Chapter 49 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney


On Saturday, Dave called the Princess. They made small talk for several minutes, and then Dave asked if she was free for dinner.

"Sure," she said. "But I should let you know right away that I'm a vegetarian."

"Oh, uh, OK," said Dave. "Is that because Martians don't eat meat?"

"No, it has nothing to do with that," she said. "I just don't believe in eating animals."

"Well, that's cool," said Dave. "I like meat myself, but I'm sure we can cope. Let's see... how's about pizza?"

"Sure, that's fine, I love pizza."

"Great. I'll pick you up at eight, OK?"


Within 30 seconds of hanging up the phone, Dave was out the door, and at 8:29, he and the Princess ate pizza. He had pepperoni and she had mushroom and olive.

Afterwards, they talked.

She told him things about Mars, and her father, and his ideas about ancient Martian race memories stored in the subconscious of people with red hair.

"Sometimes I think it's all a bunch of ridiculous nonsense," she confided, "but at other times I think there might be something to it. When a bunch of different artists and sculptors, people who have nothing in common except for the color of their hair, when they create works of art that seem somehow similar and related, doesn't it seem... well, it sort of makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

"I suppose."

"Take a look at this," said the Princess. She dug into the small canvas shoulder bag which she carried and pulled out a small rock-like thing.

The object was made out of stainless steel, but was stained with black marks and fused lumps of metal and had a very rough and unpolished appearance. Its shape was that of a flattened sphere, two inches in diameter; two saucers of metal joined together like a clamshell. It resembled a rock more than anything else, though it could also be compared to a charcoal briquette. One might see it lying in the grass of a forest, or in the sand on a beach, or in the mud at a skyscraper construction site, and give it not another thought.

The Princess handed the object to Dave. He looked at it, and scrunched up his face the way a child does when presented with a bowl of cauliflower. "What is it?" he said. His voice was filled with disgust.

"Shake it," said the Princess.

Dave skeptically obeyed. He shook the rock gently, and was amazed. This hunk of ugly fused metal produced beautiful sounds. It made a gentle, tingling sound, like windchimes in the distance. The sounds were magical and ethereal, faint but quite undeniable. And it took Dave away, to another time and another place, and he thought of his childhood, and of the sweet smell of flowers, and of twinkling stars in the deep blue sky.

A broad smile spread across Dave's face. "Wow," he said, laughing. "That's really cool."

He had shaken it very gently, and it had produced just a few tiny notes. The Princess encouraged him to shake it vigorously, and they heard a symphony of magical sound.

"What is it?" Dave asked.

"It's called 'Stardust,' " said the Princess. "It's a sound sculpture by a man named Reinhold Marxhausen."

Dave shook the Stardust repeatedly, marveling at the beautiful sounds it produced.

"Here," said the Princess, "Strike it with this fork." Dave did so, and the metal stone became a bell. "Now hold it to your ear," she said. The stone continued to resonate, gong-like, for a long time in Dave's ear.

"That's amazing," said Dave.

"Now this," said the Princess, "just doesn't seem to me to be something of this Earth, at least not of this civilization. It's things like this that make me believe Dad's crackpot theories. I can almost believe that this is really a recreated piece of a different civilization, that this really belongs millions of miles away, on Mars."

Dave didn't reply. He was still marveling at the Stardust, shaking it and holding it to his ear.

The Princess let Dave play with the Stardust as they rode home on the subway, but when they got back to her place, she demanded its return, and stowed it away again in her canvas bag.

They went inside her apartment. "Would you like some tea?" said the Princess.

"What kind?" said Dave.

"Hmmmmmm," said the Princess. It was a soft, purring, laughing noise. "I have many kinds of tea. Come into the kitchen and pick one."

The Princess had 29 different varieties of tea. They ranged across her refrigerator and also occupied some of the cabinets. Dave was daunted, but finally selected something called "Emperor's Choice."

"Ha!" said the Princess, "That's a good tea. It's my Dad's favorite."

"Naturally," said Dave.

Dave sat drinking tea and chatting with the Princess for much of the night.

Around one o'clock, she decided it was time for him to go. He protested, but went to the door anyway. "Thanks for dinner," she said, gently maneuvering him outside. "Call me tomorrow." She gave him a quick kiss, and then scurried back inside her apartment and closed the door behind her.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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