For as long as Poly could remember, Uncle Charles Wallace has been a mystery. He appeared occasionally, staying for a few weeks, and then disappearing again, maybe for years. Her parents wouldn't tell her where he went when he was gone, or when he'd be back, or where he lived, or what he did for a living. He wouldn't tell her any of those things either; he never told her how long he'd visit, he never promised he'd see her soon.
The Christmas she was four, he appeared in the night, and was waiting downstairs Christmas morning. They were at her grandparents' farmhouse that year, and Charles was finally old enough to be excited about Santa and presents, and it was so exciting, and Uncle Charles Wallace gave her a beautiful, exquisitely crafted mobile of the planets, and they spent hours looking at it together. The next Christmas, he was away (away where, no one ever told her, no matter how many times she asked), but he sent her a book of constellations and a telescope.
When Poly was seven, he appeared on a family trip to Capri, and spent three days touring with them. They rented a small boat and he drove it around the island, and whenever they wanted they dropped anchor and jumped into the Mediterranean. The morning after the boat ride, Poly woke up and Uncle Charles Wallace was gone, and all her mother would say was, "He had to leave."
The summer she was nine, they were living on Benne Seed, and he stayed for six whole weeks, the longest he'd ever stayed, and every clear night they looked through the telescope together, and Poly could tell he was pleased by how many constellations she knew. They ate dinner outside on the veranda every night, and he cooked most nights, simple meals like spaghetti and meatloaf and pizza, but they were the best Poly had ever eaten. She was learning Russian, and he'd quiz her, wouldn't speak to her in English sometimes, and by the time he left she was fluent, even dreaming in Russian.
Mother was noticeably more relaxed when he was around. They were seven that summer, and Peggy was a fussy baby, and Mother and Father were both exhausted. But Uncle Charles Wallace (such a long, important name; with the Uncle added it was even worse than Polyhymnia but it was his name, Poly couldn't imagine calling him anything else) made the house run smoothly and cheerfully, and everyone ate more and slept better with him around. He spent hours with Mother, looking at her books, doing problems with her on graph paper at the kitchen table, and that was the first time Poly really understood what it meant that Father had a doctorate and Mother didn't. He didn't coddle the babies, didn't coo over them, or do any of that ridiculous babytalk so many adults resorted to, but when he held Peggy, she always quit crying, preferring to stare at him in silence, mouth open. All the children adored him, and he was patient and kind, and treated them matter-of-factly.
When he left he gave her a locket, and the stone was unlike anything she'd ever seen.
She didn't see her uncle again until she was twelve. It was fall, and it rained endlessly, and Joshua's absence was a dull heaviness in her stomach at all times. And Adam was gone too, for a few weeks now since his internship ended, and that was an ache and a loss as well, but a different kind. Thinking of Adam was sweet to Poly, remembering him made her feel good, and she treasured moments alone to do so. Thinking of Joshua felt like a knife cutting through her, so deep it didn't hurt right away. Mother was teaching them at home, and she was being soft with Poly, not pushing her when she didn't pay attention, when she stared out at the window at the grey roaring ocean instead of at her reading. But she knew that would not last long.
And then he was there, on Gaea, staying in the room Adam had stayed in, and he was tan but very thin, with deep circles under his eyes. He wouldn't say where he had been, or what he had been doing, or even who he worked for. Poly knew that her family was involved with the American government at high levels -- the President occasionally called her grandfather personally, and of course Father's work was very important and they knew the Ambassador -- but this was the first time Poly had suspected -- realized -- that Uncle Charles Wallace worked for the government too, and whatever he did, it was even more secret than starfish. And that meant, hopefully, it saved a good many sparrows.
Mother wouldn't let the children jump all over Uncle Charles Wallace, even Poly, which she considered ridiculous, as she was not a baby. She had been kidnapped, she had lost a beloved friend in Joshua, she had fallen in love with Adam. She was practically a woman now.
Dinner was a loud, lively affair, even though Uncle Charles Wallace was not, himself, a loud person. But the children were excited and excitable over his presence, and there was plenty of laughter.
After dinner they sang, but just for a bit, because Uncles Charles Wallace wanted to go to bed. But on his way to his room, he brushed Poly's arm. "Will you take me to see Macrina tomorrow?"
And she didn't know how he knew, but yes, yes.
She hadn't seen Macrina but a few times since Joshua died. At first, she had gone swimming daily because Mother made her take the children, and then because it was her time with Adam, but Macrina came less often toward the end of the summer. Poly had wanted desperately to see her, to hold herself against the dolphin's warm, compact body, but Macrina either did not know Poly needed her, or did not care.
The next day, Poly and Uncle Charles Wallace went swimming together. Uncle Charles Wallace chose a pair of striped pink and yellow swim trunks, one of the loudest pairs left. (Adam had taken with him the zebra-print ones Joshua had always worn, Poly had noticed. She still wasn't sure how she felt about this -- whether she was able to see that for Adam, they were a sign that he would live up to Joshua's ideals, that he would take on Joshua's mission, or whether she was angry he'd stolen one of the very few mementos of Joshua she had.) They looked fabulous against his tan but it was startling just how thin he was -- Uncle Charles Wallace had always been slight; he was not taller than Mother or Uncles Sandy or Dennys, and much shorter than Father, but his ribs showed and so did his clavicles, poking at the edges of his shoulders, and Poly understood why Maria had insisted he eat thirds last night.
Uncle Charles Wallace swam every day, but in a pool, he told her, and Poly had to help him navigate the waves. His stroke was clean and even, and his endurance was good, but he struggled to get under the swells and not get carried off by them. But they got out past the breakers, and he floated on his back and closed his eyes and waited. It was sunny for once, unusually warm for so late in the year; a perfect day for swimming.
Poly whistled for Macrina. She wasn't even sure how she made the sounds, or even exactly what they meant, though she had a pretty good idea. She had an ear for languages, everyone said. Sounds made sense to her, and she could hear differences that other people, apparently, could not. Father said she was "extraordinary," but to Poly it was just the way things were.
Long minutes went by, and Poly began to despair that Macrina would not come, she would not get to share this with Uncle Charles Wallace, Macrina knew she was sad and lonely and empty and angry and she didn't care, she had abandoned Poly--
"Look!" Charles cried, and Uncle Charles Wallace opened his eyes, turning, and Poly turned and Macrina was there, grinning her big dolphin grin, and she butted Poly rather harder than usual as if to say, "I'm here, quit complaining," and Poly hugged her hard, feeling the dolphin's smoothness against her.
Macrina swam around Uncle Charles Wallace in several circles before she stopped in front of him, and she looked as if she were sizing him up, and Poly knew the dangers of assigning human motives to animals -- how could she not, with her father -- but oh, she was sure Macrina was doing just that. Macrina swam around him slowly again, and Uncle Charles Wallace just waited, treading slowly, breathing deep and even. He almost looked as if he wasn't really noticing Macrina, as if she were only mildly interesting.
Suddenly, with a flash, she was underwater, and then Uncle Charles Wallace -- in a move more graceful than Poly thought was fair -- he was astride her, and she was swimming in circles, with him on her back.
Poly was delighted and horribly jealous; Macrina had never once let Poly ride her, and she had tried, several times when they first met.
Macrina's circles were wide and slow, but she gradually sped up, until Uncle Charles Wallace had to hold onto her fin to keep up, and eventually she succeeded in bucking him off. Uncle Charles Wallace went flying and hit the water with a slap, laughing louder than Poly had ever heard him. He bobbed up to the surface, pushing his hair out of his eyes and grinning.
"It's your turn," he said, and Poly didn't know what he meant but the next moment Macrina -- who she hadn't noticed after the dolphin had unseated her uncle -- was underneath her. Poly gripped Macrina's fin and wiggled to find a secure seat, but before she'd started to feel like she had the hang of it, Macrina started doing circles, slowly, but again, gradually building up speed and then, before she was ready, before she had time to prepare herself, Macrina bucked and Poly was flying, and she hit the water with a thud that hurt, but when she surfaced, like Uncle Charles Wallace, she was laughing, laughing in a way she hadn't in a long time.
Macrina butted her, hard again, and then swam to Uncle Charles Wallace. He stroked the dolphin absentmindedly, and Poly wondered what he thought of Macrina, what he thought about what had just happened.
"This is extraordinary," he said, as if he were responding to Poly's thoughts. "I wonder how many people have gotten to communicate with dolphins the way you do. I wonder how many have tried. How did it start?"
Poly started to tell him about how Macrina just approached her one day when they were all out swimming, and she didn't know whether to be frightened or not, but then Macrina started speaking to her, and it was so interesting to listen to her that Poly forgot to be afraid, and she was just starting the part about taking her father to meet the dolphin when Macrina, evidently bored with the story, swam under Poly and once again, they were off. Macrina swam with Poly several more times, and again with Uncle Charles Wallace, and they ended up staying out much longer than Poly had intended, and by the time they swam back to shore, lunch was over and Mother was cross. Uncle Charles Wallace smoothed it over -- Mother could never stay mad at him -- and all through the rest of the day, Poly felt a contentedness that had been missing.
Uncle Charles Wallace stayed for two long, lovely weeks. Poly taught him the language of Gaea, and they got out her old telescope and looked at the stars, and they played with the babies and he made her work on her math, since that was the subject Poly and Mother were mosty likely to get cross at each other about. They swam one more time, the last warm day of the year, and didn't see Macrina.
Uncle Charles Wallace never asked her about Joshua, or Adam, and Poly didn't actually bring them up herself. The last day of his trip, everything was hectic and rushed as Mother tried to sort his laundry from the family's, Maria tried to send him off with enough food for a dozen, and every kid wanted to say a special goodbye at least three times. They took the horses to the hotel, and as he was loading his bags on the trolley to get put on the plane, Poly felt lonely and angry because he hadn't singled her out for a special goodbye, and even knowing she was being silly didn't make a difference.
Just before he hopped on the plane, he pressed something small into her hand, at the same time he was hugging Father and Johnny was clinging to his leg. Polly gripped the item fiercely to her, and didn't even look at it until his plane was no longer even a speck in the sky. It was a necklace, made of the same stone as the necklace he'd given her years ago, and this one was shaped like a sparrow.