The Big Dipper hovered low above the horizon. The bus was traveling north and was dark inside. A cold front had cleared the sky, and the waning moon wouldn’t rise for a few hours. I spotted Leo as well as the big bear, and what was probably Jupiter or Regulus low on the horizon. Most likely Regulus, the bright star in Leo. The fogged and tinted window made it hard to identify the dimmer stars and objects. I knew Orion hovered overhead. Familiar stars brought a comfortable end to a long day.
“Stars, in your multitudes, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light,” the song says. I could hear Javert’s baritone in my mind’s ear, musing on the stars and their ordered, predictable progress through the skies. Although, the skies in France in 1848 lacked the light pollution of a highway in Texas in 2016. We had fewer clouds, though, and similar latitudes. A few irrigation strobes briefly dimmed the scene as the bus rolled through the night. Someone had begun watering, probably winter wheat. No one had planted cotton or corn yet, and I think it’s still too early for beets. In the darkness you can’t tell. I also spotted the regular sweep of green and white marking rural airports. And the Big Bear, the Drinking Gourd that pointed to the North Star, Polaris, the unmoving center of the night.
“You are the sentinels, silent and sure, keeping watch in the night, keeping watch in the night.” How many years had I leaned my head against the glass of a car or bus window, watching the silvery points of light called stars? All my life, as long as I can remember, familiar shapes and new, Orion and the Summer Triangle, Aquila and Leo, Cassiopeia and Scorpio, Andromeda, the Southern cross, and once more Orion, the hunter of winter who strides through so many of my memories. he’s not in the zodiac but he seems to appear in all my best night memories, heralding the long-awaited arrival of cool weather and crisp nights and beautiful familiar winter skies.
“You know your place in the sky, you hold your course and your aim, and each in your season returns and returns and is always the same.” The sing grows more insistent as the singer dreams of order and predictability, of an unchanging world that fits his unchanging ideas of right and wrong, of proper life and laws. The stars are a touchstone for me as well, always there at the right time, no matter what we humans do in our short lives on the sublunary world. Orion in winter, Aquila and the Summer Triangle, Scorpio, Cassiopeia and Andromeda, turning, pivoting around Polaris, turning and returning with the seasons, no matter where I am or what else happens, the sky jewels return.
“And if you fall as Lucifer fell; You fall in flame!” Meteors sizzle past, but not that night. The Dipper and Leo hovered quietly, ignoring the passing of vehicles and the pumping of irrigation rigs. No novae disrupted the starry patterns of the night. Eventually the familiar sprawl of city lights began bleaching the sky and the stars faded. I sat up, ready to brace if a driver did something foolish. Late on a weekend night, anything can happen, at least on the ground.
And above, silent stars crossed the black sky, silver markers of time.
*”Stars” from Les Misérables, Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg.