Seller of the Sky
SELLER OF THE SKY
BY DAVE DRYFOOS
No one took Old Arch seriously; he was just an
ancient, broken-down wanderer who went about seeking
alms and spreading tales of the great Outside. But
sometimes children are curious and believing when
adults are cynical and doubting....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
There have always been the touched, the blessťs, God's poor. Such a onewas Old Arch. Archer Jakes, the Wanderer of the Plains.
They say he was born on Earth in 3042 and taken to Mazzeppa as a child.That he learned pilotage and mining. But that he was injured in acave-in on Hurretni in 3068 or thereabouts, and then his wife died in alanding accident and his child was taken from him and adopted by peoplehe never could find.
Those things are too far distant in time and space to be verified now.But it is a fact that by 4000, when my grandfather Hockington Hammerwas growing up in New Oshkosh, Old Arch was a familiar figure in allthe Domed Cities of the Plains.
He looked ancient then, with his deformed back that people touched forluck, and his wild hair and beard, and ragged castoff clothing. On hisback he carried a roll of cloth he called his bed, though it lookedlike no bed any City man had ever seen. In his right hand he carrieda staff of wood, unless someone bought it from him and gave him aplastic rod in its place. And in his left he carried what he called abilly can, which was a food container with a loop of wire across thetop for a handle, and the bottom blackened by what he said was fire.
It would have been like no fire any City man had ever seen. Even thewater in the can would be poison to a City man. When he came in theairlocks the guards would make him throw it away.
"Why the lock?" he'd demand, coming into a City. "Why the lock and whythe plastic bubble over all and why the guards? There's no pollution.Am I not alive?"
The guards would touch his hump and make circular motions at the sidesof their heads and raise their eyebrows as if to say, "Yes, you'realive. But are you not crazy?"
Still they would admit him, the only nonresident to walk between theDomed Cities of the Plains and enter all of them; the only man to passunharmed through the camps of the Outsiders who lived in the open onthe Plains at the heart of the North American Continent of Earth.
And Old Arch would go to the residence buildings and he'd knock onsomeone's door—any door, chosen at random—and he'd say, "Have youseen the sky and do you know it's blue? Have you felt the soft kiss ofthe breezes? I can show you where to breathe fresh air."
Maybe the people would say, "Phew! Does it smell like you, this freshair?" and slam the door in his face.
Or maybe they'd say, "Come on around to the back, Old Man, and we'llfind you something to eat."
Then Old Arch would shoulder his bed and pick up his billy can and hisstaff and walk down the stairs and go around to the back and walk upthe stairs to the rear door.
It might be an hour before he appeared there—it might be two. When hedid, the people would ask, "Why didn't you say something? You shouldhave known they wouldn't let you in the elevator! And twenty flightsdown and twenty flights up again is too much for a man of your years."
Then, the next time he came they would do the same thing again.
In the kitchen he would refuse all the pills and potions and shots, andinsist on bulky foods. These he would eat neatly, holding aside thelong white hair around his mouth and brushing the crumbs from it often.What he couldn't eat right away would go into his blackened billy can.
The children would come before he finished—those of the household,and neighbor kids too. First they'd stand shyly and watch him from adoorway. Then they'd press closer. By the time he got through they'dbe fighting to sit on his lap.
The winner would climb up and sit there proudly. One of the losers,trying to prove he hadn't lost much, might wrinkle up his nose and say,"What's that awful stink, Old Man?"
And Arch would answer mildly, "It's only wood smoke, son."
Then the children would ask, "What's wood, please? And what's smoke?"
And he would tell them.
He would tell of the wind and the rain and the snow; of the cattaloherds that roamed to the west and the cities that lay to the east andthe stars and the Moon that they never had seen. He would claim to havebeen in the endless forests and on the treeless plains and to havetasted the salt ocean and drunk of the freshwater lakes and rivers.
The children would have heard, in their lessons and from their elders,enough to know what he was talking about. Sometimes they would tire ofit, and ask him to tell of the distant planets and their far-off suns.But this he would not do.
"You already hear too much about them," he'd say. "I want you to knowEarth. Your own country. The one planet on which these plastic-coveredcities are unnecessary, where you can actually go out and roll on thegrass."
Then the children might ask, "What's grass?"
But their fathers would pointedly say, "What about the radioactivity,Old Man?"
"I'm alive," he'd reply. "There's no radioactivity out there."
But they'd say, "How can we be sure? There are individual differencesof susceptibility. Probably you are unhurt by dosages that would killany normal person."
And the mothers would say, "Eat some more, Old Man. Eat—and go. Bringour babies dreams, if you like, but don't try to tempt them Outside.Even if it isn't radioactive there, you've admitted it gets hot and itgets cold and the wind blows fiercely hard. Our babies were born undershelter, and under shelter they must stay, like us and our parentsbefore us."
So Old Arch would brush off his whiskers one last time and maybe put onan old shirt the father dug up for him and then go out the back way. Inspite of what might have been said, he would have to walk the twentyflights down to the ground because he wouldn't be invited to walkthrough the apartment to the front hall where the elevator was.
Sometimes people were hostile when he spoke to their children, and theywould have him arrested. He was then bathed and barbered in the jail,and was given all new clothes. But they'd always burn his bed, and he'dhave trouble getting a new one. And sometimes a jailor might covet thepocketknife he carried, or take away his billy can. On the whole Ithink he preferred not to go to jail except perhaps in winter, when itwas cold outside the City.
There were always those ready to talk of asylums, and the need toput him away for his own good. But nobody was sure where his legalresidence was, so he wasn't really eligible for public hospitalization.
He kept to his rounds. My grandfather remembers standing in hismother's kitchen listening to Old Arch. It was like meeting one ofJoseph's brethren and being told exactly what the coat looked like.Something exciting out of a dream from the remote past, when all theworlds had on them those bright moist diamonds Arch described asmorning dew.
My grandfather wanted to see the morning dew, though he knew betterthan to say so.
Old Arch understood. He tried to make the thing possible. But anopportunity to see the morning dew was something he just couldn't giveto my grandfather or anybody else.
So he decided to sell it.
He persuaded a charitable lithographer to make him a batch of stockcertificates. They looked very authentic. Each said plainly it was goodfor one share of blue sky, though the fat half-draped woman portrayedin three colors stood outside a Domed City pointing not at the sky butat a distant river with forested hills behind it.
Arch sold his certificates for a stiff price; ten dollars apiece. Hecould do it because by this time his wanderings followed a fairlydefinite route. The people who hated or feared or despised himwere pretty well eliminated from it, and most of his calls were atapartments where he was known and expected and even respected a little.
My grandfather's was one of these—or rather, my great-grandfather's.When Arch first brought his stock certificates my grandfather was alittle fellow everybody called Ham, maybe seven years old. He had asister named Annie who was five. He's given me a mental picture of thetwo of them standing close together for reassurance, and from an opendoorway shyly watching the old man eat and listening to him talk.
When my great-grandfather bought a ten dollar stock certificate in mygrandfather's name, my grandfather took it as a promise. And his littlesister Annie was so jealous that the next time Old Arch came around mygreat-grandfather had to buy a share for her.
As they grew to be nine, ten, eleven, twelve, every winter when OldArch would come around, my grandfather and his sister Annie would ask,"When are you going to take us to see the sky, Arch?" And he would say,"When you're older. When your folks say you can go." And, "When it'ssummer, and not too cold for these old bones."
But when my grandfather was fourteen he followed Old Arch out and downthe stairs after the old man had paid his annual call, and he stoppedhim on a landing to ask, "Arch, have you ever taken anyone Outside?"
"No," Arch said, sighing. "People won't go."
"I'll go," said my grandfather, "and so will my sister Annie."
Arch looked at him and put a hand on him and said, "I don't want tocome between any boy and his parents."
"Well," said my grandfather, "you sold them a share of sky for each ofus. Do you really want us to have that, or do you just want to talkabout it?"
"Of course I want you to. But I can't take you Outside, boy."
My grandfather was disgusted. "There isn't any sky," he said sadly."It's all talk. The certificates were just for begging."
"No," said Arch. "It's not all talk and I'm not a beggar. I'm a guide.But it's hard to see the sky right now because it's winter, and thereare clouds all over."
"Let's see the clouds, then," my grandfather said stubbornly. "I'venever seen a cloud."
The old man sat down on the stairs to consider the matter.
"I can't do this thing to your parents," he said at last.
"But you can do it to me and my sister," my grandfather charged wildly."You can come to the house year after year after year, and tell usabout the sky and the wind and the moon and the dew and the grass andthe sun. You can even take money for our share of them. But when itcomes time to produce—when we're old enough to go where these thingsare supposed to be—you think of excuses.
"I don't believe there are any such things," he shouted. "I thinkyou're a liar. I think you ought to be arrested for gypping my dad onthe stock deal, and I'm going to turn you in."
"Don't do that, boy," Arch said mildly.
"Then take us Outside—today!"
"It's winter, my boy. We'd freeze."
"You've said it's pretty in winter! You took the money for thecertificate."
"I suppose you'll grow away from your parents soon anyhow; I supposeyou have to.... Get your warmest clothes and meet me at emergency exitfour."
My grandfather talked it over with his sister Annie and of course theydidn't have any warm clothes, but they'd heard so often from Old Archabout the cold that they put on two sets of tights apiece, and twopairs of sox, and then they hunted for the emergency exit.
They'd never been there before. They didn't know anyone who had. Thesigns pointing to it were all worn and defaced.
And it was a long way to go. After a while Annie began to hang back.
"How do we know the exit will work?" she asked.