A Melancholic Sun By Ana de Andrada
I have been selected for the mission to talk to the Sun. This is the most exciting news of my entire life. My husband, however, is less impressed.
“It’s a crazy idea,” he says when I tell him. “You’ll all burn.” He digs his nails into his armchair, drawn close to the fire although we’re in June.
“John.” I speak slowly, hoping that this time he’ll understand. “The technology is there. The ship is made of unburnable material, and so are our suits.”
John shakes his head. “It’s insane. I beg you not to go, Clara.”
I take both his hands in mine. “I have to, John. We must talk to the Sun. Don’t you see? If we don’t try this – if we don’t at least try – then nothing will be left. Everything we love, everything we are, will cease to exist.”
It’s one in the afternoon but the streets are dark. The low-voltage lamps throw timid light in my path. Small boys scurry about, emptying bins on the pavement and scavenging for anything that can be used as fuel. One of them asks me for change, and I give him the cold coins in my pocket.
I walk past the abandoned husks of houses. Those who could have moved to the tropics, where daylight is not quite so scarce. We considered it, but I needed to stay in London for the project. Also, John is afraid of flying.
On the high street, I try not to look at what remains of local shops. The jagged rays of broken windows framing the hollowed souls of the florist, the newsagent, the post office. Memories flicker – mothers pushing orange prams, old ladies in scarlet saris, young men’s yellow ties – and fade in the gloom through which shapes move darkly.
On the corner, in the building where Tesco Express used to be, is the candle factory. The candles are stacked at the front, all different colours and shapes, as if anyone cared. I throw a few into my basket before other shoppers can grab them. I remember that Georgie asked for a dog candle, but none are left; maybe some people still care after all. I forage and find a small candle in the shape of a cat. Cats don’t look like that anymore, round and plump, but so be it.
In the evening we sit at the dining room table, bathed in candlelight. Candles on the table, on the furniture, even on the floor. No risk of the carpet catching fire, as we burnt it for warmth last winter. Georgie nestles his cat candle in his spindly hands, and Leonard looks sceptical.
“What’s that?” asks Leonard.
Georgie’s face gleams in the cat candlelight. “It’s a cat.”
“Doesn’t look like any cat I’ve ever seen,” Leonard mumbles and looks at his plate, where he’s been pushing canned peas around with his fork.
We’re doing our best. Our cupboards are heaving with canned vegetables and soups, stockpiled when it became obvious that the darkness would last. In the back garden we grow plants that need little light. Three hours a day in the summer is all we get, and in the colder months, we keep them alive with artificial light for a few minutes a day. Electricity is so expensive now that we’re lucky to be able to afford it at all. As for meat, we buy it on the black market when we can get it.
“Real cats have ribs that poke out of their sides,” says Leonard, resting his chin on his hands. I notice his wrists are like dry twigs, and my heart darkens.
Seeing Georgie’s face, John changes the subject.
“Mummy is going to the Sun,” he says in a sing-song tone. “To translate, for the scientists. Isn’t that exciting?”
Georgie’s eyes glow, and Leonard leans forward.
“So it’s happening, then? That dazzles!” This is just slang; no child under ten has ever seen anything that dazzles.
“Yes boys,” I say. “I’ve been chosen to go to the Sun with the mission. Well, not actually to the sun, but as close as we can get. We’re going to try to communicate with him, to find out why he’s fading.”
“That’s shining amazing! Does that mean we’ll have normal sunlight again, like you read about in books?”
“I don’t know; we can’t promise anything. But it will be a start. If we can find out why the Sun’s light has been weakening over the years, perhaps we’ll be able to bring it back.”
My hands tremble as I turn the pages. I try to take in the words, although I don’t need to study, I already know it all. After all, I wrote the textbook. I am the world’s foremost expert in Starspeak, which is why I’ve been selected for the mission. But now, on my bed in my cabin, moving towards our star at a speed I cannot fathom, panic rises within me.
Estelle must sense it, because she says: “We’re all nervous, Doctor. We’ve been rehearsing this for years, and now it’s the real thing. We’re actually going to talk to him.”
“And what if he won’t talk to us? What if this whole adventure is a complete waste of time?”
“He will.” She wants to sound confident, but I hear the tremor in her voice.
I cover my eyes with the book. I haven’t been completely honest with my assistant. I am reasonably sure the Sun will talk to us. Stellar psychologists have been analysing his personality and behaviour for decades, and we know enough to sense his need for self-expression. No, what’s truly bothering me is something else. What if, after years and years of mastering every nuance of Starspeak grammar, syntax and pronunciation, when it comes to the crucial moment, I become tongue-tied, stutter, mix my tenses? Two other members of the team understand the language, Estelle and Dr. Roberts, and they will know. My shame will be known to the world. Worst of all, I will have failed humanity – failed to save us from extinction.
The time has come. We’re in the control room, our full gear on; suits, helmets, goggles. Outside the window, a whiteness that could blind us in a nanosecond. We’re in the presence of something fearsome; we’re in the presence of a god.
Twenty pairs of square black goggles stare at me as I prepare to make first contact. I lower my head, draw a deep breath and utter the most important greeting of my life.
“Lord Sun, we salute you. We come to you from Earth.”
At first, nothing. My breath is shallow, and under my suit sweat is breaking out on the back of my neck. Then, a miracle; vibrations begin to fill the room, to rebound on surfaces, and to settle into the shape of sounds. When I understand the star’s utterance, I fail to suppress a smile.
“What did he say, Clara?” Dr. Murphy, the mission’s head, hisses.
I pause, then say for the room to hear: “The Lord Sun tells us that he wishes to be called Sire.”
There is a silence. I hear some shifting and, from the back, a snigger.
“Fine, whatever he wants.” Dr. Murphy’s voice is strained. “Carry on, speak to him.”
“Sire,” I say. “Since you began fading, much suffering has come to our planet. Our crops no longer grow, our forests have shrivelled to almost nothing. We live in near darkness, and our children are growing up with brittle bones.”
There is no answer, so I continue.
“We have come to believe that your light is decreasing because you are unhappy. If we are right, please tell us what is ailing your spirit. We are only humans, but Sire, we will do all within our power to restore your happiness.”
The whiteness grows brighter for a second, then dims. The sounds begin again, deep, beautiful. I am filled with reverence, and I drop to my knees; when I look up, the others have done the same. I begin translating.
“Children. I never meant to inflict any harm. You must know that I love you.”
I hear gasps around the room.
“What you say is true. I feel a great sadness. I cannot resist it, and I am weakening with each passing moment.”
Behind me, someone has begun to cry.
“Sire, we are deeply sorry that you are suffering,” I say. “We beg you, tell us the cause of your sadness.”
“Children, for thousands of years I have given my love to your planet. I have made your trees grow, I have made your children strong, and for your elders, I have brought comfort in the colours of the dawn. But how am I rewarded for these centuries of love? I see you fighting for reasons I do not understand. I see you destroying the beauty I have brought to life. And you ask me why I am fading? What I see, children, is making me old before my time.”
By now everyone in the room is crying.
“But I must go, for I am very tired. Bless you, children. I am grateful that you have come.”
There are many things I want to say, but all I manage is: “Sire.”
The Earth has gone once around the Sun since we completed the mission. I have Georgie on my lap, and we’re leafing through his favourite picture book, which isn’t really a book but a dog-eared old holiday brochure. On the cover, palm trees recede into a fantastical shade of blue.
He stops on his favourite page, a picture of boats on a sparkling sea, and spreads his palm out. His fingers are a little fuller now, his forearm more like a healthy child’s. I’m reminded of the Christmas cards my grandparents used to send, the ones with the Baby Jesus holding out his arm in blessing.
The clock strikes twelve, warning me dusk is approaching. I stand to fetch candles, balancing Georgie on my side. But the light in our living room is different today. I look out the window; the Sun burns high, filling the sky with his warm embrace.