The days were so hot that, even late at night, the people of Popadillo had to wear thick-soled shoes to keep their feet from being burned by the ground that refused to release the day’s searing heat. “It’s never been this hot,” people said to one another. Although everyone said that every year, this year they really meant it. Never before could anyone remember when birds had fallen fully roasted from the skies.
Each day the mercury climbed higher, and each day the townspeople tried to find new ways to cool themselves. Some spent the days and nights in their refrigerators, which they had converted into beds and sofas. Others strapped blocks of ice to their feet, only to have the ice evaporate when they stepped onto the ground. Still others, dressed in coats and mufflers, sprayed their lawns and houses with artificial snow, hoping that their minds would deceive their bodies. But nothing worked. As the summer dragged on and the temperatures climbed, the legendary politeness of the people of Popadillo teetered on the edge of extinction as “please” and “thank you” gave way to angry words and obscene gestures. When a group of schoolchildren blew raspberries at him, Mayor Esposito called an emergency town meeting at the Church of the Holy Deity.
“This weather is nothing but a conspiracy of the power companies to make more money,” said an old man bent over like a wicket. “They’ve wrapped the entire town in thick plastic sheets to trap the heat so we have to run our air conditioners on high all the time.”
“No, God is angry at us,” said a woman in a coarse brown dress, her fingers calloused from saying the Rosary nonstop. “Unless we repent, He will melt all the ice caps and drown us.”
Two college students in tie-dyed T-shirts and dreadlocks scoffed. “This heat wave is a direct consequence of environmental rape, degradation, and abuse. Besides, didn’t God promise Noah that He’d never destroy the earth by water again?”
“Then He’ll bake us,” the Rosary woman said, her fingers snapping from bead to bead faster than before.
Voices rose as everyone jumped in with their theories of why the days were so hot, when the heat wave would break, and what they could do about it. Mayor Esposito, his head permanently tilted to the left from fielding so many telephone calls about the ungodly weather, sighed and mopped his brow, waiting for the arguments to spin themselves out like dust devils. Ten minutes later, silence settled in as the citizens leaned back, drank water, fanned themselves, and caught their breath.
That was when Ferdinand Gustavus rose and walked to the podium set up at the altar. Although he was 138, he walked with the erect bearing of a man half his age. His hair and handlebar mustache were as white as his shirt, his eyes as black as his suit and Stetson. A retired professor of astronomy, he was said to be so wise that the angels would come to him to settle their disputes. “My friends,” he said in a voice as rich as the most fertile field, “I have been studying the sky for many months now, and do you know what I have discovered?”
Murmurs rolled through the crowded church.
“The sun,” Ferdinand Gustavus continued, “is moving closer to the earth.”
A sea of blank faces and furrowed brows looked out at him from the oak pews. Everyone knew that, because of the earth’s tilting rotation, the planet and sun were always closer to each other in the summer. But no one dared to point out so obvious a fact to the town’s foremost astronomer.
Ferdinand Gustavus smiled at his fellow citizens like they were wayward students. “Ah, I know what you are thinking. Now, I ask you another question. Does anyone remember what occurred during the last solar eclipse?”
Suddenly everyone spoke at once, to Ferdinand Gustavus, to their neighbors, to their spouses, to themselves. No one could forget that day in February when the sun was to have met with the moon. But as the people of Popadillo had gathered on the Great Lawn beside the Museum of Historical Artifacts, they had witnessed a heavenly spectacle that no one could recall having even heard of before. As the sun had moved towards the moon, the moon shied away. This heavenly dance had continued for quite some time, until the sun, which had been turning more orange, bounced toward the moon like a giant rubber ball. For a moment everyone stopped breathing, thinking that their eyes had played a collective trick on them. Then the moon streaked across the sky until it was on the opposite side from the sun, and everyone knew that their eyes had not deceived them.
“That is when,” Ferdinand Gustavus said, “the sun began moving closer to the earth. Watch. I will prove.” Father Marcus set up a projection screen and dimmed the lights, and Ferdinand Gustavus began his presentation of photos of the sun, astronomical charts, calculations of distances, and sundry other items. When the lights came back on, the people of Popadillo knew that the great astronomer had spoken the truth. The sun was indeed moving closer to the earth, and at a frighteningly fast pace.
“The moon,” Ferdinand Gustavus said after several pleas for quiet, “is angry with the sun. That is why she spurned his advances this winter.”
“Why is she mad?” someone from the back asked.
Ferdinand Gustavus shrugged. “The hearts of human women are hard enough to understand. Surely you do not expect me to understand the hearts of heavenly bodies?”
“So now the sun,” said Mayor Esposito, whose whole body was now tilting to the left, “is wooing the Earth to make the moon jealous.”
Ferdinand Gustavus smiled and shook his head. “Our Earth is too insignificant for such a ploy to work. No. He wishes only to talk with her, to make amends, but he is a fiery sort, and cannot wait for the next eclipse. So he takes the shortest route, the straight line. Sadly, our little planet is in his path. But I doubt he means anything malicious by it. He is simply lovesick.”
“But what can we do?” Mayor Esposito asked.
One of the dreadlocked students stood up. “Can’t we bring them together before he gets any closer?”
The town of Popadillo had never witnessed such frenzied activity. Delegates were dispatched to surrounding villages and principalities while school children went door-to-door, collecting every inch of rope, twine, and string that the good citizens had. Umberto Largo and Huberto Allegro, the famous astronauts who had once ridden a shooting star to Venus, came out of retirement and began an intensive training program designed by the region’s most learned doctors and coaches. Ferdinand Gustavus, meanwhile, continued watching the sky, though no one needed him to say that each day the sun drew nearer, for soon it looked so close that the fire chief climbed the longest ladder he had and tried to douse it.
An eerie silence settled in as everyone in and out of Popadillo wove and braided all the rope, string and twine together. Soon the numberless pieces became a single one that, even with its numberless coils, stretched from the Pacific to the Atlantic. After securing one end of the rope to their rocket, Umberto and Huberto blasted off into space.
Even the wind seemed to hold its breath while everyone awaited word from the astronauts. After a small slice of eternity passed, the radio at Mission Control crackled into life as Umberto’s baritone voice traveled through space: “She is roped.”
The people of Popadillo wrapped their hands around the rope. Their neighbors in other towns and countries, televised live on Jumbotrons, also grasped the rope. Ferdinand Gustavus, high up in the basket of a cherry picker, spoke into a microphone. “Today is the day we shape our destiny. Let us see if we shall live or die. I begin my count. One. Two. PULL! One. Two. PULL!”
The great rope creaked under the strain of so many hands tugging it.
“One. Two. PULL!”
So many grunts and groans rolled through the air that the trees lost their leaves and windows shattered.
“One. Two. PULL!” Ferdinand Gustavus looked up in the sky. The moon looked darker, as if she were scowling. She did not budge. “Harder. One. Two. PULL!”
For four hours they pulled, their bodies moving as one to Ferdinand Gustavus’ count. In the fifth hour, even Father Marcus began to despair that their efforts couldn’t overcome the moon’s stubbornness. In the sixth hour, little Esperenza Hippolitto, brushing back her hair, looked up, clapped her hands, and laughed. Everyone in Popadillo and beyond looked up. The moon had begun to move.
The sun glowed brighter. Golden rays streamed out and waved back and forth. Small explosions of light flew off his beams, sprinkling the sky like giant sparklers. The moon glided towards the sun. But when she reached his outstretched rays, she disappeared.
Women dropped the rope and fell to their knees in prayer. Children began crying. Men, hands on hips, stared up at the sky, fear washing over their faces. “No, no. This is very, very positive,” Ferdinand Gustavus said, his voice low with excitement. “We cannot see her for she has turned her sunlit side to us. She comes to him as a new moon, as his bride.”
A small spot of black spread over the southeastern side of the sun. As the moon slid over the sun, the blue of the sky drained into violet, then black. The sun blazed white and washed everything on earth in a silver light. When the moon fully covered him, the people below swore that the sun trembled and his corona, a magnificent halo of feathery white light that embraced the moon, shot out into the darkness.
The eclipse lasted five days. When the long night ended, the sun, more golden than he had ever been, pulled back to his place in the sky.
The people of Popadillo poured onto the Great Lawn beside the Museum of Historical Artifacts in celebration. Music and laughter filled the air as the good citizens danced, played games, lit firecrackers, or just sat on the soft green of the grass and talked.
And when the sun slid below the horizon, the people looked up and smiled, for there in the heavens was a new star, shining brighter than all the others in the night sky.
Lena Andersson was born in Sweden and grew up in New Orleans (with some forays in Canada, Texas, California, and Colorado). She, like many New Orleanians, ended up in Houston after Hurricane Katrina, and from there, moved to Upstate New York, where she teaches writing and literature at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. Not finding a writing group closer than an hour away, she founded the Mohawk Valley Writers Group. She has been published in The Chiron Review and The Xavier Review and has served as judge for storySouth Million Writers Award. When she’s not writing, she’s kayaking or hiking, or thinking about them.