Dark they were, and Golden-Eyed
The rocket metal cooled in the meadow winds. Its lid gave a bulging pop. From its clock interior stepped a man, a woman, and three children. The other passengers whirled away across the Martian meadow, leaving the man alone among his family.
The man felt his hair flutter and the tissues of his body draw tight as if he were standing at the center of a vacuum. His wife, before him, seemed almost to whirl away in smoke. The children, small seeds, might at any instant be sown to all the Martian climes.
The children looked up at him, as people look to the sun to tell what times of their life it is. His face was cold.
“What’s wrong?” asked his wife.
“Let’s get back on the rocket.”
“Go back to the Earth?”
The wind blew as if so flake away their identities. At any moment the Martian air might draw his soul from him, as marrow comes from a white bone. He felt submerged in a chemical that could dissolve his intellect and burn away his past.
They looked at the Martian hills that time had worn with a crushing pressure of years. They saw to old cities, lost in their meadows, lying like children’s delicate bones among the blowing lakes of grass.
“Chin up, Harry,” said his wife. “It’s too late. We’ve come over sixty million miles.”
The children with their yellow hair hollered at the deep dome of Martian sky. There was no answer but the racing hiss of wind through the stiff grass.
He picked up the luggage in his cold hands. “Here we go,” He said – a man standing on the edge of a sea, ready to wade in and be drowned.
They walked into town.
Their names were Bittering – Harry and his wife Cora, Dan, Laura, and David. They built a small white cottage and ate good breakfasts there, but the fear was never gone. It lay with Mr. Bittering and Mrs. Bittering, a third unbidden partner at every midnight talk, at every dawn awakening.
“I feel like a salt crystal,” he said, “in a mountain stream, being washed away. We don’t belong here. We’re Earth people. This is Mars. It was meant for the Martians. For heaven’s sake, Cora, Lets buy tickets for home!”
But she only shook her head. “One day the atom bomb will fix the Earth. Then we’ll be safe here.”
“Safe and insane!”
“Nonsense!” Mr. Bittering looked out of the windows. “We’re clean, decent people.” He looked at his children. “All dead cities have some kind of ghosts in them. Memories, I mean.” He stared at the hills. “You see a staircase and you wonder what Martians looked like climbing it. You see Martian paintings and you wonder what the Imagination.” He stopped. “You haven’t been prowling up in those ruins, have you?”
“No, Papa,” David looked at his shoes.
‘See that you stay away from them. Pass the jam.”
“Just the same,” said little David, “I bet something happens.”
Something happened that afternoon.
Laura stumbled through the settlement, crying. She dashed blindly onto the porch.
“Mother, Father – war, Earth!” she sobbed. “A radio flash just came. Atom bombs hit New York! All the space rockets have blow up. No more rockets to Mars, ever!”
“Oh, Harry!” The mother held onto her husband and daughter.
“Are you sure, Laura?” asked the father quietly.
Laura wept. ‘We’re stranded on Mars, Forever and ever!”
For a long time there was only the sound of the wind in the late afternoon Alone, thought Bittering. Only a thousand of us here. No way back. No way. No way. Sweat pouted out from his face and his hands and his body; he was drenched in the hotness of his fear. He wanted to strike Laura, cried, “No, you’re lying! The rockets will come back!” Instead, he stroked Laura’s head against him and said, “The rockets will get through someday.”
“Father, what will we do?”
“Go about our business, of course. Raise crops and children. Wait. Keep things going until the war ends and the rockets come again.”
The two boys stepped out onto the porch.
“Children,” he said, sitting there, looking beyond them, “I’ve something to tell you.”
“We know,” they said.
He looked with dismay at their house. “Even the house. The wind’s done something to it. The air’s burned it. The fog at night. The boards, all warped out of shape. It’s not an Earthman’s house any more.”
“Oh, your imagination!”
He put on his coat and tie. “I’m going into town. We’ve got to do something now. I’ll be back.”
“Wait, Harry! His wife cried.
But he was gone.
In town on the shadowy step of the grocery store, the men sat with their hands on their knees, conversing with great leisure and ease.
Mr. Bittering wanted to fire a pistol in the air.
What are you doing, you fools! He thought. Sitting here! You’ve heard the news – we’re stranded on this planet. Well, move! Aren’t you frightened? Aren’t you afraid? What are you going to do?
“Hello, Harry,” said everyone.
“Look,” he said to them. “You did hear the news, the other day, didn’t you?”
They nodded and laughed. ‘Sure. Sure, Harry.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Do, Harry, do? What can we do?”
“Build a rocket, that’s what!”
“A rocket, Harry? To go back to all that trouble? Oh, Harry!”
“But you must want to go back. Have you noticed the peach blossoms, the onions, the grass?”
“Why, yes, Harry seems we did,” said one of the men.
“Doesn’t it scare you?”
“Can’t recall that it did much, Harry.”
Bittering wanted to cry, “You’ve got to work with me. If we stay here, we’ll all change. The air. Don’t you smell it? Something in the air. A Martian virus, may be; some seed, or a pollen. Listen to me!”
They stared at him.
“Sam,” he said to one of them.
“Will you help me build a rocket?”
“Harry, I got a whole load of metal and some blueprints. You want to work in my metal shop on a rocket you’re welcome. I’ll sell you that metal for five hundred dollars. You should be able to construct a right pretty rocket if you work alone, in about thirty years.”
Sam looked at him with quite good humor.
“Sam,” Bittering said, “Your eyes-“
“What about them, Harry?”
“Didn’t they used to be gray?”
“Well, now, I don’t remember.”
“They were, weren’t they?”
“Why do you ask, Harry?”
“Because now they’re kind of yellow-colored.”
“Is that so, Harry?” Sam said, casually.
“And you’re taller and thinner—“
“You might be right, Harry.”
‘Sam, you shouldn’t have yellow eyes.”
“Harry, what color of yes have you got?” Sam said.
“My eyes? They’re blue, of course.”
“Here you are, Harry.” Sam handed him a pocket mirror. “Take a look yourself.”
Mr. Bittering hesitated, and then raised the mirror to his face.
There were little, very dim flecks of new gold captured in the blue of his eyes.
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Sam a moment later. “You’ve broke my mirror.”
Harry Bittering moved into the metal shop and began to build the rocket. Men stood in the open door and talked and joked without raising their voices. Once in a while they gave him a hand on lifting something. But mostly they just idled and watched him with their yellowing eyes.
“It’s supper time, Harry,” they said.
His wife appeared with his supper in a wicker basket.
S”I won’t touch it,” he said. “I’ll eat only food from our deep-freeze. Food that came from the Earth. Nothing from our garden.”
His wife stood in a shop once, when I was twenty. I know metal. Once I get it Started, the others will help,” he said, not looking at her, lying out the blueprints.
“Harry, Harry,” she said , helplessly.
“We’ve got to get away, Cora. We’ve got to!”
Summer burned the canals dry. Summer moved like flame upon the meadows. In the empty Earth settlement, the painted houses flaked and peeled. Rubber tires upon which children had swung in back yards hung suspended like stopped clock pendulums in the blazing air.
At the metal shop, the rocket frame began to rust.
In the quiet autumn Mr. Bittering stood, very dark now, very golden-eyed, upon the slope above his villa, looking at the valley.
“It’s time to go back,” said Cora.
“Yes, but we’re not going,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing anymore.”
“Your books,” she said. “Your fine clothes.”
“The town’s empty. No one’s going back,” he said. “There’s no reason to, none at all.”
The daughter wove tapestries and the sons played songs on the ancient flutes and pipes, their laughter echoing in the marble villa.
Mr. Bittering gazed at the Earth settlement far away in the low valley. “Such odd, such ridiculous houses the Earth people built.”
“They didn’t know any better,” his wife mused. “Such ugly people. I’m glad they’ve gone.”
They both looked at each other, startled by all they had just finished saying. They laughed.
“Where did the go?” he wondered. He glanced at his wife. She was golden and slender as his daughter. She looked at him, and he seemed almost as young as their eldest son.
“I don’t know,” she said
“We’ll go back to town may be next year, or the year after, or the year after that,” he said, calmly. “Now- I’m warm. How about taking a swim?”
They turned their backs to the valley. Arm in arm they walked silently down a path of clear-running spring water.
Five years later a rocket fell out of the sky. It lay steaming in the valley. Men leaped out of it, shouting.
“We have won the war on the Earth! We’re here to rescue you! Hey!”
They found a flimsy rocket frame rusting in an empty shop.
The rocket men searched the hills. The captain established headquarters in an abandoned bar. His lieutenant came back to report.
“The town’s empty, but we found the native life in the hills, sir. Dark people. Yellow eyes. The Martians Very friendly. We talked a bit, not much. They learn English fast. I’m sure our relations will be most friendly with them, sir.”
“Dark, eh?” mused the captain. “How many?”
“Six eight hundred, I’d say, living in those marble ruins in the hills, sir. Tall, healthy Beautiful women.”
“Did they tell you what became of the men and women who built this Earth settlement, Lieutenant?”
“They hadn’t the foggiest notion of what happened to this town or its people.”
“Strange. You think those Martians killed them?”
“They look surprisingly peaceful. Chances are plague did this town in, sir.”
“Perhaps I suppose this is one of those mysteries we’ll never solve. One of those mysteries you read about.”