A Tapestry of Stars

The light was almost gone now. Late summer purples lay across the Point’s heathlands and salt marshes. An edge of cumulus outlined the hills across the lough. The aircraft warning beacons on the television mast were blinking.

The dogs went bounding out into the setting dark. Freed spirits. Primeval forces. Rabbits scattered for their sandy bolt-holes among the gorse roots. Horace was too old and arthritic to kill. He ran for the joy of running: while he still could run. The vet had diagnosed CMDR. The process was irreversible. The myelin sheaths of the lower spinal nerves would deteriorate until his hindquarters were paralysed. He would not be able to walk. He would piss himself. He would shit himself. Then, the one way ticket to the rubber-topped table. The girl hoped she would not have to be there for that.

Until then, let them run. Let them hunt. Let them catch what they can, if they can.

‘Go Horace! Go Paddy!’ Gaby McAslan shouted. The dogs flew from her like twin thunderbolts, the big white and tan, the smaller black. Crossing a scent, they plunged into the dense gorse thickets, crashed about in the dry brown rustling spines of last summer’s growth.

The hills of Antrim rose black against the indigo sky: Knockagh with its cenotaph; Carnmoney; Cave Hill that was said to have a profile like Napoleon’s, though Gaby had never been able to see it; Divis; Black Mountain. Belfast was a hemisphere of amber airglow at the head of the lough; grubby, phototoxic. Beneath the black hills a chain of yellow and white lights clung to the shore line. Fort William. Greenisland. Carrickfergus with its great Norman keep. Kilroot, Whitehead, ending with the pulse and flash of the lighthouse that marked the open sea. Its counterparts on Lighthouse Island at Donaghadee responded. There is a moment, one moment, her father had said, when all the beams flash as one. She had been watching the lights all her life and she never yet seen that moment of synchronicity.

The sky seemed vast and high tonight, pierced by the first few stars. The summer triangle: Altair, Deneb, Vega. Arcturus descending, the guide star of the ancient Arab navigators. Sinbad’s star. Corona Borealis, the crown of summer. One of those soft jewels was a cluster of four hundred galaxies. Their light had travelled for a billion years to fall on Gaby McAslan. They receded from her skin at fifty thousand miles per second.

Knowing their names and natures could take nothing from them. They were stars, remote, subject to laws and processes larger than human lifetimes. By their high and ancient light you saw the nature of your self. You were not the pinnacle of creation beneath a protecting veil of sky. You were a fierce, bright atom of selfhood, encircled by fire.

The dogs came plunging from the gorse, panting, smiling, empty-jawed. She whistled them to her. The path turned along a ruinous drystone wall past the marshy ground. Yellow flag and tattered bullrushes. Diamond-back tracks of mountain bikes in the dirt, but also the heavier tread of scramblers. Her father would not be pleased. Let people enjoy the Point by their own power, foot or pedal: that was the spirit he had tried to build for this place. The gobble of motorbike engines, the shriek of gear trains, shouted it down.

Marky had never caught the thing about this place. He could not understand what a day smells like, or what it is to know you are tiny but brilliant beneath the appallingly distant stars. He left scrambler tracks on the world, or car tyres; not bicycle tread or bare footprints.

She climbed the low, lichen-covered rocks and stood at the edge of the land. The dogs splashed and frolicked in a gravelly inlet, pretending to swim. Paddy, the small black one, ran in circles with a kelp stalk in his mouth, inviting Gaby to play. Later. She breathed in the air. Sea-salt, dead things desiccating on the shore, the sweet land-smells of gorse and bog iris, the scent of earth that has soaked in the heat and light of the day and, in the twilight, gently exhales.

Down at the edge of the sea she built a ring of stones and set a small fire in it. It was a cardinal sin on the Point, but the warden’s daughter should be permitted some licence. She sat on a rock and fed driftwood to the flames. Bleached branches, slabs of old fishboxes tarry and studded with nails, pieces of forklift pallet and old cork fishing floats. The wood popped and crackled. Sparks showered up into the scented night.

‘No, I’d rather not, not tonight, Marky,’ she had told him on the phone. The video-compression chip amplified his facial movements. Gaby always thought of silent movie actors. Heavy, heavy make-up; big, big expressions. Love. Hate. Fear. Rejection. Marky’s emotions matched his videophone face; that was the problem. ‘I have to think. I need some time for me; just for me. No one else. I have to get distant from everything and maybe then I can look back and see what I want to do. Do you understand?’

She knew that all he understood was that saying no to him on a Sunday night was saying no to him forever. He already had her going up the steps to the aeroplane.

The dogs came to stand by her. Water dripped from stalactites of belly hair. They were panting. They wanted her to give them a task to do.

‘Sorry lads. In a minute, right? Go off and kill something yourselves.’

Out to sea black guillemots skimmed the water, calling to each other in fluting, querulous voices.

They had refused to let her sleep late the day the results came out. First her father, back from his dawn survey of his little kingdom, with tea that she let go cold. Then the dogs, cold noses under warm duvet, heavy paws on ribs. Then the cats, fighting for a place between her breasts. Last of all, Reb pulling the corner of the quilt, shouting come on come on, you have to go and see.

The old school is strange when you are no longer a part of it. Its rooms and corridors are suddenly smaller than you remember. The staff you meet are subtly changed; no longer authority figures, but fellow survivors. She had not wanted to open the slim brown envelope in front of her friends. In the privacy of her father’s wreck of a Saab she had unfolded the single sheet of paper. The grades were good. More than good enough for the Network Journalism course. And that was perhaps worse than them not being good enough because now she would have to decide between going to London and staying.

Rebecca and Hannah had respectively hugged and shrugged. Her father had popped a bottle of real champagne he had bought on faith. His long-term girlfriend, Sonya, who was too wise to move into a house so full of women, came to the celebration meal. Marky too. Everyone had been certain she would go to England, except Marky, and herself.

Her fire was burned down to red coals crusted with powdery white ash.

Marky. He had a job in a bank. He had a Ford. He had money when everyone else was broke. He had good, expensive clothes, he had just-past-fashionable music and machinery far too impressive for it to play on. In winter he played hockey, in summer he wind-surfed. In either season he expected his girlfriends to stand back and admire him. Some day he would have a beautiful house and a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a life as dead dead dead as that empty crab husk lying claws-up on the gravel beach.

Gaby flicked the dead crab into the fire. Its chitinous shell squeaked and hissed, its legs curled up and withered in flame.

Marky imagined that thrice-weekly fumbles with her bra strap and a condom dropped out of the car window could hold her back from London and Network Journalism. He was a fool. It never had been a man that would keep her here. She had made him an excuse. It was this place, this Point she had known all her life, in all its seasons and climates. It was the thick walls of the Watchhouse on its promontory, watching over land and sea and the lives those walls contained. It was the golden light of rare autumn days; it was the silver frost on the dead brown bracken on January mornings; it was the shudder of the little headland beneath the storm waves when the wind seemed to push at the house like a pair of huge hands and got inside through crannies and vents to blow the carpet up like a heavy green sea. It was the little beaches on the seaward sides of the low islets known only to those who have paddled through the shallow tidal lagoons. It was being rooted in the land. It was the fear that her strength came from the physical presence of place and house and people and separated from them she would become pale and transparent. An un-person.

‘There are two, and only two, ultimate fears,’ her father had told her one September storm-night with the wind bowing in the window glass. ‘The annihilation of solitude or the annihilation of the crowd. We lose our identities if we are alone with no one to reflect us back on ourselves and tell us we exist, we are worth something, or we lose our identities if we are in a mass of others; anonymous, corporate, overwhelmed by the babble.’

Gaby was old enough to understand that hers was the fear of the annihilation of the crowd. In solitude, in this place among the elements, she existed. To go would be to join the mass. That was the nature of her dilemma.

‘Give me a sign,’ she said. Insects whirred. She flicked them away from her face and long, straight mahogany hair. So many stars. The dark-adapted eye can see four thousand stars on a clear night. A constellation crossed heaven: an aircraft, following the line of the coast in to the City Airport.

It was not a sign.

A cluster of lights moved against the far side of the lough. A night-ferry, decks aglow.

It was not a sign either.

Saturn and its moons were still under the horizon, beyond the hills of Scotland. That was the thing that most exemplified Marky. Mysteries that would inspire anyone with a functioning sense of wonder were happening out there. To Marky they were too far away, too small to be seen with the naked eye: irrelevant. How many times had she told him he had no soul? The biggest question occupying him was whether Gaby would let him get his hand down the front of her jeans. She felt pity for people who were never touched by things greater than themselves.

‘Come on, dogs.’ They appeared out of the darkness, eager for something to be happening at last. ‘We’re going back.’

She poured yellow sand over the embers of her fire and walked back to the house beneath the brilliant stars. The dogs went streaking out before her, catching the scent of home.

In the living room that looked out over the harbour, Reb was curled comfortably on the sofa, half-watching the Sunday night sports results on the television while she stitched at her tapestry. It was a monumental work: a map of the zodiac eight feet long. Cats purred, nested in the blue and gold folds of Capricorn and Aries. She had been at it six months, it would take another six to complete at her rate of a sign per month. Gaby admired her youngest sister’s dedication to long, exacting tasks. In many ways, Rebecca was the best of them.

‘Two nil,’ Reb said without looking up from the needlepoint. ‘They lost.’

‘Shit,’ said Gaby McAslan.

‘Marky left a message on the machine.’

‘Double shit. I’m making coffee. You want?’

‘Hannah’s in the kitchen tacklin’ with one of her wee Christian boyfriends.’

‘Thrice shit. Dad?’

‘Upstairs, trying to get a look at what’s going on out at Saturn.’

‘Anything about it?’

‘Some boffins on the news just now with some new theory or something. I’d be more bothered about two nil.’

‘Season’s young yet.’

‘Gab.’

She stopped, hand on the door-frame where all their heights had been scratched indelibly with a steel ruler and pair of dividers.

‘You should have better than Marky. Dump him before he dumps you.’

Strange, wise child. Four years separated them, but Gaby was more kin to Reb than Hannah, the middle sister who had spent most of her life on a long and solitary search for belonging. Playgroup, Gym Club, Brownies, Guides, school choirs, sports teams, and now a multitude of little Christian groups that kept her running from meeting to meeting. Sound theology, Gaby thought. If they stay too long in one place they might start having ideas about sex.

What would the small-group leaders have to say about the mystery out at Iapetus? Something to do with the end of the world, probably.

The Watchhouse was the best kind of house in which to grow up. It had enough windings and twinings and crannyings for privacy and enough openings to the seascapes outside to draw you out when you felt you were curling in on yourself. These qualities met in the Weather Room. Tradition in the village was that each generation of occupants add something permanent to the Watchhouse. The previous resident had built the new dining room that smelled of beeswaxed wood panelling and had views on its three sides of harbour, headland and open sea. The current resident had put his contribution directly on top of it. It was a kind of conservatory-cum-observatory-cum-study-cum-wizard’s den. Glass walls gave unparalleled panoramas of the coastline on both sides of the lough. You felt like you were standing on the bridge of a stone ship with waves breaking on your rocky bows. In autumn the storm spray would drench the windows and the wind would howl under the eaves and wrench at the chimney pots and satellite dish and then you were Vanderdecken flying forever with his crew of the damned into the eye of the eternal hurricane.

‘Two nil, Gab.’

‘I know. Reb told me.’

Her father sucked his teeth in mock regret, shook his head. At least tonight he was not playing those terrible punk records of his from the 1970s. ‘Golden years,’ he would insist. Every generation reckons the music of the time when it gains social mobility to be the golden years.

‘Give me a hand with this.’

They dragged the telescope on its stand to the open window. It was a good telescope; the best you could buy for the money. That had always been her father’s way, to buy good, to buy expensive, but never to buy indiscriminately. It was one piece of parental wisdom his daughters had learned. A still-unsolved domestic mystery was how he always had vastly more money than his many little occupations – a spot of wardenship, a bit of writing, a little boat chartering – could account for.

‘Marky left a message.’

Gaby hoped he could see her grimace in the dark room. The only light was from the monitors.

‘How did he look?’

‘Rudolph Valentino plays Jilted Nobility. Here, click on this, would you?’

The lower screen displayed co-ordinates for the seventeenth moon of Saturn. The upper showed a videostill of what remained of Iapetus’s brightside.

‘Is that from Hubble?’

Her father nodded.

‘Those must be costing you a penny or two.’

‘They’re handing them out free. Loss-leader to get new subscribers to the Astronomy Net. It’s not every day a moon goes black.’

Gaby moved the mouse. The screen flashed at her. The telescope moved on its computer-controlled mounting. Gaby’s father bent to the eyepiece.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’d be much better off with the pictures from Hubble. All you’ll get on that is a white dot that suddenly vanishes when it drops below resolving power.’

‘Sometimes I’m ashamed to think I raised such an unromantic creature as you, Gabriel McAslan. If full occultation is tonight, I want to witness it with my own naked and bloodshot eyeball.’

‘So have they decided if it’s Interior Vulcanism or Black Snow?’

‘The money’s on Black Snow, but I don’t buy it. Where does this space-snow come from all of a sudden? How does it get round the trailing side of the satellite? And why is it building up symmetrically on all sides? If you read the bulletin boards you’ll get theories from alien redevelopment to God with a pot of cosmic black paint. Everything’s a racing certainty until the NASA probe gets there in 2008, no one’s going to have a clue.’

Gaby looked through the telescope. She hoped her father would not smell the woodsmoke in her hair. As a precaution, she had changed her T-shirt. It was the one with the masturbating nun on it. She loved it, though her father disapproved of her wearing it around younger and impressionable sisters. She adjusted the eyepiece. At the age of eighteen she could find her way around the solar system better than the capital of her own province. In the solar system you could not end up with the wrong name in the wrong district. No one sprayed Iochaid Ar La on the slopes of Olympus Mons or painted the edges of the craters on the moon red white and blue.

The enigma of Iapetus with its dark and light hemispheres had fascinated generations of astronomers, science fiction writers and lovers of mysteries. The Voyager missions had only deepened the mystery. Hubble had squinted Saturnwards and added a few more lightside features to the atlases of the solar system but nothing to the Casini Regio debate. The new generation of big orbital telescopes had turned away from planetary astronomy to the grandeur of star birth and star death among the glowing gas sheets of the inner galaxy. With them went the professional star-watchers. The celestial back yard was left for the amateurs to play in. It was an Italian postman and part-time planet-spotter who noticed that there seemed to be less of the brightside of Iapetus than the last time he had looked at it. He had logged his observations into the astronomy nets. They had lain gathering data-dust for almost a month; then, when they began to provoke gossip, had drawn professional ridicule until someone had the courage to sneak a peek with the Mauna Kea reflector at the Saturnian System.

While the professionals bickered and prevaricated, sixty per cent of Iapetus’s surface had turned black. This could not now be ignored. Projects were cancelled, time slots reassigned, funding found. Hubble and her sisters were swung back to Saturn. What they saw out there made lead lines in every primetime news slot. It was not so much that Iapetus was turning black, it was how it was turning black. The dark was closing in equally on all sides: the circle of bright white ice was dwindling like a focused-down spotlight.

Ten days later, all that remained was a white dot fifty kilometres across, threatened on all sides by the dark. Someone had calculated that the black was advancing across Iapetus at ten kilometres per hour.

The upper monitor displayed the nature of the catastrophe. NASA had overlain the dark disc with a topographic map. Iapetus’s surface features were named after figures from the Song of Roland. Roland himself had been among the first to fall; his soul-friend Oliver and mighty King Charlemagne not long after. The battle-plain of Roncevaux was taken; only Hamon stood against the encircling dark. Soon he too would fall and there would be no heroes any more.

‘What is that stuff?’ Gaby whispered. The light from the Copeland Islands beamed across the room. She thought of Marky, out there in the night in his car with his friends and his fast food and his expensive stereo playing his cheap music. It is a poor kind of human who is not a little afraid of the powers in the sky. You can hide from them and pretend that they do not exist and limit your life by your ignorance or you can go out from your strong, safe house into the night and call them out and maybe make sense of them to yourself and to the world.

Her father replaced Gaby at the telescope. ‘Thirty kilometres to full occultation,’ he said, fiddling with the eyepiece.

The pictures from Hubble were being updated every thirty seconds. The upper screen abruptly blanked. A new message appeared. Gaby read it.

‘Dad. There’s something here I think you should see.’

‘I think we’re going to miss full occultation. It’ll just be below the horizon. Damn.’

‘Hyperion’s disappeared.’

He was there in an instant.

It was on the screen: a Net-wide bulletin. At 20:35 GMT September 8 2002, researchers using the Miyama Small Object orbital observatory reported the disappearance of Saturn’s sixteenth moon, Hyperion, from their monitors. Instantly. Totally. Inexplicably.

‘Jesus,’ said Gaby’s father, reverently.

‘How can that happen?’ Gaby asked.

‘I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.’

E-mail icons winked into existence along the top of the screen; the informational equivalent of the IrishAstronomical LocalNet shouting all at once.

‘The whole of the moon,’ Gaby said. Fresh information flooded downline from NASA. Voyager fly-by photographs and simulations of Hyperion: a blighted potato of a moonlet three hundred and fifty by two hundred and fifty by two hundred kilometres. Gone. The satellite’s final seconds came through image processing from Miyama control, frame by frame. For twenty frames nothing happened. On frame twenty-one Hyperion seemed to throw off its surface like the peel from an orange. Light glowed from the cracks, fanned from the torn open ridges and dorsae. Frames twenty-two to thirty-two were white. Pure white. Frame thirty-three was nothing. Just space and stars without any sign of the several trillion tons of rocky ice called Hyperion.

Total elapsed time of the moon’s destruction was four point three eight seconds.

The oak door to the Weather Room opened. The dogs came rushing in, running around and wagging their tails. Something had excited them. After them came Rebecca. She looked fearful.

‘It was on the news,’ she said. ‘They interrupted Spitting Image for it.’

‘Nothing left bigger than a hundred metres across,’ Dad read from the screen, ‘or the Small Object Array would have picked it up. They’re trying to tell us it was a cometary impact.’

‘And the next moon out goes black all over?’ Gaby said.

‘I think sensible people should be afraid of this,’ Reb said.

‘Sensible people are,’ her father said. On the monitor Hyperion’s final seconds were repeated, over and over.

They are trusting that they will find answers there, Gaby thought. They are trusting that those answers will make sense, that there are people who can explain why the world constantly surprises them. It does not have to be logical, forgivable or even sane, but eventually explicable in some way or other. That is why you must go away, because you want to be the person who has the answers to the question why?

It was easy now. It was surprising how little decision there was to be made when it came to it. A fire on the Point and the death of a moon had helped her, but she had always known, since she had posted off the application for the Network Journalism course, that in the end she would go. She wanted to tell them she was right and she was ready but her father was showing Reb what all the information coming through the Net meant.

Horace came and stood beside her, beseeching attention. She ruffled the fine, soft hair behind his ear. She pointed out to him the way she would be going; out there, past the lights of the ferry she had seen from the Point, far beyond the glow of the land, beyond even the reach of the lighthouses, to the open sea and the country on the other side of it. But he was only a big tan and white dog with a degenerative nervous disease, who understood nothing.