I learned today that Ray Bradbury, my second favorite author, died on June 5th. He was 91.
As Tolkien was to fantasy, so Ray Bradbury was to science fiction – both popularized their genres. And like Tolkien, Bradbury wrote prose like it was poetry.
I still have the old, well loved books and even now, on my reading shelf is a Bradbury book that I bought late last year, “From the Dust Returned”.
When I was a teenager, I took a month long cross country road trip with my parents. It was one of the most influential times of my life.
And during those long hours on the road, in between the marvelous, surprising sights of America, I’d while away the miles by reading or rereading his short stories, in collections such as “The Illustrated Man”, “S is for Space” and probably my favorite, “R is for Rocket” which included classic stories, “A sound of Thunder” (which has influenced countless time travel stories since), “The Fog Horn”, “The Long Rain” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.
“R is for Rocket” also contains a story that I remember being read to me when I was younger, “Frost and Fire”. That story is about a tribe of people that were stranded on a planet that burned during the day hours and froze in the dark, with only the hours of dawn and twilight being fit for life outside of their caves.
What’s more, life on the planet is sped up – including those of the people, who lived only eight days. The people have ancestral memories, so from the moment of their birth they are snapped into consciousness, aware of their own speeding mortality.
The grasping, clawing, desperate nature of the people who have only eight days to grow, fall in love, bare children, age and die has only further tightened it’s grip on my imagination as I’ve grown older.
During the night, Sim was born. He lay wailing upon the cold cave stones. His blood beat through him a thousand pulses each minute. He grew, steady.
Into his mouth his mother with feverish hands put the food. The nightmare of living was begun. Almost instantly at birth his eyes grew alert, and then, without half understanding why, filled with bright, insistent terror…
..It was an unbearable planet. Sim understood this, a matter of hours after birth. Racial memories bloomed in him. He would live his entire life in the caves, with two hours a day outside. Here, in stone channels of air he would talk, talk incessantly with his people, sleep never, think, think and lie upon his back, dreaming; but never sleeping.
And he would live exactly eight days.
Carpe diem indeed!
But the story, like most of his stories, has hope. And hope is something else that I feel a greater yearning for as I grow older. Dark tales, dystopian stories, have their place, but a smart story that is also hopeful, is a rarer gem.
I hold books to be precious, but as a kid, I took the usual step of rating the stories in the book’s table of contents – in pencil of course!
Even now, I can see how I rated the stories from 1 to 5. But there were a couple that I did not like at all. One of those was, “The Sound of Summer Running” which has a penciled X through the page number – it wasn’t even worthy of a “1”!
I understand why I didn’t like it as a kid. It didn’t have monsters, or rocket ships or time travel or any other such fantastic escape. Instead, the story is about the pleasure of summer and youth, as witnessed by an old shoe salesman in a young boy who is thrilled to buy a pair of sneakers for the summer. No, it took me some years to see the magic, and the true escape told in that story. Now it is one of my favorites.
In the shoe store, the old man is captured by the boys imagination after the boy has put on his new “Litefoot sneakers”.
Mr. Sanderson leaned forward. “How do they feel?”
The boy looked down at his feet deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town. He looked up at the old man, his eyes burning, his mouth moving, but no sound came out.,
“Antelopes?” said the old man, looking from the boy’s face to his shoes. “Gazelles?”
The boy thought about it, hesitated, and nodded a quick nod. Almost immediately he vanished. He just spun about with a whisper and went off. The door stood empty. The sound of the tennis shoes faded in the jungle heat.
Mr. Sanderson stood in the sun-blazed door listening. From a long time ago, when he dreamed as a boy, he remembered the sound. Beautiful creatures leaping under the sky, gone through brush, under trees, away, and only the soft echo their running left behind.
“Antelopes,” said Mr. Sanderson. “Gazelles.”
He bent to pick up the boy’s abandoned winter shoes, heavy with forgotten rains and long-melted snows. Moving out of the blazing sun, walking softly, lightly, slowly, he headed back toward civilization….
I hope that, in the end, Mr. Bradbury walked back towards the sound of Gazelles bouncing over the loam and the jungle grass towards adventure. And with him goes my thanks for the adventurous stories of my youth – both then and now.