Once Round the Sun

You May Call Me Uncle Peppercorn

Peter put his brand-new roller-skates in the corner where he could see them first thing in the morning. Then he left his clothes on a chair and got into bed. His mind was buzzing with the questions he had forgotten to ask during the day.

"Oh, how I wish everybody would answer everything I ask them," he thought.

"Do you really wish that?" said a little voice at his elbow. Peter looked up quickly. There was a tiny little man with a funny big hat sitting on the side of his bed. "Because if you do, we might be able to arrange it." murmured the little man, and stroked his long beard. His hand was no bigger than Peter's little fingernail.

"Who are you?" asked Peter, surprised.

"It doesn't matter who I am," said the little man. "But you may call me Uncle Peppercorn. Come on," he said. "Hurry up. We've got a long way to go before morning."

Peter obediently got out of bed and dressed quickly. The little man jumped on Peter's shoulder.

"Hang on tight!" he shouted. "Here we go!"

Peter didn't know what he was supposed to hang on to, but he didn't have time to ask. Before he could say "what?" they were off, flying through the dark night, up, up, far above the houses.

Away they went among the stars in the big blue nothing until Peter couldn't tell which was the earth they had come from. All the stars were blinking and twinkling all around them and Peter wondered if HE were blinking and twinkling too.

Then they came to a star that looked bigger than the others. It grew and grew until they finally landed on a jutting mountain-top of this strange and beautiful star.

"Where are we?" wondered Peter. "Where's the earth?"

"We're about halfway to the North Pole of the sky," said Uncle Peppercorn. "Look, you can just see the earth down there," and he pointed out into space.

"Which one is it?" said Peter, growing quite dizzy looking at the millions of pin-points of light in the dark blue sky.

"See that sun over there?" asked the little man. "The one to the left of that big fellow?"

"Oh, yes," said Peter. "Is that the earth?"

Uncle Peppercorn gave a chuckle. "How conceited you fellows are!" he said. "No, the earth's the third little speck drifting round it. You can just see it if you screw your eyes up tight." He climbed up on the bridge of Peter's nose and shaded his eyes with both arms. "Now can you see it?"

"Ye-es," said Peter uncertainly. "It looks awfully small."

"It is," said Uncle Peppercorn. "The earth is just a little ball that rolls round and round the sun. It's spinning like a big top all the time, so that the people on one side of it see the sun half the time, and the people on the other side see the sun the other half of the time. Day and night, you know."

"I don't understand," said Peter.

"Haven't you noticed how the sun comes up on one side of the sky and goes down on the other?"

"Oh, yes," Peter said, proud to know this. "It rises in the East and sets in the West."

"Yes, only it doesn't really rise and set. You can see from here. The sun stays there and the earth spins round it. Every time it turns around, the sun shines on different sides of it."

Suddenly he jumped lightly to the ground. There were lots of bright shiny stones lying about on this strange star. Uncle Peppercorn picked up one of them and put it on a flat rock. Then he turned to Peter.

"Where's your top?" he asked.

"My top?" Peter was surprised. He felt in his pocket and pulled out a piece of string, some rusty nails, and finally his top.

"How did you know I had a top in my pocket?" asked Peter.

"It doesn't matter how I knew," said Uncle Peppercorn testily. "Put it down here."

When Peter had put the top on the rock, Uncle Peppercorn looked at it carefully and then stretched up on tip-toe to touch the smooth sides. "Does this thing work?" he asked.

"Sure it works!" Peter picked it up and wound the string round it. He set it spinning on the flat rock and it started to spin in a wide circle round the bright stone that lay in the middle of the rock. Uncle Peppercorn jumped quickly out of the way.

"You don't have to let in run over me!" he cried.

"Why, look!" cried Peter. "It's going round the sun." For Peter was still thinking of the earth and the sun, and the top looked just like a little planet going round and round a shining sun.

"Is that how the earth moves?" he asked.

"That's right," said Uncle Peppercorn. "The earth is like a great big top and it turns around many many times, while it's going just once round the sun. It seems to go quite slowly because we're so small."

Peter looked at little Uncle Peppercorn and couldn't help smiling. Uncle Peppercorn was so very small. But Uncle Peppercorn knew what Peter was thinking and he drew himself up to his full three inches.

"I'm just as big for me as you are big for you," he said, frowning at Peter. "and you're very small beside the earth, you know."

"I'm sorry!" said Peter. :"I didn't mean to be rude."

"That's all right!" Uncle Peppercorn smiled again. "You see the earth is so much bigger than both of us that it only has to turn round once to make a whole day and night for us. And it takes a whole year to travel round the sun."

Just then the top ran down and Peter picked it up and set it spinning again. Once more it started its journey, spinning round and round itself and at the same time traveling slowly round the shining stone.

"I should think it would get dizzy," said Peter. "Is it fever that makes it hot in summer?"

Uncle Peppercorn chuckled. "No," he said. "Look carefully and see if you notice something about the way the top stands when it spins."

Peter bent down and looked carefully at the spinning top.

"I don't see anything," he said.

"Look again" said Uncle Peppercorn. "Is it quite straight?"

"Oh! said Peter. "No, of course it isn't. It wobbles a little."

"Of course a top wobbles more than the earth," said Uncle Peppercorn. "The earth wobbles so slowly that it takes thousands of years for one little wobble. That's why the earth stays a bit crooked for a very long time. It's a bit crooked now."

Peter caught the top just as it wobbled right off the rock. He laughed. "I hope the earth doesn't do that!" he said.

Uncle Peppercorn gave his deep chuckle. "Spin it again!" he said.

Peter spun it again, and the top traveled around as before.

"Now, look carefully," said Uncle Peppercorn. "You see how, when it's crooked, the top end, that is the north end, comes nearer the sun when the earth is on one side of the sun, and is farther away when the earth is on the other side of the sun?"

"Oh, yes!" cried peter. "When the north is nearer it gets more sunlight than the other end, even while it's turning all the time."

"Right!" said Uncle Peppercorn. "Suppose you were living on the top end, north of the middle. What season would it be there?"

"What season?" Oh! I see." Peter thought a minute. "Oh, is that what makes the summer?"

Peter was thrilled. He had worked it out by himself.

"Then," he cried, quite excited, "it must be winter down below. And then when it gets to the other side of the sun, it's summer down below and winter on top. So that must be why there is one winter and one summer every year! And all the time there are lots of days and nights because it keeps spinning round by itself all the time too."

"My,my!" Uncle Peppercorn blinked at Peter under his funny big hat. "You're even quicker than I thought. Maybe we can give you the BIG YEAR."

"What's the Big Year?" Peter sensed something exciting. "Well," said Uncle Peppercorn, "it's something that only very few people can get. I don't quite know about you."

"Oh, please tell me," Peter begged. He was excited but he didn't know why.

"First you tell me," said Uncle Peppercorn, "what would you do if somebody asked you a question?"

"Why, I'd answer them, of course.

"Always?" Uncle Peppercorn's voice was suddenly very stern.

"Well," Peter stopped. "If I knew the answer," he added doubtfully.

"All right!" Uncle Peppercorn jumped on to Peter's shoulder. "You'll do," he said. "just remember that and you can ask anybody anything you want to know."

He pointed down again to where the little speck of earth rolled. The third speck from the little sun, to the left of the big fellow.

"Look carefully," Uncle Peppercorn said. "You see where the earth is new. It's going to go all round the sun and you're going with it. Only now you'll KNOW you're going with it. Until it gets back to the same place again, you may ask all the questions you like of everything and everybody on it. And everything will answer you in its own special way. If you ask good questions you'll get good answers. If you ask silly questions you'll get silly answers. The earth and the trees and the grass and the sky, land and sea -- they'll all answer you, until you get back to the same place again."

Uncle Peppercorn climbed up on Peter's nose, so Peter had to squint to see him. "Remember," he said sternly and waved his forefinger that was the size of one bristle of a toothbrush, "you must always answer all the questions of others, too."

Peter squinted at the little man perched on the end of his nose and Uncle Peppercorn looked so funny that he started to laugh. Uncle Peppercorn hurriedly grabbed hold of Peter's right eyebrow and said pettishly:

"Don't do that! It's rude .. . . And I might fall down and break my neck," he added "Then how would you get back home?"

Peter apologized at once. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you. And I promise to answer everybody's questions if only I can find out the answers first."

"O.K." said Uncle Peppercorn, letting go of Peter's eyebrow. He chuckled to himself. "You look pretty funny yourself, you know, squinting down at the end of you nose." He climbed back to Peter's shoulder. Suddenly he shouted:

"Hang on, here we go!"

Peter gasped. It was so very sudden. They were off in the big blue sky again with all the twinkles around them everywhere. Peter lost track of where they were. For a moment he was afraid Uncle Peppercorn might not be able to find the earth among all the sparkling things. Then he saw it. It was the third speck from the sun that was coming nearer and nearer. Suddenly they were back home. They just missed the moon and landed quite softly on the earth.

"Here we are." said Uncle Peppercorn calmly. "Is there anything you want to ask me before I go away?"

"Don't' go away," said Peter. "I like you. Aren't you going to stay with me?"

"I'll be around if you need me," said Uncle Peppercorn.

With that he vanished, and Peter was alone in a big forest.

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