An Atom in Space. A Cantaloupe.
by Jen Breach

First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Picture Book Category

“The particles of matter are subject to strange vicissitudes. 

Every atom has its peculiar history” 

– John Cargill Brough

Here is a cantaloupe. 

Cut it open for that 

pearly orangepink with a slash 

of vibrant green. 

Could you have guessed those colors 

from the beige outside?

Things are not always what they seem. 

Now take a spoon and scoop out the seeds….

But wait! No! 

You can’t scoop out this 

cantaloupe. 

It’s only a drawing 

of a cantaloupe. 

Here is a drawing 

of a painting 

of a cantaloupe. 

This is a fancy painting 

made by a fancy painter 

called a Dutch Master. 

He painted it four hundred years ago, 

and now it hangs 

in a fancy museum. 

Perhaps you have seen 

one like it?

When the Dutch Master painted this cantaloupe, 

and the grapes and the pheasant and all, 

he laid out a table just like this, 

and painted what he saw. 

The cantaloupe he painted 

is long, long, long

gone by now—eaten and digested 

and decomposed like the 

Dutch Master himself—but

the cantaloupe in the painting 

is still there. 

The atoms in 

the mercury which made 

the vermillion paint 

are more stable 

than the atoms in 

a cantaloupe 

or a Dutch Master.  

But eventually 

that vermillion paint, that mercury, too, 

will decompose.

It will take a 

long, long, long time.

But “long” is not 

long for an atom.

Before it was a 

pigment in

paint in a 

painting of a 

cantaloupe,

this atom wandered 

the nothingness

and somethingness 

of the Universe.

You see,

more than thirteen billion 

years ago

there was

a Bang—

a Big one—and then

this atom existed.

The force of that Bang was 

tremendous

astounding.

The atom raced 

and sped 

and spun

across space. 

It might have formed part of a star

for a while,

say, ten million years…

before the star exploded—

in a fraction of a second—

flinging the atom through 

the Universe

once more.

Was it then part of 

another star?

a planet?

a moon?

Who knows?

Only the atom, 

and it won’t tell. 

But then…!

The atom formed part 

of the earth. 

Perhaps a beetle,

a blade of grass,

a bright flashing fish.

A drop of rain

taken into the roots of a hundred year old pine tree,

standing tall and straight on a mountaintop.  

Then flung and spun again,

until…

magma—

thick, boiling fire in the center of the earth—

then lava exploding, gushing, oozing forth

then cooling to cinnabar mercury, a slash

of vibrant red in a chunk

of black volcanic rock.

Then paint.

After it is no longer a painted cantaloupe, 

once those mercury atoms decompose,

what then? The atom 

will speed and spin

once more.

It might be a beetle, 

a grass, 

a silk thread,

a moon,

a star,

a child,

a Master painter, 

a cantaloupe.

Jen Breach (they/them) is queer and nonbinary. They grew up in a tiny town in rural Australia with three older brothers, two parents, and one pet duck. Jen has worked as an archaeologist, a librarian, an editor, a florist, a barista, a bagel-baker, a code-breaker, a ticket-taker, and a trouble-maker. The best job they ever had was as a writer, which they do now in Philadelphia, PA. jenbreach.com.