The Butterfly Nebula 8 – The Star of Bethlehem

December 31, 2013

The Star of Bethlehem

Someone must have told Beatrice about my discovery of the binary star system Scorpius-429 (a.k.a Burns and Allen) because she entered the store, chased by snow flurries, on the morning of December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), and congratulated me. I had become something of a minor celebrity after announcing to Brainchild employees that a column on my discovery would be appearing in a coming issue of “Backyard Astronomer” and “Sky and Telescope.” Apparently another teacher from Wainwright, Mrs. Ebersol, had been at Brainchild Scientific recently and overheard some employees talking about my discovery of the eclipsing binary. Mrs. Ebersol was aware that I had spoken to the 8th grade science class about telescopes and astronomy and that I’d helped plan the star watch night in early November.

“So how does it feel to be a famous astronomer?”

She was dressed in tight jeans, a black leather jacket and black boots with long heels, which made her nearly my height. A camel hair scarf swept across her neck and upper chest. A few snowflakes clung to her hair and I noticed a lone one quickly dissolving like a fading star on the thin arc of her eyebrow.

“There’s a Buddhist saying, or several variations of the saying: ‘before enlightenment, wake up, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, wake up, chop wood, carry water. It’s something like that.”

Beatrice flashed an indulgent smile. I still didn’t know how she felt about me.

“Yes, I’m familiar with the saying,” she said. “I study Buddhism, and especially Zen, but I think you are being just a bit too humble and self-effacing, Soren. You should trumpet your discovery to the world.”

I was being self-effacing. I’d been given the chance to impress Beatrice, to exploit my discovery of Burns and Allen in the hope that it may bring me closer to her, but I’d been caught off guard, woefully unprepared. I reasoned that I had sounded confident enough, injecting perhaps the right tone of philosophy in playing down my discovery. Ultimately it didn’t matter how I handled the moment.

“It’s really not that big a deal,” I said. “Professional and amateur astronomers make discoveries all the time. Discoveries far more important than my humble binary system.”

“When are we going to have our astronomy night?”

I was stunned. In the rush and whirl of my binary star discovery I had forgotten the tentative plan and promise to Beatrice regarding a star watch evening with only the two of us. Her blue eye and brown eye were now fixed upon me in a wistful impatient stare and the tone of her question had been mildly petulant, as if she’d been expecting that I would have taken the lead in setting up this important date. I acted surprised. I acted as if I’d thought she wouldn’t remember, only to be rebuffed with an, “are you kidding me?” I apologized several times and trotted out the obvious excuse of having been lost in my work and research on Burns and Allen. To atone I offered a date some time later in the week.

“But there’s so much going on right now with Christmas and school,” she said. “Thanksgiving weekend would have been perfect.”

“Sorry. . .”

Beatrice began tapping her foot as a catalyst to setting her thoughts in motion.

“My Christmas break starts in two weeks,” she said. “Why don’t we try for a star night on the Winter Solstice?”

“That would be perfect,” I agreed. Although the solstices are not that important sidereally, I didn’t want to express a pompous science opinion that would further alienate her, even though she was a science teacher. Her choice of the solstice seemed ideal. I suggested our same location.

“I can’t think of a better place,” she said, and her words washed over me like a warm bath on that iron gray, snow-flurried morning in the false lucre Christmas season I so ordinarily loathed.

“Then it’s a date,” she whispered, turned, and walked away.

The Solstice now beckoned as the one bright point in an otherwise dreaded holiday season. Because of my weak family ties and even weaker marriage, I had shunned “The Holidays” in recent years, losing myself in work to avoid and escape any form of social commitment. And the store was busy, there were lots of orders, especially for binoculars and telescopes and astronomy-related merchandise during Christmas season. I always worked Christmas Eve Day (we closed early though), and the store was open New Year’s Eve Day until regular closing at 6:00 PM. I usually spent Christmas night with my telescopes.

In the early years of our marriage, Gladys and I would visit her mother for Christmas and sometimes take her out to the Starlight Tavern for dinner, or if the Starlight closed Christmas Day we would take mother on Christmas Eve and stay home Christmas Day. Gladys’s mother was a miserable woman—a shriveled, beady-eyed, petty and vindictive creature, who was close enough to pure evil as I’ve encountered in another human being. Watching her, I knew where Gladys had gotten her mean spirit, though she was no match for her mother, and early on I had felt sympathy for Gladys and was ennobled by the thought that I’d saved her from this woman. But I soon discovered that any sense of heroics on my part was belied by the grim reality of the marriage. Every Christmas (and sometimes Easter or Thanksgiving and always Mother’s Day) involved my playing witness to a serialized mother-daughter feud where the mother nit-picked, inveighed against and demeaned her daughter and the daughter retaliated with appropriately scripted barbs and insults. For some reason I begged off of these holiday ordeals following my affair with Carol. I’m not sure why. Maybe after seeing Roy’s madness and Carol’s pain I could no longer endure drama so trivial. Maybe I felt the marriage was really through at that point, and I no longer saw the need to please or pretend for my wife’s benefit. After all, I had committed adultery and would again—how married was I? Gladys hit back hard at first; she didn’t want to be tortured and unhappy alone. For the sake of my sanity I wanted out of any interaction with her mother. Ironically, when I was not present for these sado-masochist holiday rituals, Gladys’s mother exploited my absence to complain about me and tell her daughter one more time what a mistake in a husband I had been, a complete loser, and this only aggravated Gladys more because she believed her mother was right about me and she found it impossible to defend me but instead argued some finer point such as my paying the bills. . . At certain moments, lost in contemplation of the Rings of Saturn, or the Mare Conundrum or The Perseids, I would envision Gladys’s mother dead and experience a surge of wicked joy. Gladys once hinted at inheritance money when we were dating, but I’d known for a long time there would never be a chance of getting anything from that woman—ever.

My own parents were dead.

It would take Beatrice to guide me through Christmas 1979 and into the New Year of 1980 and the brave new decade of the 80s.

Two weeks . . . I only needed to wait two weeks, 14 days, a fortnight, but Time dragged, became a leaden weight of interminable, excruciating hours and minutes. The winter solstice arrived on an overcast day, much like the day Beatrice and I had last spoken to one another. On the 21st I found an envelope in the office mailbox with my name but no address or stamp. The note was from Beatrice (I recognized her lovely hand from a lesson plan I’d previously noticed on her desk), suggesting we postpone our night of star gazing until the following day. But the weather next day was no better, and I received yet another envelope and note to wait one more day, but three inches of snow fell on the evening of the 23rd so we were now left with Christmas Eve on Monday night and a slim chance of getting together and watching the stars because of other commitments (hers). I was surprised then, when on the morning of Christmas Eve Beatrice glided into Brainchild Scientific as though on a cushion of air…

“It’s tonight or never,” she said. “We’re going to have to start early. Is 7:30 okay with you?”

The forecast called for a clear night with temperatures in the low 30s, an ideal night for gazing at the winter sky. I was head over heels ecstatic! We planned that I would pick her up at her place and I would pack a few sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. Beatrice offered to bring Christmas cookies she was going to bake that afternoon.

I had already begged off spending Christmas Eve with Gladys and her mother—I’d been avoiding it for years. Tonight my putative wife would be taking Darth Vader to a local diner and I would make sure I’d left the house before she returned. Gladys no longer went to the Starlight Tavern. Perhaps she’d never enjoyed the Starlight in the first place but had only gone because I had liked dining and drinking there, or she may have no longer cared to be there because it dredged up memories of our first date and wedding celebration which likely made her unhappy. I didn’t much care about Gladys’s feelings regarding the tavern. I figured that if I didn’t wind up in bed with Beatrice this Christmas (a long shot but one never knew what the holidays might bring in their misguided but universal stress on human connection and intimacy) then I would make some excuse to Gladys that I’d gone out for drinks with a work buddy who’d phoned me unexpectedly. And that story would only be needed if Gladys was still awake by the time I arrived home and not passed out on the couch from a surfeit of Ginger Brandy, or her beloved Soco while the TV played the Yule Log or Mass at Saint Patrick’s or some depressing holiday film.

All the signs were in my favor. . . .

I picked up Beatrice at her place around 7:30 and we headed over to Spruce run. A brilliant night with the Pleiades and Hyades in Taurus, the reappearance of Saturn, and the Geminids providing some random shooting flares; Sirius, Orion, and all the circumpolar constellations and our neighbor galaxy Andromeda near the veil of the Milky Way. I set up my two best telescopes: the Etherscan-1200— the one that had pinpointed Burns and Allen—and the Galileo Calisto Refractor. I decanted the coffee from my thermos, a coil of steam rising off our cups. I had also brought along a flask of brandy that Beatrice and I passed back and forth. Beatrice radiant in her parka, scarf, gloves and knit cap. As she drank the brandy, she became even more animated than usual, her cheeks flushed and ruddy like a Yuletide caroler’s.

“Where is the binary star you discovered?”

“Somewhere over there,” I said, pointing at the southern horizon.

“Right, how could I have missed it?”

“You can’t see Scorpius-429 with the naked eye. You can’t see the constellation Scorpius at the moment, but when it is there I’ll show you the area where -429 is located. It’s near the stinger stars.”

“There are stinger stars? I guess that makes sense.”

I had the Calisto fixed on the Orion Nebula, a favorite object of hers. I moved the Etherscan between Andromeda and the Pleiades and a waxing crescent moon. Most of the time, however, I could not take my eyes off her. I was watching Beatrice watching. Our conversation rambled but it didn’t matter; the idea now was to let the night sky dictate whatever thoughts popped into our heads.

And I mentioned that I was not a big lover of Christmas, and that aroused some challenge in Beatrice, a gauntlet she felt compelled to take up.

“So what do you astronomers think the Star of Bethlehem really was?” she asked me as she took another snort of brandy. “A comet? Planetary conjunction?”

“Probably both,” I said.

“Or perhaps a myth,” she added, “like the nativity story itself.”

“There could be something to the astronomy, more so than the story,” I said, coming near her to adjust the focal length. “The Chinese had reported a comet in 5 B.C. There were also conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn during the period Jesus was said to have been born. But the conjunction would still appear as a single bright star, which isn’t all that interesting. My guess is the event would have needed to have been quite significant so I’m thinking a comet or nova occurring at the same time as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and possibly Mars.”

Uncannily, as if we were following a script, Beatrice and I looked upwards and towards the East. The universe gleamed in a million diamond suns above us.

“And even if the Star of Bethlehem weren’t true or based in fact,” she said in tones so young and clever, “it’s still fun to ponder and talk about . . . I love trying to figure out the origins of things. . . .”

And I love you, I thought with a repressed excitement that tilted toward delirium.

Beatrice was standing close to me now. She turned and faced me, and then quite unexpectedly placed her hand over my heart.

“I can feel your Scrooge heart unfurling like a moon flower,” she said, her fingers fastened to its beat. “What star would your heart like to be, Soren? A red giant like Antares? Or perhaps a white dwarf? A red dwarf? A blue giant like Rigel?” She’d become a faith healer performing a laying on of hands, and I was being reborn, not so much in the Christian sense but something larger and more vast—call it the peace-that-passeth-all-understanding.

Beatrice then placed her other hand on my chest, both hands side-by-side with fingers splayed, like a binary star. I put my arms around her, closing off the space between us. Moonlight cut a perfect swath across her face so that her eyes and pre-Raphaelite forehead were concealed, but not the lower part of her face: the illuminated crystal pores of her skin; the breath threading from her glazed, slightly parted lips; her teeth a reminder of bone. Then the brown eye, the lovely dark sister, shone in the light while the blue was still eclipsed. I smelled the brandy on her mouth.

“What is the heart really? Just tissue and cells, a muscle, a ‘pump’ worked by a brain that circulates blood throughout our bodies. We’re all nothing more than a collection of proteins and amino acids.”

“Spoken like a true science teacher,” I said, and on Christmas no less. the biggest holiday dealing with the heart. You sound more Scrooge than I do.”

She laughed and held me briefly and then let go. I let go of her too, though I didn’t understand why I’d let go. Who was she really?

“Let’s go to your store!”

“Can’t do that, the store is closed.”

“So open it!”

I was at a loss for an excuse.

“I’m afraid I couldn’t take you there now,” I told her. “The alarm system . . .”

Beatrice laughed again. She was high and cheerful, aglow in the moment, a dazzling seraph.

“Are you actually telling me that you’re unable to turn off the alarm system? You do it every day! Why is tonight any different?”

I acquiesced; it was easy and didn’t take much persuasion on her part. We decided that because Beatrice lived closer to Spruce Run, I would drive her back to her house and then she would follow me in the car to the Brainchild store. She may have agreed to take separate cars as a compromise of sorts. I wasn’t inclined to open the store tonight. I could think of better things to do on Christmas Eve, but I didn’t want to disappoint Beatrice in any way and she must have sensed I was accommodating her silly whim. The night was still young (about 9:30). As her car followed mine, the winter constellations Orion and Canis Major loomed in the upper section of my windshield. At first the headlights of Beatrice’s Honda Civic were farther back, but as they drew closer one headlight became slightly larger than the other—noticeably larger—and though I knew that was impossible I saw it nonetheless . . . and the headlights began circling about one another in an elliptical orbit and they became Scorpius-429, they became Burns and Allen, and the hallucination resulted not from having logged so many hours observing Burns and Allen as one might have thought, but of recalling Beatrice a short time ago as she stood beneath the cold burning heavens in her mittens and knitted cap, a perfect celestial vision. She had said that the heart was little more than a pump to her, and I realized with a fleeting chill that she had started her fall to Earth this Christmas Eve, but I had no idea I was only witnessing the beginning of a much longer descent.

I had the key. I opened the door and immediately switched off the alarm system. We stood in a vast space of near darkness and long angular shadows, interrupted by gleaming splashes of chrome, glass, silver and mercury among the inventory. And in the store, surrounded by rock tumblers and astrolabes and Bunsen Burners, and electricity kits and human figures of clear plastic with cheaply painted hearts and viscera, in the store it really was Christmas and these toys beckoned us to play with them. There were toys everywhere, the intricate and not-so-intricate gadgets of wonder and learning; the fundamental concepts of physics and chemistry, geology and astronomy that you could see and hear and touch, that you could read about and then try an experiment to fully understand or comprehend what you had just read . . . Brainchild Scientific was nothing if not a palace of miraculous and potentially life-changing toys.

Beatrice asked if I could keep the lights turned off as she sought her way among the kits and apparatus, pausing to play with an astrolabe or a magnet, or a Galileo Thermometer. I lost sight of her.

“Where are you?”

“You have to find me.”

“No I don’t, I’m leaving.”

“You would lock me in this store overnight? I think I’d like that.”

I located her voice. She was somewhere in the aisle of smaller telescopes, perhaps spying on me.

“Come on,” she dared, “Play hide-and-seek with me. It will be fun.”

I began searching. She wasn’t in the aisle where I’d thought she’d be hiding. As well as I believed I knew my way around Brainchild, it was a large space and slightly labyrinthine in sections, and the acoustics played tricks on your ears. I tried the mineral section next.

“You’re not even warm!” she shouted, her voice reverberating off the cinder block.

I could feel her movement more than hear it, like an altered current, an eddy of warmth in the cooler air of the warehouse-store, though occasionally I heard the rustling of her clothes and the tap of her boots as she shifted to another hiding place and giggled.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are . . . You know it’s not like me to give up when searching for something . . . or someone,” I reminded her, my words loud and ringing down the eerily vacant aisles. I then heard the crackling of the Faraday Cage Ladder, and saw the writhing white worm of electrical current. I rushed to the spot where I thought Beatrice would be and she was gone. A clack of metal balls on a string, the whir of a rheostat, and the vibrating hum of a motor propeller, the zap of the Van deGraf, followed by a tinkling of chimes—all the Brainchild merchandise came alive now and I thought of an orchestra tuning up as it awaited the maestro. I could memorize the location of each gadget in the store, and as they successively spun and exploded and rattled and buzzed into life, I was able to follow her trail, planning to preempt her next surprise. But with a wild laugh and shriek, Beatrice flipped on the stroboscope and pulled me into its fluorescent amniotic sac, sealing us off from the twilight world beyond. She threw her arms around my neck, and we kissed in the bright choppy rhythm of our stroboscope omphalos, and our huge silhouette played across the wall like an erotic lantern show.

O Holy Night. . . .

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