Here it is:
School was outside. It always was, always had been, and always would be. That was part of Ristle’s life. School was in a big field- near the woods, where a creek trickled over tumbling pyrite and granite on an earthy, grass-carpeted floor.
It was under a wide sky that seemed to span across the world in one humongous tent, its underside painted with beautiful, swirling patterns of white cotton, and at night, an umbrella of scattered stars and midnight-tasting space.
When the clouds darkened, and rain swirled to the ground in the wind, all the students huddled underneath a patterned purple tent. Except for the few strange eccentrics who stood out in the rain and looked up the sky as though hoping to fall upside-down into the swirling darkness above them.
Tonight, however, was clear. The teachers had, after all, consulted a local shaman for a weather forecast for the next seven weeks so that they could find a good time to stargaze.
Stargazing trips were fun. Ristle always enjoyed the cool feeling of the night, the chirp of the crickets, and the soft mist that always hung around the meadow at night- but never managed to obscure the splash of stars that filled the sky. He loved the feeling that he was connected, in some strange, metaphysical way, to the meadow, to the creek, the pyrite, and the crickets and small spooks that scurried around the edges of the forest.
Also, always, someone managed to smuggle cake into the meadow, and hide it under their pillow until the teacher was too rapped up in some constellation or another to notice the huddle of smirking students around someone’s sleeping bag. Usually Ristle’s.
Ristle was like a Mama Bear to all the students in his outdoor class. He stood up for them. He brought them oatcakes flavored with cacao that crumbled in your hands and filled your mouth with happiness. He did things, many, many nice things, because he loved the warm, fuzzy feeling that seemed to fill him to the brim when he did something kind. So he did kind things.
It was very early when Ristle awoke. Soft fog swirled in the meadow, just reaching the edges of the trees, the golden, pink, and cantaloupe light filtered through it and made tiny, pastel rainbows around him. He blinked a few times, not quite remembering waking up, but definitively awake now, and checked that the teacher was dozing in his wicker loveseat. He was, so Ristle reached underneath his pillow and recovered a soggy, twine-bound workbook and a damp waxed paper parcel.
He opened the latter first, grabbed a chunk of textured oatcake, and shoved it in his mouth. Then he turned, searching the grass for the beeswax crayon he’d used to write his name on the small workbook’s cover the night before. When he found it, nestled between a small, purple wildflower and strand of light, stringy grass, he opened his notebook, hoisted himself up until he was on his elbows, and began marking down the positions of all the stars he remembered.
Then he answered the four review questions on the next page:
- Can Venus support life?
- Where was the constellation Torionnos located tonight? Why?
In the west, because the Earth is rotating.
- In what phase was the moon?
- Name the planets?
Doesn’t need a question mark, so…
That was easy enough. Definitively easy enough. Ristle felt, though, that teachers should know the difference between a command and a question. A command was a command, no matter how much sugar was on top the pretty please. Then Ristle lay down, not at all expecting something to happen to him. Not something that would completely change the course of his life… but things happen.
Everything is cause-and-effect. Why was school outside? Because people made it so. Why did mosquitoes bite you? Because they needed food for their babies. And why, why do earth-shattering, life-changing, mind-shaking things happen? Because they did. And that was a rule that Ristle would soon learn, and soon hate.
But so far, nothing very exciting was happening. All the student were huddled together, clutching their sleeping bags and shivering, as the teacher explained how the Sun moved, well, how the Earth moved in such a way that it appeared that the Sun was moving, and Ristle was trying to hand Sandy a piece of oatcake without the teacher noticing.
“Well,” the teacher said. “Horizon isn’t a planet like all the other planets. Horizon was constructed by people here on Earth, many, many years ago, and sent up into space. It had rockets attached to its bottom like many small legs, and it flew up-” he made a flapping motion with his hands, “-into the atmosphere, and out into space. Then the many legs snapped off, and it started orbiting the Sun, very near to Earth. It was way, way, up- many light years away-” he pointed into the heavens, “-and now all the communication between it and us has been disconnected. So, maybe there is still Earth life who lives on Horizon- or maybe not. We may….”
That was about when Ristle stopped paying attention. At first it was to watch Sandy’s fluffy, light, strawberry-blond hair was catching a breeze and wafting slightly in a strangely attracting way. Then, it was because Ristle noticed something- well, someone else-
It was then that Ristle noticed the strange man. He was an old man, standing near the purple and green skirts of the trees, on the side of the meadow nearest to the stream. He was wearing a green tunic, sleek, purple pants, and a bright red waistcoat, looking rather like a hunter.
Hunters wore bright waistcoats so that other hunters could see them through the trees, and not spear them, and forest camouflage underneath them so that they would blend in well with the trees and not startle the things they were hunting.
There had once been a story that two hunters had both removed their waistcoats at the same time, in the same clearing, and one had attempted to spear a calligoaf, a small, very furry mammal that lives in the mountains. Well… it got pretty ugly pretty fast. Ristle had always thought about that story when he saw hunters. Even people dressed like them.
But it wasn’t hunting season… no calligoaves or breafminners or even little tiny giilloes roamed the woods. Right now, it was mostly adventurers, daredevils, and rock climbers (like his parents) that made up the population of the forest. So, Ristle decided, the strange old man must be someone’s grandparent, or else some relation or other- coming to pick them up early.
Then, knowing who the strange person must be, Ristle turned back towards the teacher.
“Well, now, many animals came to see Mars, far from Earth. But not as far as the Sun, and much farther than the Moon! Well, these many, many organisms roamed the planet’s surface, seeing the sights, like the tallest volcanic structure… many, many taller than them on Earth! Mars was new, Mars exciting, different, many ways differing- from our beautiful Earth-”
Ristle let his attention waver back to Sandy, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Then someone cleared its throat and gave a dry cough.
“Rustle. A word please, Rustle.” said an old, very old voice. It smelled like fresh wood sprayed with air-freshener. Disgusting.
“Excuse me sir,” answered Ristle, turning his head to see the same old face, skin pulled tight over old bones- that had waited by the tree. “Sir, I’m in the middle of an interesting lesson. Can it wait, please?” The politeness in his voice made him proud.
Tell me what you think!!!!
PS Sock Monkeys return this weekend!!!! Yay!!!