The Alchemy of Starlight | by Erin Schallmoser

            When my parents first met and started going out, my father, Wayne, owned this old beat-up conversion van. He had taken out the back-passenger seats and installed a bed frame, along with a simple water pump and small sink. He also had a bucket toilet, a cooler stocked with ice, and a fold-out propane grill. This set-up enabled him to take trips without having to pay for lodging. One morning, a few months after their first date, he pulled up in front of the mayor’s office and shouted my mother’s name at the window he knew was right by her desk. 
            My father didn’t much believe in using telephones. He believed in leaving people alone until necessity or desire was strong enough to warrant an immediate, in-person connection. This was not the first time that my father had hollered for her outside the mayor’s office, so my mother was not as surprised as she could have been. She came to the window, pulled up the blinds and then the pane, and leaned her head out to look at him. 
            “Angie?” my father called out, looking straight up into the midday sun.
            “Yes,” my mother responded.
            “Angie,” my father said. “Let’s go on a trip.”
            “But it’s Wednesday. I’m working.”
            “If we wait for the weekend, we might be dead by then!” My father took his ballcap off and threw it up in the air with vigor, almost so high that my mother could have reached out and touched it, if she’d had a mind to.
            My mother was, by this point, in love with my father in an absolute and desperate way, and while she was pretty sure he felt the same way about her, there were moments when she felt like he was still so far away from her, conceptually, at least, if not physically. There were parts of him she could see but not fully grasp, like looking at a cell through a microscope—my father was there, in front of her, yet there was something about him that she couldn’t trust or comprehend.  My mother longed to rid herself of this feeling that my father was not truly hers, so of course she would go on a trip with him, even if it was a Wednesday.
            She left a note for her supervisor about a family emergency and walked downstairs and outside to where my father waited. She asked him to stop by her apartment, and she quickly packed a bag, bringing what he told her to: t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts, wool socks, athletic pants, hiking boots.
            “Where are we going?” she asked, once they were on the road.
            “Sedona,” my father said, turning to her and offering one of his wicked and charming smiles, a smile he would continue to offer my mother throughout their lives together, whenever he knew he was pushing her to the edges of her comfort zone.

            The first thing my parents did when they got into town was stop at a metaphysical shop and get their auras photographed. My mother’s aura was a deep inky blue, and my father’s aura was a bright blinding orange. I know this firsthand, as they still have the photos, framed and hanging in the bathroom. The psychic who photographed them, after making her official remarks that she had been paid for, pulled on my mother’s wrist as she and my father were walking out.
            “I have something else to tell you,” the psychic said. “Just you.”
            “Oh,” my mother said. 
            “You love that man,” the psychic told her. “And he loves you. But if the two of you are to stay together, it will be you that makes the adjustments. Don’t expect him to. It’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just something you should know.”
            My mother laughed, because what the psychic had said seemed like something that could be said to any woman, but the psychic stared at her in a hard, yet fragile way that made my mother catch her laughter in her mouth and swallow it back down. She nodded her head, and the psychic let her wrist go and turned away.
            My mother went out to the main shop area and found my father. His curly black hair hung over his forehead in rebellious loops. He held a plastic woven basket and was filling it with crystals: carnelian, amethyst, lapis lazuli, citrine, selenite, celestite. 
            “You like these ones?” he asked. She grabbed up a rough chunk of aventurine, a green crystal that mirrored my father’s eyes, added it to his basket and nodded yes quickly. The words of the psychic, and he loves you, resonated in her head. 
            They ate pizza for dinner that night, at a place that had several different crust options, vegan cheese, nitrate-free meats, and organic fruit and vegetable toppings. 
            “Don’t get used to this,” my father said, when the waiter dropped off the bill. “This is just to celebrate us getting here, but it’s too expensive every night. The rest of our trip we’ll have rice and beans, most likely.”
            My mother nodded her head, remembering now other words the psychic had said to her: it will be you that makes the adjustments. But she liked rice and beans, and already knew how frugal my father was, so she didn’t mind.

            On their third full day in Sedona, my father took my mother on a hike to Devil’s Bridge in the late afternoon. Devil’s Bridge was a natural arch bridge formed by wind and weather erosion, and most of the hike was on a red dirt road, before it began to climb through the Coconino National Forest. My mother had never hiked before, but she soon realized she enjoyed it. She liked the repetitive nature of it, and how she could place one foot in front of the other and every so often there would be whole new world to witness. She could get lost in her thoughts or lost in the sights or lost in conversation with my father, all the while getting somewhere at the same time. 
            They stayed up there for the sunset. They took turns walking across the dusky brown bridge, vocalizing at what spots they felt the most vulnerable, and the most alive. My mother snapped photos with her Polaroid camera of the distant mountains, their exposed walls glowing like honey in the early evening light. My father jotted notes in his Moleskine that he always kept in the left back pocket of his jeans. When they started the descent, the sunlight had begun to fade, the pinks and purples giving way to a dingy gray, and my mother felt panic rise in her belly as she realized they would be hiking back to the van in the dark.
            For my father, a seasoned hiker and outdoorsman, this was not a problem. But my mother, growing up in a city with a family who didn’t put much value in doing anything new or different, had never had opportunity or cause to be out in the wilderness in the dark and didn’t have any idea how she felt about it, until that night, when it became clear that her feelings were not positive.
            As the last bits of sunlight leaked out onto the horizon and disappeared, images of all that the Arizona wilderness had to offer soared into my mother’s mind: rattlesnakes, bark scorpions, banded desert centipedes, mountain lions. When she ventured to express her concerns to my father, he just shrugged them off, choosing only to respond to the largest creature she had mentioned. 
            “You know, mountain lions are scared of people,” he said. “They rarely attack us. Especially if we make a good deal of noise and let them know we’re here, they’ll skulk off and leave us be.”
            My mother watched by starlight as my father tilted his head back and let out a long high-pitched howl. 
            My mother gasped. “Why’d you do that?”
            “To let the mountain lions know we’re here! Like I told you.”
            “How do you know that really works?” she asked, her voice hissing. “You might be calling them right to us.” My mother began to walk briskly away from my father. 
            “Fear and panic just attract more fear and panic,” my father called out from behind her. “The faster you walk, the more likely you are to trip and fall.”
            “The faster I walk, the quicker I’ll be back at the van,” my mother responded, stopping to look back at him.
            “And what then?” he asking, spreading his arms out wide like a preacher reaching the climax of his sermon on Sunday morning. “You think a van can keep you safe from all that could bring you harm? And even if it could, you think always avoiding harm is any way to live a real life?”
            My mother’s cheeks turned wet, and she realized tears were coming out of her eyes, even though she wasn’t conscious of crying. She blamed it on the dry desert winds, but when she spoke, her voice shook. “I just can’t do this,” she said. “I’m really scared, Wayne!”
            “Angie,” my father said. Perhaps swayed by her strong emotions to exhibit a bit more compassion, he stepped closer to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “There’s nothing here now that wasn’t here on our hike up, in the daylight. We just can’t see them. But you know what we can see?”
            My mother shook her head. My father brought his hands up to her face, cupping her jaw on both sides, and gently tilted her head up towards the night sky. “The stars, Angie,” he said. “We can see the stars.”
            This is where my mother would always break away from the spell of the story and talk to me as her daughter, not as her audience. She would say she never intended to marry my father. She would say she was immediately attracted to him and from the first night they had more honest and intimate conversations than she’d ever had with anyone before, but she had not thought that theirs was a forever love. Their love was air and water, not fire and earth. It was deeply felt, floating up in the sky, and flowing down in the ground, but not grounded in the practicalities of life. 
            She would say his love was a reset button. He was different from the poetic needy boys she’d dated in high school, set apart from the ego drunk men she’d slept with in college. He was entirely self-sufficient, never needing any sort of validation from her. But at the same time, when they were together, he treated her with a reverence that she had never experienced before. She would say he may have not needed her, but he chose to intentionally fit her into his life, in a way no one else had ever done, and she was intoxicated by the space he created for her. Even still, she didn’t see him as marriage material. She didn’t even see herself as marriage material.
            “But, Sylvia,” she would say, gripping my face the same way he had gripped hers that night, “then he showed me the stars. I saw the stars the way he saw the stars. And from that moment, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life seeing things with him.”
            My mother is a stubborn woman, with stubborn fears, but that night, with my father’s hands enveloping her face, enabling her to bear witness to the starlight, she felt something heavy drop out of her body and slink away, like butter down the side of a hot cinnamon roll. And she wasn’t afraid anymore. 
            They walked the rest of the way back to the van in an easily ambling way, my mother just looking around. Once she saw the stars, she started seeing all kinds of other things, even in the dark, even with just the starlight. She saw the outlines of boulders, the shadows of prickly pear cactus, the silhouettes of the pine trees. My father held her hand, steadying her in case she lost her footing while she was caught up in all there was to see. True to his word, he cooked them rice and beans that night, dumping fresh salsa and chunks of avocado on top.
            “That’s when it all changed,” she would say to me. “That’s when I knew this was a forever kind of love. That’s when I knew the psychic was right, but it wasn’t a bad or a good thing. I began to be rearranged after your father showed me the stars, and it was glorious.”
            Near the end of the Sedona story, my mother would reveal her purpose for telling this story to me. She would tell me how when they went to bed, the vision of the stars cascading across the night sky still imprinted on their minds, they reached out for each other in the dark, connecting like constellations.
             “And that is most likely when you were conceived,” she would say. I would squirm and make faces, but inwardly delight in knowing these details of their lives, and of my own origin. The story pumped up my ego in a beautiful way, and gave me a place in my parents’ love story. Whenever my mother told me this story, and she did over and over again at various stages of my growing up, I saw myself as a magical being made out in the desert, a product of revelation and change, transcendent as starlight, mystic like a blooming flower, with the ability to conjure up new worlds.
             My mother would always end the story by explaining how my place of conception inspired my name.
            “We didn’t want to just name you Sedona,” she would say with a scoff. “Can you imagine? How the kids would have made fun of you? How heavy that name would be to carry around all your life?”
            Instead, they named me Sylvia, a name reminiscent of Sedona in sound and syllable, but, more specifically, reminiscent of the Coconino National Forest in its meaning: “from the forest,” or “spirit of the woods.” For my parents, Sedona wasn’t just the red rocks, it was the spiky green of the blue spruce, corkbark fir, and bristle cone pine. And the forest wasn’t just a destination, but the beginning of a journey. It was the place my mother first saw the stars. It was the place that my father first saw my mother, in all her wholeness and vulnerability. Sometimes, when the story was over, and I leaned into my mother’s chest for our nightly embrace, I could still smell the sharp scent of pine emanating from her pores, still feel the sticky sap the branches left on her skin, still see the gleaming desire in her eyes as she let the starlight transmute her fears into wonders. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Erin Schallmoser (she/her) lives in Bellingham, WA, works by day as a naturopathic clinic manager, and delights in moss, slugs, stones, wildflowers, small birds, and the moon, when she can see it. She’s also a poetry/prose editor and staff contributor at The Aurora Journal and is still figuring out Twitter @dialogofadream. You can read more at