A Pocketful of Planets
Later I would remember it as the Summer of Space instead of the other thing. The three of us traipsing through lavender, crickets barking in our ears. Me in a stainless-steel colander: Mrs. Rat, a polystyrene cup; and Unk wearing his motorcycle helmet, the one with the lightning split.
“Got myself a pocketful of planets,” he boasted as we moonwalked through the dirt. “Not mine to keep. They belong to the universe. Listen. Can you hear them? They’re bickering again.”
“Bickering about what?”
“They’re trying to decide who will go first.”
“When I let them go.”
I only ever saw them once, apart from that last night when the other thing came to stay. It was under the fig tree before the figs had fully ripened. I was passing on one of my many excursions with Mrs. Rat.
“Hey. You and Mrs. Rat, you wanna see the planets?”
Unk arranged Mrs Rat against the tree trunk so she could watch. He even patted down her petticoat and straightened out her ears. Then, tenderly, he brought out the planets one by steady one and lay them in the dirt; a pool of swirling sapphires, emerald greens, two rubies just like Mars.
“They’re jittery,” he said. “They long for the universe.” Then, as an afterthought. “And she longs for them, too.”
“When will they go?”
“When they are ready.”
I reached down to touch one, but he batted my hand away.
“Don’t! Imagine your finger covering even half of one. It’d be like a giant pink blur suddenly covering South America. Killing all the rainforests. Stunning all the sloths. These planets have their own biospheres, you know.”
He wasn’t cross as he said it. A little wistful, perhaps.
After we sat together and watched them wriggle in the earth until dusk descended upon us; dampening our bones and Unk’s spirit as well.
“Scoot now, Maggie. Unk’s gotta smoke.”
“But won’t that kill their biospheres?”
“Just scram, won’t you now?”
I found my sister inside laying the table.
“Where’ve you been? I’m not laying any place for that dirty Rat of yours.”
Mother joined from the pantry, nodding towards Unk. “What’s he doing anyway?”
“Showing me his planets.”
My sister rolled her eyes. “They’re only marbles, you know.”
“That’s enough, girls. Go clean yourself up Maggie and leave that Rat in your room.”
Poor Mrs. Rat. My family wanted me to outgrow her, but I couldn’t. Not just yet.
“Dinner’s ready, Unk.” Even my mother called him that.
Later, I would find out his real name was Nathaniel which made me wonder if he might have been more settled if we had called him that instead. He always seemed so shabby and restless and unfinished just like Mrs. Rat when they called her ‘that Rat’. But Unk was different from Mrs. Rat. He had a pocketful of planets.
Not that those planets seemed to give him any peace. In fact, at first, they made him jumpy and then later withdrawn. He stopped coming on our space walks. Just sleeping. Barely eating. I only saw him late at night. A fleeting comet, cigarette bobbing in his mouth, as he went to relieve himself under the fig.
Finally, late one night, he came to me.
“Quick. Wake up. It’s time.”
“To let the planets go.”
I groped around in the dark for Mrs. Rat. She must have fallen under my bed, but he grabbed me by the arm and said we had to go.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.”
“Where are we going?”
I shivered. Up there the wind roared like a freight train and wracked all the feathergrass so it lay flat and aghast.
Unk carried me on his shoulders. I could hear him wheezing a little. He was whistling as well. His planets were going home.
“Right,” he shouted when we reached the cliff’s edge. “Any final words of encouragement for our brave planets before they go?”
He held them up high under the hooked gaze of the moon and I could hear them bickering and jostling just as he said that they would.
“Be good,” I said which made Unk laugh.
Then he threw them like a farmer might scatter corn to pecking chickens. Dapples of euphoric light. Until they fell away.
After, we both lay down in the flattened grass. Unk rolled himself a cigarette. He was laughing, almost normal. Then he began to sob.
“What’s wrong, Unk?” I sat up, afraid.
“I miss the planets. I wanna be with them.”
“But then I won’t see you.”
“You can come too.”
“No. I can’t.”
Unk kissed my head and leapt to his feet. I could hear his breath as he ran past me and into the space between us, and then into the space where his planets had gone. I heard him shout ‘wheeee’ like some kid at a carnival and then I heard nothing, but the sound of the universe filled with scattering planets.
I sat for a while in case he came back but when he didn’t, I made my way home. Everything was dark apart from the meadow of stars overhead and the blazing lights of my house. Mother was pacing out front.
“Maggie!” She began clawing at my hair. “Where have you been?”
“I went out with Unk.”
She looked around feverishly.
“It’s OK. He’s gone with the planets. He asked me to go too but I told him I couldn’t.”
My mother let out a cry, just like I imagine the universe must have done when she called her planets home.
“Not without Mrs. Rat.”
Joanna Galbraith was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1972 but spent her childhood up north in a rural suburb west of Brisbane. At university she studied law before escaping to teach English in Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and now Italy. With respect to her writing credentials, she has been publishing short stories for over ten years with her work appearing in the highly-acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthology and many other magazines.