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The Heart of Cygnus

by Ljubo Popovich

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Amid the loud complaints of the children, the lieutenant complimented my cooking. Some of the kids played with their food, others just nibbled at it.

The rations were lean, but Lieutenant Everett devoured his portion as if he’d not had a good meal in weeks.

After a while, I stopped fretting about him and his staying so long in a rickety old house with so many rambunctious children.

Once the kids were in bed, we often walked in the garden. Eventually I showed him the tunnels where machines mined precious gems and melted down the ice trapped in the rock.

“I come down here sometimes because it’s cold,” I told him.

My voice echoed a dozen times as it scrambled down the rocky shafts into the hollow planet. The din of mining equipment rang out monotonously. “It’s also quieter down here,” the lieutenant said facetiously.

Perhaps it was because we were alone, in a place that seemed far away to me, but I felt like I could suddenly ask him anything. “You’ve stayed a good long while.”

“Getting tired of me, aren’t you?”

“No. You’re the best company I’ve had.” I could feel my cheeks reddening. “But do you think you’ll find the right child soon?”

He looked at me long and hard and sighed. “Maybe. But just this morning I was thinking I might not have to.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, worried.

His casual smile turned into a grin. I felt a vague stirring in my breast, an uncomfortable thickening of my blood.

Without a word he swept me up in his strong arms...

* * *

It was nice having an extra pair of hands. It was even nicer to feel the bursting swell of my heart, beating with renewed purpose.

When I told him I was pregnant, he flashed his ever-lingering smile. “Well, go figure!” he exclaimed, hugging me. Afterward, he was thoughtful.

“Looks like you won’t need to adopt one of the rascals after all.” I picked a daisy from the planter and fiddled with its petals, on the verge of tears. If only there were no war to think about, nothing to call him back into the silent violence of outer space...

He squinted into the distance. “Come away with me,” he said slowly.

My heart somersaulted. “But the children need me.”

“That’s just a story you tell yourself.”

I remained silent, letting one of the petals fall underfoot.

“A few of the kids are around eighteen, right?” he continued. “They could step up and take your place. You can’t go on working so hard and expect to bear a child.”

“But then they’d be stuck here forever, like me. The other caregiver had children.”

“And did she hang around here?” His eyes were fierce, demanding. “What do you expect?” he burst out suddenly. “The military is no picnic, you know. The older ones will find that out firsthand.”

I wallowed miserably in a deepening pool of doubt as he walked off in a huff. Looking over his shoulder, he said, “Think about it.”

Part of me had hoped from the beginning that the tiny oasis of my flowerbed, the overgrown house, and the endlessly tiresome children might stir something in him. Had I been foolish to think such a place might be a comfort, might offer a way out of the giant machine of war in which he was just a worn cog?

I sat on the wobbling tire swing for a while, weeping, until one of the children came running out of the house calling to me.

* * *

Day after day, the children sat in a circle as he recounted his adventures in distant star systems. He spoke animatedly about the wild planets he’d seen, the snowy mountain peaks and the endless green oceans, the types of paradises they often saw on video reports.

But after six months, my worst fear came true. I woke up to find him packing his clothes. A new, unreadable look had come over his face. I pleaded, cried, and for a while listened to his half-hearted explanations. There were duties to attend to, relaxation time was over.

“Remember, go straight to the breast of Cygnus,” I said, trembling. “That’s where your child will be.”

His mouth fell open an inch, and his eyes swelled slightly as unspoken thoughts played mysteriously behind them.

Perhaps I should have clutched him then, and let him feel how my heart was beating, but instead all the strength seemed to be sucked out of me.

In the end, we have to pick our battles... and I couldn’t leave the children.

* * *

Waiting for my time, I felt like an animal pacing its cave, smelling itself, running a wheel for food pellets, an insomniac who was always tired.

I wanted to gulp air and emerge. To feel the different brightness of different suns, to be lassoed by another life and then become entangled particles so that, even if whole light-years separated us, we’d still be connected. But I could feel his warmth becoming a memory with every passing day.

Drifting under my nostrils the scent of sickness surrounded and swarmed by clean and then souring sheets, splattered toilet seats, mold infiltrating through vents, dust fluttering through solid rays of sunlight, the claptrap of children, their laughter and clapping hands, their silly optimism...

Laboring with tired limbs, I waited for the pain to run through me: glistening tiles like sea-white ice, the old hands of the midwife, the indifferent sun through my window.

Dreams wafted through my mind like faceless ghosts, drifting gowns, to and fro. A blinding cluster of molten blurs massaged me, trembling, gleaming alien instruments like high-divers ready to plunge.

They’ve excavated something, tortured the channel, like a child that scoops out a handful of wedding cake with a hand...

Finally it was done. The soft little head barely covered the palm of my hand. His poor red cheeks and little mouth! I thought of the temporary home I had been. How harsh the environment was now for him.

And the waiting was so long and arduous. I couldn’t keep anything down, the food, the tears, and had to pause in climbing the stairs to breathe, and sat down to stop the spinning.

Maybe this whole time the home I was searching for was just my own body. But the home was empty, whatever hope once lived there had departed.

Still, I felt the little dull thump that brought me out of sleep, the kick of the thing with the heartbeat that foolishly refused to gasp like a stubborn child that holds its breath until it turns blue, and I had to give it what it wanted because I was sick with terror.

And the years chipped away at my flesh. Too many things might have happened. Too many battles might have claimed my lieutenant; there were so many hazardous planets...

I chose to believe he had died rather than think he could still be alive somewhere and not retrace his steps. No corner of the universe would be too far if he remembered our short time together and felt responsible for it... But the current of the war sweeps up innumerable people, whole generations, scattering seeds to the wind...

Cruisers came and went. A few strays were added to our ranks. News of the war thrilled me, but what were the chances that something so monstrous as the war had any possibility of ending?

* * *

All my memories are buried here, within one square kilometer. Sometimes I wonder if there’s any more consolation in that great void of stars above than this tiny plot of fertile ground.

Alas, age has slowly withered my body. When the eldest children saw my shaking hands, they took over the cleaning and cooking. All that was left for me was to tend my garden, which grew profusely as the years progressed.

With the greater part of my life behind me, I can better reflect upon the people I’ve known. The hundreds of children I took in and then gave up again have spread to many worlds.

New faces come and go every day. A lifelong orphan like myself named Lilian runs things now, but she has plenty of staff to help her. They have even built another boardinghouse and dug a second well.

When I marveled at the expansion, she told me, “It’s all because of you, Grace. I was just another foundling, but you taught me everything I know. Several of the orphans you raised adopted children of their own. Aren’t you proud so many of them went on to lead fruitful lives?”

It was hard to imagine the poor children I’d known, growing up out there, unimaginably distant.

“They all come back to sing your praises. They say, ‘It was Grace who first gave me a home.’”

“They don’t all come back,” I said. A poignant memory had arisen suddenly, but I smiled and thanked her for the great job she was doing.

“We all love you, Grace,” she said, “even the ones who are gone,” She patted my shoulder and strolled away.

I planted tall hedges at the border of the heat shield, bordering them with verbenas and a single fig tree knotted and thickening as the years progressed. Puttering about at the edge of my domain, I used to peer out at the immeasurable, uninhabited landscape beyond. Now there is only the grave of my baby, Everett, to keep me company in the evenings. On his stone I had inscribed a single verse, which I repeat every time I’m visited by the ache of loneliness:

When this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

Perhaps it’s foolish to sit and stare out at the empty sky. The ringing of Lilian’s bell over the sound of the children playing in the yard is the daily refrain that draws me out of my meditation and guides my steps back home.

Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich

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