Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2006
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.”
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