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The Man in the Moon

by McCamy Taylor

 

Luna Colony:

Nature never intended for a child to be born and raised up there on the moon, in an artificial dome with artificial gravity and artificial light and artificial air. What you do want a human child for up there, I asked them. Why not a robot child, an artificial child?

Where will he play, I asked them. How can a child understand what it is like to be human if he does not know the sadness of sunset or the littleness of humanity below the starry night sky? He will be a stranger to his own kind. He will look at us and all we have done and all that we have said and he will not understand. For him the world will be nothing more than his parents have made it---such a little home you are giving him.

Did they listen? No. What did I know? I was just the grandmother.

Then, when little Saul turned two, they called me. She called me, Karin, the wife. "Please Ruth. I need your help. I don't know what to do. The doctors think it may be Lunar Autism. They are running tests--"

"Enough. I am on my way."

So that is how I, Ruth Abramowitz came to the Luna Colony. Ruth Abramowitz, who said that God himself could not get her onto one of those shuttles, not even if he said "The End is near and the shuttle will carry you to Me." If God had said that to me, I would have said "Forget near. Come back when the end is here. Then we will talk."

They were waiting for me at customs. I could not bear to look into my son Sol's proud, cold face so I turned to his wife. Karin looked tired. Her pale face was splotchy, her blue eyes swollen and red from crying. In her arms was a little boy, the very image of my Sol. Coal black hair, chocolate brown eyes, stubborn chin, proud nose. He looked so beautiful that I forgot for a moment why I was there. I reached my arms out towards him.

The child did not move. He did not even blink. My smile got no response at all, not even alarm or tears. I touched his arm. His skin was warm and silky smooth, but the muscles beneath the skin were as rigid as stone.

I reached into my purse. "I've brought you something." I pulled out a bright red lollipop. Little Sol's eyes did not even focus on the candy.

I shivered, for I realized that my grandson had no soul.

Sol pulled me aside. "I don't want you talking to Karin about our decision to come to Luna Colony," he warned me softly. "No telling her 'I told you so.'"

I could not believe my ears. "You think I would say something like that? To the mother of my only grandchild? Why not just stab me in the heart and be done with it?" I turned my back on him.

I put my arms around Karin, and she laid her head against my shoulder. Between us, my grandson was as still as a doll carved from wood. I could feel his little heart beating, but that meant nothing. The ticking could have come from an old fashioned wind up clock or one of those mechanical hearts that the doctors wanted to give me to replace my own. "Who is his doctor?" I asked, because it is always better to approach a problem from hope rather than from despair.

Karin blinked away her tears. "Jules LeBlanc," she answered. "He is trying a new treatment. He thinks Lunar Autism may be an imbalance of neurotransmitters caused by..." Her explanation meant nothing to me, but it made her feel better to talk. So I pretended to listen as Sol guided us towards the exit.

"So, these doctors who know so much about this Lunar Autism, have they tried sending the children back to earth?" I asked when we were in the subway hurtling along at who knows how many miles an hour to certain death.

Sol gave me a dark look.

Karin nodded. "That was the first thing I asked the doctor. If we should send him back to Earth. He said it would not help. Once the symptoms have started, there is no cure for---" She broke down and started sobbing.

A normal child would have been concerned to see its mother cry like that. Possibly, it would have started crying, too. The little boy in Karin's arms stared straight ahead, neither smiling nor frowning, his own eyes dry even when his mother's tears splashed onto his face. Could this be the same boy I had seen in videos? The one who walked at eight months. The one who climbed like a monkey and chattered like one, too.

Sol pretended not to notice his wife's tears. "I know you've had a long trip," he told me. "But we have an appointment with Dr. LeBlanc, and his office is on the way. If you do not mind---"

"I would love to meet this doctor who is going to cure my grandson."

He gave me one of his dark looks.

I sighed. If I could not heal the rift between my son and me, how could I hope to cure my grandson of a malady that all the doctors said was incurable? Poor little Saul, so like his father. Even his stony expression reminded me of my Sol, except that in the case of my son, the stony silences usually gave way to temper tantrums.

How happy all three of us would have been if Saul had started kicking his feet and whining for food like the little girl sitting three rows ahead of us on the train. The young mother looked flustered. She was embarrassed by her daughter's noisy outburst. "Don't be ashamed," I wanted to tell her as we disembarked. "Be glad that she has wishes and knows how to express them." No one likes an interfering old woman, however, so I held my tongue.

Dr. LeBlanc's clinic was pretty enough. Simulated wood, simulated tile, simulated plants--like the office of the travel agent who sold me the ticket from Earth to Luna Colony. Here, however, the mood was somber. A half dozen children sat on benches and chairs scattered throughout the waiting room. Shiny, bright toys lay untouched on the floor. Most of the children stared straight ahead, their eyes wide and unblinking, their jaws slack. Several were drooling.

In the whole time we sat in the waiting area, only two of the children moved. One rocked back and forth on his chair continuously. The other kept trying to bang his head against the wall. When the father of the latter put his arms around his child to restrain him, the boy started banging his head against his father's chest. It must have hurt, but the young father held onto his son.

"Saul used to do that," Karin whispered. She sounded almost wistful.

Again, I shivered. It was too much to bear. I turned my back on that room full of misery. A mural covered the far wall of the waiting room, a reproduction of the sky over earth. The artist had done a marvelous job of capturing the pink-violet color that comes just before sunset, I thought, then I saw that it was not paint. The wall was really an enormous video screen. Slowly the violet spread, slowly the pink ebbed. Almost imperceptibly, the sky on the screen darkened.

Little Saul glanced once at the beautiful image on the screen then looked away. How my heart ached. What had they done to my grandchild to make him see no beauty or sadness in a sunset? "Dr. LeBlanc will see you now."

Dr. LeBlanc was a handsome, athletic man with a small goatee and trim moustache. He looked like a movie star from the old days when only movie stars were perfect , and the rest of us had to make do with what nature gave us.

He shook my hand. His palm was warm and dry, his grip firm, but there was something false about his smile. I knew at once that I did not trust him. "I am sure that you have questions."

Many questions. None of which could be answered by him, however. I had seen the little zombies in the waiting room. If he had a cure for Lunar Autism they would be talking, laughing, playing.

Since, I did not want him to think me the kind of grandmother that did not care about her grandson, I asked a question. "Tell me about Lunar Autism."

He handed me a slender booklet. "This contains the basics. Briefly, children suffering from Lunar Autism appear normal at birth, and they develop normally up until the age of two when they begin to regress. First they stop talking. Later, they stop communicating, then eating, then walking--"

Karin was on the verge of tears. I interrupted the doctor. "I have read the symptoms. What causes it?"

He gave me a condescending smile. "That is the billion dollar question. We are not even certain if the term 'Lunar Autism' is accurate. It is extremely rare--only one in ten thousand lunar births. And the same disease has occurred--though even more rarely-- among children in some of the domed cities on earth. Researchers are investigating the possibility that it may be a reaction to chemicals used in air purification systems. Although a slow virus has not been ruled out--"

It was obvious that the man knew nothing. Once again, I interrupted him. "Have you tried sending the children back to Earth?"

He was beginning to get impatient. "That was the very first thing we tried. It does no good. They continue to decline at the same rate. The result is always the same. "

"How many did you send? How advanced was their disease? Were they better than Saul or worse?"

He held up his hand. "I would have to look up the data for you, and I do not have time right now. Please, I have six more appointments today after this one." He could see from my face that he had offended me, so he tried to make up for it. "I will tell you about Saul's treatment. It is a new therapy..." He spouted some nonsense about theta waves and magnetic fields. After ten words, I stopped listening.

Meanwhile, the nurse had hooked my grandson up to a scary-looking machine. Metal clips on his scalp. A band around his wrist, another band around his ankle. He did not move a muscle, poor little thing. A cold examination table, his mother's arms--it was all the same to him.

"...we are trying to reintegrate the nervous system by accessing the sensory fibers. Adverse stimulation in large enough doses will provoke a response in even the most autistic child..."

I heard the words but did not hear them. Not until little Saul cried out and jerked his arms and legs. Karin turned her head away and stifled a sob.

It was over almost before it began, the torture of my little grandson. While I stood there, too overwhelmed by the horror of what I had just witnesses to speak, the nurse removed the clips and the bands.

Calmly, as if nothing had happened Dr. LeBlanc examined the display on his computer. "Interesting. I think we may be making some progress."

Fortunately for Dr. LeBlanc, his time was too valuable for him to share any more of it with us that day. He excused himself to see the next patient, and we gathered up Saul and returned to the waiting room. I say "fortunately" because if the doctor had stayed in the room with us any longer I would have found my tongue and told him exactly what I thought of his "adverse stimulation".

In the waiting room, the little children looked much the same as they had before, but I saw them with new eyes, knowing what horrors awaited them. I wanted to pick them up in my arms. I wanted to scream at their mothers to get them out of there before it was too late. Why would any child want to wake up to a world that tortured them?

Sol paid the bill with his debit card and scheduled the next appointment, while Karin rocked her son in her arms. Saul's chocolate-brown eyes were fixed on the sky mural. It was dark on the screen now. A simulated moon had risen. In the soft light of the waiting area, it glowed as bright as the real moon. Bright enough to attract the attention of even the autistic children. Several of them were staring. One pointed and whispered a word, the first word any of them had uttered. The word was "the."

I stared at the face of the full moon. Then I stared at the face of my grandson. His eyes were as wide as those of the man on the moon. His lips were twisted into a funny little smile.

I looked at the moon again. The same funny little smile. Then back at my grandson. "They like the moon," one of the receptionists remarked. "I don't know why. The same way that moths are attracted to light, I guess."

What if you guess wrong, I thought? Is that all my grandson is to you, a puzzle to be solved? Don't "guess" about my grandson. Do something!

It required a great effort, but I held my tongue.

From my reading, I knew what to expect, but I still had to see it with my own eyes to believe it. Saul never slept. Day and night, his wide, dark eyes were open. He would spend hours sitting or lying motionless, and then suddenly he would begin shivering. The first time this happened, I thought it was a seizure, and I called my son in alarm.

"It is just a spasm," Sol said as he readjusted his son's blanket. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Would you like me to sit with him for a while?"

Since the boy never slept, someone had to be with him all the time. I had volunteered to watch him that night so that his parents could get some sleep.

"No. You go back to bed."

Sol paused in the doorway. For a moment, his expression softened as he looked at his son. A sad smile touched his lips.

Encouraged by this, I finally dared to bring up the subject I had been longing to discuss. "You should bring him home to earth."

The smile vanished. Sol scowled at me. "This is his home. You heard the doctor. It happens on Earth, too."

"In the domes. What about outside the domes? What about fresh air? Fresh water."

He shook his head. "All the air on earth is polluted. All the water is contaminated. You know that. That why we moved here."

Really? I wanted to say. I thought you moved here to get away from me. Aloud, I said only "I hope you will not mind if I use your computer to research other treatments."

He shrugged. "Go right ahead." With that he turned and left the room.

My grandson had stopped shivering. His pajamas were drenched with sweat. I changed him. His arms and legs looked strong. There was nothing on the outside to explain the lack of life within.

As I fastened the top button on a clean pajama top, I leaned forward. "Saul," I whispered. "It is me, your grandmother."

My face was right before his, completely blocking his field of vision. A normal child would have laughed or cried. At the very least he should have looked away. Saul just stared right through me.

This could have happened on Earth, a little voice inside my head told me. There are autistic children on Earth, just as the doctor said. Classic autism, and now this new form that they call Lunar Autism. In the domes. "Why?" I asked aloud "What do you lack, little boy? Grass? Trees? Clean air? Do you crave sunshine? Moonlight?" I laughed hysterically. Even that sound did not get his attention. "You are on the moon, little grandson. Did the moon drive you mad? Are you suffering from moon madness---?" The tears which I had been fighting since I heard the news poured from my eyes. I laid my head on the pillow beside his and sobbed.

The next time Karin took Saul to the doctor, I accompanied them. I had made clear my objections to the doctor's treatment, but Sol overruled me. "It is better to do something than nothing," he had said. He had also made me promise to wait in the reception area so that I would do nothing to annoy the doctor.

Seeing Karin's face as she and Saul came out of the doctor's examination room--torture chamber was more like it---I disagreed with my son. Something was not better than nothing if the "something" did this to my daughter-in-law. She was as pale as the moon on the video screen.

"Here, you take him." She handed me the boy, so that she could fish a tissue out of her pocket.

Saul twisted slightly in my arms. Was he fighting me? Fighting would be something. It would be better than his usually board like rigidity. No, he was merely turning in my arms so that he could see the video of the night sky. The moon was full again. It was probably always full on the video.

His dark eyes were fixed on that glowing ball of white light with its benevolent face. Was it my imagination or did a faint smile touch his lips for just a moment?

Before I could gather my thoughts, Karin took him from me. "We had better hurry or we will miss our train."

That night Saul had spasms four times. After the last bout, he closed his eyes. At first, it was a relief to see him sleeping like a normal child. However, when he did not open his eyes again for a whole day, we all went into a panic. The doctor was called. His face appeared on the video screen.

"This is part of the normal progression of the disease," he tried to reassure us.

We were all left feeling shaken, even my stoic son. The only one of us who did not seem terrified was little Saul, who lay there like a dead child, the only sign of life the slight rise and fall of his stomach as he breathed.

The next day, he opened his eyes again. I was happy until I saw that they were even more vacant than before. Before he would sometimes pick some distant point at which to stare. Now, he did not seem to see at all. I waved my hand in front of his face. Nothing. I shouted his name. No response. I put my face in front of his and stared into his eyes. Even a new born infant will respond to a face held that close. Poor Saul just lay there, his eyes as dark and as wide as a moonless night sky.

"You should let me take Karin and the boy home with me," I said to Sol over supper. "You work too hard. At your job all day and then up with Saul half the night. You need some rest."

He was not fooled. "You are not taking my son back to Earth and that is final. "

Karin flinched at his harsh tone. "She is only trying to--"

"Stay out of it!"

My temper rose. "Why should she? She is Saul's mother. Does not she have say in what happens to him?"

My son scowled. "Yes, she has a say. But you don't. You are nothing but a--"

"--an interfering old woman," I interrupted. "But even interfering old women can be right sometimes."

"Please," Karin said. There were tears in her eyes. "Please don't argue."

For her sake, I held my tongue.

A few days later, as Karin was getting ready to take Saul back to see his doctor, I took her aside. "I know how hard it is for you," I told her gently. "Mothers always feel the hurt when their children have shots or painful tests. You stay here. Let me take him. "

Sol was at work. The three of us were alone in the tiny cupboard that passed for an apartment on the Luna Colony. Karin looked at me and then she looked at Saul. Finally, she looked down at her own hands, as if hoping to find the answer written there. She knew that her husband would object if he knew. On the other hand, she hated seeing her son tortured.

I took her hands in mine. "Sometimes our strength is our weakness," I told her. "And sometimes our weakness is our strength."

I do not know if she understood me. Maybe I simply confused her so much that she could think of no argument. "OK, you take him."

Hurrying, in case she changed her mind, I pulled on my coat. In the pocket was my debit card, my return ticket to earth and passports, one for me and one for little Saul. I had stolen it from my son's desk the night before.

The subway trip to Shuttle Station Alpha was easy. Purchasing the ticket for my grandson was easy, though expensive. However, as we were about to board the shuttle bound for Earth, an unforeseen difficulty arose.

"The boy's name is Abramowitz?" the young woman asked. She glanced at Saul then at the data from his passport that was displayed on the view screen, then back at him. To one who did not know him, he did not look so odd, merely shy and a little apprehensive. "He is your grandson?"

"Yes," I replied shortly. I gave his hand a squeeze. He did not squeeze back.

The security guard examined my passport. "You are not listed as a guardian. I am going to need the approval of one of his parents before I can let you take him on the shuttle."

I snatched up the passports. "No problem," I muttered. "I can reschedule the flight. My son will be home tonight and I will have---" To my horror, I saw that she had already dialed up the number of Karin and Sol's apartment.

The screen flickered then my daughter-in-law's face appeared. She had been crying, but that was not unusual. All the tears my son bottled up seem to pour out through his wife's eyes. "Yes?" Karin asked. She frowned. "I something wrong?"

"Mrs. Abramowitz?" The security guard asked. "Mrs. Karin Abramowitz?"

"That is me."

"We have a woman here. Ruth Abramowitz. She is scheduled to fly out on the next shuttle for Earth with your son. We need verbal authorization for him to leave Luna Colony in her company. It is just a formality."

There was a pause, no more than five or ten seconds though to me it seemed to last forever. Karin glanced over her shoulder. In the background, I could hear Sol's voice. What was he doing home so early? My heart began to race. A cold sweat broke out on my brow. If he found out what I was planning to do, he would never let me see Saul again.

Karin took a deep breath. "Yes, Ruth has my permission to take Saul to Earth." Sol's voice became louder. He was asking where his notebook was. Hurriedly, Karin mouthed "I love you, Saul" then she switched off the view screen.

Earth:

"It was when we were in that quack's waiting room," I explained to my son and daughter-in-law.

The night before, I had called Karin and Sol to let them know where we were, and they had come to Earth on the next shuttle. We were sitting together on the grass, like a picture postcard family. Little Saul was digging holes in the ground with a stick. Once the holes were deep enough, he would repack the dirt, then he would move on to a fresh patch of ground. "Treasure hunt" he called it, though with his little lisp it came out "Tweasuh hunt."

For an hour we had watched him in silence, awestruck, as if we were watching a miracle. Even miracles finally get old, however. I continued my story. "I saw the way those children were looking at the moon. Saul even tried to mimic the expression of the Man in the Moon. And suddenly it occurred to me to ask what if the Man in the Moon does not look like a man to us because he looks like us? What if we look like men to ourselves because we look like the Man in the Moon? "

Sol rolled his eyes as if to say Have you lost your mind?

Karin was more polite. "I think I see what you are trying to get at. But what does that have to do with Saul's autism?"

"If you do not hear language before you are three, you can never learn to talk," I said. "Those poor little children who are raised in boxes or closets and never see a human face, they do not know how to act if they are taken out into the world of people. What if some children, a very few children must see the first face, the face of the Man in the Moon as young children in order to truly understand other faces, other things?"

"No one living on the moon gets to see the moon. So why don't all the kids on Luna Colony become autistic?" Sol demanded. "Why Saul and not somebody else? And why do the kids who get Lunar Autism develop normally until their second birthday? And what about blind children on Earth? Why aren't they autistic? And what about the children whose parents used to live in the Brazilian rain forests? Some of those people never saw the sky. Why didn't they get it?"

I held up both palms. "Stop it with the questions! Why is the sea wet? Why does it rain tomorrow and not next week? Why does Sunday follow Saturday? I am not an encyclopedia. All I know is what my gut tells me." I pressed my fist against my stomach. "And it tells me that once upon a time, long ago, a salamander looked up at the sky and saw the moon and said to itself 'Light in the darkness. That is good. That is God' And from then on, whatever looked most like 'God'--most like the moon--was the thing that was most beloved, most desired. And so that salamander became a tree shrew who became a monkey who became an ape man who became human." I could see from his face that I was wasting my time talking to him. I sighed. "Maybe I am wrong. Maybe it is some kind of magic. Maybe the moon put a spell on Saul, and the earth cured him. "

Sol made a rude noise in the back of his throat. "Why did none of the other children who were sent back to earth get better?"

"That I can answer. I checked it out for myself. Two children were sent home. Only two. One was so far gone that she never opened her eyes. She died within a few days of reaching earth. The second was taken straight into the Santa Fe dome. So he never saw the sky or the moon."

"Dr. LeBlanc said--"

"Dr. LeBlanc is a fool. Or a liar."

My son frowned. "Why would he lie?"

Sometimes he could be so dense. "Because he was told to. Because the owners of Luna Colony did not want to frighten away young families."

He shook his head. "You are being paranoid."

"You are a fool! You should listen to me. I did what none of the doctors could do."

"You are an interfering old--"

Karin interrupted our argument. She took her husband's hand, then mine and clasped them together. It was the first time my son and I had touched in years. I felt the fight go out of me, and from the look in his eyes I knew he felt the same.

"Enough fighting," Karin murmured. Her blue eyes were bright. Her smile was so big that I could see every one of her perfect white teeth. When Saul brought her home, I had worried that he was marrying her for her beauty. Now, I knew that it was her inner beauty which had attracted him. He was lucky to have her as a wife. Saul was lucky to have her as a mother.

"Tell me how it happened, Ruth," she said. "I want to hear everything. Tell me about how he woke up."

I took a deep breath, then I told the story.

When Saul and I arrived back on earth, I took him to the farm of a childhood friend. My son would not know to look for me there, and I needed time.

That first night, I took Saul outside shortly after dusk. We wrapped ourselves in a blanket and watched the moon rise together. His face was blank. He showed no interest in the little sliver of white light in the sky. Though I had warned myself not expect immediate improvement, some foolish part of me had hoped that a single glance would cure him. When nothing happened, my disappointment was bitter.

Disappointment was followed by guilt. Had I made a foolish decision? I thought of Karin. Was she crying? I thought of Sol? Was he cursing me?

I almost called them that night to tell them where we were, but a sensible voice inside my head said Wait. Give him a little time. Wait for the full moon.

So every night, we went outside to watch the moon rise. We were fortunate. The skies were clear. Slowly, ever so slowly the crescent became a wedge and the wedge became a disc. It was on the sixth night that he first began to notice the light in the sky. After that, his eyes were drawn to the moon as soon as it appeared. The larger it grew, the more fascinated he became. Finally, two nights before the full moon, when the face of the Man in the Moon was finally clear, he smiled and pointed at the sky.

I thought my heart would stop beating for joy.

That night he slept a little. The next day he followed me with his eyes as I prepared his breakfast in the kitchen. The next night, he smiled and pointed again at the moon. The day after that he fought a little as I dressed him. Also, for the first time, he protested when I wiped his face clean with a damp rag after supper.

As we went outside to watch the full moon rise, I could not help being optimistic, even though the superstitious part of me was afraid to hope. Saul and I settled down in the grass. I pulled the blanket close around us. He was restless. He kept looking towards the east. Several times he made little noises deep in his throat as if he was trying to speak. Then, all at once, he grew silent and absolutely still. There was the full moon, large, white, radiant. Saul stared up at it, his expression rapt. The Man in the Moon stared down at him, smiling.

"The" Saul said.

"What was that?" I asked. Had I imagined the sound? I held my breath.

"The," he said again. It was unmistakably his voice. "The?" This time I recognized it for what it was. He was asking a question.

"The moon," I told him. "The. Moon"

"The. Moon." He repeated. He smiled. "The moon!" He laughed. Unexpectedly, he tore himself from my arms and started running. Running towards the moon. I followed close behind him. He was fast for such a little child. It was all I could do to keep up with him. His arms were outstretched, as if he was trying to grab the moon.

After a while he seemed to realize that no matter how far he ran, the moon came no closer. To a child, it must have seemed as if the moon was running away from him. He sat down abruptly and started to cry.

I knelt beside him and took him in my arms. "There , there," I said as I tried to comfort him.

Sobbing gave way to whimpering and then to silent tears. When these too subsided, he gave the moon one last, sad look. Then he turned to me. His eyes widened. For the first time, he truly seemed to see me. He studied my face. He touched my nose, my mouth, my eyelids. "Moon?" he asked.

"Ruth," I corrected.

"Moon." The stubborn set of his jaw reminded me of his father. "The moon. Ruth. My moon." He put his arms around my neck and hugged me tightly, as if afraid that I too would fly away into the night sky. "Ruth. My moon. My Ruth."

I concluded my story "...As we clung to each other, I gazed up at the moon and for the first time in years, possibly the first time in my life, I truly saw it in all its wonder and beauty.*

Story copyright © 1999/2000 by McCamy Taylor

Artwork "Inspirat" copyright © 2000 by Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 

 

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