Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden. This week Krystal De Napoli is a Kamilaroi author and astrophysicist devoted to the advocacy of Indigenous knowledges and equity in STEM. She is the co-author of Astronomy: Sky Country, published in 2022, which explores the wondrous interconnected world of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy.
Krystal: I feel like I am floating in space. My back pressed atop of a second-hand trampoline to which loose springs desperately cling. They are struggling under the weight of three observers, two children and their mother. I hear the rustle of leaves caught in the fervour of a light summer wind. The air is warm and inviting, like a welcoming embrace from Country wrapping me in the comfort of home. Beside me I hear the murmurs of my companions: the excited whispers of my older sister Kaitlyn as she too finds herself drawn to the spectacle above us, the soothing tones of my mother’s voice as she responds to Kaitlyn’s candid curiosity in kind.
Above, unimpeded dark skies showcase an uncountable collection of stars, shimmering as though they are performing just for us. They are surrounded by the kind of darkness that one can only find in these rural places. My eyes flick around as I try to absorb what I am seeing. This is the first time in my short life that I had really looked at the night sky. The stars are seemingly endless. At first my eyes are drawn to the brightest of them. So many luminous spots demanding to be seen, twinkling gently to their own rhythm. Blues, reds, oranges: colours beyond the bright white that they initially present. I feel weightless. I feel like I’m falling upward into the ocean of bright lights above me. Floating amongst their brilliance.
My sisters voice grows louder, it pulls me out of my awe-induced trance. She is thrilled about something! She has found something more within these stars that I have not. Ah! The short-lived visit of a shooting star, she claims. Oh, and another shooting star… and then, another… and another…?
I feel a frustration brewing within me. The heat rises to my face. Why do these special stars continuously elude me?
Are we not looking at the exact same skies? Are we not seeing the same darkness, and the same vivid colours beyond the light?
No, apparently not. I can’t see what she is seeing.
I voice this frustration. My sister is amused at my envy, or at least it feels like she is, but the comforting melodic tones of my mother’s voice interrupt. She reassures me: how about we start simply? She begins to describe an array of constellations apparently known by many. In the lowlight I see her hand guide my gaze upward; the Southern Cross, the Hunter Orion. My sister exclaims as she spots them, too.
My frustration grows as my eyes continue to betray me. Perhaps I am not worthy of their performance?
My mum speaks again: can you see the Seven Sisters? They are faint, but they are my favourite. They are a group of girls huddled together in strength and safety. There’s something that draws me to them; the power of feminine love and protection. They are always pursued by Orion as he chases them across the skies, but they always have each other. My mother is the youngest of her sisters, I am the second oldest of mine. I can’t spot any of the features she tries to show me, but I try not to wallow in the failure. Instead, I cling to this gift she has given me. I don’t know yet what it is, but I feel the spark of it being ignited within my heart.
My mums words had inspired me. I spent many nights since then, gazing upwards and finding myself lost within the skies. In the next decade I overcame many hardships to became on of the first people in my family to finish high school and then the very first to go to university. I was offered the chance to prove myself in a semester long entry course to get into my dream science degree. All that stood between me and this goal was a semester of hard work and three final exams. I sat two of my final exams without incident but it was in my day prior to my third and final exam, the one that would secure my place as a student of science where I was woken by a flurry of calls. The voice on the phone spoke the five words that would change me forevermore.
“Krystal, your mum is dead.”
My mum had passed away very suddenly at the young age of 37, leaving me and my six siblings behind. I had to break the news to some of my siblings, the youngest of which was only 6 years old. I didn’t know what words would comfort someone so young in the throws of grief. So I explained it the only way I knew how. I told them mum is gone now and that it might not make a lot of sense and it might not seem very fair, but she work to do, she’s found her place in the skies, she’s become the star that will guide us in our lives. You will see her, she is the very first star that will appear to you at night.
When I return on my path mum’s words echo in my head and my soul. I return to science and I pursue the skies as an astrophysicist, grounded in the culteral sense of our Gomeroi. I learn. I teach. I create. I travel around the country sharing what I know. I write. I speak. I share. I become a storyteller much in the way that she once was.
Once again, I find myself lying beneath pristine dark skies, losing myself within them. Many years have passed since I first gazed at these stars with my mother. The stars look the same, but we have all changed greatly. Kaitlyn is no longer a child but has since become the mother of two girls of her own, my beautiful nieces. I have changed in many ways myself. My life has since been enriched with a deep knowledge of the skies but has suffered many great losses, too.
I feel the harsh crunch of sand under my back, a clear contrast to the supportive weightlessness of the trampoline at home. The night is again warm as it once was, but the air’s embrace carries the unusual scent of salt. Unfamiliar sounds encompass me, the crashing waves of the beach are just beyond the tips of my feet. I feel overwhelmed by their calls.
So far, I had spent most of my life in the bounds of a landlocked rural town, always dreaming of a closeness to the water-hugged edges of this country. I inherited this longing from my mother, who had always dreamed to one day see a beach for herself.
This thought cuts me as I feel myself pulled back into the memories of that night with her. My body lies here on the beach, but my mind drifts into our past. The curiosity she gifted me begun as a mere spark but has since evolved into a roaring fire that courses through my bones.
I feel a bitterness, a sadness: for now, I can see everything she wanted me to see. The Southern Cross as it sits atop the head of the Dark Emu in the Sky. Orion the hunter, now a familiar friend I wait to visit in the warmer months.
Still, a bitterness, a sadness, persists.
Casting my eyes deep into the ocean of stars above me, I challenge myself: I follow the gaze of Orion in his eternal pursuit: I look for the Sisters.
I look for the sisters that my mother had shown us, the faint cluster of stars that have guided our ancestors for millennia before us. I look for the Sisters whose resilience and comradery remind me to fiercely protect and love my darling sisters that my mother gave me.
I look for the Sisters who I now cling to as I desperately dig into the depths of my memories, hoping to maybe catch the sound of her voice one last time.
I still feel her company in these moments. She sits with me as I look to the Sisters. She walks alongside me as I pursue a life dedicated to the skies.
Her spirit emanates within the curiosity of my darling little nieces, who sit and listen as I tell them of the Sisters in the words that she had once bestowed upon me and their mother.
Although my mother is no longer of this earth, she endures within the stars. Although the waves of the beach eluded her, she is at home in the ocean above.