Never on a birthday
published originally in Byzarium, November 2008
They said in the corridors of the galaxy, if the galaxy had corridors, that no one could throw a birthday party as fine as Hermon Feyst.
Certainly no one did it as often. A thousand guests, magnificent food, outrageous ornaments, and the orchestra – such heavenly talent, especially that trumpet player who jumped on his chair in a magnifique solo at the end of ‘Happy Birthday’. One could of course argue that they got quite a lot of practice playing ‘Happy Birthday’. But then again, one could be accused of sour grapes. If you were the richest man in the universe, wouldn’t you want to celebrate your birthday every day?
On this day on Lokona, Hermon celebrated his birthday in Lokonian years, which wasn’t the same as Martian years and not at all the same as Earth years, but had he lived on Lokona, which he did not, it would have been his birthday, and that alone was worth coming here for a celebration.
And what sort of celebration!
As the planet’s three suns threw their confused shadows across the courtyard of the mock-Spanish inn, wine twinkled in glasses and guests laughed at the giant butterflies that had taken a liking to Hermon’s wife’s hat, like a living, writhing, fluttering headdress. Hermon stood in the shade of a butterfly tree, the home of those deliciously ridiculous creatures, letting his gaze roam over all his friends, laughing, talking, eating.
‘Oh, Hermon, aren’t they delightful?’ Esmeralda cocked her head, and a few butterflies tossed themselves into the air. ‘Why do you think they like me so?’
‘Because you are the loveliest woman at the party.’ Her hair might be silver, and her body might no longer be young and firm – for body modifications were so last century – but her beauty lay in her heart.
Seated on her other side Teddy laughed, waving butterflies out of his face. His twinkling grey eyes met Hermon’s. ‘Mother and I were just discussing how we can use profits from the Avrilia Mining Project to build a shelter for refugees on Europa.’ Teddy had his mother’s eyes, but unfortunately his father’s rounded belly. Now in his seventies, flecks of white dotted his ginger hair.
That’s when a knock of something hard on wood silenced the merrymaking.
Hermon looked over his shoulder at the heavy wooden doors that led into the inn’s foyer. On unsteady legs, from having drunk too much, Hermon crossed the courtyard and creaked open the door.
A gust of cold blew in, ruffling Hemon’s white hair and the sign on his chest that said ‘Birthday Boy.’
‘I have come,’ rasped a wheezy voice, no more than a whisper.
‘I can see that.’ Hermon chuckled, but the sound fell flat. The man dressed in the blackest of black. His hands hid within the folds of his cloak, his face under a heavy cowl.
‘Can I come in?’
Hermon half-closed the door. ‘Pardon me, I think you’re at the wrong address. I don’t know who you are, mister. I didn’t invite you.’
‘I know that,’ the man said and chuckled in the depth of his hood. ‘I often come uninvited.’
Another cold breath crept over Hermon’s bare arms, making him shiver. ‘No one comes uninvited to my party, scarecrow. Begone with you!’
He slammed the door shut, and under curious eyes, strode through the courtyard, past the butterfly tree, to the staff quarters. The pilots and technicians were playing with astro-stones, the coloured chips laid out on the table. The chief pilot of Hermon’s private space ship glanced up. ‘Who was that, boss?’
Hermon didn’t answer the question, but charged across the room where Jock sat snoring on a couch, his chin resting on his chest, a glass tipped over on his stomach, its contents having seeped into his shirt. ‘Jock!’
The astronomer jerked up, letting the glass clatter to the floor. ‘What?’
‘Where are we off to tomorrow?’
The astronomer fumbled for his holo-projector in his pocket. He flicked it on.
Jock scratched his head. ‘Uhm – where are we now?’
‘Lokona, you idiot. Just because we discovered the pattern repeats every 1326 days, that doesn’t mean I have no need for an astronomer – or one who is drunk when he shouldn’t be.’
‘Uhm – yes boss.’ Jock swallowed hard and blinked to focus his watery eyes on the projection. ‘Tomorrow, we will travel to Ameran, Dota system. According to this table, it will be your 113th birthday there.’
‘Ameran then it is.’ Hermon whirled back to the pilots. ‘Are the ships ready?’
Ameran it was. They travelled through the wormhole at night and arrived at the planet the very next day.
Ameran’s climate was less pretty than Lokona’s, so the locals, by now accustomed to Hermon’s turning up every year, had erected a huge tent.
Here, the guests partied and danced while rain pelted on the canvas roof. Hermon sat next to his wife for that magical moment when the orchestra played ‘Happy Birthday,’ keen for that magnificent trumpet solo.
But it never came. The orchestra finished the song, to raucous applause.
Hermon called out, ‘The trumpeter, what happened to the trumpeter?’
The conductor downed his stick, and coat tails flapping, he ran through the crowd. He kneeled, red-faced and sweating, at Hermon’s side. ‘I am so sorry. I have bad news, boss. I didn’t want to give it to you on your birthday.’
‘Every day is my birthday. Out with it.’
The man cringed. ‘Our trumpet player died last night.’
‘Died!’ Hermon roared. ‘That’s impossible!’
The conductor cringed again. ‘Yet, it is true. We left his body on Lokona to be collected by his family.’
Hermon turned to his wife. ‘Esmeralda, just come with me for a bit.’
She took his hand, and they walked to a corner of the tent. The partygoers watched him, which Hermon didn’t like; he never kept secrets from his friends.
Esmeralda spoke in a soft voice. ‘You look upset, darling.’
‘I am. Our trumpeter has died.’
‘You are angry about that?’
‘I don’t understand. I liked the man. I loved his playing.’
Esmeralda shook her head. ‘Hermon, dear, people die, whether you like them or give them permission or not. Just because the prophecy says that you won’t die on your birthday, that doesn’t mean that others won’t.’
In the moody light from the flapping candles, Esmeralda’s face looked very old.
Hermon found a new trumpeter, not as good as the old one, but good enough. The company travelled through a wormhole every night, and every day there was a party. He was almost happy again.
That was until they came to celebrate on Morack.
Hermon didn’t like Morack, although he had often celebrated his birthday there, for it was a planet which tightly orbited a cool sun, and had a short year.
A world so ancient that all its mountains had ground to sand and sea and land had mixed until the entire surface was a marsh bog perpetually ravaged by tides under the influence of its single – and huge – purple moon.
Hermon’s pilots had trouble locating the capital, which, as it turned out, had followed the drift of the Great Sand Spit south. Someone had dragged Hermon’s floating party hall to a new location and left it stranded in a bog full of smelly seaweed, like a discarded shipping container, which in fact, it had been in a previous life.
Hermon requested a comm link and blustered at the authorities. They were very sorry, they said, but since a flood had destroyed the old capital, their priority had been to save the people sent adrift by the spring tides.
‘Fair enough,’ Hermon said, and donated a good slice of funds to the homeless of Morack
But he still didn’t like it.
He sat at his table next to Esmeralda and while she chatted to Teddy about charitable project – bless his son’s good heart – Hermon said very little.
‘You are so quiet, dear.’
Hermon sighed. ‘Something is going to happen. I know it will.’
Esmeralda took his hand. ‘Oh dear, you worry too much.’
‘I know.’ Hermon blew out long sigh. ‘I guess I’m getting old.’
She laughed, that tinkling sound he loved so much. ‘Of course you are, older than any human in the universe. But I love you, Hermon.’
‘I know. I love you too, and you as well, Teddy.’ He reached out and drew his son closer. Teddy patted him on the back. ‘I love you, Dad.’
Hermon felt a little better, but still he was hardly surprised when the thin cloaked figure showed up.
He met the stranger at the door. ‘You again. You must like birthday parties.’
‘Indeed.’ Today he wore a blue cloak. Contrary to the black one, it was the right length, and didn’t hide his hands. They were strong and tanned.
‘What’s with the new cloak?’
The visitor chuckled. ‘I thought it was time for something more friendly. Don’t you like it?’
‘I don’t care about the outfit. I don’t like you. Get out!’
As he turned around, he almost bumped into someone. One of his pilots, an expression of horror on his face. He only asked, ‘Who?’
The pilot said, ‘Jock.’
Jock had been a useless drunk, Hermon told himself over many of the following birthdays, and the wormhole-hopping from planet to planet in between. See, the pilots were now finding their own way. They didn’t need the astronomer anymore.
But Hermon had liked Jock, even though he had blustered at him so often. When they next came back to Morack for Hermon’s birthday, he stood at the door of the party container, and threw a wreath of flowers onto the marshy ground where Jock had been buried. Behind him, the guests clapped and cheered at the orchestra’s 4176th rendition of Happy Birthday. Hermon couldn’t muster more than a wry smile. The music wasn’t the same without the trumpeter and the party wasn’t the same without Jock. The new astronomer was a young fellow, who trembled each time Hermon spoke to him.
He let his gaze roam all his friends in hall, and got a shock. The stranger was in the audience. He must have wormed his way in and sat at one of the tables, tucking into the food.
Hermon charged across the hall, and grabbed the man by the back of his cobalt blue robes. ‘Did I invite you in?’
The stranger yanked his cloak coolly out of Hermon’s hands and rose from his chair. He stood taller than Hermon. In the shadow of his hood, Herman could almost make out the man’s face. His teeth blinked white when he spoke. ‘You can try to keep me away, but you are powerless.’
‘Get out, before I set the guards on you.’
The stranger chuckled. ‘You may own the universe, Hermon Feyst, but you do not own life.’ With this, he turned and made for the door.
As he sploshed away in the rain-soaked mud, a great cry went up in the hall behind him. His heart thudding, Hermon turned.
A knot of people had assembled in the middle of the hall. Hermon pushed his way between them, and they parted to let him through. Slumped on the floor, the pink hat askew on head, lay his lovely Esmeralda.
Hermon buried Esmeralda on Oberon.
As the party guests stood around the grave and the desert sand whipped around their ankles, the orchestra played solemn music, and sadly, they’d had a fair bit of practice doing that recently, too.
Hermon looked upon the gathered crowd. All those young and new faces he had chosen to replace the old ones. Bright and beautiful people, who would rule the universe if it wasn’t for being dragged along on the quest for the eternal birthday party.
Teddy put a meaty arm on his father’s shoulder. ‘We will go on, Dad.’
‘I know,’ Hermon said, and at that moment wasn’t sure if he should be happy or sad about that. ‘I will always have you, Teddy.’
‘I love you, Dad.’
Father and son held each other for a long time and only went back to the party hall when the sun was about to go down.
And so Hermon carried on. Lavish parties by day, travel by night.
He was often tired. Without Esmeralda by his side, he didn’t sleep well. He tried some other women, but they were never quite as nice, or as funny, or as caring, or… The point was, they weren’t Esmeralda. More and more, he relied on Teddy to do the talking, and to keep his vast business empire running.
And somehow, that felt natural. Business passing from father to son.
Of course it was only a matter of time before the stranger turned up again.
Hermon and his entourage had descended on the planet of Orkos, a gem which the keen new astronomer had discovered recently.
Teddy had done all the work for the party, and had hired a large barn at the edge of a sleepy farming town. Surrounded by whispering grass of the prairie, empty all the way to the horizon, Hermon felt at peace.
He sat on the veranda, staring at the waving grass, while the guests partied inside. It started to drizzle, but that didn’t drive him inside. Teddy came and sat with him for a while, and they discussed business. Occasionally, a waiter would come to fill his glass or bring him some food.
He was eating an exquisite local dish of pickled grasshoppers when the tall grass at the bottom of the stairs swished aside and a thin figure emerged.
The stranger wore a robe of rich red. As he stepped out of the rain, he flicked back his hood, something he had never done, and for the first time, Hermon saw his face.
Twinkling grey eyes, short grey hair, a neatly-cropped beard.
Hermon stammered, ‘You… I thought you would look like…’
‘Yes. All horrible, like a ghost, with pale skin and blood-stained eyes.’
‘Death has many different faces.’ The stranger stared out over the prairie and didn’t say anything for a long time.
Not that it bothered Hermon; he quite enjoyed the silence. Eventually, he spoke. ‘You took my wife.’
‘Your wife had a happy and healthy life. All lives must end, once.’
‘You had no right to take her. She… she was younger than me; she shouldn’t die. It is not natural. The man usually dies first.’
‘Should I remind you that it’s you who is not natural? True, I cannot touch you because of the prophecy, but everyone around you lives normal lives. If you wish to go on celebrating your birthday for another thousand years, that is your decision, but don’t ever moan to me about people’s deaths not being natural.’
And with that, he descended the steps and slunk into the rainsoaked prairie. It didn’t take long for the grass to swallow him.
Hermon called after him, ‘I’m sorry!’
There was no reply. He heaved himself from his chair and yelled at the waving grass, ‘Come back! Tell me who dies.’
The rain pattered, and the grass swished in the breeze.
Trembling, Hermon turned back to the partying crowd. Strangers, most of whom just stared at him. Not a familiar face in sight.
Hermon called out, his voice like the meow of an abandoned kitten, ‘Teddy?’
Some people said that after the loss of his son, Hermon Feyst became silent and withdrawn. He still had his parties, but would sit at the table and just stare. Often, he complained. The food never tasted as good; the music wasn’t as heavenly and all these people who travelled with him, he hardly knew them.
And so there came an evening that he called his pilots to him.
They had come to Lokana again and its three suns hung low in the orange sky.
‘Our next destination is Ameran,’ said the young and keen astronomer.
‘I know,’ Hermon said. He gave a weary smile and added, ‘I have been this way before, you know.’ Eighty-six times in fact.
The first pilot blushed. ‘Oh – I’m sorry – I forgot.’
Hermon waved his hand. ‘No, young man, you are not to blame.’
Another short silence.
‘Do you want me to prepare the ship?’ the first pilot asked.
‘No, young man, I don’t want you to prepare the ship. I am tired. I think I shall stay here tonight.’
‘But that means…’ The pilot’s eyes grew wide.
‘I know what it means.’
There was a prolonged silence.
‘But we like you, Hermon,’ the first pilot said.
‘Pah. What am I to you apart from an idiot who has far too much money and too many wrinkles?’
The pilot went red and stammered a few unintelligible words.
‘See, there you go. Go home to your families and tell them you love them.’
When at last everyone had gone, the courtyard seemed terribly empty. The pink butterflies danced in the last of the sunlight. Hermon sat at the table where Esmeralda had sat all those years ago, and waited. Roars of engines over the city meant that his ships were departing.
Finally, there was a knock on the door.
The stranger wore a white cloak, contrasting sharply with his tanned face. His gold-rimmed hood lay back on his shoulders. He smiled.
Hermon smiled back, uneasy at first, then more happy. Out of all the people in his life, he at least knew this man. He gestured at the empty courtyard. ‘Come in.’