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From the front porch, Pa could see the stagecoach charging toward the farmhouse. He was getting out of his rocking chair when I opened the screened door. He walked to the front steps and spat, then looked over our orchard and back in the direction of the approaching coach. The sun hovered straight over our heads.
A few moments later, I followed Pa into the yard. An old man on top of a stagecoach yelled, “Whoa!” and brought his team to a halt. Beside him sat a man, but he was much smaller than the older one. The little person nodded and waved while the the old man carefully climbed down and shook my father's hand.
He had crooked teeth. One was broken and his face was covered in wrinkles. His hair was tangled strands of black and gray, hanging over his ears and eyes. His nose was flat and large for his face and his eyes were too far apart. He wore an unbuttoned black coat with tails and a ruffled shirt. I crossed my arms as he began, “Why, hello to you! Both of you,” in a thick rasp that made me think his throat was lined with sandpaper. He continued, “I am Fernando Ramos, one of the greatest inventors in all the world.” Fernando extended his arms to the sky and twisted back and forth. Pa didn't respond for a moment, and Fernando finally said, “And, how are you today, my good sir?”
“I'm fine,” Pa said. “How can I help you?” Pa's hands were on his hips. He had a such wad of chewing tobacco under his lip that his mouth looked like it might spring a leak.
“No, no,” said Fernando. “We are here to help you. Are we not, Sampson?” The old man looked over his shoulder at the little person on top of his stagecoach. Sampson stood and cried, “We are here to help!” Fernando turned and made a slight bow.
Pa nodded to himself and looked at me. I moved closer to him and was within arm's reach, when I looked at the horses at the front of Fernando's stagecoach. They were tan with long legs and long silky manes.
When Fernando looked at me, he began to dust off his sleeves. Then he made an extravagant show of his empty hands. He clapped twice and produced a flower from the sleeve of his black jacket. He handed it to me and began, “For you, my little one.” It wasn't a real flower. It was made of some kind of fabric. It made me like him even less because I didn't like magic.
As I twisted the flower between my fingers, I looked at our orchard while Pa and the magician spoke. Our hands—the few that we had—were busy. They were picking apples, climbing the trees, sometimes using ladders and sometimes not. They filled their baskets and produced bushels. After some time, Fernando repeated that he was an inventor. Pa paused for a moment, spat again, and said, “I'm not sure I have any need for an inventor.”
“But of course you do!” cried Fernando as he laughed. The aged man bowed, again. “I invented the Sun, so that when I say there should be light there is. More sun for your crop, for example. More apples. What is your present yield, my friend?” Pa looked the old man over and began to explain things I'd only heard him discuss with other men in town. Fernando was smiling in an inexplicably jovial way. He turned and said, “Will there be light, Sampson?” I also didn't like the way Fernando lingered on the letter 's' until he sounded serpentine. The little person on the stagecoach jumped to his feet and yelled, “There will be light, Fernando!” He stood on the seat and motioned over the orchard. When I asked my mother about the short man, she referred to him as a dwarf. I'd never seen anyone like him.
Fernando hobbled toward my father and grabbed him by the shoulder. He pointed up to the sky. Pa looked at the strange man, and he looked at the hand on his shoulder. Fernando grabbed his face and pointed his gaze upward. “This way!” he cried. “I made this! This Sun! And in the night! The stars. They are all mine.”
Pa looked at Fernando and nodded seriously.
“Yes!” Fernando said as he backed away from Pa, “and you may have one. I have others. But, bear in mind, it is no small thing to conjure a sun. But your take could double. Triple!” Fernando backed away, shaking his head. As he wagged his forefinger, he continued, “But for you, my friends, all things are possible.” Fernando made eye contact with me and nodded.
I'd never thought of where the Sun had come from. I might have thought that it had always been there. Shielding my eyes, I glanced up. Fernando rushed toward me. He looked at me and began, “Never stare at my invention. You will go blind!” I looked over at Pa and noticed that he was blocking the sunlight from his face and nodding as well. I stepped away from Fernando then and closer to my father. The old man stepped toward Pa then and motioned to the rear of his stagecoach. He said, “Allow me to give you a glimpse of that which could provide sunlight at night and on cloudy days. Imagine a sun at your command.”
Pa walked with the old man.
“My friend,” Fernando explained as he again put his hand on Pa's shoulder. “It is light. It is light.” The old man opened the rear of the stagecoach. As I approached, the he threw a hand into the air, and his dwarf jumped down from his seat. Sampson landed in front of me, shaking his head. Slightly startled, I stepped back. Then I heard Fernando laugh and clap his hands together.
Later that evening, from a front window of the farmhouse, I watched Fernando's stagecoach and the horses tied nearby. Fernando sat around a fire picking a guitar. Sampson moved around in the light, seemingly attending to the old man's needs. I walked into the kitchen and found my father speaking to my mother.
“It means more produce,” Pa was saying. “A source of light that belongs only to us will help. I saw it with my own eyes.” I looked at Ma as my father added, “And it will produce a greater yield.” Then he pushed up his sleeve and scratched his neck before shaking his head. “We need it. It could make a difference in whether or not we can stay here.” Pa looked at me and stopped.
Ma began, “What is it, Mary Beth?” and I answered, “Nothing.” I then went into the kitchen and sat at the table. Pa shrugged and continued, “He's not the most trustworthy character. He travels with that dwarf, but I don't know what else to do.”
“Why does he have that little man?” I asked.
“He works for him,” Pa said. But he quickly shook his head and continued saying, “If we don't buy that man's sun, we'll lose everything.” He looked at my mother. “He won't stop here. He'll go to the next orchard and the one after that. I'm sure of it.”
“But what if he's just a swindler,” Ma said.
Pa looked away from her.
“What if it's a trick?” she said.
“We'll watch him build it.” Pa walked to a window. “If it is his stars up there, then...” Ma nodded at first, but then shook her head. Looking out the window, she began, “The stars are beautiful, Pa.” Pa crossed his arms as she continued, “But how could he have done all of it? All of them?”
“He's very old, I'm sure of it,” Pa answered. “It shows.” I leaned my head against the door jam as I listened. Pa looked at me. “And he's a different kind of man.” Pa reached over into a basket of biscuits and took a bite. He took a bite chewed and said, “Maybe he's magic or it's just a craft. I don't know. But if he can make a sun, then we should have one of our own.”
I thought to myself then that Fernando did seem very old. But I decided I wanted to know just how old. As I turned to leave the kitchen I listened to Pa add, “We'll buy a larger farm with the produce. I imagine his sun can shine on a much larger orchard. He said it'll expand.” I wanted to feel hopeful, but I felt dread in my stomach as I moved upstairs. I wondered how something miraculous could come from someone I thought was so despicable.
In the morning, Pa went with Fernando to the bank. Fernando explained that he would need a tower to hold the sun. I walked outside and around the house and down to the orchard. I picked a few apples and bite into one. I ran my hand over the bark of one of our trees.
Then I saw him.
He was standing behind the stagecoach looking at me. When I started walking in his direction, the dwarf disappeared around the corner. I continued toward the stagecoach, moving around the horses in the inventor's camp. The fire pit was charred and no longer smoldered. And there was no trace of Sampson. I said, “Hello?” and waited. When there was no response I continued, “I saw you down here and I just wanted to say hello.” I wasn't afraid of the man, not exactly.
I stepped closer to the door of the stagecoach and knocked. “Are you in there?” I waited, again. This time the little man opened the door a crack. I could see just one eye as he peered out. He looked at me and began, “What do you want?”
I looked at Sampson. “I'm Mary Beth.”
He looked at me. “Sampson,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Sampson. Would you like to come out here?”
The short man's response was a sigh. As he climbed out of the coach, he began, “I shouldn't be talking to you.”
Sampson shook his head. “Have you ever seen a man like me?”
Sampson rolled his eyes. “Well, what is it then? Do you want a little show?”
I paused a moment before saying, “No, of course not. I was--”
Sampson shook his head. “Okay, so what do you want?”
“Well, you were looking at me.”
Sampson made a face. “I was looking into the orchard. I was thinking about how Fernando is going to save this farm.” He walked toward a small stool and took a seat. He took a bite of an apple he pulled out of his pocket.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“Don't worry,” Sampson said. “Fernando will replace it and then some.”
Looking over at the horses, I said, “How will he do that?”
Sampson smiled and watched me move toward the horses. “Wouldn't you like to know,” he said. I began to stroke a horse's mane, I looked at the little man and asked, “Is Fernando your father?”
Sampson made a face. “You don't know anything.” Then he stood. “Fernando's my boss. I work for him. I'm not—I'm not a kid.”
I nodded. “I know that. You're just small.” Sampson didn't say anything more, so after a pause I continued, “Is he mean to you?”
“He's an old man,” said Sampson.
“He could still be nice.”
Sampson shook his head once more and chuckled to himself.
“Do you know how old he is?”
“He's so old,” Sampson said, “that numbers don't matter anymore.”
When I said goodbye, I didn't know anything more about the inventor. But I looked at Sampson and smiled as I walked away. The little man was tending to the horses. Then when I walked inside the house, I saw Ma. I didn't want her to know what I'd been doing, so I just went upstairs to my room.
When Pa came home, I was helping my mother wash dishes. I turned when Ma began drying her hands and said, “Pa?”
He stepped into the kitchen, removing his hat and sighing deeply, “What is it, Ma?”
“I don't trust that man. I've thought more about it.”
Pa sighed. He wiped his hands on his shirt and looked at me. I'd turned away from the dishes. “We've already started the work, Ma.”
“Can't you stop it?” she asked.
Pa looked at me then my mother. “Why would I do that?” He walked toward and leaned on the sink. He looked out of a window and up at the sun.
I said, “Don't stare, Pa,” reflexively.
“I'm not,” Pa said, laughing to himself. “I'm just thinking about what a sun could do for us. It's an innovation, dear. Fernando explained it all to me.” Pa was looking at my mother. “The mechanics and the science. I think his process is legitimate.”
“He explained it to you?” she said as turned back toward the dishes.
“Of course.” Pa said, looking at her, incredulously. He then unfastened the cufflinks of his Sunday shirt.
“How can he be old enough to make all the stars in the sky,” I said, suddenly.
“All of them?” Pa began. “He's a salesman. I'm sure he was exaggerating.” Ma walked toward him. Putting her hand on the counter beside Pa, she began, “I don't believe what this man says.”
“Well, I do,” said Pa. “We've been to the lumber yard, and he knows what he's doing. He'll build us a tower to hold our sun. I'm sure he can do it. I've seen the plans.” I looked at the sunlight pouring in through the kitchen window. It drew lines the shape of the window frames. I couldn't disprove Fernando's claim anymore than Ma. Perhaps he'd created other suns, but that didn't show he could create another.
Finally, Ma said, “Why do you trust him so much?”
“He's gonna save us.” Pa said. He was sitting down at the kitchen table, shaking his head. “Plain and simple.” After a pause, he added, “It's exactly what we've been praying for.” Ma walked out of the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she began, “Well, let's just have to wait and see if someone comes selling the moon.”
Pa stood then. He followed her into the hallway, saying, “What does that mean? Why would I buy a moon? That won't grow anything.”
“No,” Ma said from the stairway. “But there's a man up there, and maybe he'll try to sell it to you.”
“Are you feeling all right?” Pa asked.
I walked into the foyer behind him. Ma looked at me and said, “I just think this all sounds too good to be true. And...” She shook her head as she trailed off.
“And what?” Pa asked. He looked at me, too.
“And I don't know why you can't see it.” Then she moved on upstairs.
Pa shook his head and muttered, “Just let me take care of it.” Then he looked up and cried, “He's gonna put a sun on a pedestal and then you'll find out just how much you love it!” Pa then walked past me, saying, “Finish the dishes, Mary Beth.”
Over the next few days, the farmhands worked with Fernando, building the tower. Holes were dug. Joists were buried deep in the ground and slowly a wooden structure rose above our home. I came outside from time-to-time to check its progress. And, during that time, I saw Sampson constantly at Fernando's side and decided I wanted a closer look.
In the yard, I moved swiftly toward the tower. Standing beside one of its wooden beams, I watched several men pass, carrying lumber. When I saw Fernando, he was speaking to one of our hired men. I stepped toward him. I was hoping to speak to you,” I said.
Sampson turned first. He said, “Fernando's very busy, Miss.”
Fernando waved the little man off and explained “It's no trouble,” in his deep, gruff voice. Then he smiled. There was a wild look in his eye when he said, “You want to speak to me, well go ahead.” When he spoke I could see his broken tooth. Without waiting, he turned to walk, stopping only to wave me along. I followed as he continued, “There could be problems if you have your own sun. Don't you think?”
I looked up and said, “Well, the tower is made of wood.”
“Will it burn?” Fernando asked.
“I think so.”
Fernando moved toward the stagecoach, shaking his head. “At night,” he began, “when the sun sets, everything goes dark and my sun goes out. It is my special design.” He looked at me, and I asked, “How can we control it?”
“The sun?” Fernando paused.
“I've explained everything to your father,” Fernando said, shaking his head. He then lit a match and brought it toward a cigar he had pulled from his coat pocket. He exhaled smoke and leaned against the door of his stagecoach. “What is it that you really want?”
I didn't respond.
Fernando nodded and opened the door. He climbed up and then stopped to turn and look at me. “Sampson is not a playmate. He works for me.”
I breathed in deep. “I wasn't playing with him. I'm too old for that, but--”
“How old are you?”
Fernando smoked and laughed. “I cannot say.”
“You can't or you won't?” I asked.
“Neither,” said the old man before shutting the door.
“Wait!” I continued. “How will you light it?”
Fernando grinned as he shut the stagecoach door.
I shook my head, but, after a moment, I turned and looked back toward the tower. Sampson was there, but he was not looking in my direction.
When the tower was finished it was nearly 100 feet tall. From a distance, it looked like a giant spear, stabbing the earth. I feared that it was too weak for a star. It swayed in the wind, but Fernando convinced Pa that his sun was lighter than air. And that made sense to even me. The Sun and the stars float in the sky; they float over our heads and do not come crashing down.
So, at the end of a week, Fernando and Pa stepped toward the rear of the stagecoach. I stood by and watched. Together they—with the help of some my father's laborers—pulled a small sun from the back of the coach. It looked like a dark sphere and this caused me some confusion. I wondered why it wasn't bright.
Standing in the center of the tower's base, Fernando grabbed a rope. He tied it around the sun and then grabbed the opposite end. He began to lift the sun into the air. Once it had neared the top, Fernando tied the rope off and Sampson climbed. Fernando looked over his shoulder at Pa and all of us, saying, “Sampson is going to position your star. Say your prayers.” I looked up at the little man after that.
Pa asked, “Does he need help?”
“Oh no,” Fernando answered. “He'll untie the sun and come back down.” Sampson hurried up the side of the tower, reaching from one piece of timber to the next. We watched until he was no bigger than an insect. The little man moved quickly toward the sun and untied it. Then he nimbly returned to the tower's base.
Without speaking, Fernando stared straight into the air. Then he began to pace in a circle, sucking in air with his hands on his hips. He didn't look well and breathed deep, filling his lungs to capacity. Then the old man doubled over. When Sampson reached the ground, began, “Are you okay, Fernando?” and Pa moved in close.
The inventor bent and then squatted. I shook my head and watched. He wasn't going to do anything. There was nothing but a dark sphere sitting on top of a tower. I looked at Pa. When the old man fell to the ground, Sampson cried, “Fernando!”
One evening, after I'd removed the dinner tray from the room we'd given Fernando, I heard Ma and Pa in the downstairs hallway. Ma was saying, “I'm just worried.”
“He'll be fine,” Pa assured her. “He's just exhausted.”
“What if he dies?”
“He won't,” Pa said as he entered the kitchen. I hurried down the steps, carrying the tray as I followed my parents.
“Well, how long can this go on?” Ma asked.
Pa turned to look at me when I quietly entered the kitchen. “I don't know.”
“His sun isn't finished,” Ma began. Her voice raised slightly.
“Don't you think I'm worried about it?” Pa whispered as he looked at me once more. I sat the tray down beside the sink. I turned on the water and began scrubbing the dishes.
“For all we know he can't finish,” Ma continued. “What if he can't?”
“You've seen what he's done already,” Pa said. Then he lifted a glass of whiskey and took a sip. “You can believe in that, can't you?”
“I don't know,” Ma said. “I don't know if I should believe my eyes.” Her voice was hushed. Pa sighed and shook his head. “He's a special man with a special gift. We're lucky to have him here. You have to know that.” Ma shook her head; Pa's speech was slurring. “Ma?” he said.
She shook her head. “We don't know anything about dealing with a sun. And we don't know Fernando.” I turned then and wiped my hands on my apron. Pa lowered his head. “It'll shine,” he said. The he stepped away. “The stars shine every night. Why would this one—this only one that we have—be any different?”
I looked at my mother. I could tell she might cry, but was holding back the tears. All at once, I wanted to say I didn't believe that this man had created anything. I wanted to shout it. What he'd shown thus was just a giant balloon.
Days passed and Pa began to drink heavily. Ma carried meals to Fernando. She became exasperated by the situation and Pa became violent. He made threats against the old man. Ma had to subdue him. Then, one afternoon, Pa came into the kitchen with his shotgun, saying, “I'm gonna kill him.”
Ma cried, “No! No, Pa!”
He shook his head as I watched silently, pressed against the counter. Pa wobbled on his feet as he fed shotgun shells into his gun. “He swindled us,” he mumbled. There were beads of sweat running down his forehead. “I put all our money into that tower.” Pa looked at me, but quickly looked away and continued loading.
Ma tugged on his arm. “Listen. Listen,” she said. “He's still here, isn't he? If he'd swindled us he'd be gone by now.” She was whispering and trying to calm Pa down. “Don't you think he'd run? You put that gun away.” I moved quickly toward the foyer as Pa sat down at the kitchen table. “No, you were right,” he said. “He took our money. All we had left.”
Ma shook her head and took the shotgun, slowly away. She said, “If you kill him, we'd lose you, too.” I disappeared down the hall, listening to Ma. When I came to the door that led to the Fernando's room, I stopped and listened. After a moment, I knocked lightly. When I heard a husky voice, say, “Enter,” I froze. But Fernando repeated himself.
I cracked the door and then pushed it open wide enough for me to squeeze through. I looked at the old man and then at Sampson who was sitting on a chair beside the bed. Fernando appeared peaked, but looked at me out of the corner of one eye. He huffed. “What is it?”
And Sampson said, “And what's all the noise about?”
I looked at Sampson and then back at Fernando. “Are you dying?”
“Why would you ask him something like that?” Sampson asked. He climbed out of his chair as if he was going to approach me.
But Fernando was laughing. He said, “How should I know that?”
“You have to finish the sun,” I said.
Fernando looked at me. One of his eyes bulged, and he began, “You do not tell me what I must do.” A moment later, the old man inhaled deeply and I moved closer to the end of the bed. “But I have to know when you'll finish.”
“Why don't you have a little patience,” Sampson said, sitting back on his chair and crossing his arms.
Fernando silenced him with a hand. Then he said, “I'll feel better. I already do.” After a pause, he added, “Sampson, why don't we finish tomorrow?” The little man nodded. The inventor paused before continuing, “Does the sun rise in the morning like some jack-in-the-box?” I looked at him. “Do you hear wind-up music with the dawn?”
“I do,” said Sampson. “It goes cock-a-doodle-doo.”
“I don't know what you mean,” I said.
“I have the crank,” Fernando said as he sat up in bed. “And it will be finished!” He pointed at me. “But don't bring me your suspicions. When your skin is burned by my sun you'll know that it's real.” I stood at the foot of the bed shaking my head slowly. I began to speak, but Sampson added, “It's as real as any other star in the sky.” The little man looked away.
“Then you'll finish?” I said.
Fernando laughed out loud. “You do not frighten easily,” he said. And, as I left the room, Fernando continued, “You won't be able to believe your eyes.”
At the doorway, I said, “You said we shouldn't look at our sun. How could I believe them?”
In the morning, before the rooster crowed, we stood near the base of the tower. Fernando looked out over the gray horizon. He held himself up with the little man's support. There was a cool breeze in the air, and Fernando seemed to be waiting for something. But, without warning, he lit a match and set a string on fire. The flame sparked and quickly traveled up the tower. The inventor backed away and again looked toward the horizon. He looked at Pa and said, “Your sun will rise with the other. It will lift straight into the air and bath the earth with its light.” The sun above us ignited and began to rise. It was orange and expanded like a sphere of flammable gas.
I tried to avoid staring directly into the light. But, during that day, I felt it. It became bright and hot and produced much more heat than I had ever experienced on the farm. Pa had another well dug as the tower went up. Water was pumped out and it traveled through irrigation ditches and the water was sprayed into the orchards. I watched as Fernando packed up his things. Sampson sat beside him at the front of the coach. I shielded my eyes and said, “It's beautiful.”
Fernando looked up himself then. He said, “It is not bad.”
After the inventor left our orchard, several seasons passed. We enjoyed a period of prosperity, but it was followed by a historic drought. Pa had not been able to control the invention. It rose and set on its own and eventually scorched the land. We suffered and watched the leaves of our trees wither and fall to the ground. The apples baked on the burning soil.
It was years later when I sat in a wagon wearing a sun hat. It covered my face and neck. I looked out over the scorched earth and waited for Pa. He had organized some of the hands. They chopped at the tower as Pa had explained that if this sun would try to destroy us, then we should destroy her.
Ropes were tied to the tower's base. The other end to our horses. Pa whipped the beasts, and they galloped away as the men hurried toward us and the workers scurried away. I watched as one leg of the tower was ripped away. The structure bent, sagged, and crumpled under its own weight. Pa climbed into the wagon and drove our wagon forward.
We had expected for the sun to fade and dim later that night. It would fall to the ground and never rise, again. Instead, we heard a thunderous clap and it was if an invisible thread holding the sun had snapped. She fell and crashed down onto the ground. The sun rolled through the orchard, crushing the brittle trees, and catching the dried vegetation on fire.
Pa whipped the horses, again. “Yah!” And our sun rolled through the orchard. I watched as long as I could. When I looked away, I saw spots and feared I'd gone blind.
Justin Meckes writes and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently published fiction online at Map Literary and was also a finalist in the 2013 James Hurst Prize for Fiction.
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