On Sun Stars
At the pharmacy window I spell the letters out in routine cadence: e-l-a-n-o-r. She types them in and I see that little roll of her eyes; another trans girl being precious, she thinks, another person too cute by half. Rootless, decadent, living in affectation. I do not explain.
I see the old green book backlit by a morning window. Its fabric corners are bent and scuffed, the pages dog-eared, and on the cover there is that stain, a speckled white disc not quite full, pregnant as a gibbous moon. The book was watered by the plant it held up over years, enlaced in trailing vines; it’s the kind of flaw that is no flaw, as if fated, a mark it waited for, a mark it needed to be complete.
Far over the misty mountains cold, to dungeons deep and caverns old; we must away ere break of day, to seek the pale enchanted gold.
I cannot read the words, decades on, without hearing her voice. Every family shares mythologies, the stories that order the world, and this was ours. She spoke of Tom Bombadil like an old friend; she moved to that valley, the valley where I was born, to be closer to him, I think. I’m told she carried me slung on her back when I was too small to walk, through the circling forest hills, hills of fir cones and bracken snapped, of deep rich loam, of sword ferns and undiscovered mushrooms. The giant trees loomed and far off whispers moved the beards of lichen.
In the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole, with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.
It’s the beats she lingered on. And that means comfort. One of my first memories is that scent of deep wet stone, down in the basement of the forest science hall, her windowless laboratory strewn with stained glass beakers and dusty rubber tubes and humming machines all soaked in that air of rock and earth, that air that filters down through you, to your bones.
Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth …
She went into labor in her field of weeds. She’d carried me inside for months of that work, endless hours wandering down research rows, studying and cultivating them, nurturing them, trying to learn their secrets. Through that summer the Willamette Valley sun poured down its full heat, pooling on her nose, on her shoulders, seeping through the skin of her belly. Row on row, bramble and dust.
Redroot Pigweed. Amaranthus Retroflexus.
Lambsquarters. Chenopodium Album.
Barnyard Grass. Echinochloa.
She stooped, again and again, against the weight of me, and said their names. They had many, and she held them all.
Elanor is a Sindarin word. If that language sounds unfamiliar, it’s because the noted philologist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien made it up. In his world it was the speech of elves, returned over the sea from the land of the gods. In Sindarin, elanor refers to a little yellow flower brought back in the elves’ flight to bloom in the magic wood of Lothlorien. Derived from the Sindarin roots el (star) and anor (sun), Tolkien described elanor as like “a pimpernel (perhaps a little enlarged) growing sun-golden flowers and star-silver ones on the same plant, and sometimes the two combined.” To hobbits, in the common speech, its name was simply sun-star.
Newly wed, we drove west, out and then left, down to the remote Southern Oregon coast. The high summer turned empty; fires in the Siskiyou Mountains shut down the rafting rivers, and the towns hummed with a restless abandonment, just a bit like the offseason Riviera of a Fitzgerald novel. A faint and anxious note of smoke carried on the wind.
In the small town of Port Orford, our motel looked out on a crescent bay, a long curve of sand broken here and there with black, jutting teeth. That first morning, we set our alarms for 6 a.m. for the lowest tide, and walked down to find sea stacks laid bare, long sand like glass, the roll of sea both near and far. The tide pools shivered with distant thunder and the bite of morning wind; the sea dew clung to my beard as she took my hand in hers and led us out. The whole beach teemed, sea stars in orange and purple covered the boulders, crabs and chiton clung to black rock, nudibranch and anemone shimmered in the hollows.
We were stopped, suddenly, by a different kind of beast, like nothing we had ever imagined. It was the monster beyond maps — a giant star the size of a cart wheel, rayed with countless legs, and it burned with the same orange as the sun does down across a flat and distant horizon, in those last moments before it slips out of reach past the rim of the world.
We learned its common name later: Sun Star. That day, it sat there as if expecting us, folded up in repose with its back against a rock, legs splayed out on the sand before it, and a few arms dangling out lazily from the rock face, too. Sitting there, it insisted on itself and it named itself. It seemed at once a guide and a gatekeeper, of the liminal seam of the shoreline, of night and day, of dream and waking. It spoke of depths unseen and irresistible tides. It spoke of impermanent space and headlands worn down, of the wash of debris and crumbling stone. It spoke of transformation, and places you can never see the same way twice. It spoke of shrouds, of clouds and mists closing in.
I felt the inflection; we stood there in our place in a story, our long journey to get to that beach and the long journey ahead. How little we knew, how little we could know. What that sun star spoke of most was that long and unknown road, telling our story forward in language only scrutable in retrospect, only clear in the finding.
Language is a container and a scaffold. It is the bowl that holds the liquid stuff of meaning, gives it shape, keeps it from spilling out and away from is us in every which way. It is also the frame and foundation, the stuff we build upon, the stuff we stack together, fieldstone now cornerstone, combining to create greater wholes. Nowhere is this more intensely felt than with names.
Or maybe a name is a tomato cage. A gardener takes this little green thing they sowed as it peeks from the mulch, and places this structure around it. In so doing, the gardener gives it new rungs to grasp, a frame and a ladder to support its climb, all those leaves and vines it sends out tremulously toward the sky. But it also hems the little green thing in, prescribes its shape, and holds in any vines that get a little too wild.
And then, perhaps, every once in a while, the cage turns out to be the wrong shape, meant for different seeds, for a different plant entirely.
The name “Nora” stuck to my skin like pine sap, back in high school, long before I thought to name myself. I carried it small and secret, through nights rolling up D&D characters I would never share; she was my pet cat in a video game, then my character herself, every character from then on. My wife eventually came to know it from the top of my baby name lists in wistful future conversations.
But when the time came to choose for good, with court application forms splayed out on my desk, the solidity of the choice was unsettling. Nora was mine and it was me, but was it enough? Was it complete? I wondered if it needed a longer root, some deeper tie. I looked up names that could be cut down; Eleanor in particular stood out, but it wasn’t quite right, either. Then, a memory flashed of a little hobbit girl hidden away at the end of Lord of the Rings, so slight your probably missed her. I immediately pulled down the old worn book, flipped through it to the end, and found the right page.
I could hardly believe what I saw there. I called my wife over and had her read it too, to confirm that what I saw was really there. Our eyes met; we knew then that the choice was made, that it was all written there, that maybe it had never really been a choice at all.
I hiked up just after the rain. The ferns pulsed green, and the fresh streams chattered down over roots and snags. I drove out alone on a day it all seemed to break, back to my coast range mountains, needing solace and rest and something I could not hope to define. Here and there through the canopy the greyblue sea stretched west. The trail was empty and silent, but for the hollow thud of my own footfalls, a little breath of wind, and that constant water, dripping from rotting logs, pooling in the cups of leaves. And though the whole closed forest lay in shadow, the sun was rising. We felt the heat of it, there in the dim, as mists rose off the undergrowth.
In the rising heat, sweating from the determined climb, I rolled my shirt up over my belly. I rolled it up over my breasts. And then I took it off. It struck me as my skin came free that I had never done this before, never been exposed, bare like this, or at least, not since the change, since my chest became something obscene, to be shrouded and guarded and hidden from the world. The air felt close and bright; this new skin had never felt air like this. Whatever I carried up from the trailhead began to slip then, to fade, to waft away with the rising vapor.
The climb was steep and relentless. And then, suddenly, I crested a ridge and the trees fell away. It all opened out: that ribbon of shoreline off to the horizon, the scattered clouds on a blue sky, but over all that sun, clear and full. I felt my chest blaze bright, blinding.
There is an untranslatable Portuguese work, saudades, which roughly means a melancholy nostalgia for something passed, something of yourself now distant, aching yet ephemeral as a dream. Writer Manuel de Melo calls it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Saudades are an absence, an incompleteness, the wistful yearning for that which may complete us. They are things you feel and also things you carry. They travel beside you, with you.
My saudades fold me up in the sunlight of that valley, of home. A need to return bubbles up every spring, carrying many familiar notes: cottonwood and fir, the piquant tall grass, a hint of smoke from a burning field. But mostly, it’s that sun. It has this particular weight without mass, firm but not heavy, blunt and ethereal. It is a sun that flows; if you cup your hand just right you can catch a little pool of it on your palm, let it spill through your fingers, purse your lips and sip it down.
There on that cliff in the wash of that light, down and through my new skin, that familiar ache was there, touching a memory, a lifetime in sunlight. But different, too — in that moment that light felt old and new. Or perhaps it was hard to tell which was truly new, that light or that skin. Or, perhaps, the new and nameless thing was something both of and beyond either one alone. Whatever the source, I felt a little crack then like the splitting of a seed, the urgency of a green shoot rising. A single word carried with it, suddenly clear: bloom.
It was near to Christmas time, and I headed to Powell’s Books downtown to run my fingers down the vast Tolkien shelf. The book had to be just right, an old paperback, pages faded umber and that sweet ancient smell, but also modest, small, something to fit in a pocket. I finally found the right one at the end of a shelf, tucked between hardcovers, easily overlooked. I smuggled it home, flipped to the end, and filled the margins around the passage with little yellow flowers blooming on colored pencil vines, watered with just a few tears. I placed the bookmark at the right spot. When the day came, my hands trembled just a little as I handed it to Mom.
‘Well, Mr. Frodo,’ [Sam] said, ‘I’m in a bit of a fix. Rose and me had settled to call him Frodo, with your leave; but it’s not a him, it’s a her. Though as pretty a maid child as any one could hope for, taking after Rose more than me, luckily. So we don’t know what to do.’
‘Well Sam,’ said Frodo, ‘what’s wrong with the old customs? Choose a flower name like Rose. Half the maid-children in the Shire are called by such names, and what could be better?’
‘I suppose you’re right, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam. ‘I’ve heard some beautiful names on my travels, but I suppose they’re a bit grand for daily wear and tear, as you might say. The Gaffer, he says: “Make it short, and then you won’t have to cut it short before you can use it.” But if it’s a flower name, I don’t trouble about the length: it must be a beautiful flower, because, you see, I think she is very beautiful, and is going to be beautiful-er still.’
Frodo thought for a moment. ‘Well, Sam, what about elanor, the sun-star, you remember the little golden flower in the grass of Lothlorien?’
‘You’re right again, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam delighted. ‘That’s what I wanted.’
Her finger traced those lines, the little weedy vines down the margin rows.
She said the names then, and held them too.
Elanor Broker is a writer and civil rights attorney in Portland, Oregon. Their work has appeared in Slate, Catapult, Electric Literature, Gertrude Press, and other publications. Read more at www.elanorbroker.com and on twitter @elanorbroker.