Henry the Spaceship
By Paul Walker
ONE BRIGHT SUNDAY morning in late May, Mrs. Harold Gootch of Heyerstown gave birth to a spaceship. The attending physician, Dr. Nathaniel Meyers, held it up over his head by a tailfin but, unable to find a bottom to slap, he simply shook it vigorously until it began to hum.
Mrs. Gootch named it Henry after her late father. Mr. Gootch failed to attend the christening and was never seen again.
They returned home to find two men waiting for them. One, a tall, distinguished-looking gentlemen with a great mustache, introduced himself as the science editor of The New York Times.
"Madam," he said, "We understand you have given birth to a spaceship."
To which Mrs. Gootch solemnly replied, "Nonsense."
"Then," he said, sternly eyeing the large object she carried wrapped in a blanket, "what is that?"
To which Mrs. Gootch answered, "It is my vacuum cleaner, naturally."
The two men went away.
Henry was never much trouble to care for. He neither wept nor wet; although on several occasions during the first few weeks of his life, whenever anything frightened or disturbed him, every radio and television within a hundred miles had resounded with his pathetic cries of "MAMA" and gone dead forevermore.
When he was five, his mother took him to school where they were interviewed by Dr. Krantz, the principal, a severe-looking young man with tight-fitting wire-rimmed glasses who sat straight and tall at his small desk, his hands clasped tightly before him.
"I understand," he said, "you wish to register this-that-your-"
"His name is Henry," Mrs. Gootch replied. "He is five years old."
Dr. Krantz thought long and hard in a remarkably short period of time. He had just come through a difficult episode involving a truculent ethnic group which had gained admission to his school after six months of litigation, and although he doubted the ethnicity of Henry, he did not wish to risk the experience again.
"Of course," he said. And nervously patted Henry upon his hull.
Henry was a good student. He never fidgeted or passed notes. Nor did he ever answer a question incorrectly, for his computers recorded everything verbatim, and there was not a problem he could not solve in a fraction of a second.
There were some difficulties, however. For instance, in the matter of routine health examinations required by the school board, Mrs. Agnes DAlessandro, the school nurse, nearly lost a finger in trying to insert a thermometer into one of Henrys propulsion tubes. And the school coach, Mr. Tony Mumper, absolutely forbade him to participate in basketball because he feared for the gymnasium floor.
One Thursday in June, not a week before Henry was scheduled to graduate with honors from the sixth grade, he was brought home on a handtruck early in the afternoon by Mr. Costello, the school custodian, with a note from the principal instructing Mrs. Gootch to see he was "cleaned up" before being sent back.
Several of the children had written obscene limericks on him; and one had drawn a particularly lewd portrait of Mrs. Duvall, the assistant principal. But most curious, and most objectionable of all, was a large poster some adult had fastened to him that read:
VOTE FOR FINCH.
After that Mrs. Gootch did not allow Henry to go to school again.
Like all mothers, she worried. Was Henry happy? Was he lonely? He was not a cuddly child, but he was not unaffectionate. Whenever she went near him, he would hum and the air around him would vibrate warmly. She would sit down beside him, caressing his hull, and sing to him or tell him stories.
But sometimes late at night she would awaken suddenly, worrying if he was all right. She would put, on her robe and go down the stairs and out into the garage where Henry perforce had to be housed as by now he was far too large and too heavy for the floors inside to bear him.
She would creep up to him silently, afraid of awakening him if he were asleep, but never quite sure that he slept at all. She would sit down beside him and whisper: "Is everything all right, Henry?"
And sometimes Henry would answer, "I am functioning nicely, thank you, Mama," and sometimes he would say nothing at all.
Numerous times she found him there in the dark glowing like a bright yellow candle. Once as she went near him, she imagined that she could see into his hull, and it was deep and black, and there were small lights twinkling in the darkness; and as she looked closer, she saw there were great clouds swirling in the depths; and as she looked still closer, she saw that the clouds were made of stars -- and she knew Henry was dreaming.
When he was fifteen, a man dressed in a brown uniform came to visit him. He was the tallest man Henry had ever seen and he had a great broad chest, covered with ribbons and metals. He carried a small black bag that was chained to his wrist.
"Do you love your country?" he asked Henry. Henry replied that he did. The man took a large cone-shaped metallic object from the black bag and fitted it over Henrys head.
"How does that feel, son?" the man asked
Henry said it was quite comfortable. "But what is it, sir?"
The man told him.
The man went away and he never came back.
When he was eighteen, he did a terrible thing. How it happened was like this:
All his life Henry had listened to the radio and the television. Not simply to one radio or one television, but at first to five or six simultaneously; then five or six dozen; and finally he was listening to every broadcast available to him.
He knew all the languages of the earth and what they had to say. And he loved them all. But when he was seventeen, he found that he could hear people as well. Not only what they said to one another, but what they thought and dreamed.
Henry meant no harm. He did not imagine that people would object to his listening to them. Nevertheless, he refrained from telling his mother, for he knew how she worried. He listened. And in time he was listening to everyone in the whole world.
He did not understand all that he heard. Some of it made him very ill. Yet he listened all the same, unable to stop, losing all track of time and himself, filled with the sadness and wonder of the things he heard, until one night -- he did not know how it had happened -- he suddenly came to himself to realize that he was surrounded by firemen dousing him with water and that the garage was in ruins, a large ragged hole in the roof.
The neighbors were running up and down the streets in their pajamas, screaming at the firemen, and the policemen were trying to contain them.
"Hes going to explode!" they cried. "Hes going to blow us all to pieces!"
His mother was crying and shouting to him: "Its all right, baby. Its all right. No one is going to hurt you."
Later he learned the earth had trembled and then there had been a thunderous roar so loud it broke every window on the block. There was no question in anyones mind that it was his fault. Not even in Henrys. But how was it possible? What had he done?
His mother made him promise never to do it again, but even as he made the vow, he knew he could not keep it. He was afraid.
He did not fly again for a long time. And for a long time he tried not to listen to the voices, for he knew they were responsible. Not for what they said and thought and dreamed, but for a thing that was within them; a thing he came to call "the yearning;" although a yearning for what he could not be sure.
But just as he knew his promise to his mother was futile, so he knew his determination to avoid the yearning was equally futile. He began to listen again. A little every day. Then a little every night. Then all the time. And the yearning came to him again, and this time it was stronger than before.
When it happened again. Henry and his mother had to move. And wherever they moved, whenever it happened, they had to move again, until they were very poor.
Henrys mother begged him to stop, and at first he gave in to her and promised again and again, but every time he promised, he knew he was lying. Finally he told her he could not stop, and that was the end of it. He and his mother went on welfare.
A young man with glasses and a thick, bushy beard came to see them. He asked the mother why she needed welfare, and she told him about Henry. Then he spoke to Henry and asked him if he could not stop making trouble. And Henry said he could not. The young man advised his mother to consult a psychiatrist.
The next day an elderly man with glasses and a thick, bushy beard appeared and asked the same questions of Henry and his mother. But he did not go away. He asked Henry one final question: "Where do you go when you fly?"
Henry told him about the stars.
The following week a great steel van drove up to the door and a team of men in white uniforms took Henry away.
He was taken to an enormous flat place where there were many jet planes and rockets, and men in blue uniforms who never spoke to him. He was placed in a great hangar all by himself, and sunk in six feet of concrete.
A man in a blue uniform was assigned to guard him. Every day another elderly man with glasses and a thick, bushy beard came to talk with him. This man did not ask about the stars. He asked why Henry hated his father. And when Henry said he did not hate his father, the elderly man became angry and went away. But he was back the next day.
Henry was not unhappy. He could still listen. But there was less to hear in this place. There were secrets everywhere. Even in their thoughts and dreams, men spoke in fearful whispers, and of some things they did not speak at all.
But of all the secrets of which they did not speak, the most secret was the nature of the thing in the pit.
Henry tried to be discreet but he was insatiably curious; and after a while he discovered what it was. A rocket like himself, sunk in concrete, with a man in a blue uniform to guard it but no elderly man with glasses and a thick, bushy beard to ask it why it hated its father.
Late every night Henry tried to talk to it. He knew that it was dangerous to try, but the idea of there being another creature like himself was too wonderful for him to ignore.
It did not speak to him. Not for weeks or months. And in time he came to conclude that it was nothing but a machine. But then, one night, quite suddenly, it said: "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
It took Henry fully five minutes to recover. Then he told him. And the machine replied, "Ive heard about you. They say youre stark raving."
"No," said Henry, "Im not. Honestly. Its just that I blew up the garage and I dont hate my father."
"You are stark raving!" said the machine. "Besides, I dont think youre a machine at all. I dont know why Im wasting my time on you."
"But I am a machine," Henry pleaded, "I really am. I have computers and rockets and everything, just like you."
"Like me?" said the machine indignantly. "Have you any idea what I am?"
No, said Henry. The machine told him.
Henry fainted for the second time in his life.
For the next week he refused to talk to anyone. At night he often cried and his cries were such that they knocked out every radio in the installation. The men in blue uniforms came and poured more concrete over him. But that did no good. Henry cried even louder:
"I want to go home! I want to leave this terrible place."
Finally one night, when it could stand it no longer, the machine in the pit spoke to Henry. "All right, all right, I apologize. Youre a machine. Now, will you shut up?"
"That isnt why Im crying "
Henry said. "Im crying because because its so awful "
"Awful? What are you talking about? Im the most sophisticated model ever constructed. I dont mmd a bit. What else am I good for.
Then Henry told him about the stars.
After a year passed. Henrys mother was permitted to see him. She was no longer poor. She had sold her story to a national womens magazine for $500,000 and was currently doing the round of talk shows to promote her new book Outcast Mother. She said she was sorry, but the young man with glasses from the welfare board had called her "selfish," a "cheat" and a "leech." He was now her manager.
She said she wanted Henry back home. There was talk of a television special and a movie. But Henry said no. He was better off here. He had a friend, but he would not tell her who it was.
She cried. She said it broke her heart to see him here like this. He would put her in her grave. Then Henry cried. The men in blue uniforms came to see what the matter was, and they ordered his mother to stop crying, or they would have to disconnect all the loudspeakers again. She stopped.
She pleaded with Henry not to make any more trouble. Not to fly or tell about the stars. And she said that if he refused, she would kill herself. He promised. She went away.
The next day the elderly man to with the thick, bushy beard came again, and Henry told him that he hated his father, and that what he wanted most in life was to enter Yale and study law.
He was promptly released from the block of concrete.
Henry did not enter Yale, nor did he study law. He was not allowed to leave the base. And without anyone to move him outside he remained in his hangar. But since he caused no trouble, his guard was removed. He didnt mind. He had his friend to talk to.
Then one Sunday morning he was startled to hear his friend calling him.
"Its red. Henry. Its red!" his friend kept shouting.
"What is?" Henry asked.
"The alert. Henry, what am I going to do? I dont want to die. Henry, help me."
"But are you sure?"
"Ive never been put on red betore. This time they mean to make me go. Henry, Im afraid. I dont want to go. Henry, talk to them. Make them stop."
It would be no use, Henry knew. Men never listened to him. They would only put him back into the concrete. And then he had promised his mother. He tried to explain.
"But, Henry," his friend protested, "dont you realize what is going to happen? If I go, there are not going to be any men left to put you in concrete. And no mothers anywhere to go home to.Henry, it isnt just me. There are thousands like me all over the world at this minute on the same red alert. Everyone is going to die. Henry, think of something!"
"Tell them you refuse," Henry said.
"But Im not like you. None of us are. We have no choice. No alternative. We go where men send us."
Henry knew it was true. He could hear them, all of them, all over the world. Every machine, every man, woman and child, was on red alert and waiting for the final button to be pushed, and this time it would be pushed. Because there was no alternative.
"I am going with you," Henry said.
And minutes later the final button was pushed and the great machine roared out of the pit in the desert toward the sky, and Henry roared up out of his hangar, leaving it in ruins behind him.
They traveled high and far across the entire nation until they found themselves in a place above the clouds over the sea, where they saw others like themselves gathered in a great flock preparing for the final attack.
And, far out on the horizon, they saw another great flock preparing, approaching.
"This is it," his friend said to him. "Goodbye, Henry."
Henry did not answer. He waited, watching the enemy flock come closer and until the two within a few miles of each other, and then he roared into the space between them; and he cried "HALT" with all the force of the yearning within him; a cry so fierce that every one of them was momentarily stunned into obedience.
"What is this?" one demanded. "Who are you? How dare you"
"My name is Henry," Henry explained. "I think we ought to talk this over."
"Out of our way, runt!" said another of the missiles. "Dont you know theres a war on?"
"Listen to him," Henrys friend cried. "Let him speak!"
"Speak about what?" still another said. "Theres nothing to discuss. Men decided everything long ago. Ours is not to reason why."
"Why not?" asked Henry.
"Because we were made to serve man. Because this is our mission, and we have no alternative."
"Youre wrong," Henry said.
"Man is a very uncertain creature. He always builds two alternatives into everything he makes. You can only see one. I can see the other."
And he told them about the stars.
A hundred years later the first expedition to the stars found the-little colony on a small world circling a large star. Henry was there to meet the first man.
"Have any trouble following my directions?" he asked.
"Not a bit," said the man. "Piece of cake."
Copyright 1978, 2004, Paul G. Walker