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Fiction

The Sun in Exile

I was born the year they put the sun on trial for treason.

It was so hot that year the streets boiled like black soup and the air rippled like music and the polar bears all roared together, just once, loud enough that a child in Paraguay turned her head suddenly north and began to weep. Tomatoes simmered on the vine and the wind was full of the smells of them cooking, then of their skins peeling, turning black, smoking on the earth, old coats lost to a house fire. Everyone shone like their skin was made of diamonds. Sweat took the place of silk. Children tried to feed at their mothers’ breasts and screamed as their little tongues blistered and their throats scalded. Cattle in the fields roasted where they stood, braised in their own skin and blood. One by one, the lights went out along the coasts, and then the outer islands went out, blinked away by the warm salt sea. Deep inland, the old men with their ham radios joined to their bodies like wives heard that an entire city evaporated into steam like so much water in a copper-bottomed pot. Even the stars at night could burn holes in your heart like magnifying glasses.

Even the moon raised silver cancers on your bare back.

No one went outside if they could help it. Soldiers guarded every space in the shadows, beneath a tree, in the foyer of an abandoned bank, under a long, rotted pier where the sea breeze still blew. An hour in the shade cost a year’s wages. Then two years. Then three.

The only rain was weeping.

At first, Papa Ubu did nothing. He appeared to his people on the pink alabaster balcony of the Lake House wrapped in layers of plush winter coats and colorful satin scarves, soft goatskin gloves, merino-lined boots black up to his knees, and a bright-green cap with fluffy earflaps underneath his crown, his beautiful wife beside him in a high-collared blue gown embroidered with snowflakes and quilted with down and silver thread, her golden hair hidden beneath a white skullcap fringed in black fox fur, and their youngest child so snuff and stiff in his silk snowsuit he could barely move. Papa Ubu shivered and shuddered and stamped his feet. He rubbed his big hands together and blew on them. He called to his man for another scarf and a blanket, for God’s sake. And as the brutal sun beat down without quarter, Papa Ubu exclaimed at the cold weather we were having, how vicious the polar front coming down from the north was this year, how sick his child had become as the unseasonable chill settled into his bones.

“Why,” exclaimed the great King Ubu, “I can see my breath in the air! This is an affront to all decency! It will not stand! I will take up arms and fight the terrible encroaching freeze for you, my people, and for my poor son, practically dead already from this damned frost!” And he began to dance back and forth to keep himself warm, one foot to the other, his colorful scarves fluttering and bouncing, his cheeks flushing red, his hat soaked in sweat, back and forth and back and forth, while he grunted and bellowed, “Brrr! It’s unbearable! I can hardly feel my toes!”

His beautiful wife presented her husband with a polite cough and delicately rubbed her elbows. After a small nudge, their son, scarlet and panting and entombed in the plush sarcophagus of his arctic snowsuit, coughed too and began to hop miserably back and forth like his father.

And all the people listening below the balcony, standing without shade on the golden dying summer grass, their bodies glistening with sweat, their throats dry with thirst, their scalps potato-red with sunburn, began to shout and call out that they too could see their breath fogging in the frigid air, that they had not known any winter like this since the storms fifty years back, or perhaps sixty, that they could see frostbite taking hold beneath their fingernails.

The next morning, word spread over the land that, out of respect for the suffering of the people in this time of trial, the word hot and all its derivatives should be neither spoken nor written, for it would only remind the forlorn of what they had lost. So too should the words warm, summer, fever, sweat, scorch, blister, and the like be stricken from the common vocabulary until the end of this horrible cold snap, for they were false friends, lies told only to torment the suffering.

Papa Ubu’s oldest daughter went into the countryside on charitable missions to comfort all who had begged for her father’s aid. She arrived in the towns like a magic spell, riding a sleigh drawn by shaggy reindeer whose eyes rolled in the agony of the heat, her lovely face framed in white fur and bright wool. And if her father was still human enough to sweat beneath his winter costume, she never did. Her face was pale and sweatless, as beautiful and unmoving as carved ice. In the scorching noontime sun, she pulled blanket after blanket from her sleigh and distributed them equally among the throng of loyal subjects, blankets of every color, quilted and embroidered and richly decorated with winter scenes, cottages dripping in icicles, glass beads forming frozen rivers in the fine cloth, fleece clouding the edges like clouds heavy with snow. There were always enough, enough for everyone, for Papa Ubu always took care of his children and loved them all the same.

One by one, folk dragged themselves forward, drowning in sweat, flies buzzing around their greasy hair, blisters on their reddened bodies like rows of rubies, and each of them begged for a blanket from the perfect white hands of Papa Ubu’s daughter. Each of them eagerly wrapped the heavy, downy things round their shoulders and wept with gratitude, exclaiming with wonder at how much better they felt. But it was not enough for the daughter of Papa Ubu. She leaned in close to them, so close they could smell that she still had access to perfume even if they did not, and asked: “How much better? Tell me, so that I may in turn tell my father. Tell me how terribly you have suffered.”

One by one, the people in the villages began to try to outdo one another. They shouted out in wonder at how cozy and snug they were now, surrounded in Papa’s love, how grateful they were to be so tenderly looked after, what a welcome relief from the cold the beautiful daughter of the king had brought to them in the moment of their greatest need. A toothless, emaciated man in one place, though his name and its memory have long since burned up and away, clutched his blanket stitched all over with ice floes and dark birds and shouted out over the crowd: “I lost my foot to frostbite, but look! The moment the king’s blanket touched it, it grew back whole! I can still see my breath in the air, but everywhere the blanket touches is safe!”

Then the man fell down dead of heatstroke. Papa Ubu’s daughter moved on to the next village, with a soft smile on her perfect face.

Soon after, another law went out into the land, forbidding additional words like weather, bright, shadewater, and all language relating to pain. There was no need to discuss such things in this new ice age, not when Papa Ubu had called all his advisers to the palace to array their powers against the encroaching cold. It hurt Papa Ubu’s feelings to hear his people say that they suffered in agony, when he was trying harder than any man had ever tried at any task to make the world warm again. When you wish to say, “I am in pain,” the law said, you should say, “I am joyful,” or “What a glorious day I am having,” instead, for lying is a grave sin, and it is tremendously wicked of you to spread rumors that your papa is failing at his task in any way, and in truth, it is you who is forcing Ubu to feel pain with your vicious implications.

But though no one spoke of it, the heat went on and on, until the soil itself began to turn to black steam and pumpkins began to turn to ash on the vine. The land around Papa Ubu’s palace had become an archipelago, and the warm salt sea lapped at his snow boots when he appeared on the pink alabaster balcony to address the people again. My mother, who was called Silver-and-Gold—for in those days all children were named for the many sorts of riches Papa Ubu promised to all, one day, if they were only patient—was there to hear him, her belly all big with me, her legs sunk deep in the creeping waters of the new archipelago, her swollen shape wrapped in furs against the cold. That was the day she heard Papa Ubu name their great enemy and declare it for the criminal it was, reading out from a golden book the indictment detailing all its crimes and foul schemes against his great nation, going back centuries upon centuries, the greatest scandal ever uncovered, the cruelest madman ever to afflict humankind.

“The sun has abandoned us,” yelled Papa Ubu, his cheeks red. “For billions of years it did its job without complaint, sitting up there in the sky, lording over us all like a big, fat, stinking bastard, and only now has it decided to deny us the seasons it owes, only now has it decided to harm us instead of nurture us, only now has the sun turned its back on its children as I never have and never will, and you know that’s the truth, because I’m out here saying it to your face despite the freezing wind and sleet. Any other king wouldn’t bother, you know, they really wouldn’t. Anyway, the motive is clear—the sun hates Papa Ubu and is conspiring against him! It prefers the corrupt papas that came before, who let it do whatever it wanted, the people be damned. But when I stand up for you and demand your rights, the sun refuses to budge! What have we done to deserve this? Nothing! Nobody can blame us! We were just minding our own business, weren’t we? The sun is an arch-criminal! The sun is against us! But I am a fair papa, and all my subjects are free and entitled to justice, even the sun. There must be a grand trial, with prosecutors and defenders and testimony and all that sort of thing, so that everyone can know just how deep this whole thing goes and that I, I, had nothing at all to do with it!”

“I am joyful,” whispered my mother in reply, and all around her the people took up her cry, shouting, shrieking, weeping, I am joyful! I am joyful! before their king. And Papa Ubu smiled an enormous, hungry smile, and Papa Ubu waved and waved, for hours, never tiring, while the people chanted and screamed and fell forward into the knee-deep water, and all the while Papa Ubu drank their voices like wine or blood.

By coincidence, my grandfather was chosen to serve as chief counsel for the defense. He was called Equity, and he had never studied law in all his life. Most who had were long gone by then. But my grandfather was a Good Boy, loyal to Papa Ubu to the tiniest cell of his deepest marrow. He wore his hat just like Papa Ubu. He tied his tie just like Papa Ubu. He bid his wife style her hair like the hair of the daughter of Papa Ubu, and speak with the accent of the wife of Papa Ubu, and in that stolen voice tell him each night in detail how the cold was stealing in through the cracks in the door, and the frost was creeping up the side of the windowpanes, and the apples in the basket were surrounded by globes of ice, and the mice in the hall were freezing to death, and the icicles on the roof had nearly reached the top of the snowbanks outside, closing them into the house in their jagged crystal fangs.

It is because of his loyalty that he was so bitter to be drafted for the defense. Surely he deserved to prosecute. Papa loved winners, and wasn’t Grandfather a winner? Everyone knew what the sun had done. If only the blasted thing would confess like anyone with a half scrap of decency, there would be no need for this sordid business. Grandfather Equity always did his best, and he would do his best now, for Papa had ordered a real defense, without which a guilty verdict would have no strength. But Grandfather hated the sun as much as anyone. He insisted, to all who would listen, that he’d hated the sun long before Ubu revealed the true extent of its betrayal. How could Papa force him to sit with the sun and consult with it and decide whether or not to put it on the stand? It was intolerable. But he was a Good Boy. He could no more say no to Papa Ubu than he could bring himself to say he was hot while he sprawled naked in his kitchen on the mercifully cool tiles just for one moment’s relief, a twitching creature more sunburn than man.

Papa allowed a full hour of electricity in every city center so that all his children could watch the trial. A spot in the shade could suddenly be had for little more than a laborer’s day wage or a tryst in the briars with an amenable soldier. Each day’s testimony would end at sunset, naturally, for the accused must be present for the proceedings to be legitimate. The atmosphere was as dazzling as a carnival. Food was sold and lanterns were lit on street corners even in the bright of the afternoon, concertinas and panpipes were played in the piazzas, and throngs gathered beneath a ziggurat of televisions all tuned to UbuTV, most blessed of channels.

The reason Grandfather was chosen for the defense soon became clear. Ubu himself led the prosecution, his face utterly scarlet with righteous rage on that tower of screens, rendered tiny by the mountain of parkas and scarves and hats in which he had entombed himself. Papa ranted and raved and gestured wildly at the witness stand, bathed in a single, terribly quiet golden sunbeam. He flung his mind fully at the task, firing precedents like rifles, pealing forth with sermons soliloquized directly into the cameras, weeping real tears at the wholly unprovoked crimes of the sun against his people, the sheer betrayal of the sun’s abandonment of its special relationship with this world, the inevitable result of which was to plunge it into a deadly ice age, merely out of pique at the great beauty, power, and longevity of Papa Ubu. How, indeed, could the sun begin to live with itself?

The judge and jury and all the crowds in all the cities applauded ecstatically every fragment of Latin, every incisive, surprising question that came so close to disturbing the calm of that single shaft of light illuminating the defendant’s chair. One after another, Ubu’s witnesses were called to speak to the slaughter and suffering caused by the sun’s perfidy, but Papa rarely let them finish. He was too excited, too eager to get to the good parts. If the witnesses proved too boring or their statements not flamboyant enough, Ubu took over and finished for them with a grand flourish. Grandfather offered objections here and there, nothing radical, some sustained, some overruled. He tried to cross-examine, but the judge decided it was inappropriate to question the agony of the victims. As the sun declined to testify, there was little else for him to do but wait. It took seven days for Ubu to finish his tour-de-force and to collapse, exhausted, spent, exhilarated, into the chief prosecutor’s plush chair, shivering theatrically.

It was time. There was no more avoiding it.

Grandfather Equity rose behind his long, polished rosewood bench and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. He flushed with shame. He began to shake and to weep. He had only one choice if he meant to mount a real defense, if he meant to do his job in the service of his beloved papa, as he had always done, as he always would do.

“Your honor,” said my grandfather slowly. “We’ve heard a great deal of testimony on the causes of this terrible winter that’s cursed us. And it’s all well and good and fine as far as it goes. But it’s just too hot to go on today, don’t you think? I’m too fucking hot. Aren’t you hot?”

And he opened his briefcase and drew out a glass bottle of clear, cold water with ice floating in it, and ice crusting the outside, and frost sealing the cap. He set it on the judge’s desk, before a man sweating out his innermost fluids in a heavy down coat and thick black scarf. The judge stared at the bottle as a slip of ice slid down its side. He licked his lips. He looked helplessly back and forth between Grandfather and Papa Ubu.

The sun was found guilty on all charges and sent into exile. Not one person under the rule of Ubu would henceforward be allowed to speak its name or look upon it, even indirectly, and all were commanded to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary in order to shun the offender. If one must venture outside, umbrellas, skin-concealing dark clothing, and tinted glasses ought to be used so as to avoid even the hint of association. This was the verdict, and it could not be appealed.

My grandfather was quietly executed in the courthouse bathroom.

Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over forty works of speculative fiction, poetry, and criticism, including the Fairyland novels, Space Opera, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, and Palimpsest. She is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Lambda, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, and Tiptree (now Otherwise) Awards, among others. She lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner, child, and a cat who will not stand for being overlooked in biographies.