Today we continue our series about great short stories. (Click here for Part One.)
For several decades Fredric Brown was a prolific author of mysteries and science fiction, producing most of his work in the 1940’s and 50’s. I could have chosen several of his works for inclusion in this series. “Arena” s perhaps his most famous story, both for its own merits and for its adaptation into a memorable episode of Star Trek (Captain Kirk vs. the Gorn!) And while I have quite a few of his novels and story anthologies sitting on my shelf (lovingly rescued from the shelves of various used bookstores over the years), I’m afraid I have only read a small portion of his output. But for me there is one of his stories that is so powerful and memorable that it was the clear choice for this series. I’m referring to a virtually unknown and very short story called “Something Green.” Here’s the opening, to whet your appetite:
The big sun was crimson in a violet sky. At the edge of the brown plain, doted with brown bushes, lay the red jungle.
McGarry strode toward it. It was tough work and dangerous work, searching in those red jungles, but it had to be done. And he’d searched a thousand of them; this was just one more.
He said, “Here we go, Dorothy. All set?”
The little five-limbed creature that rested on his shoulder didn’t answer, but then it never did. It couldn’t talk, but it was something to talk to. It was company. In size and weight it felt amazingly like a hand resting on his shoulder.
He’d had Dorothy for — how long? At a guess, four years. He’d been here about five, as nearly as he could reckon it, and it had been about a year before he’d found her. Anyway, he assumed that Dorothy was of the gentler sex, if for no better reason than the gentle way she rested on his shoulder, like a woman’s hand.
Now, this is one of those stories that really has no point until you reach the ending. So I’m going to be spoiling pretty much everything about it. On the other hand, the story is sufficiently short that the excerpts and summaries I’m about to present will probably be enough to make you feel like you’ve read the whole thing.
Over the next few paragraphs we learn that McGarry is marooned on planet Kruger III, having crash-landed there roughly five years before. He knows that a previous astronaut from Earth, named Marley, had crash-landed there many years before. There’s a very faint hope that if he can find that other ship he might also find the parts he needs to repair his own and get off the planet. He has no idea where to look, and after so many years the parts may not be functional anyway, but it is his only chance so he grimly keep’s looking.
We also learn that he has a solar-powered weapon that has protected him from the planet’s many predators. In the paragraphs that follow, keep in mind that the “lion” being referred to is simply a creature on Kruger III that looks vaguely like an Earth lion:
He stopped ten paces short of the edge of the red jungle and aimed the sol-gun at the bushes behind which the lion crouched. He pulled the trigger and there was a bright green flash, brief but beautiful — oh, so beautiful — and the bushes weren’t there any more, and neither was the lion.
McGary chuckled softly. “Did you see that, Dorothy? That was green, the one color you don’t have on this bloody red planet of yours. The most beautiful color in the universe, Dorothy. Green! And I know where there’s a world that’s mostly green, and we’re going to get there, you and I. Sure we are. It’s the world I came from, and it’s the most beautiful place there is, Dorothy. You’ll love it.”
From here we learn more about Kruger III. We find out that the side of the planet McGarry is on exists in perpetual daylight. He never crosses over to the dark side of the planet, finding it far too dangerous. There are no seasons, just persistent sameness. We also learn that it’s really not such a bad place to live, save for the fact that it possesses nothing that is green. We learn further that Earth is the only known planet to possess green things in such profusion.
Then, one day, a space ship form Earth lands on the planet. McGarry is able to signal the pilot by firing the gun into the air. The bright green flash on a planet with no other green catches the pilot’s attention. The pilot is named Archer, and he tells McGarry that it would be no problem at all to rescue him from the planet. They can take off as soon as the engines cool sufficiently for a take-off. While they are waiting, McGarry tells Archer about what had happened to him.
They sat in the shadow of a brown bush, and McGarry told him about it, everything about it. The five-year search for the other ship he’d read had crashed on the planet and which might have intact the parts he needed to repair his own ship. The long search. About Dorothy, perched on his shoulder, and how she’d been something to talk to.
And that is when McGarry gets some unexpected news.
But somehow, the face of Lieutenant Archer was changing as McGarry talked. It grew more solemn, even more compassionate.
“Old timer,” Archer asked gently, “what year was it when you came here?”
McGarry saw it coming. How can you keep track of time on a planet whose sun and seasons are unchanging? A planet of eternal day, eternal summer —
He said flatly, “I cam here in twenty-two forty-two. How much have I misjudged, Lieutenant? How old am I — instead of thirty, as I’ve thought?”
“It’s twenty-two seventy-two, McGarry. You came here thirty years ago. You’re fifty-five. But don’t let that worry you too much. Medical science has advanced. You still have a long time to live.
McGarry said it softly. “Fifty-five. Thirty years.”
The lieutenant looked at him pityingly. He said, “Old timer, do you want it all in a lump, all the rest of the bad news? There are several items of it. I”m no psychologist but I think maybe it’s best for you to take it now, all at once, while you can still throw into the scale against it the fact that you’re going back. Can you take it McGarry?”
McGarry is crushed, but the thought of returning to Earth is sufficiently comforting to convince him that he can handle it. Archer continues
You’ve done wonderfully for thirty years, McGarry. You can thank God for the fact that you believed Marley’s spacer crashed on Kruger III; it was Kruger IV. You’d have never found it here, but the search, as you say, kept you — reasonably sane.” He paused a moment. His voice was gentle when he spoke again. “There isn’t anything on your shoulder, McGarry. This Dorothy is a figment of your imagination. But don’t worry about it; that particular delusion has probably kept you from cracking up completely.”
Merely having the delusion pointed out to him is sufficient to dispel it. McGarry explains that he thinks he never really believed in Dorothy, but was simply desperate for company. He tells Archer that, distraught though he is, the fact that he will soon be on Earth will get him through it.
And that’s when Archer unleashes one last piece of bad news. Perhaps you can guess what it is.
Lieutenant Archer was shaking his head slowly. Not back to Earth, old-timer. To Mars if you wish, the beautiful brown and yellow hills of Mars. Or, if you don’t mind heat, to purple Venus. But not to Earth, McGarry. Nobody lives there anymore.”
“Earth is — gone? I don’t –”
“Not gone, McGarry. It’s there. But it’s black and barren, a charred ball. The war with the Arcturians, twenty years ago. They struck first, and got Earth. We got them, we won, we exterminated them, but Earth was gone before we started. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to settle for somewhere else.
Archer goes on a bit longer, then explains they should now be able to take off.
[Archer] stood up and started toward the little spacer.
McGarry’s sol-gun came out of its holster. McGarry shot him, and Lieutenant Archer wasn’t there anymore. McGarry stood up and walked to the little spacer. He aimed the sol-gun at it and pulled the trigger. Part of the spacer was gone. Half a dozen shots and it was completely gone. Little atoms that has been the spacer and little atoms that had been Lieutenant Archer of the Space Patrol may have danced in the air, but they were invisible.
McGarry put the gun back into its holster and started walking toward the red splotch of jungle near the horizon.
He put his hand up to his shoulder and touched Dorothy and she was there, as she’d been there now for four of the five years he’d been on Kruger III. She felt, to his fingers and to his bare shoulder, like a woman’s hand.
He said, “Don’t worry, Dorothy. We’ll find it. Maybe this next jungle is the right one. And when we find it –”
McGarry now fires his gun to kill an approaching predator.
McGarry chuckled softly. “Did you see that, Dorothy? That was green, the color there isn’t much of on any planet but the one we’re going to. The only green planet in the system, and it’s the one I came from. You’ll love it.
She said, “I know I will, Mac.” Her low throaty voice was completely familiar to him, as familiar as his own; she’d always answered him. He reached up his hand and touched her as she rested on his naked shoulder. She felt like a woman’s hand.
McGarry then returned grimly to his search. The End.
I first read that story in high school. It blew me away then, and it did so again just now as I reread it for this post. After putting the book down after reading it I thought, “Yes! That’s exactly what people do!” Given the choice between a comforting delusion and painful reality, the delusion just becomes more entrenched.
Since high school I’ve met McGarry over and over again. His disciples have been out in force at every creationist conference I have ever attended. When everyone is congratulating everyone else for the strength of their delusions, it is easy to start wondering if maybe you are the deluded one. I see it in so much apologetic and theological writing, where religious demagogues write with absurd levels of arrogance and smugness of the “obvious” truth of their tradition or holy book. I see it in modern Republican politicians and in right-wing economic theorists and in the uncomprehending voters who place these guys in office, oblivious to the fact that they are being conned into voting against their interests.
I see it over and over again. And who knows? Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Maybe the McGarry’s of the world are on to something.
I’m not one inclined to describe fictional stories as &true” when I really mean simply that the story communicates something I believe to be true. Mostly I think it is absurd to talk about different sorts of truth. But “Something Green” makes me come as close as I ever have to changing my mind on that. This story is true, dammit. In just under two thousand words it says something deep and important about the human condition. What more can you ask for from a short story?