of light and laughter).
When they ran out of money after the third year of travel, Maria Isabella and the butcher’s boy spent time looking for ways to finance their quest. She began knowing only how to ride, dance, sing, play the arpa, the violin, and the flauta, embroider, sew, and write poetry about love; the butcher’s boy began knowing how to cut up a cow. By the time they had completed the list, they had more than quintupled the amount of money they began with, and they both knew how to manage a caravan; run a plantation; build and maintain fourteen kinds of seagoing and rivergoing vessels; raise horses big and small, and fowl, dogs, and seagulls; recite the entire annals of six cultures from memory; speak and write nineteen languages; prepare medicine for all sorts of ailments, worries, and anxieties; make flashpowder, lu fuego du ladron, and picaro de fuegos artificiales; make glass, ceramics, and lenses from almost any quality sand; and many many other means of making money.
In the seventh year of the quest, a dreadful storm destroyed their growing caravan of found things and they lost almost everything (she clutched vainly at things as they flew and spun in the downpour of wind and water, and the butcher’s boy fought to keep the storm from taking her away as well). It was the last time that Maria Isabella allowed herself to cry. The butcher’s boy took her hand and they began all over again. They were beset by thieves and learned to run (out of houses and caves and temples; on roads and on sea lanes and in gulleys; on horses, aguilas, and waves). They encountered scoundrels and sinverguenzza and learned to bargain (at first with various coins, jewels, and metals; and later with promises, threats, and dreams). They were beleaguered by nameless things in nameless places and learned to defend themselves (first with wooden pessoal, then later with kris, giavellotto, and lamina).
In their thirtieth year together, they took stock of what they had, referred to the thousands of items still left unmarked on their list, exchanged a long silent look filled with immeasurable meaning and went on searching for the components of the impossible kite — acquiring the dowel by planting a langka seed at the foot of the grove of a kindly diuata (and waiting the seven years it took to grow, unable to leave), winning the lower spreader in a drinking match against the three eldest brothers of Duma’Alon, assembling the pieces of the lower edge connector while fleeing a war party of the Sumaliq, solving the riddles of the toothless crone Ai’ai’sin to find what would be part of a wing tip, climbing Apo’amang to spend seventy sleepless nights to get the components of the ferrule, crafting an artificial wave to fool the cerena into surrending their locks of hair that would form a portion of the tether, rearing miniature horses to trade to the Duende for parts of the bridle, and finally spending eighteen years painstakingly collecting the fifteen thousand different strands of thread that would make up the aquilone’s surface fabric.
When at last they returned to Ciudad Meiora, both stooped and older, they paused briefly at the gates of the Portun du Transgresiones. The butcher’s boy looked at Maria Isabella and said, “Well, here we are at last.”
She nodded, raising a weary arm to her forehead and making the sign of homecoming.
“Do you feel like you’ve wasted your life?” she asked him, as the caravan bearing everything they had amassed lumbered into the city.
“Nothing is ever wasted,” the butcher’s boy told her.
They made their way to the house of Melchor Antevadez and knocked on his door. A young man answered them and sadly informed them that the wizened artisan had died many many years ago, and that he, Reuel Antevadez, was the new Maestro du Cosas Ingravidas.
“Yes, yes. But do you still make kites?” Maria Isabella asked him.
“Kites? Of course. From time to time, someone wants an aquilone or–“
“Before Ser Antevadez, Melchor Antevadez, died, did he leave instructions for a very special kind of kite?” she interrupted.
“Well . . . ,” mumbled Reuel Antevadez, “my great-grandfather did leave a design for a woman named Maria Isabella du’l Cielo, but–“
“I am she.” She ignored his shocked face. “Listen, young man. I have spent all my life gathering everything Melchor Antevadez said he needed to build my kite. Everything is outside. Build it.”
And so Reuel Antevadez unearthed the yellowing parchment that contained the design of the impossible kite that Melchor Antevadez had dreamed into existence, referenced the parts from the list of things handed to him by the butcher’s boy, and proceeded to build the aquilone.
When it was finished, it looked nothing at all like either Maria Isabella or the butcher’s boy had imagined. The kite was huge and looked like a star, but those who saw it could not agree on how best to describe the marvelous conveyance.
After he helped strap her in, the butcher’s boy stood back and looked at the woman he had grown old with.
“This is certainly no time for tears,” Maria Isabella reprimanded him gently, as she gestured for him to release the kite.
“No, there is time for everything,” the butcher’s boy whispered to himself as he pushed and pulled at the ropes and strings, pulley and levers and gears of the impossible contrivance.
“Goodbye, goodbye!” she shouted down to him as the star kite began its rapid ascent to the speckled firmament above.
“Goodbye, goodbye,” he whispered, as his heart finally broke into a thousand mismatched pieces, each one small, hard, and sharp. The tears of the butcher’s boy (who had long since ceased to be a boy) flowed freely down his face as he watched her rise — the extraordinary old woman he had always loved strapped to the frame of an impossible kite.
As she rose, he sighed and reflected on the absurdity of life, the heaviness of loss, the cruelty of hope, the truth about quests, and the relentless nature of a love that knew only one direction. His hands swiftly played out the tether (that part of the marvelous rope they had bargained for with two riddles, a blind rooster and a handful of cold and lusterless diamante in a bazaar held only once every seven years on an island in the Dag’at Palabras Tacitas) and he realized that all those years they were together, she had never known his name.
As she rose above the city of her birth, Maria Isabella took a moment to gasp at the immensity of the city that sprawled beneath her, recalled how everything had begun, fought the trembling of her withered hands, and with a fishbone knife (that sad and strange knife which had been passed from hand to hand, from women consumed by unearthly passion, the same knife which had been part of her reward for solving the mystery of the Rajah Sumibon’s lost turtle shell in the southern lands of Diya al Din) cut the glimmering tether.
Up, up, up, higher and higher and higher she rose. She saw the winding silver ribbon of the Pasigla, the fluted roofs of Lu Ecolia du Arcana Menor ei Mayor, the trellises and gardens of the Plaza Emperyal, and the dimmed streets of the Mercado du Coristas. And Maria Isabella looked down and thought she saw everything, everything.
At one exquisite interval during her ascent, Maria Isabella thought she spied the precise tower where Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore, the Stargazer, must live and work. She felt the exuberant joy of her lost youth bubble up within her and mix with the fiery spark of love she had kept alive for sixty years, and in a glorious blaze of irrepressible happiness she waved her free hand with wild abandon, shouting the name that had been forever etched into her heart.
When a powerful wind took the kite to sudden new heights, when Ciudad Meiora and everything below her vanished in the dark, she stopped shouting, and began to laugh and laugh and laugh.
And Maria Isabella du’l Cielo looked up at the beginning of forever and thought of nothing, nothing at all.
And in the city below, in one of the high rooms of the silent Torre du Astrunomos (where those who had served with distinction were housed and honored), an old man, long-retired and plagued by cataracts, sighed in his sleep and dreamed a dream of unnamed stars.
Illustration © 2002 Hal Hefner
The story “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)” (but not the art), by Dean Francis Alfar, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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