In the afternoon, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees were stiff and silent in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself, seated in his room reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his fingers, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.
Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in this same house, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries.
Mr. and Mrs. K were not old. They had the fair, brownish skin of the true Martian; the yellow coin eyes, the soft, musical voices. Once they had liked painting pictures with chemical fire, swimming in the canals in the seasons when the wine trees filled them with green liquors, and talking into the dawn together by the blue phosphorous portraits in the speaking room.
They were not happy now.
This morning Mrs. K stood between the pillars of her house, listening to the desert sands heat, melt into yellow wax, and seemingly run on the horizon. She wished that something would happen.
She waited watching the red sky of Mars as if it might at any moment grip in on itself, contract, and expel a shining miracle down upon the sand.
Tired of waiting, she walked through the misting pillars. A gentle rain sprang from the fluted pillar tops, cooling the scorched air, falling gently on her. On hot days it was like wading in a creek. The house floors glittered with cool streams. In the distance she heard her husband playing his book, steadily, his fingers never tired of the old songs. Quietly, she wished he might one day again spend as much time holding and touching her like a little harp as he did his incredible books.
But no. She shook her head, an imperceptible, forgiving shrug. Her eyelids closed softly down upon her golden eyes. Marriage made people old and familiar, while still young.
She lay back in a chair that moved to take her shape, even as she moved. She closed her eyes tightly and nervously.
The dream occurred.
Her fingers trembled, came up, grasped at the air. A moment later she sat up, startled, gasping.
She glanced about, swiftly, as if expecting someone there before her. She seemed disappointed the space between the pillars was empty.
Her husband appeared in a triangular door. “Ylla, did you call?” he asked, irritably.
“No!” she cried.
“I thought I heard you cry out.”
“Did I? I was almost asleep and had a dream.” “In the day time? You don’t often do that.”
She sat up as though struck in the face by the dream. “How strange, how very strange,” she murmured. “The dream.”
“Oh?” He evidently wished to return to his book; “I dreamed about a man.”
“A tall man, six feet one inch tall.”
“How absurd; a giant, a misshapen giant.” “Somehow—” she tried the words. “—he looked all right. In spite of being tall. And he had, oh, I know you’ll think it silly, he had blue eyes!”
“Blue eyes! Gods!” cried Mr. K. “What’ll you dream next? I suppose he had black hair?”
“How did you guess?” She was excited.
“I picked the most unlikely color,” he replied, coldly.
“Well, black it was!” she exulted. “And he had a very white skin, oh, he was most unusual! He dressed in a strange uniform and he came down out of the sky and spoke pleasantly to me.” She smiled. “Out of the sky; what nonsense!”
“He came in a metal thing that glittered in the sun,” she remembered. She closed her eyes to shape it again. “I dreamed there was the sky and something sparkled like a coin thrown in the air, and suddenly it grew large and fell down softly to land, a long silver craft, round and alien. And a door opened in the side of the silver object and this tall man stepped out.”
“If you worked harder, you wouldn’t have these silly dreams.”
“I rather enjoyed it,” she replied, lying back. “I never suspected myself of such an imagination. Black hair, blue eyes, and white skin! What a strange man, and yet—quite handsome.”
“You’re unkind. I didn’t think him up on purpose, he just came in my mind while I drowsed. It wasn’t like a dream. It was so unexpected and different. He looked at me and he said, ‘I’ve come from the third planet in my ship. My name is Nathaniel York—’ ”
“A stupid name; it’s no name at all,” objected the husband.
“Of course it’s stupid, because it’s a dream,” she explained softly. “And he said, ‘This is the first trip across space. There are only two of us on our ship, myself and my friend John.’ ”
“Another stupid name.”
“And he said, ‘We’re from a city on Earth, that’s the name of our planet,’ ” continued Mrs. K. “That’s what he said. ‘Earth’ was the name he spoke. And he used another language. Somehow I understood him. With my mind. Telepathy, I suppose.”
Mr. K turned away. She stopped him with a word. “Yll?” she called, quietly. “Do you ever wonder if, well, if there are people living on the third planet?”
“The third planet is incapable of supporting life,” stated the husband patiently. “Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere."
“But wouldn’t it be fascinating if there were people? And they traveled through space in some sort of ship?” “Really, Ylla, you know how I hate this emotional wailing. Let’s get on with our work.”
It was late in the day when she began singing the song as she moved among the whispering pillars of rain. She sang it over and over again.
“What’s that song?” snapped her husband at last, walking in to sit at the fire table.
“I don’t know.” She looked up, surprised at herself. She put her hand to her mouth, unbelieving. The sun was setting. The house was closing itself in, like a giant flower, with the passing of light. A wind blew among the pillars, the fire table bubbled its fierce pool of silver lava. The wind stirred her russet hair, crooning softly in her ears. She stood silently looking out into the great sallow distances of sea bottom, as if recalling something, her yellow eyes soft and moist. “Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine,” she sang, softly, quietly, slowly. “Or leave a kiss within the cup and I’ll not ask for wine.” She hummed, moving her hands in the wind, ever so lightly, her eyes shut. She finished the song.
It was very beautiful.
“Never heard that song before, did you compose it?” he enquired, his eyes sharp.
“No. Yes. No, I don’t know, really!” She hesitated, wildly. “I don’t even know what the words are; they’re another language!”
She dropped portions of meat numbly into the simmering lava. “I don’t know.” She drew the meat forth, a moment later, cooked, served on a plate for him. “It’s just a crazy thing I made up, I guess; I don’t know why.” He said nothing. He watched her drown meats in the hissing fire pool. The sun was gone. Slowly slowly the night came in to fill the room, swallowing fhe pillars and both of them, like a dark wine poured to the ceiling. Only the silver lava’s glow lit their faces. She hummed the strange tune again. Instantly he leaped from his chair and stalked angrily from the room.
Later, in isolation, he finished supper.
When he arose, he stretched, glanced at her and suggested, yawning, “Let’s take the flame birds to town tonight to see an entertainment.”
“You don’t mean it?” she said. “Are you feeling well?”
“What’s so strange about that?” “But we haven’t gone for an entertainment in six months!”
“I think it’s a good idea.”
“Suddenly, you’re so solicitous,” she said.
“Don’t talk that way,” he replied, peevishly. “Do you or do you not want to go?”
She looked out at the pale desert. The twin white moons were rising. Cool water ran softly about her toes. She began to tremble just the least bit. She wanted very much to sit quietly here, soundless, not moving until this thing occurred, this thing expected all day, this thing that could not happen, but might. A drift of song brushed through her mind.
“Do you good,” he urged. “Come along now.”
“I’m tired,” she said. “Some other night."
“Here’s your scarf.” He handed her a phial. “We haven’t gone anywhere in months.”
“Except you, twice a week, to Xi City.” She wouldn’t look at him. “Business,” he said.
“Oh?” She whispered to herself. From the phial a liquid poured, turned to blue mist, settled about her neck quivering.
The flame birds waited, like a bed of hot coals, glowing on the cool smooth sands. The white canopy ballooned on the night wind, flapping softly, tied by a thousand green ribbons to the birds.
Ylla laid herself back in the canopy and, at a word from her husband, the birds leaped up, burning, toward the dark sky. The ribbons tautened, the canopy lifted. The sand slid whining under, the blue hills drifted by, drifted by, leaving their home behind, the raining pillars, the caged flowers, the singing books, the whispering floor creeks. She did not look at her husband. She heard him crying out to the birds as they rose higher, like ten thousand hot sparkles, so many red-yellow fireworks in the heavens, tugging the canopy like a flower petal, burning through the wind.
She didn’t watch the dead, ancient bone-chess cities slide under, or the old canals filled with emptiness and dreams. Past dry rivers and dry lakes they flew like a shadow of the moon, like a torch burning.
She watched only the sky.
The husband spoke.
She watched the sky.
“Did you hear what I said?”
He exhaled. “You might pay attention.”
“I was thinking.”
“I never thought you were a nature lover, but you’re certainly interested in the sky tonight,” he said.
“It’s very beautiful.”
“I was figuring,” said the husband, slowly. “I thought I’d call Hulle tonight. I’d like to talk to him about us spending some time, oh, only a week or so, in the Blue Mountains. It’s just an idea - ”
“The Blue Mountains!” She gripped the canopy rim with one hand, turning swiftly toward him.
“Oh, it’s just a suggestion.”
“When do you want to go?” she asked, trembling.
“I thought we might leave tomorrow morning. You know, an early start and all that,” he said, very casually.
“But we never go this early in the year!"
“Just this once, I thought -” He smiled. “Do us good to get away. Some peace and quiet. You know. You haven’t anything else planned? We’ll go, won’t we?”
She took a breath, waited, and then replied. “No.”
“What!” His cry startled the birds. The canopy jerked.
“No,” she said, firmly. “It’s settled. I won’t go.”
He looked at her. They did not speak after that. She turned away.
The birds flew on, ten thousand firebrands down the wind.
In the dawn the sun, through the crystal pillars, melted the fog that supported Ylla as she slept. All night she had hung above the floor, buoyed by the soft carpeting of mist which poured from the walls when she lay down to rest. All night she had slept on this silent river, like a bout upon a soundless tide. Now the fog dispersed, the mist withdrew until she was deposited upon the shore of wakening.
She opened her eyes.
Her husband stood over her. He looked as if he had stood there for hours, watching. She did not know why, but she could not look him in the face.
“You’ve been dreaming again,” he said. “You spoke out and kept me awake.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“You talked a lot in your sleep.”
“Did I?” She started.
Dawn was cold in the room.
“What was your dream?”
She had to think a moment to remember. “The ship. It came from the sky again, landed, and the tall man stepped out and talked with me, laughing, and it was pleasant.”
Mr. K touched a pillar. Founts of warm water leaped up, steaming; the chill vanished from the room. Mr. K’s face was impassive.
“And then,” she said, “this man, who said his strange name was Nathaniel York, told me I was beautiful and - and kissed me.”
“Ha!” cried the husband, turning violently away.
“It’s only a dream.” She was amused. “Keep your silly, feminine dreams to yourself!”
“You’re acting like a child.” She lapsed back upon the few remaining bits of chemical mist. After a moment she laughed softly. “I thought of some more of the dream,” she confessed.
“Well, what is it, what is it!” he shouted.
“Yll, you’re so bad-tempered.” “Tell me!” he demanded. “You can’t keep secrets from me!” His face was dark and rigid as he stood over her.
“I’ve never seen you this way,” she replied, half shocked, half entertained. “All that happened was this Nathaniel York person told me, well, he told me that he’d take me away into his ship, into the sky with him, and take me back to his planet with him. It’s really quite ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous, is it!” he almost screamed. “You should have heard yourself, fawning on him, talking to him, singing with him, oh gods, all night, you should have heard yourself!”
“When’s he landing? Where’s he coming down with his ship!”
“Yll, lower your voice.”
He bent stiffly over her. “And in this dream—” he seized her wrist. “—didn’t the ship land over in Green Valley, didn't it? Answer me!”
“And it landed this afternoon, didn’t it?” he kept at her.
“Yes, yes, I think so, yes, but only in a dream!”
“Well,” he flung her hand away, rigidly. “It’s good you’re truthful! I heard every word you said in your sleep. You mentioned the valley and the time.” Breathing hard, he walked between the pillars like a man blinded by a lightning bolt. Slowly, his breath returned. She watched him as though he were quite insane. She arose finally and went to him. “Yll,” she whispered. “I’m all right.”
“No.” He forced a tired smile. “Just childish. Forgive me, darling.” He gave her a rough pat. “Too much work lately. I’m sorry. I think I’ll lie down a while—”
“You were so excited.”
“I’m all right now. Fine.” He exhaled. “Let’s forget it.”
“It was only a dream.”
“Of course.” He kissed her cheek mechanically. “Only a dream.”
At noon the sun was hot and the hills shimmered in the light.
“Aren’t you going to town?” asked Ylla.
“Town?” He raised his brows faintly.
“This is the day you always go.” She adjusted a flower cage on its pedestal. The flowers stirred, opening their hungry yellow mouths.
He closed his book. “No. It’s too hot, and it’s late.”
“Oh.” She finished her task and moved toward the door. “Well, I’ll be back soon.”
“Wait a minute! Where are you going?”
She was in the door swiftly. “Over to Pao’s. She invited me!”
“I haven’t seen her in a long time. It’s only a little way.”
“Over in Green Valley, isn’t it?” “Yes, just a walk, not far, I thought I’d—” She hurried.
“I’m sorry, really sorry,” he said, running to fetch her back, looking very concerned about his forgetfulness. “It slipped my mind. I invited Dr. Nile out this afternoon.”
“Dr. Nlle!” She edged toward the
He caught her elbow and drew her steadily in. “Yes.”
“Pao can wait, Ylla. We must entertain Nlle.”
“Just for a few minutes—”
He shook his head. “No. Besides, it’s a terribly long walk to Pao’s. All the way over through Green Valley and then past the big canal and down, isn’t it? And it’ll be very very hot, and Dr. Nlle would be delighted to see you. Well?”
She did not answer. She wanted to break and run. She wanted to cry out. But she only sat in the chair, turning her fingers over, slowly, staring at them, expressionlessly, trapped.
“Ylla?” he murmured. “You will be here, won’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, after a long time. “I’ll be here.”
Her voice was dull. “All afternoon.”
Late in the day, Dr. Nile had not j put in an appearance. Ylla’s husband did not seem overly surprised. When it was quite late he murmured something, went to a closet and drew forth a long yellowish tube, ending in a bellows and a trigger. He held it in his hands and considered it. It hummed constantly, an insect hum. From it, hordes of golden bees could be flung out with a high shriek. Golden bees that stung, poisoned, and fell lifeless, like seeds on the sand.
“Where are you going?” she asked with interest she hadn’t wanted to show.
“What? Oh.” He turned the bellows over, listening carefully to its evil humming. “If Dr. Nlle insists on being late, I’m not waiting for him. I’m going out to hunt for a bit. I’ll be back. You be sure to stay right here now, won’t you?” He did not look at her. “Yes.”
“And tell Dr. Nlle I’ll return. Just hunting.”
The triangular door closed. His footsteps faded down the hill.
She watched him walking through the sunlight, until he was gone. Then she resumed her tasks with the magnetic dusts and the new fruits to be plucked from the crystal walls. She worked with energy and dispatch, but on occasion a numbness took hold of her and she caught herself singing that strange and memorable song and looking out beyond the crystal pillars at the sky.
She held her breath and stood very still, waiting.
It was coming nearer.
At any moment it might happen.
It was like those days when you heard a thunderstorm coming and there was the waiting silence and then the faintest pressure of the atmosphere as the climate blew over the land in shifts and shadows and vapors. And the change pressed at your ears and you were suspended in the waiting time of the coming storm. You began to tremble. The sky was stained and colored; the clouds were thickened, the mountains took on an iron taint. The caged flowers blew with faint sighs of warning. You felt your hair stir softly. Somewhere in the house, the voiceclock sang, “Time, time, time, time—” ever so gently; no more than water tapping on velvet.
And then, the storm. The electric illumination, the engulfments of dark wash and sounding black fell down, shutting in, forever.
That’s how it was, now. A storm gathered, yet the sky was clear. Lightning was expected, yet there was no cloud.
Ylla moved through the breathless summer house. Lightning would strike from the sky any instant, there would be a thunderclap, a ball of smoke, a silence, footsteps on the path, a rap on the crystalline door, and her running to answer.
Crazy Ylla! she scoffed. Why think these wild things with your idle mind? And then, it happened.
There was a warmth as of a great fire passing in the air. A whirling rushing sound. A gleam in the sky, of metal. Ylla cried out.
Running through the pillars, she flung wide a door. She faced the hills. But by this time there was nothing.
She was about to race down the hill, when she stopped herself. She was supposed to stay here, go nowhere. The doctor was coming to visit, and her husband would be angry if she ran off.
She waited in the door, breathing rapidly, her hand out.
She strained to see, over toward Green Valley, but saw nothing.
Silly woman. She went inside. You and your imagination, she thought. That was nothing but a bird, a leaf, the wind, or a fish in the canal. Sit down. Rest.
A shot sounded.
Very clearly, sharply, the sound of the evil insect weapon.
Her body jerked with it.
It came from a long way off. One shot. The swift humming distant bees. One shot. And then a second shot, precise and cold, and far away.
Her body winced again and for some reason she started up, screaming and screaming, and never wanting to stop screaming. She ran violently through the house and once more threw wide the door.
The echoes were dying away, away.
She waited in the yard, her face pale.
Finally, with slow steps, her head down, she wandered about the pillared rooms, laying her hand to things, her lips quivering, until finally she sat alone, in the darkening wine room, waiting. She began to wipe an amber glass with the hem of her scarf.
And then, from far off, the sound of footsteps, crunching on the thin, small rocks.
She rose up to stand in the centre of the quiet room. The glass fell from her fingers, smashing to bits.
The footsteps hesitated outside the door.
Should she speak, should she cry out, "Come in, oh, come in!”
She went forward a few paces.
The footsteps walked up the ramp. A hand twisted the door latch.
She smiled at the door.
The door opened. She stopped smiling.
It was her husband.
He entered the room and looked at her for only a moment. Then he snapped the weapon bellows open, cracked out two dead bees, heard them spat on the floor as they fell, stepped on them, and placed the empty bellows-gun in the corner of the room as Ylla bent down and tried, over and over, with no success, to pick up the pieces of the shattered glass. “What were you doing?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, with his back turned.
“But, the gun, I heard you fire it."
“Just hunting. Once in a while you like to hunt. Did Dr. Nlle arrive?”
“Wait a minute.” He snapped his fingers disgustedly. “Why, I remember now. He was supposed to visit us tomorrow afternoon. How stupid of me."
They sat down to eat. She looked at her food and did not move her hands. “What’s wrong?” he asked, not looking up from dipping his meat in the bubbling lava.
“I don’t know. I’m not hungry,” she said.
“I don’t know; I’m just not.”
The sun was going down. The room was small and suddenly cold.
“I’ve been trying to remember,” she said, in the silent room, across from her cold, erect, golden-eyed husband.
“Remember what?” He sipped his wine.
“That song. That fine and beautiful song.” She closed her eyes and hummed, but it was not the song. “I’ve forgotten it. And, somehow, I don’t want to forget it. It’s something I want always to remember.” She moved her hands as if the rhythm might help her to remember all of it. Then she lay back in her chair. “I can’t remember.” She began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, but I can’t help it. I’m sad and I don’t know why, I cry and I don’t know why, but I’m crying.”
Her head was in her hands, her shoulders moved again and again.
“You’ll be all right tomorrow,” he said.
She did not look up at him, she looked only at the empty desert and the very bright stars coming out now on the black sky, and far away there was a sound of wind rising and canal waters stirring cold in the long canals. She shut her eyes, trembling.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be all right, tomorrow.”