The Butterfly Nebula — Chapter 13 (Revised)

January 30, 2015

CHAPTER 13

Virgil

We entered New Mexico shortly before dawn. With the exception of saguaro and sagebrush the landscape could have been mistaken for Mars. I felt dazed from having driven all night, and as the sun began to climb at our backs I decided to pull over on the shoulder of Interstate-40 so we could watch the sunrise and then Beatrice would take the wheel and drive for a couple hours. The shadow of twilight was gradually drawn back with the rising sun as if a veil were lifted to reveal the lighted world underneath. Beatrice and I sat mesmerized by the bloated orb of sun protruding on the horizon in undulant orange layers reminiscent of the red giants Betelgeuse and Antares. I felt grateful at the dawn of a new day.

A fire-engine red pickup truck moved along on the opposite side of the highway, and at first it appeared to be moving at high speed and then slowed down so that I was unable to tell whether the truck’s abrupt deceleration had more to do with distance and perspective or that the desert played tricks on my vision. But I soon recognized that the pickup truck had definitely slowed and the driver now leaned out the window, watching the two of us from about 100 yards away. From a distance I couldn’t tell if the driver was a man or a woman, but he/she was young and also pale for this territory with long straw-colored hair cut in a pageboy fashion as one sees in some artistic renderings of Jeanne d’Arc. A playful adolescent cast to the face which held a pair of eyes bright as turquoise in the open window of the pickup.

The driver whistled loud and shrill in order to get our attention. Beatrice and I stood bathed in the sunrise, our gaze focused on the red pickup which was roughly parallel to where we stood, and then the driver extended their arm in a flinging motion and a white dove flew from their hand and gyred over our heads in a nimbus of desert sunlight.

“Welcome to the Land of Enchantment,” Beatrice said.

She then took the wheel and moved us further down I-40 toward our breakfast, and beyond that, Arizona. At first I thought I would catch a little sleep, but the sunrise had left me wide awake and I didn’t want to miss any of this day. The dirt of the mesa was like cinnamon powder. I watched Beatrice handle the pickup. She looked free and happy, more like a tomboy on an adventure, on some carefree lark, and androgynous too, a small revelation in the wake of learning about her and Laura. I could tell the West suited Beatrice, pregnant or not.

In the distance a chain of boxcars from the Santa-Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads moved slowly like some lazy giant serpent, and whenever we crossed a bridge or culvert you could see the iron rails stretch endlessly to the burnished seam of the horizon.

We talked for a while about Sad Laura, or Laura, as I was getting to know her better, directly and through my association with Beatrice. Beatrice was curious about what Laura was like at work, and we discussed how Laura might be as a parent, or how she might be with the baby given her being prone to spells of depression. I told Beatrice that I admired Laura a great deal and could understand why Beatrice loved her. They had met a couple years ago, at a club, introduced through a mutual friend, and after dating for several months decided to move in together. Beatrice alluded to Laura’s lack of experience in relationships; she’d practically been a virgin when they’d met. Unlike Beatrice, Laura had never been with men, her previous sexual history limited to a single short-lived lesbian affair.

Our conversation then turned toward drugs, particularly psychotropic or psychedelic drugs. The vision of the sorcerer-like driver tossing a dove above our heads led us into discussing Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley. Although she was a generation younger than me and not imbued with the spirit of the counter-culture, Beatrice had experimented more often than I had with hallucinogens (I’d only taken psilocybin once, back in 1970). And this morning she revealed (with a sly grin) that she’d brought along magic mushrooms for us to experience during our stay in the desert. I was pleasantly surprised but worried that I may have been a too far past the point in my life where I could take a mind-altering drug. I rarely smoked pot anymore and didn’t drink all that often.

“That’s remarkable,” I said, not quite sure what to say.

“Are you ready to try again?” she asked me in a tone of innocent seduction. Her voice always conveyed a sweetly innocent seduction.

“I think so . . . but we’ll have to wait for the right opportunity.”

“Of course.”

“And the baby?”

“Oh, Soren . . . the baby will be fine.”

The baby will be fine. Those words echoed in my skull. I was going to be a father but not in a way I had ever dreamt of being a father. Beatrice had made it quite clear that she and Laura would be responsible for the baby and I’d be allowed access maybe as a ‘friend’ or ‘uncle’ when the child was older. I could also visit the baby if I cared to. Those were her terms. The arrangement sounded like half fatherhood, or a quarter or a tenth of fatherhood. I would have the knowledge and small experience of being a father. I would know that I had shared in creating a living being that would most likely would survive me and possibly procreate too. I believed that I still had ample time with Beatrice for negotiating my involvement and role concerning our child, and I questioned whether my desire for involvement had not played a part in bringing Beatrice on this trip: An ulterior motive, but one that, to her way of thinking, would not appear too ulterior.

My own father had not been very successful in the father role, but I had always seen my relationship with him as more typical of the time and era in which I’d grown up where fathers were often distant, treated as providers or family breadwinners with little input on the actual workings of the family, only deferred to in matters of authority and corporeal punishment. I never revered my father, but I was never afraid of him either, his nature wasn’t tyrannical or overbearing—the opposite in fact. The downside of what I’d come to regard as his cold blandness and indifference to those around him was that he’d failed to impart any wisdom or assure me that I could always count on him for emotional support (oddly, I’d gotten all my help and guidance from the U.S. Navy). My father worked his entire adult life for an insurance company and commuted every day to Newark by train. After he retired and my mother died, he quietly and stoically drank himself into cirrhosis and death. It had only taken him a year.

Gladys and I had both been the only child in our families.

I thought about Roy and Carol Erskine. It was such a long time ago. Aside from an occasional and fleeting sexual memory, I hadn’t really thought about Carol in several years. Was she still in California? And was Roy still in Greystone? Riding through the desert with Beatrice, I realized I missed Carol; we’d come together during a time when it had seemed necessary and natural for us to have done just that. Carol had left New Jersey for southern California in 1970, already a decade ago. Was I thinking of her now because I too had suddenly broken away from that staid East Coast scenery? Had she entered my stream of consciousness because I was heading in the direction where she lived? (Admittedly my destination would be several hundred miles short of her place). Or was it the Southwestern landscape itself that re-awakened long dormant visions of her? Los Angeles loomed as Mecca with its easy lifestyle beckoning wide-eyed pilgrims imprisoned in the blighted urban East, though the impoverished reservation we were traveling through at the moment seemed to hold little in common with the wealth and sybaritic indulgence of pleasure seekers in southern California. I recalled the beauty of San Diego and my time stationed there before my honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, but having never driven across the continent I had missed the power of a changing and broadening landscape . . . until now.

We ate breakfast at a café named Waltzing Matilda’s. The owner, Neil, was an Australian who made excellent huevos rancheros and also grits with homemade hot sauce. The café was busy: cattle hands, railroad switchmen and engineers, Navajo laborers, bikers, Route-66 tourists. Southwest cocina décor and an enormous yellow New Mexico license plate hanging on the wall near the register. There weren’t any empty tables so Beatrice and I sat at the counter, and despite the number of diners a reserved stoicism pervaded the place. Hearing Neil’s Australian accent, I felt as if I were in the Outback, and adding to the sense of dislocation I heard John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” issuing from a radio behind Neil as he flipped and scrambled, whistling to the melody, heard that sailing soprano sax of Coltrane’s flying above the radio static that sounded not unlike the sizzle and sputter of the grill.

Neil had a thick chestnut-colored mustache. We talked about Route-66 and The Cadillac Ranch. I told him we’d missed the attraction because we’d passed it during the night, but that we would be stopping there on our way home. I told him about the Empyrean Observatory.

“Been there,” he said. “I have mates in Tucson. You know, most but not all the constellations you have here in the Northern Hemisphere can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere as well. Not the polar ones, of course. Southern Cross and Eridanus. Those are ours.”

We talked more about the sky in the Southern Hemisphere: The Magellanic Clouds, the Coalsack Nebula, the Jewel Box and Omega Centauri which both housed the most brilliant stars seen anywhere on the planet. We talked about constellations: Orion upended, his head tilted downward, but especially Scorpius which I had an affinity for, and recalled from my Navy days in Brazil as being far above the horizon, slinking through the Milky Way, and much easier to observe.
I asked Neil him about the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights.

“Amazing!” (egg-scrambling, spatula clinking on the grill, a kind of music to it). “These huge magnetic waves of red, yellow and purple, like someone threw a pail of blood and oil against the horizon sky and it quickly ran iridescent or across a color palette. Totally entertaining for a while and then it fades away—like everything, I guess.”

“What latitude were you on in Australia?”

“Melbourne, 37 or 38 degrees south? Hey, talking about the Aurora, when you’re at the observatory go see the Butterfly Nebula. Try for the big scope if someone is there to show you. It will blow your mind.”

Neil flirted with Beatrice while I ate my breakfast. He and I seemed fairly close in age but that did not deter him from hitting on an attractive 23-year-old, and I mused that if Neil had more information regarding Beatrice and her sexual proclivities he may have been less flirtatious, but then maybe not.

“School teacher, eh? I bet your old man must be very proud of you,” he said, winking at me.

“He’s not my father,” Beatrice corrected him. “We’re friends.”

Several heads turned in our direction.

“Ah, well then, excuse me,” Neil muttered, and then a bit louder, “How ‘bout some more coffee? You know when you order coffee ‘regular’ out west we serve it black. Back east regular coffee is served with cream (or milk) and sugar. How’s that for a cultural divide? Never spent much time back east myself. Too many people. Liked the cities to visit—DC, Philly, The Big Apple, Boston—but I’m more of a desert rat. I’m comfortable out here, on the mesa.”

Late that morning, and closer to the Arizona border, we stopped to buy gas at a roadside trading post of Navajo and Zuni merchandise . . . hanging yei rugs of patterns unfolding and folding, dizzying intricate geometry and god figures . . . necklaces braided with rainbow colored stones like a coral snake . . . prints of Pueblo wall art . . . kachina dolls of cottonwood root dressed in garb of fabric, feather and bone, meticulously painted like miniature aliens from outer space . . . beads and leather bags . . . silver jewelry—mostly turquoise but a few pieces of jade and other precious stones. . . .

A dog that looked as if she had some coyote in her mongrel genes slept beneath a canvas awning, and the barely perceptible rising and falling of her sand coated ribs felt one with the planet and the rhythm of the universe.

I bought a belt woven from hemp and set with turquoise bead work.

Beatrice stood at a booth talking with the jewelry artist—a short, lean, taut-muscled Navajo man, his hair pulled back in a long pony tail brindled gray and black. I stared at a Mexican serape—bars of red, yellow, green, purple—and thought of starlight and the wavelengths of light emitted from stars used to calculate thermal radiation through the spectrum—short infrared to long ultraviolet whenever light passes through a prism. And then there’s the Doppler Effect and the Red Shift which I realized we would likely be discussing with Empyrean Observatory astronomers sometime tonight. I thought about the Aurora Australis.

“Let me see your eyes,” the man said to Beatrice.

Beatrice smiled and leaned in closer to him. The gesture was vaguely sexual but the man simply studied her face up close with an inscrutable intensity.

“Wait here,” he said. “I have something for you.”

The man walked over to a nearby trailer adorned with Navajo Nation stickers and a dream catcher hanging from an aerial antenna. He stepped inside the trailer and returned in a few minutes with a large silver bracelet. Beatrice’s eyes widened as the man handed her the bracelet.

“Go ahead and try it on,” he said.

Three inches long, the bracelet was hammered of thick silver and fit like a cuff on Beatrice’s wrist and forearm. The bracelet’s underside was engraved with tiny coyotes, spiders, snakes, lizards, scorpion, bear and other totems, and its top displayed two long and angular figures, presumably deities, with bolts of lightning shooting from their strange extremities and the intricate cutting of their garments. The figures framed two stones: one a pale turquoise; the other a deep red, almost black garnet.

“These are the holy twins, the monster slayers,” the man said, his scaly brown forefinger tapping the engraved figures. “They are the sons of Changing Woman, an important Navajo god who represents the changing seasons and by extension aging and rejuvenation. The story is told that Changing Woman, who is the primary Navajo deity, Asdza’a’,Nadleehe’, daughter of First Man and First Woman, conceived the twins—Talking God (or Fire God) and Rain God—by two fathers, the deities of Sun and Water. As they grew, the first twin became the Warrior who ventured far and wide to kill the monsters (and in Navajo mythology there are a lot of monsters, Naye’e’, that interfere with living a harmonious life), and the second twin became the Protector or Defender of the home. In one telling of the legend the second twin fades away and disappears altogether, but most narratives have the twins’ roles becoming interchangeable over time so ultimately we have no idea who is the warrior and who is the protector but what we know is that we need them both. It’s kind of like the yin-yang symbol. The Hopi creation myth says that the first god, Spider Woman, picked up a handful of dirt and spat into it and then mixed the moistened dirt and saliva until it became clay mass and then separated the clay in two to form the twin gods. Those twins had different names than the Navajo ones. The Hopi don’t believe in as many monsters as the Navajo do,” he said with a short laugh.

Beatrice studied the pristine metal band clamped to her wrist.

“This bracelet is beautiful, extraordinary,” she said. “You have real talent.”

“No, not talent,” the man said self-deprecatingly. “Hard work. Hours of work. I’ve been doing this a long time.”

Beatrice opened her wallet. “How much?”

The man shook his head.

“It’s free . . . for you . . . .”

“Oh no, please let me give you something.”

“A gift,” he went on, ignoring her offer. “Like the life in your belly.”

Uncanny that the Navajo jewelry maker had been able to tell Beatrice was pregnant when she hardly showed. He turned and faced me.

“Where you heading?”

I told him about the Empyrean Observatory and my invitation to join the astronomers privately in their work. As it turned out the man knew all about the observatory.

“You’ll like it there,” he said, and followed with a somewhat cryptic remark: “Ask Adam and Eve to show you the Butterfly Nebula.”

“What is your name?” I asked him.

His name was Virgil.

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