4140 words, short story
East of the Sun, West of the Stars
We named our ship The Bear. It was from a fairy-tale—the one about the woman who traveled impossible distances to find her prince—but it was also a promise. Warm and powerful. Distinctly animal against the ship’s chrome and emptiness. It inspired hope. It promised we too would travel impossible distances.
We brought along everything we had: bundles of warm clothing, family heirlooms, wooden clocks our grandfathers had whittled, seed from the final harvest, jars filled with preserved jams and pickles, and starter yeast that had been in the family for a hundred years and would be in the family a hundred more. We brought our tools, our good axes, knives and spanners, data tablets stuffed with history, and seasoned cast-iron skillets for cooking our grandmother’s recipes. Of course we brought our animals. Our strong horses. Our goats. Our pigs and faithful dogs. But we could not bring them all. Some we took in jars, their DNA sloshing in clear gels that we planned to reconstitute when we got there. The others we slaughtered and preserved—smoked and dried in salt, the way our ancestors had done, the way our children would do.
When we boarded the ship, we each carried with us a pinch of dirt in a brass vial. Brown and rich like the future we saw for ourselves. With these vials, we carried the weight of our future, the collective knowledge of our Earth and our ways.
Our prophet struggled to get the elders to agree to the journey in the first place. It would require a select few to sacrifice the simplicity of our farms in order to attend the great universities and study the things we’d rejected for so long—electricity and energy, physics and computer sciences. We sent a third of all our children, the ones who saw a future for the old ways amongst the stars. We sent them out to learn and bring back their knowledge.
I was not among them. Instead the elders filled me with stories of smart children and evil witches, of forest creatures and fairy folk. My gift to future generations would be our traditions: the candles we lit for Easter, the little marzipan pigs children ate at Christmas, the corn husk dolls and the fairy-tales. Tales like this one:
“She captured the bear prince,” the young woman cried. “The troll queen took him to her palace East of the sun and West of the moon.”
“That is a long way away.” The North Wind said, considering the young woman’s predicament carefully. “I believe I blew an acorn there once, but it was many, many years ago.”
“Can you take me?” the woman asked.
“I can try.”
Raising the ship took longer than we expected. The world was already turning to ash by the time we’d gathered enough money and resources. But in the end, we built it the way we always built things: together. With hope.
A few chose to stay behind, to see if they could outlast the fires and the floods and the tornados, but most left. Most chose to board. Most chose the stars.
The day we took off, I cried in my mother’s arms—I was so young then, even at twenty-five. I was already a widow with my own child, three-year-old Hamish who clung to my skirts, but still I was young. We climbed aboard the ship and waved goodbye through the portholes until the prophet told us to take our seats.
It was strange to see us all like that. In our wools and our hand spun cottons amidst all the metal and chrome. But it felt right. We were the same as our ancestors. The same as our forefathers who first crossed the oceans to escape persecution. Who sought adventure and freedom in faraway lands.
As the ship rumbled into space, wind screaming against the metal plates and atmosphere shaking us with loud, violent starts, the controlled explosions sounding like death, a strange voice spoke to me for the first time. It said my name:
I looked to Hamish to see if he had spoken, but no. Neither was it my friends and neighbors who sat or stood, clinging for dear life to the handholds and walls as we traveled. Their own fear and hope consumed them, blinded them to any consideration of me or my confusion. It must have been a trick of the creaking metal, a conflation of the animal’s screams as they shook in their stalls, confused and terrified. And so I ignored it.
When the ship stabilized, traveling across dark space as fierce and terrifying as any empty sea, I settled my little family in to our home.
For a while the act of making a life distracted me too much to wonder about the voice: sewing the holes in torn trousers, setting up the house with all our little knickknacks, and working in the maintenance crew to keep the ship clean and orderly. So much needed done at the beginning. It was joyous. Singing and dancing in the evenings, sharing meals around a great communal table, and telling stories to the little ones. We came together as we always did in times of need. We were adventurers, holy pilgrims, each fulfilling god’s destiny.
But at night, my mind stilled, and I dreamed.
I dreamed I was the girl from the story. By day her prince took the shape of a bear, but by night he was a man.
“Faith.” The bear prince said, kind and warm.
His great white shoulders were well muscled and his eyes intelligent and kind. “You are so brave to come all this way,” he said and took my face in his great palms, exactly as my husband had once done. And he kissed my cheek.
In the mornings, I shook the dream from my head, shook the memory from my body and my clothes. Hot cheeks. Hot chest. I chose for myself the coldest work—maintaining the cryo-chambers or helping tidy the labs—if only to ignore the heat between my thighs at the thought of this great creature. The other women began to tease me for it.
“Have you a crush?” Maria asked.
“Is it Abraham from the biolab?” “I’ve seen him looking at you when you work nearby.” And I played along because it was better than to admit I loved a dream.
At the first official ceremony, a few months after liftoff, Abraham grabbed my hand as we watched the prophet plant the first apple tree. In truth, it is not technically the first we’d planted. We were a practical people and had already begun growing and seeding almost as soon as we took flight. But ceremonies are ceremonies. Just as stories are stories.
Abraham’s strong hand clasped mine as the prophet spoke:
“A New World. Think of it. That is where God sent our ancestors when they had no other choice. When they were persecuted for their religion and their culture. And now he has given us this same message. A new world. Like our forefathers, like Noah and his ark, we bring with us all of what we are and all the gifts of mankind. All the glories so we might continue our legacy into the future. With this seed, we establish ourselves in this home so that the offspring of this tree, like the offspring of our offspring, will be able to start life anew at our destination.”
I listened to the words but was not listening. I felt Abraham’s hand but was not feeling.
And in his great castle at the top of the world, the young woman and the bear prince fell in love.
Of course Abraham proposed marriage and of course I accepted and of course we grew older aboard this ship because that is how time works. But the bear did not grow older in my mind. Each night he returned to me, beautiful and strong as the first night I’d met him. Some nights we spoke. I told him the doings on our ship—the genetic modifications Abraham worked on in the lab to help the animals better adjust to their future home, how Hamish grew tall and thin as a reed, how the stars seemed so far away—and he listened. Some nights he held me close, buried my face in his fur. Some nights I woke up screaming, my head thrown back and sweat beaded across my forehead, the sheets beneath me soaking wet. And gentle Abraham was always there to coax me from my reverie.
When I gave birth to my second child, she had a shock of white hair that looked like fur, and in private, I cried with the strangeness of it all. My sweet, brown-haired Abraham only laughed and wondered when it would darken.
But it didn’t.
Hamish doted on his younger sister, Patience. We named her for the virtue I thought she might need most. It was tradition. I named her the same way my mother had named me and the same way my grandchildren would be named. I named her for the long journey she had ahead, and for the secret she too might one day have to keep.
In the stories, secrets are best left untold.
The young woman soon grew lonely in the bear prince’s beautiful palace. Though she enjoyed his company, he was often away, and she had already sat and stitched and read and wondered as much as was humanly possible to do. She begged to visit with her family in the winter woods.
After a long time, the bear prince acquiesced. “But only if you promise to never be alone with your sisters. For they will give you false council and turn you against me.”
The girl promised and did not think to wonder why.
Patience grew like a tree, young limbs stretching out, nimble and quick, but also solid. More muscular than I was as a child, and more muscular than one would expect in the ship’s gravity. The other children were long and lanky, thin and delicate like birds where mine was boisterous and solid. You heard her barreling between the long stalks of wheat before you saw her short, white hair and ruddy cheeks.
But she soaked up traditions the way I did as a girl. She begged to hear the old fairy-tales and descriptions of Earth and for me to tell her all the animals that lived there. She drew their pictures and would recite back what I’d told the other children, but with more flourish—voices, details, wild gesticulations. And the children listened to her with rapt attention.
Abraham saw nothing strange in the girl, just filled her with sweets and chuffed her on the shoulder, proud as a sparrow. “She was born to lead,” he said one day, watching her spin a tale around the electric fire, the one enclosed in glass in the town center, installed and lit for festivals and cozy evenings. False flame for the false world we’d built. “We’ll need children like her where we’re going,” he said.
Something sharp edged under my skin like a splinter. I turned on him. “How do you know?”
My daughter began the story that evening the same way I always had:
Once upon a cold, winter night a bear came and knocked on the door of a poor woodcutter’s farm. He offered to trade the family great wealth and food enough to survive the winter if they gave him their youngest daughter. And though he loved the girl dearly, the father looked around at his meager home and agreed.
I had told it half a hundred times before. Had heard it told just as many. But something jabbed me in this retelling. I stutter-stopped to think of the covenant made. It was not the girl and the bear who decided anything but the bear and the father. I looked at Abraham across the circle, his eyes bright and glittering in the firelight. I looked to the prophet. Our leader watched my daughter from the observation deck.
When the sisters hear of the bear prince and his magical castle, they grow suspicious. “Why does the bear prince only come at night when you cannot truly see his face? Why will he not stand near the fire or let you look on him more closely?” They asked. “Perhaps he is really a troll or demon. You must take a candle with you before bed and light it when he falls asleep. Only then will you know the truth.”
At midnight, I slipped from bed, careful not to wake my husband, my feet soft slippered, my nightgown flowing. Not for the first time, I wondered what my bear prince did while I was awake. Nothing, I reminded myself. He was just a dream.
I pushed forward through the artificial night and thought how untruthful and unnatural it all was. Beyond the portholes, everything was always night, all glittering stars and strange planets. We crafted night and day with electric bulbs and cyclic timers; we made it up, spun it out like a story and told that story so often it felt true.
I trailed a finger along the ship’s skeleton—The Bear, we’d named it—its metal frame separating us from the vacuum of space, and I wondered what secrets it kept. Society had trained me in storytelling, trained me to clean and cook and raise strong children, not to turn numbers into starships or data into dreams. What would I find under its skin?
Abraham’s workstation appeared on the right when I entered the biolabs. I crept up to it and slid my hands across its glass surface the way I’d seen him do before. So cold and unyielding. So unlike leather and cotton and wood.
The screen illuminated and asked me for a password. The first few tries didn’t work, the names and dates combined wrong. But eventually something fit, and the computer unlocked, the screen shifting from static and gray to a scrolling field: white letters on black.
I had seen the configuration before; it was impossible to spend so much time maintaining the labs and not know a few things. The text and images moved in conjunction with the importance and urgency of Abraham’s various projects, organic prompts to attend to one thing or another, but one file remained static at the top of the screen. I swiped a finger over it and it opened onto another field of shifting text. This, I understood less. The words scrolling past looked familiar but the sentence structure was all wrong, dotted with strange punctuation and strung together in mismatched garlands. If it was a language, it wasn’t one I understood. I peered, trying to figure out the grammar of the story. Swiped a finger left and right, up and down, moving through the narrative, trying to sense the shape of it, trying to crack this code, when I found it: my name.
Once I’d seen it, I noticed it dotted throughout the script. And here and there, dialogue that rang too familiar to my ear. “Faith. You are so brave to come all this way.”
I didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. Bile rose up in my throat and I choked. The ship walls closed in around me. Faith. My name everywhere. I wanted to stop looking, but my fingers danced across the screen, continuing, continuing, continuing. Faith.
The pressure of the truth overwhelmed me. Suffocating. Crushing. I couldn’t keep going and I couldn’t stop.
Without thinking, I ducked behind the station, following a thick white cord to the wall, and yanked it out. The lights in the biolab turned off.
“How could you have betrayed me so?” The bear prince cried, looking up to see his wife in the flicker of candlelight. “A troll cursed me so none could see my true face. Now I must return with her to her castle.”
A grotesque figure appeared through the window and swept him up in her arms, the wind and rain shrouding her.
“Where is her castle?” the young woman called. “I will find you! I’ll come for you!”
“East of the sun, and west of the moon.”
I dreamt nothing that night, and I did not return to the lab again. Instead I studied my daughter, became absorbed in the shape of her hard fingers and thick muscles, so unlike my Earthborn son. She was popular and joyful where Hamish was quiet and shy, she was strong where his muscles strained, sharp where his mind, though eager and five years older struggled with the edges of things. She was so perfectly suited to this life that except for her gift with stories I wondered if she was even mine.
Abraham said nothing about the lab power outage or the monitors that must have been dark as voids when he arrived in the morning. When the bear returned a few nights later, he—it—did not mention the absence and I did not ask about it. The bear tried to talk as if nothing had happened, as if something dark and biting didn’t lurk between us.
In the shower I ran my fingers over my body, through my scalp, searching for something metal, or the pucker of an unfamiliar scar. Something to help me understand these dreams and this girl and my husband and the bear and the ship. I needed this story to make sense even if it was a tragedy. Even if it hurt me. But I found nothing.
And eventually the bear stopped coming.
The young girl searched for the Troll Queen’s palace. She ran down the road in the direction she first saw her true love disappear, barefoot and in her nightgown, too panicked to remember the practical lessons of the woods where she grew up. Along the way she came across a cobbler.
“Please sir, do you know how to get to the palace east of the sun and west of the moon?”
The cobbler looked up with surprise at this barefoot girl’s question. “Aye,” he said. “I’ve heard tell of such a place, but only the winds know how to get there.”
“And how do I talk to the wind?” the girl asked.
It was Patience’s first day of secondary school. She had been siphoned into the class for higher science and mathematics, and I felt strange stopping before the chrome schoolroom, so different from Hamish’s class amidst the farmland. Her textbooks confused me too, filled with numbers and concepts I didn’t understand. I’d slipped them from her bag the night before to study its pages and planned to do so again. You could not tell a story properly if you didn’t understand its context, and in this self-contained little world, I understood so little.
Abraham huffed and sighed beside me, impatient to get on with the day. “We shouldn’t have come. There’s too much to do.”
“So go already,” I told him, my voice short, words clipped with bitterness. A coldness had grown between us I did not bother to hide. Did you know space can get down to -270 Celsius? I didn’t. Now I do.
I stood outside the building as our daughter greeted her peers, the ones who had been culled like her from the lower levels. None were white haired, but there was something about them all, something in aggregate that was strong and stocky and made them seem like siblings. Each one comfortable in their skin and comfortable at this gravity. Their bright eyes shone with a matching intelligence.
Abraham shifted nearby, his eyes on me. Rage hummed through my body, but I said nothing. Yet.
By the time we got back to our home, the little metal apartment we shared, he knew what I knew.
“The Bear,” I said. “The children. Were all the mothers deluded like me? Did you trick them all?”
He looked away. “No,” he said. “The others . . . The changes were subtler in the other children, easier to wave away, easier to chalk up to genetic randomness. Patience had to be different.”
“But why the lies? Why the dreams? Why this—” the word “violation” stuck in my throat. But to say it out loud would make it real, and I wasn’t ready. Instead, my anger grew.
“I’m sorry, Faith. We thought you’d understand better this way.”
“Why? Because you thought me simple? Fanciful? You think because I wasn’t schooled the same way you were that I’d just accept this farce? That a dream made her this way?”
Of course the answer was yes, because I did believe it. I believed in my prince and in the secret, and I believed maybe one day, when she was old enough, I might tell her the story of the bear and her conception. I believed in magic. I believed the lie. But that wasn’t the answer Abraham gave.
“It’s because we thought you’d understand most. It’s a story. Don’t you see? She’s going to be special. Long after we’re gone she’ll be the one who leads the next generation. You, me, the prophet, we’ll all pass and then the ship will need someone else to inspire them to keep going, to keep maintaining this way of life. We were creating a . . . a myth. An origin story. Something magical to make them all believe and keep going.”
“You didn’t need this lie. You didn’t need to do any of this.”
“It’s how great leaders are made. They come from myths. Magic. Do you think the prophet really heard God’s voice? Or do you think maybe he just looked around and saw that the whole fucking world was on fire. We needed an origin story for her. Belief. Faith. It’s the foundation our society is built on.”
I laugh. “And that’s all I am to you then? An origin story?”
“It’s what we all are.”
“Will you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” The young woman pleaded.
The North Wind thought. It considered her shoeless feet, the way she planted them just so. The way her voice carried over his own whipping winds, strong and purposeful.
And the North Wind said, “I can try.”
I broke things that day. So many things. Broke my history to pieces, broke my heirlooms and my starter yeast and my memories. My daughter came in carrying her books and stood stunned for a second before calling out to me. “What are you doing?”
Instead of responding I handed her a plate. It was a gift from my grandmother, passed down through eldest daughters, and I pointed to the wall. “Throw it.”
She didn’t understand, but she did as I instructed, tossed it hesitantly, and startled as it broke, the crisp shattering of glass ringing our little home like a bell. She laughed.
We took turns throwing plates and glasses. I took a hammer and smashed through the bed frame and the clock on the wall and the wardrobe and ripped apart all the shirts I’d mended over all these years. We did it with joy and abandon, with heartbreak and bitterness. We did it because we could and I did it because I needed to.
The story usually ends like this:
The young woman made it to the castle. She won back her prince and turned the troll queen to dust with the force of her love. And then they lived happily ever after.
But that seems too simple now, too easy. I don’t tell stories like that anymore. Instead, I tweak and adjust. I’ve changed the ending so many times I’m not sure the children remember the original anymore. Sometimes the girl never leaves that cabin in the winter woods. Sometimes she goes with the bear. I once told it where they just lived happily in their castle, never bothered by anyone, raising a son and daughter till the end of their days.
But more often the troll comes. And often there is a betrayal. Because not all stories can be happy ones.
My daughter is learning to do the same. She doesn’t care to save the prince in most of her tellings. Instead she lets the story end right in the middle, with the young woman and the North Wind, traveling ever onward, east of the sun and west of the moon. And I encourage her to explore those nooks and crannies, to question and prod, to roll the tale around like a marble until she understands the shape of it. I encourage her to break it.
She is our future leader, after all. I cannot change her fate and wouldn’t want to. Abraham is right: we’ll need a leader when the first generation passes. But she won’t be the kind he imagined.
Stories belong to the tellers.
And this story is mine.