I always think fondly of my old master, Hubrecht of Ain, on cold clear evenings such as this. Evenings when the pall of smoke from a thousand cook stoves hangs pungent in the air and the black velvet sky with its endless spattering of stars seems not far off but mere inches above our heads. The old ones believed that the via Lactia, the Milky Way, was caused by droplets of milk spilled from the breasts of the goddess Hera. They had wondrous imaginations, those ancients.
I remember how Hubrecht’s deep voice rang in the Observatorium, that chilly stone cupola in the high Alps where we passed so many nights. There I sat in darkness as rich and black as the soot from a tallow candle and scratched numbers on waxed panels, using a sharp stylus tipped with the finger bone of a mouse. We could not rely on ink because it would freeze solid, so the ancient tabula rasa had to do. And he, Hubrecht, would stand still as death, his yellowed eye pressed unblinking against a bubble of glass at the small end of his far-seeing tube, as he muttered numbers and degrees to me, all the while ooohhing at each new marvel.
Today, Hubrecht seems like a figure from legend, a giant of a man from a more heroic age. It brings up my hot-blood to recall the ways those priests hurt him in the name of faith, humiliated him. He was not a mountebank or a necromancer but a man of science, a pillar of wisdom.
Above us in those Alpine latitudes was a sky exploding with stars, crisscrossed with bright streaks of meteors. Some nights I dreamed that I could travel to those stars, as one would take a mail boat to the next town. With unbelievable clarity, I saw a stout vessel, a colossal metal shaft rising on a column of fire, bound for the heavens. When I told my dreams to the master he drew back his hand to strike me. Then his wrinkled face cracked and, a miracle, he laughed and nodded. Instead of a blow, he patted me gently on the head. Perhaps he had dreamed of this too? We never spoke of it again.
Now, as I open his notebooks, some parts of them in my own hand, I am warmed by the old man’s wit, his scholarship and his crabby complaining. We shall miss him forever. On a page with a torn edge, he writes:
It is a structure of such heavenly magnificence that it eludes description. A Ring! Gigantic, incredible. Surrounding the planet Saturnus! Each night subtending a slightly different angle; its movement so small as to be unknowable without the finest markings on the quadrant.
If this ring truly exists, it will overturn a thousand years of false astronomy. The great crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic sky will shatter like a drunkard’s jeroboam. And even better, won’t those whoreson Jesuits scream like they’ve been scalded—the rogues.
Here, at the perfect center of a 1000 cubit square, even one candle is forbidden because its glow will confound and dim our sight, much as octopodiae stain clear water with their ink.
Night after night I fix myself in place, gazing through this brazen tube, its greater glass and its lesser in perfect conjunction with mine own eye. Here I stand, seeing farther than any man who has ever lived, Popes included. Seeing into the very heavens, perhaps into the mind of great God himself.
After a lifetime of pondering the changes in the seasons, the puzzling rise and fall of the ocean’s tides, the slow aging of rocks, the alchemy of water as it thickens into ice, the flight of birds large and small, I have been given a gift beyond price, a treasure. Even the sharp needles in my knees and old elbows cannot dim my great joy. I must clench my fist to warm it and to keep from shaking the tube.
I was thought a fool as a boy. And I have been called a madman more than once. But they had to treat me differently after I taught the Duke of Parma how to aim his cannons. Now in my dotage, I shall have my triumph. No one shall gainsay my labors, deny my result, my Saturnus. My place, my glory….
Here he breaks off writing. And I know why—for I stood next to him. At that moment the mossy-cheeked ‘prentice, Guilliam, no more than twelve years old, ran into the dome of the observatorium, his eyes wide with horror, his clothes torn. Blood redder than Mars ran down his face from a deep cut in the forehead. When he saw our master, he stopped and screamed.
“Run my lord… the Inquisition!”
How I wept as they took Hubrecht. How I ached from the beating I received defending him. He shouted to me in coded Latin to save the tube, his precious far-seeing tube. Of course
I did. The next entry in his notebooks is almost three years later. And the hand which writes it shakes, badly. They tortured him, beat him. He did not speak a word, would not confess or recant his science until, cruelest of all, they arranged that he should not be able to see the night sky.
Gregory Von Dare is a writer and dramatist specializing in forward-leaning theatre and fiction, often with a humorous or ironic twist. He attended Chicago City College and the University of Illinois. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Armed Forces Radio and Fox Sports. Recently, his fiction appeared on the Soft Cartel, Out of the Gutter, 50 Word Stories, Rejected Manuscripts, Silent Motorist, and Horror Tree websites. One of his mystery short stories will be published in print this fall by Flame Tree Press in England. Greg is an Affiliate Member of Mystery Writers of America. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.