Over the Moon

by Sheila Murdock

part 1 of 2


Prologue

Above the meadow, a gibbous moon floated in the daytime sky; its spectral face showed milky against the blueness. All was quiet except for the cow lowing in the grass and a solitary woman going about her chores. Runt the dog slept nearby, undisturbed by the methodic noise of Mary’s dasher and rhyme.

Heigh-diddle-daddle-the-puss-and-the-paddle, heigh-diddle-daddle-the-puss-and-the-paddle...”

Thump went the dasher, synchronized to each word, as it met the bottom of the cream-filled churn. Churning butter was tedious work for a single soul. Only another pair of hands, intonement, or song made the long process easier and more bearable.

Mary’s hands stayed in steady rhythm with her voice. She gave no indication of minding the monotonous movements. Purpose drove the slender instrument into the crock as surely as it drove her to wield it.

Since her father’s burial, Mary had taken pains to tidy her home in anticipation of a visit by the widower from the neighboring farm. The widower-farmer was bound to be impressed by her hospitality and housekeeping skill.

The cottage was spotless, and after tasting her freshly baked bread and creamy butter, she was sure a proposal would be forthcoming. Preferably a rather quick proposal. A young woman living alone in the countryside made an easy target for the pious village gossips and the numerous dangers that dusk, the harbinger of darker evils, brought with it.

Now, only a sliver of the sun peeked over the hill that separated vast farmland from her meadow. If her housekeeping and cooking weren’t incentive enough, what farmer could resist plowing the verdant soil for a harvest that would add to the till?

A loud boom rent the air to interrupt Mary’s musings. Runt the dog awoke yipping and whining. The dasher bobbed uncontrollably when Mary, letting go, brought her palms up to cover her ears. Her eyes scanned the open space ahead searching for the origin of the deep resonant sound. It was not like any thunder she had ever heard.

Frightened, she called for her cow.

Sudden winds blew in from all directions bringing foliage and static with them. A bank of dense, white clouds tumbled in, stopping at the outskirts of the meadow. Tiny sparks popped in the air surrounding the cow’s body.

Agitated, it bucked and leapt in random patterns. It sprinted back and forth bringing up stalks and flowers in its wake. An unusual droning began and emanated from the direction of the cloud bank. Mary stopped calling to her cow as the din increased in volume. Fear silenced her.

Runt’s yips were considerably louder now, like the yammering of an ailing grandmother. The poor animal was terrified, and its fur stood on end. The entire meadow vibrated with the noise.

In the cottage, pots and ladles rattled on their pegs, ready to dislodge from the wall. Mary turned to the cottage’s doorway and found her table blocking the entrance. The table had scraped and jigged its way to the door. A single placesetting — plate, spoon and knife — danced across the square surface.

Shortly, the deafening hum created a vibration strong enough to paralyze Mary where she stood outside of her home. The hum was everywhere: in the air, in the ground, in her body. All the creatures in the vicinity of the meadow were statue-still, except for the cow.

There were no tell-tale signs of anything unusual having occurred in Mary’s valley by nightfall. The droning was gone; the cloud bank had disappeared as quickly as it had tumbled in; the winds had dwindled to a breeze, and the butter had been churned in a matter of minutes.

The young woman told no one of what she experienced that dusk of the gibbous moon until much later. A tale such as hers would risk suspicion of insanity, witchcraft or worse. Suspicion was enough impetus for persecution in a time of superstitious beliefs, and she knew to keep her secret close.

Assuredly, after visiting Mary in her neat home and partaking of her cooking, the widower-farmer proposed. They wed and Mary moved to the farm with her milch cow in tow. As a consideration for his new wife, the farmer left the meadow untouched. The couple soon had many children. Years passed uneventful, but time hadn’t faded the memory. It was kept alive when one of Mary’s descendants took his turn at the dasher.

* * *

“Hi, Professor! We won’t open for another half-hour, ” Sophie Tuffet called out, recognizing the newcomer to Amoeba Pizza.

She exited the ladies’ room when hearing the whoosh of the heavy front door open and the restaurant’s air-conditioner adjust its circulation. The disheveled older man, dressed in misbuttoned pajama top and day-old trousers, shuffled toward the front counter in slipper-shod feet. Tripping on a hump made by the carpet runner, the professor grabbed the counter to correct his footing.

“Hey, is everything okay?” Sophie asked.

The professor’s eyebrows came together. “Of course everything’s ‘okay’. I am here to buy a pizza. Is there a problem?” Small spasms twitched around his eyes. He looked under-slept. Wound.

Sophie’s long-time mentor patted his clothing. His searching hands moved rapidly between his breast pocket and his trousers. The professor finally slapped a twenty-dollar bill down on the counter.

“This should be enough. I want a large cheese pizza with five times the cheese, please.”

Before Sophie could respond with, “You’re kidding, right?” a new voice came from the kitchen’s swinging door. Ven, the pizza cook stood there.

“Ven, put that carving knife down. It’s only the professor. He’s here for a pizza.”

“With extra, extra cheese. Five times the cheese, please.” A fine sheen of perspiration covered the professor’s forehead, from his salt and pepper hairline to his sable-colored eyebrows. Tiny droplets of moisture also dotted the philtrum nestled under his nose. “Can you get it made right away? I’m very hungry,” implored the older man. He was oblivious to anything else.

“A pie with five times the cheese? Yeah, I can get a thin crust baked in about five minutes. The oven’s been smokin’ since we got here, so they’re burning hot.”

“Good, good! Nice and hot pizza. Please don’t let me keep you, Ven.” The professor pulled a wad of napkins from the dispenser. The wad served to sponge his corrugated brow.

Ven and Sophie exchanged a questioning look. She shrugged her shoulders, perplexed, and motioned for Ven to get back into the kitchen hoping to waylay any more impatient outbursts from their first customer.

“I hope that oven is as hot as he says. I’ve had this craving for quite a long time.”

“Professor, are you still on that diet the doctor put you on? If I remember right, he prescribed some pills and asked that you go to a nutritionist. You’re supposed to cut the cheese because of your high cholesterol, right?”

“Well, yes...” The professor paused for a moment wondering if his young friend was making a crude, awful pun. Her straight face indicated her seriousness.

“Yes, I have been taking cholesterol-lowering medication, Sophie. But that nutritionist told me to go soy. Can you believe that?! Give up milk... and butter... and-”

“And cheese,” Sophie finished for him. “Professor, I think you had better think twice about that pizza.”

“That’s ridiculous! Dairy-free, permanently, is too much to expect. I don’t have to think twice about anything. I did what that nutritionist advised. I’ve had no milk, cream, butter, or cheese for the last two months.”

“I don’t think the nutritionist, or the doctor for that matter, meant for you to take a temporary break, Prof.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ve given up the liquids; those were easy. I even visited a production dairy to assist in my weaning process. I wouldn’t recommend taking a tour, by the way. Appalling, you know. The odor was overpowering, and the quality of the Bovinae’s living conditions is comparable to living in a shanty town for farm animals. It would churn anyone’s stomach. Exposure to the extraction process is supposed to be better than sudden withdrawal, cold turkey; in my case, cold cow. The extraction of milk won’t be easy to forget, so there is nothing to worry about. I’m in control.”

“What about the cheese pizza?” Sophie pressed.

Slam went the professor’s hand on top of the counter again. Sophie hadn’t done a good job of curtailing his impatience.

“Enough! I’m a paying customer, for gad’s sake, and all I want is my pizza! Besides, just one pizza isn’t going to hurt. I can always stop again.”

“Whoa... okay, you’ll get your pizza... excuse me for caring.”

Udder Space
At that moment, Ven sauntered in carrying a large thin-crust pie ladened with mozzarella. Why bother with the crust, Sophie thought, staring at the steaming fromage. The pie resembled the over-baked and uneven surface of Mercury. It was dotted with brown circles where the cheese had exploded from the pressure of the oven’s heat, only to heal over as it finished baking. Ven shook basil and oregano on the cheese before firing it up. The aroma of the herbs was delicious.

“Here’s your artery-clogger, Professor.”

“That’s not funny, Ven.” She didn’t share the other employee’s insensitivity. She knew that her old friend’s cholesterol levels were in the high 200’s.

“It’s okay, Ven. Sophie has always been a little on the ‘too serious’ side,” explained the professor. “Don’t let her disagreeable attitude bother you.”

Ven grinned. He said he was used to the harpy he worked with.

“Oh wait, I forgot to slice it.” The younger man grabbed a long, steel pizza slicer and pressed down on the blade-length handle, cutting uniform slices across the pie, or at least trying to. His thin tattooed forearms tensed with effort.

“I don’t understand it. I sharpened the slicer last night.”

Finally, a familiar crunch sounded when thin steel hit aluminum. “There we go!”

Ven walked back into the kitchen after finishing his task. “That sure is a lot of cheese, Professor. Eat up!” he threw over his shoulder before the door swung shut behind him.

“Professor, don’t you want to sit down and eat? The pizza looks pretty hot. Let me get you a plate.”

“No, here is fine. All I need are more napkins and this delicious food.”

He wolfed down the first slice and soon went for another. The napkins were forgotten.

Remembering his manners, the professor apologized: “Oh sorry, dear, would you like a piece?” There was a bit of melted mozzarella stuck to his upper jowl. He pinched it off and reeled in the sagging thread with his tongue. Sophie shook her head ‘no’. His tongue play bordered on disgusting.

The professor smiled pleasantly at her now that his hunger was appeased. “You know, Sophie my girl, I’ve been following recent news reports carefully and reading medical journals since I started taking my medication,” said the professor, between bites. “Have you been reading about the extraordinary increase in deaths around the globe, particularly the cases in France and Wisconsin?”

She shook her head ‘no’, again.

“There are also message boards and online forums with people theorizing over the causes of death... very interesting to read... you ought to take a look. Several posters attribute the deaths to severe allergic reactions to pesticides or certain genetically modified foods. There might be something in that.

“So far, the government seems to be dodging any connections. They don’t want to stir up trouble with the food industry. Out of curiosity, I’ve tried contacting a few people of authority, but none have responded to my queries and messages.”

“Is that so?”

Sophie watched the professor take another slice from the pan. How many slices had he already eaten? She lost count.

He took care scraping off the mozzarella from the aluminum and globbed it onto the middle of the slice. His fingers were slick with grease and tomato sauce. The professor’s eyes fluttered close in appreciation.

“This is very good. I like what that young man does to the cheese. The extra basil truly makes a difference.”

“Yes, he’s good at that.”

Sophie turned her head to avoid directly watching the older man consume his latest wedge. His tongue darted in and out to get another long line of cheese into his mouth.

“Well, as I was saying...”

“Let’s sit down,” suggested Sophie. He agreed and made to follow the petite young woman to a table, but a low growling noise scratched upward from his throat before he took a step. An acidic taste left a stinging sensation in his mouth. He hugged the pizza pan close like a life preserver.

Sophie spun around at the sound of an aluminum pan clattering to the floor.

“Professor!” The man was grabbing at his throat. It would have looked like the universal sign of choking, but his jowls had swelled so large that it looked like the universal sign for kneading bread dough instead. Crumpling to the floor, the professor fought for breath.

“Ven! Help!” She watched for her co-worker to come through the swinging door. “Quick, call 9-1-1!”

Ven picked up the phone’s receiver chanting, “Oh damn oh damn...” His fingers fumbled with the telephone as he held onto a paring knife used for cutting pepperoni.

Emergencies like this one rarely happened in the restaurant.

Meanwhile, Sophie’s old mentor labored to breathe. Growling continued to come from his engorged throat. Sophie noticed that the twitch around his eyes was gone, but his jowls developed a smattering of angry raised hives.

“Professor, just relax. The ambulance should be here soon. Can you speak? Tell me what’s wrong.”

A staccato of phlegm rumbled in the prone man’s chest in answer. Glassy eyes bulged with every breath taken in, and then sank deep with an escaping wheeze.

“Too late...” was the gurgled response from the unrecognizable face. The hives had spread to encompass his entire face.

“No, Professor, the ambulance is almost here. Hang in there!” Tears streamed down Sophie’s face at the thought of losing her dear friend.

Eyes like a chihuahua’s, the old astronomer stared out through the windows. His arm rose with effort, pointing toward the outdoors.

Sophie turned her head to where he pointed. There was a billboard and power lines criss-crossed the view outside the restaurant. A fast moving object zipped beyond the window frame before Sophie could make out what it was. She dismissed it as a small plane.

“Just relax,” she crooned.

The professor swallowed and spoke. “The N... is si-lent. Silent... N.” His eyes rolled back into his head revealing the tiny-veined whites. Curd-like fluid trickled out of one nostril and down the side of his slacked mouth.

“N-N... what? Professor, what N?”

Sophie jostled the prone form on the floor.

“Can you hear me?! Open your eyes!” The professor’s jowls rippled.

Desperation coursed through her fingers. She patted his cheek. No response. Her hand tried again, this time harder, and then harder still. She thought to slap him awake.

“Sophie, I called the cops. They said they’d send an ambulance.” Ven leaned his torso over the counter to speak to her. “What’s wrong with the professor? He doesn’t look so good.”

Ven glanced over at the wall clock. “Sophie, we’ll be opening soon. Do you think we can... um... move him over. Maybe drag him — I mean gently pull him away — from the front counter so the lunch customers don’t get scared?”

Failing to find a pulse at the professor’s neck, Sophie didn’t bother showing her disgust over Ven’s question. Instead, she put her cheek near the suffering man’s mouth and nose for the telltale signs of life.

“Get down here and help me! We need to do CPR. There’s no pulse and I can’t feel his breath.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Sheila Murdock
Illustrations © 2008 by Joseph Howse

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