Celestial Short Story – Lessons in Fate by Lyndsey Croal

Celestial Short Story - Lessons in Fate by Lyndsey Croal

Old crones!’

I kept focussed on my loom and didn’t react. I’d become used to my sister’s outbursts. Another day, another underskyling trying – and obviously failing – to classify our existence.

‘Clo,’ Attie droned. ‘If you’d heard what he was saying about us, you’d feel the same. We could teach him a lesson?’

I looked up from my loom, still a little disoriented from my latest sentinel task. It was morning, the sun now bathing our celestial home in light. It must be strange in Undersky, being so attuned to time passing – for us, hours just merged into each other, so that I stopped knowing when one day ended and the next began. I sighed. ‘You know we can’t do that.’

She made a pfft noise and flashed a glance to Laika. Our sister was paying us little attention, enthralled by a silvery string stretching from the clouds below us that would form part of our future tapestry. ‘You’re supposed to be the fun one, sister,’ Attie said to me in a low voice.

‘It’s not about fun,’ I replied. ‘It’s about doing what is decreed.’

‘Well, I decree that this man is an uneducated ass,’ Attie said, then returned to tugging at some loose thread at her loom.

I didn’t rise to it. Technically, we could throw an underskyling the occasional plot twist, but not without good reason. That was my job to decide. Where and when to tweak the strings. And teaching a lesson didn’t fall under the ‘good reason’ category.

Though I understood her annoyance to a certain extent, she was the only one of us so bothered by it. What did it matter what those below thought of us? In the early days, people revered or feared us, and I think Attie preferred that. Gave her a certain affirmation – but as time passed, empires fell, and new worlds grew, we drifted into myth. Everyone still observed our presence, but they had a different explanation for our influence. Coincidence. Déjà vu. Fate. Serendipity. Or, my personal favourite, String Theory. Trust underskylings to try and find a scientific explanation for everything – though, to their credit, they weren’t far from the truth.

Out of curiosity, I peeked down on the one who had triggered Attie’s tantrum. He was an academic lecturing in an old hall with Georgian architecture that matched the stuffiness of his tweed suit. At one point, I caught him mentioning Apollo, and quickly returned to check on my sisters. I was about to call Attie over to distract her, but her face was already screwed up, nostrils flaring. Too late.

‘First, he called us old crones, and now he’s spouting that rubbish about Apollo tricking us!’ she barked. Attie had a thing about Apollo – exes are complicated. ‘That vain self-righteous idiot. I’ll show this supposed academic old crone…’

There was a sigh from the edge of our floating platform as Laika stood up, glowing ethereally in the brightness. She drifted across to Attie, placing a hand lightly on her shoulder. ‘Come now,’ she began. ‘If we punished every man who called us old crone or offended our honour, we’d have so many threads we’d eventually lose control.’

Ever the wise one.

‘And the boring one,’ Attie would say.

Attie shook Laika’s hand away. As Laika turned, Attie gave the string the tiniest of twitches, not enough for Laika to notice, but Attie caught my eye as she did it, flashing me a wink. My stomach tightened. She didn’t even try to hide it, even when she knew it was my job, not hers, to make tweaks. I opened my mouth to say something, but if Laika found out, she’d contact Oversky and we’d be straight up there for a reckoning. Punishment could be up to a year in the Void while they repaired our damage. I let out a breath and cursed Attie and her selfishness. We’d gone almost a hundred years without an incursion against our tapestry, and now…well, just because an insignificant man insulted her, our tapestries could become imperfect. I felt my cheeks grow warm, but then I reminded myself he was likely insignificant. Maybe a single unwarranted tweak wouldn’t do any harm. So, I said nothing.

Attie, looking vindicated rather than relieved at my becoming her partner in crime, returned to her loom. I hoped her attention had turned away from the academic at least.

But I closed my eyes to focus in on him. I watched as he drifted along the lecture hall to pick up his coffee. As he took a sip, his reusable cup burst open unnaturally, splashing coffee all over his white shirt. It was clearly Attie’s doing, but I was glad she’d chosen something so petty, and innocuous enough to make it unlikely to cause a stir in his life thread. The main impact on Undersky was the murmur of concealed laughter from the class, but he simply coughed and laughed it off. ‘It seems the fates are trying to teach me a lesson,’ he said, earning another laugh from the class. I tensed my shoulders.

‘Serves him right,’ Attie said under her breath to me a minute later, forever watching the threads in a time-lag behind me. She looked across to Laika. ‘How’s the rest of our friend’s day looking?’

Laika made a face. ‘You know fine well that there’s not a good enough reason for me to tell you that.’

‘You always say that.’

‘Not always.’

Attie closed her eyes, and her eyelids moved back and forth as she gazed into the past, simultaneously feeling her way across the woven threads of our tapestry. ‘In the past month, I’ve asked seventy-three times and you only said yes once.’

‘As I said, not always.’

I tuned them out and focussed on my loom. I’d often thought myself fortunate for my own stringkeeper role. It kept me relatively free from the anxieties of my sisters. Constantly looking back and forwards would take its toll. As Attie obsessively played back the many instances that underskylings had wronged her, Laika, spent most of her time seeing possible futures, the good and the ugly. I, on the other hand, had no choice but to watch things unfold, making the occasional tweak when required; and deal with the occasional sisterly outburst.

The whole split of responsibilities had given Laika a superiority complex though, knowing what was coming to our underskylings but rarely telling us – because ‘that would break the element of surprise and might influence us’. The only time she’d break the rule would be to avoid a catastrophe she’d seen – if I could tweak the present just a little, it could prevent it from happening. Occasions like that and the breaking of certain rules – our underskylings walking under ladders, breaking a mirror, putting an umbrella up inside, and so on – warranted a tweak on my part. Enough to keep me occupied, at least.


I watched the academic for a few hours that day. At lunch, he went to his office to change his coffee-stained shirt.

He would have gone back there anyway, I told myself.

On his way, he ran into another lecturer. ‘Lewis, good bumping into you,’ she said. ‘I’ve been meaning to pick your brains about something, can I buy you a coffee?’

He looked briefly taken aback, but then straightened himself. ‘Perfect timing. I spilled my last one, just give me two minutes to change?’ He signalled to his shirt and she laughed. ‘Abigail isn’t it?’

‘Abby is fine,’ she said, and he smiled as he disappeared into his office.

The two of them went to a coffee shop near campus. Abby bought the coffee and they sat together in a corner booth, spending the afternoon talking about symbolism in Greek mythology. She was writing a book on Hesiod. As much as it pained me, I saw the irony in the connection – the Greek poet had written the closest to reality about us of any other historian. Attie became a little infatuated with him for a time and visited his string to see where he’d got his ideas from, convinced he’d once convened with the Gods themselves. Alas, his string was tangled and messy, and Attie later gave up to watch the origin stories of today’s celebrities instead. Her taste had become less refined in recent years.

Abby and Lewis leaned closer to one another, Abby speaking in a low tone, Lewis occasionally laughing. Under the table, they brushed their legs against one another.

I pulled my gaze away and looked to Attie instead. ‘Sister, would you come here for just a second?’

Attie, intrigued, skipped over. Rarely did I let her a glimpse of my own loom. I lowered my voice so that Laika wouldn’t hear us. ‘That little tweak you made. I suppose you didn’t think of the consequences?’

Attie shrugged. ‘It was just a spilled cup of coffee.’

I looked vaguely down at the budding couple. Would they have met anyway? ‘Maybe you’re right,’ I said to Attie. Just a coffee.

I watched the academics’ strings carefully for a bit longer to make sure. As I was weaving a group together, I noticed that Lewis’s was frayed – the tiniest split, barely noticeable if not for my thousands of years of practice. After making sure neither of my sisters were looking, I checked his alternative path now running side by side with his tweaked one – the string was faint, now under control from another stringkeeper, a void between us that only the Gods understood or held jurisdiction over. I knew looking was against the rules, but I had to know for sure. The image was vague, his form more like a shadow. But my body stiffened as I saw him. He was sitting alone at lunch, reading a book. Abby wasn’t with him. I glanced at Abby’s split string and found that she’d ended up on a walk in a park instead and was nowhere near him. Her string had entirely diverged from Lewis’s too, whereas the pair in my control were close enough to touch, to cross almost. Should I pull them apart?

I shook myself and turned my attention away. It could wait – it might right itself as undersky often did, and then I wouldn’t have to intervene. I’d spent too long on them already, I had other souls to monitor. Time may run differently here, or we’d never keep control, but even still, I’d neglected my loom for too long. So putting the two academics and their split strings to the back of my mind, I carried on weaving and watching.

It was a quiet afternoon – only a few incursions required my attention. The woman that didn’t salute a magpie got a minor tweak of misfortune, the one who spotted a black cat would encounter someone she hadn’t seen in a while, but the worst was a bird flying inside a man’s house. Laika would know already, but someone he knew would die within a fortnight. At the very last minute, Laika would let Attie know and she would cut the thread and choose a method of ending. Although the act was done by my sister, I still felt a discomfort about the process – essentially, I was the executioner, I just got to keep my hands clean. Not that Attie minded that much – she enjoyed looking back along their life thread and choosing the fate that the subject deserved.

For now, Attie continued watching the past and Laika looked wistfully into the distance. Tall and regal she stood, light emanating from her white dress, her beauty no match for even the Gods. She got our mother’s looks, while I got the chiselled features of our father. Attie was somewhere in between. No wonder she was upset at the words of the academic.

We might be old, but we were no crones.


For the next few months, I occasionally checked in on Lewis’s string waiting to see the impact of Attie’s tweak. It was an unravelling of fate that I watched with increasing unease. Where his path had diverged, the first – the tweaked one – showed a happier existence with Abby in his life. They seemed truly in love, and I wondered how Attie would have felt that in trying to seek revenge she had bestowed an accidental blessing.

In Summer, Lewis and Abby were wed.

Two years later, they had their first born: a boy called Ren.

As I looked upon the child’s life thread, I realised something was wrong – it was already starting to fray, to diverge. I checked my loom, to make sure it wasn’t a mistake, but the split was clear and if it continued, it could become unwieldy and pull the whole tapestry into chaos. If that happened, we wouldn’t be able to avoid our reckoning, and the punishment might not be a simple year in the Void.

It was time to tell my sister.

I summoned up the courage and cleared my throat. ‘Laika?’

She lifted her head.

I ploughed on. ‘I have a string I need you to look at.’

Laika wandered over and looked at my loom. She took Ren’s life thread lightly in her hand and let her fingers run from where it connected to our tapestry – Lewis and Abby’s threads – and then followed it towards the loom, measuring its length.

‘I see what you mean,’ she said. ‘His parents, what adjustments have been made?’

I gulped and glanced up at Attie who was listening carefully while pretending to thumb at her own loom. ‘I made no adjustments beyond those decreed,’ I answered, trying not to allow my voice to waver.

‘This child…’ Laika closed her eyes as she weighed the strings in her hand and let out a long breath. ‘He is dangerous.’ With that, she dropped his string and walked away.

‘Will you tell me no more, sister?’

Laika shook her head but the gleam in her eyes worried me. ‘It would not be proper, Clo, to intervene,’ she said. ‘As you say, the adjustments were only as decreed. We must see how the threads reveal themselves.’

The statement felt pointed, but I hid my reaction.

That night as Laika took her shift to sleep, Attie tiptoed over.

‘You won’t tell her, will you?’

I didn’t answer.

‘She would only report us to mother and father, and they would send Hermes to report to the top. You know what that would mean?’

I sighed. It was unfair of her to put me in this position, but I loved my sister. What was I supposed to do? After all these years, was I supposed to just give her in? It was only a simple unsanctioned tweak, could it really cause so much harm?

‘For now, I’ll say nothing. But I’ll be watching his life thread carefully.’

Attie smiled and returned to her strings, until it was clear she was absorbed in the past and had likely forgotten all about her insurrections. Lucky for her.

That night, and for many nights after, I dwelled on the child.

Occasionally I checked the faded string from Lewis’s alternate reality – it seemed he’d ended up marrying another woman and had given birth to a baby girl: Serena. Although Serena’s thread – running in parallel with Ren’s – was out of my jurisdiction, I couldn’t resist watching her. A life that would have existed in our own tapestry, if not for my sister. Now, a forbidden encounter.


Five years later I checked the strings.

Ren from my jurisdiction was growing up well. He would start school soon.

Serena from the alternate thread – I sneaked a look when my sisters were not paying attention – her path was so far much the same as the boy’s.


Another six years. High school.

The strings took different paths.

With Ren, Lewis was away from home often. He’d got a different job. As far as I could see, he was unhappy. His son was disconnected from him and he found he could not love him. What sort of father could not love a child? So he kept his distance and worked. Ren often broke the rules, but he had a way with words, of charming those around him to ignore any of his faults. But I could see that he was destructive, uncaring.

Nothing like Serena. She was kind, smart, thoughtful. She had a happy family. They’d moved to a big city where both parents would be tenured at a university. She did well at school and was tipped to be top of her class. Not only that, but everyone she came across left with a positive influence on their own life threads.

My concern grew. But she was just one girl.


They were adults now.

Ren lived alone and no longer spoke to his parents He left with an average university degree but charmed his way into a job in a private firm. Shortly after, he started dabbling in local politics and found he liked the buzz.

Serena left university with distinction and began studying a PhD in molecular biology. She enjoyed figuring out how things worked and liked to fix things.


Ren became a politician.

Serena became a scientist.


Ren’s charm and way with words meant many saw him as a man of the people. But I saw him for what he was – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Every decision he made, every policy he pushed, were for the pursuit of power and greed. His influence was only beginning, but what could I do? I didn’t want to watch him anymore. So, I shut him out.

In the alternate world, Serena’s work started to gain acclaim. She travelled the world, speaking about her research, working with teams in pursuit of knowledge. I could see she was special, a rare force of good amongst underskylings. I started to resent Attie and her tweak. How could she have removed this positive influence from our tapestry?

I spent hours watching Serena, everything she did, everywhere she travelled, inspiring those she met, inspiring the world. Her mind was a wonder to watch. How meticulously she planned, how creatively she made connections. It was like trying to understand the inner workings of a tapestry, one that surprised me at every turn.

I realised that following her each day without having to intervene was freeing. Ren became a distant blemish in my mind.


Our tapestry started to unravel – a small ripple in a big pond. Threads were fraying and weakening, and I was sure it could only be Ren’s chaotic, greedy, influence. Should I have stopped him somehow? Should I have reported the divergence sooner?

I turned my attention back to him, tried to figure out what he had done to cause such unrest. If his string diverged too far from Serena’s, I may no longer be able to watch her. I couldn’t let that happen.

Laika was approaching me before I could do anything. ‘I think it’s time we talk.’

I gulped and nodded. How had it come to this?

‘Tell me what has happened,’ she said. ‘I will not be angry.’

I looked at my hands, shaking as they clung to the threads spilling out of my loom like plumes of smoke. I’d lost control. I’d failed. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and I told her everything.

After, if she was angry, she didn’t show it, nor did she even reprimand me. Instead, she summoned Attie over who joined us with an innocent smile as if she weren’t responsible for the unravelling of our universe. ‘Oh sister, what fun are you going to ruin today?’

‘It is time we take action, to prevent catastrophe,’ Laika said. ‘I have asked for special dispensation from the Gods and they have agreed to allow us to deal with the offending individual.’

I let out a breath. ‘What is to say that if we make another tweak, it will not make the future worse?’

‘The tweak was not the cause of this divergence.’ Laika said.

‘What do you mean? What else could have?’

Laika looked at me with a wistful gaze. ‘When did you last tend to our tapestry?’

I shook my head. ‘I…I…’ And then I realised. ‘I can’t remember.’

Laika nodded. ‘You see, it was not the tweak our foolish sister made, but your unhealthy obsession that has caused this.’

No. I couldn’t breathe. How could this have been my fault? ‘You don’t understand-’

‘You have lost control, but there is still time to fix it.’

‘I didn’t mean to, I…’ But there was no point fighting it because I knew what I’d done. While I was watching Serena, how many tweaks had I missed? How many people had I failed? ‘What must we do?’

Laika let out a breath. ‘We are to cut Ren’s string which will sever the connection with the alternate tapestry. An unfortunate sentence, but it will be for the greater good.’

My eyes widened. She meant to take Serena away from me. With Ren gone, I could no longer glance at the other tapestry, to watch Serena as her life unfolded. Her thread would fade away until all I’d be able to see would be a vague shadow. A life that should have been in our tapestry, gone forever. And the woman I had watched grow up, the woman who had done so much, achieved so much to make her Undersky better, would be taken from me.

I shook my head. ‘No…you can’t. We could ask to reconnect her path to our tapestry instead? Reverse the damage from forty years ago.’

Laika looked at me gripping at the string that we both knew was not mine to hold. The expression she gave me was pity. Don’t get attached to underskylings, we were told.

‘We have meddled enough. It is decreed,’ Laika said finally, waving me away. ‘She will still get to live. Her path will exist in an alternate reality, another tapestry.’

‘But not in ours,’ I said weakly. And not in one I can see. But my protest was in vain. The Gods had spoken.


Attie crafted Ren’s ending. A heart attack in his office. They’d find him there, peaceful, coffee spilled on his desk, staining his white shirt. Karmic justice.

Laika breathed in and closed her eyes. ‘Balance has been achieved,’ she said. ‘The sacrifice was enough.’

But I couldn’t accept it. I needed to see her again. That night, I gathered the broken pieces of threads from Serena’s string – it had already faded into slivers, the thread dull and fraying at the edges. Soon it would disappear from our tapestry, so much potential snuffed out. I had to at least try to bring her back.

With shaking hands, I worked desperately. But with each attempt to weave Serena’s reality into our own, the rest of the loom began unravelling until the intricate patterns in our tapestry were disintegrating. As I sat there watching the destruction of our thousands of years of creations, I felt as though someone was reaching into my chest and ripping out my heart.

Laika suddenly towered above me. ‘What have you done?’ As she spoke, her body shone, the light growing and growing until it snuffed out everything, like an exploding star. I grabbed at the strings, but as soon as they were in my hands, threads slipped between my fingers, disappearing into a blinding white. Attie was crying somewhere.

‘I’m sorry,’ I told Serena. ‘I’m sorry,’ I told everyone else in our tapestry.


That’s how our world ended. With a spilt cup of coffee, a chance encounter, and an accidental marriage. Call it serendipity if you like. As I float here in the Void with my sisters, I call it blind stupidity.

We’ll wait here until we’re assigned a different tapestry. Until then, we’ll serve as an example to our counterparts across the multiverse – we’re not the first to have interfered in such a way, and so we certainly won’t be the last.

I wonder what underskylings we’ll oversee next, what differences will exist in our new tapestry. Will another Serena exist somewhere within it? It’s a question I don’t voice to my sisters, because if there’s one thing my time in the Void has taught me, it’s that attachment is dangerous.