A man sits at a table reading a book. It’s early in the morning, and he rubs his sleepy eyes. His finger traces the words down the page as he silently mouths the sentences. The phone rings.
Sheldon and Jamian were brothers cut from the same cloth, so to speak; yet in some ways they were as different as night and day. Sheldon, five years Jay’s senior, had gone off to MIT, and was currently teaching an astronomy class. (He had only come home now for his father’s funeral–which happened to be on the day before his birthday.) He loved books and learning, and he was always pointing out the constellations and telling their stories, or, on a really hot day, he would point up at the sun and say,”That one star over there is just too damn close!”
Jay, on the other hand, hated books and learning–it gave him a headache. He never finished high school, and could barely read, but he was not stupid. Jamian had a different kind of smarts. Since his mother had turned senile and the old man fell ill, he had been running the farm by himself, and he was good at it. And like Sheldon, he could make people laugh. He could make up a funny song off the top of his head, or tell a story that would have the boys roaring. He wore bibs all the time, which only lent to the down-home kind of boyishness about him, something the ladies seemed to find irresistible.
Now that the funeral was over, there was one thing left to do: spread the ashes. The old man had certainly mentioned wanting his ashes spread at a plot he referred to as Valhalla–because of the rows of huge pines–enough times for the boys to know they had a mission. And even though Valhalla was half-way up Pike Mountain, the old man hadn’t foreseen any problems with it. Of course, he hadn’t planned on dying in the winter, or right before a Minnesota snowstorm, or a few days before his eldest son’s birthday. Still, they had confidence that they could ride up there on the mare, and get back before the snow fell.
They left early in the morning with an eye on the darkening clouds. With two riders and two feet of snow on the ground, the mare lumbered along, painstakingly slow. By noon, they figured they were about half way. The snow started to come down; lightly at first, and then in huge quarter-sized flakes, falling softly and silently.
“Sheldon,” Jay said, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Did you ever pretend that the snowflakes are like an army of tiny aliens with parachutes invading the Earth?”
“No, Jay, I can’t say I ever did. But I think that aliens would have to be a bit more advanced than that to traverse interstellar space…you know, come from another star system.
“Do you think they would attack us? I mean, they might be really hungry after a long trip in space.”
“Well, we’d like to think that they would have to be so far beyond our technology, that we would be the barbarians. On the other hand, Indians. Look what we civilized folk did to them.”
“Smorgasbord Earth, next right. Gas, lodging, and all you can eat.”
They rode on in silence for a while. Until Jay said, “Sheldon.”
“How come humans are the only animals that need glasses?”
“I’m not even going to answer that one. You should pick up a book some time. I mean it; reading enriches your life, Jay. I know you’re no dummy.”
Finally, they reached Valhalla. The snow was coming down heavy now and the wind had picked up. When Sheldon opened the urn to dump out the ashes, the wind whisked them away, and Mother Nature put the ashes where she wanted them.
Even so, they had accomplished the mission and carried out their father’s last wishes, so they began the journey home.
When it started to get dark and they still had a ways to go, Jay suggested they stop and build a little snow-cave like they used to as kids, and spend the night in it. “C’mon,” he said, “It’ll be fun, Sheldon. I’ll dig it out.”
The snow seemed to be subsiding now, and Sheldon would rather have kept going, but this would be a real opportunity to drill it in his brothers head that a proper education is essential in today’s world. And a chance to get closer to his brother. And his toes were freezing. “Yea, okay,” he said, getting off the mare, “my toes are freezing anyway.”
Sitting back and watching Jay dig the snow like a gopher in a garden made him smile. Maybe not everyone is cut out to be a scholar, he thought for the briefest of moments.
It wasn’t long, the snow-cave was carved, and the two brothers were comfortably nestled inside. The snow had ended, and now the sky cleared, revealing the stars like shining jewels on an inky black velvet sky. Looking up out of the cave entrance, light pollution was nil, and the boys had a view seldom seen by modern man.
“Wow.” Jay was the first to speak. “I never knew there were so many stars!”
“That’s just it, Jay. You miss out on so much by refusing to read a book. Just think of all the wonderful things you could learn. Like, for example: you see that bright star over there?”
“Yea, I see it.”
“Did you know that we can tell exactly what that star is made of, how hot it is, how far away it is, and which way its moving by its light? Or that some stars are so far away, that their light, traveling at six trillion miles an hour, still takes billions of years to get here.”
“Somewhere out there,” Sheldon said, pointing into the vastness of space, “two black holes collided and sent out gravitational waves when we were neanderthals living in caves. During the waves’ journey here, we evolved into modern man, discovered science, and built an interferometer just in time to measure those waves.”
To the north, curtains of green and scarlet light danced across the sky.
“Sheldon,” Jay said after a while.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a birthday present for you.”
“That’s alright. I’ll tell you what. I’ll considerate it a present if you promise to try to educate yourself a little, okay?”
“You got it.”
“Those are some awesome northern lights, hey Jay? Do you remember when ma used to tell us that the northern lights were caused by Eskimos walking on the reflecting ice of the North Pole?”
“Yes I do, but I know what really causes them now.”
“Like hell you do. But you could, if you would just pick up a book sometime. That’s what I think. But then, you never did care what I thought.”
Jay sat up straight and cleared his throat. He said, “When charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher state. When they drop back to a lower energy state, they release photons, creating the aurora, or northern lights.”
Sheldon was dumbfounded. He stared at Jay in disbelief, and then remembered the book he’d seen on the table. “You dipshit,” he said, grabbing his brother around the neck, “I think you just might have given me the best birthday present ever!” His toes were beginning to warm.