“I want to see the stars,” Sisi said to her mother.
She was seven, a young Venezuelan long before the time of Bolivar, and, as children often are, she was unafraid to dream.
“Well, Sisi,” said her mother as she ushered the young lass outside, “The stars are right here for you to see. See?”
And the stars bespectacled the night sky, flickering and shining bright as a young girl’s eye.
“No, mother,” Sisi insisted, “I don’t just want to see the stars,” and she became spectacularly serious, “I want to see them from up there. I want to go to the stars. I want to touch them.”
“Well,” said Sisi’s mother, curious yet confused and not about to dash her daughter’s dream, “you’ll need to find a way. And the only way to climb that high is with a ladder.”
“Well, mother,” Sisi asked, “Where may I find a ladder?”
“Sisi,” her mother said, “We have a ladder, but it will not reach such heights.”
“Well,” Sisi said, “Where may I find one that does?”
Her mother sighed a great sigh, and gave a sorrowful look. “Sisi, there isn’t a ladder in this great big world high enough for you to touch the stars.”
Sisi was only momentarily deterred, and, as children often do, she didn’t believe in “no.” “Well, mother,” she pronounced, as matter-of-factly as she could, “Then I shall build a ladder, and it shall take me there.”
Her mother dared not speak ill of her daughter’s will, so she made her a promise, “If that is what you wish, then I will bring you wood.”
Sisi smiled, and stared up at the stars.
The next day, Sisi got to work, and – as promised – her mother brought her wood. Sisi was yet young, and inexperienced with tools, but the local craftsmen wandered by and saw her with her mallet. They taught her how to hammer nails, and brought her more, to boot.
With wood and a mallet and an unending enthusiasm, Sisi started in. The first step was complete on her way to the stars.
And every day that passed by, with every log her mother found, Sisi continued to build a ladder on her way to the stars. Every morning she would climb to the step where she left off, with a mallet in hand and nails in tow, she continued onward and upward.
Days progressed and seasons passed, and her ladder grew in length. She could now see over her house and when she could, she felt great pride.
“I’m getting closer, Mother!” Sisi shouted from outside.
“I know,” her mother said, as she smiled as wide as a crescent moon.
Years passed. Sisi grew. Tall and beautiful, she was. She attracted much attention from the commonfolk in town.
“There’s the girl with her ladder,” marked the men who’d stumble by.
“I wonder where she’s going,” they’d think. “I wonder if she thinks she can fly.”
Each morning, Sisi would wake with the crows, and continue with her chore. And when the tree outside gave all her wood, her mother would journey to find her more.
As Sisi had to climb, higher and higher, day by day, her body grew strong, her feet grew nimble. Faster and faster, she’d rise.
And every evening, at dusk, at the last of the day’s light, Sisi would stare off into the horizon, chasing the sun with her eyes.
“Someday,” Sisi said, “I will stay up here at night. And I will watch the stars until the early morning light.”
And Sisi knew they’d be as beautiful as she dreamed.
At night sometimes a man named Santiago would wait for Sisi on the ground. He’d been impressed by her big dreams. Sisi was the talk of the town.
Sisi would come home tired, worn out from a day of climbing and building, and the man would give her fresh water from his well, and some wool to keep her warm.
“I’m in awe of you,” Santiago said, “You’re as bold as you are brave. I know that you will do this. I know you’ll see the stars.”
Her mother would watch from the window as the two would talk at night. Her smile lit the parts of her soul that the stars could never reach.
“Santiago,” Sisi said, tired but with great joy, “My heart can’t thank you enough for what you do and who you are. You are welcome to stay if you like.”
“I’d be honored,” said Santiago, as his smile lit the night and his heart ran with the horses. “With you is where I belong.”
So Santiago stayed.
Still Sisi woke with the crows, racing the sun out of bed each morning. She kissed Santiago goodbye and kissed her mother hello.
“There’s wood ready for you,” her mother said each day.
“I know,” said Sisi, “I know. I love you and all you do.”
Sisi climbed up faster and higher, up above the tallest trees, to stare out at the mountains and see what she could see.
It went on like this a while, Sisi working every day. One more step, one more meter, one more day closer to the stars.
Then one day, Sisi rested. She needed rest, she did. For time had come for Sisi to have a girl of her very own.
“I think I’ll call her Stella,” Sisi said to Santiago, beaming with pride. “It means ‘star,’ you know.”
“I think it’s very beautiful, just like you,” said Santiago, while Sisi’s mother wept in joy.
Years continued to pass, as Sisi’s ladder continued to grow. Winter to Spring to Summer to Fall, and back to Winter again. And Stella grew, too.
Each morning, Sisi rose and kissed Santiago goodbye, and kissed her little Stella, and kissed her mother hello.
And Sisi climbed the ladder with the wood her mother found. And Sisi’d hammer tirelessly as long as there was light.
One morning, Sisi rose and kissed Santiago goodbye, and kissed her little Stella, and kissed her mother hello.
“I’m sorry,” her mother said, “For at last, there is no wood.”
In all her years, rain or shine, day or night, her mother always found Sisi wood.
“Is the forest out of trees?” She asked.
“No,” her mother replied. “As I have gathered wood for you, I made sure to save the seeds. I’ve planted them for you, so one day they would become trees. Today I tried to walk, but my feet won’t move; I tried to saw, but my hands won’t grip; I tried to look, but my eyes can’t see.”
And Sisi gave her mom another kiss, and a warm embrace, and this time she did not let go. “I think I’ll stay with you, Mom. I think it’s time you should know.”
Her mother, weak from years of wood-chopping and the slow parade of age, laid in Sisi’s arms, and Sisi stopped to say:
“Mother, without you, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. You taught me how to see the stars and taught me how to get there. And when there was no way to get there, you believed I’d make a way. And as I made a way, you gave me everything I needed. You never doubted me, you never once told me to stop. And now that we are here, I wonder if I should’ve spent more time with you, if I should’ve never left each morning, or if I should’ve never built that ladder.”
“Nonsense,” her old Mother said summoning all her strength, “Each morning as you left me, I always knew I was loved. You’d kiss me and say ‘thank you’ and give me blessings from above. Your ladder is your greatest gift, of which I am most proud. And yet you always came home. You never forgot who you are, or where you came from, no matter what great heights you seek.”
“But Mother,” Sisi stammered, overcome. “Will I ever reach the stars?”
“Of course you will,” her mother sighed. “And that is where you will find me.”
With that, her mother laid out limp in Sisi’s arms. And Sisi cried … and Sisi cried … and called out for Stella.
She did not build that day.
News traveled swiftly about town of Sisi’s mother’s passing, and a great procession was held, a fanfare in her honor.
Sisi worried all that time, “Where would she find the wood?” She could ask Santiago, but then who would stay with Stella? Sisi wondered, and wandered, and tried to find the wood herself, but she knew there’d be no time to both chop wood and lug it up thousands of feet of ladder daily.
She went to bed, heartbroken, dejected, with broken spirit. She did not dream that night.
When the morning arrived, Sisi rose with the crows and, out of habit, kissed her little Stella and Santiago and wandered outside … and couldn’t believe what she saw.
A mountain of wood as far as the eye could see appeared in front of her eyes. Was this a mirage? A miracle? How? Why?
A local craftsman approached Sisi and put together words as best he could:
“Sisi, we have watched you every day until you rose out of our sight. You climb this ladder, wood in tow and hammer, and we’ve listened to your dreams.”
The craftsman grew somber, his eyes misted up.
“Every day, your mother passed us by on her way through town, and we asked her from where she was coming. She said she’d saved the seeds from trees she’d cut down for you, and planted them to one day become trees. So we followed her one morning, and sure as day, your mother was right. There are tens of thousands of miles of trees that stretch across the dark, and across the light. She called your ladder “Amazing,” so she named the forest “Amazon.” When we heard about your mother, we all got together and decided the universe just shouldn’t be a place to let you fail at something you’ve worked all your life to build.”
Renewed, rededicated, rejuvenated, Sisi called for Santiago. “It’s a miracle!” She cried.
“It’s more than a miracle,” said Santiago. “It’s your mother.”
Sisi grabbed her hammer, and some wood, and began her morning climb. Stella smiled. And waves of euphoria rippled through the townspeople as they rejoiced.
As Sisi grew older, and her ladder grew taller, she could see over the Andes, and out across the horizon. The Pacific was as blue as the mighty sky itself, Sisi thought, and the view from here is astonishing. Perhaps she could simply quit.
But Sisi promised to her mother she would meet her in the stars, and even as rain battered and soaked her ladder, and the winds weathered her wood and her face, Sisi stood tall and continued her climb.
One morning, Sisi arose with the sun and kissed her Santiago.
She was stunned to find Stella awake.
“Mama,” said Stella, “You leave here every morning to build your ladder to the stars. Why?”
“I do,” Sisi replied, “It’s what I was born to do.”
“Mama,” Stella said, “one day I want to go to the stars, too. Can I come with you?”
“Of course you may,” said Sisi, “but I’ll need your help with something.”
“Anything for you, mama,” said Stella. “Anything for you.”
“You’re going to need a hammer,” Sisi said. “And you’re going to learn to climb.”
So that morning, Sisi showed Stella how to carry wood up above the mountains, and how to hammer nails good and sturdy, and how to climb with quick, nimble feet so as not to fall or lose time.
And for a while this continued, Sisi and Stella, rising with the crows, climbing into the sky, hammering nails into wood, and coming home at night. They laughed and smiled and Stella learned to protect herself from the cold wind’s blow and the relentless attack of the rain.
Winter turned to Spring turned to Summer turned to Fall. Seasons never wait and always arrive on time. And Sisi and Stella continued to build into the sky, until one day …
“Mama! Look! A cloud!” Stella said. “We made it!”
“Go on, Stella, touch it!” Sisi said to her daughter. “You have worked so hard. You should be the first.”
And Stella reached out and touched the cloud. It was smooth, silky and soft to the touch. Sisi nailed the last crossbar into the final step, and used a hook to affix her ladder to the cloud where it would rest.
“Mama!” Stella shouted, exhilarated with delight. “Can we climb upon it?”
“Of course we may!” Sisi said, overcome with joy. And Sisi and Stella held hands as they climbed the final step on their way to the clouds. They raced around the cloud, they rolled around and basked in the glorious glow of the sun. They covered themselves in cloud dust. They peered down over the edge.
And Sisi looked down, down over all of creation, down at the world and the Andes and the Amazon and the Venezuelan countryside and her Mother’s old home, Sisi thought of Santiago. And Sisi drew a pause.
“Come on,” Sisi said to Stella, “It’s time for us to go.”
“But Mama!” Stella said to Sisi, “Don’t you want to see the stars?”
“Not yet,” said Sisi to Stella. “My place is down below. I’m not ready to see them yet.”
So Sisi and Stella climbed back down Sisi’s ladder to the stars and walked into her home to rejoin Santiago. “It’s done,” said Sisi. “My life’s work is complete.” And she kissed Santiago and they embraced. Sisi never wanted to let her Santiago go.
“You don’t have to leave,” said Santiago, brushing the long brown locks of Sisi’s hair away from her wind-whipped face. “You can stay forever.”
And Sisi replied, “That sounds very nice. I think I’ll do just that.”
One day, after Stella had grown into a beautiful woman, and Santiago had become a distinguished town elder, Sisi cracked a great smile.
“It is time,” she said, and she asked Santiago a great favor. “Please gather the townspeople, the craftsman and the gypsies, and bring them here tonight, for I have a great favor to ask.”
So the townspeople, the commonfolk, the dignitaries and diplomats, all descended upon Sisi’s home at dusk in the crisp air of the cool winter, and a weathered Sisi rose to speak.
“As you know,” Sisi began, “This started as a dream long ago that I had when I told my mother I wanted to see the stars. And since there was no way for me to climb that high, a ladder shall be built. That ladder has been finished and tonight it’s finally time …”
The townspeople gasped in anticipation. Tonight will be the night!
“… for me to open this ladder for all of you, to find your own way to the clouds.”
The commonfolk were overjoyed. The diplomats were stunned.
“… for it is you who helped me build this, with your wood that you would find. You all deserve to rise above and see what you have built. Though it was my hands, it was yours that guided me. Though it was my faith, it was yours that believed in me. Though it was my will, it was yours that tested me. Though it was my ladder, it was yours that carried me.”
And so everyone began to climb. The ladder held true. It was built with wood that came from love, and nails forged from will, and a blueprint made from faith. And people came from far and wide to climb Sisi’s ladder and steal an everlasting gaze into the stars.
And Sisi smiled from down below, and stayed with Stella and Santiago. With a smile as wide as a crescent moon, one that lit the night sky and guided the climbers home.
It stayed like this a while, until Sisi was too frail to smile. One night, Stella came home to find her mother lying in bed, turning, yet tranquil.
“Mama,” said Stella. “You can’t go yet. You never made it to the stars.”
“I told you,” Sisi said, brushing locks of Stella’s long brown hair away from her misty face, “My place was here.”
Sisi continued softly:
“I started building that ladder because I wanted to see the stars.
But then one day I had you, and I named you “Stella,” because you were my star.
And when your grandma died, she told me the stars was where I’d find her.
And that’s true, for when I look at you,
I see a little bit of her. But when I go, I hope to God I’ll find her, too.
And when you and I built that ladder together, I was building it for you.
We finished building it together, so alone you wouldn’t have to.
We finished building it together, so the ladder would be ours.
And so you could always find me, when it was your turn to see the stars.”
Stella wept as Sisi closed her eyes a final time.
And at that moment, Sisi sighed.
… and Sisi finally saw the stars.