Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

Pete Gross, known to his peers as “Dirtbag” or “Dirt,” is a legendary Colorado River boatman who began his career in the 1970s rowing dories through Grand Canyon. He is now retired and living in Moab, Utah.

Karma handed Pete his nickname; he had a habit of calling everyone “dirtbag,” in the affectionate manner of addressing others as “dude” or “pal.” Eventually, the term ended up affixed to him.

In the boating world, Pete is respected for being not only a skilled professional, but also a sincere, practicing environmentalist. He is known for truly walking the walk.

To get around, Pete rides a bike or takes public transportation. To reach his energy-efficient home in a green community in Moab, you either walk or bike; no cars are allowed.

He doesn’t have a TV set or an internet connection. He goes dumpster-diving at Moab grocery stores on the principle that too much perfectly good food is thrown out. That practice evolved into a local food redistribution program run by Pete’s friends and other volunteers.

Pete lives modestly, with a goal of leaving a responsible footprint on the planet. Yet, he insists he is comfortable and content, and life is good.

In 2009, he was interviewed at length as part of a program designed to preserve the memories and stories of the old-time river guides for posterity. When I came across the transcript, I was struck by his explanation of why he feels so strongly about treading lightly on the earth. He made his case with passion and eloquence.

Here is an excerpt.

————

I remember the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. When I first read about that, my reaction was, “Okay, so it’s made a mess of the whole coastline, but we need the oil.”

But slowly, I came around to the notion that I was basically anti-people, anti-technology. I just chose environmentalism over economics. It was a pretty naive viewpoint, but that was the conscious choice. My attitude was, it was one versus the other.

I’d just chosen that the environment was more important to me, and people and the economy came second. It was a slow realization for me that — whether it was just my misperception, or the powers-that-be fueling the notion that it’s one or the other — it was a big epiphany for me to realize, no! Those are not two mutually exclusive options.

I think there are certain… like, the oil companies and certain powers-that-be have a vested interest in fueling a false… bifurcation? Is that the right word? You have one or the other, you can’t have both.

But really, you can’t have one without the other. Or, you can’t have a healthy economy if you’ve spoiled and ruined your foundation for that, which is the environment.

There’s a book by Amory Lovins — he and some others, Lovins was a co-author — a book called Natural Capitalism that talks about a post-industrial era. What makes the most sense, not just environmentally, but economically, is to realize that there are these natural services that are irreplaceable, yet we place no value on them.

Like our atmosphere, and the biosphere that cycles through nutrients… just the whole cycle of energy, the sun shining on the earth, plants taking the sun, converting through chlorophyll, taking CO2 and making glucose, and then enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which then makes it possible for the plants to grow that make our food, whatever.

There are all these natural services that we can’t replicate, and yet we don’t value them. And so we destroy them in the notion that we’re gonna make a buck. We’re profiting, but we’re destroying our real capital to create this income stream that isn’t sustainable.

That was when I finally had this realization, “Oh, I don’t need to choose that I’m an environmentalist, and therefore I oppose economic development.” I realized you can’t have a healthy economy without a robust, healthy environment.

You know, I look at a forest, and I don’t see board feet. I look at a river, and I don’t see kilowatt hours. But you look at a forest and realize, “Okay, yeah, there’s an economic value to the wood in that tree. Yeah, we could log that tree and mill it and sell it and stuff, and there’s a certain economic value.

But what we ignore is that that tree, standing in place there, is providing wildlife habitat and watershed. It’s helping give us a sustainable clean water source and protecting us from floods, and so on. We cut that tree down, we’re not very good at putting a price tag on how much value it has just in place.

The same thing comes up when you’re looking strictly at river issues, when you talk about dams versus irrigation and water rights.

Well, like we’ve learned with the salmon fisheries. There’s an incredible value to this food source. We have eliminated or almost decimated these salmon populations, which were natural services, provided for free. An incredible food source.

Instead, we put a lot of infrastructure in place, and a lot of irrigation and what-not, to raise cows. Takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, at the price of — we’ve decimated salmon fisheries, for which we didn’t have to do anything. They were there for the harvesting!

————

He had me at “bifurcation.”

Lachs / Wanderung / Kanada

 

Read Full Post »

More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time.

———

What the Living Do

By Marie Howe

Howe M

Marie Howe (B. 1950)

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.

———

The Eagle

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tennyson A

Alfred Tennyson, 1st baron Tennyson (1809-1892)

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

———

I Remember

By Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

Anne Gray Harvey Sexton (1928-1974)

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color — no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

———

Cherries

By Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Gibson WW

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)

A handful of cherries
She gave me in passing,
The wizened old woman,
And wished me good luck —
And again I was dreaming,
A boy in the sunshine,
And life but an orchard
Of cherries to pluck.

———

On a Young Lady’s Sixth Anniversary

By Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield K

Katherine Mansfield Murry (1888-1923)

Baby Babbles — only one,
Now to sit up has begun.

Little Babbles quite turned two
Walks as well as I and you.

And Miss Babbles one, two, three,
Has a teaspoon at her tea.

But her Highness at four
Learns to open the front door.

And her Majesty — now six,
Can her shoestrings neatly fix.

Babbles, Babbles, have a care,
You will soon put up your hair!

 

Read Full Post »

Science fiction appeals to me for many reasons, but mostly because of the “what if” factor. No other genre allows a writer to speculate about anything at all, with no restrictions.

For example, a question once occurred to author Robert Shea: where, logically, could advances in medical science someday lead us? And he wrote the following story.

————

Resurrection

By Robert J. Shea
Published in Fantastic Universe, December 1957

“You’re a fascinating person,” the girl said. “I’ve never met anyone like you before. Tell me your story again.”

The man was short and stocky, with Asiatic features and a long, stringy mustache. “The whole story?” he asked. “It would take a lifetime to tell you.” He stared out the window at the yellow sun and the red sun. He still hadn’t gotten used to seeing two suns. But that was minor, really, when there were so many other things he had to get used to.

A robot waiter, with long thin metal tubes for arms and legs, glided over. When he’d first seen one of those, he’d thought it was a demon. He’d tried to smash it. They’d had trouble with him at first.

“They had trouble with me at first,” he said.

“I can imagine,” said the girl. “How did they explain it to you?”

“It was hard. They had to give me the whole history of medicine. It was years before I got over the notion that I was up in the Everlasting Blue Sky, or under the earth, or something.” He grinned at the girl. She was the first person he’d met since they got him a job and gave him a home in a world uncountable light years from the one he’d been born on.

“When did you begin to understand?”

“They simply taught all of history to me. Including the part about myself. Then I began to get the picture. Funny. I wound up teaching them a lot of history.”

“I bet you know a lot.”

“I do,” the man with the Asiatic features said modestly. “Anyway, they finally got across to me that in the 22nd century — they had explained the calendar to me, too; I used a different one in my day — they had learned how to grow new limbs on people who had lost arms and legs.”

“That was the first real step,” said the girl.

“It was a long time till they got to the second step,” he said. “They learned how to stimulate life and new growth in people who had already died.”

“The next part is the thing I don’t understand,” the girl said.

“Well,” said the man, “as I get it, they found that any piece of matter that has been part of an organism, retains a physical ‘memory’ of the entire structure of the organism of which it was part. And that they could reconstruct that structure from a part of a person, if that was all there was left of him. From there it was just a matter of pushing the process back through time. They had to teach me a whole new language to explain that one.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that intergalactic travel gives us room to expand?” said the girl. “I mean now that every human being that ever lived has been brought back to life and will live forever?”

“Same problem I had, me and my people,” said the man. “We were cramped for space. This age has solved it a lot better than I did. But they had to give me a whole psychological overhauling before I understood that.”

“Tell me about your past life,” said the girl, staring dreamily at him.

“Well, six thousand years ago, I was born in the Gobi Desert, on Earth,” said Genghis Khan, sipping his drink.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan (1162-1227), born in what is now Mongolia, founded the Mongol Empire. He has the distinction of being responsible for more deaths than anyone else in history; 40 million died during his reign.

 

Read Full Post »

More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time.

————

But You Didn’t

By Merrill Glass

Glass M

Elva Merrill Glass Barnett (1911-1985)

Remember the time you lent me your car and I dented it?
I thought you’d kill me…
But you didn’t.

Remember the time I forgot to tell you the dance was
formal, and you came in jeans?
I thought you’d hate me…
But you didn’t.

Remember the times I’d flirt with
other boys just to make you jealous, and
you were?
I thought you’d drop me…
But you didn’t.

There were plenty of things you did to put up with me,
to keep me happy, to love me, and there are
so many things I wanted to tell
you when you returned from
Vietnam…
But you didn’t.

————

This Is Just To Say

By William Carlos Williams

Williams WC

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

————

The Man with the Wooden Leg

By Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield K

Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp Murry (1888-1923)

There was a man lived quite near us;
He had a wooden leg and a goldfinch in a green cage.
His name was Farkey Anderson,
And he’d been in a war to get his leg.

We were very sad about him,
Because he had such a beautiful smile
And was such a big man to live in a very small house.

When he walked on the road his leg did not matter so much;
But when he walked in his little house
It made an ugly noise.

Little Brother said his goldfinch sang the loudest of all birds,
So that he should not hear his poor leg
And feel too sorry about it.

————

Fire and Ice

By Robert Frost

Frost R

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

————

The Reason

By Stevie Smith

Smith Stevie

Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971)

My life is vile
I hate it so
I’ll wait awhile
And then I’ll go.

Why wait at all?
Hope springs alive,
Good may befall
I yet may thrive.

It is because I can’t make up my mind
If God is good, impotent or unkind.

Read Full Post »

Richard Thieme, a former Episcopal priest, writes about how technology impacts people and society. His popular online column “Islands in the Clickstream” began in the 1990s.

Thieme also writes fiction on the subject. This short story from 1963 is an example.

————

Pleasant Journey

By Richard F. Thieme
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, November 1963.

“What do you call it?” the buyer asked Jenkins.

“I named it ‘Journey Home’ but you can think up a better name for it if you want. I’ll guarantee that it sells, though. There’s nothing like it on any midway.”

“I’d like to try it out first, of course,” Allenby said. “Star-Time uses only the very best, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” Jenkins said. He had heard the line before, from almost every carnival buyer to whom he had sold. He did not do much business with the carnivals; there weren’t enough to keep him busy with large or worthwhile rides and features. The amusement parks of the big cities were usually the best markets.

Allenby warily eyed the entrance, a room fashioned from a side-show booth. A rough red curtain concealed the inside. Over the doorway, in crude dark blue paint, was lettered, “Journey Home.” Behind the doorway was a large barnlike structure, newly painted white, where Jenkins did his planning, his building, and his finishing. When he sold a new ride it was either transported from inside the building through the large, pull-away doors in back or taken apart piece by piece and shipped to the park or carny that bought it.

“Six thousand’s a lot of money,” the buyer said.

“Just try it,” Jenkins told him.

The buyer shrugged. “O.K.,” he said. “Let’s go in.” They walked through the red curtain. Inside the booth-entrance was a soft-cushioned easy-chair, also red, secured firmly in place. It was a piece of salvage from a two-engine commercial airplane. A helmet looking like a Flash Gordon accessory-hair drier combination was set over it. Jenkins flipped a switch and the room became bright with light. “I thought you said this wasn’t a thrill ride,” Allenby said, looking at the helmetlike structure ominously hanging over the chair.

“It isn’t,” Jenkins said, smiling. “Sit down.” He strapped the buyer into place in the chair.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Allenby protested. “Why the straps?”

“Leave everything to me and don’t worry,” Jenkins said, fitting the headgear into place over the buyer’s head. The back of it fitted easily over the entire rear of the skull, down to his neck. The front came just below the eyes. After turning the light off, Jenkins pulled the curtain closed. It was completely black inside.

“Have a nice trip,” Jenkins said, pulling a switch on the wall and pushing a button on the back of the chair at the same time.

Currents shifted and repatterned themselves inside the helmet and were fed into Allenby at the base of his skull, at the medulla. The currents of alternating ions mixed with the currents of his varied and random brain waves, and the impulses of one became the impulses of the other. Allenby jerked once with the initial shock and was then still, his mind and body fused with the pulsating currents of the chair.

Suddenly, Roger Allenby was almost blinded by bright, naked light. Allenby’s first impression was one of disappointment at the failure of the device. Jenkins was reliable, usually, and hadn’t come up with a fluke yet.

Allenby got out of the chair and called for Jenkins, holding on to the arm of the chair to keep his bearings. “Hey! Where are you? Jenkins!” He tried to look around him but the bright, intense light revealed nothing. He swore to himself, extending his arms in front of him for something to grasp.

As he groped for a solid, the light became more subdued and shifted from white into a light, pleasant blue.

Shapes and forms rearranged themselves in front of him and gradually became distinguishable. He was in a city, or on top of a city. A panoramic view was before him and he saw the creations of human beings, obviously, but a culture far removed from his. A slight path of white began at his feet and expanded as it fell slightly, ramplike, over and into the city. The buildings were whiter than the gate of false dreams that Penelope sung of and the streets and avenues were blue, not gray. The people wore white and milled about in the streets below him. They shouted as one; their voices were not cries but songs and they sang his name.

He started walking on the white strip. It was flexible and supported his weight easily. Then he was running, finding his breath coming in sharp gasps and he was among the crowds. They smiled at him as he passed by and held out their hands to him. Their faces shone with a brilliance of awareness and he knew that they loved him. Troubled, frightened, he kept running, blindly, and, abruptly, there were no people, no buildings.

He was walking now, at the left side of a modern super-highway, against the traffic. Autos sped by him, too quickly for him to determine the year of model. Across the divider the traffic was heavier, autos speeding crazily ahead in the direction he was walking; none stopped. He halted for a moment and looked around him. There was nothing on the sides of the road: no people, no fields, no farms, no cities, no blackness. There was nothing. But far ahead there was green etched around the horizon as the road dipped and the cars sped over it. He walked more quickly, catching his breath, and came closer and closer to the green.

Allenby stopped momentarily and turned around, looking at the highway that was behind him. It was gone. Only bleak, black and gray hills of rock and rubble were there, no cars, no life. He shuddered and continued on toward the end of the highway. The green blended in with the blue of the sky now. Closer he came, until just over the next rise in the road the green was bright. Not knowing or caring why, he was filled with expectation and he ran again and was in the meadow.

All around him were the greens of the grasses and leaves and the yellows and blues of the field flowers. It was warm, a spring day, with none of the discomfort of summer heat. Jubilant, Roger spun around in circles, inhaling the fragrance of the field, listening to the hum of insect life stirring back to awareness after a season of inactivity. Then he was running and tumbling, barefoot, his shirt open, feeling the soft grass give way underfoot and the soil was good and rich beneath him.

He saw a stream ahead, with clear water melodiously flowing by him. He went to it and drank, the cold, good water quenching all his thirst, clearing all the stickiness of his throat and mind. He dashed the water on his face and was happy and felt the coolness of it as the breeze picked up and swept his hair over his forehead. With a shake of his head he tossed it back in place and ran again, feeling the air rush into his lungs with coolness and vibrance unknown since adolescence. No nicotine spasms choked him and the air was refreshing.

Then up the hill he sped, pushing hard, as the marigolds and dandelions parted before him. At the top he stopped and looked and smiled ecstatically as he saw the green rolling land and the stream, curving around from behind the house, his house, the oaks forming a secret lair behind it, and he felt the youth of the world in his lungs and under his feet. He heard the voice calling from that house, his house, calling him to Saturday lunch.

“I’m coming!” he cried happily and was tumbling down the hill, rolling over and over, the hill and ground and sky blending blues and greens and nothing had perspective. The world was spinning and everything was black again. He shook his head to clear the dizziness.

“Well?” Jenkins said. “How was it?”

Allenby looked up at him as Jenkins swung the helmet back and unhooked the seatbelt. He squinted as Jenkins flipped the light switch and the brightness hit him.

His surroundings became distinguishable again very slowly and he knew he was back in the room. “Where was I?” he asked.

Jenkins shrugged. “I don’t know. It was all yours. You went wherever you wanted to go, wherever home is.” Jenkins smiled down at him. “Did you visit more than one place?” he asked. The buyer nodded. “I thought so. It seems that a person tries a few before finally deciding where to go.”

The buyer stood up and stretched. “Could I please see the barn?” he asked, meaning the huge workshop where Jenkins did the construction work.

“Sure,” Jenkins said and opened the door opposite the red curtain into the workshop. It was empty.

“You mean it was all up here? I didn’t move at all?” He tapped his cranium with his index finger.

“That’s right,” Jenkins said anxiously. “Do you want it or not?”

Allenby stood looking into the empty room. “Yes… yes, of course,” he said. “How long did the whole thing last?”

“About ten seconds,” Jenkins said, looking at his watch. “It seems much longer to the traveler. I’m not sure, but I think the imagined time varies with each person. It’s always around ten seconds of actual time, though, so you can make a lot of money on it, even if you only have one machine.”

“Money?” Allenby said. “Money, yes, of course.” He took a checkbook from his inside pocket and hurriedly wrote a check for six thousand dollars. “When can we have it delivered?” he asked.

“You want it shipped the usual way?”

“No,” Allenby said, staring at the red-cushioned chair. “Send it air freight. Then bill us for the expense.”

“Whatever you say,” Jenkins said, smiling, taking the check. “You’ll have it by the first of the week, probably. I’ll put a complete parts and assembly manual inside the crate.”

“Good, good. But maybe I should test it again, you know. Star-Time can’t really afford to make a mistake as expensive as this.”

“No,” Jenkins said quickly. Then, “I’ll guarantee it, of course. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll give you a full refund. But don’t try it again, today. Don’t let anyone have it more than once in one day. Stamp them on the hand or something when they take the trip.”

“Why?”

Jenkins looked troubled. “I’m not sure, but people might not want to come back. Too many times in a row and they might be able to stay there… in their minds of course.”

“Of course, of course. Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Jenkins. I hope to see you again soon.” They walked back to Allenby’s not-very-late model car and shook hands. Allenby drove away.

On the way back to the hotel, and as he lay for a long time in the bathtub, letting the warmness drift away from the water, the thought ran over and over in his mind. They might be able to stay there, Allenby said to himself. They might be able to stay there. He smiled warmly at a crack in the plaster as he thought of the first of the week and the fragrant meadow.

Pleasant Journey

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by George Schelling.

Read Full Post »

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote the sci-fi short story below in 1952, when Cold War paranoia was rampant and technology was beginning to emerge. It’s a not-so-subtle cautionary tale about illogical fears and nuclear destruction.

Today, with the sky filled with semi-autonomous drones, another Cold War underway, and a Bond villain in the White House, the story seems both relevant and spooky.

————

The Gun

By Philip K. Dick
Published in Planet Stories, September 1952

The Captain peered into the eyepiece of the telescope. He adjusted the focus quickly.

“It was an atomic fission we saw, all right,” he said presently. He sighed and pushed the eyepiece away. “Any of you who wants to look may do so. But it’s not a pretty sight.”

“Let me look,” Tance the archeologist said. He bent down to look, squinting. “Good Lord!” He leaped violently back, knocking against Dorle, the Chief Navigator.

“Why did we come all this way, then?” Dorle asked, looking around at the other men. “There’s no point even in landing. Let’s go back at once.”

“Perhaps he’s right,” the biologist murmured. “But I’d like to look for myself, if I may.” He pushed past Tance and peered into the sight.

He saw a vast expanse, an endless surface of gray, stretching to the edge of the planet. At first he thought it was water but after a moment he realized that it was slag, pitted, fused slag, broken only by hills of rock jutting up at intervals. Nothing moved or stirred. Everything was silent, dead.

“I see,” Fomar said, backing away from the eyepiece. “Well, I won’t find any legumes there.” He tried to smile, but his lips stayed unmoved. He stepped away and stood by himself, staring past the others.

“I wonder what the atmospheric sample will show,” Tance said.

“I think I can guess,” the Captain answered. “Most of the atmosphere is poisoned. But didn’t we expect all this? I don’t see why we’re so surprised. A fission visible as far away as our system must be a terrible thing.”

He strode off down the corridor, dignified and expressionless. They watched him disappear into the control room.

As the Captain closed the door the young woman turned. “What did the telescope show? Good or bad?”

“Bad. No life could possibly exist. Atmosphere poisoned, water vaporized, all the land fused.”

“Could they have gone underground?”

The Captain slid back the port window so that the surface of the planet under them was visible. The two of them stared down, silent and disturbed. Mile after mile of unbroken ruin stretched out, blackened slag, pitted and scarred, and occasional heaps of rock.

Suddenly Nasha jumped. “Look! Over there, at the edge. Do you see it?”

They stared. Something rose up, not rock, not an accidental formation. It was round, a circle of dots, white pellets on the dead skin of the planet. A city? Buildings of some kind?

“Please turn the ship,” Nasha said excitedly. She pushed her dark hair from her face.

“Turn the ship and let’s see what it is!”

The ship turned, changing its course. As they came over the white dots the Captain lowered the ship, dropping it down as much as he dared. “Piers,” he said. “Piers of some sort of stone. Perhaps poured artificial stone. The remains of a city.”

“Oh, dear,” Nasha murmured. “How awful.” She watched the ruins disappear behind them. In a half-circle the white squares jutted from the slag, chipped and cracked, like broken teeth.

“There’s nothing alive,” the Captain said at last. “I think we’ll go right back; I know most of the crew want to. Get the Government Receiving Station on the sender and tell them what we found, and that we –”

He staggered.

The first atomic shell had struck the ship, spinning it around. The Captain fell to the floor, crashing into the control table. Papers and instruments rained down on him. As he started to his feet the second shell struck. The ceiling cracked open, struts and girders twisted and bent. The ship shuddered, falling suddenly down, then righting itself as automatic controls took over.

The Captain lay on the floor by the smashed control board. In the corner Nasha struggled to free herself from the debris.

Outside the men were already sealing the gaping leaks in the side of the ship, through which the precious air was rushing, dissipating into the void beyond. “Help me!” Dorle was shouting. “Fire over here, wiring ignited.” Two men came running. Tance watched helplessly, his eyeglasses broken and bent.

“So there is life here, after all,” he said, half to himself. “But how could –”

“Give us a hand,” Fomar said, hurrying past. “Give us a hand, we’ve got to land the ship!”

It was night. A few stars glinted above them, winking through the drifting silt that blew across the surface of the planet.

Dorle peered out, frowning. “What a place to be stuck in.” He resumed his work, hammering the bent metal hull of the ship back into place. He was wearing a pressure suit; there were still many small leaks, and radioactive particles from the atmosphere had already found their way into the ship.

Nasha and Fomar were sitting at the table in the control room, pale and solemn, studying the inventory lists.

“Low on carbohydrates,” Fomar said. “We can break down the stored fats if we want to, but –”

“I wonder if we could find anything outside.” Nasha went to the window. “How uninviting it looks.” She paced back and forth, very slender and small, her face dark with fatigue. “What do you suppose an exploring party would find?”

Fomar shrugged. “Not much. Maybe a few weeds growing in cracks here and there. Nothing we could use. Anything that would adapt to this environment would be toxic, lethal.”

Nasha paused, rubbing her cheek. There was a deep scratch there, still red and swollen. “Then how do you explain –it? According to your theory the inhabitants must have died in their skins, fried like yams. But who fired on us? Somebody detected us, made a decision, aimed a gun.”

“And gauged distance,” the Captain said feebly from the cot in the corner. He turned toward them. “That’s the part that worries me. The first shell put us out of commission, the second almost destroyed us. They were well aimed, perfectly aimed. We’re not such an easy target.”

“True.” Fomar nodded. “Well, perhaps we’ll know the answer before we leave here. What a strange situation! All our reasoning tells us that no life could exist; the whole planet burned dry, the atmosphere itself gone, completely poisoned.”

“The gun that fired the projectiles survived,” Nasha said. “Why not people?”

“It’s not the same. Metal doesn’t need air to breathe. Metal doesn’t get leukemia from radioactive particles. Metal doesn’t need food and water.”

There was silence.

“A paradox,” Nasha said. “Anyhow, in the morning I think we should send out a search party. And meanwhile we should keep on trying to get the ship in condition for the trip back.”

“It’ll be days before we can take off,” Fomar said. “We should keep every man working here. We can’t afford to send out a party.”

Nasha smiled a little. “We’ll send you in the first party. Maybe you can discover — what was it you were so interested in?”

“Legumes. Edible legumes.”

“Maybe you can find some of them. Only –”

“Only what?”

“Only watch out. They fired on us once without even knowing who we were or what we came for. Do you suppose that they fought with each other? Perhaps they couldn’t imagine anyone being friendly, under any circumstances. What a strange evolutionary trait, inter-species warfare. Fighting within the race!”

“We’ll know in the morning,” Fomar said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

###

The sun came up chill and austere. The three people, two men and a woman, stepped through the port, dropping down on the hard ground below.

“What a day,” Dorle said grumpily. “I said how glad I’d be to walk on firm ground again, but –”

“Come on,” Nasha said. “Up beside me. I want to say something to you. Will you excuse us, Tance?”

Tance nodded gloomily. Dorle caught up with Nasha. They walked together, their metal shoes crunching the ground underfoot. Nasha glanced at him.

“Listen. The Captain is dying. No one knows except the two of us. By the end of the day-period of this planet he’ll be dead. The shock did something to his heart. He was almost sixty, you know.”

Dorle nodded. “That’s bad. I have a great deal of respect for him. You will be captain in his place, of course. Since you’re vice-captain now –”

“No. I prefer to see someone else lead, perhaps you or Fomar. I’ve been thinking over the situation and it seems to me that I should declare myself mated to one of you, whichever of you wants to be captain. Then I could devolve the responsibility.”

“Well, I don’t want to be captain. Let Fomar do it.”

Nasha studied him, tall and blond, striding along beside her in his pressure suit. “I’m rather partial to you,” she said. “We might try it for a time, at least. But do as you like. Look, we’re coming to something.”

They stopped walking, letting Tance catch up. In front of them was some sort of a ruined building. Dorle stared around thoughtfully.

“Do you see? This whole place is a natural bowl, a huge valley. See how the rock formations rise up on all sides, protecting the floor. Maybe some of the great blast was deflected here.”

They wandered around the ruins, picking up rocks and fragments. “I think this was a farm,” Tance said, examining a piece of wood. “This was part of a tower windmill.”

“Really?” Nasha took the stick and turned it over. “Interesting. But let’s go; we don’t have much time.”

“Look,” Dorle said suddenly. “Off there, a long way off. Isn’t that something?” He pointed.

Nasha sucked in her breath. “The white stones.”

“What?”

Nasha looked up at Dorle. “The white stones, the great broken teeth. We saw them, the Captain and I, from the control room.” She touched Dorle’s arm gently. “That’s where they fired from. I didn’t think we had landed so close.”

“What is it?” Tance said, coming up to them. “I’m almost blind without my glasses. What do you see?”

“The city. Where they fired from.”

“Oh.” All three of them stood together. “Well, let’s go,” Tance said. “There’s no telling what we’ll find there.” Dorle frowned at him.

“Wait. We don’t know what we would be getting into. They must have patrols. They probably have seen us already, for that matter.”

“They probably have seen the ship itself,” Tance said. “They probably know right now where they can find it, where they can blow it up. So what difference does it make whether we go closer or not?”

“That’s true,” Nasha said. “If they really want to get us we haven’t a chance. We have no armaments at all; you know that.”

“I have a hand weapon.” Dorle nodded. “Well, let’s go on, then. I suppose you’re right, Tance.”

“But let’s stay together,” Tance said nervously. “Nasha, you’re going too fast.”

Nasha looked back. She laughed. “If we expect to get there by nightfall we must go fast.”

###

They reached the outskirts of the city at about the middle of the afternoon. The sun, cold and yellow, hung above them in the colorless sky. Dorle stopped at the top of a ridge overlooking the city.

“Well, there it is. What’s left of it.”

There was not much left. The huge concrete piers which they had noticed were not piers at all, but the ruined foundations of buildings. They had been baked by the searing heat, baked and charred almost to the ground. Nothing else remained, only this irregular circle of white squares, perhaps four miles in diameter.

Dorle spat in disgust. “More wasted time. A dead skeleton of a city, that’s all.”

“But it was from here that the firing came,” Tance murmured. “Don’t forget that.”

“And by someone with a good eye and a great deal of experience,” Nasha added. “Let’s go.”

They walked into the city between the ruined buildings. No one spoke. They walked in silence, listening to the echo of their footsteps.

“It’s macabre,” Dorle muttered. “I’ve seen ruined cities before but they died of old age, old age and fatigue. This was killed, seared to death. This city didn’t die — it was murdered.”

“I wonder what the city was called,” Nasha said. She turned aside, going up the remains of a stairway from one of the foundations. “Do you think we might find a signpost? Some kind of plaque?”

She peered into the ruins.

“There’s nothing there,” Dorle said impatiently. “Come on.”

“Wait.” Nasha bent down, touching a concrete stone. “There’s something inscribed on this.”

“What is it?” Tance hurried up. He squatted in the dust, running his gloved fingers over the surface of the stone. “Letters, all right.” He took a writing stick from the pocket of his pressure suit and copied the inscription on a bit of paper. Dorle glanced over his shoulder. The inscription was:

FRANKLIN APARTMENTS

“That’s this city,” Nasha said softly. “That was its name.”

Tance put the paper in his pocket and they went on. After a time Dorle said, “Nasha, you know, I think we’re being watched. But don’t look around.”

The woman stiffened. “Oh? Why do you say that? Did you see something?”

“No. I can feel it, though. Don’t you?”

Nasha smiled a little. “I feel nothing, but perhaps I’m more used to being stared at.” She turned her head slightly. “Oh!”

Dorle reached for his hand weapon. “What is it? What do you see?” Tance had stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth half open.

“The gun,” Nasha said. “It’s the gun.”

“Look at the size of it. The size of the thing.” Dorle unfastened his hand weapon slowly. “That’s it, all right.”

The gun was huge. Stark and immense it pointed up at the sky, a mass of steel and glass, set in a huge slab of concrete. Even as they watched the gun moved on its swivel base, whirring underneath. A slim vane turned with the wind, a network of rods atop a high pole.

“It’s alive,” Nasha whispered. “It’s listening to us, watching us.”

The gun moved again, this time clockwise. It was mounted so that it could make a full circle. The barrel lowered a trifle, then resumed its original position.

“But who fires it?” Tance said.

Dorle laughed. “No one. No one fires it.”

They stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“It fires itself.”

They couldn’t believe him. Nasha came close to him, frowning, looking up at him. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, it fires itself?”

“Watch, I’ll show you. Don’t move.” Dorle picked up a rock from the ground. He hesitated a moment and then tossed the rock high in the air. The rock passed in front of the gun. Instantly the great barrel moved, the vanes contracted.

The rock fell to the ground. The gun paused, then resumed its calm swivel, its slow circling.

“You see,” Dorle said, “it noticed the rock, as soon as I threw it up in the air. It’s alert to anything that flies or moves above the ground level. Probably it detected us as soon as we entered the gravitational field of the planet. It probably had a bead on us from the start. We don’t have a chance. It knows all about the ship. It’s just waiting for us to take off again.”

“I understand about the rock,” Nasha said, nodding. “The gun noticed it, but not us, since we’re on the ground, not above. It’s only designed to combat objects in the sky. The ship is safe until it takes off again, then the end will come.”

“But what’s this gun for?” Tance put in. “There’s no one alive here. Everyone is dead.”

“It’s a machine,” Dorle said. “A machine that was made to do a job. And it’s doing the job. How it survived the blast I don’t know. On it goes, waiting for the enemy. Probably they came by air in some sort of projectiles.”

“The enemy,” Nasha said. “Their own race. It is hard to believe that they really bombed themselves, fired at themselves.”

“Well, it’s over with. Except right here, where we’re standing. This one gun, still alert, ready to kill. It’ll go on until it wears out.”

“And by that time we’ll be dead,” Nasha said bitterly.

“There must have been hundreds of guns like this,” Dorle murmured. “They must have been used to the sight, guns, weapons, uniforms. Probably they accepted it as a natural thing, part of their lives, like eating and sleeping. An institution, like the church and the state. Men trained to fight, to lead armies, a regular profession. Honored, respected.”

Tance was walking slowly toward the gun, peering nearsightedly up at it. “Quite complex, isn’t it? All those vanes and tubes. I suppose this is some sort of a telescopic sight.” His gloved hand touched the end of a long tube.

Instantly the gun shifted, the barrel retracting. It swung —

“Don’t move!” Dorle cried. The barrel swung past them as they stood, rigid and still. For one terrible moment it hesitated over their heads, clicking and whirring, settling into position. Then the sounds died out and the gun became silent.

Tance smiled foolishly inside his helmet. “I must have put my finger over the lens. I’ll be more careful.” He made his way up onto the circular slab, stepping gingerly behind the body of the gun. He disappeared from view.

“Where did he go?” Nasha said irritably. “He’ll get us all killed.”

“Tance, come back!” Dorle shouted. “What’s the matter with you?”

“In a minute.” There was a long silence. At last the archeologist appeared. “I think I’ve found something. Come up and I’ll show you.”

“What is it?”

“Dorle, you said the gun was here to keep the enemy off. I think I know why they wanted to keep the enemy off.”

They were puzzled.

“I think I’ve found what the gun is supposed to guard. Come and give me a hand.”

“All right,” Dorle said abruptly. “Let’s go.” He seized Nasha’s hand. “Come on. Let’s see what he’s found. I thought something like this might happen when I saw that the gun was –”

“Like what?” Nasha pulled her hand away. “What are you talking about? You act as if you knew what he’s found.”

“I do.” Dorle smiled down at her. “Do you remember the legend that all races have, the myth of the buried treasure, and the dragon, the serpent that watches it, guards it, keeping everyone away?”

She nodded. “Well?”

Dorle pointed up at the gun.

“That,” he said, “is the dragon. Come on.”

###

Between the three of them they managed to pull up the steel cover and lay it to one side. Dorle was wet with perspiration when they finished.

“It isn’t worth it,” he grunted. He stared into the dark yawning hole. “Or is it?”
Nasha clicked on her hand lamp, shining the beam down the stairs. The steps were thick with dust and rubble. At the bottom was a steel door.

“Come on,” Tance said excitedly. He started down the stairs. They watched him reach the door and pull hopefully on it without success. “Give a hand!”

“All right.” They came gingerly after him. Dorle examined the door. It was bolted shut, locked. There was an inscription on the door but he could not read it.

“Now what?” Nasha said.

Dorle took out his hand weapon. “Stand back. I can’t think of any other way.” He pressed the switch. The bottom of the door glowed red. Presently it began to crumble. Dorle clicked the weapon off. “I think we can get through. Let’s try.”

The door came apart easily. In a few minutes they had carried it away in pieces and stacked the pieces on the first step. Then they went on, flashing the light ahead of them.

They were in a vault. Dust lay everywhere, on everything, inches thick. Wood crates lined the walls, huge boxes and crates, packages and containers. Tance looked around curiously, his eyes bright.

“What exactly are all these?” he murmured. “Something valuable, I would think.” He picked up a round drum and opened it. A spool fell to the floor, unwinding a black ribbon. He examined it, holding it up to the light.

“Look at this!”

They came around him. “Pictures,” Nasha said. “Tiny pictures.”

“Records of some kind.” Tance closed the spool up in the drum again. “Look, hundreds of drums.” He flashed the light around. “And those crates. Let’s open one.”

Dorle was already prying at the wood. The wood had turned brittle and dry. He managed to pull a section away.

It was a picture. A boy in a blue garment, smiling pleasantly, staring ahead, young and handsome. He seemed almost alive, ready to move toward them in the light of the hand lamp. It was one of them, one of the ruined race, the race that had perished.

For a long time they stared at the picture. At last Dorle replaced the board.

“All these other crates,” Nasha said. “More pictures. And these drums. What are in the boxes?”

“This is their treasure,” Tance said, almost to himself. “Here are their pictures, their records. Probably all their literature is here, their stories, their myths, their ideas about the universe.”

“And their history,” Nasha said. “We’ll be able to trace their development and find out what it was that made them become what they were.”

Dorle was wandering around the vault. “Odd,” he murmured. “Even at the end, even after they had begun to fight they still knew, someplace down inside them, that their real treasure was this, their books and pictures, their myths. Even after their big cities and buildings and industries were destroyed they probably hoped to come back and find this. After everything else was gone.”

“When we get back home we can agitate for a mission to come here,” Tance said. “All this can be loaded up and taken back. We’ll be leaving about –”

He stopped.

“Yes,” Dorle said dryly. “We’ll be leaving about three day-periods from now. We’ll fix the ship, then take off. Soon we’ll be home, that is, if nothing happens. Like being shot down by that –”

“Oh, stop it!” Nasha said impatiently. “Leave him alone. He’s right: all this must be taken back home, sooner or later. We’ll have to solve the problem of the gun. We have no choice.”

Dorle nodded. “What’s your solution, then? As soon as we leave the ground we’ll be shot down.” His face twisted bitterly. “They’ve guarded their treasure too well. Instead of being preserved it will lie here until it rots. It serves them right.”

“How?”

“Don’t you see? This was the only way they knew, building a gun and setting it up to shoot anything that came along. They were so certain that everything was hostile, the enemy, coming to take their possessions away from them. Well, they can keep them.”

Nasha was deep in thought, her mind far away. Suddenly she gasped. “Dorle,” she said. “What’s the matter with us? We have no problem. The gun is no menace at all.”

The two men stared at her.

“No menace?” Dorle said. “It’s already shot us down once. And as soon as we take off again—”

“Don’t you see?” Nasha began to laugh. “The poor foolish gun, it’s completely harmless. Even I could deal with it alone.”

“You?”

Her eyes were flashing. “With a crowbar. With a hammer or a stick of wood. Let’s go back to the ship and load up. Of course we’re at its mercy in the air: that’s the way it was made. It can fire into the sky, shoot down anything that flies. But that’s all! Against something on the ground it has no defenses. Isn’t that right?”

Dorle nodded slowly. “The soft underbelly of the dragon. In the legend, the dragon’s armor doesn’t cover its stomach.” He began to laugh. “That’s right. That’s perfectly right.”

“Let’s go, then,” Nasha said. “Let’s get back to the ship. We have work to do here.”

###

It was early the next morning when they reached the ship. During the night the Captain had died, and the crew had ignited his body, according to custom. They had stood solemnly around it until the last ember died. As they were going back to their work the woman and the two men appeared, dirty and tired, still excited.

And presently, from the ship, a line of people came, each carrying something in his hands. The line marched across the gray slag, the eternal expanse of fused metal. When they reached the weapon they all fell on the gun at once, with crowbars, hammers, anything that was heavy and hard.

The telescopic sights shattered into bits. The wiring was pulled out, torn to shreds. The delicate gears were smashed, dented.

Finally the warheads themselves were carried off and the firing pins removed.

The gun was smashed, the great weapon destroyed. The people went down into the vault and examined the treasure. With its metal-armored guardian dead there was no danger any longer. They studied the pictures, the films, the crates of books, the jeweled crowns, the cups, the statues.

At last, as the sun was dipping into the gray mists that drifted across the planet they came back up the stairs again. For a moment they stood around the wrecked gun looking at the unmoving outline of it.

Then they started back to the ship. There was still much work to be done. The ship had been badly hurt, much had been damaged and lost. The important thing was to repair it as quickly as possible, to get it into the air.

With all of them working together it took just five more days to make it spaceworthy.

###

Nasha stood in the control room, watching the planet fall away behind them. She folded her arms, sitting down on the edge of the table.

“What are you thinking?” Dorle said.

“I? Nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“I was thinking that there must have been a time when this planet was quite different, when there was life on it.”

“I suppose there was. It’s unfortunate that no ships from our system came this far, but then we had no reason to suspect intelligent life until we saw the fission glow in the sky.”

“And then it was too late.”

“Not quite too late. After all, their possessions, their music, books, their pictures, all of that will survive. We’ll take them home and study them, and they’ll change us. We won’t be the same afterwards. Their sculpturing, especially. Did you see the one of the great winged creature, without a head or arms? Broken off, I suppose. But those wings— It looked very old. It will change us a great deal.”

“When we come back we won’t find the gun waiting for us,” Nasha said. “Next time it won’t be there to shoot us down. We can land and take the treasure, as you call it.” She smiled up at Dorle. “You’ll lead us back there, as a good captain should.”

“Captain?” Dorle grinned. “Then you’ve decided.”

Nasha shrugged. “Fomar argues with me too much. I think, all in all, I really prefer you.”

“Then let’s go,” Dorle said. “Let’s go back home.”

The ship roared up, flying over the ruins of the city. It turned in a huge arc and then shot off beyond the horizon, heading into outer space.

###

Down below, in the center of the ruined city, a single half-broken detector vane moved slightly, catching the roar of the ship. The base of the great gun throbbed painfully, straining to turn. After a moment a red warning light flashed on down inside its destroyed works.

And a long way off, a hundred miles from the city, another warning light flashed on, far underground. Automatic relays flew into action. Gears turned, belts whined. On the ground above a section of metal slag slipped back. A ramp appeared.

A moment later a small cart rushed to the surface.

The cart turned toward the city. A second cart appeared behind it. It was loaded with wiring cables. Behind it a third cart came, loaded with telescopic tube sights. And behind came more carts, some with relays, some with firing controls, some with tools and parts, screws and bolts, pins and nuts. The final one contained atomic warheads.

The carts lined up behind the first one, the lead cart. The lead cart started off, across the frozen ground, bumping calmly along, followed by the others. Moving toward the city.

To the damaged gun.

The Gun

Original illustration from Planet Stories by Herman Vestal.

 

Read Full Post »

More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

————

Differences of Opinion

By Wendy Cope

Cope W

Wendy Cope (B. 1945)

1. HE TELLS HER

He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.

————

The Garden

By Ezra Pound

Pound E

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885-1972)

En robe de parade — Samain*

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
Of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
Will commit that indiscretion.

* A quote from French poet Albert Samain. Rough translation: dressing to show off.

————

A Quoi Bon Dire**

By Charlotte Mew

Mew C

Charlotte Mary Mew (1869-1928)

Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

** What good is there to say.

————

Acquainted with the Night

By Robert Frost

Frost-4

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

———-

A Summary of Lord Lyttleton’s ‘Advice to a Lady’

By Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Montagu M

Mary Pierrepont Montagu (1689-1762)

Be plain in Dress and sober in your Diet;
In short my Dearee, kiss me, and be quiet.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »