THE LONG YEARS
A light still burns in a low stone hut on Mars—and four strange figures tend a fire, for reasons they cannot know
WHENEVER the wind came through the sky, he and his small family would sit in the stone hut and warm their hands over a small fire. The wind would stir the canal waters and almost blow the stars out of the sky, but Mr. Hathaway would sit contented and talk to his wife, and his wife would talk back, and he would talk to his two daughters and his son about the old days on Earth and they would all reply neatly.
It was the twentieth year after the Great War. Mars was a tomb planet. Whether or not Earth was the same was a matter for much silent debate for Hathaway, for his family, on the long Martian night*.
This night one of the usual Martian dust storms had come over the low hexagonal tomb buildings, whining past, the great ancient gargoyles on the iron mountains, blowing between the last standing pillars of the old city, and tearing away the plastic walls of the newer, American-built city that was melting down into the sand, desolated.
The storm abated suddenly. Hathaway rose from the family circle from time to time and went out into the suddenly clear weather to look at Earth burning green there on the windy sky. He put his hand up for a moment, as one might reach up a hand to adjust a dimly burning light globe in the ceiling of a dark room. Then he spoke quietly to himself, as he looked across the long dead sea bottoms. Not another living thing on this entire planet, he thought. Just himself. And them. He looked back inside the stone hut.
What was happening on Earth now? He stared up until his eyes watered with strain. He had seen no visible sign of change in the aspect of Earth through his thirty-inch telescope. Well, he t hought, he was good for another twenty years if he was careful. Someone might come. Either across the dead seas, or out of space in a rocket, on a lit t ie thread of red flame.
He peered into the hut. “I think I’ll take a walk,” he said.
His wife did not turn.
“I said,” he cried, “I think I’ll take a walk.” “All right,” his wife said.
He turned and walked quietly down through a series of low ruins. “Made in New York,” he read from a piece of metal as he passed. “This will all be gone long before the old Martian ruins.” He looked toward the ten-thousand-year-old city that lay on the rim of the dead sea twenty miles over.
He walked on, came to the Martian graveyard, a series of small hexagonal stones and buildings set in the top of a hill. The drifting sand had never covered them because the hill was too high and swept by the winds.
He stood, for a moment, looking down at four graves with crude wooden crosses on them, and names. Tears cl id not come to his eyes. He did nothing with his eyes. They had dried up long ago.
“Do you forgive me for what 1 have done?” he asked of the crosses. “I was so lonely,” he said. “You do forgive me, don’t you?”
He returned to the stone hut and once more, just before going inside, he shaded his eyes with his hands, searching the sky.
“You keep waiting and waiting and looking and looking,” he said. “And one night, perhaps—” There was a tiny point of red flame on the sky. “And you keep looking,” he said. He stopped.
He looked down at the ground. Then he stepped away from the light of the stone hut. “—And you look again” he whispered.
The tiny flame point was still there.
“It wasn’t there last night,” he murmured.
“It is red,” he said, finally.
And then, holding himself against the side of the stone hut, he was suddenly sick, his stomach moving dryly in him, trying to force out food that was not there. He succeeded in ejecting with great pain a thin bitter trickle of yellow fluid. His eyes were wet with the pain of the dry vomiting. He stood up.
He stumbled and fell, picked himself up, got around behind the hut and swiveled the telescope so that it pointed into the sky.
A minute later, after long, wild staring, he appeared in the low doorway of the stone hut. He stared at the fire. The wife and the two daughters and the son watched him. Finally he said, “I have good news. I have looked at the sky—a ship is coming to take us all home. A rocket is coming. It will be here in the early morning.”
He put his hands down and put his head into his hands and began to cry, gently.
He burned what was left of New York that morning at three.
He took a torch and moved into the plastic-andwood city and with the flame touched the walls here or there. The city went up in great tosses of
heat and light. When he walked back out of the city it was a square mile of illumination, big enough to be seen out in space. It would beckon the rocket down to Mr. Hathaway and his family.
His heart beating rapidly, he returned to the hut where the family waited. “See,” he said. He held up an old bottle into the light. “Wine I saved. Just for tonight. I knew that perhaps one day someone would come. And so I saved this. I hid it in the storage shed. We’ll have a drink and celebrate !”
He popped the cork out and poured five glasses full. His wife and the three children picked up their glasses, smiling.
ÍT’S BEEN a long time,” he said, gravely looking into his drink. “Remember the day the War broke? How long ago? Nineteen years and seven months, exactly. And all the rockets were called home from Mars, and you and I and the children were out in the mountains, doing archaeological work, doing research on the ancient methods of surgery used by the Martians; it helped me a lot in my own work. We ran our horses, almost killing them, but got back here to the city a week late. Everyone was gone. America had been destroyed; every rocket had left without waiting for stragglers, remember, remember? And it turned out we were the only ones left? Lord, Lord, how the years pass. It seems only a day, now. I couldn’t have stood
it without you here, all of you. I couldn’t have stood it at all. I’d have killed myself without you. But with you it was worth waiting. Here’s to us, then.” He raised his drink. “And to our long wait together. And here’s to them.” He gestured at the sky. “May they land safely and—” A troubled frown, “ may they be friends when they land.”
He drank his wine.
The wife and three children raised their glasses to their lips.
The wine ran down over the chins of all four of them.
By morning the city was blowing in great black
soft flakes across the sea bottom. The fire was exhausted, but it had served its purpose; the red spot on the sky grew larger.
FROM the stone hut came the rich brown smell of baked gingerbread. His wife stood over the table, setting down the hot pans of new bread as Hathaway entered. The two daughters were gently sweeping the bare stone floor with stiff brooms and the son was polishing the silverware.
“We will have a breakfast for them, for everyone in the crew,” said Hathaway. “You must all put on your best clothes.”
He walked across his land to the vast metal storage shed. Inside was the cold-storage unit and power plant he had repaired and restored with his efficient, small, nervous fingers over the years, just as he had repaired clocks and telephones and spool recorders in his spare time. The shed was full of things he had built, some of them senseless mechanisms the functions of which were a mystery even to himself now as he looked at them.
From the storage deep-freeze compartment he now carried frozen cartons of beans and straw-
berries, twenty years old. Lazarus come forth, he thought, as he pulled out a cool chicken.
The air was full of cooking odors when the rocket landed.
Like a young boy Hathaway ran down the hill. He had to stop once because of a sudden sickening pain in his chest. He sat on a rock to regain his breath, then got up and ran ail the rest of the way.
He stood in the hot atmosphere generated by the fiery heat of the rocket exhausts. A vent opened in the side of t he machine and a man stood in the round entrance.
The man leaped down and walked across the sand swiftly, his hand out. “We expected nothing and here you are.”
Their hands clasped and held; they looked into each other’s faces.
“Why, you’re Hathaway. I know you.” The man was amazed. His grip tightened. His mouth opened and shut and opened again, s|>eechless. “Hathaway! When I was a kid, twenty years ago, I saw you in the television set at school. I watched you perform a difficult surgery fora cerebral tumor.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
The man from Continued on page 38
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The Long Years
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the rocket looked beyond Hathaway. “You’re alone? Your wife, 1 remember her. And there were children”
“My son, my daughters, my wifehut, your name?”
“Captain Ernest Parsons of Joliet, 111., sir.”
“Captain Parsons.” They were not done with the handshaking yet. “How many in your crew?”
“Fine, there’s a good breakfast waiting all of you up the hill. Will you come?”
“Will we come!” said the captain. He turned and looked at the rocket. “Abandon ship!”
It was done in half a minute.
They walked up the hill together, Hathaway and the captain, the men following dutifully and talkatively behind, taking in deep breaths of the thin Martian air. The sun rose and it was a good day. It would be warm later. Blue smoke lifted from the stone hut.
“I’m sorry.” Hathaway sat down abruptly in the sand, his hand on his chest. “All the excitement. I’ll have to rest.” He felt his heart moving under his hand. He counted the beats. It was not good.
“We have a doctor with us,” said Parsons. “I beg your pardon, sir, I know you are one, but we’d best check you with our own and if you need anything—”
“I’ll be all right, the excitement, the waiting.” Hathaway could hardly breathe. His face was pale and wet, his lips blue. His hand trembled. “You know,” he said, as the doctor came up and put a stethoscope against him, “it’s as though I’ve kept alive just for this day, all those years, and now that you’re here and I know Earth is still alive— well, I can lie down and quit.”
“You can’t do that, sir, there’s the breakfast to eat,” insisted Parsons gently. “A fine host that would be.” “Here,” and the doctor gave Hathaway a small yellow pellet. “You’re badly overexcited. It might be a good idea if we carried you.”
“Nonsense, just let me sit here a moment. It’s good to see you all. It’s good to hear your names. What were they again? You introduced me, but when you’re excited you don’t see or hear or do anything right. Parsons and diashow and Williamson and Hamilton and Spaulding and Ellison and Smith and someone named Brackett and that’s all I remember.” He smiled weakly, his eyes squinted. “See how good I am?”
“Splendid. Did the pellet work?” “Well enough. Here we go.”
They walked on up the hill.
ALICE, come out and see who we £TL have here,” Hathaway called into the hut. The men of the rocket stood waiting and smiling. Hathaway frowned slightly and bent into the doorway once more. “Alice, did you hear, come out now.”
His wife appeared in the doorway. A moment later the two daughters, tall and gracious, came out, followed by an even taller son.
“Captain Parsons, my wife. Alice, this is Captain Parsons.”
“Mrs. Hathaway, I remember you from a long time ago.”
“Captain Parsons." She shook his hand and turned, still holding his hand. “My daughters, Marguerite and Susan. My son, John. Captain Parsons.”
Hathaway stood smiling as hands were shaken all around.
Parsons sniffed the air. “Is that gingerbread?”
“Will you have some?”
Everybody laughed. Folding tables were carried down and set up by the wide canal. While hot foods were brought out and set down and plates were placed about with fine silverware and damask napkins, Captain Parsons looked first at Mrs. Hathaway and then at her son and then at her two tall, gracious daughters. He sat upon a folding chair which the son brought him. “How old are you, John?”
The son replied, “Twenty-three.” Parsons looked quickly down at his silverware. His face was quite suddenly pale and sickly. The man next to Parsons said, “Sir, that can’t be right.” “What’s that, Williamson?” asked Parsons.
“I’m thirty-eight myself, sir. I was in school t he same time as young John Hathaway there, twenty years ago. And he says he’s only twenty-three. And he only looks twenty-three. But that can’t be right. He should be thirty-eight.”
“I know,” said Parsons, quietly. “What does it mean, sir?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t look well, sir.”
“I’m not feeling very well. Will you do me a favor?”
“I want you to run a little errand for me. I’ll tell you where to go and what to check. Late in the breakfast, slip away. It should take you only five minutes. The place is not far from here.”
“Here, what are you two talking about so seriously?” Mrs. Hathaway ladled quick ladles of soup into their bowls. “Smile now, we’re all together, the trip’s over and it’s like home!” “Yes, ma’am,” said Captain Parsons. “You look very young, Mrs. Hathaway.”
“Isn’t that like a man?” She gave him an extra ladle of soup.
Parsons watched her move away. Her face was filled with warmth; it was smooth and unwrinkled. She walked around the tables and placed things neatly and laughed at every joke. She stopped never once to sit and take her breath. And the son and daughters were brilliant and witty as their father, telling of the long years and their quiet life, while their father looked proudly on.
The breakfast went through its courses. Midway, Williamson slipped quietly off and walked down the hill.
“Where is he going so suddenly?” enquired Hathaway.
“He’ll be right back; there’s some stuff he’s to check in the rocket,” explained Parsons. “But, as I was saying, sir, there wasn’t much left of America. The grass country towns were about all. New York was in ruins. It took '20 years to get things back on an even keel, what with the radioactivity and all. Europe wasn’t any better off.” Parsons talked automatically, not listening to himself, thinking only of Williamson going down the hill and coming back to tell what he had found.
“Ours is the only rocket now available,” went on Parsons. “There’ll be more in about four years. We’re here on a preliminary survey to see what’s left of our colonies. Not much here. Perhaps more over at New Chicago. We’ll check there this afternoon. Thanks.” he said, as Marguerite Hathaway filled his water glass. He touched her hand, suddenly. She did not even mind it. Her hand was warm.
Hathaway, at the head of the table, paused long enough to press his hand to his chest. Then he went on, listening
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to the talk, looking now and then with
concern at Parsons, who did not seem to be enjoying his meal.
ON ARRIVAL, Williamson was agitated and his cheeks were white. He could not keep his mind on his food; he kept picking at it until the captain whispered aside to him, “Well?”
“1 found it, sir.”
Williamson kept his eyes on the party. People were laughing. The daughters were smiling gravely and blinking and the son was telling a joke. Hathaway was smoking a cigarette, his first really fresh one in years. Williamson said, “I went into the graveyard.”
“The four crosses were there?” “The four crosses were there, sir. The names were still on them. I wrote them down to be sure.” He produced a white paper and read from it: “Alice Hathaway. Marguerite, Susan and John Hathaway. All four died of the plague in July, 1997.”
“Thank you, Williamson,” said Parsons. He closed his eyes.
“ Twenty years ago, sir,” said Williamson, his hands trembling. “Yes,” said Parsons.
“Then, who are these!”
“I don’t know, Williamson.”
“What are you going to do, sir?”
“I don’t know that either,” Parsons said, slowly.
“Will we tell the other men?”
“No, not yet. Later. Go on with your food as if nothing had happened.” “I’m not very hungry now, sir.” They both began on their dessert. The meal ended with wine brought from the rocket. Hathaway rose to his feet, holding his glass. “A toast to all of you, it is good to be with friends again.” He moved his wineglass ever so little in the air. “And to my wife and my children, without whom I could not have survived alone. It is only through their kindness in caring for me that I have lived on, waiting for your arrival.” He moved his glass toward his wife, toward his children, who looked back self-consciously, lowering their eyes at last as everyone drank.
Parsons’ eyelids were flickering nervously. His hands were moving uneasily on his lap. His lips were quite blue.
Hatha way drank down his wine. He did not cry out as he fell forward onto the table and then slipped toward the ground. Several of the men caught and eased him to the ground where the doctor felt his chest, listened and remained there, listening, until Parsons arrived with Williamson.
The doctor looked up and shook his head. Parsons knelt and took the old man’s hand. “Parsons?” Hathaway’s voice was barely audible. “1 had to spoil the breakfast.”
“Never mind,” said Parsons.
“Say good-by to Alice and the children for me,” said the old man.
Parsons said, “Just a moment, I’ll call them.”
“No, no, don’t they wouldn’t understand! I wouldn’t want them to understand! No, don’t!” whispered Hathaway.
Parsons did not move.
A moment later Hathaway was dead. Parsons waited for a long time. Then he arose and walked away from the small stunned group around Hathaway. He went to Alice Hathaway, looked into her face and said, “Do you know what has just happened?”
“Something about my husband,” she said.
“He’s just passed away; his heart,” said Parsons, watching her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“He didn’t want us to feel badly. He t old us it would happen one day and he didn’t want us to cry. He didn’t teach us how, you know. He didn’t want us to know. He said it was the worst thing that could happen to a man to know how to be lonely and to knowhow to be sad and then to cry. So we’re not to know what crying is or being sad.”
Parsons looked off at the mountains. He glanced at her hands, the soft warm hands and the fine manicured nails and the tapered wrists. He looked at the slender smooth white neck and the intelligent eyes. He said finally, “Mr. Hathaway did a fine job on you and your children.”
“He would like to have heard you say that. He was so very proud of us. After a while he even forgot that he had made us. At the end he loved and took us as his real wife and children. And, in a way, we are.”
“You gave him a great deal of comfort,” said Parsons.
“Yes, over the years we sat and talked and talked. He so much loved to talk. He liked the stone hut and the open fire. We could have lived in a regular house in the town, but he liked it up here, where he could be primitive if he liked, or modern if he liked. He told me all about his laboratory and the things he did in it. He wired the entire dead American town below with sound speakers and when he pressed a button the town lit up and made noises as if ten thousand people lived in it. There were airplane noises and car noises and the sounds of people talking. He would sit and light a cigar and talk to us and the sounds would come up from the town and once in a while the phone would ring and a recorded voice would ask Mr. Hathaway scientific and surgical questions and he would answer them. With the phone ringing and us here and the sounds of the town and the cigar, Mr. Hathaway was quite happy.”
“Twenty years,” said Parsons.
“There’s only one thing he couldn’t make us do,” she said, “and that was to grow old. He got older every day but we stayed the same. I guess he didn’t mind. I guess he wanted us this way.”
“We’ll bury him down in the yard where the other four crosses are. I think he would like that.”
She put lier hand on his wrist, lightly. “I’m sure he would.”
Orders were given. The wife and the three children followed the little procession down the hill. Two men carried Hathaway on a covered stretcher. They passed the stone hut and the storage shed where Hathaway, twenty years ago, had begun his work. Parsons stepped from the procession a moment to stand within the doorway of the workshop.
How would it be to live on a planet with a wife and three children, he wondered, then to have them die of the plague, leaving you alone with wind and silence? What would a person do? Bury them with crosses in the graveyard and then come back up to the workshop and with all the power of mind and memory and accuracy of finger and genius, put together, bit by bit, all those things that were wife, son, daughter. With an entire American city below from which to draw needed supplies, a brilliant man might do anything.
Parsons returned to the procession. The sound of their footsteps was muffled in the sand. At the graveyard, as they turned in, two men were already spading out the earth.
The men came back to the rocket in
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the late afternoon. They stood in a circle around the captain.
Williamson nodded up at the stone hut. “What are you going to do about them?”
“I don’t know,” said the captain. “Are you going to turn them off?” “Off?” The captain looked faintly surprised. “It never entered my mind.” “You’re not going to take them back with us?”
“No, we haven’t space for them.” “You mean you’re going to leave them here, like that, as they are!”
The captain gave Williamson a gun. “If you can do something about this, you’re a better man than I.”
FIVE minutes later Williamson returned from the hut, sweating. He handed the gun back. “Here, take it. Know what you mean, now. I went in with the gun. One of the daughters looked up at me. She smiled. So did the others. The wife said something about sitting down for a cup of tea. Lord, it would be murder!” He shook his head.
Parsons nodded. “There’ll never be anything as fine as them again, ever. They’re built to last; ten, fifty, two hundred years. Yes, they’ve as much right to—to life as you or I or any of us.” He knocked out his pipe. “Well, get aboard. We’re taking off. This city’s done for, we’ll not be using it.”
It was getting late in the day. The wind was rising. All the men were aboard. The captain hesitated. Williamson looked at him and said, “Don’t tell me you’re going back to say— good-by—to them?”
The captain looked at Williamson coldly. “None of your business.” Parsons walked up toward the hut through the darkening wind. The men in the rocket saw his shadow lingering inside the stone hut door. They saw a woman’s shadow. They saw the captain put out his hand to shake her hand.
Moments later, he came running back to the rocket.
ON NIGHTS when the wind comes over the dead sea bottoms and through the hexagonal graveyard, over four old crosses and one new fresh one, there is a light burning in the low stone hut; and in that hut, as the wind roars by and the dust sifts down and the cold stars burn, are four figures: a
woman, two daughters, a son, tehding a low fire for no reason and talking and laughing.
Night after night for every year and every year, for no reason at all, the wife comes out and looks at the sky, her hands up, for a long moment, looking at the green burning of Earth, not knowing why she looks, and then she goes back and throws a stick on the fire, and the wind comes up and the dead sea goes on being dead, it