The rocket’s metal cooled in the meadow winds. Its lid gave a bulging pop. From its clock interior stepped a man, a woman, and three children. The other passengers whispered away across the Martian meadow, leaving the man alone among his family.
The man felt his hair flutter and the tissues of his body draw tight as if he were standing at the centre of a vacuum. His wife, before him, trembled. The children, small seeds, might at any instant be sown to all the Martian climes. The children looked up at him. His face was cold. “What’s wrong?” asked his wife. “Let’s get back on the rocket.” “Go back to Earth?” “Yes! Listen!”
The wind blew, whining. At any moment the Martian air might draw his soul from him, as marrow comes from a white bone.
He looked at Martian hills that time had worn with a crushing pressure of years. He saw the old cities, lost and lying like children’s delicate bones among the blowing lakes of grass.
“Chin up, Harry,” said his wife. “It’s too late. We’ve come at least sixty-five million miles or more.”
The children with their yellow hair hollered at the deep dome of Martian sky. There was no answer but the racing hiss of wind through the stiff grass.
He picked up the luggage in his cold hands. “Here we go,” he said – a man standing on the edge of a sea, ready to wade in and be drowned.
They walked into town.
Their name was Bittering. Harry and his wife Cora; Tim, Laura, and David. They built a small white cottage and ate good breakfasts there, but the fear was never gone. It lay with Mr.Bittering and Mrs.Bittering, a third unbidden partner at every midnight talk, at every dawn awakening.
“I feel like a salt crystal,” he often said, “in a mountain stream, being washed away. We don’t belong here. We’re Earth people. This is Mars. It was meant for Martians. For heaven’s sake, Cora, let’s buy tickets for home!”
But she only shook her head. “One day the atom bomb will fix Earth. Then we’ll be safe here.” “Safe and insane!”
Tick-took, seven o’clock sang the voice clock; time to get up. And they did.
Something made him check everything each morning – warm hearth, potted blood-geraniums – precisely as if he expected something to be amiss. The morning paper was toast-warm from the six a.m. Earth rocket. He broke its seal and tilted it at his breakfast plate. He forced himself to be convivial.
“Colonial days all over again,” he declared. “Why, in another year there’ll be a million Earthmen on Mars. Big cities, everything! They said we’d fail. Said the Martians would resent our invasion. But did we find any Martians? Not a living soul! Oh, we found their empty cities, but no one in them. Right?”
A river of wind submerged the house. When the windows ceased rattling, Mr.Bittering swallowed and looked at the children.
“I don’t know,” said David. “Maybe there’re Martians around we don’t see. Sometimes nights I think I hear ‘em. I hear the wind. The sand hits my window. I get scared. And I see those towns way up in the mountains where the Martians lived a long ago. And I think I see things moving around those towns, Papa. And I wonder if those Martians mind us living here. I wonder if they won’t do something to us for coming here.”
“Nonsense!” Mr.Bittering looked out of the windows. “We’re clean, decent people.” He looked at his children. “All dead cities have some kind of ghosts in them. Memories, I mean.” He stared at the hills. “You see a staircase and you wonder what Martians looked like climbing it. You see Martian paintings and you wonder what the painter was like. You make a little ghost in your mind, a memory. It’s quite natural. Imagination.” He stopped. “You haven’t been prowling up in those ruins, have you?”
“No, Papa.” David looked at his shoes.
“See that you stay away from them. Pass the jam.”
“Just the same,” said little David, “I bet something happens.”
Something happened that afternoon.
Laura stumbled through the settlement, crying. She dashed blindly on to the porch.
“Mother, Father – the war, Earth!” she sobbed. “A radio flash just came. Atom bombs hit New York! All the space rockets blown up. No more rockets to Mars, ever!”
“Oh, Harry!” The mother held on to her husband and daughter.
“Are you sure, Laura?” asked the father quietly.
Laura wept. “We’re stranded on Mars, for ever and ever!”
For a long time there was only the sound of the wind in the late afternoon.
Alone, thought Bittering. Only a thousand of us here. No way back. No way. No way. Sweat poured from his face and his hands and his body; he was drenched in the hot-ness of his fear. He wanted to strike Laura, cry, “No, you’re lying! The rockets will come back!” Instead, he stroked Laura’s head against him and said, “The rockets will get through, some day.”
“In five years maybe. It takes that long to build one. Father, Father, what will we do?”
“Go about our business, of course. Raise crops and children. Wait. Keep things going until the war ends and the rockets come again.”
The two boys stepped out on to the porch. “Children,” he said, sitting there, looking beyond them, “I’ve something to tell you.” “We know,” they said.
Bittering wandered into the garden to stand alone in his fear. As long as the rockets had spun a silver web across space, he had been able to accept Mars. For he had always told himself: ‘Tomorrow, if I want, I can buy a ticket and go back to Earth.’
But now: the web gone, the rockets lying in jigsaw heaps of molten girder and unsnaked wire. Earth people left to the strangeness of Mars, the cinnamon dusts and wine airs, to be baked like gingerbread shapes in Martian summers, put into harvested storage by Martian winters. What would happen to him, the others? This was the moment Mars had waited for. Now it would eat them.
He got down on his knees in the flower bed, a spade in his nervous hands. Work, he thought, work and forget.
He glanced up from the garden to the Martian mountains. He thought of the proud old Martian names that had once been on those peaks. Earthmen, dropping from the sky, had gazed upon hills, rivers, Martian seas left nameless in spite of names. Once Martians had built cities, named cities; climbed mountains, named mountains; sailed seas, named seas. Mountains melted, seas drained, cities tumbled. In spite of this, the Earthmen had felt a silent guilt at putting new names to these ancient hills and valleys.
Nevertheless, man lives by symbol and label. The names were given.
Mr.Bittering felt very alone in his garden under the Martian sun, bent here, planting Earth flowers in a wild soil.
Think. Keep thinking. Different things. Keep your mind free of Earth, the atom war, the lost rockets.
He perspired. He glanced about. No one watching. He removed his tie. Pretty bold, he thought. First your coat off, now your tie. He hung it neatly on a peach tree he had imported as a sapling from Massachusetts.
He returned to his philosophy of names and mountains. The Earthmen had changed names. Now there were Hormel Valleys, Roosevelt Seas, Ford Hills, Vanderbilt Plateaus, Rockefeller Rivers, on Mars. It wasn’t right. The American settlers had shown wisdom, using old Indian prairie names: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, Ohio, Utah, Milwaukee, Waukegan, Osseo. The old names, the old meanings.
Staring at the mountains wildly he thought: ‘Are you up there? All the dead ones, you Martians? Well, here we are, alone, cut off! Come down, move us out! We’re helpless!’
The wind blew a shower of peach blossoms.
He put out his sun-browned hand, gave a small cry. He touched the blossoms, picked them up. He turned them, be touched them again and again. Then he shouted for his wife.
She appeared at a window. He ran to her.
“Cora, these blossoms!”
She handled them.
“Do you see? They’re different. They’ve changed! They’re not peach blossoms any more!”
“Look all right to me,” she said.
“They’re not. They’re wrong! I can’t tell how. An extra petal, a leaf, something, the colour, the smell!”
The children ran out in time to see their father hurrying about the garden, pulling up radishes, onions, and carrots from their beds.
“Cora, come look!
They handled the onions, the radishes, the carrots among them.
“Do they look like carrots?”
“Yes… No.” She hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“You know they have! Onions but not onions, carrots but not carrots. Taste: the same but different. Smell: not like it used to be.” He felt his heart pounding, and he was afraid. He dug his fingers into the earth. “Cora, what’s happening? What is it? We’ve got to get away from this.” He ran across the garden. Each tree felt his touch. “The roses. The roses. They’re turning green!”
And they stood looking at the green roses.
And two days later, Tim came running. “Come see the cow. I was milking her and I saw it. Come on!”
They stood in the shed and looked at their one cow.
It was growing a third horn.
And the lawn in front of their house very quietly and slowly was colouring itself, like spring violets. Seed from Earth but growing up a soft purple.
“We must get away,” said Bittering. “We’ll eat this stuff and then we’ll change – who knows to what. I can’t let it happen. There’s only one thing to do. Burn this food!”
“It’s not poisoned.”
“But it is. Subtly, very subtly. A little bit. A very little bit. We mustn’t touch it.”
He looked with dismay at their house. “Even the house. The wind’s done something to it. The air’s burned it. The fog at night. The boards, all warped out of shape. It’s not an Earthman’s house any more.”
“Oh, your imagination!”
He put on his coat and tie. “I’m going into town. We’ve got to do something now. I’ll be back.”
“Wait, Harry!” his wife cried.
But he was gone.
In town, on the shadowy step of the grocery store, the men sat with their hands on their knees, conversing with great leisure and ease.
Mr.Bittering wanted to fire a pistol in the air.
What are you doing, you fools! he thought. Sitting here! You’ve heard the news – we’re stranded on this planet. Well, move! Aren’t you frightened? Aren’t you afraid? What are you going to do?
“Hello, Harry,” said everyone.
“Look,” he said to them. “You did hear the news, the other day, didn’t you?”
They nodded and laughed. “Sure. Sure, Harry.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Do, Harry, do? What can we do?”
“Build a rocket, that’s what!”
“A rocket, Harry? To go back to all that trouble? Oh, Harry!”
“But you must want to go back. Have you noticed the peach blossoms, the onions, the grass?”
“Why, yes, Harry, seems we did,” said one of the men.
“Doesn’t it scare you?”
“Can’t recall that it did much, Harry.”
Bittering wanted to cry. “You’ve got to work with me. If we stay here, we’ll all change. The air. Don’t you smell it? Something in the air. A Martian virus, maybe; some seed, or a pollen. Listen to me!”
They stared at him.
“Sam,” he said to one of them.
“Will you help me build a rocket?”
“Harry, I got a whole load of metal and some blueprints. You want to work in my metal shop, on a rocket, you’re welcome. I’ll sell you that metal for five hundred dollars. You should be able to construct a right pretty rocket if you work alone, in about thirty years.”
Sam looked at him with quiet good humour.
“Sam,” Bittering said. “Your eyes -”
“What about them, Harry?”
“Didn’t they used to be grey?”
“Well, now, I don’t remember.”
“They were, weren’t they?”
“Why do you ask, Harry?”
“Because now they’re kind of yellow-coloured.”
“Is that so, Harry?” Sam said, casually.
“And you’re taller and thinner -”
“You might be right, Harry.”
“Sam, you shouldn’t have yellow eyes.”
“Harry, what colour eyes have you got?” Sam said.
“My eyes? They’re blue, of course.”
“Here you are, Harry.” Sam handed him a pocket mirror. “Take a look at yourself.”
Mr.Bittering hesitated, and then raised the mirror to his face.
There were little, very dim flecks of new gold captured in the blue of his eyes.
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Sam, a moment later. “You’ve broken my mirror.”
Harry Bittering moved into the metal shop and began to build the rocket. Men stood in the open door and talked and joked without raising their voices. Once in a while they gave him a hand on lifting something. But mostly they just idled and watched him with their yellowing eyes.
“It’s supper-time, Harry,” they said.
His wife appeared with his supper in a wicker basket.
“I won’t touch it,” he said. “I’ll eat only food from our deepfreeze. Food that came from Earth. Nothing from our garden.”
His wife stood watching him. “You can’t build a rocket.”
“I worked in a shop once, when I was twenty. I know metal. Once I get it started, the others will help,” he said, not looking at her, laying out the blueprints.
“Harry, Harry,” she said, helplessly.
“We’ve got to get away, Cora. We’ve got to!”
The nights were full of wind that blew down the empty moonlit sea-meadows past the little white chess cities lying for their twelve-thousandth year in the shallows. In the Earthmen’s settlement, the Bittering house shook with a feeling of change.
Lying abed, Mr.Bittering felt his bones shifted, shaped, melted like gold. His wife, lying beside him, was dark from many sunny afternoons. Dark she was, and golden, burnt almost black by the sun, sleeping, and the children metallic in their beds, and the wind roaring forlorn and changing through the old peach trees, violet grass, shaking out green rose petals.
The fear would not be stopped. It had his throat and heart. It dripped in a wetness of the arm and the temple and the trembling palm.
A green star rose in the east.
A strange word emerged from Mr.Bittering’s lips.
“Iorrt. Iorrt.” He repeated it.
It was a Martian word. He knew no Martian.
In the middle of the night he arose and dialled a call through to Simpson, the archaeologist.
“Simpson, what does the word ‘Iorrt’ mean?”
“Why that’s the old Martian word for our planet Earth. Why?”
“No special reason.”
The telephone slipped from his hand.
“Hello, hello, hello, hello,” it kept saying while he sat gazing out at the green star. “Bittering? Harry, are you there?”
The days were full of metal sound. He laid the frame of the rocket with the reluctant help of three indifferent men. He grew very tired in an hour or so and had to sit down.
“The altitude,” laughed a man.
“Are you eating, Harry?” asked another.
“I’m eating,” he said, angrily,
“From your deep-freeze?”
“You’re getting thinner, Harry.”
His wife took him aside a few days later. “Harry, I’ve used up all the food in the deep-freeze. There’s nothing left. I’ll have to make sandwiches using food grown on Mars.”
He sat down heavily.
“You must eat,” she said. “You’re weak.”
“Yes,” he said.
He took a sandwich, opened it, looked at it, and began to nibble at it.
“And take the rest of the day off,” she said. “It’s hot. The children want to swim in the canals and hike. Please come along.”
“I can’t waste time. This is a crisis!” “Just for an hour,” she urged. “A swim’ll do you good.” He rose, sweating. “All right, all right. Leave me alone. I’ll come.”
“Good for you, Harry.”
The sun was hot, the day quiet. There was only an immense staring burn upon the land. They moved along the canal, the father, the mother, the racing children in their swimsuits. They stopped and ate meat sandwiches. He saw their skin baking brown. And he saw the yellow eyes of his wife and his children, their eyes that were never yellow before. A few tremblings shook him, but were carried off in waves of pleasant heat as he lay in the sun. He was too tired to be afraid.
“Cora, how long have your eyes been yellow?” She was bewildered. “Always, I guess.” “They didn’t change from brown in the last three months?”
She bit her lips. “No. Why do you ask?” “Nevermind.” They sat there.
“The children’s eyes,” he said. “They’re yellow, too.” “Sometimes growing children’s eyes change colour.” “Maybe we’re children, too. At least to Mars. That’s a thought.” He laughed. “Think I’ll swim.”
They leaped into the canal water, and he let himself sink down and down to the bottom like a golden statue and lie there in green silence. All was water, quiet and deep, all was peace. He felt the steady, slow current drift him easily.
If I lie here long enough, he thought, the water will work and eat away my flesh until the bones show like coral. Just my skeleton left. And then the water can build on that skeleton – green things, deep-water things, red things, yellow things. Change. Change. Slow, deep, silent change. And isn’t that what it is up there!
He saw the sky submerged above him, the sun made Martian by atmosphere and time and space.
Up there, a big river, he thought, a Martian river, all of us lying deep in it, in our pebble houses, in our sunken boulder houses, like crayfish hidden, and the water washing away our old bodies and lengthening the bones and –
He let himself drift up through the soft light.
Tim sat on the edge of the canal, regarding his father seriously.
“Utha,” he said.
“What?” asked his father.
The boy smiled. “You know. Utha’s the Martian word for ‘father’.”
“Where did you learn it?”
“I don’t know. Around. Utha!”
“What do you want?”
The boy hesitated. “I – I want to change my name.”
His mother swam over. “What’s wrong with Tim for a name?”
Tim fidgeted. “The other day you called Tim, Tim, Tim. I didn’t even hear. I said to myself, That’s not my name. I’ve a new name I want to use.”
Mr.Bittering held to the side of the canal, his body cold and his heart pounding slowly. “What is this new name?” “Linnl. Isn’t that a good name? Can I use it? Can I, please?”
Mr.Bittering put his hand to his head. He thought of the rocket, himself working alone, himself alone even among his family, so alone.
He heard his wife say, “Why not?” He heard himself say, “Yes, you can use it.” “Yaaa!” screamed the boy. “I’m Linnl, Linnl!” Racing down the meadowlands, he danced and shouted. Mr.Bittering looked at his wife. “Why did we do that?” “I don’t know,” she said. “It just seemed like a good idea.”
They walked into the hills. They strolled on old mosaic paths, beside still-pumping fountains. The paths were covered with a thin film of cool water all summer long. You kept your bare feet cool all the day, splashing as in a creek, wading.
They came to a small deserted Martian villa with a good view of the valley. It was on top of a hill. Blue-marble halls, large murals, a swimming-pool. It was refreshing in this hot summer-time. The Martians hadn’t believed in large cities.
“How nice,” said Mrs.Bittering, “if you could move up here to this villa for the summer.”
“Come on,” he said. “We’re going back to town. There’s work to be done on the rocket.”
But as he worked that night, the thought of the cool bluemarble villa entered his mind. As the hours passed, the rocket seemed less important.
In the flow of days and weeks, the rocket receded and dwindled. The old fever was gone. It frightened him to think he had let it slip this way. But somehow the heat, the air, the working conditions – he heard the men murmuring on the porch of his metal shop.
“Everyone’s going. You heard?”
“All right. That’s right.”
Bittering came out. “Going where?” He saw a couple of trucks, loaded with children and furniture, drive down the dusty street.
“Up to the villa,” said the man.
“Yeah, Harry. I’m going. So is Sam. Aren’t you, Sam?”
“That’s right, Harry. What about you?”
“I’ve got work to do here.”
“Work! You can finish that rocket in the autumn, when it’s cooler.”
He took a breath. “1 got the frame all set up.”
“In the autumn is better.” Their voices were lazy in the heat.
“Got to work,” he said.
“Autumn,” they reasoned. And they sounded so sensible, so right.
“Autumn would be best,” he thought. “Plenty of time, then.”
No! cried part of himself, deep down, put away, locked tight, suffocating. No! No! “In the autumn,” he said. “Come on, Harry,” they all said.
“Yes,” he said, feeling his flesh melt in the hot liquid air. “Yes, the autumn. I’ll begin work again then.” “I got a villa near the Tirra Canal,” said someone. “You mean the Roosevelt Canal, don’t you?” “Tirra. The old Martian name.”
“But on the map -”
“Forget the map. It’s Tirra now. Now I found a place in the Pillan mountains -”
“You mean the Rockefeller range,” said Bittering.
“I mean the Pillan mountains,” said Sam.
“Yes,” said Bittering, buried in the hot, swarming air. “The Pillan mountains.”
Everyone worked at loading the truck in the hot, still afternoon of the next day.
Laura, Tim, and David carried packages. Or, as they preferred to be known, Ttil, Linnl, and Werr carried packages.
The furniture was abandoned in the little white cottage.
“It looked just fine in Boston,” said the mother. “And here in the cottage. But up at the villa? No. We’ll get it when we come back in the autumn.”
Bittering himself was quiet.
“I’ve some ideas on furniture for the villa,” he said, after a time. “Big, lazy furniture.”
“What about your Encyclopedia! You’re taking it along, surely?”
Mr.Bittering glanced away. “I’ll come and get it next week.”
They turned to their daughter. “What about your New York dresses?”
The bewildered girl stared. “Why, I don’t want them any more.”
They shut off the gas, the water, they locked the doors and walked away. Father peered into the truck.
“Gosh, we’re not taking much,” he said. “Considering all we brought to Mars, this is only a handful!”
He started the truck.
Looking at the small white cottage for a long moment, he was filled with a desire to rush to it, touch it, say goodbye to it, for he felt as if he were going away on a long journey, leaving something to which he could never quite return, never understand again.
Just then Sam and his family drove by in another truck.
“Hi, Bittering! Here we go!”
The truck swung down the ancient highway out of town. There were sixty others travelling the same direction. The town filled with a silent, heavy dust from their passage. The canal waters lay blue in the sun, and a quiet wind moved in the strange trees.
“Good-bye, town!” said Mr.Bittering.
“Good-bye, good-bye,” said the family, waving to it.
They did not look back again.
Summer burned the canals dry. Summer moved like flame upon the meadows. In the empty Earth settlement, the painted houses flaked and peeled. Rubber tyres upon which children had swung in back yards hung suspended like stopped clock pendulums in the blazing air.
At the metal shop, the rocket frame began to rust.
In the quiet autumn, Mr.Bittering stood, very dark now, very golden-eyed, upon the slope above his villa, looking at the valley.
“It’s time to go back,” said Cora.
“Yes, but we’re not going,” he said, quietly. “There’s nothing there any more.”
“Your books,” she said. “Your fine clothes.”
“Your Illes and your fine ior uele rre,” she said.
“The town’s empty. No one’s going back,” he said. “There’s no reason to, none at all.”
The daughter wove tapestries and the sons played songs on ancient flutes and pipes, their laughter echoing in the marble villa.
Mr.Bittering gazed at the Earth settlement far away in the low valley. “Such odd, such ridiculous houses the Earth people built.”
“They didn’t know any better,” his wife mused. “Such ugly People. I’m glad they’ve gone.”
They both looked at each other, startled by all they had just finished saying. They laughed.
“Where did they go?” he wondered. He glanced at his wife. She was golden and slender as his daughter. She looked at him, and he seemed almost as young as their eldest son.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“We’ll go back to town maybe next year, or the year after, or the year after that,” he said, calmly. “Now – I’m warm. How about taking a swim?”
They turned their backs to the valley. Arm in arm they walked silently down a path of clear running spring water.
Five years later, a rocket fell out of the sky. It lay steaming in the valley. Men leaped out of it, shouting.
“We won the war on Earth! We’re here to rescue you! Hey!”
But the American-built town of cottages, peach trees, and theatres was silent. They found a half-finished rocket frame, rusting in an empty shop.
The rocket men searched the hills. The captain established headquarters in an abandoned bar. His lieutenant came back to report.
“The town’s empty, but we found native life in the hills, sir. Dark people. Yellow eyes. Martians. Very friendly. We talked a bit, not much. They learn English fast. I’m sure our relations will be most friendly with them, sir.”
“Dark, eh?” mused the captain. “How many?”
“Six, eight hundred, I’d say, living in those marble ruins in the hills, sir. Tall, healthy. Beautiful women.”
“Did they tell you what became of the men and women who built this Earth settlement, Lieutenant?”
“They hadn’t the foggiest notion of what happened to this town or its people.”
“Strange. You think those Martians killed them?”
“They look surprisingly peaceful. Chances are a plague did this town in, sir.”
“Perhaps. I suppose this is one of those mysteries we’ll never solve. One of those mysteries you read about.”
The captain looked at the room, the dusty windows, the blue mountains rising beyond, the canals moving in the light, and he heard the soft wind in the air. He shivered. Then, recovering, he tapped a large fresh map he had thumb-tacked to the top of an empty table.
“Lots to be done, Lieutenant.” His voice droned on and quietly on as the sun sank behind the blue hills. “New settlements. Mining sites, minerals to be looked for. Bacteriological specimens taken. The work, all the work. And the old records were lost. We’ll have a job of remapping to do, renaming the mountains and rivers and such. Calls for a little imagination.”
“What do you think of naming those mountains the Lincoln Mountains, this canal the Washington Canal, those hills – we can name those hills for you, Lieutenant. Diplomacy. And you, for a favour, might name a town for me. Polishing the apple. And why not make this the Einstein Valley, and further over… are you listening, Lieutenant?”
The lieutenant snapped his gaze from the blue colour and the quiet mist of the hills far beyond the town.
“What? Oh, yes, sir!”