My horse Echo, idled at the hitching post with her reins looped loosely around it, as she wasn’t the kind of horse that I needed to tie down to keep near. Shotguns were pulled at high noon around these parts and her tail whipped away at pesky flies completely unbothered by the reverberations of the occasional bullet whizzing by her head. Echo was steady and ready the way a marshal’s horse should be.
I’d mount the saddle on Echo’s back every nightfall and ride her through the canyon past the giggles that evaporated into the starry skies and across the divide as I began my surveillance duties. I watched the children in the dusty old town running around barefoot with glass jars in their hands, eagerly trapping frozen moonlight that floated down from the atmosphere. The icy crags were a side effect of the planet splitting in two, tumbling down at twilight like ruins from what used to be our planet’s other half. We were used to being split down the middle in a lot of ways seeing as we lived in a canyon.
Living in the west provided me with plenty of things to fawn over. To a big city boy the tumbleweed might be a pokey old nuisance of a thing, but to country folk like myself it was a reminder that even the most rugged had the chance to move where the wind would take me.
The divide was a disruption in our existence that was alarming and beautiful and the memory of how it all happened is as clear as the top layer of cream on a fresh bucket of milk. Imagine your granny taking a cleaver clean through an Ameraucana chicken’s neck. Now imagine that bird’s head staying put on the chopping block as the body of the wild poultry scampered across the unswept barn floor, with no direction or signs of stopping. Like a chicken’s head my little canyon town was bisected away from what its life used to be and what it was about to become.
From the day of the split, confusion filled the glen with the arrival of orphaned children milling about in clothing quite outdated. I had seen snapshots of children dressed like this from hundreds of years ago on the walls back at the marshal’s office. The young girls' long hair were plaited down each side of their heads and were secured with lacy ribbon tied in a bow. Most of them donned Calico printed dresses and hand sewn bonnets that hugged their dirty faces, hiding the dark bags under their eyes and perhaps secrets that only time would unravel. The boys strode in with their highwater pants rising nearly three inches above their ankles. I had wondered if they’d walked through the ravine to get here but they were as arid as the packed dirt under our feet at the time.
I observed that they all held the same consistent tremble that circulated through their bodies. The memory that lingered the most from the day that they arrived was how the cold radiated off of their skin.
The split drove all of the town into their homes leaving me to gaze into the eyes of the orphans as if they were alien beings here to take us to the other half of our world.
“What’s yer name sweetheart?”
I stood feet away from her and yet her chill roped me into its space.
“Leslie Peters, officer.”
Her eyes brimmed like overfilled pails of water at the well pump. There was a sadness about her that choked up the next thing she told me.
“Here. I’m from here.”
I scratched the stubble on my chin in thought, how could she be from here if none of us had ever seen her here before?
I was able to house the children with families throughout the canyon with the goal of returning them back to their families. Months had passed and a few things became clear. It did not matter how much I interrogated the children, they said the same thing every time.
“My name is… I’m from here.”
Asking them questions made them madder than a rattlesnake that just got off a roller coaster, biting mad.
After the first night, the children found themselves beneath the starry skies skipping about with jars collecting the quadrants that started to come down from the sky the day they’d arrived. I assumed they’d found the jars in the cellars of the homes they were living in and figured there wasn't any harm in letting them from the little bit of joy they were able to collect for themselves.
There was something poetically sad about orphans gathering the frozen moonlight in jars like they were catching fireflies in the summertime. They’d skip through the road with a jar in one hand and the lid in the other, smiling up at the bewitching moonbeams landing safely inside of the glass jars. Once they were filled, the children would promptly tighten the lid, sealing them shut. I learned the hard way that once the lid was on they became impregnable and impossible to open.
I’d attempted to open hundreds of hermetically sealed jars and never once had I been able to crack one of them apart. I’d tried throwing them on the ground from above the gulch cliffs far above the cloudscape, meters high from the cragginess of the riverbed below and not once could I get a jar to shatter. The children weren’t the only ones magnetized by the jars filled up by the moonlight. Gravitational pulls were the kind of thing I wasn’t ever able to fight, and the jars felt like a desperate endeavor to have hope for these kids.
I slowed Echo down with the a pull back of the reins, my spurs giving her sides a break for the time being. She preferred a slow gait anyway and I was happy to give it to her. Billy Jorgenson liked to run alongside Echo, keeping pace with her with ease. At twelve years old, Billy already had the shadow of blonde fuzz on his top lip and shoulders as wide as any bull on the land. He extended his brawny arm my way, gifting me with his collected treasure of frozen moonbeams.
“Hey Francis, can you take this moon jar?”
“Sure Billy, I’ll take the jar. Did any of the other kids have any luck opening it?”
I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up and I could trust that Billy would keep his lips sealed tight like a wax plugged whiskey bottle.
Billy’s shoulders pulled up in a shrug like a marionette. A smile exploded across his face, drawing a line to each of his perfect dimples. Billy told me once that he wanted to be a marshal just like me because of the way that I had tried to help many of his friends. The kid knew something I didn’t and he was holding a secret in behind the divots on his cheeks so tightly I thought he was sucking on a sour lemon.
“We got everybody on this row of houses and the next two over to try. None of us could get it to budge, Francis."
When I was small my grandmother would remark under her breath, “Through the eyes of a child…” as if it were a maxim for how children could see what wasn’t always seeable. Billy was always bringing me jars to investigate and I continued to stockpile them back at my old worn down marshal’s office.
Billy handed the jar over, placing it in my ungloved hand. It was cold, but not the kind of cold that burns you like when your tongue sticks to a frozen pole in December. It gave me the kind of chill that the first snow of the season does, it left the air feeling a certain kind of way.
I tucked the icy incandescent jar into the leather satchel harnessed to Echo’s saddle next to four others.
I hated to admit it, but the jars were so familiar to me when I held them, as they were similar to the kind of glass that my grandmother used to put preserves in when I was a small boy. I shook my head at the vague memory, as they were few and far between and my gran had been gone for well over forty years now.
“Thank you, Billy.”
Billy nodded with pride at a job well done, skipping back to his group of friends, tapping Leslie on the shoulder. I watched as he whispered in her ear, her eyes pulling up to mine with an electric wildness and knowing. That exchange boiled a curiosity in me that had me thinking the kids definitely knew something I didn’t.
My prying thoughts were interrupted by the children dancing around in unity under the magical moonlight snowing down on them. I’d marshaled this town every night for the past light-year with the sole responsibility of keeping watch over the children. Making note of the boys and girls that filled the jars, and extra notes on those that tried to open them trying to find some correlation between the two.
I wondered if the split caused a division of possessions like the child of a divorce. Were we the sole custodians of the children now? Did the other planet get all the winters since we did not? And what about the rainstorms? I hadn’t felt the smattering of raindrops on my face in so long that I daydreamed about stepping out into a summer rainstorm. Moonbeams were the only kind of frigidity we experienced anymore, and the kids were eager to capture it because of the familiarity the moonlight seemed to hold for them.
The clanking of the moon jars gave away the fruits of my sector surveillance before I could tie Echo back up at the hitching post outside of my office. The light that illuminated my office from the sealed jars was like missing persons cases waiting to be solved. No need for overhead lights or a table lamp, the abundance of moonbeam jars provided enough of an aura to make do.
“Whatcha got there marshal?”
The voice came from the one and only prisoner within the cell in my town’s precinct, Buzz Clampton. He was a drunkard that often spoke of the future as if he were all knowing and contained the key to all that happened during the divide.
“Moon jars, Buzz. Same as every night, more moon jars.”
A chuckle tumbled like a weed from his mouth, all dry and scratchy like.
“Any luck openin’ one of ‘em up Francis?”
I wish I could have given him an enthusiastic yes, but like any other night the answer was always solemn no. I shook my head in defeat not worried that Buzz would tell anyone about my disposition as he was always in the cell.
“Francis, the world’s a little different than it used to be. Sometimes glass breaks. Sometimes it holds precious cargo and stays intact. Keep your head down and you’ll figure out how them jars open.”
I knew that Buzz was crazier than a wild horse that had never been broken, but the words precious cargo flitted through my head. Not one for believing in premonitions and future tellings, I decided then and there I’d test Buzz to see what he knew about why these kids were here.
“I dropped one of the jars accidentally when I was out riding Echo the other night. It was the strangest thing, Buzz, it didn’t crack or break. It should have busted into a million shards with how fast the jar had been thrown.”
Buzz nodded while producing a wicked grin.
“Francis, you ever wonder what happens to memories when we leave this place? Sure they might get passed down from generation to generation, but that ain’t nothing but secondhand news. That ain’t the original memory. I’m thinking them icy crags falling from the night are the moon purging herself of memories she can’t hold no more. I betcha them kids are trapping their history in a jar is all.”
Buzz believed that his opinion was the truth, and that I was dumb enough to accept them as I would the word of the Bible. The moonlight and gravity were things I could trust because they were forces that held more value than drunk old Buzz himself. Buzz hiccuped and belched as his head dropped back against the bars with a loud clang. His head must’ve been hollow with a sound like that.
“Talk about a thought experiment, to not realize they’re holding the good old days right in their chubby little hands.”
My guts roiled at the thought of kids like Billy and Leslie being toyed with. They had no memory from where they’d come from.
But what if Buzz was right?
They all desperately filled their moon jars every night to no avail, and they never wavered in their desires to capture beams of light. Could the divide have caused a separation of memory and person? Were they chasing the moon so desperately to find the recollections that belonged to them?
I grabbed the jar closest to me as a shiver melted down my spine. I gave it hearty twist. A wave of nostalgia gripped my insides as I watched the image of an older woman’s aged hands spooning halved peaches into quart-sized jars flash across the ceiling. I caught Buzz bright eyed and in shock as words spoke across the room.
“Frankie, come over here and help me can these peaches.”
I searched the notes in my head for the names of the kids in the gulch. Thomas, Caroline, James, Lilah, Billy, and so many others, but there was not a single Frankie.
New sounds spun around me, a child making pretend shooting sounds with his mouth.
“Frankie, what do you suppose you’ll be when you grow up?”
The boy erupted with laughter when a man with kind eyes tickled his sides. The eyes sort of looked like mine, slightly gray on the edges and bright blue in the middle.
“Don’t be silly daddy, I’m gonna be a lawman! I’m gonna take down criminals!”
The answer hit me like a cast iron skillet upside the head. The kids couldn’t open the jars because they hadn’t found theirs yet! All this time the lost memories of children shone on me every time I unloaded the moon jars in my office.
“Well, I’ll be. I guess I ain’t so crazy after all now am I Marshal?”
Without thinking I released Buzz from the cell and shouted at him to help me gather the jars up because I had an idea.
I pushed Echo as fast as she could go, shouting out to the children to gather in the town circle. Once they all seemed to have gathered I gave orders as quickly as I could as we dumped the jars out in one big heap. Their frozen state pulsed out around all of us, dropping the temperature of the air significantly.
“Billy, come over here and help me. Everyone line up. We’re gonna do this one jar at a time now.”
I instructed Billy to hand the jar to a child until the right person came across it.
“Francis, what do you mean? How will we know?”
“Trust me you’ll know Billy.”
Billy grinned that dimpled smile of his and got to work. Forty kids made their way through the first jar, then fifty, then twenty more when it happened.
Laughter and subtle incantations of bedtime stories played from the jar as it illuminated from a young girl’s hands. The visions of a childhood lost, stolen, flashed before us filling the canyon with light and sound. We watched as she spun on a merry-go-round and shouted for her dog, Charlie, with shrieks of delight. Scuffed knees from bicycle spills and ribbons fluttering from her hair had shot around on the chests of the other children in a whirlwind as if I had watched her grow up before my own eyes.
This continued on with a boy who’d been through the line for the fourth time on a whole new jar. I saw a boy running with friends down the sidewalk as the moon chased them through a neighborhood. They came to a quick pause and craned their necks, their eyes locked with mine as if they could see me standing here in the middle of the town surrounded by children.
My lungs forgot to breathe momentarily as I saw that it was Leslie and so many other children but from another time staring back at me. It was odd to see two sets of children eyeing me in wait with such pride at discovering the moonbeams were actual memories. They waved at me excitedly as the moon cast them in the most beautiful light, they appeared to be so happy.
“Billy, is that you and the others?”
I glanced at the live children before me when Billy gave me a knowing nod. The giggles from the memory poured their warmth over me releasing me from the chill in the canyon. One of the memories beckoned to me, and his face was that of the boy I saw back in my office.
It was me.
“Hey everybody it’s Frankie! Look at you, you’re all grown up. I bet you go by Francis now, don’t ya?”
Cold sweat covered my skin and my heart warmed. The expanse of the moon that blanketed across the tops of the sun-bleached wooden homes at night acted like a projector upon the roofs, where the stars could dance and align in celestial artistry, and the children of then and now could play together with their jars of moon memories.