32: Milky Way
At dinner, the woman were elegantly clothed. The subdued colors of Lauren and Narina’s dresses contrasted with the bright colors of the Latin pair.
A twinge of embarrassment tugged at my ease, my bush khaki’s did not fit in very well.. The women’s air of self- assurance and comfort with opulence suggested they were, all of them, out of my class. But so what, I could hold my own equally well with paupers as with princesses such as these.
During the delicious and well served dinner my conversation was directed mostly to Lauren sitting beside me. Narina was primarily interacting in Spanish with the friends of her father’s friends.
Maybe because she was spurred on by successive glasses of merlot, Lauren had extended her already extroverted friendliness. Her knee bumped and pressed against mine under the table a number of times.
We were talking about how a ssliver of the moon had risen, with its reflection on the waters of the river.
Lauren leaned over towards me and whispered in my ear,”It has been a long time since anyone has shown me the stars.”
I guess it was partially the wine that had her narrowing her eyes at me. “How about it big boy. Show me what a hot shot you are.”
I remembered mentioning my proficiency on the subject.
So, on a whim, I responded by saying that she was sitting next to a stellar maestro who could show as many stars as they could handle.
With my words judiciously couched in the plural, the offer was to all of them, even though hampered by their lack of English I assumed that the two Latin’s would be unlikely to accept my invitation.
Narina would stay on with the Latin’s she said.
Turning to Lauren I suggested that after dinner we meet outside her chalet. Foor her to don comfortable clothing, and bring a blanket.
“Finish your wine.” I said, “I want to show you some star.”
She laughed in excited anticipation. “Wonderful,” she said.
“I present to you the Milky Way!”
There was no need to point out the huge powdery swathe cutting across the sky.
“What you see is an insignificant pittance of stellar dust, swirled into the dotted flatness of its disc, and stretched into countless flecked billions in the galactic spin of its spiraling arms. Beyond that swathe, we are looking from here to eternity, into a space so vast that it encapsulates all of time, where the stardust of creation is stretched out into the eons of infinity.”
I let her take in the majesty of it.
That is our celestial city!”
The rasping wood-saw sound of a leopard came from the tree line behind us. We had spoiled its hunt. On the softer, sweeter grass at the verge of the dambo which attracts the grazing of the puku and impala, there were no antelope. Instead Lauren and I lay side by side on blankets spread on a patch of cropped grass. The middle of the treeless expanse afforded an unobstructed view of the night sky.
“If the heavens have been at the heart of so much of our poetry,” I said, “imagine how much richer it would be had those bards been inspired by these southern skies. Too bad they thought that the world was flat,. They had no idea that their northern view looked out at the galactic suburbs, not back at its shimmering heart.”
“It is so beautiful. You’re right, it looks like the distant lights of a giant city!” The whisper of Lauren’s voice at my side barely rose above the creaking of the crickets in the grass stubble. We lay on our backs looking upwards. I had tucked a fold into the blankets to provide a small cushioning wedge on which to rest our heads. The chirping of the insects mingled with her subdued breathing. We soaked in the heavens.
I swept the beam of my flashlight up into the darkness. “All this heavenliness splashed across the sky, it is where we live in the universe. We have hundreds of billions of neighbors. Everything that you can see with the naked eye is part of our galaxy. “
“I grew up in Africa, and I never paid much attention to the skies.” Lauren was exclaiming in wonder at the revelation above.
“Splashed,” I said, “with such celestial splendor that it is hard to imagine, and even harder to describe. It is a highway across the heavens, a pathway to a visual feast so sumptuous that it seems squandered on us mortals. All of it is held together by a force powerful enough to pull billions of stars, some of them hundreds or thousands of times larger than our son, into a circle in a space which would take a hundred thousand years to cross, even if we could hitch a ride on a lightbeam. On this gigantic cluster we find ourselves on our even smaller forgotten slot two thirds of the way out to nothingness, in the circle of our existence. If we could surfed the light back into the black heart of our galaxy it would still take us twenty six thousand years to get there.”
“This beauty makes me imagine things.” Lauren murmored at my side.
“You are not the only one.” I responded. “The stars have always been the catalyst for ideas. I love the ancient Greek mythical reasoning the most.
If you were one of those ancient philosophers, how could you explain it to a student?
Maybe you could imagine all that mist from the billions of stars is the panted breath of Zeus as it condenses in the frigid heavens. His gasps as he catches his breath following some scoundrel pleasure, maybe from the furious flapping of his swans after seducing Leda, or drenching Danae in the potency of his sunbeams. Or maybe you will tell the lad that it is from a squirt of milk from the full breasts of Hera, after baby Hercules has nipped her nipple.
Too bad we no longer have the imaginative explanations of the Greek Philosophers.
Picking up my heavy bush flashlight I sent its beam up and slightly to the east.
“That region over there, where it is glowing brighter. Somewhere in that glow is the center of our Milky Way.
Our sun has only done a quarter revolution around it since the dinosaurs went extinct sixty million years ago.
I lay quietly next to my intriguing companion listening to the distant trill-sound of a Scops owl, and the five part rise and fall of a Rufous necked nightjar. I hardly knew her, but here she was next to me. I let the magic of it fill my mind.
“Its grandeur and majesty,” I stated, “never fails to fill me with awe. Compared to the rest, this magnificence is just one tiny spec in the even bigger plethora of billions of other galaxies, spread across the universe so far away in time their light is only now reaching us.
But back to ours,” I assumed a lecturing tone, ““Across the Milky Way we see dark patches. Those are massive clouds of dust, where stars are being born. The largest of them all, The Great Rift, hides the center.”
A hyena cut in over the trilling of the crickets with its long eerie wail.
“It is strange how we can have everything laid out before us and we still cannot see how it all ties together, how it is all unified. We still don’t know how to tie Newton’s large to Bohrs” tiny. It’s like here, where I have all the pieces of the puzzle laid out, and I still cannot figure it out. What the heck are a witchcraft man, and Indian gangster, some Russian thugs and a pair of South American dandies doing here?”
“The only thing I can say about alll of that is ‘watch out’!” Lauren stated emphatically. “I am willing to wager that something nefarious is being hatched. Every time I hear that hyena it reminds me of Mustafa.”
We stared into the heavens until a shooting star cut a shimmering trail across the sky.
“Ohh well, at least the heavens have provided me some guidance in the past. Maybe they will in the future.
I directed the beam of my light slightly downriver to point over our toes.
“Do you see those four stars?” I waited until she murmured her acknowledgement.
“That is the Southern Cross. It is the crux of bush navigation.”
The eerie sounding rise and fall of the hyena’s yowl’s once again wafted towards us across the river.
Lauren made quiet appreciative sounds under her breath..
I pointed my beam at a faint red star. “That is Antares. It is a thousand times larger than our sun!”
I wondered if she could grasp the vast loneliness of the heavens she was looking at. I wondered if for her, looking at it out in this remote bush, away from people, enhanced its sense of loneliness, as it did for me.
“Do you realize that we are both teachers.” Lauren said to me. “I like your teaching.”
I listened to her breathing beside me. “Yes” I replied, “But some of what I teach cannot be taught, but it can be learned. I am sure that same is true for you as a woman. So maybe you can teach me what to do.”
I waited until a jackal ended its yimmering.
“It is not about the problems we are having with witchcraft. It is moral murkiness I am unsure of.”
“Hmmm, now you have me curious!” she stated.
“My dilemma is with my best friend, and yours as well.” I said, “A brother and a sister may be falling in love right in front of our eyes. They know about their feelings, but not their relationship..”
I waited. “I saw something which ties my suspicions together. It is bothering me.” I took a deep breath. “Should I say anything to them, or not.”
The sound of the crickets mixed with that of the hyena. Laying swaddled in the stillness of the night I felt the quorum of my teachers all around. Those who had let me learn. Their voices chirped from the grass beside us, and the eeriness of some of their howl still hung in the darkness. But nature’s morality is about practicality, not about righteousness.
What a classroom, full of surprises, I thought, with lessons close enough to touch.
I waited and wondered what she would say.
There was a long silence.
“The answer to your question is as old as Greek Mythology.,” She said, “Maybe it’s a story which one day will become part of Africa’s legend, to explain the ways of this continent to some student wondering how it all fits together.”
She had just ducked the question.
“Next time,” I said, “I will tell you about Aldebron.”
I cut the flash light, returning us to the darkness.
As I did so, I felt a finger delicately touch the back of my hand.