“The Winter Astronaut”
by Mark Patrick Lynch
It was the forty-third day of a slowly drifting October spun from russet and gold. An uncomfortably forgetful old man – whose name was like a sunbeam and whose dreams intruded upon reality like firecrackers in the Fourth of July sky – felt the first warm breath that had been held all the way from another world released over the plains. As the heat rose, he noticed a whirl of dust rising through faded purple grasslands he could see from his rocker on the porch, and knew his tired old senses hadn’t deceived him. It had been the sigh of a rocket whizzing overhead just moments before! It had!
A needle of machined steel and rivets had fallen from space, landed in the distant town, and here was the result.
The giant sunflowers beside the white picket fence bounding the old man’s scant acreage turned towards the heat-wave rolling up from town, forsaking the distant flare of the sun, a flare very much like a forgotten memory regained at the end of a life. They unfurled as they strained towards the furnace-surf rushing in now that October had been granted leave to snooze awhile and warm its weary bones to the Martian rocket summer.
“Ha,” said the old man, watching from behind the lenses of his black-framed spectacles as the grass turned green and butterflies blew over the meadow like leaves from twisty old trees ahead of a mischievous Halloween storm.
“Ha,” said the old man as hares and prairie dogs woke from their slumbering hibernation, and with an excited twitch of the nose or a yapping bark leaped to run with the tide of new colours swimming like shoals of tropical fish around them.
“Ha,” said the old man as the wave hit the porch fully and summer was upon him, warming the decking where he sat so that boards warped and groaned, stretching and popping beneath him, oozing the scent of sap as the screen door kissed the crooked jamb.
And “Ha,” said the old man finally, his snow white hair puckering with a kiss curl in the breeze, as trailing on that tide, working furiously to keep the wave, ride the breaker all the way to the cottage on the hill, he saw a young boy with firecracker eyes and hair as red as an explosion grit his teeth and push on the pedals of his Labyrinth of Night Cyclone Bicycle Extra Special Super Quick Deluxe!, raising behind him a dust storm like a sooty comet’s contrail.
“Now who’s this, pushing on that bike so hard?” the old man asked no one in particular. Lists of names fluttered by, with wings bright as the cerise and gold of the huge butterflies just sprung to dancing life. But he already knew, of course. Why, naturally he did! That burnished crew-cut could mean only one thing: it was young Jimmy Salina – son of Dexter Salina the town councillor and elder member of the Tharsis Martian Elks – riding up here on his much-spun wheels, tyres thin from miles of adventuring, spokes delicate and iridescent as dusky thoughts, all excited by rocket fire.
And what did he have in his hand? The old man squinted through his thick lenses. Was it a rolled up newspaper? A series of telegram sheaves? Letters?
Thinking of mail, the old man experienced a melancholy stirring of expectancy then: the thrill of waiting for letters through the door, excited at what might lie in the mailbox at the end of the long driveway when he’d shared a house with his wife, all those years ago, on another world. But the memory, like so much else, faded and was gone, leaving him unsure and uncomfortable, a spaceship charting unexplored emptiness, teasing its solidity between the flood tides of meteors and sucking gravitational wounds of space-time.
From his rocker on the porch, he looked to the end of his short walk, saw his old mailbox, freckled by rust and sunflower tree shadows, a place now of only birds’ nests and hollow echoes.
“Memories,” he said. “Always getting in the way of something.”
But look! Up the dirt road the lad sped, pedalling for all his worth from the valley grasslands below and, with a cry, falling behind the colour already fading from bright green to forlorn Martian purple as the wave roared and rushed and hissed ahead of him. Summer gone, passed in the rolling wave of rocket exhaust… and Jimmy Salina, in the wake of it all, fallen out of summer, left to October and the prospect of the long fall to come.
“Ha,” grunted the old man, and sank back in his rocker on the porch.
“Say, Mister B., tell me again the story about the cat and the pyjamas.”
Gently encompassed in the folds of the swinger’s parachute cushions, Jimmy gulped down his milk, a filmy moustache left on his upper lip as he swayed creaking in the newly returned October chill. A plate of cookie crumbs sat beside him. The giant sunflowers had shrunk back in on themselves, tattered remnants of what they had been moments ago. While beyond the fence, where the chilled wind blew through like a voice lost in the woods, the meadows were shivering purple again, the prairie hounds curled up in hibernation for the long Martian winter… Or until the next rocket season breathed them alive.
“The story about the cat and the pyjamas?” the old man murmured, and frowned as he searched his head, sifting through files and folders, hunting the long grassy veldt in his brain where books filled with scribbles were stacked, one atop the other, full of tales and incidents, metaphors and similes, a thousand lives lived in lands strange and familiar. As he prowled his mind, looking at volumes stacked too tall for the reaching, he found he didn’t have the first idea where to look for the story. So many of them, scattered everywhere. He was lost in his imagination and didn’t for a moment like the thrill of it.
“I, uh, I don’t remember that one offhand,” he said, quickly coming back to the boy and the porch and Martian October. “How about some more milk, Jimmy? Uh? You finished that one all up yet? Plenty more in the refrigerator.”
The old man was still upset at what he’d found in his head, shaken in a way he couldn’t quite find words for. When he’d tried to pluck a tale from one of the ledgers, it was as if the binding had come away in his hands, the paper inside eaten through by worms or something worse. All those words, lost and faded, all those holes never to be filled again . . . Where had they gone?
“Sure, Mister B. You want some too?”
Mr B. looked at his glass. Odd. He hadn’t remembered draining it clear. But there was plenty he didn’t remember of late.
“Uh, yes. Yes please, Jimmy. I’ll have a glass too. And some of that apple pie Missus B. keeps in the pantry!”
The boy froze in the act of rising, fluid motion coming to a halt in iced air. “Missus B.?” he said slowly, and the cold spread from him to the old man.
“Why sure, Jimmy. Missus B. You’ve met Missus B., haven’t you?” But he knew his voice sounded odd and hollow, falling flat on the thin Martian air. And then he remembered he lived up here alone, had done for . . . Why, for as long as he could remember. For years and years it would be. His face fell and he realised he must look as sad as the reflection in Jimmy’s arctic eyes.
Jimmy tilted his head, concerned. “You sure you’re okay, Mister B.?”
“Uh-huh, Jimmy,” Mr B. said tiredly and rubbed his firewood hands together to free them of winter. “Uh-huh.”
What did he remember? He was too scared to find out. But a voice saying “Live forever” as a carnival performer’s hand tapped him on the forehead was there, as was the image of the world as he was birthed. He pushed away further recollections, disturbed by how much was missing, how large a space lay between his memories. He felt they were all written out of him, his life elsewhere on a page someplace.
To cheer himself up, he had Jimmy help him around the side of the house so they could take a tour of the grounds. ” You see that ivy running riot,” he said, leaning on his stick and pointing up the side of the cottage where not a plank or brick could be seen for the green. “Planted that when I first got here. Now look at it. All rippling and proud.”
“It’s a doozy, all right, Mister B. He fairly looks like a dinosaur. One of the big ones, about to pounce on a meal. Huh? If you look at it just right, see, with the chimneystack the head, all smoking out ’cos he’s angry?”
“Ha!” the old man cried with delight and patted him on the shoulder. “It does, it does. You should be a writer, Jimmy! Writers see things like that all the time.”
For a moment Mr B. was lost in a dinosaur dream, but the boy’s shout drew him back from the Jurassic with the ease of a butterfly folding its wings.
“Hey, what’s that?”
The old man shuffled around to see where Jimmy was pointed. “Hmm,” he said. “Hmm.”
“Can we look?”
“I don’t see why not. Watch out for those brambles though.”
They trod carefully to the big metal hive stained from its time between worlds, burnished to a gleam by the new Martian air, scarred by meteorites and strange tilting radiations beyond the sky. The old man pulled away grasses and bindweed from around its middle. Rust had taken hold, mapping out a succession of hills and rivers along the side of the hull. The buffets of the ride down through Martian air to Martian soil inside that little pinecone capsule were the first new memories he’d had in a long time after the onset of his forgetfulness, he remembered.
“Golly. How’d it get here? It must be ancient.” Jimmy pried away the escape hatch, which groaned open like an awakening giant.
“How’d it get here?” Mr B. said as Jimmy peered inside. “It got here on a needle of flame, leaped off the earth from a gantry spry as a spider’s web, rode a thin cylinder sharpened to a point, all controlled inferno and beams of light curved just so! It said goodbye to hoses and snakes with cooling waters and petroleum, said goodbye to hunger when it sucked those hoses dry. Said ‘So long, fellas!’ to the ants who ran out from under it. Then broke free of the silk and slid up the sky like a perfect curveball flung around the globe. And then, with a goodbye sung to gravity, it swung by the moon, dived through the sun’s flames, kissed Venus on the lips, pulled up its britches and hit off to Mars. That’s how it got here.”
“Wow, Mister B.” Jimmy brought his head out of the capsule. “It’s you who’s the writer!”
“Ha,” said the old man and remembered the fall between the worlds, the long tumble head over heels without up or down, north or south, east or west. No point of reference, no idea so firmly lodged in a head it couldn’t be shaken free, no memory held forever, no passion that couldn’t rule the heart always. And then quickly past the frozen comets, out along the radio wave darkness, travelling where only stragglers from the sun and old rock hung, the red dot growing outside the window: Mars! And just as he’d dreamed it.
“And you came here in that, Mister B.?”
“Like a rattling old pea in its pod.”
Jimmy touched metal sculpted by an artisan, gemstones strung by a seamstress, moved fingers past tight stretches of spiders’ webs and the tiny tracks of beetles, placed a palm down flat, pushed until he thought he could detect the sun’s stored heat, pulled away, leaving a print in the rust. “But this must be a hundred years old!”
“More. Two, three hundred!”
“How long you been here, Mister B.? How long you been on Mars?”
Live forever, the voice remembered said.
Mr B. turned around and looked at his cottage and the thin line of smoke rising from the chimneystack, the waving sunflower heads poking up on long necks, swaying like sea creatures awaiting a fog horn’s cry. “How long’ve I been here? Since they didn’t need me anymore, seems like. Since they forgot all about how it could be and took out their own futures; after mine got old-fashioned, I guess. Since they forgot about me. That’s how long it’s been.” He sniffed; a sound Jimmy thought awfully sad. “I landed here, looping round in circles in my capsule under that porch swing parachute, falling to Mars like a sycamore seed, around and around, all spinning and whirling, and here it all was, waiting for me when I landed. Just like I remembered. ‘Cept I seem to have misplaced so much more.”
“Golly, Mister B. You must be about the oldest person on the planet.”
Mr B. grunted. “And all forgotten about too.”
“Well, I remember you, Mr B. Don’t you worry about that.”
“Yes, Jimmy, by goodness you do! You remember me.”
They left the capsule behind, glittering with new webs being spun, running with a fresh stream of silver insects along its curves, then took to the porch so the old man could get his breath back.
“Hey, I forgot, myself!” Jimmy said after awhile. “Let me show you what I got in the rocket mail this morning!”
He handed over an envelope, white as the snow on Mr B.’s head, and Mr B. ran his papery fingers over the cover, remembering all the letters from folks he’d never met but who knew him all the same and wrote him and told him so from reading his books. He licked his lips like a cat at the last of the milk. In the top right corner a flash of gold beneath a rocket stamp, an embellished swirl of fire, a needlepoint missile – the Rocket Corp emblem.
“I’ve been accepted by the academy, Mister B.! Ain’t that great? I’m gonna be a rocket pilot and fly round the silver apple moons, go all the way to Earth and back. I’m gonna kiss Venus and fan the sun’s flames, just like you did, Mister B., just like you did! And I swear, I’ll never forget you. Not once. Not ever. Honest as pirates swing cutlasses and skeletons come to life on Hallowe’en.”
“Ha,” said Mr B. “Ha! And you know something, Jimmy. I believe you too!”
“It’s true, Mister B.”
“I know it is. Let’s go celebrate with some more apple pie!”
Sometimes, when the thunderclouds rose high on the horizon and the dust roared in and covered everything, vanishing the sun for days, the old man would pull on the curtains, wind up the phone and listen to the whir of crackle down the receiver, imagining voices talking to him as the house shook and the lightning rod sucked electricity from the sky. He never heard complete sentences, just occasional snatches of words: . . . “love” . . . “wonderful” . . . “forever” . . . Voices from somewhere out there, beyond the winds and groans, separated from their owners and tattered by the swirl of alien air.
And when the storms passed, the ground ceased shaking, while the smell of the scorched rod burned in the air and the voices of the wind fell quiet, out on his porch the old man went, sweeping brush in hand, to funnel away the dust. He’d see the town in the distance, sparkling as always, its cupolas and roof tiles shining bright as the town hall and library were washed, hoses taken to sidewalks, trees shaken loose of crimson stains, the cigar store dusted clean. And then down the garden walk he’d trundle, to his mailbox. And looking inside, beyond the rust and birds’ empty nests, examine it for post.
There never was any.
“Ha,” he grunted and slammed the flap, swung around, and returned to the porch. “Ha,” one morning. “Ha,” the next. Never a change in the routine, never a word uttered otherwise. “Ha.” “Ha.” “Ha.” All through the long summers, no mail. Fall, not a call. Winter – “Ha!” Spring, only nesting birds and tiny, speckled eggs.
Thus did it continue, year after year.
The town spread, grew bigger, like a ripening apple tree, and in all that time not a note, a call, a telegraph, or a messenger. The old man watched people learning to glide under kites off the high plateau; he mapped the hard stars, whistled to the moons shooting around the night, tended his sunflowers and thought about repairing his fence. And then one particularly cold winter, when the snow had been so long on the ground that pneumatic drills were pounding away at it to free up the town, a sigh, definitely a sigh, slid through the sky . . .
The old man stopped gathering wood from out the shed and lifted his head. Had he just heard . . . ? No. It couldn’t be. A meteorite, maybe, blazing Martian atoms like a firework. His breath clouded the air, hanging in the way of his glasses as he stepped out of the shed, looking up.
“Out of the way, cloud!”
And there! Overhead! A dragon, breathing orange flames, swinging around on crimson wings. No, not a dragon, by goodness: a rocket! Coming in to land on its flaring tail. And not in town either. Why no, not this time. It was coming down next to his cottage, searing the sunflower tree branches, and rolling liquid flames along the ice, till it was gone, washed away and run off, a rocket river chasing hurrying snow to slush. A sound of thunder and a quaking of house boards followed. Some were ripped loose and flung over the horizon! And roof tiles followed after, cumulous and stratus and nimbus tiles, a stairway of them running to high skyways distant.
“Stop! Stop! The house!” he cried, though whether in delight or anguish he couldn’t say.
And it did. It stopped. The rocket landed, ticking with the heat of the sun, weeping radiation along its length, steeping fins like hands in prayer. The rocket, the rocket, come to rest beside the exposed struts and bones of his half demolished house.
As the breeze of the motors died, the old man watched the rocket summer spread, the wave run out, rippling colour into the land, watched it explode in a riot of hues and life. The snow had melted, and he felt himself sink slowly to Mars as steam rose to his chest. Too hot for his winter wrappings, he flung off his fur-hat, unbuttoned his jacket, threw away his gloves.
The cabin hatch opened, and climbing out, climbing down, with a wave of something white in a hand, in a suit like armour, black and twinkling with nebula insignia – a rocket man.
“Mister B.! Mister B.!” cried the voice from behind the helmet glass. “Mister B.!” with a wave. “Mister B.!” with a smile.
And through squinting eyes behind thick-lensed spectacles the face was recognised, and the voice, older, recalled.
“No. It can’t be . . .
Free of the helmet, the burnished hair of a young man he’d once known, long summers and falls ago – and now he was striding up the walk between the newly blooming sunflowers. And in his hand a letter.
“Jimmy?” Mr B. said. “Jimmy Salina, is that you?”
He was a grown man now. A rocket man. He had flown between the stars. “I told you I wouldn’t forget, Mister B.”
“Yes. Yes. You did. Why, wonderful, wonderful,” Mr B. said and looked beyond the young rocket man to the glistening steel behind him, to the leopard ready to leap to the stars and sprint among the moons, chase asteroids like gazelles and bring down meteors for the fun of it.
Jimmy looked around, pleased by something. “Good. Looks like I made it here first.”
“Uh-huh. I wanted to be the one come tell you.”
“Tell me what, Jimmy?”
“That you’re not forgotten, that they’ve been looking for you. All this time, they’ve been looking for you.”
“Uh-huh. They tried on Earth. They hunted out your Time Machines and slipped back to see where you were; only they missed you, every time. ‘Where’d he go?’ they cried. ‘Where’d he go?’ But you’d slipped away when they weren’t looking, Mister B.”
“Oh,” said Mr B., thinking of his voyage to Mars and the long fall of forgetfulness that came with it. Who was he if the stories had all gone, he’d wondered? He’d set out his childhood in lines and paragraphs. But he’d left them all behind, that was the answer, he’d left them all in books and libraries and people’s hearts, told amongst friends and rippling on silver screens, memorised by book people everywhere when censorship descended, tales told underground until it was safe for them to see the light again.
“But I told them, Mister B.,” Jimmy was saying. “When I’d kissed Venus and poured a cup of gold from the sun. When I got back to Earth and I saw what they were doing, realised they were hunting you, I told them where you were. I remembered. Just like I said I would. And now they’re on their way. All with letters for you. Letters like this.” Jimmy brandished an old, much-travelled envelope with ink faded through long ages and many passed hands of the postal service.
Mr B. took the envelope in his papery fingers, felt the weave of the texture, ran his fingertips over the smooth glistening letters that made up his name. No, no. It wasn’t the writing that was glistening; that was just the way he was seeing the letters, he realised, through his tears. A letter for him, after all these years. Someone telling him how much they loved him and his stories.
He looked up to hear what Jimmy was saying.
“. . . all the letters they could never deliver, because they didn’t know where you were. They’re coming, Mister B. They’re coming. Look! Hundreds – thousands – of them! They had to build a whole new fleet of rockets just to deliver them.”
And slowly, with soft rain flowing behind his spectacles, the old man looked up and saw it was true. The sky was lit by fire, and every one of the thousand sparks was a rocket, flying their words of love to him, telling him he’d never been forgotten, only lost for a while, that they carried his memories and his life and would for always. He was found and they wouldn’t ever let him go missing again.
No, not a once, they promised, not ever.
– For Ray Bradbury, of course.
English writer Mark Patrick Lynch has had short stories, mainstream and genre, accepted for print around the world by various publications, including most recently amongst others by, The Elastic Book of Numbers, The Walri Project, At Ease With the Dead, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Jupiter, Aesthetica, Dream Catcher, and Zahir — for which his story “Triangulation” received an Honourable Mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He currently divides his time between the counties of Kent and West Yorkshire, with his girlfriend Michelle and Millie the Polo mint-eating dog. Follow him on Twitter @markplynch
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