Illustration by GUINEVERE VON SNEEDEN
Charumati glanced over her shoulder, just once. Her gaze swept the celestial palace where she had spent her life.
How it sparkled, all silver and ebony, this abode of the various nakshatras and their court. How splendid shone the entire heavenly realm of Svargalok. Mortals praised its many wonders in their myths. And yet Charumati couldn’t wait to leave it behind. Her eyes were not on its beauty but on potential pursuit. She’d managed to bribe one of the guards to bar the doors to the viewing hall—being a princess of the second-highest house in the sidereal hierarchy had its advantages—but no sentry would dare deny her parents entrance.
Clutching the balcony railing, she stared down through the void. It would be a long, dark drop to the mortal world, a wild leap of heat and light and, above all, hope.
She was not afraid, but still she hesitated. The astral melody rang out all around her, tugging on the threads of music in her own heart. This was her home.
Not far off, voices sounded.
Charumati released the railing. She couldn’t wait any longer. The princess of the House of Pushya turned her back on everything she had ever known and jumped.
Gautam Mistry was not a man given to romantic thinking. He’d spent most of his life immersed in scientific inquiry, and while there was certainly an undeniable beauty to the construction of the physical world—he’d once heard someone compare the vibrations of string theory to a song the cosmos sang to itself—he typically left poetry to the poets.
All that changed the warm September evening he stepped outside his apartment for a stroll. A weird mood had grabbed him; he’d begged off his weekly dinner with friends and just wandered the streets of Edison, hands tucked in his pockets. When was the last time he’d looked up at the sky for the fun of it, instead of stuffing his head with chains of letters and numbers that pinned each star and planet and moon in place like a bug?
He’d been so busy working, he’d even missed the meteor shower a couple nights ago. The irony stung. The whole reason he’d even gone into astrophysics was to recapture the way he’d felt as a kid in the mountains, staring up at the heavens while everyone else thought he was safely asleep. Who was looking back—the gods? Aliens? His future self?
In the darkness, with the stars blazing overhead, anything had seemed possible.
And so he’d dedicated himself to decoding that mysterious sky.
But he’d let himself get sidetracked, first by earning his degreesa nd then by an endless slew of temporary research positions to pay the bills, until he’d forgotten the cosmos existed beyond the range of his telescope at the observatory. That was, until tonight.
Tonight the old wonder flared again like a supernova, drawing him toward the park. He picked a spot in the grass away from the streetlamps and lay back with his arms pillowed beneath his head. Except for the occasional passing car, it was silent, as if the rest of the world had faded away.
His great-grandmother had believed deeply in Vedic astrology, teaching his sister and him all about the twenty-seven nakshatras and their stories, and as he traced the shapes of the various constellations now, he could almost see the figures in them. There was the Ashvini nakshatra with the horse-headed doctor twins Nasatya and Dasra, the Magha nakshatra with the royal throne, Purva Phalguni with the fig tree …
Hours passed. Gautam’s thoughts had started to drift until he imagined he could hear an unearthly song like wind chimes and bells, as if the stars themselves were crooning to him.
Something bright and silver plunged down from the sky. It looked like a falling star, getting larger as it came closer, but instead of crashing to the ground, it danced through the air and finally settled on the grass near his feet.
Gautam jolted upright and stared. The object stood, shaking out long starlight tresses and casting off flashes of silvery radiance with each movement. He blinked hard, trying to adjust to the sudden brilliance, and glimpsed large silver-brown eyes set in a delicate brown face. “You’re—you’re a person,” he stammered in Hindi. “But that’s impossible.”
The star, if that was what she was, laughed. When she spoke, her words were high and sweet. “Is it?”
“But you’re a star, too.” Gautam felt stupid even as he asked, “Aren’t you?”
The star frowned. “Surely mortals do not spend their brief lives restating the obvious. Otherwise, I have made a foolish decision by coming here.” Gautam leaped to his feet. As a scientist, he should have been skeptical, but he knew one thing: The elusive night sky had just come to him in the form of a breathtakingly gorgeous woman, and even if it turned out he was dreaming, he wasn’t about to chase her away. “Of course not. I’m Gautam.” He stuck out a hand for her to shake. When she only tilted her head questioningly, he took back his hand and joined his palms in front of his face in the traditional greeting of his youth.
Amused, she did the same. “I am called Charumati of House Pushya. May you burn bold in the deepest night.”
“Um, sure, you, too,” he mumbled. Pushya—that was one of the twenty-seven constellations. If only he could remember more of what his great-grandmother had taught him. Why wasn’t there a manual for talking to star maidens the way there was for operating telescopes?
Charumati surveyed the park with its shadowed trees and walking paths, then said, “Take me elsewhere. You mortals have so few days as it is, I wonder that you would waste even another second in this clearing.”
Being the generally practical man that he was, Gautam hadn’t really ever thought of life that way. But all he asked was, “Where do you want to go?”
Charumati broke into a smile so wide and bright, it set all the nerves in his body sparking. His heart swelled with lush descriptions of that smile, of that hair, of those eyes. Of the way she wore the night sky in her black-blue-and-silver sari. “On an adventure,” she said, offering her arm to him. “I am here for the length of a single mortal night, so make it count.”
And so Gautam Mistry, the pragmatic, studious astrophysicist who had figured his parents would just arrange a marriage for him someday, took the silver-limned elbow of the ethereal star Charumati and led her toward what would hopefully be an adventure.
They’d take the train from Edison to New York City, he decided, and he would drive them to the station. Charumati was slightly suspicious of his car, a beat-up white Toyota Corolla that had seen much better days, but climbed inside. She even put on her seat belt without complaining. As he drove, she gazed around with large, attentive eyes, and with each movement of her head, her hair flung starlight throughout the car. It was so distracting, Gautam could barely keep his eyes on the road.
When they parked on a side street, he realized it would be distracting for anyone else who saw it, too. But he had no idea where to buy a wig, except maybe at a Halloween store, and anyway, nothing like that would be open this late.
“Why the dismayed face?” Charumati asked
“Your—your hair,” he explained. “If anyone sees it … well, there’s no way to pretend it’s human.”
She laughed and fingered a lock of it, tossing light over the concrete like a disco ball. “Perhaps if I bind it up?”
He almost protested; it was so beautiful, so magical, he couldn’t stand the thought of her hiding it away. But Gautam was a problem solver at heart, and watching her twist the fall of hair into a bun gave him an idea. He unlocked the trunk of his car and pulled out the hooded Rutgers sweatshirt he kept there for rainy days. “Here, try this.”
Charumati seemed delighted as she tugged the sweatshirt over her head. She swam in the bulky red cotton fleece, which looked ridiculous against her delicate sari but did the job—the hood was large enough to cover her hair. And something about the way she stood there in front of the deserted train platform, like hair passing out hand-scrawled fortunes, and a bookstore with bubbles streaming out the open door.
How had Gautam never noticed these things? Or was this happening because she was here? He’d always preferred to take the concrete jungle of New York City in small doses, but with Charumati at his side, it all felt magical, like they were in a movie.
Inside the restaurant, the waitress seated them at a pink-lit corner table with a candle burning in a filigree gold cup. A melancholy old Lata Mangeshkar song played in the background as the waitress set down menus and glasses of coconut water. Gautam wondered if he should offer to read the menu to Charumati, but she was already busy scanning it.
She glanced mischievously over the top of her menu. “All tongues are as one to the celestials. I speak Sanskrit, and you hear it as Gujarati, Hindi, even this strange and unpretty English …”
“That’s handy,” Gautam said, leaning forward. His English was excellent, but his Indian accent had caused more than one person in America to claim they couldn’t understand him or to take him less seriously.
Charumati pushed back her hood. The waitress gasped, but when Charumati put a finger to her own lips, the waitress simply winked and took their orders.
Once she’d left, Gautam hissed, “What if someone else sees you?”
“Do you see anyone else here?” Charumati sipped her coconut water. “You have questions. Ask.”
Gautam didn’t know where to start. He shrugged. “I really just want to hear about you. Anything. Everything.”
Her smile could have outshone her hair, which sparkled even in its loose knot. “Did you know stars once walked freely among you mortals? Alas, this is no longer so.” She sighed. “My life is orderly; as a princess raised to a house determined to claw its way back to power, I have been educated in necessary politenesses and accustomed to the weight of expectations. There is much beauty in the heavens, of course, and I know my duty, but sometimes even a gilded cage grows too confined.”
The food arrived, a beautifully plated spread of vegetable pulao, kaman dhokla, kadhi, roti, undhiyu, onion and potato bhajia, and mango pickle. They dug in, and between bites, Charumati told Gautam of her childhood friend Rati, of the mischief they would make with the other royal children, of the ever-fruiting groves of skyberry bushes and blue mango trees, of the jars upon jars of glittering stardust. But her voice grew wistful when she described watching human lives from a place called the Hall of Mirrors.
“You mortals are unbound in a way I am not, or rather must not be. How I envied you and your passion-filled days!” Gautam thought of his own methodical life and choked back a laugh.
“And so I am here, but what of you? What stirs your heart?” Her otherworldly gaze studied him with curiosity.
How could he possibly live up to that question? He was boring, just a guy who hadn’t done anything special.
But with her looking at him like that, Gautam found himself telling her about his family in India, about his sister Radhika who had become engaged to a man from Edison, and how she planned to move across the world to marry him and be near her brother. “My life’s happy enough. It always has been. But I guess I wanted more, too. I just stopped expecting it to show up.”
“And yet here I am.”
He grinned. “And yet here you are.”
Gautam didn’t say he was already picturing how mundane his life would be after she went home. Instead, he paid the bill and excused himself to go to the restroom.
When he came back, Charumati was gone.
The breath felt punched from his body. He looked around frantically, terrified that he’d made her up. Or worse, that she’d left in search of real excitement.
But when he raced outside, there she stood, gazing up at the sky. With the light pollution, he couldn’t see anything but black. Charumati, though, clearly could, her face sad beneath the hood she’d pulled over her hair.
He bit back the urge to ask if she was okay as she turned to him, lighting up with the radiance inside her. “My family is searching for me. But do not worry. They can wait, for I wish to dance!”
Dancing. Gautam didn’t dance. He barely even played dandiya-raas at Navratri each year. But he smiled and said there was nothing he would like to do more.
Then he took his star princess dancing.
The nightclub looked like a hybrid of a punk rock music video from the eighties and a fairy story. Multicolored lights flashed overhead, reflected a millionfold by the pink, purple, and blue glitter raining down from the ceiling. Too bad Gautam had missed the memo about coming in costume, because the room was packed with dancers in saris and kurta pajamas and corsets and Victorian ball gowns and torn-up jeans and black tops held together with safety pins, all vibrating to the throbbing trance beat laid over the playback singer trilling about her love’s return. Here and there, he even saw some people made up to look like creatures out of his grandmother’s stories: yakshas, apsaras, rakshasas.
He inhaled deeply, deliberately, taking it all in. Knowing he never would have discovered any of this without Charumati by his side.
She’d stripped off his sweatshirt and let her hair down, but to everyone else, it was one more ray of strobe lighting. Gautam’s grin was goofy as she spun and swayed like a daydream made solid. Magic. He’d found magic.
Slowly his grin crumbled. She looked every centimeter the princess she was, way more at home here than he ever would be. He wasn’t the only one who thought so, either; no matter what direction Charumati moved in, the other dancers followed, so that she remained the center of their circle.
He clutched the hoodie, which smelled of her, a fresh night breeze and something heavenly he couldn’t put into words. It had only been a few hours, but he already couldn’t imagine how his life could shrink back into its small, rigid shape after Charumati left. What was he doing, falling for a woman who would leave in the morning?
He slunk away to the bar. A drink would at least give him something to do.
For song after song, Gautam nursed an electric green cocktail. It was incredible how long a terrible drink could last. This one tasted like chemical spinach. Who was he kidding? He didn’t belong with a woman like her. She’d only approached him because he’d happened to be there when she descended.
The thought filled him with a dark despair.
Then she was at his side, her eyes even larger with concern. “I’ve been looking for you.” She plucked the glass from his fingers, sniffed it, and took a cautious sip. The utter disgust that twisted her beautiful features would have had him in stitches if he weren’t feeling so gloomy.
“Chee!” she cried, shoving the glass away. “I am offended you would punish yourself like this rather than tell me you do not wish to dance. Perhaps I should leave you here.”
“No!” he blurted, rising from his stool. “I mean, if you’re ready, we could just go …”
“I must say, I had hoped you would join me for a song.” Charumati held out her hand, fingers splayed to look like lotus petals. But when Gautam didn’t take it, ashamed of the figure he would have cut on the dance floor, afraid of letting her get even deeper under his skin, she averted her gaze. “Ah. Let us leave, then.”
Gautam knew from the disappointment in her lovely voice that he’d blown everything. But that was for the best, right?
As soon as they stepped out on the sidewalk, they heard a clip-clop, clip-clop sound. Gautam did a double take. There was no reason for a horse-drawn carriage in this part of the city at this time of the night, and yet there it was. Charumati applauded. “So like Lord Surya’s chariot!”
“Want to go for a ride?” Gautam asked. She nodded enthusiastically, and the driver, a mustached brown-skinned man dressed in red and gold, ushered them into the carriage.
“I will take you to Penn Station,” he said before nudging the horses into motion.
Gautam wondered how the driver knew their destination, but the more he looked at the driver, the less human the driver appeared. Probably best not to inquire.
As they rode, Charumati rested her head on Gautam’s shoulder and told him stories about the different constellations. With each story, Gautam could see the figures come into view in a stunning panorama across the sky. This must be what she saw all the time. He would give anything to be able to snap a photo of it.
In turn, he shared the stories his grandmother had told him. Each one pushed him to admit it hadn’t just been other humans in that club. No wonder Charumati had fit right in.
And no wonder he had to pull back. In a couple hours, it would be dawn, and then he’d never see her again.
The driver wound the carriage through the city. No cars got in their way. No one honked or yelled even when they drove right through red lights. No one noticed them at all.
When the carriage finally pulled into the taxi line in front of Penn Station, Gautam helped Charumati down, then reached for his wallet. The driver shook his head. Instead, he turned to Charumati. A silver flame blazed in her outstretched palm. The driver tucked the flame into his pouch, then drove off.
“What was that?” Gautam demanded. “He just stole your—was that starlight?”
Charumati laughed her bell-like laugh. “None may steal what is freely given. Besides, what use would a gandharva have for your mortal ‘cold, hard cash’? Come, let us go home.”
The train back to Edison was empty except for the two of them. They were silent until they reached his car.
“Do you know I thought you ran off and abandoned me?” Charumati asked suddenly, seizing his hands. Her voice dripped grief. “I waited for you to come dance, but instead, you vanished.”
“Why do you care?” Gautam retorted. The sight of their clasped hands taunted him. He should let go—of her hand, of his hope. But he didn’t want to. She’d already expanded his life so much, and he wanted to do the same for her.
She frowned. “Why would I not? Are you not the person I watched, the one who inspired me to venture down at last?”
“I came to have adventures, yes. I came to have them with you,” she said. Snaring his gaze with hers, she began to sing. “You of the steady heart and the inquiring mind. You, who still yearn for enchantment. I wish you had danced with me.”
Gautam felt so many things—guilt, amazement, gladness. They threatened to overwhelm him. But she’d stated a problem, and that he could handle. “Then I’ll fix that now.”
Not caring who was watching, he swept her into his arms and swayed to her melody.
It was the song he’d heard just before she appeared in the park. The song of the stars. Her words enclosed him in starlight, her notes in magic.
“I had only intended to play amongst you mortals for one night,” she said softly, her head against his chest, “and then return to the court. Yet I suspect I could be convinced to linger awhile.”
“Then linger with me,” he said. It was impulsive, and it was stupid, and he meant every word. He already knew he always would. “Marry me. I can’t build you a palace, but I’ll build you a home, and I’ll spend my life giving you all the adventures and stories I can.”
He had no idea how. He hadn’t even found a permanent job yet. But he’d find a way.
Charumati brushed his cheek with her lips. It felt like a dream on his skin. “Yes,” she said beneath the last shadows of the night. The song of the stars wrapped around them both like a silver lace veil as she drew his mouth to hers.
As Ushas rode her dawn-red horses through the heavens, paving the way for Lord Surya’s fiery chariot, Charumati paused at the open door to study this mortal man. How beautiful he was, his adoring heart on full display in his face.
She glanced up at the heavens. If she did not return now, the entire court and all the stars beyond it would learn she had fled. Her parents’ wrath would be mighty.
Yet as she turned back to Gautam, she knew she would never regret her choice.
Charumati took Gautam’s hand once more and let him lead her into his apartment.
“Written in the Stars” is set in the world of Shveta’s forthcoming young adult fantasy novel, Star Daughter, and features some of its characters. A fairy tale drenched in Hindu mythology and folklore, Star Daughter follows Sheetal, the daughter of Charumati and Gautam, who, in the wake of her father’s near fatal cardiac arrest, must journey to the heavenly realm to find the celestial mother who left Sheetal behind to help save him, all while struggling to control her own emerging starry powers. Star Daughter will be out in Summer 2020 from HarperTeen.