The night sky of south-central Kansas is pure poetry, a trillion points of
light punctuating the blackness, dominated by the Milky Way's bright path,
paved with stars. In their seventeen years of marriage, Henry T. Pettibone
had looked up at it many times from their farm eight miles northeast of
Rollins, and so had Charlotte M. Pettibone.
They had seen shooting stars of all descriptions, and airplanes, satellites, and many other lights in the sky. Identified flying objects. Unidentified flying objects. Charlotte saw one on the night of October 13th when she was out closing the chicken coop door. Henry saw one on November 2nd when he went out to take a quiet pee by the apple tree before going to bed. Neither thought a thing about it, and neither mentioned it to the other.
It was not until mid-November that things began to get a little strange.
What Henry noticed was a different, glowing kind of look about Charlotte in the morning. What Charlotte noticed was a peculiar little smirk curling about her husband's lips in the morning.
Charlotte Pettibone had moved into the guest bedroom several years before, remarking that twelve years of Henry's window-rattling snoring was quite enough. It is true that they still had sex on most Saturday nights, even though they had long ago given up on children. But Charlotte looked pink and warm and glowing every morning, not just on Sunday. And she began to whistle and chirp merrily through the autumn days, just like a meadowlark in spring. And Henry took to singing "Tea for Two," and "Lady of Spain," and other songs that Charlotte didn't know he knew, at the most unlikely times.
One night Charlotte stood before her open bedroom window even though it was quite cold, wondering what was going on with her husband. She knew what was going on with her of course, but what was going on with him? Then she saw it.
Whatever it was. Since their yard-light was off and there was only a sliver of moon, who could tell? It was just a sort of bouncing shadow in the night, working its way up the side of their house! It actually looked something like a-oh, no, that couldn't be. Why, she had only seen one of those a few times in her life, mostly when they'd visited Henry's brother in California.
Charlotte shrank back into her bedroom. Suddenly she didn't want to see where that - that thing was going. Well, darn it, she did and she didn't. She moved cautiously back to the window and looked out. Nothing. Nothing but the moon-slivered, star-spangled Kansas night. Charlotte crawled back into her warm bed. Frowned. Smiled. Waited.
Next morning over his usual breakfast of coffee and oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar-and pancakes and eggs and biscuits-with-honey and fragrant sausages. Henry T. Pettibone came to a decision. Though he'd had a pretty good night himself, he was getting almighty tired of Charlotte's glowing like a rainbow in the morning and burbling like a spring freshet. "Uh, Charlotte, how come you're so happy lately?"
"Am I happy lately?" asked Charlotte, looking at him with her eyes big and round and blue behind their glasses.
Henry snorted with disgust, ate three more sausages, and went out to change the oil on his John Deere and do some welding on his harvester.
It was around Thanksgiving time that Charlotte began to find one excuse after another for not getting together with him on Saturday nights. And for some weeks now she had been locking her bedroom door at night. They were coming up on Christmas when Henry T. Pettibone decided that enough was enough. Although his own conscience was perhaps not perfectly clear, he decided that he was going to find out what was going on with his wife or know the reason why.
So after she retired one night, he armed himself with a flashlight and an axe and planted himself on an old quilt outside her bedroom door. Luckily it had never been hung properly; the crack under it was almost an inch wide. He would be able to hear what was going on in there. He would get the bottom of this thing. He would stay awake no matter what.
Even so he was very nearly asleep when he felt it, a light touch against his leg in the darkness. He grabbed for the thing but it scampered right over him and squeezed through the crack under the door. There hadn't been time to reach for his flashlight but it was obviously a mouse. No threat there, and no illumination to the puzzle. He put his ear close to the bottom of the door and listened carefully. All quiet.
Or was it? Wait a minute, was that . . . Yes! Surely he could actually hear her breathing in there, and the bedsprings creaking slightly. She was wide awake all right-and not only that! Henry T. Pettibone had listened to that breathing and those little moans on Saturday nights for seventeen years-by God, a man couldn't be fooled on some things. Frank Slade? Tommy Hastings? But how in the-ah, of course, even though they were on the second floor, whoever it was must have gotten in through the window.
He got up, clicked on the flashlight-then clicked it off and set it down. No, he would need both hands. He'd just flick on the bedroom light after he shouldered through the door. That little lock wouldn't hold a wimp, let alone six-foot-four Henry T. Pettibone. With a firm grip on his axe, he backed up and prepared to charge the door.
Lord, how she did scream! Still, the crash and the sudden light and the upraised axe were bound to be somewhat disquieting. But Henry had gone too far to let a little scream stop him, or even a big one. He jerked the blankets and the sheet right out of her clutching hands. Her nightgown was pulled up around her waist and there . . . there . . . sticking out of her . . . the most disgusting . . . some kind of green tentacles or . . .
His axe clattered to the floor. He could not take his eyes away from his wife's middle, where the . . . the thing oozed out of her body and by using its whitish sprouts as legs, crawled and slid down her belly, off the bed, and then scampered with surprising speed out of the door.
Charlotte stopped screaming and pulled down her nightgown.
Henry picked up his axe.
"Don't kill me, Henry!" And then, "Don't kill him, Henry!" as her husband dashed through the door, axe upraised.
Henry charged after the unspeakable usurper like Doom itself. The thing could obviously move when it had a reason - and it had a reason! Even so he was only a couple of yards behind when it dashed through the kitchen door and up onto the countertop. Gotcha! With a howl of rage and triumph, Henry T. Pettibone swung his axe in a mighty avenging stroke.
Surely Henry cannot be blamed for missing that orange, carrotlike body - it wasn't all that large and Henry had been through much. His blade did clip off a few leaflike green tentacles as it buried itself nearly to the haft in the countertop as the rest of the organism nipped out of the open window.
Henry looked out, spoke a few words that his mother would not have approved, then slammed the window back down. Black clouds were hiding the moon. The thing was gone, into the darkness. It was cold outside and there was a light covering of snow. He was almost certain that this window had been closed earlier but whether she had opened it or-ah well, what difference did it make? What difference did anything make?
How in the world could she . . . With a-a . . . Gripping his axe, he dashed back up the stairs. With a-Good Lord, even Tommy Hastings would be better than that. As his thoughts merged into a red haze, Henry T. Pettibone was capable of just about anything.
But when he got back to the guest bedroom, his jaw dropped in astonishment. Charlotte was gone! The red fog slowly dissolved as Henry realized that carrot or no carrot, he loved that woman. She had made his breakfast and mended his jeans for seventeen years, and even helped with the harvest and sometimes with the haying. But how . . . Where . . .
"Henry! Is that you?"
Charlotte! Calling from their bedroom, of all places. Henry hurried down the hall. And there she was in their big brass bed with her glasses off and her arms held out to him, just like the old days. It is true that her lower lip was trembling and her big blue eyes never left the axe still gripped in his hands.
Henry dropped the axe. "Oh, I'm so glad - I thought maybe you'd run out on me."
"What? Run out on a helpless baby like you? Why, the house would be a pigsty in three days. Two! Uh, you didn't get him?"
Henry shook his head.
Charlotte folded back the blankets and patted the sheet beside her. "Please, darling, put on your pajamas and crawl in. I haven't been a very good wife lately, I knew it the minute I saw that axe."
Henry quickly got into his pajamas and crawled in beside his wife. He put his hands behind his head while Charlotte pulled the blankets up around them. His alarm clock sounded unaccountably loud. He supposed they would have to talk but he didn't know how or where to start.
Charlotte finally broke the silence. She told of the carrot-thing who had come from outer space and had managed to make a forced landing in their south 120-acre field last October. His instructions were to vaporize his lifeboat in such an eventuality and he had done so. Even though he-it-was more vegetable than animal, he managed to communicate with her by thought-feelings, really. He-it-was very lonely and when it turned out that her body was much like the soil of his beloved home planet, well, one thing had led to another. She realized it was all a little unusual, but maybe Henry could understand?
Henry T. Pettibone nodded. He could understand all right. Beside him, Charlotte waited. Expectantly. Did she know? Well, whether she did or didn't, this was obviously the time to tell his story. But somehow the words wouldn't-quite-come.
"Uh, Henry? You know I was looking out of the bedroom window one night and I saw . . . Well, I saw something, uh, bouncing up the side of the house."
"Ah?" said Henry.
"Yes. It looked like it was heading for, you know, your bedroom. This bedroom."
"Ah . . ."
"Yes. This very bedroom, Henry. And the strangest thing was that it looked like-well, like a big artichoke. So I was just wondering if you, uh, had something to tell me?"
And then, finally, Henry did. The story poured out of him-another survivor from an alien spaceship, also more vegetable than animal, also communicating by feelings, and yes, something like an artichoke but with certain, ah, openings . . .
"That's OK, Henry," said Charlotte hurriedly, "you don't have to go into, you know, the clinical details."
"Ah, good. So she-it-was lonely and well, somehow one thing led to another. You know."
"Yes, sighed Charlotte, "I know." Two big tears squeezed out of her blue eyes. "Oh Henry, I'm so-so sorry."
"So am I," said Henry T. Pettibone.
"Why don't you turn out the light, honey?"
Henry popped out of bed, stubbed his big toe on the axe handle, turned off the light, and popped back in. Then they were in each other's arms and nothing was said for a long, long time.
"Oh look," said Charlotte when they had straightened out their pajamas and the bedclothes, "the moon has come out again. How bright it is tonight! You know, I've got a sort of feeling . . ."
"So do I," said Henry.
Without another word, they both got up and walked over to the window. The clouds had all disappeared, the moon was nearly full, and the light covering of snow helped to illuminate a sight that neither Henry nor Charlotte Pettibone would forget as long as they lived.
A carrot and an artichoke, dancing in the moonlight.
x x xAbout the author, William K. "Bill" Carlson: My biography is quickly told. I'm a 63-year-old bachelor living in Chico, California, 100 miles north of Sacramento. I was born in Chicago, brought up there and on a farm in Nebraska, got a B.A from University of Nebraska and an M.A. from Cornell. Then I spent three and a half years in the U.S. Navy, stationed on a destroyer. Now I make my living working seasonally for the National Park Service. I've had two novels published by Doubleday, Sunrise West and Elysium. Also a number of short stories and articles, but I've never really made a living with my writing.