Mommy, Cowboy : A Short Story

by | Jan 3, 2023 | Christmas, Fiction

Cowboys were never meant to have a home. But no one ever told Mommy that.

It was a silly nickname, the result of an unfortunate misspelling on his interstellar Federation papers. He didn’t mind though. “Emmanuel” was much harder for people to remember. And few people read his papers close enough to notice the misspelling of “Emmamuel.” But no one ever forgot Mommy the cowboy.

The irony that he had never seen an Earth cow was not lost on Mommy. To compensate for this linguistic oversight, he referred to the bulky interplanetary shuttles as “cows.”  The Federation’s gravity wells made this type of travel possible and, over the course of a few decades, created an interstellar travel industry where mass made all the difference. To withstand the changes in gravity, the shuttles had to be sturdy, but not so sturdy that they would shatter. It happened less frequently these days but still enough to scare away casual travelers. Some other cowboys limited their travel on the cows. Better to settle down in a place different enough from their homes to maintain that sense of lawlessness so quintessential for cowboys. That attitude was one of the few holdovers from the original Wild West. 

Even with the risks, Mommy felt best on the move. There was safety in insecurity, he told himself. More rugged. Plus, he still thought of himself as a hero. If you ever needed saving, you could count on Mommy. He’d take odd jobs on whichever planet he could find them, and he tried his best. People often said that they liked his work ethic.

Although there was that one time when one of the other cowboys, George, fell into a well. But that was different. Mommy had fallen asleep guarding the road to the dig site. George ignored the warning signs and underestimated how quickly the gravity shifted in the well. That pesky distance-squared term never felt real until it was too late. Before he realized he was falling, the light around him was already dimming. Mommy heard the screams in time to check his comm device and record a short video of George’s last moment on any planet. The Destiny Mine Corp. refused to pay Mommy for his “lack of diligence.” Luckily, he had a habit of buying his exit ticket before he arrived on a new planet. Real cowboys had to keep moving.

Anyways, that wasn’t what he wanted to think about today. He was supposed to be watching the tall machines that wandered around every gravity well and were known as Shuttle Electro-Epicenters. It was one of his favorite jobs; the Sh.E-Ep needed him. One of them was always wandering outside the enclosure, and he would bring it back in. They were another validation for Mommy that instability and transiency were virtues. He liked thinking of them as sheep and of himself as a shepherd. It was his most frequent job since the sheep were in every known solar system by now. The irony of a cowboy working mostly with sheep was also not lost on Mommy.

The problem was that the sheep were powerful. Their four long black legs supported a central mechanical box high enough for most people to walk under. They acted as relay centers, channeling the gravitational energy from the surface of the planet up to the shuttles in orbit. The stark shifts in gravity around them also bent most visible light in unexpected ways, giving them the fuzzy look of their namesake. Their more-or-less random motion across the surface of the planets helped stabilize the energy flow from the well to the cows. It made the shuttles less susceptible to gravity fluctuations from passing planets or natural variations in the planetary orbits.

Today, one of the sheep had wandered into a jagged set of quartz-like crystals growing out of the ground. Mommy was lying on the ground of the pasture looking up at the shuttles overhead. His comm device projected a message above him: “Emmanuel, go find the lost sheep.” He had programmed the device for these visual messages. It was one of the few things that used his full name. He rolled onto his knees and checked his monitor for the location of the missing sheep. The quartz patch was close by. 

He made sure the other sheep were gathered close enough together and headed toward the quartz patch. As he approached it, he noticed two figures standing at a distance staring at the sheep.

“Don’t worry!” Mommy said, gesturing with his palm out, indicating for them to wait. “I’ll have this out of your way soon enough. I’m in charge of this herd.” The figures stood watching him as he approached the sheep.

Whenever a sheep would wander over a boundary, Mommy had to shut it down manually. They hadn’t been designed with cowboys like him in mind. He held no grudges against them or their maker. He could handle it. He was a hero after all. 

All he had to do was wait until they got stuck on a rock or ore deposit. They were drawn to the densest spots by their gravity meters. Jagged terrain or craters often caught the wandering ones. Mommy would have to locate them and crawl underneath to reach the gyro-motor. Sometimes his fingers would get clipped by the rotating rings, but he had learned to be careful. Then it was a slow process of dragging them back into the fold. The physical exertion made him think and feel like he was doing something good. 

The two figures continued staring as Mommy strode with new confidence toward the machine. He didn’t often have an audience. Just behind the energy field, he could see some cloth underneath the central gyro-motor. He laid on his back to crawl underneath. As he scooted closer, his head bumped into something warm. He could turn his face just enough to see it wriggling. He had slid as far as he could underneath the sheep, so he focused on reaching up toward the motor. His hand trembled at its full extension, and a gyro-ring struck his middle knuckle. With a shout, he plunged his hand toward the motor to stop the spinning. 

When he opened his eyes again, everything became clearer as the energy fields faded. He pushed the sheep upwards against one of the larger crystals. Then he turned back to look below him. 

On the ground lay a small child, wrapped in a rough cloak with only its head free. Mommy stared at it. The child stared back with eyes outsized for its head. Mommy took a step back, feeling defenseless toward this creature in front of him.

The last time he had seen a child was in one of the Federation’s failed colonies. His job had been to decommission the remaining structures in the primitive complex around a gravity well. While deconstructing a shelter, he opened a large storage chest and found a father clinging to an emaciated infant, both wrapped in a reflective emergency blanket. The father kept repeating, “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.” The child must have been born shortly after establishing the colony and died soon afterward. There weren’t enough resources to properly care for everyone. The Federation thought these communities could become self-sustaining, but they were never profitable. Hiring cowboys became the default policy. They were more expendable, like George. Mommy had helped the father place the infant into a smaller wooden chest with the emergency blanket reflecting the stars overhead. The chest was pushed into the gravity well with the rest of the colony, one of the many hidden sacrifices made at the Federation’s altars.

As Mommy looked at this new child, the two figures rushed forward. One of them scooped up the child and the cloth underneath. Up closer, they appeared smaller, dressed in rough, tan cloth draped around their figures at angles that didn’t conform with the human proportions Mommy expected. The one holding the child was speaking to it. “You’re okay, my love. She has protected us in our time of need.”

Mommy noticed the other figure watching him. It held up a hand, palm towards Mommy, as if to stop him. But the words that followed felt more like a welcome: “We thank you for your valor. Our daughter is safe because of you. May you walk in her steps always.” 

“Uh, yeah, sure. No problem.” Mommy said. He looked back at the girl. “Is she okay?”

“She is a blessed child,” the other figure said. “She brings much love to our lives.

Thank you for helping. How may we call you?” 

“Most people call me ‘Mommy.’”

“‘Mommy?’ Of course you are. I am Rachel. That is Leah. And this is our child.” As Rachel spoke, she gestured with different parts of her body. Her elbow toward Leah. Her chest upward toward herself. And her head down toward the girl in her arms.

Mommy tried to mimic her physical expressiveness, gesturing widely with his arms toward the sheep behind him. “Nice to meet you! I need to return to my flock. It is my job to watch over them.”

“We will remember you with our hearts, Mommy.” Leah bowed at the waist toward him. 

“It’s okay.” Mommy blushed at her sincerity. “I was just glad to be here at the right time. My comm device warned me about the sheep,” he said, holding up his wrist with the device. In the same motion, he started pointing back in the direction of the pasture. “I have to get back…”

“Oh, Mommy, your hand!” Rachel said. “You are hurt.”

Mommy looked at his outstretched hand. A drop of blood was ready to fall from his lowest finger. It came from the knuckle that had been struck by the motor ring. His other knuckles looked pale in comparison to the bright red flowing across his hand. 

Leah walked over to Rachel and tore a piece of cloth from her daughter’s cloak. She walked toward Mommy and held out the cloth stretched between her two hands. Mommy placed his finger on the cloth. He could feel the child’s warmth on his drying blood. Leah wrapped the cloth around his knuckle, making a soft brace so that the finger stuck out from his hand. 

“Thank you, Leah,” he said. 

“You’re welcome. You saved our daughter, and now she can help you in this small way.” Leah bowed toward him. “We must return home.”

“Won’t you come with us, Mommy?” Rachel said, stepping toward them. “It would be our honor.”

“I can’t,” Mommy said, bringing his hands together to massage his knuckle. “I have a job to do.” 

Now that Rachel was closer, he could see the child more clearly. She had been looking at him this whole time. Mommy looked down to see her peaceful gaze. The skin on her forehead had tiny wrinkles, giving her a wizened look despite her otherwise expressionless face. She held out a hand toward him, and he held out a finger in response. The child held his finger, his stare, and what felt like his whole being for a moment.

 “Well, maybe I could make sure you get back safely.” He looked back at Rachel. “But then I’ll have to be on my way.”

“Yes, Mommy, you can help us return home.” Rachel beamed at him.

Leah took the child and cradled her with the cloth across her back as a harness. Then the three figures started walking across the barren landscape. 

“I didn’t know that anyone lived on this planet,” said Mommy.

“We make a living trading for what we need,” Leah said. “But we do not need much to survive. We have each other.” 

She glanced toward Rachel, who said, “The Matriarchs tell us that our people lived here long before the otherworlders arrived. Someday, when she comes to deliver us, we too will travel among the stars. That’s where you came from, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Mommy nodded. “I travel across solar systems to find jobs on other planets. I’m a cowboy, even though I work mostly with sheep.” He chuckled at his own joke. 

“I can see that you are a helper.” Rachel said. 

“I like to think so.” Mommy puffed up his chest. “I help keep the gravity wells functional and safe for people.”

“What is a gravity well?” Leah said.

“It’s the power source for interstellar travel. There are deep wells dug into key planets like this one. The sheep help stabilize the gravity differentials and channel that energy toward the ships in space.”

Leah looked at him puzzled, “But how does gravity do that?”

“Well, you feel the gravity of this planet because you’re so close to it.” To illustrate his point, Mommy hopped forward, landing with a soft thud from his boots. “But gravity connects everything in the universe.” He waved his hand across the sky, smiling as he settled into these dramatic flourishes. “It is the force and energy connecting each of us. If you could pay close enough attention, you could feel the motion of other planets and people at the farthest end of the universe!”

“Yes, it is part of our beliefs that all are connected.” Rachel nodded. “But why do we need a gravity well?”

“The wells made it possible for us to move between planets. Once the Federation formed, it needed to make money to finance the wells and started charging for passengers to travel between planets. Because I work for them, I get to travel to new places.”

“Do you ever get tired of moving, Mommy?” Leah said.

“I take moments to rest, and I enjoy helping people in different places.”

“But you could stay here with us!” Leah offered.

Once again, Mommy was startled by this honesty. Before he could reply, he noticed a small mound rising up out of the horizon. Several more appeared as they approached and loomed just over Mommy’s head. He could see more texture on the structures, like fibers hardened over with clay. Cone-shaped roofs hung over the cylindrical walls, providing ventilation and shielding from the wind and debris that marked the landscape. 

A woman approached them from between two of the huts. “Leah. Rachel,” she said, “I see you’ve returned. We weren’t sure that you would. And who is this?” She pointed at Mommy with her chin.

Leah stepped forward. “This is Mommy, a helper who saved our child.”

“Mommy?” The woman said, looking him over. “Will he be staying?”

Rachel stood next to Leah and said, “He will eat with us before returning to his flock.”

“I’m a cowboy, you see.” Mommy began.

“Yes, I can see that.” The woman said. “Thank you for helping the child. You may stay for a meal, but then you must leave.” She bowed deeply and walked off toward a large cluster of huts.

“This way, Mommy.” Leah said, as Mommy continued staring after the woman. The child watched him from Leah’s back.

They entered a hut through a woven door curtain. It was a rough material that held its shape against the wind from outside. Strips of tan fabric had been dyed in deep colors that were difficult to differentiate amidst the tight weave. The image on it looked like twisted tree branches that had grown intertwined. 

As Mommy’s eyes adjusted to the low light inside, he saw a large loom taking up most of the space across one wall. Rachel noticed him looking and walked over to the wooden frame of the loom. “We are weavers. The Matriarchs passed down the knowledge to us, and we continue the tradition. Would you like to see?”

Mommy nodded and walked over to her. Leah handed him the child as he passed by. The girl stared above him as if looking up at the sky through the layers of cloth that formed the roof.

Rachel smiled at them and grabbed a shuttlecock from a nearby basket. She cut several strips from the hem of her own cloak and worked them into the weave. “We put pieces of ourselves into all of our work. It marks them and shares that gift of life with all who receive it.”

The strips seemed to move on their own at times, working their way deeper into the design. Leah’s hands darted across the fabric. “What do you weave?” he asked.

“Leah and I make shelters and furniture. This panel will be used in a chair. The fabric can be shaped into many forms. Other looms are specialized for other work, including the most ancient loom where we weave our children.”

Mommy’s trance broke. “What do you mean that you weave your children?”

“When a couple decides that they want a child, we take strips of their cloaks and weave them together to combine their genes, creating a unique child from their best traits.”

Mommy looked down at the child in his hands. “You made this?”

Rachel laughed. “Yes, she is from Leah’s cloak and mine. Don’t you know how you were created?”

“I didn’t think it was quite like that.” Mommy blushed. “Does that mean your cloaks are alive?” He looked closer at the hem of Rachel’s cloak around the base of her chair. There were no seams or holes, just folds and frayed edges.

Rachel stood and rotated elegantly. “They grow from us and provide all the material we need to live. When we die, we will provide even more. It is our destiny.”

Mommy looked back at the child, marveling at her soft cloak. A small red spot stood out across the unblemished surface. Under her cloak, the wound on his hand had healed over, leaving a patch of soft skin without his usual wrinkles. Realization forming, he blurted, “She healed my hand!”

“Yes, she is a part of you now.” Rachel nodded. “It was our way of returning the favor. And with your blood on her cloak, you are connected to her by more than gravity.”

Mommy felt the weight of the child in his arms. As the distance between them decreased, he had not noticed the growing attachment. “Why doesn’t she have a name?” he asked.

Leah brought over steaming dishes of food that looked like potatoes with a simple loaf of bread on top. She looked at Rachel, who said, “She hadn’t yet received her role. That is why we were leaving the village. It was a great shame to us, as though we wove her improperly. Now that you saved her and shed your blood for her, she has a role. She will be a helper and carry your genetic diversity into new creations. Some day she will learn to tailor her own cloak.”

“Mommy!” Leah exclaimed as she handed him a piece of bread. “Would you help us choose a name for her? It would be our honor.”

“Me?” He closed his eyes and absentmindedly placed a piece of bread in his mouth with his free hand. His other arm cradled the child. He swayed with her and wondered if this was how the sheep felt with the gravity wells beneath them. It was like he was connected with the whole universe through this small child. She channeled a power far beyond herself. “What about ‘Emma?’” He said.

Leah reached for the child. “Emma,” she said, cradling the child in her arms. “It’s perfect.”

Rachel stood up from the loom and walked over to them, putting one arm around Leah and stroking Emma’s cloak with the other.

Mommy’s comm device chirped as it flashed a message across the ceiling: “Emmanuel, you have been away from the herd for too long.”

Emma reached a hand up toward the projected letters. The lights reflected from her wide open eyes. Leah and Rachel did not seem to notice the message.

“I really should get back to the sheep,” Mommy said. “No telling what they’ve gotten into without me.”

“But you haven’t eaten yet!” Leah said, handing Emma to Rachel. “Please stay.”

“It’s all right. Thank you for sharing your home with me.” Mommy said. He held up his hand and added, “And for healing me.” 

He stepped through the curtained doorway, back toward the pasture. Three sets of eyes watched him leave. For a moment, he felt a tug deep within him. He wondered if this gravitational shift came from something heavy or from something close. Maybe the sheep could show him. He knew the dangers of getting too close. George and that emaciated child had crossed that threshold because of Mommy. Gravity had to be mediated. No one could come face to face with that much power and live. That is why the sheep were created and why he shepherded them. 

Cowboys were never meant to have a home, but Mommy wondered if he would ever find another one like he had found here. He wiped a tear from his cheek with the soft patch of skin on his hand. 

Inside the hut, Emma began to squirm. Rachel beamed down at her daughter, tracing the red stain on her cloak. “Don’t worry, my child. Mommy will be with us always.”

pnahliksj

Philip Nahlik, SJ

pnahliksj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Philip

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