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The Servant Problem

Star Mother

Star Mother

From: The Servant Problem

A touching story of the most
enduring love in all eternity.

That night her son was the first star.

She stood motionless in the garden, one hand pressed against her heart,
watching him rise above the fields where he had played as a boy, where
he had worked as a young man; and she wondered whether he was thinking
of those fields now, whether he was thinking of her standing alone in
the April night with her memories; whether he was thinking of the
verandahed house behind her, with its empty rooms and silent halls, that
once upon a time had been his birthplace.

Higher still and higher he rose in the southern sky, and then, when he
had reached his zenith, he dropped swiftly down past the dark edge of
the Earth and disappeared from sight. A boy grown up too soon, riding
round and round the world on a celestial carousel, encased in an
airtight metal capsule in an airtight metal chariot ...

Why don't they leave the stars alone? she thought. Why don't they
leave the stars to God?

* * * * *

The general's second telegram came early the next morning: Explorer XII
doing splendidly. Expect to bring your son down sometime tomorrow.

She went about her work as usual, collecting the eggs and allocating
them in their cardboard boxes, then setting off in the station wagon on
her Tuesday morning run. She had expected a deluge of questions from her
customers. She was not disappointed. "Is Terry really way up there all
alone, Martha?" "Aren't you scared, Martha?" "I do hope they can get
him back down all right, Martha." She supposed it must have given them
quite a turn to have their egg woman change into a star mother

She hadn't expected the TV interview, though, and she would have avoided
it if it had been politely possible. But what could she do when the line
of cars and trucks pulled into the drive and the technicians got out and
started setting up their equipment in the backyard? What could she say
when the suave young man came up to her and said, "We want you to know
that we're all very proud of your boy up there, ma'am, and we hope
you'll do us the honor of answering a few questions."

Most of the questions concerned Terry, as was fitting. From the way the
suave young man asked them, though, she got the impression that he was
trying to prove that her son was just like any other average American
boy, and such just didn't happen to be the case. But whenever she opened
her mouth to mention, say, how he used to study till all hours of the
night, or how difficult it had been for him to make friends because of
his shyness, or the fact that he had never gone out for
football--whenever she started to mention any of these things, the suave
young man was in great haste to interrupt her and to twist her words, by
requestioning, into a different meaning altogether, till Terry's
behavior pattern seemed to coincide with the behavior pattern which the
suave young man apparently considered the norm, but which, if followed,
Martha was sure, would produce not young men bent on exploring space but
young men bent on exploring trivia.

A few of the questions concerned herself: Was Terry her only child?
("Yes.") What had happened to her husband? ("He was killed in the Korean
War.") What did she think of the new law granting star mothers top
priority on any and all information relating to their sons? ("I think
it's a fine law ... It's too bad they couldn't have shown similar
humanity toward the war mothers of World War II.")

* * * * *

It was late in the afternoon by the time the TV crew got everything
repacked into their cars and trucks and made their departure. Martha
fixed herself a light supper, then donned an old suede jacket of Terry's
and went out into the garden to wait for the sun to go down. According
to the time table the general had outlined in his first telegram,
Terry's first Tuesday night passage wasn't due to occur till 9:05. But
it seemed only right that she should be outside when the stars started
to come out. Presently they did, and she watched them wink on, one by
one, in the deepening darkness of the sky. She'd never been much of a
one for the stars; most of her life she'd been much too busy on Earth to
bother with things celestial. She could remember, when she was much
younger and Bill was courting her, looking up at the moon sometimes; and
once in a while, when a star fell, making a wish. But this was
different. It was different because now she had a personal interest in
the sky, a new affinity with its myriad inhabitants.

And how bright they became when you kept looking at them! They seemed to
come alive, almost, pulsing brilliantly down out of the blackness of the
night ... And they were different colors, too, she noticed with a start.
Some of them were blue and some were red, others were yellow ... green
... orange ...

It grew cold in the April garden and she could see her breath. There was
a strange crispness, a strange clarity about the night, that she had
never known before ... She glanced at her watch, was astonished to see
that the hands indicated two minutes after nine. Where had the time
gone? Tremulously she faced the southern horizon ... and saw her Terry
appear in his shining chariot, riding up the star-pebbled path of his
orbit, a star in his own right, dropping swiftly now, down, down, and
out of sight beyond the dark wheeling mass of the Earth ... She took a
deep, proud breath, realized that she was wildly waving her hand and let
it fall slowly to her side. Make a wish! she thought, like a little
girl, and she wished him pleasant dreams and a safe return and wrapped
the wish in all her love and cast it starward.

* * * * *

Sometime tomorrow, the general's telegram had said--

That meant sometime today!

She rose with the sun and fed the chickens, fixed and ate her breakfast,
collected the eggs and put them in their cardboard boxes, then started
out on her Wednesday morning run. "My land, Martha, I don't see how you
stand it with him way up there! Doesn't it get on your nerves?" ("Yes
... Yes, it does.") "Martha, when are they bringing him back down?"
("Today ... Today!") "It must be wonderful being a star mother,
Martha." ("Yes, it is--in a way.")

Wonderful ... and terrible.

If only he can last it out for a few more hours, she thought. If only
they can bring him down safe and sound. Then the vigil will be over, and
some other mother can take over the awesome responsibility of having a
son become a star--

If only ...

* * * * *

The general's third telegram arrived that afternoon: Regret to inform
you that meteorite impact on satellite hull severely damaged
capsule-detachment mechanism, making ejection impossible. Will make
every effort to find another means of accomplishing your son's return.


See the little boy playing beneath the maple tree, moving his tiny cars
up and down the tiny streets of his make-believe village; the little
boy, his fuzz of hair gold in the sunlight, his cherub-cheeks pink in
the summer wind--


Up the lane the blue-denimed young man walks, swinging his thin tanned
arms, his long legs making near-grownup strides over the sun-seared
grass; the sky blue and bright behind him, the song of cicada rising and
falling in the hazy September air--

Terry ...

--probably won't get a chance to write you again before take-off, but
don't worry, Ma. The Explorer XII is the greatest bird they ever
built. Nothing short of a direct meteorite hit can hurt it, and the odds
are a million to one ...

Why don't they leave the stars alone? Why don't they leave the stars to

* * * * *

The afternoon shadows lengthened on the lawn and the sun grew red and
swollen over the western hills. Martha fixed supper, tried to eat, and
couldn't. After a while, when the light began to fade, she slipped into
Terry's jacket and went outside.

Slowly the sky darkened and the stars began to appear. At length her
star appeared, but its swift passage blurred before her eyes. Tires
crunched on the gravel then, and headlights washed the darkness from the
drive. A car door slammed.

Martha did not move. Please God, she thought, let it be Terry, even
though she knew that it couldn't possibly be Terry. Footsteps sounded
behind her, paused. Someone coughed softly. She turned then--

"Good evening, ma'am."

She saw the circlet of stars on the gray epaulet; she saw the stern
handsome face; she saw the dark tired eyes. And she knew. Even before he
spoke again, she knew--

"The same meteorite that damaged the ejection mechanism, ma'am. It
penetrated the capsule, too. We didn't find out till just a while
ago--but there was nothing we could have done anyway ... Are you all
right, ma'am?"

"Yes. I'm all right."

"I wanted to express my regrets personally. I know how you must feel."

"It's all right."

"We will, of course, make every effort to bring back his ... remains ...
so that he can have a fitting burial on Earth."

"No," she said.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am?"

She raised her eyes to the patch of sky where her son had passed in his
shining metal sarcophagus. Sirius blossomed there, blue-white and
beautiful. She raised her eyes still higher--and beheld the vast
parterre of Orion with its central motif of vivid forget-me-nots, its
far-flung blooms of Betelguese and Rigel, of Bellatrix and Saiph ... And
higher yet--and there flamed the exquisite flower beds of Taurus and
Gemini, there burgeoned the riotous wreath of the Crab; there lay the
pulsing petals of the Pleiades ... And down the ecliptic garden path,
wafted by a stellar breeze, drifted the ocher rose of Mars ...

"No," she said again.

The general had raised his eyes, too; now, slowly, he lowered them. "I
think I understand, ma'am. And I'm glad that's the way you want it ...
The stars are beautiful tonight, aren't they."

"More beautiful than they've ever been," she said.

* * * * *

After the general had gone, she looked up once more at the vast and
variegated garden of the sky where her son lay buried, then she turned
and walked slowly back to the memoried house.

Previous: The Servant Problem

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