Hettie Johnson and the Orb Rider by Paul Stansbury
Hettie Johnson clamped her pipe between her teeth and sat down in the rocker on her back porch. At the far end of the valley, a ball of light swooped down from the sky, leveling off above the ground at the tree line running along Reins Lick Creek.
“Humph, what we got here?” she muttered, exhaling a plume of blue smoke. “I seen you before.” The light flitted around like a butterfly in a patch of wildflowers for a while before coming to rest above the tall second harvest fescue. “Seen that too. Now, off you goes.”
Hettie took a sip of tea, waiting for the ball of light to bounce over the trees and out of sight. Instead, it approached the house. It moved purposely, not in the random fashion she was used to seeing. As it neared, she could see its perfectly round, glistening surface. It steadily advanced, finally coming to rest at the base of the porch steps. It appeared about five feet in diameter. A thin slit appeared, running from top to bottom. As it widened, Hettie leaned forward, peering into the dark opening.
A face appeared, followed by a body. Hettie studied the smiling, diminutive woman who stepped out onto the bottom porch step. She had a flawless, pale, tawny complexion. Curly bronze hair framed her long thin face and bright amethyst eyes. She was dressed in a plain white jumpsuit.
“Good evening, Hettie Shaw Johnson,” she said, bowing her head. “I hope I have not given you cause for alarm.”
“Dear, I’m a hundred-an’-five-year-old black woman an’ most likely lived through more than you could ever think of. Ain’t much gonna upset me, unless you’re from social services an’ come here lookin’ to take me to the retirement home.” Hettie pulled her glasses down, staring intently at the woman. “Well?” she asked.
“I assure you, I am not from social services.”
“That’s good,” snorted Hettie, “but I ’spect you’ve got somethin’ in mind or you wouldn’t be standin’ on my porch step. You can start by tellin’ me who you are an’ what you wants.”
“Call me Solasta. I am an orb rider.”
“An orb rider,” Solasta replied matter-of-factly.
“Orb? Is that what you call that thing?” Hettie asked, nodding toward the ball of light. “Where’d you get that thing? Up at Walmart?”
“No, the orb and I come from elsewhere. Think of it as an extension of me and I of it. The orb and I are inseparable.”
“Hmmm, I think social services might be lookin’ for you,” said Hettie. “You sure you didn’t wander away from somewhere you wadn’t supposed to?”
“It is true I wander all about, but it is for a purpose,” Solasta replied.
“Uh-uh. Now I know the boys in the white coats are sure to show up any moment,” Hettie said, shaking her head. “You ain’t dangerous, are you?”
“Hardly. I am what you would call an observer. I ride the orb throughout your universe, observing and recording what happens.”
“What for?” asked Hettie.
“We are inquisitive beings and this universe has much to interest us.”
“What do you mean when you says ‘this universe?’ Sounds like you’re trying to say you ain’t from around here.”
“As I said, I am from elsewhere. Yet it is not distance that separates us. The place I come from exists alongside this one, although undetectable. Your scientists would call it a parallel universe. It has certain similarities to this universe but remains fundamentally different. The orb allows me and my fellow orb riders to travel between our universes.”
“I don’t rightly know if I understand all what you’re sayin.’ Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you some sweet tea while we waits for the padded van? We can visit awhile. Not many folks come this way no more; just the Jehovah’s Witnesses and them fellers wantin’ to sell me winders.”
“Thank you, Hettie Shaw Johnson,” Solasta said, bouncing up the steps. She sat down on a rocking chair on the other side of the screen door.
“No need to call me by all them names. Hettie will do.”
“As you wish, Hettie.”
Hettie eased up from her rocker and went into the kitchen. She filled a tumbler with ice cubes, followed by sweet tea. She wrapped a napkin around the glass and went back out on the porch.
“Here you are,” she said, handing the glass to Solasta. “Better drink that up, before they comes and takes you away.”
Solasta took a sip of sweet tea, savoring its flavor. “Delicious. You take your water straight from the Earth,” she said, “no contamination from chemicals detected.”
“That’s my secret for livin’ as long as I have. That and eatin’ a good breakfast of bacon and eggs ever morning,” Hettie laughed. “Oh, an’ not goin’ to doctors. That’s key. Don’t go to no doctors. They always got to find somethin’ wrong, even if you feel jus’ fine. I’ve lived on this farm all my life, 105 years, like I said. The water from that well has always been pure and sweet, never run dry, even through some mighty bad droughts. You looks like a healthy young lady. Bet them doctors has had a field day with you.”
“We have no doctors.”
“So’s the better for you, sounds like my kind of place.”
“Hold out your hand, Hettie,” said Solasta, “I have something to show you.”
Hettie wiped the condensation from her hand on her apron, then turned her palm upward, holding it a few inches above her knees. Solasta pointed toward the orb. It shimmered slightly. Drifting up the steps toward Hettie, it shrank to the size of an orange by the time it came to rest above her waiting hand.
“No need to worry,” said Solasta. “You may hold it if you wish.”
“Well don’t that beat all,” Hettie whispered, staring at the orb for a moment before closing her fingers around its smooth, cool surface. It was solid and very lightweight. She sensed a slight tingle in her fingertips. Shoving her glasses to the top of her head, she brought the orb close to her face. Eddies of the palest colors of the spectrum gyred over the surface. A tear welled up in her eye.
“All shrunk down, this here thing reminds me of my Mama’s special Christmas ornament. She said it was hand-blown, come all the way from Germany.” Hettie pulled up the corner of her apron and dabbed at her eyes. “She wouldn’t let nobody touch her ornament but her. Had to find the perfect place on the tree to hang it. Kept it in her cedar chest. Then come World War II. My brother, Henry Junior, was on the Dorchester Troopship when it got sunk by a German U-boat. There weren’t no survivors. That was February 3rd, 1943. Next Christmas, Mama smashed her ornament in the fireplace. Said she didn’t want nothin’ what had to do with the Nazis. That’s what the Germans was called.” Hettie fell silent for a moment. “You better take this thing back before I drops it.”
“You cannot break the orb,” said Solasta. She made a gentle sweeping motion with her hand and the orb lifted from Hettie’s grasp and returned to its former size and position at the base of the porch steps.
“You know chile, I don’t know why, but I likes you. Guess if you was going to rob me or chop me up into tiny pieces you’da done it by now. So while you probably ain’t got any mischief in mind, I ’spect you’ve got some reason to be sitting on my porch.”
“Indeed, Hettie,” said Solasta, “ I have come to ask you to ride with me.”
Hettie raised her eyebrows, turned her head, and stared at Solasta for a few moments. Then she slapped her knee again before flopping back in her rocker, laughing. “Chile, you sure had me going there for a minute.” She took a deep breath and started to laugh again. “Sure enough. You want to take this old woman for a ride in your Christmas ornament.” She rocked back and forth, puffing out blue smoke between laughs. “An’ just where did you have in mind for us to go?”
“Out there,” Solasta calmly answered, gesturing toward the sky, “beyond your sun, beyond your galaxy, to the farthest star you can see. Out there, wonders await.”
“Chile, I ain’t even been out of Kentucky. Never had no cause to. What makes you think I’d wanna hop in that bouncy ball and fly off to God knows where? Besides, that thing don’t look big enough for two to ride comfortably.”
“As you have seen, the orb can assume the size it needs to accomplish its task. As for why, I would be grateful for your companionship. I understand this is an unexpected and fantastic proposal. Maybe we could go on a test ride of sorts. To some close place where you can get a sense of what orb riding is like.”
“Where would that be?” asked Hettie.
“We can leave that up to you,” replied Solasta.
“You’s serious ain’t you,” said Hettie.
Solasta pointed to the orb. The slit reopened.
“Just a short ride?” asked Hettie.
“Anywhere I wants to go?”
“You ain’t gonna ab-duck me or nothin?”
“You’ll gonna bring me right back?”
Hettie studied Solasta for a while. “Chile, I don’t know why, but I feel like you is being straight with me. Only been fooled one time in my life. That was back in 1929 when I married Lester Johnson. He was a city boy, all talk and not much else. Well, our daughter Frances was born in 1930 an’ by the time 1931 rolled around, Lester had done got his fill of me an’ fatherhood. He disappeared and we never seen or heard from him again. As for my baby girl, she died of the croup in 1935.”
Hettie slumped back in her rocker. She pulled the pipe from her mouth and knocked the spent tobacco from the bowl. Shoving it into her apron pocket, she asked again, “Anywhere?”
Hettie stood up, untied her apron and hung it on a nail by the screen door. “I ain’t got no idea why I’m doin’ this, but let’s go before I comes to my senses.” She motioned to Solasta, “You first.”
Solasta walked down the steps and stepped through the slit in the orb. Hettie could see Solasta a few feet inside, surrounded by a thin mist. She beckoned Hettie forward. Hettie stuck her right hand through the opening, then quickly withdrew it, wiggling her fingers.
“Well, all right then,” Hettie said, stepping through the opening. Inside, the mist disappeared. Behind Solasta, she could see the entire farm just as if she had stepped off the porch on a crystal clear morning. She reached out in an attempt to find the side of the orb.
“The orb does not have an inside boundary,” explained Solasta. “It adjusts to the needs of the rider. If it senses we need a flat surface on which to stand, it provides one. To find the side, you will have to want a side.”
“So if I wanted a side right here,” Hettie said, reaching out, “this thing would make a side?” Immediately, her hand touched an invisible barrier. “Well, I’ll be. How’d it know that?”
“The orb senses our needs and provides.”
“Can it provide me a chair, cause I don’t think I can take all this standin’ up.”
“Wait here,” said Solasta. The orb rose so they were standing level with the porch. An oval of mist formed. Solasta stepped through and returned with Hettie’s rocker. “I think you will be more comfortable in your own rocking chair. Now, let’s take our ride before all the light is gone.”
“Wait jus’ a minute,” Hettie said, sitting down. “You ain’t gonna stand over me while we flies around in this thing are you?”
“Well, I usually float in my natural form, which looks like something similar to a jellyfish. I can return to that form if you desire.”
“No, no. You looks just fine, but I don’t wants you standin’ over me or floating around neither, so go get that other rocker.”
“As you wish, Hettie.” She retrieved the other rocking chair, then asked, “Where would you like to go?”
Before Hettie had finished saying, “Duncan Bend Cemetery,” the orb lifted away from the porch and whisked over the ridge. In an instant, it came to rest among rows of weather-beaten headstones.
“That didn’t feel like we was movin’ at all,” said Hettie.
“The laws of gravity and inertia do not apply while we are in the orb.”
“Whatever that means, guess it comes in handy,” laughed Hettie. Her voice turned somber as she looked at a group of grave markers. “Been a while since I been here,” she whispered. “All my folks that I knows of is buried here. There’s my Grandmother Agnes, born a slave in 1857. Escaped to Ohio on the Underground Railroad. Lived a hundred an’ nine years. Next to her is Henry, my Daddy. Died in 1937 while working cleanup for the WPA. Next to him is Mama. She died in 1968. She only lived to ninety-seven. My little Frances is right down there in front. When my time comes, they gonna put me in that empty spot in the corner.”
Dusk was settling in. Hettie leaned forward, looking at the mottled, lichen-covered limestone markers in the thinning light. Grass and weeds were growing up the sides. “They don’t keep up this side of the cemetery like they does for the white folk,” she said. “I’ll have to get out here soon and pull them weeds.” She sat back in her rocker. She folded her arms in her lap. “We can go now.”
The orb retraced its path, settling softly at Hettie’s porch. The sun had slipped below the ridge and the sky on the opposite side of the valley was turning indigo. The faint twinkle of stars could be detected.
“What is your decision, Hettie?” asked Solasta.
Hettie looked at the stars now visible above her head. The orb shot straight up into the night sky. Now, surrounded by star-encrusted blackness, she looked down to see a blue and green sphere shrinking from sight. “Is that what I think that is?” she asked in amazement.
“Yes, that is what you call Earth,” said Solasta. “Among the many worlds in this universe, it is small and relatively insignificant, but beautiful nonetheless.”
“Did I do this?” asked Hettie. “Didn’t mean to. I was just wondering what it’d be like. Didn’t think we’d go flyin’ off like this. You better take over and tell this thing where to go before we runs into a star or somethin.’”
“As you wish,” said Solasta.
Forgetting what Solasta had said about gravity and inertia, Hettie braced herself, waiting for the orb to lurch forward. Instead, the stars seemed to blink and the next thing she saw was a large red sun.
“This is the Ellista system,” explained Solasta, “seven habitable planets orbiting this red star.” Another blink and a planet wrapped in swirling pink clouds popped into view. “This is Calindra,” she continued, “the fourth planet.”
Below the clouds, Hettie could see grey and garnet continents, surrounded by smooth turquoise oceans. They descended until the orb was engulfed by the roseate mist. Soon, they emerged above the shimmering blue-green water. They glided over the water until they could see a vast city perched on the shore.
“Before you is Coneste, capital city of the Ellista System,” said Solasta, “and home to Wasruob, the grand market, where the inhabitants of the seven planets converge to sell, buy, and trade. They have been doing this for a thousand Earth years.”
The orb continued until they reached the coastline. Below, Hettie could see Coneste, its domes gleaming red-yellow in Elista’s sunlight. Along the shore, thousands of ships with tall sails resembling dragonfly wings were moored. Far inland, an array of strange-looking craft, some suspended in air, some resting on the surface, surrounded the city. They skimmed over the domes and winding streets until they reached a vast circular plaza.
“Wasruob,” said Solasta.
Hettie edged forward in her rocker, gazing down on the plaza filled with a jumble of tents and booths of every imaginable color and shape. Throngs of market-goers snaked along in winding queues from one vendor to another. The orb was now close enough for Hettie to see them clearly.
“My, oh my, I guess I thought they’d look like us,” gasped Hettie.
“A natural expectation,” said Solasta. “We all seek the familiar.”
“Sure ain’t much familiar about the looks of them folks,” laughed Hettie.
“The ones with two ears that look like wings are the Rhüln and the ones with the purple scales are the Zhakrill,” explained Solasta. “The Tolu are covered in thick red fur. Their planet, being furthest from Ellista, is very cold. Then there are the Quizans, recognizable by their prominent orange dorsal crest. The Silurusa, who live on a water world, are the ones with the bright yellow gills. If you see tall and graceful beings with pale green skin, they are the Jurápha. The Calindrans are short with bright blue facial spots.”
Hettie studied the hustle-bustle of the market for some time. After a while, she said, “You know this is kinda like the 8th of August celebration. That’s our big homecoming when all the family and friends that had gone away come back to be with them who never left. When I was a girl, folks would come on the trains and busses or hitchhike to get to the celebration. Now they comes in cars and airplanes. There was barbecue and fried chicken, horseshoes and baseball, not to mention the music and dancin.’ I goes to the one in Allensville. They say they been celebrating the 8th of August there for 150 years. That’s where my Grandfather Joseph met Grandmother Agnes. She had come down from Ohio.
“Well they got married and started sharecroppin.’ After Henry, my Daddy, come along, Grandfather Joseph started stillin’ moonshine to make some extra money. Must’a been pretty good stuff cause Grandfather Joseph made enough money sellin’ shine to buy our farm. When I was six, he took a batch over to Hoptown. He never come home, though. The Christian County Sheriff said he probably run off with the money. Grandmother Agnes never believed that. She heard tell from a good source that some local moonshiners robbed him, then threw him down a ravine for cuttin’ into their territory. No matter, we never seen or heard from him again.”
Hettie sat back in her rocker. “You ever been?” she asked.
“Been where?” Solasta inquired.
“To the 8th of August celebration.”
“Well, chile,” said Hettie, “you need to go at least one time. It ain’t as big as this thing, but there’s plenty to keep you interested.”
“Of that I am sure. We can stay here as long as you like but there is something else I would like to show you and time is of the essence.”
“I think I’ve seen enough here. If you got some other place in mind I’ll be happy to go. Just let me know before you start this thing up.”
“We go now,” said Solasta.
This time, Hettie was ready when the plaza blinked out of sight. She was not ready when two planets came into view, growing in size and looking very much like they were on the verge of collision. “These are the planets Lokono and Aketi of the Teebia System. Most of the time, their orbits keep them far apart. However, once every twenty-seven orbits they come in close proximity to one another. So close, in fact, that lifeforms can freely move between the two. Over the millennia, their respective ecosystems have evolved to rely on this migration. It is wondrous.”
“Chile,” Hettie huffed, “I only understood about two words of what you jus’ said. Any chance you could say that in plain talk?”
Solasta remained silent for a few moments, then said, “It’s like the bees pollinating the flowers.”
“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
Hettie watched the planets approach. Glowing swirls appeared on the surfaces nearest each other. Suddenly, countless spores of light erupted, rushing to bridge the void between the two planets. The orb lay dead center.
Solasta placed her hand on Hettie’s arm, assuring her, “Do not be afraid, no harm will come to us.”
In an instant, a vast glowing jumble of winged, diaphanous creatures caught up in the migration between the planets whorled about the orb in a chaotic eddy. So dense were they, Hettie thought the orb may be swept away, or worse, crushed. This swarm continued for quite some time before the flow of creatures dissipated and the last few drifted to the surfaces of their new homes.
“Didn’t look like no damn bees and flowers to me,” Hettie muttered, letting out the breath she had been holding. “Chile, next time, you gots to give me some kinda warning when somethin’ like that’s gonna happen. Otherwise you gonna have a mess to clean up.”
“Forgive me, Hettie, said Solasta, “I forget how it feels to experience this for the first time.”
“I’ll have to admit they was sure sumpin’ to look at. I don’t mind tellin’ you they had me goin’ there for a minute. Thought we was goners.” She shook her head and sighed. “You know, this here reminds me of when I was a little girl and saw fireflies for the first time. I was out back right after sunset and all of a sudden, all these little yellow lights started coming up outa the grass. They was flying all around my head, I could feel ’em on my arms an’ in my hair. I let out for the house an’ didn’t quit hollerin’ ’til I had the covers pulled over my head. Well, they all had a good laugh, but it wadn’t that funny to me. But then Mama took me back out and told me all about fireflies and they wadn’t scary no more.”
“Hettie, I have something to discuss with you,” said Solasta.
“Go ahead, chile. But make it quick. It’s been a long day. We best be getting back ’fore I gets too wore out.”
“Certainly,” said Solasta. “Hettie, in about two weeks your scientists should discover a gravitational anomaly deep in space. Eventually, they will conclude that it is a small primordial black hole hurtling along on a near-Earth trajectory. This small black hole is only about the size of a marble, but its extreme gravity will ultimately have devastating effects on your planet. It will pass close enough to rip away your planet’s atmosphere and a significant portion of its oceans. It will also fracture the Earth’s crust and set off a chain of supervolcanic eruptions. These will cause cataclysmic environmental devastation resulting in the extinction of all lifeforms.”
Hettie sat in stunned silence. She closed her eyes, burying her face in her hands. She took several deep, steady breaths before she said, “Chile, I don’t understand none of this what you’re tryin’ to tell me, ’cept that last part about extinction. It don’t sound too good, no ways. Are you tellin’ me we ain’t got long before we all gonna die?”
“Yes, but you do not have to go back. You can stay with me.”
“Stay with you?”
“Yes, become an orb rider. Today, you have seen only a very few of the wonders in this universe. Think of all there is to discover. There are marvels out there that make what you have seen pale in comparison.”
“Hold on,” said Hettie. “This is a lot to spring on an old woman. Give me a minute to think on all this.” She leaned back in her rocking chair and stared at the stars. It was some time before she asked, “Can’t you do somethin’ to make that black hole go somewheres else?”
“No. The orb can do many things, but moving a black hole is beyond its capabilities. Besides, orb riders are observers. We cannot interfere in the happenings of this universe.”
“So’s if a whole planet goin’ to blow up, you won’t do nothin?’”
“The risks are too great,” explained Solasta. “Diverting the black hole could lead to the destruction of a different inhabited world or even an entire galaxy.”
“Well, mebbe so,” sighed Hettie. “Answer me this: can this thing take me anywhere?”
“The orb has unlimited capability to travel. You can even visit other parallel universes if you wish.”
“All right then, I got one question for you. Can this thing take me to see God?”
“Chile, don’t be blasphemin.’” Hettie snorted. “We’s got along jus’ fine up ’til now, but I won’t tolerate that kind’a talk.”
“I apologize, but beings in this universe believe in countless deities in a multitude of forms. On the desert planet, Arda, for instance, the Krayiri worship the river, Déran, as the giver of all life. The orb could take us there. On Segomo, the Uhuans believe their world sits in the eye of their god, Yeom. When Yeom is awake, it is daytime. When he sleeps it is night. They believe the stars are his dreams. The orb could take us there.”
“Them are places. I’m talking about going to see my God. I want to see if He’ll make that black hole thing go somewheres else. Seems to me He wouldn’t want something like that to ruin His handiwork. I could be wrong. It’s happened before. I knows it might not make a difference if I saw Him in person, but it couldn’t hurt to try.”
“Would not your concept of prayer accomplish the same thing?” asked Solasta.
“Of course, I jus’ thought asking in person might help move things along.”
“The orb can do many things and go many places, but it cannot travel to a belief, even one as strong and sincere as yours.”
“Do you believe in God?” asked Hettie.
“I am convinced there is a power greater than all the universes,” Solasta replied, adding, “I do not profess to understand it, but I believe this higher power guides all things.”
“I ’spect this thing don’t go there neither, does it?”
“I figured as much.” Hettie rubbed her jaw. “Let me ask you somethin.’ Outta all the people in the world, how come for you to ask me?”
“I was one of those fireflies you encountered as a little girl, and I do apologize for frightening you so. Since then, I have felt a special kinship with you. Over the years, I have visited you many times. I was sincere when I said I would be grateful for your companionship.”
“Well, now what about all that you was talking about not interferin?’ Ain’t taken me along with you interferin?’” Hettie asked.
“You would stay with me within the orb. The overall impact on your universe will be the same whether you perish on Earth or ride the orb.”
“Why not take some young person. I ain’t got much time left.”
“It is not about age,” said Solasta. “It is not about saving the human race. It is about the chance to spend a brief moment with someone I greatly value. If all life on your planet was not on the verge of extinction, I could not even consider such a thing. An extraordinary opportunity such as this may never occur again during my travels. Will you not come?”
“Thank you, chile,” Hettie said. “I’m flattered an’ all, but I think I’ll pass. I’m sure everthin’ you said is true and I likes you jus’ fine too. I think, though, I’d like to be home in familiar surroundin’s when my time comes. How long before that black hole does its thing?”
“Approximately one Earth year.”
“So I’ll have time to go to the 8th of August celebration and have one more Christmas, won’t I?”
“Yes,” answered Solasta, then added, “and you will see the fireflies one last time.”
“All of a sudden, I’m feelin’ real tired,” said Hettie. “I think it’s time to go.”
The stars winked out and Hettie’s back porch appeared. Solasta stood up and held her hand out for Hettie. She stood up as the oval of mist formed. Solasta led her onto the porch.
“Chile, will I ever see you again?” asked Hettie.
“I have it on good recommendation that I should go to the 8th of August celebration.”
“That’s right, come back a while to be with them who is stayin.’”
Solasta stepped into the mist and returned with Hettie’s rocker, then turned back toward the orb.
“Wait jus’ a minute,” Hettie said, lightly touching Solasta’s arm. “Where you goin’?”
“Well, I was going to retrieve the other rocking chair.”
“No…no, no, no. I won’t be needin’ it. You keep it so’s you won’t have to be standin’ up or floatin’ around all the time.”
Solasta smiled, “As you wish, Hettie.” She reached through the opening and gathered a large swirl of mist from the interior of the orb. She cupped her hands around it as it coalesced, forming a shiny ball the size of an orange. “For your Christmas tree,” she said, handing it to Hettie.
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Hettie whispered, closing her fingers around its smooth, cool surface. She sensed a familiar tingle in her fingertips. “Thank you, chile, I’ll find the perfect spot for it. An’ when I sees the fireflies next, I’ll think of you.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion—Not Your Ordinary Stories, Inversion II—Creatures, Fairies, and Haints Oh My!, and Down By the Creek—Ripples and Reflections and a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky. Find him at his website or on Facebook.