Read Stella by Starlight Online

Authors: Sharon M. Draper

Stella by Starlight

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This book is dedicated to my father, Vick D. Mills.

He is my hero and will forever have my heart.

I promised him so long ago that I would write this story.

I wrote this for you, Daddy.

I'm sorry it took so long.

As a boy, he walked those dusty North Carolina roads, exulted in the beauty of the land, and basked in the love of his mother, Estelle.

He feasted on her homegrown, home-cooked meals, as well as her wisdom.

He also listened to the stories of the elders, grew strong from the love of family and community, and learned to face with dignity the sometimes harsh realities of life.

So this book is also dedicated to my grandmother, Estelle Twitty Mills Davis.

She lived from 1905 to 1983.

She, too, listened to the elders and learned to survive pain.

Her life was not always easy, and she struggled with many things.

But she loved her children and she passed her strength along to them.

And she kept her memories in that journal.

So this is Estelle's tale and Vick's tale combined.

It is a gift of love.

1
Flames Across the Water

Nine robed figures dressed all in white. Heads covered with softly pointed hoods. Against the black of night, a single wooden cross blazed. Reflections of peppery-red flames shimmered across the otherwise dark surface of Kilkenny Pond.

Two children, crouched behind the low-hanging branches of a hulking oak tree on the other side of the pond, watched the flickers of scarlet in the distance in fearful silence. Dressed only in nightshirts, Stella Mills and her brother Jojo shivered in the midnight October chill.

Stella yanked the boy close, dry leaves crunching beneath his bare feet. “Shh!” she whispered, holding him tightly. “Don't move!”

Jojo squirmed out of her grasp. “It was
me
that saw 'em first!” he protested. “You'd still be 'sleep if I hadn't come and got you. So lemme see!”

Stella covered her brother's lips with her fingers to quiet him. Even though her toes were numb with cold and she knew they needed to get out of there, she could not take her eyes from the horror glimmering toward them from across the pond. “Do you
know
what would happen if they saw us?” she whispered, shifting her stinging feet, the crushing of dry leaves seeming far too loud.

Jojo pressed himself closer to her in answer.

Besides the traitorous leaves, Stella could hear a pair of bullfrogs
ba-rupping
to each other, but nothing, not a single human voice, from across the pond. She could, however, smell the charring pine, tinged with . . . what? She sniffed deeper—it was acrid, harsh. Kerosene. A trail of gray smoke snaked up to the sky, merging with the clouds.

“Who
are
they?” Jojo whispered, stealing another glance.

“The Klan.” Just saying those words made Stella's lips quiver.

The Ku Klux Klan.

Here.

Here!

“What are they doing?”

“Practicing, I think.”

“For what?”

Stella paused and smoothed his bushy hair, trying to figure out the best way to answer. Jojo was only eight.

“Nothing good,” she said at last.

A horse whinnied in the distance—it sounded nervous. And there, in the shadows of the trees across the pond, Stella could make out half a dozen of them.
The flames must be scaring them, too
, she thought. The horses began to stamp and snort as the fire flared.

Stella inched forward, trying to get a better look. One of the harnesses seemed to sparkle in the darkness. Or was it just a stray ember from the flames? The men in the white hoods were now all raising their arms to the sky, and they cried out as one, but their exact words were muffled by cloth and wind.

“Jojo, we've gotta get out of here!” she whispered, now edging backward.

“Should we tell Mama and Papa?” Jojo asked.

Stella did not answer her brother. Instead she caught his hand in her tightest grip and ran.

2
Swift and Silent

The family sat huddled around the only table in the house, with Dusty, their brindle hound, curled underneath. Stella loved the feel of that table—she loved to trace the circular patterns in the warm brown wood. Made of elm and built by her father when he married her mother, the table was large, sturdy, and dependable—and so much more than a place for meals. It was a sewing table for her mother, a place to clean fish for her father, the battleground for many family games of checkers, and even a pretend track for Jojo to race his two wooden toy cars. Stella, now nervously circling the burl of the wood grain at double speed, thought tonight could be the one when she wore a hole clear through it.

She looked from her mother to her father to her
mother again, telling them for the second time exactly what she and Jojo had seen. Papa had run outside fast as a shot to see for himself as soon as she had awakened him. When he got back, his hands were trembling, his words were short. “Red fire. Black cross. White hoods. They're here. Now,” he told Mama.

It was 1932, in the little town of Bumblebee, North Carolina, tucked in the rocky bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, miles of stone-clogged farmland and forest all around. Folks on Stella's side of town worked as maids and cooks, janitors and sharecropping farmers. A few lucky men got jobs at the lumber mill, the only real industry in town. But they weren't allowed to handle the saws—only the boards and the sawdust.

Every Negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules—they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another. Help from the white community was neither expected nor considered. It was as it always had been.

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