BY JOEL VAN VALIN
THE JANE MCDOUGALL COLLECTION
(a spoof on the work of paul whitney's writing
at the hyper-age)
Plate exchangers/Malta (Charlie Scandrett)
Upside down keg
And if I'm cold now
I once loved fire.
And if you shiver
in the mist
there was a time
when you lay warm by me.
If you think how we heard voices
from an empty sky
tucked bluebells in our hair
on the long road to the airfield-
Remember it is hard
to walk backwards.
To stand on two hands!
To look up and kiss the earth!
RED TREE SONG
I'll be the blood in the breast of a crow
The beer and the barley, the lock and the key
The red in the leaf of a red oak tree
In fall; the overdose
That calls the red revolving star to wail
A girl's worn sandals, or the blue in her eye
The snow that falls from an April sky
The billow in a sail
And dark water running overhead
In the windy branches; the brick that stays
In the garden wall for centuries
Darling, when I'm dead.
HORSE AND RIDER
Now it's getting dark you can see the lights. Yea, that's Venus. You're a
smart kid, sharp. But over there. You see those three bright stars, way up
above the boxelder tree? That's the Summer Triangle ... the bottom point is
Altair. And right about there-follow my hand so I can point it out to
you-that's where I just came in from. Still shivering from the doors, in
fact. You see how my hand shakes?
Now look, look at this branch. This branch did not come from here, from
Earth. I brought it from Foxheath, picked it up from the ground one day.
You see how brittle it is, these little glass-looking flecks? It's not
really a branch, in fact. It's not like anything here, kid. I bring it
with me wherever I go, I don't know why. There's things that move out
there, too. Out in the Suffolk cluster. Kind of spooked me, that time with
the Merisdales. People can go crazy out there. We call it the Dark Lands.
It's not like other types of crazy-like when you think you're Saint Peter,
imagine things. No, it's the other sort-you can see the universe too well,
goddamned dwarfed by it. Hard for the human mind to ... but you keep
moving. That's the trick, kid. Ride it, ride.
When I first walked onto the deck of the San Miguel, I saw all the different
colors. The bridge windows change colors, depending on the star, the
spectrum. So the light of the star doesn't burn us, see? But before the
ship takes off they're a patchwork, all different colors. Like stained
glass, you see in some of these old churches here. A young woman was
sleeping on one of the benches, she was supposed to be the watch but she
fell asleep. That was the first time I laid eyes on Mati. It was very
early. She looked up and she laughed, embarrassed. You must be the new 3rd
Officer, she said, snapping to attention. She asked my forgiveness, told me
how they'd played cards into the night. You're right, it's always night up
there, but we set our days and nights. We play cards a lot, don't ask me
why. We do a lot of things up there that they no longer do here, or on any
of the worlds. Some of us even pray, when the ship starts going heave-ho
and we're waiting for the doors to open. It gets pretty wild up there, it
gets very ... I don't know. But then you land and you walk around, you find
a place like this with streets and trees and lights and people on their air
scooters, whisking about, each doing their own thing. You realize you could
never live here. On Earth, or Foxheath, or Tarrymore, or anywhere that's a
place. They call us denabi, star gypsies, because we don't settle down.
You're uncle's a gypsy, kid-how do you like that? I remember when your
father first met Mati and he said, Why don't you get him to settle down? And
Mati just laughed.
Now that bright star there, kind of reddish? That's Arcturus. Part of the
Herdsman, very ancient constellation. Can you see him, big head, smoking a
pipe? And that little circlet of stars there, we call that the Northern
Crown. The crown jewel is Gemma, and that star next to her we call Beta
Corona, and I've been there too, when I was with the Expeditionary Force.
There's a moon there with white polymers covering the whole surface.
Technically they're alive, the way bacteria are alive, but you can walk on
them okay and it's like walking on sheets. But the air is poison, too much
CO. This ranger I knew, Galka, he had a leak in his suit, a slow leak, and
he passed out, just went to sleep nice and comfortable on the sheets of that
moon on Beta Corona. And by the time we realized he was no longer with us
and went back for him he was gone. He had been the last man in our party.
It's always hard being the last man and we always drew lots for it.
Sometimes I think, if I'd just drawn the lot that day. If I'd just turned
around to tell him a joke, because we were always joking, he and I. The
other morning, kid, when I overslept because I'd been drinking with Jake, do
you remember? How you came into my room and woke me up? Sometimes when
that happens I think I'm still on Beta Corona, that I'm sleeping there with
Galka. So you see, it wasn't your fault, and I'm sorry I frightened you
like that. Galka, he and I were close. Damn, kid, he was about the best
friend I ever had.
Now which star ... the Bec? You can't see their star from here. Them, I
only saw once, at a distance. They look like foxes, I guess, but their
eyes-something different there. They say the slowest of them has about
twice the intelligence of our Einsteins. I don't know about that-they don't
do much. They sit watching their red oceans for days at a time. How about
that, kid? But we don't really want to meet anyone else up there. We
thought we did, in the beginning, but it turns out we're not that interested
in the others. It's like Mati said, the first time we got drunk together,
in the Crux del Sol on Tarrymore. I asked her why she'd become a space
mariner, and she told me it was so she could be alone. And I took her hand
and kissed it and said, Well maybe you don't want to be alone tonight? And
she smiled and... ah, but you're just a kid, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be
telling you this. It's just-you know. Missing her and all. Like now, with
your parents gone for the week, and you miss them? But tonight, kid, we're
going all over the town, down to the river and up to the port to watch the
ships land, and then downtown for ice cream, hey? And then you won't miss
them as much.
Now, look behind you. You know the Big Dipper, right? You see the middle
star in the handle, where it bends a bit? That's Mizar. No, I haven't been
there, it's a new bright star and doesn't have any planets so we don't have
any reason to go there. But just above it, very faint, see that star?
Little Alcor. They call those two Horse and Rider, the small star riding on
top of the big star. A long time ago, they used that as an eye test, if you
could see them both you were all right...and kid, if you can see them
through this Earth haze, I'd say you've got pretty sharp eyes! And Alcor's
not a bad place, it's got a little indigo planet called Bluebeach, with a
couple good sized moons, and they make tremendous waves. But what I wanted
to say, about Alcor and Mizar, is that they look very close together, but in
fact they're not. They're hundreds of light-years apart, really. They just
look close from here. Well, that's enough of the stars for now. Let's step
into the pub here, and I'll have a drink with Jake. And then yea, we'll
pick your sister up, and maybe we'll all go down to the river together.