THE OLD MAN OPENED THE OLD WOODEN BOX and lifted out Betelgeuse, red and shining, and the other stars of Orion followed like pearls on a string.
He arranged the constellation on his work table. Orion’s shoulders and legs were the brightest points, and the belt glowed blue. Beside the constellation, the box radiated starlight to the rafters of the small cabin and out the low workshop window into the day. The Old Man flipped shut the lid, the hinges popping like the gnarled joints of his fingers. He adjusted his magnifying goggles and bent to his work.
From her high perch, a phoenix flapped her one good wing to half-fly, half-fall to the table. She looked at the Old Man with an unspoken question.
“Ah, Europa,” the Old Man said, his eyes magnified through his goggles to huge orbs. “You wonder what I’m doing.”
The phoenix clicked her beak.
“The sword is loose.” He pointed his tweezers at the stars hanging from Orion’s belt. “It wouldn’t do for it to fall off in the night sky.”
She clicked again. Nipped at his fingers.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. Orion is one of my favorites, too.”
He returned to work, repairing the links between stars when a crash from outside the cabin interrupted him. The Old Man and the phoenix looked up. A girl climbed through the window. She had brown skin and brown hair in braids. Her foot caught on the window frame, and she tumbled to the floor.
The Old Man set his goggles atop his white hair. “Goodness. What’s this?”
The girl dusted off her dress. She smiled at the Old Man.
“Oh, it is you. I knew it would be.”
“How did you get here?”
She took a tentative step, as if not sure it would be permitted. “Amanda is sick. I saw starlight through the window in her hospital room, and I climbed through.”
“Amanda? Who is that?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Anna. And you’re the man with the star box.” She walked to the table, where the phoenix watched her. “You have a pretty bird.”
“Europa belongs to no one,” the Old Man said. He pinched the blue giant Bellatrix with his tweezers to lift up the half-finished constellation and set it on the box’s lid. The stars fell in a jumbled pile.
“Is she an eagle?”
“A phoenix. She’s injured, you see. Her wing. Her chick was snatched from the nest. She tried to save it, but she couldn’t. She’s staying with me until she’s healed.”
Anna stroked Europa. “Poor bird. How long will that take?”
“She could heal herself now, but she’s not ready. She’s mourning her chick.” His frowned returned. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s impossible.”
“But my sister is sick.”
“Yes, you said that.”
“We used to look at the stars together. Now she can’t. She’s been in the hospital for weeks, and the doctor told Mama she might never leave. Amanda says she misses the stars.” She looked longingly at the constellation atop the box. “I heard about a man who keeps the stars in a box in the day and lets them out at night. That’s you, isn’t it? I know it is. Can I have a star to show Amanda?”
“You want a star?”
“Only to borrow. I’ll bring it back. I promise.”
With a sad smile, the Old Man said, “What you ask is impossible, child.”
“You said it’s impossible for me to be here.”
“This is different.” He touched the box. “The stars don’t belong to me. I am merely the caretaker. I can’t hand out stars to whoever comes asking.”
Anna stood beside the Old Man’s chair, starlight from Orion casting a glow on her cheeks. “Has anyone asked before?”
“I want to do this for Amanda.”
The Old Man stood, slower than he had when he and the stars had been young. With his arm around her shoulders, he guided Anna to the window. “The best you can do is be with your sister. Go back to the hospital and your parents. Go on now.”
He waited until Anna, her small face grave, climbed through the window, one skinny leg over the ledge and then the other, and was gone.
The Old Man returned to the table. Europa nipped at his fingers, hard.
“You disapprove. I know. You too have loved and lost. But I told the truth. The stars are not mine to give.”
He glanced once more toward the window. When the girl did not return, he settled his goggles over his eyes, laid Orion out on the table and returned to his work.
In time, daylight darkened to dusk out the window. The Old Man straightened and popped the joints in his back.
Europa peered at him with one eye open.
“It’s time,” he said.
He took the box and the repaired constellation to the window. A valley spread out below the cabin, cut through with a river and bordered by snowy mountains. Soon the world would gaze upward in search of the first star of evening.
He opened the box. Stars rose out and soared. Hundreds, thousands, millions, to glitter in the night sky. When the box was empty, the Old Man lifted Orion on his open palm to coax it to join its fellows.
Behind him, Europa leaped from the table, flew over his shoulder, snatched Orion in her beak and went out the window.
“Europa!” the Old Man yelled.
At first, she struggled. Her injured wing drooped. Then the wing burst into flame. Bones mended. Feathers sprouted. As the fire died, the phoenix soared over the valley and vanished from sight.
The Old Man shut the box.
“Take care of this gift, child,” he murmured to the girl who would find a phoenix at the window of her sister’s hospital room. “And forgive a foolish old man. The sky can do without Orion for one night.”
© 2015 Jennifer Campbell-Hicks