Heather Marshall’s “Celestial Navigation,” this week’s New Voices story, earned an honorable mention in our 2020-2021 Winter Short Story Award for New Voices. “Celestial Navigation” is a masterclass in meditative prose. Isobel, yearning for adventure, now three years separated from her husband, returns to the Scottish island where she grew up. Read along as she rediscovers herself in this story marked by constellations over the course of one year.
Isobel took to the rivers, learned the flies, bought her own waders with money earned from her job at the mall. At first, the rivers felt small, constrained. Land, rising steeply on either side: another voice, limiting where she could go. It was the only water offered, though. Joy took her by surprise, growing in her with each step as she learned to read the river. These close waters offering multiple paths. When she discovered trout huddled under rocks, she felt as though she’d been made privy to a long-held secret. She loved being out, alone, deciding how long to rest in one place, when to move.
A cloudless night, the waters calm, stars clear: she will load the skiff. The sea, flat at first, will whip when the sun begins to make herself known. By then, Isobel will be on open water.
“No place for a girl,” her father said, decades ago.
She’d stood on the shore, watched him go. This time, toes in the water, she will look up: Ophiuchus lowering, the night preparing to depart. She will mark the brightest of its stars. Alpha Ophiuchi, Rasalhague, from the Arabic, Head of the Serpent Collector. Her father taught her how to measure from them, so that she would know where she was in the world. When she was small, he pointed them to her from the shore, then from his own boat. Later, he made her navigate, but never on her own. Before the stars, her mother had whispered the legends of the land to her—the ancient tales of the Morrigan, Queen Scáthach of Skye, of fairies and queens, warriors and goddesses. After her father pointed the constellations, though, she cared only for the truths of the skies.
Looking skyward, she will remember her father’s whisper: Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, connected to the Asclepius, the physician who learned from the snake how to heal so well as to bring the dead back to life.
* * *
Of course, she doesn’t know what she’ll do on that cloudless night a year away yet; she’s still trying to shed the past as she climbs in to the one-way hire car. Barely out of the car park at Glasgow Airport, she rolls down her own window, presses her glasses tightly to her face, lets her long, graying hair curl around the outside of the car. She tries to avoid thinking of her children; she tries not to feel she is running away from home.
Not so very long ago, she’d thought this would be the sort of thing she’d do with her husband. The children were nearly grown, then. She had begun imagining the house empty: she and her husband would become adventurers again.
It’s been three years since he ended their twenty-five-year marriage. Four children, a house, two dogs, a cat, a scatter of bicycles, kayaks, all split in half, one way or another. He handed her a note and walked out the door.
In the car, she sighs. Isn’t this an adventure? So she’d been half right. She looks down at her hand. Three years and the mark of his ring is still there. I’ve done right by the children, haven’t I?
As she rides along, one of her children is doing a summer study in Greece. Another, a university dropout, roams the California coast. One hunches over a desk, taking summer school to graduate early, as Isobel would have done at that age. The eldest is racking up debt, doing her second post-grad. She’d be sitting on her own somewhere. She might as well go where she wants. Mightn’t she?