art by Jonathan Westbrook
Calling Down the Moon
by Diana Sherman
It is a week after the funeral. Daniel Marsten is interrupted by the phone ringing as he reads to his young son from a book of Greek myths. He kisses the boy quickly on the forehead before rushing to get the phone. He knows it is his sister-in-law, calling about the boy. She will be arriving soon to whisk him away from this mountain retreat, and take him to a world of soccer practice, booster clubs, and lemonade stands manned in company with his cousins. She will take him away to a world where there is still a mother, even if it isn't his. Daniel convinces himself this will be enough.
The boy, whose name is Jason, and who never thinks of himself as the boy, knows it will not be. He wants to stay with his father. He loves the mountains, as his mother did, and he loves the observatory where he is not allowed to go, but which he dreams of nonetheless. He loves the stories his mother told him of scanning the night sky for stars and life and dreams. Soccer practice pales in comparison. And his father does not have to leave the mountain.
He stares out his window, at the moon full and bright over the lake (although his father tells him it is a pond, he knows better). He looks down at the page of the book, to a picture of the moon full and bright and the words on the page, "protector of animals and children." He figures he qualifies as both, since his parents have certainly called him both at different times.
And so it is that Daniel Marsten doesn't notice his young son slipping out of the house on a moonlit night, because he is too caught up in arranging the transfer to suburbia. By the time he hangs up the phone, it is too late to catch the boy. It is even too late to catch up to the boy. He looks out the open window and sees not the moon full and bright over the pond, but his son silhouetted in the uppermost branches of the tree by the lake. Before it happens, he sees those branches splintering under the weight and dropping the boy too great a distance into the pond, which is cold and dangerous with rocks. He runs.
The branches splinter, the boy falls. He is still reaching towards the moon as he falls, feeling only the desperate need to touch it.
When Daniel Marsten gets to the pond - too slow, too slow, his body pants - there is already someone there. A young woman, with dark wet hair clinging against her neck, has his son in her arms. They are both soaked, boy and woman. The boy's eyes are shut and there is a gash along his forehead.
The woman looks up at Daniel. "You really shouldn't let him go wandering at night alone."
"I know," he snaps at her, reaching for his son. She gently shifts the boy to his arms. "Thank you," he says, staring at the gash. The boy is breathing, his pulse flickering in his neck. But that gash.
Daniel turns and almost runs back to the house. He does not notice the woman following him, although she does follow. He also does not notice the sky, empty of moonlight and lit only by distant stars.
In the light of the house, the gash is not deep but it bleeds too much. Daniel lays the boy down on the couch. He's already cursing himself, his inattention, and the distance from here to any hospital. He will have to call for a helicopter, and it will take too long. And it will be costly. He cannot face going through it all again.
He is reaching to make the call when the woman's voice startles him. "He'll be fine," she says. She is kneeling by the couch, her fingers light on the boy's forehead.
Daniel's eyes narrow. "Are you a doctor?" he asks.
"No," she allows, "my brother is."
"Your brother isn't here." Daniel picks up the phone.
It's then that Jason speaks. "Ow."
Daniel drops the phone. "Are you all right?" He kneels by the couch as well, and the woman gives way. He stares into his son's eyes, trying to recall if they should be dilated or not, trying to see if they're dilated or not.
"My head hurts. And I'm cold."
"And you're bleeding all over the furniture," the woman tells him. Daniel glares at her, but fetches a towel for his son. As an afterthought, he grabs one for her, too.
Jason is staring at the blood on his fingertips, after touching his forehead. "Cool."
"No, it isn't cool. What were you doing? That was incredibly stupid!" Daniel wraps the towel around the boy, tossing the other one at his unwanted guest. It does not occur to him then, just as it does not occur to him later, to ask who she is. He knows she is a hiker in the mountains. There are enough of them who come through, some even alone as she is. A strange breed, but no stranger than an astronomer living on a mountain. He knows she is a hiker, even though she has no pack, she has no hiking boots and is, indeed, barefoot.
Jason, however, recognizes her. He is young enough still to see her clearly. He smiles at her, a huge, contagious grin only slightly marred by the blood dripping down the side of his face. She smiles back. "Head wounds always bleed the most. We'd better bandage that."
They do, Daniel remembering his first aid training at last. The woman wraps herself in a towel and watches father and son. What she thinks, she never says. Her eyes shine silver and the boy can't stop staring at her. "He's going to send me away," he tells her, ignoring that his father is still in the room.
"I know," she says.
Daniel shoots her a look.
"I don't want to go," Jason tells her.
"I know that, too," she says.
"It's time for you to go to bed," Daniel says, certain at last that his son's eyes are fine, that the wound is bandaged, and that he really doesn't want to be a part of this conversation.
"Will you finish reading me the story?" Jason asks.
"No." Daniel picks him up and carries him to his bed. "You will go to sleep." He tucks the boy in, then adds another blanket. When he turns, the woman is standing in the doorway, leaning against it much like Eleni used to. She does not look like Eleni.
"Stop it," Daniel says to her as he walks by.
She straightens, looks in at the boy. "I'll try," she says. "I make no promises."
The woman follows Daniel into the kitchen. He grunts, puts a kettle on to boil.
"Thank you..." he says, pausing for a name.
"Thank you, Cynthia." He does not want her here, in his house, in Eleni's kitchen. He wants Eleni here, and the wanting sweeps through him so strongly he nearly falls. Instead, he leans against the kitchen table. She faces him across it.
"Thank you for getting my son out of the water." He does not want to thank her for saving the boy's life, although he suspects he owes her that, too.
"He would have been fine. You would have gotten to him in time, before there was any damage."
He shrugs. "Tea?"
They stand there, in the kitchen, she with the towel wrapped around her, he with his silence wrapped around him. It is a stranger pairing than he will ever know. Only the little boy in the bedroom has any idea, and to him it hardly seems strange. It seems no stranger than going to bed one night with a mother and waking up the next day without.
"Why are you sending him away?" she asks.
"You can sleep on the couch."
"Little boys don't go calling down the moon on a whim," she tells him.
"Is that what he was doing?" Daniel shakes his head.
"He's your son."
"Yes." Daniel meets her eyes, holds to his silence for another moment, then releases it. "His mother died two weeks ago. This is no good home for a little boy without a mother, or other children, or other people aside from scientists. His aunt is taking him somewhere better."
"But he's your son. There is no better place for him than with you, wherever you are."
Daniel shakes his head. "I'm staying here. I'm not leaving the mountain. I can't."
"That's not what he's asking of you," she tells Daniel, but he doesn't hear her.