Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part II

NOTE: I don't know why my stories migrate towards isolated, lonely men. I'm neither isolated nor lonely myself. Oh well. Read the first part of this story here.

I’ve forgotten why I came here originally, so don’t ask. Vaguely, I think originally it had to do with a wild idea I had of prospecting the moons of Saturn, looking for exotic, low-gravity crystals to sell. I’d sell them as star seed crystals to the crusty mystics and faith healers who have found the power in their Earth-borne gems diminishing. “Stones are to the earth as the heart is to the man,” or so said Louisa Poole, their prophet. What is prophet to one is profit to me, I decided. So I came. But my memory may be faulty. It’s quite possible I came here to get away from everyone else. Or because no one else was here. Or because I had the money and after planning and planning and planning that trip to Malta, Malta suddenly sounded very, very boring. Or maybe the star seeds told me to come here. Any reason is just as likely.

Some of the people who talk to me – tourists scuttling to or from Saturn’s rings, bored school kids or engineers with high-grain antennas on the Moon or Mars – ask what I miss the most. I tell them all sorts of odd, random things, many of which they send me, at great expense even at base freight rates. Nutter Butters. Cacti. The color blue – a female ring tourist from Florida sent me a pair of blue patent-leather shoes which I store in my safe house at Carcassonne. I tell them not to send anything. Sometimes I refuse to answer the question. I am a hermit. That is my right.

Mostly I miss other people. That sounds odd coming from a hermit, but it is true. It’s no good being a hermit if there aren’t other people around to shun and avoid. I told that to one contactee once. That’s how I got Gloria. Gloria now inhabits one of my worn space suits in a jumble of rocks in Cassini Regio, one mannequin arm held up to the sky, catching the perpetual rain of dust that falls from Saturn’s enormous, invisible ring. A lovely woman Gloria is, he suit besmirched by the rain of hydrogen cyanide; she holds poison in her outstretched hand, offering it to the universe. A fitting monument for a hermit, offering poison to those who might come to break my solitude. I put her in Cassini so I have an excuse to stay away from there.

Only one man – an engineer working on Phobos – asked the one question I relish answering: What is my last memory of Earth?

I tell him this story:

It was on a Sunday. I was scrubbing the basement toilet, working hard with a pumice stone to scrape away the hard water stains. I went to flush the toilet and the flushing lever broke. I went to the hardware store for a new lever. As I stood there in the plumbing section, trying to decide between white plastic and chrome-plated metal, flush-mounted or extended mount, I realized this was the most monumental decision I’d been called on to make that week. Further contemplation cause me to realize it was the most monumental decision I’d been called on to make that month. That year. Next thing I remember, I was on a Saturn-bound spaceliner with two and a half tons of gear in the cargo hold. The captain called on his passengers to look out the portside observation window for one last glimpse of earth, a blue jewel hanging in the black sky, escorted by the Moon, a dazzling white star. I stayed in my steerage cabin, swinging the replacement flush lever in my hand.

I did indeed pull a Roy Neary on my family. I’m fairly sure I did them a favor doing so. No one loves a hermit, even one who lives in the basement, goes to work four days a week, mows the lawn, shovels snow, skulks like a cipher. For the first two years, I sent them birthday greetings, Christmas cards – I brought a box of them for some reason and had no one else to send them to. My youngest son sent the only reply I ever got: a drawing of me, in a space suit, exploring the mountains of Iapetus. He would have come with me. In an instant. I loved that boy. He must be fourteen, sixteen years old now. Sometimes I dream of playing catch with him, hiking up the extinct volcano near our old home with him. Walking through the woods with him, calling to him, watching his round, bright face turn around to smile at his father, laughing at his cautions and warnings.

The picture lies folded with the envelope that bore it in one of Gloria’s pockets. I could not bear to look at that drawing; it broke my heart. I was glad when Gloria came so I could place that burden on her and have an excellent reason to shun the terra she calls home.

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