Chapter 17: Night Three–The Butterfly Nebula and Beyond

December 2, 2015

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.

                       


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