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Daily Science Fiction :: Calling Down the Moon by Diana Sherman
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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Calling Down the Moon

Diana Sherman is a freelance writer in Silicon Valley, where she lives with her domestic partner, their three cats, and whichever rescue dog they happen to be fostering that week.
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.
"Cynthia."
"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?"
"Thank you."
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.
"Eleni went to sleep," he tells her. "She went to sleep one night, and her heart stopped. It just stopped, and she thrashed, and it woke me, and by the time I was awake, it was too late. I tried to make her breathe, and I tried to call for a helicopter. And they got here, but it was too late. Young women aren't supposed to die of heart attacks. Old men are supposed to die of heart attacks. She wouldn't have been here if not for me."
"She would have," Cynthia tells him. "She watched the night sky, too."
He lifts a shoulder. "You can't know. And she wouldn't have been here. She'd have been somewhere less remote. Maybe Hawaii, the observatories there. She wouldn't have been here."
Cynthia tilts her mug just slightly towards him. "Some day, your son will be standing there and you will be standing where I stand now, and you will wonder why you sent him away. You will wish you could do it over again."
She sets her mug down on the kitchen table. "Thank you for the tea."
"You're welcome."
It is late. Daniel lies awake in the bed he shared with Eleni. Although she is no longer there to sprawl across the center of the bed, he still lies at the edge. His door is open in case the boy cries out, but he stares at the ceiling.
The boy, Jason, stands in the living room, looking at the woman asleep on the couch. But she isn't really asleep.
"I'm sorry," she tells him.
"He wouldn't listen?" Jason comes a few steps closer.
"No. He's too heart hurt to hear me."
"But you could. You could convince him, couldn't you? You could make him keep me here." He's standing right next to the couch now, his hand knotted in the fabric of his pajama shirt.
"I can't make anyone do anything," she tells him, her voice sad. "It's been a long, long time since I could make anyone do anything. Or since anyone watched the sky and knew me well enough to call me." She smiles at him, touches his cheek.
She does not lie to the boy. She does not tell him he will be happier with his aunt. She does not tell him this is for the best. She simply holds him. She breathes in the scent of him, warm and young and sleepy.
"I am sorry, little one. I would make him keep you here if I could."
"Could you take me with you?" he asks her.
She's silent for a moment. "No. I wish I could. But there's nothing for you, where I am. There are no other people, nothing."
He's quiet, and she feels the warmth of tears on her arm. She holds him tight. "I'll come to you," he tells her. "Someday, I'll come to you."
She holds him as he falls asleep, then kisses the top of his head. "I hope so."
Jason drives into the mountains, the radio station of his rental truck set to country. He has the windows down, so the music pours out and the cold air pours in. In the city he left six hours ago, his son sleeps in the house of a different father. His wife, once proud to be married to a man in the Luna Project, closes her curtains against the moonlight and turns to the new husband who never notices the night sky.
Daniel is still up to greet him when he slams into the house and drops his duffel bag in the living room.
"You didn't need to stay up."
"I don't sleep much," his father says. The house has changed so little in a quarter century. Whether it's because Daniel doesn't care about such things, or because Daniel won't change anything Eleni touched, Jason doesn't know. Daniel's not saying, and he'd never ask. Eleni's favorite constellation maps are still on the wall, her afghan is still thrown over the back of the couch.
"There's a kettle on to boil. Do you want tea?"
"Sure." He wants tea as much as he wants anything, which is not at all. Except for one thing. His father follows him into the kitchen. Jason takes mugs down from the cupboard, pours for himself and his father.
"I got your message," Daniel tells him.
"I figured."
Daniel stands there, across the table from him, eyes creased. It occurs to him that Daniel actually wants to talk, but doesn't know how.
"How's the project?" Daniel asks.
"Great. Ahead of schedule, which is a wonder for the government."
Daniel nods. "That's good. That's good." He looks into his cup. "You're going?"
"I will be. In a few months."
"Are you sure?"
He looks at his father. "Of course I'm sure."
"Are you sure it's what you want?"
"Yes."
"How's Toby?" Daniel asks.
"Fine. Looking forward to visiting you this summer. Toby's fine."
"Karen?"
"Married."
Daniel nods. The silence falls between them. It was always someone else who provided the words when they were together. First Eleni, later Jason's aunt, later Karen. They don't know how to talk to each other, just the two of them.
"I made up your old bed for you."
"Thank you."
"Got out your mother's book of myths. I thought you might want it. For Toby."
"Thanks." Jason puts his mug down. "I think I'll turn in now."
The moonlight is cold on the water, or perhaps it's just that the night air is cold against his skin. Jason stands by the pond he once believed to be a lake. The old tree he had climbed is still there, although the branch leaning over the pond is gone.
He doesn't know how he got here. He doesn't know how he ended up in his father's house, alone, while his own family moves on without him.
It's been a long time since he dreamt of much of anything. But this place reminds him of dreams. Not aspirations, or hopes. But the dreams you live in at the end of the day, where impossible things make sense.
"I thought you'd be out here."
Jason doesn't answer his father. Doesn't even turn to look at him. There's no need.
"She was right, you know. I stood there in that kitchen, looking at you, and I was in her place. And you were in mine. Cynthia was right."
"Cynthia?" Jason turns to his father.
"You probably don't remember much. It was the night you fell." This time, it's Daniel who's looking at the reflection of the moon in the water instead of looking at Jason.
But Jason remembers, remembers better than Daniel realizes. He remembers the woman he was so certain came from the moon, was so certain was the moon. And he remembers putting that dream away as he grew up. Realizing she was just some hiker who was kind. Realizing, as Karen told him, that she was just the symbol of his dead mother. It was easier to long for a myth. And it all comes back, now, in the middle of the night with his father beside him.
"You climbed out onto that tree and fell into the water. She got to you before I did. Pulled you out, got herself soaked in the process. I wasn't very nice to her."
Daniel falls silent for so long Jason almost prods him. Almost.
"I could say it was the shock of it. I could say it was too soon after your mother's death, and that I wasn't ready to listen. But it wasn't those things."
"I remember Cynthia," Jason says at last. "I thought she was just something that I made up."
"No. She was real." Daniel looks into his son's eyes. "She asked me to keep you here. Told me I would regret sending you away one day."
"You couldn't keep me here. This was no place for a child."
"That's what I told you. That's what your aunt told you, too. But maybe I could have."
"You did what--"
"I did what was easier for me. I did what let me hide from you, and the world, and everything."
"It's all right."
Daniel jerks his head to the side, no. He doesn't have the words, doesn't know how to explain. "How does Toby feel?"
Jason laughs, a sharp, bitter laugh. "He's happy. He's fine. He tells me how happy he is." Every time he sees his son, that's what Toby tells him. And what can he do? He doesn't want to make his son miserable. So he smiles and says that's good and lets the boy become a part of another man's life. A good man, a former friend. Jason has no worries that Toby's new father will be unkind.
Daniel's smile is lopsided. "If you go, you'll be gone years."
"Yes." Three years, for his family to move on without him. Three years for it to be less awkward, for Toby to settle in, for Karen to be happy. Three years where he won't have to feel the guilt. Three years for him to begin truly building the first lunar colony. To be a part of it.
"Do you really want to go that long without seeing your son?"
"It will be easier. He's happy."
"That's what you used to tell me, you know. Whenever you came to visit me from your aunt's. Or whenever I would visit you. You'd tell me how happy you were. But I knew you weren't. Your aunt told me about it. How hard everything was for you. And how different you were in the summers when you came to see me here." He pauses. "I think she changed her mind, eventually. Thought you should be with me. But by then, I couldn't see it."
And Jason remembers those summers with his father, and remembers those years with his aunt and his cousins. Who had all been kind. And he remembers staring at the moon and dreaming of getting there one day. Was it the easier dream? What will he find, he wonders, when he gets there.
"There's no rush," his father tells him. "The moon will still be there three years from now. Ten years from now. Toby... Toby won't be your son forever. One day, he'll be someone's father, and you won't have any say in his life at all."
The two of them stand there, looking at the moon high and bright.
"She was right," Daniel says quietly, one last time.
He is an old man when he first sets foot on the moon. His son is grown, and happy, and it will be no great loss for the boy. Daniel Marsten looks at the Earth shining in the sky and smiles. His son and grandson are there.
They have done amazing work, building this settlement. Everything looks as it should in all Jason's plans and blueprints.
His first day, he is shown around. These bright young engineers show him everything, from sewage pipes to greenhouses to the dining commissary. He smiles and nods and approves everything. They show him the communal gardens, perfectly lovely and manicured in some places, seemingly wild and sprawling in others. They show him his personal monitor, to keep track of his vital signs. It's identical to the monitors they all wear. He admits that it's very clever, and useful. They are delighted. He is respected, his opinion valued. He smiles. They remind him so much of his grandson, Toby, these eager young ones.
It's not until his third day that he has a chance to take a moment to himself. He does not look at the map he has of the settlement. He knows this place by heart, has always known this place by heart. In the late night hours, he leaves his quarters and traces a path he has known most of his life. He walks out towards the edge of the dome and sees, coming into view, a tree leaning over a pond. As he gets closer he can make out the reflection of the Earth, riding high and bright, in the water. It's perfect.
He stops by that pond and watches the Earth in reflection.
"Daniel," she says.
He smiles. He does not turn to look at her. He knows what she looks like, he remembers. And he is not surprised she's here. After all, it's why he's here, although he pretended all the while that he didn't really believe she would be.
"You're a very patient woman," he tells her.
"Time," she says, "is a matter of perspective."
He nods. "Are you surprised?"
"Very little surprises me," she tells him. "But then, there's very little I expect. I did not expect you, worshipping the night sky. Or Jason, needing me so desperately that night. Or all of these people, living here, thinking and dreaming of the moon."
"Have you seen Jason?"
"Many times," she tells him.
"Have you spoken to him?"
"No." She sits on the ground, looking at the pond. "He has no need for me now. Not yet."
"No." Daniel smiles and lowers himself to sit beside her. His son is a happier man, now, than Daniel ever was. Not happier than Daniel might have been. He realizes that, lets it go. There's no need for regret now. He did what he needed to when he convinced Jason to stay on Earth with his son.
Jason has been to the moon, of course, to oversee plans. But never for more than a few weeks at a time. He has a new wife, and Toby. So what if his wife is not his son's mother? Family is not always easy. Jason is also learning all the joys of raising a moon mad teenage boy. Daniel can find it in his heart to sympathize. All of the Marsten men have always been in love with the night sky. When they have been lucky--as he was, as Jason now is--so have their wives.
He does not say any of this. She knows. Just as she knows how very tired he is. He did not want to die on Earth. He did not want to die before he'd seen the moon. Even if it is a path his son had to blaze for him.
Jason knows. Daniel is sure of that. Jason knew when they hugged each other goodbye before he boarded the shuttle. It didn't require words. The two of them are a great deal alike.
"Have you ever dreamt of going beyond the moon?" she asks him.
"Of course."
"Me, too." She turns to smile at him, and he meets her gaze. "Shall we?"
"Yes."
And the young woman who finds him there hours later, his body relaxed and leaning against the base of a tree, stops, startled. What will she say, she wonders, to explain the death of the respected elderly astronomer? What will his son think? His son, who is her boss.
She notes, as well, that his personal monitor never set off an alarm. Yet it indicates he died several hours ago. It's strange. It ought to bother her more than it does, but there is something so perfectly peaceful, so wonderful about the slight smile still curving his lips, that she can't worry for long. Somehow, she is certain, it will not be so hard to tell his son that he has died. Somehow, she knows that it will not be a surprise.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 6th, 2012


I would never have written the story you've read if not for my friend Wendy Moon. She's the one who nagged me into going back to this story ten years after I'd given up on it. The idea for the story came to me while she and I were grad students together. I'd been named for the moon, so moon mythology always fascinated me. At the time, I also felt the need to explore how loss could shape a family. The two themes haunted me until they came together as a story about a father and son losing the wife and mother of the family, and the dream of repairing the family through myth. At the time, I was getting my MFA in playwriting, so I conceived of it as a play with three acts. That structure is still there in the story, but it didn't quite work as a play. I tried turning it into a short story once before--and that story got me into Clarion West--but I wasn't happy with that either. I ended up putting the story in a drawer and forgetting about it. Until Wendy nagged me to get back to my own writing (instead of day job writing) and suggested I work on "Calling Down the Moon" again. Unfortunately, Wendy passed away before I sold this story, so I can only dedicate it to her in memory.

- Diana Sherman

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