2014 Best Undergraduate Essay

Allison Guntz and Professor Julie Bokser.

Allison Guntz and Professor Julie Bokser at the 2014 WRD Awards Party.

Best Undergraduate Essay

At Night

by Allison Guntz

I heard once that Jewish mythology supposes the universe is an ocean. The sky is full of tiny holes, and that is where the light of the stars glows through, or the rain leaks in. They say the sky is protecting us, keeping that vast universe outside. It is like armor, or a ball, or the great cosmic shell to the egg that is our Earth.

I was in first grade when it happened. We were at the kitchen table, my family and I, eating dinner. Brother, mother, father, sister, me.

My dad announced that there would be a meteor shower that night. Shooting stars. We would go to a cornfield not so far away, though it would feel like nowhere. We needed to get away from the light of so many people.

We had the option of sleeping the whole night through, or going to bed a little early and having my parents wake us up in the middle of the night to go see it.

Would we like to go? I nodded and grinned.

I went to bed that night antsy like it was Christmas Eve. I thought maybe I would stay awake until it was time to go, but then my mom was rousing me and the sky was dark and everything felt a little wrong, like an unsettled dream. I didn’t even bother changing out of my pajamas – I slipped my feet into a pair of shoes as my mom slid my arms into a coat.

As we pulled into the cornfield, I felt the lumps and bumps of the gravel road. A breath of dust floated up behind the car. Stepping out, I took in the rich smell of dewed earth and the sharpness of cold air. It was late into harvest season, and hardly any corn was left. Empty husks were scattered between the rows of fading golden husks. I breathed in, deep and long. I breathed out. Then I turned my attentions to the sky.

Matter does not cease to be. Stars die and people die, and all those atoms reconfigure into new stars and planets and people. All these same units are coming together in new ways, falling apart, coming together and together. It’s something like Legos or building blocks in countless combinations, or like the way the same five ingredients can be manipulated into twenty different dishes. This means that when I looked up into the bowl of the sky, I was seeing stars that had once been other heavenly bodies. I was seeing stars that could one day be human bodies and trees and lakes and birds. I tilted my head back and balled my fists like there was something solid I could hold onto, and I saw myself up there.

Of course I didn’t know all of this at seven, not in any way that could be articulated. I didn’t have the words to express that those atoms were my atoms; that I knew we were connected because we were all made of eternal star stuff. I knew because when I looked up, something inside me hummed. Knowing feels like being tiny and vast all at once; it’s like because I know how small I am, I am suddenly big enough to brush my fingers against that star there. Knowing feels like looking at the car’s tailpipe and thinking, “Your rustiness is beautiful,” or holding my mom’s hand, or looking around at each of the dry, yellowing cornstalks and thinking, “I love you and you and you…”

Then, apropos of nothing (and everything), the brightest of stars appeared and fell until it disappeared, still somewhere above the horizon. We all breathed in unison, “Did you see it?”

Then another one flashed and flew above us, and another. Suddenly, it looked like stars were winking into and out of being, whizzing across a strip of the sky like popcorn. Maybe I was supposed to make a wish, but instead I wordlessly, subconsciously, thanked each one.

When we made it back home, my mom tried to herd us back to bed, but of course there was no way I was going to go to sleep now. I made a beeline for the kitchen, practically pinging off the counters and chairs. I was hungry. Starving. I had to eat.

My mother, in a resigned sort of way, suggested a bowl of cereal, but I shook her off. It had to be a fried egg. Had to. I had learned to fry eggs just a couple weeks prior, and it was the only thing I knew I could do myself in the kitchen. I wanted to make something. I wanted to create. In my excitement, I banged the thick black pan onto the burner grill. Soon I was skating the butter around the pan, making it melt and sizzle. I cracked the egg and watched the slippery bits slither out the crack.

My noisiness roused my sleepy siblings who were now clamoring for toast and juice and eggs. Dad brewed coffee.

I looked down at my egg, feeling a wholeness, a connectedness. We all sat down to the table as though it were any morning and not the middle of the night. The kitchen seemed a little brighter and a little warmer, and I imagined that if I looked up at the ceiling, I’d still see meteors sailing past.

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