Morgan MacVaugh

[Nonfiction]  Constellations

The plane’s lights are flickering before they take off. Mac keeps glancing at them, then back at me, but I pretend not to notice and try to breathe away that erratic rhythm in my chest. Try to focus on the nerve endings in my teeth, try to feel them aching, as my breath rushes past them again and again.


There’s only the two of us, amidst a handful of twelve, together on a plane bound for Stornoway. We watch wide-eyed as the flight attendant, some stone-faced woman looking like its doomsday, physically pulls the plane door up to the side of the plane and seals it with a lever wheel. She looks at it afterward for a split second too long, like she’s trying to remember if that’s really the right way of doing it, but she doesn’t check it. She’s resigned to her fate. I don’t blame her really.


The woman in the seat in front of us spent the plane’s two-hour delay going from person to person in the lobby, loudly mentioning she’s traveling with her husband but they’re not sitting together and if we’d like to switch all the while eyeing up the tickets tucked in our passports. She had stayed clear of us though, blue passports confirming everyone’s quick, puzzled looks that we’re not from around here and why would we be going? Then and now, I didn’t have an answer, save Mac wants to see the Hebrides, and she would never have to go alone.


My leg is thumping up and down. Mac rests her arm closer to mine, and we look out the tiny window onto tarmac bathed in Glasgow’s cloud cover. Time slips away in fear soaked minutes. The flight attendant yells the safety manual down the cabin, which can’t be any bigger than my living room at home (at least in square footage). Ground people must be at work on the tarmac because there’s the deafening noise of propellers. Lights surge brighter then dim again. The captain calls in from the cockpit:


Ladies and Gentleman, we’ll shortly be departing for our destination. My sincere apologies for the delay this morning… Something to do with something affecting either the power or the engine… and they just wanted to check we were safe to go.


The lights flicker. A longer beat of darkness this time. I make peace with my God.


Our flight should reach Stornoway by one pm… Thank you very much for choosing to fly with… and I hope you have a pleasant flight.


I can feel every movement of this wind-up plane somewhere deep in my bones as this metal creature peels off onto the tarmac, waits it’s turn, picks up speed and then we’re in the air and the sound is deafening and I’m aware of nothing except praying breathing breathing praying and Mac’s bones jutting through the skin of her hand while it grips mine—so I close my eyes.




The first time I dream about him, I’m in seventh grade. It’s dark; there are no stars. I’m in some huge cityscape, out of breath and panting as these humanoid things are chasing me through damp darkened alleyways. They flit along rooftops, eyes glinting from fire escapes, as I am condemned to the ground. My breath is scratchy against my throat, but my feet stumble forward, and just when I’m out of breath and my lungs burning, I find a door, open it, and shut it behind me. I shake with the panting. This new room is bright—the color of sunshine—and when I turn to face it, there are the voices of everyone I’ve ever loved around me, and I can see their souls, floating like dandelion wisps across my front line. In the middle of the haze, stands a boy dressed in an old-time nightdress. He doesn’t look any older than me until he turns and pins me with eyes so green they might be stitched together of summer leaves. They have age to them. From beneath his unkempt bangs, he smiles at me and holds out his arms as if for a hug, and I find myself grinning and crying, in this strange room bathed in light. Then there’s a noise from the doorway, and the light fades into complete darkness. I’m watching myself reach for something or someone, but the shadows are too deep to see what. I collapse to my knees. The darkness gets thicker and thicker


There’s a white light behind me. The boy throws his arms around my shoulders, says, softly, It’s okay. I’ll always be here.


Then I’m blinking in the darkness of my room, the blankets are tangled at my feet. I suck in a breath that feels like I’ve been keeping death at bay, and from that day on I will swear that there was a warm spot on the bed next to me that night.




The plane is jittering in the air, and I feel each of its hiccups quiver through my body. The propellers’ screams roar over my headphones. We’re above the clouds, and the turbulence is heavy, but sunlight is streaming across cumulus hills and Mac’s hand hasn’t left mine.




Once upon a time, I love a young man. He is how every story starts: childhood best friend, evolved to crush, evolved to boyfriend. He and I spend the summer between senior year and college laying in the grass of Spring Run’s park, watching ants make trails around our outstretched arms as Lancaster’s sun bakes us.


We talk too often about the future, and it’s like every day before it when he clears his throat, adjusts his glasses in my peripheral vision.


“I finally feel like my life’s coming together,” he says. I almost laugh, feeling the smile at my lips, but he’s always been a little young for our age, so instead, I watch the leaves of the tree above us whisper in the breeze going by. Sunlight dapples the ground.


“Is that so?”




He pauses to think and the wind huffs restlessly against my long hair. I should get it cut this summer, shouldn’t I? I’m beginning to look like a hippie.


“How?” I laugh. “I feel like I’ll be going in circles forever.”


A swing screeches across the park and he smiles, stretching his hand upward. “I mean… well, think about it. I’m going to Middlebury for German. I’m going on that Eagle Scout trip this summer, and I’ve got my dream girl at home.”


“Dream girl?” I repeat. My cheeks feel hot but I’m not sure if it’s from him or the weather. “I’m leaving too, you know. Not sticking around here.”


“I know, I know,” he says, then pauses. “You’ll be gone.”


“400 miles away,” I say a little too pointedly, and it works because his brow furrows as he ponders the distance from Vermont to Central Pennsylvania. My heart tugs once, but I harden it. He chose Middlebury.




Two kids, a boy and a girl, burst into the park perimeter, shouting and laughing and kicking dandelion heads off of their stems. I close my eyes, breathe in deep the heat and dust and wind of summer. The sunlight, too.


He grips my hands suddenly, turns to looks pointedly at me, and I see fear in his eyes, shining brighter than the gleam of light on his glasses. “You know… I want this to work,” he says. “You know I’m in this for the long haul. I… I want to marry you someday, Morgan.”


My heart stops, and something emerges from my lips. Something soft and pretty and rehearsed—probably ripped from a fairy tale or Disney movie. Something that makes his face light up against the cerulean sky of mid-summer and lie back down with his eyes closed. Something, that I’m sure, that meant something to him. Something that sinks under my memories, long forgotten now.




The plane is descending into the sea. The pilot has just announced we’ll be landing, so I assume there’s an airport somewhere, but as of now it’s nowhere in sight and we’re descending into the sea.


Beneath the cloud line now, there is sun against the surf and a tiny boat like a battleships piece looks stationary in the wake. I watch Mac watch the view as the plane turns just a little, enough to see the emergence of the islands. There’s snow on the caps of some of them, others shine this vibrant green of stories and legends.


My fear loosens its hold for just a moment.


“Do you love it?” I ask her, smiling.


She smiles, brow twitching, and leans her ear against my lips.


“Do you love it?” I ask again.


Her head bobbles up and down, and she squeezes my hand, points to another view, then another, before spotting the landing strip.


The plane tumbles downward, racing towards its fate with newfound energy, and dips down down down until its wheels are against the tarmac again. It gives a dramatic scream, and the impact sets Mac and I clutching each other’s arms as it brakes against the runway.


It ends up crooked on the landing strip, but they drive it towards the airport anyway, where we pick up our bags. Our ride is a stranger with a kind face and a black jeep. The owner of the cottage we’re renting for a weekend. We load it and set off, bounding forward, towards Tolsta Chaolais.




It’s freshman year, almost midnight, and we’re walking around Susquehanna’s track, watching our breath become vapor. We trade our stories like secrets. My boyfriend, for hers. Her mom, for my parents’ divorce. Story after story coming out of our lips like some great sigh of the universe, a balm for old wounds and new starts. We’ve been out here for two hours. We’ll be out here for two more. Walking lap after lap as the night is claimed by cold. The stars will be clouded over by the time we get texts from our boyfriends, Want to Skype tonight? And we pad back to our dorms obediently.


We come to mine first, and we pause, saying our goodbyes. Her nose is red from the cold and her lips are twisted up in a smile. I don’t tell her I could talk to her for another two hours yet, perhaps until the stars were visible again, or the sun rose, or whichever came later. Surely our boyfriends wouldn’t mind?


But we say goodnight.




“Dark starts falling between 4 and 5 here in February,” says our driver. “So if you do plan on going hiking, don’t get left in the dark.”


Mac and I nod our agreements and look out the windows of the Jeep out onto the Isle of Lewis. The land is rolling out away from us in foreign shapes, formed by outcroppings of rocky crags embedded in the soil. Sheep roam freely that farther out we get from Stornoway. In the strangest way, this land feels forebodingly alive.


“Places like this are where the Faery legends started,” Mac had said joyously while booking this trip. We had been sitting on my bed back home, looking at a dot on a map the size of a pinprick.  Her black pen danced across the page as she took notes. “I just wanna see it. The real island; village life. Not just the one you see from Stornoway.”


The Jeep hits a pothole and I watch sheep scatter up on a hill beside us. We drive and drive, and begin to realize I’ve never felt stranger in a strange place than I do right now. We are stranger’s here. This is the place where God dwells. Or something else.


I open my mouth to ask something, fill the car with words, but the standing stones are cresting on the horizon, and the three of us still in their presence.




The boy that I dreamed about returns every now and again. I’ll be dreaming about fantastical places and beings or whatever have you, or sometimes just normal everyday things, and suddenly, he’ll be there. We’ll stand or sit, talk, laugh, or cry, but he is always resurfacing. He grows with me, and the last time I saw him he had grown tall, into a man. That was years ago.




Our driver turns down this little path, away from the main road of Lewis that travels around its heart like a circular vein. The path folds us within its hills, supposedly going towards an inlet of the Atlantic, but direction seems like a lie here. Sheep rise from rocks like stoic sentries and multiply. They cross the road and we stop to wait for them.


Tolsta Chaolais rises from its bed and blinks at us with curious eyes. There are fifteen cottages, maybe, spread along a semicircle.


“The little one, over there, is yours,” says our driver, and presses forward into the road that’s turning stony.


And it’s not until we’ve said goodbye, turned the key in the lock of the Old Post Office, and scanned the three little rooms, do Mac and I look at each other, embrace, and release the breath we’ve been holding.




One of the last times we are happy, I tell my boyfriend that he needs to see that stars I found, upon Susquehanna’s football bleachers in the dead of night. He tries to brush it off, and you can see the other thoughts dancing across his eyes. What we could be doing instead, alone in my dorm adorned in posters and paintings. But he’s visiting, and I’m insistent, so we wrap scarves around our necks and climb up all fifty of the bleacher steps to see the night sky.


“You can see Orion,” I point. “And Canis.”


I point at every shape I recognize, freckled out against the winter night. He watches his shoes and breathes vapor past his teeth out and in. Out and in, and out.


My lips tug downward, and I huff my own smoke out, like Draco must up there, keeping all of those glass bodies warm. “You think heaven’s in the stars?” I ask. “You think we’re all up there together, everyone we ever loved?”


He rolls his eyes, and says, unsmiling, “No. The Bible never says what heaven’s like. Much less if we’re all there together. I doubt it.”


My hands are freezing, my heart is growing cold.


“That’s impossible,” I answer. “If it exists, that’s impossible.”


He says nothing for a moment, then asks to go back.




Mac and I take a walk before dinner. Just a short one. We lock the Old Post Office behind us and meander the opposite way down the path, sheep and Highland coos raising their heads at our passing.  We lift the lever to a creaking gate and follow a sheep path to where our driver recommended: a graveyard.


It’s a little, boxed garden that spreads out in front of us, resting like a diorama against the backdrop of the bay. We tiptoe closer, let ourselves in. Take pictures of the sun and the water backdropping this quiet unknown place. Some of the headstones date back to the 1700s; a rusty shovel, snapped in half, lays against a fallen wall of the graveyard, next to a large and faded fishing buoy.


My phone starts dying suddenly, rather ominously. I snap pictures of Mac in her place, the sun shining copper in her hair. She’s quiet, observing this place she’s dreamed about for so long. And I snap another, trying to catch the green of her eyes.




I have a confession.


There’s a journal that I kept specifically for dreams, where I would write them down for memory’s sake. There’s a page, or a few, that I wrote out, then scribbled over. In these pages, the boy I dream about isn’t a boy, but a girl. And I woke up loving her far more than I ever did him.




There’s a bathtub in the master bedroom of the cottage. Lord knows why, but it’s there. So after dinner, we fill it and slip into it when the water is warm enough to turn skin pink. We’ve prepared, smuggled a bath bomb through customs for every night we’re staying. Under the faucet, the first one fizzes, and we play with it tossing it back and forth, until there’s the scent of vanilla and glitter is everywhere and it dissolves completely over our feet, intertwined in the middle.




It was a night in October. After the boys were gone and no longer ours. We were doing homework, and chatting, and laughing. Always talking and laughing. But I don’t remember what we were saying—I never remember what we were saying—just that I was happy, and she was happy, and I would gladly spend our time laughing our lives away. Then we got too close to back away and our lips met in the gap between us.




The cottage has a king-sized bed.


It’s dark and we’re trying to sleep, but the silence is something foreign to us. It’s as silent as silent is. No train whistles, like back home, in little Pennsylvania, where you’ll be tucked into your bed, the windows open on those summer nights and across the fields of sweetcorn and woods a great huffing iron horse calls, coal black against the night, its ghost song slipping into dreams. No, it’s silent here. Completely. But the stars are singing.


There’s no light pollution here, so they shine like white fairy lights on evergreens. The sky’s so clear, it looks like velvet blue instead of black and the constellations seem to move in their shapes.


‘I love the stars,’ I say quietly.


‘I know, Mo.’


‘I used to watch them every night as I drifted off.’


Morgan MacVaugh consistently walks that thin rope between drowning and killing it. She spends her time reading everything and writing what she can, but there’s never enough time for her liking.

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