4The question




            Life was simple in the spring 1974. At 7 years old, I flourished like a flower under the protective care of my parents. Not far from town, on the Fruska Gora hill, famed for its beauty, stood our new summer house. During the holidays, especially on beautiful, sunny days, we would go to Miseluk to relax in our summer house.

I was an excellent student, one of the best in the school. I even earned a special trip as a prize on an important state holiday—which one I don’t remember now. During the holidays, especially on beautiful, sunny days, we would go to Miseluk to relax in our summer house, as we were doing now.

One clear, deep-blue evening the summer sky promised a star-rich night. The breeze carried the scent of ripe, luscious fruit. I soaked my feet, hot and tired from a long walk, in a bowl of freshly drawn well-water. As I sat there on the little wooden bench paddling my feet in the water, I thought to myself how wonderful nature was. The breeze was refreshing, the crickets’ song was soothing and, as promised, the night sky displayed a vast array of stars. Dad came and sat beside me. I immediately moved to his lap, settling in as though he were entirely my property. We talked about the universe as we gazed up into the incalculable expanse of the sky.

“Look how huge it is!” he said, as he stroked my hair. “What you see is called the cosmos, and there are billions of stars up there.”

“What exactly are stars?” I asked.

“Stars are heavenly bodies. Planets are heavenly bodies too, like our Earth for example. It’s not alone in the universe. There are many, many other planets around us.”

“Do people live up there, too?”

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “We’ve not yet discovered whether anyone lives on those planets. We’ve sent spaceships to investigate, but so far they haven’t found evidence that there’s anyone out there besides us.”

I didn’t ask whether the spaceships were Russian, that went without saying. It had long been clear to me that all the best and most modern things came from Russia. I didn’t understand why Dad was so impressed with Russia, since it was thousands of miles away, but I was certain he knew what he was talking about, and that was good enough for me.  

“Maybe there are beings of some kind,” he said, “that are invisible to the human eye.”

“How do you mean, invisible to the human eye?” I asked.

“Well, we human beings live in a world which consists of time, space, matter. We need to breathe in order to live. Perhaps there are other beings out there who don’t need what we need to exist. Maybe there are beings without matter, like ghosts, and that’s why we don’t see them. Who knows how many worlds like that there are around us.”

“What if they’re here with us now?”

“Maybe they are,” Dad said. “However much our science has advanced—and it has advanced a great deal already—it can’t tell us whether we are alone in the universe.”

“But, Daddy, who put us here on this planet? And why didn’t he put us on some other one?”

The conversation continued, but Dad didn’t have an answer for my question. The talk of the sky and its secrets roused strange and intriguing feelings inside me. Was it just me, or was it like that for everyone? Did everyone ask themselves the question I had asked? Had anyone found an answer? I didn’t understand why everyone behaved as though the key questions of human existence were not important, but it was clear to me that grown-ups didn’t like to dwell on them.

It was late, maybe midnight, and the music of the crickets resurfaced. Down here, everything was bursting with life, while up there the vast, and largely unexplored universe taunted us. Down here, a dad and his daughter embraced one another as the summer evening embraced them, and the questions began to fade away. At last I fell asleep. Then Dad carried me into the house and put me into bed.

            But up above the answers hovered for anyone who would find them.

I woke in the green silence of the Fruska Gora. It was a new day, sailing inexorably toward a new evening and new daydreams about the stars. I was still thinking about everything I had talked about with Dad the night before. None of it seemed to fit with his Marxist ideas. When I had asked him a few days before what Marxism was, he said that it was a new world order which would bring equality to all people. He had also said that it was a new science which stated unequivocally that God did not exist. Only that which could be seen existed.

Then why was he pondering invisible beings last night? Did he really believe all that Marxism taught? While I was trying to form my own opinion about that, he walked into the room.

“Come on, little one, let’s have less talk of philosophy today, and more talk about how you’re going to get ready for your school contests. They’re getting very close now. What are the subjects you’re going to go in for?” He successfully diverted my thoughts to a completely different subject.

“Physics and some other ones that aren’t important,” I replied. “I’ll manage those easily, and physics will be okay too.”

I went over in my mind everything that awaited me—the approaching contests, the exam questions, the points I could earn. I wasn’t at all concerned. It was more of a game to me. I loved the challenge of seeking out new achievements, things that would make me feel more grown-up and serious when I claimed them as trophies. And I really did like physics, and the discovery of new worlds.

We would soon have to go back to town, back to our fast-paced urban lives. But while I could, I’d enjoy the peace and serenity of our summer home. The nightly star-gazing ritual was becoming the most important time for me, and not just because of the stars. A special bond was developing between Dad and me. We’d spend hours stretched out on two small wooden benches, he on one, I on another, talking. We would expound on the origin of the stars, about visible and invisible worlds, about limitless space, the universe. He had one theory, I had another. Only when I’d begin to shiver from the chill of the night, would he take me in his arms and carry me to a deck-chair and cover me with a blanket. Finally, I’d fall asleep and Dad would carry me to my room. 

The End

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