Science Fiction Family space travel Sisters

We Have Always Lived in the Hamlet

By James Van Pelt
Jun 19, 2020 · 2,309 words · 9 minutes

Best friends in summer on the beach girls

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash.

From the author: Toni Morrison said, “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves—a special kind of double.” In this story, a sister filled with wanderlust and another anchored at home find themselves in a life-long struggle to come to terms with each other.

            Tory opened the picnic basket filled with quilting supplies under the Green Granddad, a thousand-year-old yew tree on the edge of Tillton Forest.  She’d spent yesterday choosing among the scrap fabrics, cutting the pieces, and then pinning them together so she and her sister could sew blocks today.  She sighed anxiously.  Leaves whispered above at the end of long, twisted branches. Carver Creek murmured below the hill.  Warblers chirped and sang their complicated melodies all around, and Janelle was late.

            The low stool Tory used was a sturdy one she’d made in the barn last year.  She’d sanded the seat to fit her comfortably.  Janelle had grown impatient with the project, so Tory finished hers.  Now, Janelle’s stool sat on the blanket under the tree, but no Janelle.  Tory stitched together a dark blue, pinstriped block while she waited.  The sturdy fabric had come from an old blouse with a torn sleeve Mom had worn when she was young.  Tory’s fingers moved quickly as she looked toward the forest trail.  She’d see Janelle minutes before she got here, but she couldn’t look away from her work for long, though.  That was one of the reasons she loved quilting.  The work required focus even when she made a stitch she’d done hundreds of times before.  If the edges didn’t line up just right, if the seam wasn’t exactly the right distance from the edge, if the stitches were uneven or if she pulled tight or not tight enough, the block would bunch and have to be remade.  Automatic, focused, meticulous, repetitive attention.  This was why quilting was perfect for conversation.  The hands and eye worked together to produce the blocks while the mind could wander.  Tory always had her best conversations while quilting.  If Janelle would arrive, she could have one of those conversations today.

            “Quilting?” said Janelle.  Tory jumped.  As usual, her sister hadn’t come the expected way. “I can’t think of anything more boring.”

            “You mean ‘meditative,’ I think.”

            Janelle plopped onto the other stool.  Tory thought Janelle was the better looking version of the two of them, and they both favored their Dad.  Pert nose.  Strong jaw.  Blue eyes.  Black, kinky hair.  Tory was one day short of a year older, so each year they celebrated the day being the same number.  This year was eighteen.

            “You have to repair every other block I make,” said Janelle. “Your patience astounds me.”

            Tory didn’t want to tell her that she redid all of Janelle’s stitching, but she liked her company enough that the extra work wasn’t a bother.  “Practice makes perfect.  I’m doing that Texas Star pattern for Cousin Beth.  It’s just a baby quilt.  I don’t think I have the endurance for a full-sized one.”

            Janelle dug in the basket for needle, thread and a handful of cloth pieces.  “I just slow you down.  You’d get more done than the both of us if you worked on your own, but you didn’t invite me out here just to work on Cousin Beth’s baby quilt, did you?  She’s not even expecting, is she?”

            Tory blushed.  “She could be, sometime.  She wants to be.  No point in waiting for the inevitable.”

            The sewing required concentration.  Tory bent over her work, unsure of what to say next to her sister.  Normally, she found the Green Grandad the most relaxing place in her world.  His shade stretched for dozens of yards.  What sunlight fought through the leaves, sparkled like emerald stars.  And the air smelled moist and fertile.  She once told Janelle that the hours quilting beneath the ancient Yew weren’t subtracted from her total hours on Earth.  If she never left, she would never die. 

            Finally, Tory said without looking up, “So, are you still going to go? We have always lived in the Hamlet.”

            “We talked about this. Yes, I’m going.”

            “It will be hard work.”

            “It will be an adventure.”

            “You could die.”


            “We might never see each other again.”

            Janelle didn’t answer that.  She ran a line of stitches through the cloth, counted them, then snugged it up.  “There’s weeks and weeks with nothing to do on the ship.  I’ll make a quilt for you.  Maybe those darned blocks will come out even. I’ll bring it back to show you.”

            They worked silently until the sun dropped below the horizon and the shadows under the tree were deep and velvety.  Fireflies winked on and off in the tree’s limbs and around the trunk.  Tory couldn’t see her stitching any more, but she didn’t want to leave, and it seemed Janelle wanted to stay too.

            Tory said, “I don’t see fireflies here often.”

            Janelle sighed.  “Mostly they hang around the cemetery.  Summer nights and fireflies among the tombstones.  I’ll miss that.”

            She left the house at dawn.

            The messages came regularly the first two months.  Janelle chatted about life on the ship, about crew members, about her hopes.  Tory talked about flowers she grew behind the house, about fishing in Carver Creek, about poetry she wrote.

            But as the ship’s speed picked up, communication became harder.  Relativistic lag meant Janelle’s signals took longer to assemble, while Tory’s thoughts chased the ship going closer and closer to the speed of light.

            By fall, communication stopped.

            Over the years, Tory taught quilting to youngsters in the Hamlet.  She studied rural community management because she found it interesting.  A small press put together a collection of her poems that won an award.

            She took long walks among the yews and elders and oak.  Eventually, she volunteered to serve on the Hamlet planning committee.  Her studies qualified her for the position.  On her walks, she thought about the purpose of a technological society.  What was the point in becoming civilized, in becoming a technological utopia, unless everyone’s needs were met?  The Hamlet and communities like it all over the world proved the concept.  When farming became automated, the only farmers were hobbyists.  They no longer went to the fields like people of old, hoping to raise enough crops for the winter.  The same with manufacturing and medicine and service industries.  Working forty, fifty, sixty hours a week for wages with the hope of a brief rest at the end belonged to an era that passed.  Technology and automation served humanity’s pleasures and leisures.  Finally, people could do what they wanted, pursuing efforts that made them happy.  No one went without.  There was room and resources for all.  What else, then, would science be for?

            Tory learned about herbs.  She grew them, extracted oils, made fragrant sachets and lotions.  She studied nature, mapped and named the limbs on the Green Granddad, found other venerable trees far back in the woods.  She sat still for so long that she felt as if she was floating, becoming a part of the forest herself, like her own tree, a small one with flesh branches and hair leaves.

            There were people, though, like Janelle who couldn’t sit still.  The world could provide everything to make them comfortable, but they needed to stretch their legs, so they left.

            Tory helped to design better parks and wilder wilderness.  She enjoyed the company of her friends.  She learned to be at even more at peace with herself and with others.

            Not everything was perfect.  Despite advances in medicine, and the unending pursuit of the only medical challenge left unresolved, Tory aged.  Compared to the bulk of human history, it was a slow aging, like the Biblical patriarchs.

            It took longer to walk to the Green Granddad.  Her poems became shorter.  Sometimes she would speak them to herself just to hear the syllables roll.  She realized a single word could be a poem.  “Janelle,” sounded out carefully, was a poem.  A thought about the word could be a poem.  All was poetry, just as the entirety of a quilt could be contained in one well-sewn block.  She assembled the most difficult patterns and invented her own.  Sometimes she thought about her sister.  When they were sixteen, they had argued about heaven over breakfast.  Tory said, “If I could go, it would be a place where I chose my own schedule, where I listen to my own rhythms.  It would have trees and books and lots of spring afternoons.  My friends would be there when we needed each other, and we’d leave each other alone when we wanted to be thoughtful.  There would be waterfalls at the end of long hikes.  There would be music every day.”

            Janelle wrinkled her brow, and then laughed.  “That would be it? Trees and waterfalls? My heaven is a long series of hills with something wonderful behind each one.  No matter how many I climb, there’s another one afterwards.  It’s a place where I can build things like houses or cities or empires, and then abandon them to climb the next hill.”

            “Your heaven sounds exhausting.  You’ll want to come to mine to rest.”

            “What’s rest?”

            Tory looked at her sister and knew she didn’t understand her, this creature who radiated impatient energy. 

            So Tory lived a full life, exercising her mind in the way that pleased her, and sometimes thought of Janelle, far-traveling Janelle, who lived in the night sky.  Tory set a chair by the Green Granddad on warm summer nights, listened to the leaf choir whispering its protracted song to the wind, and looked up.

            Tory roused slowly from a long dream.  She’d fallen asleep while composing the last two lines to a sonnet she’d started years earlier.  On the blanket beside her sat a basket filled with cloth scraps.  She’d wrapped fruit for lunch and brought a thermos of hot tea.

            She didn’t know what woke her.  Above, the yew’s reaching, comforting branches focused first.  Tory looked at them for a while before realizing she wasn’t alone.  A young woman wearing a worn, grey jumpsuit sat cross-legged on the blanket.  Her hair was pulled back.  A fine scar ran from the corner of her left eye to her ear.

            “You came home,” said Tory.

            “I told you I would.”

            They embraced.  Janelle hugged with strength, with youth.

            “It’s been over two centuries.” Tory felt a tear run down her cheek that she wiped away.

            “It hasn’t been twenty years yet for me.  You’ve aged well,” said Janelle, “and the tree looks exactly the same.”  Janelle leaned back on her hands, breathed in the forests smells.  “I have been places, but I was afraid I’d get back too late.  Much happened.”

            “You climbed hills?”

            Janelle’s eyes shown. “Oh, if you could only see where I’ve been there, Tory. You can’t imagine what it is to watch another world coming toward you, what it feels like to take a first step onto a alien shore.  I thought I knew what adventure would be like, but it was so, so much more.”

            “I have traveled too.”

            “I heard.  I read your poems as we came in.  They’re beautiful.”

            Tory smiled. “Poems are like animal tracks.  They show you where I’ve been, but they don’t show me.  It’s me who traveled.”

            “You look tired.”

            “I’m not.  You look young.”

            “I feel . . . older.  Maybe there has come a time to rest, to sit under a tree.  I brought you something.” Janelle put a quilt on Tory’s lap.  Texas Stars.  It wasn’t perfect.  Some of the seams were crooked.  Tory could see where Janelle had to compensate elsewhere in the quilt with larger or smaller pieces.

            She ran her hands over the cloth that had been to other planets, that had traveled light years to find its way back to her.  “It’s lovely.”

            “I had a plan,” said Janelle.  She leaned across the quilt, held Tory’s hands.  “I would come back to the Hamlet for you.  I’ve done a thousand deeds, Tory.  I climbed a volcano’s throat.  I sailed a silk-sheeted sloop on an ammonia sea.  I raced from a supernovae, convinced for every second that we’d started away too late.  My plan was to come back, to take your place beneath the Green Granddad, and see what you see here.  I’m . . . full with other worlds.  While I sat, I would send you on your own journey.  There is much to see out there, Tory.  The universe is huge.”  Janelle gripped hard.  “Will you do it? Can you do it? Take a trip over a single hill while I wait for you here?”

            Tory imagined the scene.  She was old, very old, but not broken yet.  She could climb aboard Janelle’s ship and fly to worlds beyond this one.  She could!  And for the first time in her life, she felt a touch of wanderlust.  The changes in Janelle convinced her.  A flight, an exploration, a hike to cross a horizon rose up in her like a tide, like nothing she’d felt before.  Then, when she returned, she could walk back to this tree.  Perhaps twenty years would have passed for her, while Janelle would have lived through two hundred.  They’d be together again, sisters who were the same age for a day once a year.  They could talk under the tree about the things they’d done, and they’d live in the Hamlet, as they had when they were young.

            It was a beautiful vision.

            Tory thought about it while holding Janelle’s hands.  She realized they were crying, silent silvery tears that made their cheeks shine.

            Tory said, “I have a better idea.”

            Janelle nodded.

            “Let’s both go.”


This story originally appeared in Light: Sabers, Ships, Science and Sorcery anthology.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."