The Butterfly Nebula — Fragment

February 28, 2015

The domes of the Empyrean Observatory appeared shortly before sunset, high above the mesa, blunt rotund spires, exotic mushrooms, their white skins like an alien fortress on a red planet. The world dissolved into a vast lake of fire; rock and outcroppings looked friable in the dying light. The bleached domes atop Blake’s Peak were still miles away from us, but as we drew nearer Beatrice and I were able to identify the different ones from the photograph and diagram I had brought along. Soon Venus and her lover Mars were visible in the lower east section of the sky. We felt as if we had entered a two-dimensional world, as if we would drive to the horizon at the mountain’s base and then sail clear off the edge.

And Beatrice: luminous, a saintly aura, ready to immerse her being into the night and the stars, fascinated with the two of us being here, by our joint adventure. In the moment she became the woman I’d first seen at Brainchild Scientific half a year ago, and the one who’d figured so large in my life since, the one I’d loved and probably still loved and who was carrying our child. Her demeanor was the same as when she had played with the Van de Graf Generator, with the optic wheels and stroboscope, rapt and wondrous, but now with the glow of pregnancy and maternity, albeit an early glow considering she was not that far along. She was a child and a mother and a teacher and a lover rolled into one. Her ethereal presence magnified the world.

“When I was younger,” she said, “my parents sometimes took us to the Shore for a few days, and one night my mother and I got far enough away from the boardwalk lights and crowds, from my sister and my father and my father’s family. My mother and I found a quiet place on the beach to lie down and we could see all these brilliant stars. While lying there on our blanket, my mother told me she was rarely happy, that she’d been unhappy for most of her life, but in that moment on the beach with me, looking up at the stars and hearing the rhythmic fall and hiss of the ocean surf, she valued that moment as one her happiest and said she would always cherish the memory.”

I asked Beatrice if she was still close to her mother. She shook her head and said she’d tell me more about her family at a later time.

Our motel, the Caritas Motel was a non-descript but quaint and clean lodging in faux mission style: stucco walls, small paned windows, terra cotta roof, a palm tree beside a chain link fence that enclosed the swimming pool, a few tacky lawn ornaments including a blithely hospitable senor and senorita standing with their pack donkey. There were maybe eight to a dozen lodgers. The place looked adequate for our needs; we wouldn’t be spending much time here except to sleep. Beatrice and I checked into our separate rooms, washed up, and then regrouped for dinner at a nearby cantina.

As I was unpacking I idly wondered what Gladys might be doing. She had given me a decent send off, calm and civil, and while not overly excited about my trip, I still detected an expression of good will on her part. Gladys believed I was travelling to the Empyrean with a male co-worker, and I thought that maybe my travelling with a woman would not have made much difference to her. The dynamic of our home life had not changed a great deal in recent months—we mostly did our separate things—but Gladys no longer showed resentment toward me or berated me into feeling responsible for her personal happiness or boredom (she no longer seemed bored). And we’d watched a little TV together lately, possibly because I had relaxed my diligence toward constantly working in the home observatory. On one of those nights, while watching “Dallas” (a show I normally loathed), Gladys quickly blurted out, “you’re doing fine!” and we even hugged for a few minutes. I questioned what I may have done, or been doing, to be “doing fine” her comment was so random and out of the blue, but I decided to take the compliment at face value and keep my mouth shut. . . . There’d been no further move toward making love by either one of us, as if New Year’s had been a grand fluke or anomaly. However, the chains and yoke of tension, which had lingered in the air for many months, somehow miraculously dissipated following the act and had remained that way in spite of there being no encore.

Around nine-o-clock we drove the pickup to Blake’s Peak and began our ascent, feeling the dip in temperature, a crystalline bite in the air as we gained altitude. The road to the Empyrean Observatory was a long upwards spiral of asphalt switchbacks on the mottled green hillside, like the “Ancient Stairway of the Seven Planets.” I recalled Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining earth and heaven, and our vertiginous climb to the summit of Blake’s Peak, with its crown of domes and telescopes, felt much like Jacob’s dream.

. . . and behold a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The road narrowed, leaving a jagged wall of outcrop above and below us, the drop more precipitous, a plummet into blackness and void. Beatrice gripped my hand in hers and I tried to envision the face of her mother.

Adam Greenfield, one of the resident astronomers, was several years younger than me and a few inches shorter. He had dark hair and eyes to match— large, probing, and inquisitive. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious. Adam congratulated me on my discovery of Scorpius-429. He’d been excited since first reading about the discovery, particularly in light of the observational challenges Scorpius presented to astronomers in the northern hemisphere. I could see that Adam was charmed and smitten by lovely Beatrice, but I also sensed he assumed Beatrice and I were partners or at least sexually linked in some way.

“We get a large number of teachers and classes here,” he said. “Mostly at the secondary school and college level. It is truly wonderful to see students blown away by these giant telescopes. At any given time I have somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen graduate students and interns helping me and Eve Atwater with our projects. And I’m impressed, Mr. Hale, that you build your own telescopes, not unlike George Ellery Hale of Mount Wilson fame.”

“You flatter me, but there’s no relation.”

Greenfield laughed. An exuberant laugh.

“And I’m quite familiar with the Brainchild Scientific catalog. What a marvelous educational tool. Love the optics! You do a great service to science education. Now before I take you to meet my colleague Eve Atwater and tell you about the history of the Empyrean, I’ve planned the schedule so that we will be working in a different observatory with a different telescope each night. Regrettably the “Pride of the Empyrean,” the Primum Mobile, is under telescope time, meaning it is being used by an astronomy team from Sweden. But I promise that you will get to see it. I’ve gotten permission for an hour and plan on having you view a single object during that hour. Tonight we will be working with the
85-inch Cristallinum. So, if you are ready, let’s head on over there.”

Eve Atwater was as soft-spoken and reserved as Adam was manic. “Adam’s Rib” he jokingly called her, the humor of which she did not seem to entirely appreciate. Thin, angular, with ash blond hair and a pleasant but somewhat plain face, slightly unkempt in appearance, but a more tasteful disorder, she was after all a scientist, not a fashion model. Eve was seated at a computer console near the 85-inch Cristallinum telescope and for a few fleeting seconds I experienced vertigo, seeing the elongated barrel pitched forward that way, the angle strongly up and out, rising through the enormous gash that continued to retract as we lifted our eyes hypnotically to the coruscated panoply of stars. The dry silence of the desert was overwhelming. I sucked air into my lungs and realized several seconds later that I hadn’t exhaled, that I’d forgotten to breathe. I had been to a few other observatories back East but never one like this. And Eve appeared so casual, so insouciant, seated at the computer console near the 50-foot long scope. Her lack of amazement was unsettling at first until you remembered she was here almost every night, but still hard to imagine that the routine of being here, of working here, would ever cease to incite wonder. The giant Cristallinum telescope was the Serpent of Eden, tempting her nightly with the forbidden fruit of nebula, novae, and star clusters.


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