‘At the End of the Ninth Year’ is a short story by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). Unlike some of the other tales collected in his 1996 collection Quicker Than the Eye, it is not a fantasy story – there is no supernatural element – but nor it is out-and-out science fiction.
However, it contains some science fact, so it’s worth considering here, since any Ray Bradbury story, however slight, offers something for consideration and analysis. ‘At the End of the Ninth Year’ was published in American Way in January 1995.
First, here’s a quick summary of the story. Sheila and Tomasino have been married for nine years. On the day of their nine-year anniversary, Sheila announces at breakfast that she is no longer the same woman he married. She explains that every nine years (so she had learnt as a child) the human body completely replenishes and changes itself, so that not a single part of it is the same as it was nine years ago.
Sheila, then, is – quite literally, at the molecular level – no longer the woman Tomasino married (something he rushes to agree with, sardonically).
She announces that she is going to go away and leave. He protests, and ends up sending her up to her room, like a naughty little girl. But then he decides to reason with her in order to save their marriage. He points out to her that, if she is not the same person who got married nine years ago, then neither is he: his blood, bone, hair, and so on have also changed so that not one cell remains from the day of their marriage.
He then proposes that they give themselves new names to celebrate their new identities. They are no longer Tommy and Sheila, but Frank and Mercy. ‘Mercy’ agrees to this, and they go back down to have breakfast together, with Sheila/Mercy suggesting they have champagne to mark the occasion.
‘At the End of the Ninth Year’ is, as this summary suggests, a slight little tale, which is almost closer to an old-fashioned joke than it is a full-blown short story. The scientific thinking which Sheila recalls from her childhood is not entirely accurate – different parts of the body rejuvenate and get replaced over different lengths of time – although bones, for example, are pretty much completely altered at the molecular level every ten years.
This scientific titbit is the basis from which Bradbury weaves a fairly familiar (and familial) tale, involving a variation on the ‘seven-year itch’ in a fairly typical American marriage. What Sheila really wants, is a psychological or emotional change, to match the physical transformation she has undergone in the nine years since she said ‘I do’. Through adopting and throwing back at her the scientific basis underpinning her yearning for change, Tomasino is able to save the marriage and to give Sheila the change she needs, simply by telling her that they will adopt different names and make an effort to recapture the heady excitement of the early years of their wedded life together.
The names he chooses for them, of course, are significant: it is only through being frank with her about what needs to happen to save their marriage that she will show mercy to him and agree to give their marriage another shot. ‘At the End of the Ninth Year’ may be a light, and even a slight, piece of fiction, but every detail is there for a reason, as we’d expect with a Ray Bradbury story.