The Draper Catalogue: CHAPTER ONE
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Henrietta moved quietly down the carpeted hallway to the front door of her parents’ house, deciding, as she went, not to flick on any lights and draw attention to herself.
What was she going to do with a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology? With an aim to do post-graduate work in Bronze Age archaeology? The field was closed—at best she might find work teaching part time in some second-rate community college.
“Where are you going?” her mother asked.
Discovered . . . damn. Did her mother have the least inkling of what a deep existential question she had just asked? “Just going for a walk, Mom.”
“Nice night for it.”
That much was true.
A calm fell over Henrietta as she watched the last traces of dusk slip behind Elephant Mountain; it was a sight that never failed to soothe her. Tonight it was enhanced by a crescent moon cradled between a gap in the western mountains. To the left of it, but higher, shone a star so bright its reflection shimmered in the dark waters of the river below.
Henrietta turned back to her mom. “I won’t be long.”
Her mom smiled, the family cat rushed in, Henrietta’s mortal body stepped out.
It was mid-July, the height of summer, and Henrietta, in spite of everything, sensed that being back in these mountains was where she belonged. What was life telling her? That you could never really escape? You could go to the Yucatan, Uluru or the Valley of the Kings but there was no place like home?
Henrietta snapped together the heels of her runners and began to walk uphill. If she could get high enough, quickly enough, she could delay the setting of the moon. As a little girl she had played a game much like this: racing the setting sun, climbing quickly up the streets to the highest part of town, making the sunlight linger . . . just a minute longer.
During last school term, one year ago, Henrietta had decided enough was enough. She would always remember the tears in her mother’s eyes when she had told her she wasn’t returning to university.
I'm just going to take a year off, she had explained. Travel a little, clear my head. Her mom wiped a tear from her eye, but just one. “Stacy wants to come too.” Henrietta thought—foolishly in retrospect—that this fact might make a difference.
Her father spoke for them both. “You have to do what you think’s best Harriet.” To thine own self be true. She was half-waiting to hear, neither a borrower nor a lender be, but thankfully her father’s advice ended there, punctuated by a small sigh and a wink.
For the next four months Henrietta worked in the gift shop of the Royal Ontario Museum, saved a little money, enough, when combined with a small inheritance from her grandmother, to buy a return plane ticket to Sydney, Australia.
But why Australia, her friends had asked? Are there Bronze Age sites in Australia? I'm looking for something totally different, she had replied: different culture, different animals, different everything. And she usually chose not to add, Australia’s as far away from home as possible.
Henrietta was still climbing. The moon seemed stationary. Glancing north above Elephant Mountain, Henrietta craned her neck to see the Big Dipper. This was a constellation not visible from Australia, although the Moon was, and the planets. Australia had its own set of stars, brighter, and more spectacular.
Henrietta’s time Down Under had been memorable: the parrots, the beaches, the barbies, Ayers Rock for heaven’s sake—though she still felt guilty having climbed it— the Anangu people making it clear they preferred visitors not to do so.
A few sour experiences aside however, it was a wonderful interlude, a breath of fresh air, an escape from the navel-gazing she so easily fell into.
Henrietta loved it all: even the blue-ringed octopi, the sharks, the funnel-web spiders, even Stacy who, three weeks in, decided to run off to Perth with a surf-lifeguard.
Henrietta looked back up at the Dipper, checking Mizar in the middle of the handle—Mizar and Alcor actually, a double-star. Many years ago her father had explained that, if you could see both stars, your vision was reasonably good. Henrietta made a point of doing the test regularly to see whether or not she needed to adjust her glasses’ prescription. Henrietta had worn glasses since Kindergarten. With a name like Henrietta, it had seemed inevitable.
She continued to climb, walking backwards, slowly, still looking up.
“Be careful,” a child’s voice called out.
Henrietta stumbled, turned around quickly.
“Over here,” the voice continued.
Henrietta spotted a small circle of reddish light illuminating a patch of grass. Behind the cone of light she could just make out the faint silhouette of a body. Definitely a child.
“Come and see,” the voice said, a young boy’s.
“The Moon’s just about to set; I have it in view as we speak.” As we speak? What young boy talked like that?
Henrietta walked towards the voice, opened a small wrought-iron gate which creaked, then stepped into a yard surrounded on two sides by mature trees which conveniently blocked out nearby streetlights. To the south and west the view was wide open. The moon, the stars and planets all stood before her in their full glory.
“It’s really eye-candy more than anything,” the voice continued, “but I like to see the craters disappear behind the trees—no scientific significance whatsoever; it just looks pretty.”
Henrietta stepped closer.
“Can you see the eyepiece?”
“But don’t touch it with your hands.”
Henrietta’s friend, Stacy, had an older brother who had a telescope. Twelve years ago, it had seemed like the most exotic of possessions. It had been exciting looking through it: her first view of the moon, Saturn’s rings. Even back then, however, Henrietta’s attention was drawn more downwards than up. Henrietta liked scouring riverbanks, looking for Indian arrowheads. Her brief foray into astronomy did at least teach her not to knock a telescope out of alignment by grabbing on to the eyepiece.
Henrietta removed her glasses and carefully lowered her eye into position. “Can I adjust the focusing knob?”
“Oh indeed,” the boy replied, ready, it seemed, to point out its location but Henrietta had already found it.
“Oh my!” She could see dozens and dozens of sharply defined craters and seas. One by one, they sank out of sight, disappearing behind the trees, just as the young boy had said. Henrietta was struck by the unexpected three-dimensionality of the experience—one world disappearing behind another.
“Quite wonderful, isn’t it?”
The moon seemed to be traveling at terrific speed though, of course, it wasn’t the moon’s motion she was witnessing, it was her own. “Going . . .” Henrietta announced, her voice rising, “going . . . gone!” Smiling broadly, she looked up. “Thank you so much!”
It was odd: having a conversation with a stranger, not just a stranger, but some odd, wordy mini-adult—a brainiac, Stacy would have called him—and not even being able to see his face.
Just how old was he? Ten? Eleven, maybe? A very short twelve? Smiling, she turned to the boy, “You seem to know a lot about the night sky.” Not dazzling repartee exactly, but it was something. It was, as her mother long ago had taught her, “making conversation”.
With the moon now out of sight, Henrietta turned her attention to that bright star she had noticed earlier. It too would soon sink behind the mountains.
“Jupiter,” the young boy explained. “It’s not a star at all.”
Henrietta nodded, disappointed she could no longer technically ask, “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight. . . .”
Again the boy spoke. “May I ask you a question?”
Henrietta shrugged. “Why not?”
“When were you born?”
Henrietta’s eyes narrowed. “1972.”
“Interesting,” the young boy replied, not looking at Henrietta, instead moving the telescope to a new target.
“How is it interesting exactly?”
“Before my time, of course, but very interesting.”
Now the young boy was looking through the finder scope, zeroing in on his target. “What date exactly?”
“Even better! You were born one day after humankind last set foot on the moon. Now there’s a case of celestial irony!”
Henrietta remembered her father mentioning a few times that there had been people on the moon when she was born or some such thing, but she had never given it much thought.
“And look what we’ve done since,” the young boy said. “The whole Apollo program might as well be ancient history . . . for the two of us.”
“Born too late,” Henrietta added, thinking not of the surface of the moon, but of Knossos, Thera, the wine-red sea.
By now Henrietta was used to the dark and could see more details. The boy wore shorts which hung past his knees, a long-sleeved shirt, and what seemed like a bandana around his head, giving him the appearance of a well-groomed, miniature pirate.
Henrietta laughed a little. “My dad’s pretty interested in astronomy.”
“Well . . . I used to have this friend, well the brother of a friend--he had a telescope.”
“Not your father?”
“No. . . .” Henrietta stared down at her feet, puzzling over the question. “I never thought about that . . . why doesn’t my dad have a telescope?”
The young boy looked up. “The important thing is: now you’re here. I was starting to wonder if you’d ever show up.”
What did that little runt just say? Henrietta decided just to smile and speak sweetly. “I've been away for awhile—Australia.”
“Ah!” the young boy replied, “The LMC, the Keyhole, Rigel Kentauri!”
“Right . . . and kangaroos and parrots and surfing.”
The young boy turned, looking in Henrietta’s direction but not actually at her. “I gather, then, this is not the first time you've looked through a telescope?”
“Not the first. . . .”
“Three Galilean moons visible,” the boy announced, “two on the left, one on the right. And two equatorial bands—if you use your averted vision.”
Her night vision was much better now. She could make out the young boy’s hands and fingers. From his left pinkie a gem stone managed to sparkle briefly in the darkness. A brief flash of red and blue. What young boy wore rings?
The boy stepped to the side and motioned to the eyepiece, inviting Henrietta to take his place. “You can watch the moons wink out as they disappear behind the firs. Memorize the view if you can. It’s likely to change.”
Henrietta had to think for a minute. “You mean that comet?”
Shoemaker-Levy, Henrietta was reminded, was the first comet ever known to have been captured by the gravitational field of a planet—Jupiter in this case. After several years circling the great planet—instead of the sun as comets were supposed to do—tomorrow it was due to crash into it. Many people were describing it as the most unexpected astronomical event of the century. Even the CBC National News had picked up the story.
Somehow though, Henrietta had the dates wrong. “I thought that wasn’t for a few more days.”
“July 16th, 1994. Tomorrow.”
“Oh!” Henrietta cried out. “There goes one of the moons!” What did the young boy call it? Io? Henrietta knew all about the mythological Io, one of horny Jupiter’s many conquests. As protection against the wrath of Hera, Zeus ended up turning her into a white heifer.
Jupiter’s moon reappeared for an instant, then was gone for good. “And now the planet’s disk is touching the trees—wonderful. Half-gone, and now . . . gone completely! Adios Jupiter!”
Henrietta turned with a question. “What do you think’s going to happen tomorrow? With something traveling that fast? What did the news reports say? With the energy of —I don’t know—many hundreds of nuclear bombs, right?”
The young boy paused before answering, as if first needing to come to a decision. “Come and see,” he said finally.
“Through your telescope?”
“Same time tomorrow.”
Statistically, over the vast span of human history, things were pretty predictable, almost depressingly so, but on any given night. . . . “Wow,” Henrietta said, grinning, reflecting on the thought of a comet crashing into a planet. Maybe things could change. Maybe some events were unique.
Henrietta held out her hand. “I'm Henrietta, by the way. Or Hattie, if your prefer. Or even Harriet; that’s what my dad likes to call me.”
It was the young boy’s turn to look up at the Milky Way. He inhaled deeply then slowly let out his breath. “I thought so,” he said.