In the Niger River region, there is a town whose name is the stuff of dreams: the mysterious Timbuktu. They say that, a very long time ago, the nomads entrusted the care of a well there to an old... [+]
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Granddad used to say that the stars were born from the smiles of women, and I never understood how right he was. Until today.
At the age of seven, all I knew for sure was that I liked the idea of it and that if there were no stars to observe, I'd never be able to become an astrophysicist like I hoped to be. So my twin brother, Caleb, and I tried as hard as we could to make all the women around us laugh as much as possible so that stars would appear in the sky. And every night we'd observe the results of our efforts. Under the kind eye of Grandfather, we cheered out loud every time we discovered a new star, for whose creation we gave ourselves credit. We named them after the woman who had laughed most that day and, after a few months, we congratulated ourselves by drinking a toast of sparkling apple juice to the appearance of Mom 99, just to the left of the North Star.
This enthusiasm lasted for several years.
At the age of sixteen, Caleb and I had become the class clowns, and a lack of sense of humor was one of the few things our teachers could not complain about us.
Grandfather was visibly aging and we now found it hard to think of him as anything but a rambling old man. We no longer found his beautiful words of any interest.
“Stars are born from the smiles of women, Michael," he would repeat to me like a mantra, helping him on his lone journey through the last years of his life.
And he said it with even greater feeling—although I didn’t really notice at the time—when the young idiot that I was in those days broke up with a girl in a rather cavalier manner.
Then, he said it one last time on his deathbed and made us promise not to forget it. He passed away one night when the sky was clear and set with stars, as softly as a sigh, happy to be joining Grandma at last.
His mantra was relegated to a far corner of our minds, the way you put an old piece of furniture in the attic when it’s no longer of any use, but you can’t bring yourself to throw it away.
Nevertheless, I remembered it today. I had been waiting in the corridor for hours when Caleb rushed up to me, delirious with happiness.
“Michael, she’s here! She’s here, it’s a little girl!”
I followed him into the white room where his wife, Julie, was.
In her arms, a swaddled infant, my niece, was wriggling as she looked at her father with her big round eyes, both of which were smiling at him.
In Caleb's eyes, thousands of stars were shining.
Translated by Wendy Cross