The comet was the only thing in the
whole sky. All the stars were smothered by the
light of its copper-yellow flame, and, although the
sun had set two hours ago, the Earth was lit as with
the glow of a thunderous dawn.
In Mayfield, Ken Maddox walked slowly
along Main Street, avoiding collisions with other
people whose eyes were fixed on the object in the
sky. Ken had spent scores of hours observing the
comet carefully, both by naked eye and with his 12-inch
reflecting telescope. Still he could not keep
from watching it as he picked his way along the street
toward the post office.
The comet had been approaching Earth
for months, growing steadily to bigger proportions
in the sky, but tonight was a very special night, and
Mayfield was watching with increased awe and half-dread as
were hundreds of thousands of other communities around
Tonight, the Earth entered the comet’s
tail, and during the coming winter would be swept
continuously by its million-mile spread.
There was no visible change.
The astronomers had cautioned that none was to be
expected. The Earth had passed through the tails
of comets before, although briefly, and none of the
inhabitants had been physically aware of the event.
This time there was a difference.
As intangible as a mere suspicion, it could yet be
felt, and there was the expectancy of the unknown in
Ken prided himself on a scientific
attitude, but it was hard not to share the feelings
of those around him that something momentous and mysterious
was taking place this night. There would be no
quick passage this time. Earth would lie within
the tail for a period of over four months as they
both made their way about the sun.
Such close-lying orbits had never
occurred before in the known history of the world.
“It’s frightening, isn’t it?”
Ken was aware that he had stopped
at the edge of a crowd in front of Billings Drugstore,
and beside him Maria Larsen was staring intently upward
as she spoke.
She was a small, blonde girl with
intense blue eyes. Ken smiled confidently and
looked down at her. “No,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s
a kind of miracle that we should be alive when it happened.
No human beings have ever seen such a sight before.”
Maria shivered faintly. “I
wish I could feel that way. Do you think it will
get any bigger?”
“Yes. It will not reach
its closest approach for over three months, yet.
Its approach is very slow so we won’t notice
“It is beautiful,” Maria
agreed slowly, “but, still, it’s frightening.
I’ll be glad when it’s gone.”
Ken laughed and tucked the girl’s
arm in his. There was something so disturbingly
serious about the Swedish girl, who was spending a
year in Mayfield with her parents. Her father,
Dr. Larsen, was a visiting professor of chemistry,
engaged to teach this season at the State Agricultural
College in Mayfield. Ken’s own father was
head of the chemistry department there.
“Come down to the post office
with me to get some stamps,” Ken said.
“Then I’ll drive you home.”
“It’s closed. You can’t get
any stamps tonight.”
“Maybe the boys in gray haven’t
been too busy watching the comet to stock the stamp
machine. Look out!” He pulled her back quickly
as she stepped from the curb. A wheezy car moved
past, its driver completely intent on his observation
of the comet.
“Old Dad Martin’s been
trying to wrap that thing around a pole for 25 years,”
Ken said unhappily. “It looks like he’s
going to make it tonight!”
Along the street, bystanders whistled
at the aged driver, and pedestrians yelled at one
another to get out of the way. The car’s
progress broke, for a moment, the sense of ominous
concern that spread over Main Street.
At the post office, Ken found Maria’s
prediction was right. The stamp machine was empty.
“I have some at home,”
the girl said. “You’re welcome to
“I need a lot. Mother’s sending out
“I’m sure I have enough.
Papa says I’m supporting the postal department
with all the letters I write to everyone at home in
“All right, I’ll take
you up on it. I’ll get skinned if I don’t
get them. I was supposed to pick them up this
afternoon and I forgot all about it.”
“I thought I learned good English
in the schools in Sweden,” said Maria wistfully,
“but I don’t seem to understand half what
you say. This ’skinned’ what
does that mean?”
“Nothing you need to worry about,”
Ken laughed. “If you would teach me English
the way you learned it, Miss Rymer would give me a
lot better marks in her class.”
“Now I think you’re making fun of me,”
“Not me. Believe me, I’m
not! Hey, look what’s coming down the street!
That’s old Granny Wicks. I thought she had
died a long time ago.”
In front of the post office, an ancient
white horse drew a light, ramshackle wagon to a halt.
From the seat, a small, wizened, old woman looked
at the crowd on the street. She dropped the reins
in front of her. Her eyes, set deeply in her
wrinkled face, were bright and sharp as a bird’s,
and moved with the same snapping motions.
From both sides of the street the
bystanders watched her. Granny Wicks was known
to everyone in Mayfield. She was said to have
been the first white child born in the valley, almost
a hundred years ago. At one time, her horse and
wagon were familiar, everyday sights on the streets,
but she seldom came to town any more.
Many people, like Ken, had had the
vague impression that she was dead.
She appeared lively enough now as
she scrambled down from the wagon seat and moved across
the sidewalk to the post office steps. She climbed
these and stood in front of the doors. Curiously,
the crowd watched her.
“Listen to me, you!” she
exclaimed suddenly. Her voice was high and shrill,
reminding Ken of an angry bird’s. Maria
looked at him wonderingly, and he shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t ask me what she’s
up to. She’s pulled some corkers in her
Granny Wicks looked over the gathering
crowd. Then she pointed a bony arm at the glowing
comet. “You know what it means,” she
exclaimed shrilly. “You feel it in your
bones, and your hearts quiver with fear. There’s
death in the sky, and an omen to all the inhabitants
of the Earth that destruction awaits men.”
She stopped and glared. The laughter
that had first greeted her gave way to uneasiness
as people glanced at their neighbors, then hastily
at the comet, and back to Granny Wicks. Some
began moving away in discomfort.
“You’re scared to listen,
eh?” Granny shrilled at them. “You’re
afraid to know what’s in store! Turn your
backs then! Close your ears! You can’t
change the signs in the heavens!”
A movement in the crowd caught Ken’s
eye. He saw the stout figure of Sheriff Johnson
moving toward the steps. The law officer stepped
out in front and approached Granny Wicks.
“Come on now, Granny,”
said Sheriff Johnson. “You wouldn’t
want to scare folks out of a good night’s sleep,
“You let me alone, Sam Johnson!
I’m saying what I have to say, and nobody’s
going to stop me. Listen to me, all of you!
There’s death in Mayfield in the winter that’s
coming, and spring won’t see one man in ten
left alive. Remember what I say. The stars
have sent their messenger....”
“Okay, Granny, let’s go,”
said the Sheriff. “You’ve said your
piece and scared the daylights out of everybody.
You’d better be getting on out to your place
before it gets dark. The comet won’t light
things up all night. How’s your supply
of wood and coal for the winter, Granny? The
boys been getting it in for you?”
“I got plenty, Sam Johnson.
More’n I’ll need for this winter.
Come spring, I won’t be around to be needing
anything else from anybody. Neither will you!”
The Sheriff watched as the old woman
climbed to her wagon seat again. Those standing
nearby helped her gently. She took the reins and
snapped them at the weary horse.
“Take care of yourself, Granny!” someone
Sheriff Johnson stood silently on
the steps until the wagon passed out of sight around
the corner of the block. Then he moved slowly
by Ken and Maria. He smiled grimly at Ken.
“It’s bad enough to have
that thing hanging up there in the sky without that
kind of talk.” He glanced up for a moment.
“It gives you the willies. Sometimes I
wonder, myself, if Granny isn’t half-right.”
There was a stillness in the street
as the people slowly dispersed ahead of the Sheriff.
Voices were low, and the banter was gone. The
yellow light from the sky cast weird, bobbing shadows
on the pavement and against the buildings.
“Shall we go?” Maria asked.
“This is giving me what do you say? the
“It’s crazy!” Ken
exclaimed with a burst of feeling. “It shows
what ignorance of something new and strange can do.
One feebleminded, old woman can infect a whole crowd
with her crazy superstitions, just because they don’t
know any more about this thing than she does!”
“It’s more than that,”
said Maria quietly. “It’s the feeling
that people have always had about the world they find
themselves in. It doesn’t matter how much
you know about the ocean and the winds and the tides,
there is always a feeling of wonder and fear when you
stand on the shore and watch enormous waves pounding
“Even if you know what makes
the thunder and the lightning, you can’t watch
a great storm without feeling very small and puny.”
“Of course not,” Ken said.
“Astronomers feel all that when they look a
couple of billion light-years into space. Physicists
know it when they discover a new particle of matter.
But they don’t go around muttering about
omens and signs. You can feel the strength of
natural forces without being scared to death.
“Maybe that’s what marks
the only real difference between witches and scientists,
after all! The first scientist was the guy who
saw fire come down from the sky and decided that was
the answer to some of his problems. The witch
doctor was too scared of both the problem and the
answer to believe the problem could ever have a solution.
So he manufactured delusions to make himself and others
think the problem would just quietly go away.
There are a lot of witch doctors still operating and
they’re not all as easy to recognize as Granny
They reached Ken’s car, and
he held the door open for Maria. As he climbed
in his own side he said, “How about coming over
to my place and having a look at the comet through
my telescope? You’ll see something really
“I’d love to. Right now?”
“Sure.” Ken started
the car and swung away from the curb, keeping a careful
eye on the road, watching for any others like Dad Martin.
“Sometimes I think there will
be a great many things I’ll miss when we go
back to Sweden,” Maria said thoughtfully, as
she settled back in the seat, enjoying the smooth,
powerful ride of Ken’s souped-up car.
Ken shot a quick glance at her.
He felt a sudden sense of loss, as if he had not realized
before that their acquaintance was strictly temporary.
“I guess a lot of people here will miss the Larsens,
too,” he said quietly. “What will
you miss most of all?”
“The bigness of everything,”
said Maria. “The hundreds and hundreds of
miles of open country. The schoolboys with cars
to cover the distance. At home, a grown man is
fortunate to have one. Papa had a very hard time
“Why don’t you persuade
him to stay here? Mayfield’s a darn good
place to live.”
“I’ve tried already, but
he says that when a man is grown he has too many things
to hold him to the place he’s always known.
He has promised, however, to let me come back if I
want to, after I finish the university at home.”
“That would be nice.”
Ken turned away, keeping his eyes intently on the
road. There was nothing else he could say.
He drove slowly up the long grade
of College Avenue. His family lived in an older
house a block below the brow of College Hill.
It gave a pleasant view of the entire expanse of the
valley in which Mayfield was situated. The houses
of the town ranged themselves in neat, orderly rows
below, and spread out on the other side of the business
section. In the distance, north and south, were
the small farms where hay and dairy stock and truck
crops had been raised since pioneer times.
“I’ll miss this, too,” said Maria.
Ken wasn’t listening to her,
however. The car had begun to sputter painfully
as it took the curve leading off the avenue to Linwood
Street where Ken lived. He glanced at the heat
indicator. The needle was almost at the boiling
“For Pete’s sake!
The water must have leaked out of the radiator.”
Ken pulled the car to the curb in
front of the house and got out, leaving the engine
idling. He raised the hood and cautiously turned
the radiator cap with his handkerchief. A cloud
of steam shot out, but when he lifted the cap the
water was not quite boiling, and there was plenty
Maria came up beside him. “Is something
“You’ve got me there.
The radiator’s clean. The pump isn’t
more than two months old. I checked the timing
last Saturday. Something’s gone sour to
make her heat up like that.”
From across the street, his neighbor,
Mr. Wilkins, approached with a grin. “Looks
like the same thing hit us both. Mine started
boiling as I came up the hill tonight. It’s
got me stumped.”
“The circulation must be clogged,”
said Ken. “Either that or the timing has
slipped off. That’s all it could be.”
“Those were my ideas, too.
Both wrong in my case. Let me know if you get
any other bright ones.” He moved off with
a pleasant wave of his hand.
“It will cool,” said Ken
to Maria. “By the time you’re ready
to leave I’ll be able to drive you home.”
“I wouldn’t want you to damage your car.
I can walk.”
He led her around the house.
In the center of the backyard loomed the high, round
dome of his amateur observatory. It was Ken’s
personal pride, as well as that of the members of
the Mayfield High Science Club, who had helped build
the shell and the mountings. The club used it
every Thursday night when the seeing was good.
Ken had ground the precision mirror
alone. He had ground his first one, a 4-inch
glass, when he was a Boy Scout. Three years later
he had tackled the tremendous job of producing a 12-inch
one. Professor Douglas of the physics department
at the college had pronounced it perfect.
Ken opened the door and switched on
the light inside the dome. “Don’t
mind the mess,” he said. “I’ve
been taking photographs of the comet for the last
To Maria, who was used to the clutter
of a laboratory, there was no mess. She admired
the beauty of the instrument Ken and his friends had
built. “Our university telescope isn’t
any better,” she said.
“You can’t tell by the
plumbing,” Ken laughed. “Better take
a look at the image before you pass judgment.”
Skilfully, he swung the long tube
around to the direction of the comet. With the
fine controls he centered the cross hairs of the eyepiece
on the blazing object in the sky.
“It’s moving too fast
to stay in range very long,” he said.
Maria stepped to the observer’s
position. She gasped suddenly at the image
of the fiery monster hovering in the sky. Viewing
the comet along the axis of the tail, as the Earth
lay at the edge of it, an observer’s vision
was like that of a miniature, flaming sun with an offcenter
halo of pulsing, golden light.
To Maria, the comet seemed like something
living. Slow, almost imperceptible ripples in
the glowing scarves of light made them sway as if
before some mighty, cosmic wind in space.
Maria murmured, “but it’s terrible, too.
No wonder the ancients believed comets brought evil
and death upon the Earth. I could almost believe