False House for web

 

The following is a diary entry made by Edwin Phra as a result of his confrontation with Jonathan Bartholomew in my novel, Evenmere. It is a stand-alone story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

 

 

THE STAR WATCH

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream —van Gogh

 

I was sixteen when I came to the Tower of Astronomy in the great house, Evenmere, and there is no place I would rather have been. Because of this, I was a tremendous disappointment to my father, who farmed on the great Terraces. The earth between his hands and a son to carry on the tradition was all he ever wanted.  I, myself, found the work tedious. I listened to his discussions of rain and beetles and warm sunshine on green leaves — our household was full of such talk — but I would not hear. The earth did not move me, for I wanted the stars.

 

The stars! I would stand in my father's fields at night and stare up at the sky. I knew all the constellations and the individual names of many points of light. The sight of them left me aching with a nameless yearning, for in my mind they lit the path to all the mysteries of the universe, being somehow connected to God.

 

When I turned twelve, I sent a letter to the Grand Astronomer, and to my wonder, he replied. I asked foolish questions, but he answered them all. Thereafter I wrote him four times each year. He was kind, and once sent me a star chart etched by his own hand. I nailed it to my wall and stared at it for hours.

 

At the beginning of my sixteenth year I petitioned to apprentice in the Astronomy Tower for a summer, to see if I possessed the necessary qualities for the work. I was nearly overcome with delight when the Astronomer gave his permission.

 

I will never forget the look on my father's face the day I left. Both my parents sought to reason with me, he talking of the long summer's work to be done and of how the land would all be mine some day; she saying how much it would mean to father if I stayed. I paid no heed, for all I could think of were the stars. And because my father was a gentle man, he said no more on the day of my departure, but clasped his arms around me in a husky embrace. He smelled of warm earth and sweat, and that is the way I always remember him.

 

“You will come back,” he said. “The earth will draw you home.  It is in your blood. You must be careful. They say the Towers are tall; do not be falling from them.” Though he spoke bravely, his eyes were filled with a sorrow that I, at my young age, did not comprehend. How strange that we can look into the past and see events more clearly than we could at the moment they occurred.

 

I walked the long corridors of Evenmere, down gas-lit passages of floral carpets, dark oak wainscotting, frescoed ceilings and flying buttresses carved with apostles and angels. This being my first time away from home, I marveled at the endless variety of the enormous mansion and considered all the scholars said concerning it: that it is God's mechanism for maintaining the universe; that its clocks must be kept wound and its candles lit lest time and the stars run down like children's toys; that it is a symbolic representation of all the universe — a thousand such stories crowded my mind, many completely contradictory. Having grown up within Evenmere's halls, I had taken its strangeness for granted; only by traveling through it did I finally glimpse its mystery and majesty.

 

I passed through the passages of Cosing and into Aylyrium, a country of towering domes and silver-splendored mosaics, with long, sweeping hallways and immense, majestic statues. After seeking directions from the inhabitants, I found my way up the winding stair leading to the Tower, where I entered a circular chamber draped in floral rugs, with Morris tapestries of peacocks on acanthus backgrounds concealing brick and mortar walls.  A fireplace curved along one side surrounded by desks, end tables, and fat chairs with threadbare arms. Plaster angels stared down with hollow eyes from the cornices, as if in judgement of me.

 

There, I met the Astronomer, a rotund gentleman of great age. He had a warm, honest face, and as was the custom of all who worked in the Tower, wore a white robe with a heavy hood. By his side stood a young man only slightly older than myself, whose gray robe loomed so large it nearly swallowed him, leaving his face peeking out as if from a stone crag.

 

“Edwin,” the Astronomer addressed me. “This is Forth, my son.  He knows much of the stars and will be Grand Astronomer after me.”

 

Forth grimaced at his father's words. He was dark-haired with brooding green eyes. I suppose he might have been handsome, had his nose not been broken more than once. He walked with a slight limp as well, I assumed from some accident.

 

The Astronomer guided me to the Mechanical Room above the circular chamber, but Forth, begging other duties, did not accompany us.

 

The chamber, or actually, series of chambers, was the beginning of wonder for me, a world of levers and dials, gauges and gears, whole apparatus of which I had no specific understanding, though I knew their ultimate purpose.

 

The Astronomer uses them to regulate the stars.

From telescopes of every size around the chamber, the Grand Astronomer watches the heavens. The uninformed believe he actually keeps the stars in their courses. Of course, this is gross superstition. No man, even with the number of assistants employed by the Tower, could watch every star. Rather, his duties are to monitor the heavens and set right that which can be set right. Some tasks are within his power, others are not.

 

As we stood in that room, he lectured in his pleasant, patient voice about the working of the brass controls, but after the passing of an hour I could withhold my eagerness no more and interrupted by blurting, “Please, sir, may I see the Nine Towers?”

 

He smiled at this, with an understanding that told me he, too, remembered being young.

 

“This way then, my friend. I forget how dreary it is to a swift, new mind, dwelling too long upon a single topic. The Nine are best seen from the Central Tower.”

 

He led through a heavy oak door along a narrow stairway winding itself up and up. We passed several doors, but at last exited into another circular chamber, with polished wood floors, oriental rugs, and a garrison of fainting couches, chairs, and side tables heavy with knickknacks. Paintings covered nearly every inch of the walls in Victorian style. I thought that a shame, for the walls, being curved burlwood, seemed too beautiful to conceal. Seven double windows wrapped in floral curtains stood at identical intervals around the room. The Astronomer strode to the first of these, threw the curtains back with a flourish, unlatched the window, and pulled it open.

 

“Come see,” he said, gesturing to me.

 

I drew near and froze in amazement. Nothing I had read, nothing my mentor had told me, could have prepared me. Outside the window three towers were visible, reaching high into a sky black as deepest space. Around those towers hung the stars.

 

Red, blue, yellow, green — such names give no justice to their hues. In appearance, their size varied from that of a child's ball to seething orbs larger than the chamber in which I stood, all suspended around the towers like inset gems. The sparkling pearls of the Milky Way shimmered in a net across the highest spires, and stars hung beneath us as well, as if the Earth had vanished, leaving only the towers and the celestial lights.

 

There is no certain explanation for it. From our observation point I should have seen blue sky, not the black velvet of space. And how can stars revolving in their massive orbits also be jeweled ornaments on the Nine Towers? But Evenmere is a strange house, as I have said.

 

Regardless, I stood mesmerized, scarcely able to catch my breath, for here at last hung the objects of my yearning, I like a lover within reach of his beloved, paralyzed in awe before the beauty of her soul.
 

* * *

 

So I came to live and work in the Tower of Astronomy. Of all the scores of assistants the Astronomer employed I was the youngest, the rest, save for Forth, being ten years my senior. Most lived outside the Tower, and with these I formed no friendships.

 

Forth proved a poor companion. At first I thought we would be confederates, but when I tried to speak of the stars, he showed an astonishing lack of interest for one destined to be Grand Astronomer. In fact, he scarcely spoke at all on any subject and his expression remained perpetually morose.

 

I used to walk the stairs of the Towers at night. I can never forget those early days: the creaking of the floorboards, the smell of wood and carpet, the smell of stars! Others have scoffed at me for this, but I swear I smell them, acrid and hot, sweet with burning blazes. It was the best time of my life — to cross a room and look out, to see the stars suspended. Oh, how I loved that place!

 

My duties proved both interesting and dull, for though they often varied, I was sometimes required to spend long hours alone monitoring the various instruments. Because of my enthusiasm, the Astronomer took greater interest in me than in any of my fellow workers. In this, he may have erred by demonstrating procedures earlier than was customary: it is easy to equate a quick mind with wisdom; I had the first but lacked the second.

 

Many times he assigned me a star to monitor. And though the vigil might last long hours, I remained diligent, observing until the luminary reached a predetermined location in the heavens, when I would call the Grand Astronomer to manipulate the brass levers and knobs in ways beyond my understanding. Despite my ignorance, I watched diligently, and even in those early days, began to suspect more art than science in the work.

 

* * *

 

Because Forth and I were his favorites, the Astronomer often paired us together. At first, I thought this an opportunity to learn, until Forth's father began depicting me as a model to his son. Whether this was done intentionally or otherwise, it did little to improve Forth's attitude toward me.

 

“The Star Watch,” the Astronomer often said, “is like fishing. Have neither of you been fishing? Of course you have! It is a matter of finding the proper water, whether the still pool or the running stream, of trimming the line, setting the bait, making the cast. It is discovering the proper currents and watching the cork bob, then the moment of the nip, the taking of the bait, the struggle — the tightening and loosening — the bringing of the quarry to the shore. Such is the Star Watch. I do not simply observe the instruments; I sense the powers at work; I listen for the ebb and flow of the star tides, discern the rushing solar winds, and perceive the slow, grinding orbits of the suns.”

 

This was useful instruction, but he often added such remarks as, “Edwin, I see in you the Gift of Astronomy. I notice the way the movement of the stars fascinates — you understand the art. Forth, you must benefit from Edwin's example. Learn to be the patient fisherman. Only then will you become a great Astronomer.”

 

But Forth was not patient; his thoughts rippled constantly across his brow. And at his father's words, he glared at me. Certainly it did not help that I was the younger. At those times, I believe he hated me.

 

* * *

 

There came a day when Forth's father assigned us to the Middle Reaches of the Sixth Tower. “You are proceeding well,” he told us. “I never allow apprentices your age to ascend beyond the first levels, but between the two of you, you will perform splendidly. There is a pair of stars in Centaurus requiring minor adjustments.”

 

He led us down several corridors, then up the circular stair of the Sixth Tower. On such excursions, the rotund Astronomer proved remarkably robust, for in the hour we climbed Forth and I required frequent rests, but he never seemed to tire.

 

As we ascended, the stars outside the windows grew nearer. My heart raced, not merely from exertion but excitement, as I imagined drawing close enough to warm my hands against their heat, to reach out and touch them!

 

Scarcely a third of the way up the tower, we at last attained a circular room filled with various mechanisms. The Astronomer led us through one of the six doors encircling the chamber, onto a gray stone rampart surrounding the outside of the tower.

 

We stood as if in the depths of space and before us flamed the stars!

 

The nearest, hanging only a few yards away, could be reached by a stone bridge passing from the Sixth to the Seventh Tower, a span five feet wide, without balustrades. The slow rotation of the stars made it seem to sway.

 

“This way,” the Astronomer said, leading down the span.

 

For a moment I faltered. Though I have never feared heights, the infinite abyss unnerved me. Forth, having undoubtedly accompanied his father countless times, gave me a mirthless grin. “What's the matter? Does the farmer fear the sky?”

 

He could have said nothing to provoke me more. I gritted my teeth in what I hoped was a confident smile — probably more a terrified rictus — and followed Forth over the bridge.

 

Strange thoughts flood a man in high places. The Void is terrifying, yet compelling. One has only to step off ... I glanced into the abyss only once, then despite my irritation at Forth, hurried to draw closer to him.

 

Even through my apprehension the stars compelled me. A few feet overhead hung a red beauty — pulsing with light, the heat dancing off its surface. Below the bridge hung another, nearly ice-blue, its rotation slow, its flames wisping away in tendrils.

 

The Astronomer stopped beside a pair of twin yellow stars hanging directly beside the span at chin level, each no more than a foot across. He gave a boyish grin, made radiant in the starlight.

 

“This is your subject,” he said. “These revolve around one another, dancing like a young couple consumed with love! Their orbits will soon require correction. Your task is to observe and to summon me at the proper time.”

 

I reached out my hand to grasp the roaring sun, but the Astronomer stopped me with a warning tap. “You must never touch them.”

 

“Would I be burned?”

 

“I am uncertain, as we are not consumed though we stand so near. Probably you would, but even worse, you might affect their orbits.”

 

“Sir,” I asked. “Are we really standing among the stars? Why can we look upon them with unshielded eyes? How do we breathe in airless space? And why are we larger than the suns?”

 

He smiled again. “I will answer only the first question, for the rest proceed from it. We do stand among the stars, and yet we do not, for this—” he waved his hands to indicate all around us, “this is a metaphor, an allegory. But the mechanisms we use truly control the heavens. It is a paradox; life is full of such. And I repeat, you must not touch the stars.”

 

“I understand,” I said.

 

Thereafter we returned to the circular chamber, from where we would monitor the twins. With his usual precision, the Grand Astronomer showed us our task, ordered us to contact him when the gauges reached the appropriate levels, and departed.

 

Our vigil proved longer than I anticipated.  We lived in the chamber for days, eating the food brought us and taking our turns at the monitors. At first, I grew anxious, expecting the gauges to unexpectedly leap to their places, but gradually I recognized the ponderous nature of the suns. Star work is slow work, as we say. Only being able to step onto the rampart and study the burning brilliance of the luminaries kept me from going mad with boredom.

 

For Forth, it was surely a nightmare. He sighed; he slept. He produced an illustrated book from inside his heavy robe entitled The Great Gliders and pored over it for hours.

 

I have often wondered if the Grand Astronomer simply assigned two lads to a task, or if in his wisdom he sensed Forth's resentment toward me and forced us together to see if we could be friends.

 

Whatever the case, being young, we had not yet developed an aptitude for hoarding a grudge. As the days passed, we came to know one another. For my part, I had less to overcome — Forth had seldom treated me with intentional cruelty. Eventually I asked him about the book. He shrugged as if it meant nothing, but a fire, like a touch of starlight, winked in his eyes when he looked upon it.

 

“It's only a book,” he said.

 

“About what?”

 

He glanced down shyly. “About those who build air gliders, machines to ride the wind in the land of High Gable.”

 

“Is it dangerous?”

 

His eyes flashed madly then. “Sometimes. But I rode one once, two years ago, and there is nothing like it. They experiment with them all the time, and talk of adding motors to make them fly like paddle boats on a river. I want to be part of it, to become an aviator. That's what they call them. I want to move to High Gable and work there.”

 

“An aviator,” I rolled the unfamiliar word over my tongue. “But you are to be the Grand Astronomer! You would have to leave the Star Watch.”

 

“I hate the Star Watch!” His vehemence seemed to startle even himself. “My father talks only of stars, as if he were a shepherd and they the sheep, but I hear nothing he says! He knows them by names I can never remember. These twins we watch — I don't even know their names.”

 

“Rigelius and Thollamai.”

 

“You see! You are the one my father calls gifted. You should be the Grand Astronomer.”

 

“I?” I replied, both embarrassed and pleased. “You've been here all your life.”

 

“And hated it!”

 

We sat silent a time, I baffled that anyone could want other than to work in the Tower of Astronomy. But at last I said, “Does your father know?”

 

“How could I tell him? He has craved this all my life.”

 

“My father wished me to be a farmer, but I cared nothing for it. I used to believe I could make myself carry on his work, but it was his work and not my own. When your father took me into his service, my father accepted it, though he was not pleased.”

 

“My father would never accept it,” Forth said, but a hint of hope crept into his voice.

 

That afternoon Forth poured out his love of gliders to me, as if the words, dammed so long behind his teeth, finally broke through, with my ears the reservoir to receive them. It stunned me that this quiet lad could speak with such passion about anything. Certainly he had never before told anyone of his dreams. He showed me his book and withdrew from between its pages scraps of tattered papers depicting his own glider designs. I, in turn, related my elation at finally following the path I loved.

 

“How strange it is,” he said, greatly moved. “You are doing the thing I despise, yet it is your greatest ambition.”

 

Later, we went out to look at the twins. Standing on the rampart, we gazed, I happily, Forth with a brooding eye.

 

“Does the Void frighten you?” he asked.

 

“A little.”

 

“It doesn't frighten me. Nor my father. He is extremely ancient, you know, older than anyone because he spends so much of his life between the stars. He once told me time does not pass here, and if a man stays on the rampart he requires neither food nor sleep.”

 

We sat in silence again, I pondering this new bit of wonder while the suns crackled all around. Eventually, Forth said, “I fell once, fifteen feet from one of the towers onto a stone ledge. That's how I broke my nose and leg.” He slapped his thigh for emphasis. “A few feet over and I would have dropped into the Void.”

 

“That must have been terrifying.” I retreated a step from the edge.

 

His eyes held a strange light, “You would think so, but it wasn't. The moment seemed to last forever, as if I were flying. Ever since, I find myself imagining what it would be like to spread my cloak and go drifting into the darkness. What a ride that would be, sailing on solar winds!”

 

I shivered. “Not for me, thank you.”

 

* * *

 

Day and night meant nothing to us, with the black abyss before us and scores of suns in the sky. We kept constant watch, taking turns during the hours normally considered night.

 

When Forth roused me for breakfast the next “day” he seemed excited. When I asked why he had failed to wake me for my shift, he replied, “I spent the night thinking. Besides I wanted you to rest, for you must keep the watch alone today. I am going to tell my father I want to be an aviator.”

 

I stopped eating. “Are you sure?”

 

“I am.” His face was set with a glorious certainty.

 

* * *

 

Because of my concern for Forth, the time crawled by, and I found myself pacing the chamber. He returned six hours later, his face pale, his expression ragged. I did not need to question him, nor did he explain except to say, with an effort not to weep, “Now I know my duty.”

 

He was not the same thereafter, and the watch became once more a dull, companionless affair. But as the hour for the adjustment drew near, I became more and more fascinated by the twin stars. Perhaps I, who had prompted Forth's ill-fated confrontation with his father, grew obsessive to avoid blaming myself for my friend's silence.

 

Whatever the case, I became absorbed, not just in the stars themselves, but in the adjustment mechanisms. During the time Forth had been communicative, I had asked him many questions about the instruments. Despite his denials of astronomical skill, his quick mind fathomed more than perhaps even his father realized.

 

But there remained certain matters concerning the controls which neither he nor I understood, and in those hours of Forth's new silence, their mystery became my fixation.

 

The answer came to me all in a flash, so I cried aloud.

 

“What is it?” Forth asked, perhaps thinking I had injured himself with the instruments.

 

“I understand!” I almost shouted. “The linear mechanism! It makes sense!”

 

He drew near despite his melancholy, his interest aroused.

 

“Explain,” he said.

 

“These levers control what your father sometimes calls the Engines of Apogee, and these,” I grasped a pair of rotating knobs, “affect linearity and rotation. It is the combination of the two that actually makes the adjustment! By moving the levers together when the gauges both read one-hundred sixty-five, the suns can be moved oh so slightly!”

 

“I don't understand,” Forth admitted.  “How are the two related?”

 

“It's exactly as your father says,” I continued, nearly blind with joy. “It's the art of it! Don't you see?”

 

Sometimes in his enthusiasm a young man grows unintentionally cruel. The Grand Astronomer was correct in suggesting I had a gift for the stars, as many are gifted in matters beyond my own comprehension. Having made an intuitive leap, I failed to see why anyone else could not do the same.

 

As Forth stood staring at me his look became gradually more dire. Finally he said, “I understand nothing.”

 

“You will!” I said. “You will, when we make the adjustment!”

 

His expression turned to astonishment. “We, make the adjustment? You've lost your mind! We are to call father. He will make the adjustment.”

 

“But don't you see, we don't have to!” I said. “We can do it ourselves. It's simple. Anyone could do it. We'll save your father the trouble of a trip. He'll be proud of us.”

 

“He'll be proud of you!” Forth spat.

 

“No, of both of us!” I was filled with inspiration. “Don't you see we have the opportunity to feel the power of the stars themselves? Oh, Forth, I know once you've tasted what it's like to be a true Astronomer you'll want it for yourself.”

 

I said this and much more. I was persuasive, perhaps more so than ever in my life, either before or since, and my final argument lit a light in my friend's eyes, for he did want to please his father. It was manipulation of the worst sort, but I believed my own words at the time, and he fastened to them with all the talons of desperation.

 

Two hours later found us waiting at the controls, I manning the levers within the room, Forth on the rampart dealing with another apparatus consisting of a large, corkscrew valve. That an experienced Astronomer could have done the procedure single-handedly shows how little we truly knew.

 

The gauges inched toward the required measurements. In my vanity, I neither doubted my own ability to control the stars, nor considered the consequences of failure. I burned with concentration, my eyes darting between the twin suns and the intricate mechanism beneath my hands.

 

More than scientific precision guides the Astronomer. If he is gifted, he senses the moment when the change must be made, feels the shifting star fields, the fluctuations, the variations in heat and light. Perhaps he perceives them in his soul; I cannot say. But I felt the balance between the forces and elements with such fierce intensity I did not even need the gauges to recognize the moment.

 

I moved first one lever, then another. I closed an outlet; I raised a switch. I felt the power of the Grand Astronomer within my own fingertips. My face flushed with triumph.

 

“The valve!” I called to Forth. “Open it!”

 

“Now?” he shouted back. “Are you certain?”

 

I was on my feet at once. “Yes! Yes! It must be now!”

 

The Gift lay so strong upon me I thought Forth must surely sense its urgency.

 

I think the look in my eyes frightened him, for he yanked the valve with all his strength, then gaped at me in horror. “It's stuck!  I can't open it!”

 

Neither of us had thought to test the mechanisms beforehand. I scrambled across the chamber to help.

 

Before I could reach Forth's side, a rumbling arose, sending all the towers trembling, as if the twin stars outside the chamber scraped against one another. I stumbled and fell, but Forth held onto the valve. Despite the tremors, he scrambled up beside it onto the balustrade itself, and with his back to the abyss, pulled with all his might. The valve opened with a loud hiss, just as the tremors doubled in intensity. Thrown off balance, Forth tumbled from the rampart into the darkness.

 

At that moment, I must have finally realized that whole stars were at stake, for despite my horror at Forth's disappearance, I rushed to the valve and completed the turn. The tremors instantly ceased. I leaned over the parapet and looked down.

 

Forth clung to an iron bar, his heavy cloak billowing in the Void.

 

I dashed inside, retrieved a rope, tied one end to the valve, and tossed the other to Forth. He caught it, pulled himself up to where his feet found purchase on the bar, and rested there a moment, panting from his exertions.

 

“Oh, Forth, come up!” I cried, stretching my hands toward his. I was overwhelmed with exultation at seeing my friend alive and the tremors ended. “We did it, Forth! We did it! The stars moved at our command!”

 

Perhaps it was the triumph on my face, the joy in my eyes, the ferocious wonder, that turned his expression to stone.

 

“No, Edwin,” he said softly. “You did it. The stars moved at your command.”

 

“We both did. Take my hand!”

 

“My father was right. You are gifted.” His eyes searched my face with a keen hunger, and for a moment we seemed frozen in time. Gradually, his expression changed to one of intense exhilaration, as if a tremendous revelation suffused his features.

 

“Standing here,” he said, “I can feel the solar winds blowing beneath the rampart.”

 

He was right, for his cloak swelled hugely, making him look like a great bird. I could hear the hot whispering sun tides. The shadow and light played across his brow, transfiguring him. He looked holy, immortal.

 

“You were born to be the Grand Astronomer,” he said passionately. “And I to fly. Oh, Edwin, I will follow my dream. I will be an aviator.”

 

I stretched my hands even farther to reach him, but he smiled and released the rope.

 

He did not fall. He glided. He swooped, drifting farther and farther down between the stars. And as he descended he shouted with a joy that seemed to go on forever. I watched in horror until he vanished from sight.

 

* * *

 

The Grand Astronomer did not live many years thereafter. He blamed himself, even as he forgave me. He was that kind of man. And before he died he appointed me his replacement.

 

It is harder to forgive oneself. Even though the young boy of those days, fresh from the farm, meant no malice, even though his only crime lay in loving the stars and his Gift too much, I wonder how he could have been so blind.

 

I seldom speak now, especially to the young, without considering my words, and I go often, even after all these years, to the Sixth Tower to stand before the stars. If, as we believe, time does not exist within the Void and neither food nor sleep is required, Forth has become immortal. It was the contemplation of that eternal fall that killed his father.

 

But at such times when my guilt ebbs, I do not share the Astronomer's grief, for I heard Forth's shouts of delight echoing between the stars. In those moments I see him gliding forever. Laughing. The supreme aviator lost in exultation.

 

END

 

The Star Watch © January 2002 by James Stoddard

This website is part of my new James Stoddard domain, and is currently under construction. To visit my previous site, please go to: www.sff.net/people/james-stoddard