Finalist story of the third children’s story contest Ciencia-me un cuento (Science-me a story). Organised by the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK / CERU). The original text is in Spanish and is inspired by my childhood and the questions I used to ask my parents since I was 1.5 years old.
Translated to English by Martha Irene Saladino
Edited by Ghina Halabi
Illustration by María Rodríguez from Principia Magazine. (I don’t own the illustration rights).
Meztli was sitting in the back seat of the car as they drove home. Her dad was in the front passenger seat and her mom was driving the pretty black car that got lost in the dead of night. While her parents talked about boring topics that she didn’t understand, she looked out the window. Every night on the way home, her big dark eyes watched the trees and buildings that were left behind as the car rolled down the road. Yet, there was an object that did not disappear and always went with them to the entrance of the little town where they lived. Also every night, Meztli asked the same question:
— Mommy, daddy…
— Yes, sweetie? Her mom asked.
— Why is the Moon always following us?
The Moon was always there and its light guided the way home. Sometimes it appeared like a giant, luminous ball with a rabbit in the middle. Other times Meztli only saw a bit and the rabbit in the middle was hiding. The Moon was their companion and always led their way until the car turned left and drove in the midst of the black trees.
The black trees were large elms that marked the beginning of a small path which led to the small town where Meztli lived. They were not scary, but Meztli called them like that because at night they looked gloomy in the absence of light to illuminate them and give them colour.
Her parents smiled and her mom replied:
— The Moon does not follow us Meztli. But it’s so big compared to the trees and houses and it’s so far away that it seems like it moves with us while everything else stays behind. It may seem like a long time to you, but it only takes us thirty minutes to get from your granny’s house to ours. It takes astronauts more than two days to reach the Moon! And their rockets travel way faster than our car.
Being so young, Meztli did not understand distances or times and every night she was amazed by the huge white ball that brought her family home. Then she began to sing the song her granny had taught her and that was about a large Moon that lit up an alley.
As Meztli grew older, her curiosity grew too. And whenever she looked up to the sky to see the Moon, she also stared at the stars and wondered what they were like. Before she was six years old, her dad had already told her that if she wanted to know more about the Moon, the stars and everything in the sky, she should study astronomy when she grew up. He also told her that astronomers use what look like giant spyglasses called telescopes to better see distant stars, planets, and the Moon.
But Meztli did not want to wait until she was a grown-up to see everything in the sky or to know more about the Moon. And on her sixth birthday, she blew out her cake’s candles and wished to see the moon and stars up close.
That night, while Meztli slept, a soft tingling in her nose woke her up. When she opened her eyes she saw a pretty glow floating in the air. Meztli got up to turn on the light, but the little glow got closer and Meztli saw what it was. A pretty butterfly.
— Hi Meztli, my name is Papalotl and I’ve come to make your wish come true. I will take you to see your namesake, the Moon.
The Moon was Meztli’s namesake because Meztli means Moon in Nahuatl.
— But I also asked to see a star up close! Meztli said.
— That is not possible, Meztli. There are so many stars in the universe that you would never finish counting them. From the garden, you can only see a few. But in the universe, there are more stars than grains of sand on the beach you went to in the summer.
— Really? But there was a looot of sand on the beach!
— You don’t see all the stars because they are so far away. It’s as if you were trying to see the flame of a burning candle in your house from the patio. The further you go, the less bright it looks. The stars also have different sizes. Some are very small and some are very large. Our Sun is a small star. Stars also have different temperatures, some are very hot and others are colder. The sun has medium-temperature, but even so, it’s thousands of times hotter than your mommy’s cake oven. We would melt if we tried to visit it!
A little disappointed, Meztli asked:
— And, can’t we visit a less hot star?
— No, Meztli. Apart from being very hot, stars are very far away. The closest star to our planet is the Sun. The second closest one is called Proxima Centauri. Even if we travel as fast as we can, it would take us more than four years to reach it. And if we didn’t melt, we’d come back when you were almost fifteen years old. You wouldn’t see your parents all that time.
— Oh, so bad! But then, can we go to the Moon and back before I am too old? My mommy told me that astronauts take days to get to her.
— Yes. I can travel faster than a spaceship. We’ll be back before your parents wake up. But first, I’ll sprinkle a protective powder because without it you cannot leave Earth.
Meztli smiled as she put on her slippers. Papalotl blew her protective powder, bright glowing dust of various colours.
In the blink of an eye, Papalotl and Meztli rose into the air. Meztli watched her house drift away. After a while, it was not only her house, but also the little town, then the city became small and she soon began to see lakes and mountains.
— Woow! “Meztli was delighted to be able to fly.
— Meztli, do you know what the atmosphere is? Papalotl asked.
— Yes. It’s a thin coat that we cannot see but that protects our planet and contains the air that we breathe to live.
— Very good! And do you know what it protects it from?
Meztli thought for a second but didn’t know what to say. Then Papalotl explained:
—There are particles in the universe much smaller than dust, called cosmic rays. They are so small that we cannot see them. They are like pellets that travel very fast and if they hit you they’ll hurt you and make you sick. The atmosphere is a shield that protects us from them. And not only that! The atmosphere is also like an invisible blanket that keeps the planet warm. To go to the Moon we must leave the planet and its protective blanket. The powders I sprinkled on you create a protective cap around your body that gives you air, keeps you warm and protects you from cosmic rays.
— Is that why astronauts wear giant suits? To protect themselves?
— Yes. You are very smart, Meztli. We are almost there. Ready? Papalotl replied.
Meztli looked down and saw a large blue ball. It was the Earth with its giant oceans. The Moon got bigger and bigger as they got closer.
— Where is the rabbit that I see at night on the moon? Meztli asked.
— There’s no rabbit. From Earth, it looks like a rabbit because it’s so far away, but they are actually craters. In the past, many meteorites smashed the Moon and left those scars that look like a rabbit from the distance.
— Poor dear! Meztli exclaimed.
— There isn’t much to do here, right? She asked.
— Not really. Living beings are only on Earth and that’s what makes it nice. That’s why we have to take care of our planet. Papalotl said.
— And is there life only on Earth? Meztli asked.
— I don’t know. There are so many stars and planets in the universe that some may have life, but they are so far away that we don’t know. No one has explored other stars and their planets. Maybe one day someone will find out. Ready to go back?
— Yes! This was the best wish I could have asked for! The universe is so beautiful!
When they got home, Meztli got into her bed and Papalotl said goodbye. But before she left Meztli asked her a question:
— Do you think one day I can go to the stars or other moons?
— I don’t see why not. Maybe one day you’ll be able to make your own stars. Never stop asking questions! Good night Meztli. Papalotl said goodbye.
Meztli happily grew up remembering her journey with Papalotl. She always wondered how she could make her own stars. When she was older she studied astronomy and found out that to study the stars you can use telescopes but also computers. People who use computers to study the universe are called computational astrophysicists. And though it sounds very difficult it’s a lot of fun. Meztli discovered that Papalotl was right. Meztli did not visit stars in the sky. But rather she learned to create her own stars on the computer where she could see them up close.