The Girl Who Held Up the Sky
By Garon Whited
Adelaide held up the sky.
Nobody asked her to, but she was a conscientious girl and a helpful one. When she was six years old, she saw the cracks run through the sky, so she raised her hand and held it up to keep everyone safe. She kept her hand up—her left, usually—as high as she could reach, so the sky would not come tumbling down.
For five years, the doctors told her the sky would not fall. She did not believe them. Why should she? They were doctors, and they were grown-ups, and they knew nothing of the sky and the places above. They didn’t know how much the pieces of the sky would hurt when it shattered, when they came tumbling down in long, thin slivers, sharp-edged and jagged and cold as the dark side of the Moon.
They forced her hand down, but she could see the pieces cracking further, see the cracks spreading and widening, see the Things beyond the world peering in through the broken sky. She screamed, and screamed, and screamed some more. For days, they would not let her raise her hand, and she screamed until her throat was raw, until she spat blood with every breath, never eating, never sleeping—until they let her raise her hand again.
So she slept, always with one hand held out, up high on pillows, so the sky could not fall. Sometimes she switched hands, because her arm got so very tired, but always, always, there was a hand to bar the way of the broken sky and the not-nothing beyond.
At the hospital, they had a little pond. Adelaide liked to walk around it, in her fuzzy slippers and pajamas, to look at the ducks. The ducks understood the sky. They flew along it, but never through it. Ducks were wise.
Doctor Tisdale liked to walk with Adelaide and talk with her about the sky. He always wanted to know more, but Adelaide had explained everything several times.
“How is it you hold up the sky, Adelaide? It seems awfully big, doesn’t it?”
“So, how do you do it?”
“With my hand.”
“The whole sky?”
“How does that work?”
Adelaide picked a flower, held it in her other hand, and lifted it up.
“I see,” said Doctor Tisdale, who didn’t. “But you’re not very tall, and you can’t reach very high. I’m taller than you and you can’t reach above my head. How do you hold the sky above my head?”
“The sky is very high,” Adelaide replied.
“So, how do you reach it, if it’s so high?”
“With my hand. It comes all the way down to the ground.”
“I thought you held it up?”
“I do. So it doesn’t fall in.”
“Well, isn’t my head higher than your hand?”
“Why isn’t my head above the sky?”
“Because the sky is so high,” Adelaide repeated. “I keep it from falling.”
“With my hand.”
Doctor Tisdale never understood.
One day, Mr. Stein arrived. He came to visit one of the patients. Adelaide saw him as they sat in the shade. Mr. Stein saw Adelaide, too, and smiled at her. Adelaide waved with her free hand.
When he finished his visit with the young man—Adelaide heard the orderlies call him “Cameron,” but he didn’t talk. He only sat and stared.—Mr. Stein came over and sat by her on her favorite bench. He held the little bag of bread crumbs for her so it was easier for her to feed the ducks one-handed.
“May I ask what you are doing?” he inquired.
“So I see. And very well, too, with one hand. What are you doing with your other hand?”
“Holding up the sky,” Adelaide admitted, readily enough. Everyone in the hospital knew it.
“I see.” Mr. Stein looked up at the sky, frowning. “It doesn’t look broken.”
“It’s got cracks all through it. If I don’t hold it up, they get bigger.”
“Oh. Maybe that’s the problem. If there were gaps, I’d see them. Cracks can be hard to spot.”
“Is it heavy?”
“Good.” Mr. Stein looked thoughtful. “You know, if we could find something to use for glue, we might be able to fix the sky.”
“What kind of glue fixes the sky?”
“I suppose you’re right. Maybe we could find something to prop it up with?”
“I’ll see what I can find. Is it okay if I come back and talk to you? If I’m going to find something to prop up the sky, I’ll need someone who can see the cracks and tell me if it’s working.”
“Thank you. Oh, and what’s your name?”
“Adelaide Murphy. I’m a mental patient,” she added, just to be sure he understood. “People think I’m crazy.”
“I’m Frank. It’s nice to meet you. And sometimes people think the same thing about me.”
“You’re not a doctor?”
“Nope. I’m more of a mechanic.”
“Oh.” Adelaide looked up at the sky. “Maybe that’s what it needs.”
When Frank came to visit again, Adelaide was in the dining room, eating slowly. She was quite proficient at eating one-handed, and a few of the orderlies were kind enough to prepare certain things for her. Opening a cardboard box of milk was challenging, at best. Frank paid the cafeteria for a guest tray and seated himself across from Adelaide.
Frank started to eat. Adelaide had no trouble, but she was forced to eat slowly.
“I’ve been doing some reading,” Frank told her.
“Did you know, the ancient Greeks had a titan who held up the sky?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“His name was Atlas, and he kept the sky from falling. I don’t think it was cracked back then. He just held it up so it wouldn’t settle to the ground.”
“What happened to him?”
“I’m not sure. Nobody believes in him anymore.” Frank looked thoughtful. “Maybe that’s why the sky cracked. Maybe that’s why someone else has to do it, now. Would you like to read a story about Atlas?”
“Did he ever get tired of holding up the sky?”
“I’d like to read about what he did.”
“I’ll see what I can find.”
Frank brought her a thick book of mythology, with lots of pictures, and Adelaide, hand in the air like a student with a question, read through it greedily. The stories about the titan that held up the world were already marked with little, sticky bits of paper for bookmarks. She waited impatiently for Frank to come back the next day.
“Sir?” she called, when Frank entered the common room.
“Ah, Adelaide. Finished with the book?”
“Not all of it, but all the Atlas stories, sir.”
“You’re quick. I like that. What’s on your mind?”
“Did you know Atlas actually held up the sky? I mean, he didn’t just keep the cracked parts from falling in.”
“Yes, that’s part of the stories about Atlas. Is that not how you can hold up the sky? You’re don’t hold the whole thing up, but kind of prop it up to keep it from collapsing?”
“Yes! You get it!”
“It just makes sense,” Frank told her.
“Good. And do you know what the book said about Hercules?”
“I know several stories about Hercules. I presume you mean the time he had to fetch some golden apples and needed Atlas to do it for him?”
“Yes. Do you think there might be other people who could hold up the sky?”
“Arm getting tired?”
“Okay. Tell you what, I’ve got an idea. Let’s try an experiment. Let’s go out on the patio.” They did so and found a high-backed bench to sit on. “All right. Now, put your elbow on the top edge, here, with your hand up to hold the sky. Got it?”
“Does that help?”
“Yes. I do this sort of thing all the time.”
“Okay. Now, look up and tell me what you see.”
“What does it look like to you?”
“It’s blue, with fine, crazy cracks everywhere. If I don’t hold it up, the cracks get wider and Things look in. It’s awful,” she added.
“Yes, it is.”
Adelaide looked sideways at him.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Frank placed a finger over his lips. Adelaide nodded and stopped talking about Things beyond the sky.
Frank placed his elbow on the back of the bench and aimed his forearm upward, palm up.
“Try putting the sky on my hand. I’m braced for it.”
Adelaide, scared, shook her head. Frank smiled and nodded.
“It’s all right, Adelaide. I won’t let it fall.”
“I promise. You can watch me the whole time. If it starts to slip, you can take over again. Fair?”
Gingerly and with great hesitation, Adelaide worked her hand next to his. Like a waiter handing off a tray full of glassware, she carefully slid the invisible burden of the sky onto Frank’s hand.
She stared for several seconds, gaze shifting from sky to hand to sky and back, watching to make sure it wasn’t about to fall. Frank looked surprised when she took her hand away. For long moments, he stared at his hand, at the sky, and at his hand again.
“It’s working,” Adelaide said, wonderingly.
“So it is,” Frank agreed, sounding perplexed. “It’s not easy, but I think I’ve got this.”
“You mean you can hold up the sky?”
“Not forever, but long enough to be helpful. You’ll have to take it back in a minute.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “All right.”
“On the other hand, I have some ideas.”
“What sort of ideas?”
“How to help you with the sky. Some are temporary, some are more permanent. Let me work on them. Can you stay on sky-duty while I do more checking?”
“Great. Take back the sky and I’ll get right on it.”
Adelaide did so, but for the first time in five years, she was smiling.
Every day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Frank came to visit Adelaide. He would stand by her chair and she would stand on it, placing the burden of the sky on his shoulders. He would stand, slightly hunched, while she ate with both hands. Her doctor, Doctor Tisdale, initially wasn’t pleased about a grown man visiting an eleven-year-old girl so often, but he relented when he saw the results.
Doctor Tisdale tried to help Adelaide himself, offering to take the sky for her, but she refused.
“If you can’t see it cracking, how will you know if you’re holding it right?”
“Mr. Stein seems to do all right.”
“Frank can see it. Not as well as I can,” she admitted, “but his eyes aren’t as good as mine.”
“Well, how about you let me give it a try?”
“No. You’ll drop it,” Adelaide asserted, and would not discuss it further. And why should she trust Doctor Tisdale with the fate of the sky? He was one of the ones who forced her to keep her hands down. He didn’t know. He didn’t understand.
So, Frank visited Adelaide. Every day, they would read and write, mostly about old myths, but Frank also brought books about classical architecture. As he expected, she found the idea of a caryatid of particular interest.
When she read about the columns in the shape of a woman, she knew what had to be done. Frank listened, looked thoughtful, and agreed with her suggestion.
From then on, every day, Adelaide would pose.
One of the therapies was an arts and crafts class. It wasn’t much of a class. It was little more than crayons and watercolors and clay. But Frank had ideas. Shortly after he held the sky for Adelaide, he started talking with Doctor Martin, the administrator of the Fields of Lilac Sanitarium. It wasn’t long before, they renamed one wing of the hospital “The Stein Wing.” The art therapy class moved into better quarters immediately.
As a side effect—or, perhaps, it was his intent all alonge—nobody objected when Frank had a granite block wheeled into the expanded art department. Most patients still wouldn’t get access to hammers and chisels, but Frank wasn’t a patient.
He carved tirelessly, every day, tap-tap-tap, tink-tink-tink, chiseling away. Adelaide would pose, a little-girl Hercules, holding up the sky, and Frank would sculpt, chipping away at one side of the block. Adelaide had a prop so she could hold up her arm more easily, and Frank told her story after story to keep her amused. She was especially fond of his stories about a goofy teacher who became a wizard, especially when he did the voices.
As he sculpted the stone, another Adelaide rapidly appeared, emerging like a girl eagerly stepping out of a wall of rock. Her face was set in determined lines. Her arms were stretched above her head. A long, sweeping toga ran from her shoulders to the floor.
The other sides of the now-diminished block were covered with samples of Adelaide’s writing. “I hold up the sky.” “In my hands rests the world.” “Nothing will fall until I do.” “I stand.” And many others.
Frank was amazingly good at making the rock do what he wanted. When the front of the block was completed, it seemed Adelaide had backed halfway into a square pillar of stone. Then they got to work on the lettering, carving it into the flat sides of the granite, line by line, letter by letter, word by word. Frank even helped her translate some of it into other languages—Greek, Hebrew, and Frank alone knew what else. She copied the letters onto the stone in crayon and he carved all the strange symbols for her.
At last, Frank said they were done. Adelaide looked at it and said it was perfect.
With exquisite care, Adelaide laid the sky atop the upstretched hands of the half-statue, half-block. Adelaide and Frank held their breath. The statue-pillar was rock steady. The sky did not fall.
Together, they hurried to the window. Outside, the sky was blue only in patches, with many clouds gathered together. Nothing rained down. Nothing fell. The cracks in the sky were stable. And, best of all, no Thing could look in.
Adelaide grabbed Frank in a hug that could have crushed the life from a smaller creature. She wept into his coat. He knelt next to her and let her cry on his shoulder, instead. He whispered in her ear.
“Do you remember the story of Hercules and Atlas?”
“And do you remember we read about the place called the Pillars of Hercules?”
“I think that’s the perfect place for your statue, don’t you? I think it should go up high, up on one of the Pillars of Hercules. Somewhere people don’t go, so it can hold the sky as high as it can. Don’t you?”
“The perfect place,” she agreed.
“Now, here’s what you have to do. You have to pretend you’re cured, all right?”
“Cured of what?”
“You know most people can’t see the cracks in the sky, Adelaide. They don’t understand. They think you’re crazy. So you have to tell them I explained it all to you, and that holding up the sky is silly.”
“But it isn’t,” she insisted.
“I know that and you know that, but you can’t prove it to anyone if they can’t see it. Since they can’t see the sky is cracked, they don’t believe you. So they have to have the sky fall on them before they’ll believe. And we can’t let that happen, can we?”
“So pretend you don’t believe it, either—not anymore. Go to school, memorize what they tell you about the sky and space and all that. Never let on you know better.”
Adelaide pulled back and sniffled a little.
“I get to go home?”
“Yep. And you get to go to school, and to play games—with both hands—and to sleep without keeping one hand propped up.”
“All right. As long as the sky stays up,” she added.
“Good girl. I’ll hide the Pillar of Adelaide somewhere up high, on one of the Pillars of Hercules, and it will stand for a thousand years. As for you, little lady,” he finished, “you get to be Adelaide Murphy, a perfectly normal girl living a wonderful life. Only you and I will know who you really are.”
“I’m Adelaide Murphy. Who else am I?”
“You’re the girl who held up the sky.”