At Otium Sanctum: I welcome my three-in-the-morning nocturnal interludes from the bed covers. After pausing beneath a spruce tree I walk the short stone path down to the fire pit where I check the sky through the circle of poplars and listen.
At times the sky is sodden and mute; at times dark as pitch and solemn, darker still owing to the heavy shouldering of trees. Sometimes an old moon casts pewter light, and you can hear with your inner ear a charcoal pencil zigzagging across the china-clay-paper ground, etching in the trunks and branches, the shrubs, a birdhouse, the fine blades of grass, the hairs on the square stems of hemp nettle. And sometimes the sky is porous and profligate with stars. Last night was a night for stars.
Six thousand stars are visible to the naked eye, give or take. (Although I swear I’ve seen more.) One hundred thousand million in our own galaxy, on last count. Not one the same as the other. Oh, and millions of galaxies we know, and untold billions more we don’t.
Stars look fixed in place, but they are moving away and spreading out at speeds hard to conceive. A trillion stars may look like one tight and friendly community, but distance deceives. Stars are lonely travellers, reclusive, remote, with little time for wandering minds.
Even the focused mind of Carl Sagan, a lifetime spent watching the shifting light, waiting for new light, waiting for a sign, could only touch the closest star—Proxima Centauri, just down the block at 4.2 light years—with the tip of his imagination.
Oh stars of wonder: given to us, laudable and luminous, with soft incandescent bodies. We see you in our dreams upon the foreheads of beautiful black horses; we throw you on flags to rally ourselves; we strive for your golden mark of celebrity.
Oh stars of wonder: giant spheres of hydrogen and helium, keeping unholy equilibrium between the grave compression of immeasurable gravity and the catastrophic force of thermonuclear reactions, releasing your energy and giving it over for the use of eternity.
I have looked at stars and have not been moved. Perhaps there are greater sins. But last night I was an alter boy, an acolyte given the privilege of seeing behind.
For when you look past the curtain of those six thousand stars, without losing sight of the drape, you are at once hurled a billion light years up into burning clusters of galaxies, blown to the ever expanding edge of the cosmos and back, never seeing the same splendour twice—red giants, white dwarfs—words without reach.
And just as sudden, you stand, your feet upon stone, and the stars are drawn down around you as far as your ankles and are verified to be the warm bubbles of twinkling light you knew them to be as a child, such that you put one in your pocket, and return to bed.