Kepler-186f was the first planet of a similar size to Earth to be found orbiting in the habitable zone of its star. It is a rocky planet, which probably has some liquid water, and it is in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan. A day on Kepler-186f could be weeks or months long. Its star is dim – the brightest it gets at noon is as bright as our sun an hour before sunset. The red star might mean that plants using photosynthesis are red instead of green.
No one followed me out here. I looked back every ten feet or so to make sure I wasn’t being followed, and then I doubled back through the long, rusty grass and into the swampy woods for a little while for good measure. Not that I was doing anything wrong, I just wanted to be alone. Ever since the earthquakes started, alone time was hard to come by, and to be quite honest it was driving me crazy. I know, I know, we are blessed to be able to serve those who have lost more than my family did, those who lost their homes and their family members and came rushing to the coast to escape the fires, the destruction and the unpredictable ground-shaking. But I needed a break. We all need a break sometimes.
Early, before sunrise, before the animals started squawking and shuffling outside, while the air was still cold and the dew frozen in tiny round droplets on the leaves of the bramble plants, I slipped out of the bed I shared with my siblings (all of them younger and so clingy now that their world had been upended) and left a note for my mother on the kitchen table, and scooted out into the dark. I would be back by lunchtime, and if anyone was annoyed that I’d skipped out on my morning duties, I’d deal with that later. I breathed in the deep cool air, tinged with the smell of vegetation, and ran on toward the seashore, my bare feet squishing in the mud. The sun was just starting to inch above the horizon when I arrived. It hovered red and dim, mimicking the lighthouse that jutted out of bare rock a mile or two down the coast. Seabirds on long legs pecked at the vast, muddy beach. Red and orange grasses shot up in tufty patches along the path.
It had been night for so long, how could I miss a sunrise? The earthquakes started a couple of sleeps into the last night, and had continued for random intervals anywhere from a few hours to a few sleeps apart. It was the unpredictability that made it so unbearable. No one knew when the quakes would come, or how many of them there would be. After each one we thought, is that the last? If a few sleeps had passed, we thought, that must have been the last. But another one always came. Several of them had been so bad that whole cities at this point were leveled. Many people had died. We lived near the coast, far enough from the epicenter of the quakes, which were closer to the mountains. We still felt the tremors of the stronger quakes, but we had lost nothing more than some pottery that fell off a high shelf. As refugees from the cities started pouring toward the coast, the people in my village took them in. Together, we built encampments and kitchens. They helped with the crops and the animals. But there was still much work to do.
Still, I had never missed a sunrise. They only came every 36 sleeps, and ever since I was a child, my best friend and I would run out to the sea to watch the sun come up. You can tell when it’s going to happen, even without a calendar, because the sky starts to lighten gradually. The stars start to disappear one by one. The birds change their tune, and the air even gets a little bit warmer, almost imperceptibly. My siblings say I’m imagining it, but I think I can feel the difference. My skin prickles.
I had wandered all the way down to the water, which was lapping lazily at my feet. Tiny holes made by burrowing insects dotted the sand. The sun moved so slowly. Everything moved slowly. My whole body filled with the salty air. I could taste it in all my organs. Down the beach, toward the lighthouse, I could barely make out the form of a small person. I squinted. I couldn’t tell if they were moving toward me or away. We hadn’t talked about it, there wasn’t time between all the added chores of caring for the people who had come down from the cities, but I hoped my best friend would be meeting me here. It was our tradition to watch the sun come up and make a wish. Was that them, down the beach? My eyes were excellent in the dark, but in this weird half-light of dawn they played tricks on me.
I whistled, and the person whistled back. I raised my arm, and they raised theirs. The sun’s mid-point reached the horizon. It hovered as a weird half-circle, casting light out in two straight beams along the horizon, and reflected off the ripples on the water in a wavy, red path through the sea, leading directly to the figure down the beach.
I started walking toward the hazy silhouette. It didn’t seem to get any bigger as I got closer, but it raised its arm again and kept it up in the air as I approached, which I took as a sign of welcome.
When I got closer I could see it wasn’t a person at all but a bird. It was completely white, even its legs, except for its beak, which was black and covered with dents and scratches as if it had been used in battle. The swan stared at me – I stepped closer, but stopped still a few feet away from it. We looked at each other for a while, what seemed like a long time. The sun slipped above the horizon. Seabirds sailed over the ocean, strangely calm, and nipped at bugs that gathered along its surface. Some fish far out jumped from the water and slipped back into the depths hardly disrupting the placid surface. The swan’s eyes, also black like its beak and unblinking, regarded me. “Hello,” I said, after some time. I noticed the moment my voice broke the silence, how silent it had become on the beach. Not even the waves made any sound. The bird looked back at me, slowly blinked translucent lids over its solid-black eyes and opened its beak. A red tongue slipped out. It spoke:
“You,” it said. “You are here for your wish?”
“I.. am.” I said, surprised. How did it know? Was this swan the embodiment of the ocean spirit that my friend and I had wished to all this time? Or was it a demon that prowled the beach preying upon lonely travelers? This was the first time I had come here alone.
I hesitated. The things my friend and I had always wished for in the past seemed so trivial, now that we were engaged every day in the lives of people who had lost everything. If we wanted to attract the attention of a certain classmate, or if we wanted to find sweet fruits in the woods behind our house, those things didn’t seem worthwhile now. And it wasn’t just that I was afraid of being thought of as frivolous when so many people had lost their family members and their homes, but now that there was someone standing in front of me offering to actually grant my wish, I was paralyzed as to what I should ask for. Would this be the only wish I ever got? Should I wish for something for someone else, so as not to seem selfish? Should I wish for a future happiness and success, instead of something immediate like we always did, now that it was guaranteed to be granted? Something big? Should I wish for the earthquakes to stop – or was that selfish because what I actually wanted was my old life back, without all these people around interrupting it with their tribulations? Should I wish for a bigger home for my mother and siblings, since we were all crowded into one room – or would that be selfish also? I looked at the swan hoping for some kind of clue as to what I was supposed to wish for, but saw nothing in its blank, empty eyes.
I remember a fairy tale I heard when I was little: thirteen sleeps into the coldest night of the year, a child wanders off into the woods where its mother has told it not to go wandering alone, and gets lost. The child cries, runs, falls and scratches its knees, starts going in circles trying to find its way back home. Finally, covered in scrapes and mud and tears, it stumbles onto a magical cottage that will only appear if you pass the same prickly bush three times. The cottage looks warm and inviting, and the child is so tired and scared, so it opens the door and goes inside. The cottage, of course, belongs to a powerful witch. The witch, who could go either way as far as being good or evil, takes pity on the child and after feeding it and cleaning it, and seeing it sitting all plump and cozy by the fire wrapped up in woolen blankets and gently petting the witch’s pet cat, tells the child it can make a wish. Any wish, she says, will be granted, so think carefully. Unfortunately, the child is very foolish, as we know from the beginning of the story when it wandered off into the woods against its mother’s instructions. So the child, without thinking at all, wishes for a piece of candy. It doesn’t even specify what kind of candy it wants. The witch shrugs and gives the child a lollipop with a bug encased in it and goes back to the kitchen stove to continue brewing her potions. The child eats its candy and falls asleep on the rug. When it wakes up, it is still in the woods, still lost and cold. It wanders through the forest for the rest of its life, eventually turning into a ghost.
The fairy tale goes something like that. The lesson is: be sure to make big enough wishes when given the chance, and always listen to your mother.
The swan twisted its head back and forth slowly a few times, looking at me with one eye and then with the other. It was actually a huge bird, about as big as me. “Well, child?” it said. Its voice was steady and monotone, low like the sound of the earthquakes rolling down out of the mountains. “For what do you wish?”
I remember another story, one about a fisher who lived in the next village a long, long time ago. Every morning, she went down to the sea to catch fish to feed her family, and every afternoon she came back laden down with so many fish she could share them with the other families who lived on her road. In return, they gave her woven blankets, vegetables, and all kinds of things she and her family needed. One day, however, she left at the same time as she did every morning, before the rest of the household was awake, but came back hours late with no fish at all in her baskets, and none hanging from the pack she always carried on her back. Everyone told her not to feel so bad, as she was apparently crestfallen, that it was just a bad day of fishing and she would have better luck tomorrow. But for seven days, she left early in the morning and came back at bedtime with nothing for anyone to eat, having caught absolutely no fish. She didn’t speak during all of this time, either, but went directly to sleep. Finally, the youngest child decided to sneak out and follow the fisher down to the ocean to see what was going on, and if it could be of any help. The child walked twenty paces behind the fisher the whole way to the shore, but she didn’t turn around at any point or show any sign of noticing she was being followed. When they got to the sea, the child hid behind a clump of grass and watched. The fisher approached the edge of the water, but didn’t get out her net or her fishing rod. She just stood there, her hand shading her eyes from the sun, as if she was looking for something. Suddenly, the waves drew back to form a high frothy wall, and an enormous fish appeared. It was as big as a house! The child crept up closer, to hear what they were saying.
You have summoned me here again, said the fish. What do you wish for this time, mortal?
The fisher responded without hesitation: I wish for peace among the warring clans to the north, and for those in the south to never go hungry.
That is two wishes! said the fish, peevishly. I will grant the first. Don’t bother me again today. Come back tomorrow.
With that, the huge fish retreated back into the sea, and the waves crashed down into a smooth surface again.
The rest of the day, the fisher spent throwing her nets out into the sea and drawing them back in, empty. The child, still frightened from seeing the giant fish, fell asleep in the grass until the fisher found it there on her way home and woke it up.
I am very hungry, said the child, did you catch us anything for dinner tonight?
No… there were no fish in the ocean again today. Maybe they’ve gone somewhere else.
Why didn’t you wish for food? We are starving without the fish you bring home for us every day, the child whined.
The fisher looked at the child with sorrowful eyes and said, There are many more needful than us.
The lesson of that one is that you can’t waste all your wishes on other people. You have to be a bit selfish to survive.
The swan stood in front of me, waiting. “Ok,” I said, and I took a deep breath and made my wish, the biggest wish I could think of, stating it as clearly as I could, so the swan wouldn’t get confused or try to trick me by twisting my words or granting it too literally, as I’d learned from other fairy tales.
The swan bowed its head and spread its wings to their full width. I jumped back a couple of paces – its wings were huge, ten feet across, and the feathers it had been hiding against the side of its body were blood red. When it closed its wings, it was gone. I looked up and down the beach, but the huge bird had totally vanished. Sound came back into everything: the waves, which had picked up as the sun rose, the seabirds who flew over the surface of the ocean, the sound of the wind in the grass. I was suddenly very hungry, and turned to go home.
Reba Elliott is a writer and artist living in Chicago, where they make books and other publishing projects as a member of Meekling Press.