“But other times—”
“Other times I can’t help myself. I bake pies and treat him as if he were alive, and then it hurts. No, it’s better to think he hasn’t been here for ten years and I’ll never see him again. It doesn’t hurt as much.”
“Didn’t he say next time he’d settle down.”
She shook her head slowly. “No, he’s dead. I’m very sure of that.”
“He’ll come alive again, then,” I said.
“Ten years ago,” said Mother, “I thought, What if he dies on Venus? Then we’ll never be able to see Venus again. What if he dies on Mars? We’ll never be able to look at Mars again, all red in the sky, without wanting to go in and lock the door. Or what if he died on Jupiter or Saturn or Neptune? On those nights when those planets were high in the sky, we wouldn’t want to have anything to do with the stars.”
“I guess not,” I said.
The message came the next day.
The messenger gave it to me and I read it standing on the porch. The sun was setting. Mom stood in the screen door behind me, watching me fold the message and put it in my pocket.
“Mom,” I said.
“Don’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” she said.
She didn’t cry.
Well, it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t Venus, and it wasn’t Jupiter or Saturn that killed him. We wouldn’t have to think of him every time Jupiter or Saturn or Mars lit up the evening sky.
This was different.
His ship had fallen into the sun.
And the sun was big and fiery and merciless, and it was always in the sky and you couldn’t get away from it.
So for a long time after my father died my mother slept through the days and wouldn’t go out. We had breakfast at midnight and lunch at three in the morning, and dinner at the cold dim hour of 6 A.M. We went to all-night shows and went to bed at sunrise.
And, for a long while, the only days we ever went out to walk were the days when it was raining and there was no sun.
* * *
The Fire Balloons
FIRE exploded over summer night lawns. You saw sparkling faces of uncles and aunts. Skyrockets fell up in the brown shining eyes of cousins on the porch, and the cold charred sticks thumped down in dry meadows far away.
The Very Reverend Father Joseph Daniel Peregrine opened his eyes. What a dream: he and his cousins with their fiery play at his grandfather’s ancient Ohio home so many years ago!
He lay listening to the great hollow of the church, the other cells where other Fathers lay. Had they, too, on the eve of the flight of the rocket Crucifix, lain with memories of the Fourth of July? Yes. This was like those breathless Independence dawns when you waited for the first concussion and rushed out on the dewy sidewalks, your hands full of loud miracles.
So here they were, the Episcopal Fathers, in the breathing dawn before they pinwheeled off to Mars, leaving their incense through the velvet cathedral of space.
“Should we go at all?” whispered Father Peregrine. “Shouldn’t we solve our own sins on Earth? Aren’t we running from our lives here?”
He arose, his fleshy body, with its rich look of strawberries, milk, and steak, moving heavily.
“Or is it sloth?” he wondered. “Do I dread the journey?”
He stepped into the needle-spray shower.
“But I shall take you to Mars, body.” He addressed himself. “Leaving old sins here. And on to Mars to findnew sins?” A delightful thought almost. Sins no one had ever thought of.
Oh, he himself had written a little book:The Problem of Sin on Other Worlds , ignored as somehow not serious enough by his Episcopal brethren.
Only last night, over a final cigar, he and Father Stone had talked of it.
“On Mars sin might appear as virtue. We must guard against virtuous acts there that, later, might be found to be sins!” said Father Peregrine, beaming. “How exciting! It’s been centuries since so much adventure has accompanied the prospect of being a missionary!”