The Stars Outside

Featured story in The Poetry Foundation

A subtle and gentle exploration of connections in a family where a mother is unwilling to allow her son's disability to be pushed aside.

Lathering on the frosting on the cake, a faded pink and purple, she’s staring at the dull end of the knife and at the flashing on her phone; one, two, three missed attempts, she stacks the frosting high and tips it to the other end, changes a knife, then switches her position. Her bones ache where they meet at the center, or just below, her hips; a soft but pounding deep-set bruise, but nothing on the skin, no mark — she’s looked — she wonders how nerves tangle inside or outside old and aging bones and lets out a sigh. The frosting refuses to even out on the cake. She wants to create a pattern but doesn’t know how; she doesn’t know how to cook, never learned how to bake, the meals she makes are hurried and gathered since she assumes Nathan won't mind and since her husband had left so early on that breakfast in bed and toasted bagels and reducing tomato sauce and garnishing were all words far away from her, distant like houses on another street in another city in another country, where the customs are strange and exotic, where they bow upon encountering and kiss to say goodbye, twice on the cheek, three times for family. The missed calls are from Kit; after a few more minutes (she figures) of attempting to spread the frosting evenly and wondering how much dye you need to put in the mixture to match the type of purple Nathan wouldn’t fold into a tantrum over she picks up the device and hits call, shaking her head as if knowing her doomed fate and waiting on the line. The sound, like an approaching train, of the various technology trying to get a hold of her sister, always feels like a countdown to her; booooom, you might be here, boooom, but you’re not there, booooom, you might be spared, boooom, but not forever; she does it, she thinks, for the chance of the sweet and intoxicating feeling when it goes to voicemail, the click that restores her sanity like a piece of wood jammed under gallows that refuse to open to devour an accused and then the distinctive breath — you’ve reached Katherine, she’s not here, leave your number, and then she'd hang up and smile, as if she warded off fate in a twisted trick and feat of mind over reality and probability. But she doesn’t hear the breath; the countdown stops and Kit answers with a sigh, and she says hello and that she’s tried to reach her but couldn’t and where would she even be, and wouldn’t some more help be better for him, wouldn’t some structure be easier, and the frosting is drying at the ends like the end of the day, and when Kit finishes her lecture she answers back without having heard the content but with so much practice that the reply suits perfectly, tailored and fitted blindly and cut at the meeting points right where it should.

Purple, she says, and Kit mentions that Hayley likes purple. Isn’t it a bit feminine, she asks, and she chuckles — it’s what he likes. Kit asks how she knows what he likes, and in an act of robotic defiance, quicker than a sonic boom, she stores the questions somewhere deep within her bruised bone and switches the topic.

I can’t get the frosting to even out on the cake, she says.

Do you have the right kind of knife? Kit asks. You know for Hayley, we just went to a bakery — it’s more simple. I could give you a name.

I’m putting the frosting on it, Kit, she says, her voice flat, and Kit coughs.

Well, you could have. I’d have paid for it. I know a great place on Centre. It’s vegan.

Kit either speaks or does not speak. She draws the curtains slightly to look to the front yard; it’s nighttime, but surrounded by his pool of soft-sponged pillows, Nathan is set, his gaze fixed. She lifts the knife and licks the frosting; she wonders, then executes the experiment to discover, what would happen if she slid the dull end on her skin. Nothing, the answer seems to be.

…And we can come and bring him to Hydrotherapy and M.J says it’s great, and that it’d work with his muscles a lot.

Mhm, she says. They did try that, and other therapy, when he was small. There was a time, after she quit teaching and gave up her tenure, that all their week was was that: Hydrotherapy in the morning; speech therapy at noon; a communication technician in the afternoon; physical therapy before bed; the special straws, the bottles of medicine, knocked off every counter although she found and installed, her own hands on the drill, fifteen new ones; Nathan was tall and his arms strong enough to break through her unsteady fixture of the furniture and the routine, and when her husband left the shelves seemed to have gotten even easier to break. She’d locked the bathroom cabinet but there was always a way to get in, it seemed. Nathan is pointing his arm upwards. She walks towards the window.

…like you’re giving up on him, she hears Kit trail off, and they are always finding new developments in medicine, and Jordan says—

She hangs up the phone. Her lips form into a strange shape; she murmurs something unclear to herself. The knife and the frosting clang as they fall to the ground, and she wipes her hands on her jeans and walks through the door.

She sits down next to Nathan; his spasms and tics are like little cricket sounds in the night air. His black eyes are set up and she stares with him; ships like books make their way through the sky while the odd, overwhelming, storytelling yellow of the moon stands and lights them with great bravado. She thinks that it looks like queens and kings, like archways and prayer rooms of a grand kingdom, she sees Orion move with a great force and her son sway softly to the stars outside.

Light, she hears Nathan murmur, and the odd shape from before on her mouth turns into a small smile.

Light! she exclaims.

—Gili Estlin Hirsch


Selected by Minshar School of Art

An award-winning, surreal tale of a cemetery between two human ribs that presents the difficulty and beauty in coming to terms with death and loss.

Text forthcoming.

—Gili Estlin Hirsch

Black Cat Kaddish

When I was sixteen, I befriended a stray black cat who died. My exposed heart could not contain the pain so I spilled it onto a page.


Allow me to expose before you, through the strict and binding rules of my tediously lyrical narration, the story of one Micah Elizabeth Jonas Hirsch, an innocent soul of the cat nature, 11 months old upon his departure from me, from us. We are standing here today surrounding a grave that could easily not have existed, shedding tears that could easily be shrugged away. We are people, after all, standing on two legs at the edge of this burial site. We treat this world as our own because we are the only that walk it upright; and we falsely believe that our brute force over it somehow makes us better or more able to discern what is right or wrong, what is worthless or worthwhile. The truth is different; the people around this too small of a tomb know it; the world belongs to the millions of creatures that inhabit it with peace, with balance and aptitude, and without malice. Not to us. We are the ones who are ruining it, trying to make amends on the edge with our music and our words.

Micah was killed by a machine, but more so by the rush and recklessness of a man who wasn’t looking. We do that often, not look. We forget. We’re busy; we have to be somewhere, sometime, we have to meet someone for something. We have to buy some things or sell some things, we have to fight some things and face some things. And in between that some, some, we lose our sight. We lose our appreciation of the innocent; we lose our hearing of silence. We lose our gratitude to this earth and to our fellow creatures.

I would see some of you shaking your heads; overly sentimental, that girl is, always was. Remember how she cried in second grade when someone killed a rat in a trap? Remember how she stayed out all night in the rain with a dog that was already at his deathbed? You agreed to come here because of me, not because of Micah. You knew him and loved him, you played with him; you laughed when he strode towards you, happy to forget how timid he was for just a moment of undiluted love. Micah is gone, and I hope he’s at a better place. I hope he walks with angels that guard him, wrapped in the knowledge that I loved him with all of my stormy heart, from the moment I saw him starving and screaming for help in the middle of the road, to the moment I saw him lose his life to an arbitrary and cruel chain of events. I hope he knows I am sorry, so sorry, that I couldn’t protect him better. I hope he knows I tried with every drop of strength I had in me.

But I’m here not only to say goodbye to Micah, to pray for his beautiful soul and to mourn his early loss. I’m here also to say, to remind you once more, the importance of innocence, of equilibrium with this soil we stand on—this soil we send our dead into; of poise, of sight, and more than anything, of compassion. This world is not ours to abuse or take advantage of. Its creatures are the creatures of God, and we owe them a voice that they lack and a defense that they are unable to attain for themselves. These children of ours that are ill, homeless, these animals of ours that are hunted, shot down, these forests of ours that are torn apart; they are us, even though they are dying by our own vain and self-important hands. We are all one soft tissue, linked, and when one of us falls, we are all broken.

Micah was a simple cat. He had no mannerisms or complaints. He didn’t prefer a specific food, or need particular attention. He was never in a hurry, never overly focused on his excruciating past or what turned out to be his terrible future. He liked the sky and the sun and the air, the leaves that went streaming by and the wind chimes that rang with the wind, and the people and creatures around them. In his life, he had peace, and he taught peace, in his slinky stride and tentative stretches; in his death, he had no pain, and he taught clemency and dignity in a moment of terrible chaos.

Every creature, every plant, every stone that you step on, every bat of the wings of every butterfly; they are connected. We are connected. When you walk to your something, to your someone, keep your eyes open; listen to the hum below the silence, to Micah’s air, to his leaves, to his bells. And when you see his shadow in an alley, starving or crying or standing lost, remember this day and this grave and this creature. Remember, I beg of you, our link, and let the sun stream past your defenses. Hunch down low; don’t mind your expensive shoes becoming dirty with the grit of it; look the open wounds of this world in the face, and give them the strongest and most beautiful gift we possess; show them mercy.

May he rest in peace, and may we all be in peace.

—Gili Estlin Hirsch

Letter to Boston

Published in Anna

Located in the midst of the unraveling of a tumultuous romance, engaging the city as an entity in a plea to remain in love.

City, remember when I came to you unwound, undiluted, unmade, and you embraced me so wildly with your wayward raindrops? On the bridge where she and I held hands, at the key of the undying old tin door, home, you—swallow me whole. You bid me a silence that I cannot regret. In the lowered places where the moisture lay for me to taste; you spun all round us at an equal pace, so ready to frame this love affair, so dismantled always moving lovely, lovely, gentle in your hills, but vicious in the underscore, just like we were: you walked with us. And I thank you for it. You walked with us like a loyal dog where we came together in short lived explosions, cataclysms of joy, you—turned your face from the frozen rivers where we made love and let your spirits lash at our hairs, at her hair that was still long then and lush, that was still mine, and you spared us your brush strokes and freed us of judgment, praise, you made a haven for our terrestrial fucks and the linear weaving of our hands. And then when it cracked you rested your elfish head at our laps innocently and knocked us together again and again. And our knees became rusted from knocking, from trying desperately to crawl forward; from falling on them and praying with the great spirits and howling to your four-directional-wind to please not let it end, please, please, please, don’t keep it from us, and your whirlwind carried all-of-it-or-nothing to the Gods. She and I came down like your heavy snow on Harvard Yard, thick and insistent, trying against hope to cover something old that has been walked on with some heaven made linen, except yours was water, and ours was love.

Oh, blessed paved paths of illusion. City, you maintained the backdrop seamlessly when the seaming was all we had. In the beating centre of you, under the soft curve of dawn, my hand at the small of her back was sealed in your minutes like handprints in soft wet cement. And I know that you remember the bow of our heads where your days met your evenings, in the roads and in the lakes and in the bed, and in the space between our fingers that we could not narrow well enough, the crack you always managed to bust and swim through, pour out, stain us.

Don’t be—coy. You’re a part of this. As much a part of this as we were. And yes, we danced, and yes, we were tied to the corners of the great speaking things and you held us still in spaces that can be measured with a beating of a drum. Or of a heart. Did we not press foreheads together and swear to forever when your seasons dropped changing like a guillotine blade, no soft shifting, no warning before the strangling sensation of heat fell over us like the end of notes? And did we not walk even in the heat and suffocation, the sweat gathering at the base of our clavicles and dripping to your core as we moved and moved, all lovely and new-built dismantled we moved?

Now I see your streets are soaring slowly, plotting to push us together, like the tilting of a plaything when it lies idly in some playing hand. The tiny metal spheres, she and I, the cheap plastic neon frame you and your wicked inertia. Hush, you’ll speak to us like a mother at nighttime, hush, you’ll tuck us in under separate beds between different walls, shaken walls. So close—your smoggy air is slipping densely through my nostrils and hers and then through her perfect mouth at my hip in my mind and then through my mouth. From my vine-pressed corner I am pressing my legs together once more, press us in you together once more, so that my lungs can fill with little fluttering dying birds begging to rest from their endless seizing, from our tiring journey.

Will she buck, my cosmic love? Can you hear my cosmic prayer when I pace in your streets, to bring us back to your riverbed and strike there our final match, and be consumed, or not consumed, but just to be—till the morning sun, while the dust of it still settles in my deafened body, to wake me with your rain and her hand at the base of my thighs, as if all of it has been nothing but a bad city dream, and all we’d have to do is escape your low skyline and we’d be fine?

—Gili Estlin Hirsch