The Butterfly Nebula: Chapter 19 — Virgil

January 14, 2016


Beatrice and I ate an early dinner during which she persuaded me that we should stop and see Virgil tonight before making the long drive cross country. Beatrice wasn’t overly concerned about being back in her teaching job by Monday; Tuesday or even Wednesday would be good enough. The school could get a sub on short notice. She would call them first thing Monday morning. When I asked Beatrice what made her think Virgil would want to see us, she answered by flashing her wrist with the bracelet—the bright turquoise and dark garnet.

As we drove the desert flared out in a magnificent sunset, a palette that kept adding and removing a spectrum of color, eventually mellowing to a bruise as dusk gathered over the land. We were almost by ourselves, very few cars on the interstate, distant headlights as small as pinpricks, stars that gradually became larger and ended in small yellow disks, like fireflies, because the opposite lanes of the highway were pretty far away. In this high desert the lingering subtle transition from day to night felt sacred and dramatic. Beatrice and I took our leave of this great landscape . . . maybe for good.

We arrived at the roadside stand and trailer around 9:00. A light shone in the trailer but also a blazing campfire about 20 yards in back of the trailer, silhouette patterns jittering against a wall of rock. Virgil stood near the fire and he watched us approach with no reaction, as if he’d been expecting us. He glanced at the silver cuff, his work, on Beatrice’s wrist. A boar’s head had been set up on a rock near the fire. In the shifting firelight the head bore a tusked grimace, a demon snarl, but with layers of meaning as if its totem spirit was being invoked during a peyote ceremony. A few minutes later the porcine face appeared benign, almost comical, and Virgil didn’t seem embarrassed by the strangeness of displaying the boar’s head in our presence.

“It was a bow kill,” he told us. “I made sausage from the meat and paint brushes with the hide. Durable paint brushes.”

“Do you live here?”

“My place is a few miles down the road, but I do a lot of work in the trailer and sometimes if I’m working late I’ll sleep here.”

In the firelight Virgil’s face appeared all planes and angles, chiseled bones dappled with quivering shadow, strands of gray hair braided into the black. He was handsome in a gentle, introverted way, not rugged or glamorous, more like pictures of Jesus I’d remembered from Sunday school books. His truer affect was that of a bottomless vessel and also someone who mirrored you. No discernible ego. In that respect he was something of an anti-Bob Lane.

“I was young, in my teens when they started construction on the first dome, on Dichi zhi d’zil, also known as Blake’s Peak. The Papago tribal elders believed that looking deeper into the heavens was like looking into another aspect or manifestation of God because the land and water and world beneath the land and water were God too. Our God doesn’t live in the sky alone, like some angry old man with a white beard; he resides in all the elements, he’s everywhere and he’s one among other gods. But the elders were fascinated by the revelation that they could see thousands more stars with these instruments and that the night sky was greater than what they were able to see with the naked eye. It was a powerful revelation for them. And the scientists, the astronomers with their telescopes or ‘long eyes’, weren’t violent or warring and they would not pollute sacred land for the sake of some stupid commercial development or tourist attraction. The idea of an observatory was good for all men though certain conditions would have to be agreed upon and the history and sacredness of Dichi zhi d’zil respected and honored through education and cultural exchange.  Unlike so much Indian land, our history would remain a presence, would not be erased or obliterated. At the time I thought the elders were being a little silly, but that was mostly due to my being “modern” and “Americanized.” I don’t see them that way anymore.

“I’d been attending a private secondary school off the reservation, but I’d visited the mountain a number of times as a boy and was totally inspired by the news about an observatory. I was at the private school because of my academic talent and I had a white sponsor named Mrs. Shaw. I excelled in math, physics and the sciences overall, and was on track to receive a scholarship to the University of Arizona when I became a senior. So when the observatory construction got underway, I volunteered to help out—digging, hauling, bringing coffee—you name it, whatever the project leaders asked me to do. The first mirror was the 16-inch, reflector—small, by comparison to what came after—but once Dr. McEvoy had let me use that scope I was hooked from that point onward. I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I’m forever indebted to McEvoy for giving me that opportunity. I believe he saw something in me and wanted to introduce me to astronomy and all its possibilities, nurture me as a budding astronomer. In college I worked summers and winter break as an intern at the Empyrean. Winter was an ideal time. And after graduating college I assisted as a graduate student and that’s how I knew Adam Greenfield. But I left graduate school and made the decision not to pursue astronomy and physics professionally.”

“What made you stop?” Beatrice asked him.

“I stayed a week or two in the desert ingesting peyote and psilocybin,” Virgil confessed with a self-deprecating laugh. “Not to downplay or trivialize the experience. It was 1968 and during my mind-altering vacation I came to realize that my early love for the stars and planets and meteors, nebulae—all of it—had been tainted or compromised in some way. My revelation was that in the past year at the Empyrean I’d been going through the motions observing stars, poring over catalogs, following coordinates and sequences, and I was losing my passion, the work had grown routine and soulless, and I realized that what I really loved was using my hands, making things. On one of three days I’d hallucinated during that week, I realized I was staring for a long time—maybe a couple hours—at this ring my grandmother had given me years before. The ring wasn’t particularly well-made or significant, but for me it came to possess an intrinsic perfection I could not describe. As soon as I returned from this “vision quest” vacation, I started making jewelry. And I never really quit astronomy. Like you, I’m still an amateur astronomer and I’ve retained quite a lot of knowledge from my time at the observatory and have also learned some new things along the way. I have a couple telescopes in the trailer. I’ll bring them out.”

Beatrice mentioned her scorpion sting and Virgil gave her a complicit smile.

“I’ve been stung over a dozen times,” he said. “Let’s see.”

Beatrice removed her shoe and placed her bare foot on a rock not far from the fire ring, the firelight bronzing her skin. Virgil crouched and studied her ankle.

“That’s a nice dressing.”

“Someone on the Empyrean medical staff,” I said.

He solemnly peeled away the gauze and examined the wound in the same manner in which he’d stared into Beatrice’s eyes a few days earlier, a stare that was blank and pitiless, non-judging, emotionally neutral, somewhat clinical, and yet managed to take in everything that mattered, returning the essence, stripping away the extraneous and unimportant. Virgil’s eye obviously played a big part in the intricate precision and design of his jewelry.

“He got you good. That area by the ankle and Achilles’ tendon is pretty tender unless you go barefoot often.”

“What about my baby?” Beatrice said plaintively.

“Don’t worry about it. The baby will be fine.”

I recalled Beatrice’s ascent to the Empyrean at dawn, her dry and naked ascent, as if her body had been made of cinders. It was still the same day but already felt like a week ago.

Virgil entered his trailer and soon returned with two telescopes.

“We’re going to climb up that ridge,” he said, pointing. “It will take about 15 minutes. The view is perfect from there.”

We walked toward the ridge. I recognized one of the telescopes as a Brainchild Scientific model; the other one was a Schmidt-Cassegrain 9000, not unlike the scope with which I’d discovered Scorpius-429, Burns and Allen. We were soon far enough away from campfire glare, looking down on an expanse as dark as a sea of ink. From the horizon to the zenith the sky was littered with burning embers, and when you pointed the binoculars anywhere those embers multiplied to a dizzying array in the greater depth of field. I became more impressed by Virgil’s knowledge regarding the Main Sequence and Red Shift and also his studies and comments on dark matter, and I kept forgetting that Virgil had logged many hours at the Empyrean and had still kept up with astronomy over the years (we even subscribed to most of the same astronomy magazines). The three of us took turns with the two telescopes and binoculars and we searched for the Butterfly Nebula because Scorpius was just visible on the southern horizon. Behind us the distant flash and shadow of the campfire, but here we stood in the stillness of Heaven, a sea of countless suns, of binaries and distant galaxies. I was with two friends, two kindred spirits, maybe the closest friends I’d ever known, and while I ached to be home, I knew there would never be another moment quite like this one for a long time, if ever.

Our conversation veered to the Native American museum and then Navajo and Pueblo cosmology and then wandered to the giant Radio Array and SETI and the overwhelming statistical probability in favor of life elsewhere in the universe. And while Beatrice had been obsessed about seeing Virgil, and though I was totally enchanted by the time being spent with him, a part of me was anxious to get on the road after the news I’d received from Gladys. I wanted to be home now—the strangest allure and longing for home I’d felt in years. And I was torn because both Gladys and Beatrice now carried a child of mine and they were equally important in my eyes. I wanted to be home with Gladys and here with Beatrice at the same time. I was straddling a fulcrum. I’d never expected

this. . . .

. . . and Beatrice was falling in love again. I could see her unfolding love in the way she behaved toward Virgil, the same way she had behaved toward me on those first crystalline evenings we’d spent together doing astronomy, and to a lesser extent the way she had behaved toward Eve. Maybe it was something about telescopes, but I realized that her perpetually being smitten had more to do with whenever a new person she found attractive walked into her life. I thought I understood Beatrice for the first time, sensing my understanding came from our hallucinogenic night in the pickup truck under the stars and our entire week overall. I believe I’d come to know her better. Her attractiveness fueled and inspired her being attracted to, and that had certainly happened with Laura. For Beatrice, to love and be loved defined her, they were practically one and the same, but it was an indiscriminate love impartial to gender, age or race, and a love that might sometimes invite trouble or pain or misunderstanding. She now paid a great deal of attention to Virgil, and I noticed with a belated compassion and wisdom that any jealousy I had previously harbored was suddenly absent. Beatrice made Virgil the center of her interest—the radiant and passionate center—but Virgil did not seem attracted to Beatrice and wouldn’t reciprocate her attention which only made her efforts all the more obvious and desperate. Virgil treated Beatrice the way he treated everyone—politely, respectfully, as a friend— the very quality Beatrice should have sought in him to begin with. Virgil maintained this Zen-like neutrality in his interactions with people. I’d been told I had some of that trait in me too, another similarity with Virgil. Maybe we were spiritual twins, but I still wanted to leave and get home.

We returned to the campfire. Virgil stoked the fire and then headed into the trailer to make some coffee. I welcomed the coffee because Beatrice and I were going to pull a redeye and the caffeine would help. In silence the three of us watched the fire, mesmerized by the flames dancing from mesquite and pin oak. Though I may have been restless to get on the road, Beatrice stayed rooted to the spot between Virgil and me. I could tell she didn’t want to be anywhere else. Maybe Virgil was my shadow self or I his shadow self. He possessed more attributes of the unconscious side: wild uninhibited western landscapes, darker skin and hair, spiritual and creative elements as manifested in his jewelry work. He would have had to appear on this trip in one form or another, sprung from the clay of my own fears and uncertainty. I would have needed to invent him. He was less self-possessed and rigid than me, and I was already less self-possessed and rigid than I’d been prior to undertaking the Empyrean trip with Beatrice. Virgil might have been living proof of my other untapped possibilities and Beatrice had been the catalyst.

A few minutes before we bade goodbye to Virgil, and as if anticipating our departure, he turned to us and said: “I can tell you’re good people. I want you to know that everything I create and sell carries an ethical weight. Not ethics in the Dualistic/Christian/Western Civilization confusion, nothing as simplistic as black-or-white and either-or—nothing like that. Instead, it’s more like: Why did I make this? Is the thing imbued with a spirit, a sublime energy? My inner vision? What is the piece I make trying to say about me and my people, my ancestors, and what will the piece mean to the person I sell it to, if I decide to sell it to them? How will they appraise and think about the ring, or bracelet, or necklace they just bought? What is value? What is the difference between raw material and intrinsic worth?  Will the buyer realize the centuries that factor into their bracelet? The gods and myths that underpin it? The stories? The sacred minerals and ore from which it emerged? Or is the piece merely something nice to wear? Will the purchase of it stay with the owner throughout their life? And will they pass it down as a family heirloom?  For instance, you might leave that bracelet for your son when he’s a young man.”


Later, driving at 2:00 in the morning, I watched Beatrice in the passenger’s seat, her face suspended like a lantern in the window’s dim reflection, lost in thought.

“I could have stayed a lot longer,” she said.

“Where? At the Empyrean? Or with Virgil?”

“Both. . .”

Tired, I allowed her words to seep in.

“You have Laura to go back to,” I reminded her.

Still staring out her window.

“Laura never misses anyone . . . it’s just who she is. You think Gladys misses you?”


I hadn’t told Beatrice about the news I’d gotten from Gladys. I wouldn’t tell her.

“But I thought she hated you.”

“She does, but she might still miss me. There’s a weird kind of comfort in hatred once it becomes familiar to you, once it becomes routine. The object of your hatred becomes like a bad habit maybe.”

Beatrice pondered this for a minute or two. The canyons were veiled in moonlight: organ pipes of stone, gaunt and spectral, an ancient place of power and ceremony.

“I don’t ever want to reach that point,” she finally said. “How do you live every day with hatred in your heart or with the knowledge that someone hates you?”

I assumed that because of her age Beatrice didn’t yet understand a long-term relationship dynamic—or one of them. I felt a bit smug.

“Learn to love yourself and make peace with the world. That’s how.”

She turned and stared at me, profoundly skeptical and indulgent.

“Sounds pretty facile, Soren. I’m not letting you off that easily. You can’t truly make peace with the world if hate is hanging around your home. You have to find a way to lose the hatred.”

And oddly, that may have already happened but through no effort of mine. I’d call it divine intervention, if I believed in that sort of thing.





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