Warden of the Sun

by Chris Panatier

I walk through the garden carrying a twenty-pound bag of birdseed and set it down in front of the first feeder. A house finch and a late-season nuthatch gobble at the last few seeds until I touch the tube and they bounce to a nearby branch, happy to wait the minute it will take me to recharge the buffet.

A rustle behind me. I turn, expecting to see a cat or a fat squirrel out for an easy meal. It’s a little girl. Maybe eight. Mouse brown hair, heavy eyebrows. Blue smock.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Not really.”

“Alright,” I say, pausing. Kids are weird. “Do you live nearby? Have a name?” I fill the feeder.

She glances at a patch of daisies. “Daisy.”

“Daisy, huh? Okay.” I unhook the next feeder and top it off with seed. A solid week’s worth. The girl raises a curious eyebrow. “What?” I ask.

She shrugs and pulls a fistful of safflower seed from the bag, triggering an immediate swarm of big, glossy starlings. They throw themselves at her outstretched hand and peck at the contents until her palm is clean, save a few pinpricks that well with blood.

“Why would you do that?” I ask. “Their beaks are sharp as nails.”

“I don’t normally get this close,” she answers. “I like them. Their heads shine like black rainbows.”

I cap the feeder and move to the next. The girl—Daisy—follows.

“So,” I say, throwing her a glance. “Shouldn’t you be with your family or something? They say the front edge of that flare could get here today.”

“Coronal mass ejection,” she says, correcting my terminology. “It’s almost here, actually.”

I don’t know how to process this. I take a long inhalation through my nose. There’s honeysuckle in the air. It’s spring.

“Rebirth,” she says, as if adding commentary to my unspoken thoughts.

Her manner, the way she speaks. Confident. She seems to welcome the coming catastrophe. “How do you know it’s coming today for sure?” I ask. I had hoped that maybe the estimates were off.

“They were,” again answering a concern I’d not voiced. “The aurora will be something to see though,” she adds brightly, as if it might lift my spirits.

“An aurora in the daytime?”

“It will shine like streamers before it cuts through the magnetosphere,” she says. “Before…you know.”

A weight of sadness descends as I resume my work. I scoop some seed at a platform feeder but halt before dumping it. “So it’s really going to…kill…everyone?”

“One does not sling this much plasma to leave any doubt.” She plucks a fuzzy leaf of milkweed and turns it over for me to see. A transparent chrysalis shows an almost fully developed monarch rolled within. Daisy caresses it once with the pad of her finger. “Come on out, little guy.” She looks at me. “It’s a few days early, but he’ll be okay.”

The chrysalis begins to vibrate and it breaks. I drop my scoop. “What did you just do?”

“Just giving him a few minutes in the air, Michael.”

Coaxed from its hibernation, the butterfly pumps its wings until taut and flutters out over the garden.

Any awe that her prestidigitation garners is short-lived. I feel myself sneering. “Why are you doing this to us?”

“You did it to yourselves.”

“What are you talking about?”

She holds her arms wide. “You had all of this.”

“So, you’re just going to destroy it?”

“You didn’t recognize it for what it was.”

“I did.”

“Well, most didn’t. And as a result, I have to start over. Rework the experiment, all that. I stupidly assumed that delivering you into a paradise to evolve and learn would have fostered boundless progress. It did for a short while, but then you stalled out. Ambition begat progress but it also begat greed, which led to resource destruction, subjugation, war. Relentless circular descent. It was my fault. I set your ambition too high and your empathy too low. Next time around, I’ll reverse them. It might take longer, but at least then you’ll have a chance to make it.”

“Who are you?” I can’t believe I’m going to say it. “God?”

“Not the moniker I’d use. Presupposes the singular. Every star has a keeper. I’m the Warden of the Sun.”

“What did you mean when you said then we’d have a chance to make it?”

“Make it to the point where a species advances far enough to identify and commune with its star’s warden.”

“What then?”

Daisy weaves her fingers and stretches her arms behind her back. “Then we talk.”

“About what?”

“The things your brains will be capable of understanding by the time we meet.”

The sky begins to brighten, warm yellow-orange like a marigold. The birds still flit from one feeder to the next. I uncap a nyjer feeder for the finches and add seed.

Daisy grunts. “Tell me something,” she says. “Why do you continue feeding them?”

“Well,” I press down the lid, “they don’t know it’s the end of the world.”

“Hmm,” she looks upward. One horizon is hot pink, the other electric green. “Would you like to watch it with me?”

I point to the birds. “I think I’ll stay with them.”

Daisy pulls up next to me and holds my arm. “Okay.”

Colors oscillate above us as ribbons of the Sun’s flesh burn through the atmosphere. It is as beautiful as she’d promised. There’s heat. A flash blinds me. Eardrums explode. I do not feel my own death.

But then, slowly, my vision returns. The garden and birds remain—we remain, protected within an empyrean dome of her creation. The outside world is a blackened husk. Her lips move, and though my ears register nothing, her voice comes clear in my head, booming and leviathan deep.

“I will begin again with you.”

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