by YEHEZKIEL FAOMA
The older man was sitting by the fire. He watched the little flyers circling the smoke as it floated up to the starry sky. They must be cold too, he thought. He counted them, but he could not count the stars. Perhaps later someone else could count the stars. Among the distant howls he heard steps on the grass from behind.
“Old man,” the young man sat down by the fire. He laid his spear between the old man and himself. “I finally found you.”
“I wasn’t hiding.” He saw that his face reflected the light like sunset on the sea, the fire burning in his eyes. I remember when my eyes were young, he thought. Maybe if my eyes were still young I could count the stars.
“You’re counting flyers again. Why do you always do this?”
“There used to be more of them, now they’ve gone somewhere else.”
“This is pointless. You should help us hunt instead.”
“Perhaps they’ve found warmer fires.”
“I don’t care about flyers,” the young man blew on the flyers. They scattered with the smoke and only few remained. “They won’t help us through the coming cold.”
“If you don’t count the flyers, how can you count the stars?”
“I don’t care about flyers or stars. Chief told us to hunt and gather and nothing about flyers or stars so we shouldn’t mind them.”
The old man stood and looked up. Every day the sun disappeared but it would break into the stars and moon so the nights won’t be as dark, and they would meld back into the sun every morning. The stars have been changing, there were more of them many nights ago. Where have they gone? Perhaps they’ve found warmer skies, ours is getting cold. Nobody could count the stars, but the old man knew they were leaving. If the stars leave that means the sun is too.
“Your fire is shrinking, old man. Do you have wood?” He knew the old man had no wood.
“I’ll get wood from the cave.” He couldn’t let the fire die. The old man would die with it.
“Thank you.” If the fire leaves then so would the flyers. Then he can’t follow the stars.
“You can come back with me, old man. It’s warmer with us.” But the old man knew the coming cold will reach them. Soon the clouds will fall and it will be cold everywhere and there will be nothing to be done.
“I know why the flyers leave. They seek warmer places where the fires are brighter and don’t shrink, where there are more stars so they know the sun won’t leave.”
“Now there are fewer stars here.”
“How do you know that if you can’t even count the stars?”
“I can feel them leaving. It’s lonelier now.”
“Well, I don’t feel anything.”
“You could count them.”
“Why would I count the stars?”
“So you know where to go.”
“I know where to go. I’ll go to the cave with our people.”
“You cannot stay there.”
“I don’t understand you, old man.” The young man stood up. They were two shadows dancing in a dome of light on a plane of darkness. “One day you started preaching this nonsense about following the stars. The tribe didn’t believe you but you kept telling them and we hated you for it. Chief told you to stop but you wouldn’t and we hated you for it. Even in your exile we hate you, but still you count the flyers, still you follow the stars. Even when nobody cares but me you still preach.” The fire crackled. Distant roars faded in the dark. “Every day you starve and every night you freeze. You don’t even know if the stars will lead you to warmth.”
The old man sat down and looked into the dying flame. “The stars promised me. I know it for sure.”
“Then why won’t anybody believe you?”
The old man stood up again and faced him. “There is warmth in the cave?”
“Yes. The cave is warm and will always be warm.”
“Even in the coming cold it will be warm?”
“Chief promised us.”
“So you believe him.”
A beast killed a prey somewhere, its shrieks dying in the night. Large wings flapped heavily above. The flyers buzzed around the last hints of smoke.
“Come with me. Your eyes are still young, you could be the one counting the stars.”
“I can’t leave them. My people need me.”
“Then this is where we separate.”
“I’ll come back for you. I’ll bring wood and meat.”
“I won’t be here. I will be where the flyers bring me.”
“Then I’ll find you and we can talk again.”
“Goodbye. I will be waiting.”
“Goodbye, old man.”
The young man picked up his spear and left. As he disappeared into the dark, the old man sat down by the embers, watching little flyers circling the smoke as it floated up to the sky.
He woke up from a dream and found himself back in the vast blackness of outer space, only a cord attached to the shuttle kept him from drifting away. I think it’s Sunday, or Monday or Tuesday, he thought. I don’t know. If it’s Sunday then today is my birthday, but the stars have always stayed the same.
“Hey,” his brother’s voice crackled in his helmet. He saw his brother already awake, floating next to him on a background of black.
“Morning. What day is it?”
“Sunday. The forty first Sunday, if you want a full answer.”
“Ah, then today’s my birthday.”
“I wish we were celebrating it at home. But we’re floating in this nothingness.”
“We can still celebrate in this nothingness.”
“Oh, come on.”
It was quiet in the void. Sometimes it was piercing but today it was peaceful; nothing but the hum of his breathing and his brother’s through the radio. If he closed his eyes he could pretend he was a baby in his mom’s womb, shielded from the worries of the world. Dreaming peacefully, drifting slowly…
“Hey, my feed is coming in. It’s the news,” his brother’s voice resurfaced him. Since the shuttle broke down they could only pick up fragments from back home, which is light years away, so the signals would be years old.
“Alright, let’s hear it.”
“The ceasefire failed and death toll was rising. That monkey got elected and caused riots on the streets. Peak oil was predicted to drive the world into madness decades ago.” His brother had been listening to the news for months now. There was never good news. “That cinema on your first date burned down. A mother killed herself and her unborn twin babies. God.” It only got worse as if the world could end at any moment. Maybe it has. They don’t know what home could be like now, but his brother can only imagine the worst. “Stay tuned after this break. I can’t take any of this anymore.”
“Look, I got a feed too, from home. How about we listen to it?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“It’s mom! She’s asking how we’re doing.” If he closed his eyes he could feel mom’s voice echoing through the vacuum blanketing him with warmth. He could see her and the rest of the family around the dinner table. She cooked this year’s dinner herself and he could smell the honey. Dad’s jokes were never funny but they were always good to hear.
I miss you. I miss all of you. But we’re okay, mom. We’ll be home soon.
“Was that it?”
“Yeah, I can’t make out any more beyond that.”
“My feed is dead too, just static now.” It was either bad news or static. His brother was already used to it. “You’re lucky you plugged in the aux before we locked ourselves out.”
“I know, but the same playlist for forty one Sundays can get old. It’s better than nothing, though.” By now he could replay them all from recollection. “You should listen to it too.”
“Great idea, let’s open our helmets and pass me the aux. We’ll just lose all the air and rations from the shuttle through our cords and die freezing in five seconds, but what the hell because I get to listen to music.”
But the aux was busted on week thirty nine. Sometimes the silence hurt his ears so he’d think of music. Double bass faded into the whisper of their breaths, followed by the sax and the piano.
“What do you think home is like now?” He wondered aloud.
“I don’t even want to think about it.”
“I used to joke being lost here is better than going home. I’m starting to believe it.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad.”
“Even if rescue comes I don’t think I’ll come back.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m not even kidding. This nothingness is better than the chaos out there.”
“But don’t you miss home?”
“By home you mean war and politics? Greed and gluttony and all inherent evils of man that made this happen in the first place?” His brother’s voice stopped the music. “No thanks. At least here I can have peace. And there might not even be a home for us to go back to.”
“No, I mean home – mom, dad, people you love and people who love you. Home.”
“You mean people who love you.”
“Who love us.”
“It’s your family.”
“It’s our family.”
“You have a home to go back to. That’s good for you but I’d rather stay.”
“Can’t you stop for even a second?” His beating heart filled the silence.
“It’s easy for you. You had it all laid out in front of you. Real family, good childhood, the world is so beautiful, the sound of music and the beauty of love.”
“The world is a cruel place.”
“But hardship breeds art and music and that makes everything worth the pain and struggle.”
“Your art and music can’t save the ones they’ve killed.”
“Come on, at least there’s something to go back to.”
“There’s nothing for me to come back to.”
“Then what’s your reason to live?”
His heart slowed down. He tried to think of music but he was really sleepy. He fell into a dream among the stars, nothing but the sound of his breathing in her womb. Dreaming peacefully, drifting slowly into serenity.