Virgo was eleven years and nine months old when the Stargazer compound burned.
It was the summer of 2011 in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. The air was dry as the cracked ground was hot. Weeks had passed without a drop of rain and sunlight bounced off the Granite Mountains, magnifying the desert heat surrounding the ramshackle settlement of the Divine Zodiac Disciples. Drought conditions had the compound rationing groundwater by order of the governor. Fresh water came in bottles and gallon-jugs trucked in from the nearest big box store over a hundred miles away in Rock Spring.
The day was July 27th. It was an hour to the evening meal that would see all the disciples gathering to hear Father speak while they broke bread. Virgo was crossing the compound to Hall of Elders. Her sandaled feet kicked up dust and drought-stricken crabgrass in the narrow passages between dwellings. She greeted her Elders as they passed her.
"Good evening, Mother," she said to a woman who had not birthed her but who had braided her cornrows in her hair. "Good evening, Father," she said to the woman's companion who she did not know. Virgo had dozens of parents, older disciples who touched her life, leaving indelible marks, most she couldn't name.
Each touched her cheek and gifted her with a smile. "Good evening, Virgo."
Her Zodiac was who she was; its symbol hung from her neck in evidence. Virgo was her only name.
Virgo continued her stroll through the cramped compound as the clear blue sky gained the flush of color that preceded the dark. All around her, gas lamps and electric lanterns switched on, illuminating rusted airstream trailers and temporary clapboard buildings made permanent with use.
The compound was arranged in a hexagon, rows of sheds and tents and thirdhand RVs connected by peeling A-frame schoolhouses like those Virgo saw in picture books her little sisters read. They'd been scavenged from abandoned towns scattered around the Great Divide Basin where Stargazer was planted. "No use letting good shelter go to waste," Father said. Now the schools sheltered their family.
One sat at the center of their community. It was bright and white with a fresh coat of paint, its walls scrubbed daily to keep the grime at bay while the other A-frames languished, peeling paint greying and streaked in illicit graffiti Virgo pretended to hate. This was the Hall of Elders.
Four walls and a gabled roof carved on both sides with skylights that let in the sunlight all through the day and at night admitted the glow of the stars. That was why she loved the Elders' Hall. Less for the Elders themselves. They fought too loudly and smiled at her too widely. When they greeted her, they hugged her too long. She respected her parents, every one, but she feared her Elders, for reasons she couldn't name.
Today was her day to serve the Elders at convergence. They met once a week to discuss matters of the camp, to debate matters of scripture and astronomy. It was the stars above them that dictated their lives but the Elders who handed down their judgments, and it was those judgements that would be preached to the family come the new phase of the moon.
Virgo skipped up the ramp leading to the Hall's entrance, humming a schoolyard ditty she sang with her siblings at recess. She found the Elders milling around the meeting hall in their white gossamer robes. Like the hall they were pristine and concerned with much more important matters than Virgo Samuels and the sandwiches she was responsible for preparing to keep them fed.
Once she'd counted the number of Elders were in attendance, minus Father who hadn't made his presence known yet, she tiptoed toward the back of the old schoolhouse where a small makeshift kitchen had been built for the sole purpose of feeding the leaders of Divine Zodiac Disciples.
Virgo was nearly through the swinging doors to the galley when a cool hand alighted on the back of her neck. She stiffened, shaken to her core and hating the feeling. Only two Elders touched her there; nobody else was allowed.
"Mother." The word carried dual meanings in that moment. When she turned, Virgo's own eyes stared down at her from an almost unfamiliar sun-browned face.
"Virgo." Her mother's hand moved to cup her cheek. "Fetch Father from the barracks. The convergence is set to begin."
Virgo grabbed her pendant in a sweaty hand and gave a clumsy curtsey before she turned to do as she was told. Her birth mother made her nervous. She wore the same indifferent kindness that all Virgo's parents did, yet this felt pointed. Virgo was her daughter like all the little girls were her children and nothing more.
Virgo shot away from the kitchen doors in search of the barracks where the displaced disciples slept. It wasn't often disciples were without close relations to build a homestead, but those who came alone needed someplace to begin, and the schoolhouses turned sanctuaries were a natural choice. The Elders' Hall was no exception.
The barracks were composed of a long, narrow room located just off the entrance of the schoolhouse. Crammed full of bunk beds covered in donated, moth-eaten quilts, it had a lonely, abandoned quality reminiscent of the group homes Virgo used to be placed in from time to time. Virgo slept here when there was no one to watch over her. Being close to the Elders beat shambling about her tent alone.
Virgo's racing heart began to slow after her unsettling encounter with her birth mother. They weren't close yet they remained inseparable, attached. Even the symbols on their pendants matched. Regardless of the aching tie that wouldn't set Virgo free, she was a disciple and an Elder had given her a task.
She heard her father's voice through the door, raised in fervent prayer. Coleridge Coleridge, the founder of their community and congregation. The man who had raised Stargazer from a single mobile home and three disciples to a robust community of almost 400. He terrified Virgo for all that she loved him. He amazed her. He was her father.
"My stars will tell me who I am." That was the first lesson had he had imparted when she came to the compound; it remained embossed on her memory. "My stars will know."
Calling out for her father, Virgo grasped the doorknob to the barracks and pushed open the door. In that moment, her world caught flame.
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