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Fiction #124
(published March 6, 2003)
Press Conference in an Apple Grove
by Fritz Swanson

"You may have noticed," said the old and tired astronaut, "I have placed a great deal of value on my getting to the moon." He shifted his feet and gripped the podium with both hands. There was sweat all over his face. "It is true; I have elevated that goal far beyond the degree that is its due. I have done silly things, wrong things, sinful things, in the pursuit of that goal."

A woman in the front row threw an apple at the old astronaut, and it struck dully against his forehead. He paid the missile little mind, only nodding a bit in the woman's direction, smiling a half-smile.

"My Ex-Mother-in-Law, ladies and gentlemen." He smiled and raised a hand to indicate the woman who had thrown the apple. "Please, give a warm round of applause to a lady with immense patience and care."

The woman spat on the ground and stormed out of the apple grove.The astronaut was overcome by a starry wistfulness. Some of the people in the crowd turned away for a moment, though, watching the woman grow smaller and smaller. But then they turned back.

"Ahhh... the moon. Who can explain this passion? Who can explain the understanding I have for her, dear Luna, and she, I hope, for me? Arrow drawn, through the forest running, naked, I have hunted her. Alone and cold in high stony towers staring, with ground lenses and long bronze, I have peered at her. With mortar and stone stacked high and far across the Mandarin plain, fortified, I have called out to her. With lights and fires and bloody sacrifices, I have cried and cried and cried yet more to her. And still, forever it seems, she has turned away. Each month, again and again, her face turns away and darkens before my tearful salutations. Oh... the pain of it has laid me low. Low."

The astronaut, his hair white with age and experience, held out his hands, still gloved in the thick white of his space suit, and he held the palms upright in submission.

"Luna! I have hunted the white stag. I have killed the white whale. I have burned the bones and I have taken the lime and drawn my face on the hillside, etched it deep and on a scale that you must not ignore. I have inscribed the spider onto the floor of the desert and I have hidden secret heads in the soil of distant islands. I have killed my son for you! His blood collected in huge casks, dribbled each month on the ground to pledge my obedience to you. I have called these people here as my witnesses before the Earth and these fruit-filled trees. I love you, Luna! My Earthly wife has nothing to counter your cool and ivory embrace."

Another woman, younger than the last, got up tearfully then and fled from the crowd. The astronaut paused and his voice caught in his throat. It was his wife running, her thick legs turning out as she ran, her full thighs rising, her long black hair...

The crowd began to shift uneasily.

"You see..." the astronaut began. But then his wife turned back to look at him from the hilltop where she stood with her mother. She crossed her arms, wrapping up her strong, heaving bosom in an attempt to be perfectly still with reproach. The astronaut looked down at the podium and fiddled with a sheet of his speech for a second.

"You see, Luna," he started again, more forcefully, "you have driven them all away. You are everything they could hope to be, but better, bigger, stronger and more beautiful. I have blotted out the sun with my smoke for you. The thick scent of the succulent meat burning, rising. And now, here in this Apple Grove, at this late hour of the night, before these good people, I am finally ready to join you."

With that, the old astronaut picked up his helmet and locked it on. The golden face shield fell down into place, and he turned away from the podium toward the rocket ship. There, gleaming, pointed, strong, was the essence, the heart of all there had been in his life ever.

He stepped down from the platform and slowly, carefully, made his way through the trees to the ladder leaning against the white metal ship. Three-quarters of the way up he turned back and surveyed all the people, his mother and father, his sisters by the thousand, his brother, the corpse of his son laid out on a pyre about to be ignited by the explosion of the rocket's engine, his wife and her mother far off away but not yet gone, turned back watching.

When he caught sight of his wife, he paused for a moment because she was very beautiful. Then, slowly, he waved to her. She hesitated, glanced at her mother, then waved back.

On a video monitor in the cockpit of the little rocket ship was the face of the President.

"Good job, Scott. We're very proud of you and what you are doing for all of us back here on Earth. We'll miss you. Godspeed."

The President gave the old astronaut the thumbs up sign and smiled like a cowboy in a cigarette advertisement.

"I am happy," the astronaut said. Then, the fuel ignited, and he shot faster forward into the sky and out deep into space.

And so I say now, where else can any of us men go except to the moon? Where else do we belong? Who else in this universe could possibly want us?Hunters, hunters, careless hunters all.

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