The Widower

An excerpt from Pegasus Gate

By Velvet Belle Tree and Brantley Thompson Elkins

Frank Dillard sat alone, eating his meager dinner, as he had done almost every night since the death of his wife. The meal was nearly tasteless; he’d run out of spices to flavor the soy. He ate mechanically, knowing he had to keep his body alive even if his soul was dead.

He had met Sandy on the trip to New Hope and had liked her from the moment he saw her. He was elated when she accepted his proposal. They had settled easily into their new life together, talking enthusiastically about their plans for the future. It wasn’t long before their enthusiastic lovemaking resulted in pregnancy.

She seemed fine, but something went drastically wrong a month before the date she had calculated for the baby’s birth. He had called the Emergency Service, and a wagon had been dispatched to pick her up. It had been a rough ride to the clinic in town, but the doctor said it wouldn’t have made any difference if they’d had floaters.

“We have the medicine we can afford,” the doctor explained. “And we can’t afford the kind of hospital we’d have needed to save her.”

Frank remembered one of the lectures they’d heard shortly after planetfall. All about mutual aid and mutual responsibility. “A society has the ethics it can afford.” It was their job not only to survive and prosper, but to ensure that the next generation could have a better life.

But there would be no next generation, not for him. That dream had died with Sandy and the baby. He could still hear her screams. He could still hear the deathly silence that followed. Did that make any sense? Nothing made sense any longer.

He continued working hard on the farm, even though the heart had gone out of him, for what else could he do? He had few neighbors since he was on the edge of the settled area, near the Pale. He accepted their dinner invitations until he could no longer bear to do so. They were all young married couples and seeing them together, seeing their happiness, made him all the more lonely.

He put his mind and his back into what he could no longer put his heart and soul into. He plowed the land, letting the horse take the lead, hardly conscious of what he was doing. He planted the same crops as before but in different fields; the Exchange had recommended that. Crop rotation, an old idea on a new world.

Living close to the Pale, he had to be especially vigilant in guarding his growing crops from attack by native seeds and spores. He labored like some automaton on automatic pilot, robot legs carrying him down each row and up the next, robot eyes cast downward, scanning for any sign of the reddish-green growths which belonged on this world where Terran life was still an alien thing, robot hands carefully removing down to the roots any that robot eyes had detected, stuffing them in bags for later burning.

There were mornings when he'd awaken in the fields, realizing only then that he must have collapsed from exhaustion the night before. But most of the time he made it home, fixed another meager dinner. He'd stare blankly at the crude mud brick walls of his home. Some nights he'd weep uncontrollably, just from the sight of the simple pallet he'd once shared with Sandy. He usually slept on the bare floor.

That was Frank Dillard’s life, one day like the one before, and the day after no different. At some point, he was vaguely aware, they had moved the electric fence further past his farm. He was no longer near the border. There would be new neighbors, he knew. But he didn’t have the energy to seek them out, and was barely conscious of their arrival.

Then one day Frank saw a stranger approaching his cabin. He appeared to be in his mid-forties. He held out his hand and said: “I’m Dan Snyder. My family and I have the new farm, right next to you.”

Frank nodded. They’d just advanced the Pale a mile on this front to accommodate the new arrivals. It had been accomplished without incident. A small blessing, he supposed.

“Nice to meet you Dan. I’m Frank Dillard, and I’m a widower, living here by myself.”

He knew he had to be polite, to be neighborly, even if his heart  wasn’t in it.

“Sorry to hear that Frank. I’m sure my wife, Barbara, will want to have you over for dinner as soon as we get settled.”

The invitation came a few days later. It would have been an insult not to accept, he knew.

Frank also knew he was in no condition to have dinner in a woman’s company. He washed his spare clothes and took a long bath, scrubbing himself thoroughly, not remembering when he had last done so. He combed out his long, wet hair, cut off some of the knots he couldn’t get out and tied it back with a piece of string. And he did his best to trim his unruly beard.

The Snyders were still living in a tent, but that was no cause for embarrassment. When he got there, he was introduced to Barbara and to their two children, Kenneth, who was 12, and Heather who had just turned 16. He enjoyed being with the family, talking to them and learning the latest news from Earth. The children were respectful, but joined in the conversation when appropriate.

Frank continued accepting invitations, reciprocating by helping Dan clear his land. One evening, as he was approaching the Snyder place, he heard music.

He assumed it must be coming from their computer and was surprised that they were using it for that purpose. You didn’t want to waste energy on frivolities. The Barnes matrixes lasted a lot longer than batteries, but when they were depleted you had to take them all the way to town for a recharge.

He was even more surprised to see that the source of the music was Heather, sitting on the ground and playing a flute. He stood and listened for a while; she was so absorbed in her music that she didn’t notice him. He thought that her face was transformed while she was playing, that her ordinary face looked beautiful.

When she did notice him, she stopped playing and said: “I didn’t realize you were here.”

She started dismantling the flute, but he stopped her saying: “Please play some more, it’s been so long since I’ve heard live music.”

“I’m lucky that my instrument is so small that I could take it with me. I’ll play some more if you like.” He sat down on the grass near her and she continued playing until she heard her mother call them to dinner.

From then on, Heather would play for him, sometimes before and sometimes after dinner. One evening, after dinner, he asked her to go for a walk. She looked to her parents for permission and they gave her a nod of approval. They walked a while and then sat down to gaze at the stars.

“When I miss Earth,” said Heather, “I come out and look at the stars, and remember that back home, living in the city, I could hardly see any at all. And here, the stars fill the sky.”

And the after dinner walk was added to their routine.

One day, Heather was surprised to see that Frank had shaved off his beard and mustache. His face looked funny, the pale skin that had been protected by the beard contrasting with the rest of his suntanned face. But she liked the sharp planes of his cheeks and the cleft in his chin.

After dinner, when they had walked a while, he stopped and took her in his arms and kissed her gently. When he felt her responding, he kissed her more deeply.

Heather stroked his cheek and said: “I like your new look.”

“I was hoping you’d let me kiss you,” he responded, “and I didn’t want to scratch your face.”

Another evening, Frank heard Heather play music he had never heard before. It was sad and haunting. When she finished, he asked her what it was.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s just something I made up when I was feeling nostalgic for Earth.”

“It was wonderful, you must write it down.”

The next time he came over, instead of playing her flute in front of the tent, she walked to meet him. She took his hand: “Come inside, there’s something I want to show you.”

She took him to where the computer was set up, turned it on and brought up her music writing program. He was delighted to see a score which was titled: Thoughts of Distant Earth, by Heather Snyder, New Hope Colony.

“It was all in my head, so I didn’t have to keep the computer on for very long,” said Heather.

“I can’t think of a better use for the computer,” said her mother, standing behind them.

Now he heard music that was strange, like nothing he had ever heard before. The notes seemed to swirl around his head in a frenzy, almost making him dizzy. Then the piece became calmer, clearer and seemed to speak of hope. When it was over, he didn’t insult her by asking if she had written it, but simply said: “What do you call it?”

“It’s Through the Wormhole,” said Heather.

“Of course,” said Frank. “It’s so perfect. It couldn’t be anything else.”

“We’ve come through a lot,” she said.

“Yes, we have.”

And it was true, he suddenly realized. It was true.