Stung

We must have fallen asleep for a few hours before dawn. I was awakened by the sun and Beatrice was no longer at my side. Her denim cutoffs, tank top, and panties were still in the truck bed, and I realized that I must have slipped my clothes back on because the night temperature had plummeted and I’d been freezing, even inside my down sleeping bag. Although it wasn’t long past dawn, the sun was already warm for mid-April. The psychedelic mushrooms had mostly worn off and I felt cleansed being in the desert at the break of day after a crazy yet elegiac night . . . but where had Beatrice gone?

 
And then I saw her, some hundred yards away, scaling the lower canyon wall, free climbing. I knew that Beatrice liked to shed her clothes; I’d seen her do it before but never outdoors and in the desert. It was as if she were making her body a microcosm of the desert, shorn of clothing the way the landscape she now embraced was stripped of all but its spring flora; the color, texture and line of her taut glowing flesh absorbed in the bosky backdrop that enfolded her like a lion’s hide. The movement of her limbs appeared more animated and lithe against the solidity of the landscape. Her reddish-gold-brown hair poured down the middle of her back and fanned several inches above the whiteness of her buttocks. After last night I loved her more than ever. Before this morning I would have viewed her as Salome’ but in the moment I simply noted her nudity, admiring every natural step she made on the talus and scree. Above and in the distance the domes of the Empyrean Observatory were studded on the crown of Blake’s Peak, pillboxes glaring white. I ran over to the base of the canyon wall and stood beneath the crevices and outcroppings.

“There are rattlesnakes,” I shouted.

“I’ll be careful,” she hollered back, scaling a steeper ascent.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the observatory.”

“But that’s an altitude of 12,000 feet!”

“So?”

“I can’t imagine you doing the last thousand. Really. It’s almost a sheer vertical drop.”

“I’m a climber. I love to climb.”

“You’ll embarrass me.”

She laughed. Caroming echoes.

“You’ll lose the baby.”

“No I won’t”

After 15 weeks Beatrice pretty much had the same body except the gradual mound of her belly, like a lenticular galaxy viewed on edge, like Centaur-A NGC-5128. The easy elastic curve of her stomach, last night and this morning, enhanced her allure . . . the bright Empyrean buildings above us . . . Beatrice in profile, knee and lower thigh pressed against obsidian, fingers jammed in a dihedral, the vulnerable slope of her belly . . . I envisioned a 1950s Science Fiction B-movie and expected any moment to see an irradiated mutation of a giant ant or tarantula crawl over the peak of the observatory and descend upon Beatrice, threatening to pin her in mandibles and enormous lacquered fangs. She still looked safe, though, in her sun-heated flesh, and now having climbed as high as she dared to climb, was making her way back to the ground and to me.

And then she screamed. She stumbled and skipped backwards, one hand clutching the ankle and calf of her left leg, lifting it off the ground and jumping on the good leg. I ran towards her but stopped a few feet short of the scorpion, still advancing, its contorted thorax reared for another strike, curled symmetrical pincers, tail an enormous crimped comma terminating in a barb. I grabbed a semi-petrified stick of Pin Oak, and holding one end of it like a tomahawk or boomerang, flung it at the scorpion, a good strike, not enough to kill or maim but enough to send it scurrying away, etching its trail of retreat in the coarse sand.

“Oh my God! Crazy pain!”

“Let’s see . . .”

A small red circle, like the image of the sun on the Japanese flag, swelled on the lower side of her right leg near the Achilles tendon.

“Soren!”

“Please stay calm. Relax. I’ll get you treatment right away. If you panic it will only increase your heart rate and the venom will spread faster.”

Fortunately, the cooler in the bed of the pickup still had a small amount of ice, and I had Beatrice hold the melting ice on her sting area to numb it. I then draped her arm over my shoulder and we hobbled together, as if she were war wounded, back to the pickup and I helped her dress, putting on jeans and my white T-shirt instead of the cutoffs. I made her raise her leg and prop it on the cooler and sleeping bags before I jumped in the driver’s seat. She never groaned or winced, but her look told me I should hurry. I floored the truck up the mountainside on those patches of road where the curves were not too treacherous. We checked in at the Empyrean and security notified the infirmary immediately. I was told that Adam and Eve had already left. As we waited for someone to bring a gurney, I could feel the labored inflation of her small light rib cage and remembered the bird skeleton she’d stared at on a day that seemed much longer than half a year ago.

“Is it a bark scorpion?” the medic asked us. “They’re more toxic.”

“Do you think it’s a bark scorpion?”

He shrugged. “No way of knowing unless you bring it in.”

The medic examined the sting closely while applying ice and a tiny bit of hydrocortisone. Beatrice had already swallowed the acetaminophen.

“The pain is not as bad,” she said, “but it’s still pretty bad and there’s a tingling sensation. A lot of tingling going on.”

The medic continued to apply cold pressure. He studied the wound between applications of ice.
“That’s normal . . . . Move like a butterfly, sting like a scorpion,” he said, paraphrasing Muhammed Ali.

“I’m pregnant,” Beatrice said.

The medic looked at her, his face neutral and bland but not hostile. He wore gold rimmed glasses and had the beginnings of a red beard, like a loose nest of rust.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “It’s an hour’s drive to the hospital. If we keep you for several hours, under watch, keep you here for the rest of the morning, you and your baby should be fine. The wound is already subsiding, there are no muscle spasms or evidence of neurotoxicity and you’re healthy. I don’t think you or the fetus is in any danger. Let’s keep an eye on it, monitor your pulse and blood pressure and continue with the icing, maybe a little more acetaminophen. If you continue to improve, we can probably let you go by noon.”

Beatrice turned to me and then to the medic.

“Okay, I don’t want to risk anything. Let’s stay here.”

We decided that I would wait while they kept Beatrice in the infirmary. There didn’t seem to be much point in driving to the Caritas Motel for a couple hours and then driving back. The staff had also made an emergency call to bring an MD on site and check out Beatrice. I mostly stayed by her bedside, reading National Geographic magazine. There was an article about the new Space Shuttle and a launch planned for April 1981, one year from now. Beatrice wasn’t given a sedative or pain killer because of the pregnancy, but she’d been up all night and the previous two nights with little rest, and presently, after the shock and pain of the scorpion sting and the accompanying adrenalin surge, she fell into a deep sleep. Before drifting off, she mentioned something about us having to stop and see Virgil on our way home, but I’d mistaken her comment for a mildly delirious utterance because of the shock.

I walked to the observatory cafeteria for some breakfast, but feeling drained and off kilter from the psilocybin mushrooms I discovered I wasn’t all that hungry. It was still early morning, about 8:30. I had grapefruit juice, coffee, and a sweet roll. I knew that in a few more hours I would be starving but this light fare seemed good enough at the moment. I thought that because of the Empyrean Observatory with Beatrice and particularly last night, that she would not cut me out or deny me access to our baby. I felt it acutely as I was sitting by her on the infirmary bed, holding her hand, and I also felt it when we tossed out a string of baby names while lying in the back of the pickup, stoned out of our gourds and gazing at the constellations. I believed her earlier position and attitude toward me had softened, and I was certain I would be more involved in the life of this coming boy or girl . . . the morning dragged on. My sense of hearing became especially sharp. I could hear everything, and with this ringing hollowness in my mind and deep pit in my body and soul, I felt I was a Buddhist vessel for all the pain and sadness and suffering in the world. I returned to Beatrice’s room. She was now awake and I’d brought her some orange juice from the cafeteria. Her earlier free-spirited aplomb had been replaced by a worried expression but I think we both felt certain that the fetus was okay, that the baby would be fine as she was fond of saying. We made small talk while waiting for the infirmary to release her. Occasionally she touched my hand.

The doctor had not found anything wrong from the scorpion sting and the welt was nearly gone. They released Beatrice released around 11:30. We drove back to the Caritas Motel, but instead of entering her own room she followed me into my room and instantly plopped on the bed and fell fast asleep, her aura tracing the length of her spine and lovely body clad in blue jeans and my white T-shirt, her Botticelli face aglow in the film noir grid of light and shadow that fell through the cheap motel blinds. It was a pitiable room in a pitiable lodging ironically named the Caritas, the kind of room a travelling salesman may have stayed at in a bygone era. I sat in a mildewed stuffed chair next to a small laminated table and reading lamp and watched Beatrice sleep. I lost track of time. A previous occupant of this room had taken the Gideon Bible from its bedside drawer and left it on the table next to me. I placed the bible on my lap and opened it to a verse in the Book of Job.

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, Or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?

I became aware of noises, a cacophony of all the sounds of existence: a baby wailing in one of the rooms; a blaring of Saturday morning cartoons in the same room or a different one; a couple arguing, shouting and slamming doors, shattered glass; kids yelling in the blaring cartoon room and a man in a neighboring room pounding his fist on the wall for them to shut up and turn the noise down; another couple making love, a different kind of pounding on the wall mingled with moans and “yes” and rising excitement and more “yes, yes”; a loud midday news cast overlaid with the wheezing and hacking of an elderly man with emphysema and a portable oxygen tank. I could not clearly separate or single out an individual sound; they all mashed and bled into each other. Beatrice still slept, oblivious to the cacophony, and I felt as if I were at the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope sifting through all the background signals in the universe. And I was also hearing the cycle of life in this rundown motel, starting with infancy and then childhood (cartoons, shouts) followed by love and sex which may or may not lead to children, but if so then a parental return to your own childhood vicariously, and then maybe marital discord possibly leading to estrangement and divorce and being alone again at some point (angrily banging your fist on some wall, somewhere), to the final wheezing and hacking of old age and illness. We come into the world alone and leave it alone, and the pathetic wrenching gasp for air behind one of those flaking paint doors carried that same universal aloneness as the unattended screaming baby and even the lovers who may deny aloneness in the act but soon know its grip in the wake of climax and orgasm.

In the midst of the motel din I heard the phone ring. It rang several times. I was delirious and borderline paranoid, suspecting I’d broken some unknown provincial law. Then I thought maybe it was Adam Greenfield calling from the Empyrean to inquire about Beatrice and the scorpion sting . . . to see how Beatrice was doing.

But it was Gladys, my putative wife, her voice a hesitant, far away chirping.

“Where have you been?”

“Mostly at the observatory. I called you Thursday night and left a message on the answering machine. I’ll be leaving late this afternoon.”

I had mostly forgotten Gladys since leaving New Jersey last Monday. Not so much out of willful neglect as much as the variety and richness of new experience I’d encountered traveling with Beatrice to the desert and our nights at the Empyrean and in the canyon. To be honest I often didn’t think of Gladys when I was at home. Though I had wanted to talk with her and had called her once, I took her calling me now as something of an affront, neurotically intrusive, and an inopportune time if ever there was one.

“Be careful driving,” she said.

“Of course.”

We chatted for a minute or two, and I was only half listening to her, until:

“I have some news. I was going to wait and save it but I couldn’t wait. I just found out for certain yesterday.”

“Found out what?”

“We’re going to have a baby!”

I was suddenly caught in a great centrifuge.

Gladys: “Are you okay? You don’t sound excited.”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said, “but a little stunned. I had no idea . . . I mean, after all the years we tried. I’m not sure what to say.”

“Say you love me,” Gladys said, a slight petulance in her voice. “You sound confused or disoriented.”

“No, just tired. Sorry. I’ve been up late at the observatory every night.”

“Are you happy we’re going to have a baby?”

“Of course I’m happy. I’m thrilled about it.”

“It was New Years,” she reminded me.

“I kind of surmised.”

“You always wanted to be a father. Have a child with a telescope to look through with you.”

“Yes, I did. Well, more than the telescope aspect. I guess my wish is finally coming true,” I said, detecting the false note in my voice. “Thank you so much.”

“I should be thanking you for making me a Mommy.”

“We should thank each other then. Come to think of it, we just did,” I said with a nervous laugh.”

“Come home,” Gladys said.

“Soon . . . I promise.”

While Beatrice slept I left the Caritas and drove to the nearest convenience store to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels. Back at the motel I removed the paper wrapper from one of the glasses they place on a small tray in the bathroom and proceeded to fill it most of the way with bourbon, about six ounces’ worth. My head was swimming with new information and yet paradoxically I felt alert and calm. The whiskey went down easy, half in celebration of my pending dual fatherhood and half to gird my loins for what the future may bring. . . . Gladys was 37 and we’d been married nearly 17 years. She’d already had the amnio test and her doctor had told her she could have the baby. She had wanted to wait until after the amnio test before letting me know, just in case. I tried to process everything happening at once: Beatrice and the coming baby; Gladys and the coming baby; Burns and Allen; nights at the Empyrean; the Butterfly Nebula; Virgil and the bracelet; hallucinating on mushrooms under the natural dome of stars but often seeing them as they’d appeared in the Empyrean Observatory; the alien visitation that Beatrice and I had telepathically imagined with a couple verbal cues; love with Beatrice; the scorpion sting; all the painful sounds of life on this planet sealed in the Caritas Motel; the desert and its peoples and their stories; the heartbreaking solitary view of mesa from atop Blake’s Peak. It was a dizzying vertiginous kaleidoscope of everything and nothing, the world yielding up all her secrets and spreading her legs for me with each second I paused and allowed myself to notice.

“What are you doing?”

Beatrice had gotten up and stood alongside the bed, her face a bit slack and wan, a ‘where am I?’ expression. I’d been so lost in bourbon and random thought that I’d missed her waking up. She saw the glass in my hand and saw the bottle. Her blue and brown eyes widened.

“My God, you’re drinking whiskey! Are you still coming down from the mushrooms?”

I smiled, staring at her.

“It’s 2:00 in the afternoon!” she realized. “We have to be out of here in an hour! I’m going to pack.”

I didn’t say anything. I stood up and approached Beatrice, my whiskey breath a fog of grain spirits that quickly enveloped us both. She was still drowsy and muttered my name, followed by the meekest “no” of resistance I had ever heard. I put my arms around her and kissed her long and hard and then tumbled her down onto the bed, seizing the world.

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Night Three — The Butterfly Nebula and Beyond

On our third and last night at the Empyrean we were taken to see the Butterfly Nebula. As mentioned earlier, Adam Greenfield had blocked out between one hour and 90 minutes so Beatrice and I would be able to see the Butterfly as large as it would appear in the Empyrean complex. We walked toward the giant Primum Mobile telescope, through a maze of gleaming corridors, a kind of faux NASA, and I was reminded of the interior of the lunar spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey as it headed for Clavius Base and the monolith. I could tell we were climbing—three, maybe four stories. I wasn’t ready for what would come next.

After passing through a checkpoint we entered and made our way through a warren of data collection rooms and sleeping quarters, like a self-sustaining geodesic dome. We reached the observation room and I felt as if I had died for a split second. Adam and Eve had fixed the coordinates beforehand without telling us! The Butterfly Nebula was already there, an incandescent specter, an eyeless face being rent apart. What was it trying to show me the way it hovered there? I recalled a whimsical and yet genius Klee painting, “Letter Ghost,” that I had seen once in New York City years ago, and the memory of that painting had lain dormant until now. . . . It was a fastened cleft in the cosmic fabric that if drawn downward reminded me of two masts on a great schooner in space with the cleft becoming the mainsail spar that joined them. In what vague naval history textbook had I seen something like it? No, frankly there was nothing like it, and all the later renderings of Hubble in the 1990s and 2000, the dizzying colors and visions such as the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula, would never ultimately move me to the extent of the Butterfly.  It was far more than a “bug” (another, earlier name for the nebula); it was a Monarch nurtured on collapsed planetary milkweed. Another southern hemisphere phenomenon, but riding the verge in the whip of Scorpius, it was there for you to seize and ponder. But why so unique? Why so one-of-a-kind? Why did it seem to be the most astounding image of all time and yet something altogether ordinary, not only a butterfly with identifiable wings and thorax (because we are charmed by butterflies), but rather a seamstress’s torso flipped sideways, and like all the female clothing designer sketches, dramatically flared above and below the waste, an evening gown in silk or satin perhaps veiled in a gossamer of tulle for greater flared elegance and effect. It was the fabric of Heaven, sheer as ectoplasm, a bowtie of smoke, a mash of streaky vapors. I thought of the butterflies pinned on a foam board a couple thousand miles from here at the Brainchild store, and in our immense field of view this butterfly was also fixed and trapped in a colossal lens when in reality the contents of this thing were moving at speeds unimaginable to us so that we had no true sense of those swirling gases, that gaseous clash and melee’ of roiling.

I was also reminded of binoculars and bird (or butterfly) watching and how the binoculars were perfectly bifurcated and symmetrical. So, was I looking at the butterfly? Or was the butterfly looking back at me (a variation on the ancient tale of Chang Tzu). Who was the dreamer? Chang Tzu? Or the butterfly?

“Vladimir Nabokov studied butterflies his entire life,” Adam Greenfield said, informing, reverent. “He even advanced a theory on blue butterflies. He was a thorough scientist, a lepidopterist, as well as a great novelist . . . he only died three years ago . . . and, if I can remember this quote correctly: ‘I confess I do not believe in time,’ and then something about ‘the highest enjoyment of time-lessness—in a landscape at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies . . .’ and something about ‘a sense of oneness with sun and stone’ . . . not unlike what we’ve been doing in the Empyrean these past few nights.”

“It was Virgil’s favorite too,” Eve said.

Beatrice looked intrigued.

“Like Soren. Soren and Virgil are alike in some ways.”

“Visionaries, maybe. Intuitive, certainly,” Adam suggested.

I was a little taken aback that they were talking about me as if I weren’t in the room. And I disagreed with Adam . . . at first.

“I’ve never observed that way, at least not consciously,” I said, but I then recalled that before I’d discovered Scorpius-429 I’d received a couple of visions, one of them just an hour or two before the discovery. I recalled my vision of Beatrice holding our child in the corner of the home observatory, the glass room, and I also remembered the first time I’d seen her at Brainchild Scientific, my celestial Muse, and the later fantasy that evening of seeing Beatrice seated by an imaginary hearth fire. It seemed that Beatrice may have been on the margins of my consciousness all along and I had only to tease her out, bring her into the light. Perhaps the same thing would have worked with another woman because at that particular moment I was ready for someone else to come into my life. It was all in the timing.

We stayed for nearly an hour and never stopped talking except for those cathedral-like moments when the four of us simply stood and stared with something close to divine awe and reverence.

“Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here,” Adam finally said. “We will need to vacate. The Danes are coming.”

“The Great Danes?” Eve asked.

“Right. Ethelred. Niels Bohr, Hans Anderson, Hamlet and Kierkegaard among others.  We’re heading out to take a tour of some of the smaller scopes before returning to the Cristallinum.

We engaged in a series of small, inconsequential viewings after our visit to the Primum Mobile. Understandably, we talked a great deal more with Adam and Eve than we had on the first night because they’d opened up to us and we felt more comfortable around them. We took a couple breaks together in the cafeteria. We watched the Hyades in Taurus. We looked at Vega, the blue giant star in the constellation Lyra. But Adam Greenfield had been right: it was all downhill after the Butterfly Nebula. We eventually discussed the astronomy practices and cosmology of the native tribes. Pueblos Indians, the Asanazi, were the first to settle in the American Southwest. They were the Hopi and Zuni tribes. They were agrarian and followed the cycles of the sun and the patterns and types of clouds as guidance in planting and harvesting. Their principal crop was maize. The later Navajo were herdsmen herded and didn’t need to rely on the annual solar cycle for their sustenance. Instead, they paid closer attention to the night sky.

“The Navajo had approximately 36 constellations,” Adam said, “and used a star-based calendar. Most celestial objects and constellations were gods, divinities. For instance, the Na’hookoos—‘the Male and Female Ones Who Revolve’—represented a married couple: Na’hookoos bika’ii, the Big Dipper and Na’hookoos ba’aadii that moved in a circle around the North Star, Polaris. Because of your finding in Scorpius and also because of the Butterfly Nebula you will be pleased to know that another Navajo constellation deity, Gah heet’e’ii, or ‘Rabbit Tracks’ makes up the tail of Scorpius. It is separate from A’tse’etsoh, the larger body or front of Scorpius, of course where the giant red star we know as Antares lives. Gah heet’e’ii is male gender and associated with old age. He carries a walking stick and eats the rabbit tracks which we see as the winding tail.”

At the end of our visit Adam opened a bottle of champagne and decanted out toast into paper cups. He raised his cup and said, a bit pompously: “Without the work of amateur astronomers like you, Mr. Hale, we would have never come as far as we have. If you think about it, Galileo and Tycho were amateurs by modern standards and look at what they accomplished!”

I expressed a wish to come back and visit again, perhaps in a year or two.

“I’ll still be here,” Adam said, “but Eve will be moving on—to Mount Wilson and Palomar to work with the telescope of your namesake, Hale.” He sighed unconvincingly. “Most likely I’ll be doing less research and more administrative work until someone takes Eve’s place . . . but who can take her place, really. I’m primarily the mouthpiece for the observatory but Eve has been the genius behind our published studies on Cepheid Variables. Mount Wilson will be lucky to have her.” Adam raised his cup to Eve. “She’s an asset to any observatory . . . anywhere.”

Eve’s expression had hardly changed but for a glinting pulse in her eye, not unlike a Cepheid Variable.

“Enough of the pieties, Adam” she said with a polite indulgent smile, and then turning to us, “It was a pleasure having you here. Say hi to Virgil for me.”

*

Beatrice and I left the Empyrean around12:30 AM and drove to the reservoir to ingest the psilocybin mushrooms and hopefully stay awake until dawn. We would then return to the Caritas Motel, catch a few hours’ sleep and leave by mid-afternoon for our long drive back to New Jersey. Even before taking anything my head still reeled from the incredible heart-stopping array of pictures we had witnessed these past few nights at the Empyrean Observatory. At the reservoir we parked the pickup on a bluff overlooking the water and picnic area, and after briefly walking about, we climbed into the back of the pickup and sat on the truck bed with a couple of sleeping bags, a flashlight, and some cheese, fruit and wine. We sat under a “normal” sky with ten thousand candles that Beatrice judged to be anti-climactic but nonetheless miraculous because there were no special effects.  The night was as clear as a Fresnel lens. A gritty southwest wind swept across our hair and faces.

“Are you ready?”

Beatrice handed me the mushrooms mixed in a kind of sweetened paste, but they still tasted dry and slightly bitter and I chased the mushroom mixture with red wine. We’d uncorked the Cabernet to enjoy with our jack cheese, tortilla, oranges and papaya. We were suspended in time between the blessed Empyrean, the desert, and the long drive east, and we were free to lose ourselves in this time to do whatever came our way until later on Saturday when we started for home. I could not remember having ever felt this much freedom, but I was also aware of a nagging apprehension about resuming that other life: Brainchild Scientific, Gladys, the glass room observatory and sanctuary, my telescopes, the contemplative drive to and from work across the semi-rural western Jersey landscape. Before Beatrice and our journey to the Empyrean, I’d been living a half-life all these years since the Navy. What had I been denying myself? And why had I so readily fled the loving arms of a Carol or a Pilar when they’d been trying to tell me something important, or at least instructive? I might have at least tried more kindness with Gladys, though deciding to end our marriage might be the greatest kindness of all. I questioned the history of mute rancor and loathing I’d displayed toward her as the solution to an unmanageable co-habitation. Ignoring Gladys had been the abuse of choice because it didn’t leave any bruises or marks and would not attract the suspicion of neighbors or the intervention of law enforcement. Ignoring the person you lived with was your own emotional restraining order.

We shared the wine, and as the mushrooms began to take effect, Beatrice told me a few details about her childhood: the working class Catholic family in Passaic County (an industrial wasteland where many died young from a smorgasbord of cancers), her three younger siblings, the father who’d beaten her, one time breaking her nose and another time throwing her down a flight of stairs, but not, unfortunately, when she’d been pregnant in high school. Her confession came as an unexpected shock until I recalled the detail she’d divulged about her mother and watching the stars down at the seashore. It was easy to understand, then, that Beatrice’s later choice of lifestyle with Laura would cause estrangement from her family although her younger brother and one sister still maintained contact. Her zealous youngest sister, following the rigid Roman Catholic dogma and censure of her parents, had severed all ties. In kind I talked about my dead parents and the brother I never saw who worked at the New York Stock Exchange. We were worlds apart. I confessed to Beatrice my desire to have a family or be part of a family. While Gladys and I would, by definition, be classified as a family in U.S. Census terms, I didn’t feel that we were a family. I told Beatrice I regretted not having family in my life.

“Have you picked out a name for the baby yet?” I asked her

“Tatiana or Sarah, if it’s a girl.”

“Boy name?”

“Not sure. Maybe Noah. Or Nicholas.”

“Noah?” I echoed with a quick laugh.

“What would you pick, then?

We proceeded through a long list of boy names. It became comical at times—Osgood, Napoleon, Ignatius, Biff, Aloysius, Vito, Abner, Orville, Soren. . .

We were rolling with laughter in the bed of the pickup.

“Wyatt?”

“Like Wyatt Earp,” I said in jest.

“No, seriously, it’s a lovely name.”

I had to agree. Later I would lobby to have the middle name be “Edwin,” after Edwin Hubble.

“I’ll be getting a sonogram as soon as we get back. I’ll let you know the sex.”

“Thank you.”

“Look!” she said, pointing upwards. “They’re moving, see?”

“They’re always moving and we’re always moving.”

She placed her hand on my leg, tapered fingers making a light pressure, secure, resting. I said, “I’m seeing more stars than normal. Maybe it’s the aftereffect of the dramatic images from the Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes.”

Beatrice tittered. “That’s the mushrooms, Soren.”

Silent, we watched the night sky for a long time. Above us on Blake’s Peak the Empyrean domes gleamed in the darkness as if they were white spaceships recently landed, solitary and foreboding but with no signs of life in them, no sign of life anywhere in the desert darkness except for Beatrice and me.

“Who are we, Soren? Why are we here?”

Hallucinations. The sky a cascade of sparkles, streaking trajectories or meteors and other flaming orbs. After the astounding visions of the Empyrean and the present absorption of psychotropic drugs, the night appeared to me more like a fireworks display—blazing, explosive, kinetic . . . a spaceship, alien craft from the Auriga-7 system, landed on the far side of the lake. The ship hatch hissed open and a chorus line of aliens emerged clad in chrome and Mylar spandex suits that made them look like silver speed skaters. The aliens instantly glided onto the reservoir lake, as though they were skating on water, and then stopped in the center of the lake. Several more skaters emerged from the spaceship and gathered with the others. There were between 25 and 30 of them, and they commenced a type of ritual dance, joining their crustacean appendages as they circled clockwise and then counter-clockwise along with choreographed movements reminiscent of synchronized swimming. Their silver bodies and limbs stretched to absurd elastic lengths in order to widen the circle until it encompassed the circumference of the lake. And the circle ultimately encompassed us too and the aliens became no more than glowing chartreuse will ‘o the wisps, encircling us in their harmonious light until the light rose and hovered over our heads like some celestial halo and then slowly drifted back into the ship and all of it vanished.

I described my vision or hallucination (was there a difference?) to Beatrice. She had seen something similar, but in her version we simply entered the aliens and weren’t eaten or cannibalized. Instead our spirits were subsumed into their ‘being’ leaving our bodies as two maize husks on the reservoir lake shore. I thought Beatrice’s version more metaphysical than the sacred dance I had dreamt and undoubtedly linked to her pregnancy, the dweller inside. I became one with her fetus, a miniscule almond immersed in a grotto that over time I would fill to bursting and then slither and slide through a wormhole into this other, questionable, reality. Every living thing was born and died, and my recognition of that somewhat facile and obvious truth caused me to burst out laughing.

“What is it?”

“Living and dying . . .”

“Yes?”

“Yes . . . all of it . . . nothing . . . just words. . . .”

Poised and serene, Beatrice replied with a nod of her head. She carried our child and I experienced a religious awakening in her presence and questions around parental “roles” became suddenly less important, reduced to a possibly more sane perspective. Somehow it would all turn out fine.

I asked her: “I know this is a silly question but if you had to pick a favorite stellar object out of everything we’d seen, what would it be?”

“The Butterfly Nebula,” she answered without hesitation. I felt an unexpected tightness settle in my throat. I gazed up into the canyon of stars, into the depths of the universe, and saw the miraculous span of the Butterfly Nebula as large as it had appeared when viewed through the Primum Mobile telescope. It stayed fixed on the night sky like an eidetic image, buoyant, a vast sail forever expanding and billowing, floating away and then gradually returning. It wasn’t an hallucination; the earlier retinal image had been etched into my cortex and re-projected onto the night sky like in popularized sightings of ghosts. Other famous nebulae soon came into view around the Butterfly: the Orion, the Veil, the Mist, the Horsehead, the Eagle, the Crab, I heard the old Western ballad, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” spiraling in my ear until its solemn words and music sifted through me, became my own private ectoplasm.

“It is fantastic!”

“Yes . . . yes, it is. . . .”

I saw her face before me so imbued
With holy fire, her eyes so bright with bliss . . .

and through that living light I saw revealed
The Radiant Substance blazing forth so bright
My vision dazzled and my senses reeled.

Beatrice’s hand still rested on my leg. We kissed, our mouths fused with the desert spring air, a longer kiss than on Christmas Eve, or so it seemed. I became acutely conscious of the ridiculous nature of time. It might have been several seconds, or several minutes, or several hours from the point at which our fingers had joined in a crude lattice to the present point of us both naked with those same fingers exploring and caressing the humming flesh of one another. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t quite sure what we were doing and that also didn’t seem to matter. I was on the verge of losing consciousness. Beatrice straddled my hips and thighs, the soft distention of her belly like a waxing moon, a glistening hummock alongside the jeweled gleaming cuff on her wrist. What exactly was it about her that made me so desperate and crazy to make love to her? Our true relationship had been perfect from the start, and in our single sexual act we’d conceived a child that would link us in ways I would have never imagined had we only ended up fucking a few times or engaged in a short-lived affair like the one I’d had with Carol Erskine. No comparison. We were laughing so hard that we began to lose focus. I kept envisioning the friendly, almost paternalistic face of Adam Greenfield accompanied by a swell of gratitude and also a pang that I would probably not be seeing him for some time and Eve maybe never again. I recalled Adam’s belated praise of his partner and intuited that maybe he’d not been as unethical or callous as Beatrice had portrayed him, but that he’d been more remiss, absent-minded, and perhaps less socially adroit when it came to working with women. I might have had some of that in me, too, though I didn’t see it with Laura and some of the other women I worked with.

Beatrice and I whispered and laughed in a cold stellar vacuum though there was no reason for us to whisper. The night’s stillness was a gross deception. Matter was forever exploding and changing all around us. I saw the great burst and swirl of all celestial objects in the canyon of darkness. I saw kachinas dancing in the heavens, the sharp angular joints of their red and silver limbs twitching benignly, and their faces smiling as they interceded with the gods for our protection and the birth of our blessed child.