The Coven, Part LX

Conversation and laughter swelled around me, and the Cathedral del Sol was alive with color. Red and white streamers were hung from the stately pipe organ, festoons of green and gold were hung from the previously unadorned balcony, and tapestries of blue, violet, silver and gold were hung on the white walls.

The cathedral already seemed full when Mercy, Sister Love and I arrived with large boxes of decorations. The men from the pilgrim’s quarters had volunteered to bring them, but the boxes had been stored in a shed that lay too near the tower for Abbess Joy to allow general admission, so the men had to content themselves with meeting us at the door to help us bear the boxes inside.

I had never seen the cathedral so full of people. I generally avoided prayer services, and would only approach the cathedral when I was certain few pilgrims would be present, such as a choir practice or to hear Celeste play the organ. Even though there was no service planned, many pilgrims had come to watch the decorations go up, and some were helping the sisters.

When I walked inside, a muscular young man detached himself from his party and came toward me, holding out his hands as though to take the heavy box. Then he paused abruptly- his eyes fixed on my uncovered face.

“It’s alright,” I said quietly. “I’m not a sister. I haven’t taken any vows to veil myself.”

“They say- they say that you are…” His face went red and his voice seemed to fail him. He turned and fled into the crowd without another word.

A tall bearded man had been watching this exchange, his eyebrows raised in interest. When the young man fled, the bearded man stepped forward and took his place.

“Well met, my Lady,” he said with a gallant bow. As he stooped forward, a silver pendant slipped from under his collar and swung freely to his chest, bearing the same symbol Miss Taris had worn. He took hold of the pendant and held it up for me to see, placing a finger to the side of his nose. Then he slipped it back into his robes.

I tried in vain to shield the surprise from my face. The bearded man’s pale eyes twinkled with laughter.

“Please accept my apologies on behalf of that cowardly young man,” the bearded man said. “Not all of us pay heed to the rumors.”

“I am not at all surprised that people are whispering about me,” I said as the man took the box from me. “Thank you, Mr-”

“I beg your pardon- I have you at a disadvantage. I am Resolve Wilcox, at your service.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wilcox.”

Mr. Wilcox tried to bow again, but made an awkward job of it as he was still carrying the box. I reached out to steady the box, and we continued.

“Where do you want this box, my Lady?”

“The Abbess said it should be placed near the altar. I believe it contains the large candelabras.”

“I can well believe it, considering the weight of this box. I am surprised a lady such as yourself was able to carry it so far.”

“I am stronger than I look,” I said.

“I daresay you are. Still, you should not have to bear so much.” He place the box down near the altar, and then turned to bow low to me, again.

“We stand behind you and your excellent husband, my Lady. If you need any assistance in the future, ask for me, or look for this symbol,” he tapped his chest, where the pendant was hidden. “It is an honor to bear your burden.”

I blinked, unable to think of what to say to such a declaration.

He smiled, his eyes twinkling again. “May the light of wisdom guide you through the chaos, my Lady.”

Then he turned and walked back into the crowd.

“I’ve never heard it said that way,” I heard Celeste say. I turned to see that she was sitting nearby, tying colored ribbons around white candles. “It’s usually ‘may light guide you through the chaos.”

“Indeed it is. People seem to be discussing wisdom very often, lately.”

“Wisdom is a good thing.” Celeste paused and bit her lip in concentration as she straightened a bow. “Miss Taris says that there is not enough wisdom in the world, and that most people are fools.”

Prudence climbed up to the altar with her arms full of unadorned candles, laughing under her veil.

“Please don’t listen to Miss Taris. I do not look forward to your adolescence if you allow yourself to become so cynical at almost eleven.”

Celeste ignored the remark and turned to me. “My birthday is on Chaosmas eve. I thought everyone in the world celebrated my birthday, when I was a child.”

“When you were a child?” Prudence dropped the candles in a heap near Celeste with a sigh. “I give up; it’s already begun.”

Celeste shot Prudence a glare that showed she was not amused, and then pressed a basket of decorated candles into her mother’s hands.

“These are ready- you need to place one in the sconce at the end of each pew.”

“Yes ma’am,” Prudence said with a mock bow as she took the basket.

Prudence turned away with her candles, accidentally hitting another sister in the process.

“I beg your pardon, Sis-” Prudence began, but the Sister ran past without a word, and Prudence was left staring after her in astonishment.

“Finish with the candles- I will see what is wrong,” I said, and turned to follow the Sister.

The Sister moved so quickly that I almost lost her in the crowd, but everyone who saw me moved aside quickly to let me pass. As soon as I was outside, I spotted her running back toward the Abbey.

“Wait- please slow down,” I called.

The sister paused on the road, and then turned back to me. She threw back her veil, revealing Innocence’s face.

“Well,” she said, “what do you want?”

“You ran through the Cathedral without even noticing Sister Jubilee,” I said. “What is the

matter?”

“You may keep your concerns to yourself. I have recently learned a hard lesson; friendship is false,” she sneered.

“What happened?” I persisted.

Innocence turned away and walked a few paces before turning back to me, as though unsure of what to do next.

“I thought I would hide myself away from the Pilgrims as you usually do,” Innocence said. “You are wiser than I am.”

“Have the pilgrims recognized you? If you are being harassed-”

“No- no one would care who I was even if I removed my veil in the cathedral and shouted my name aloud. I’ve lost all of my importance since I left St. Blanc. I’m nothing extraordinary. There are other pilgrims here who are in my position- some of the Prince’s former favorites who have fled. They bring tales about the Prince’s madness and worse- evil omens.”

“Evil omens?” I said. “Of what nature?”

“According to the rumors, the horoscope that Father Pius drew for the Prince’s coronation contains a sign of war and destruction. It’s all superstition and nonsense, of course, but I would rather not hear such stories, anymore. I’ve thrown my life away because of stories.”

Innocence turned again and walked away. I began to follow, but was distracted by a clatter on the road behind me. The sound grew louder, and  I turned to see a huge, canvas-covered caravan approaching, followed by a small wagon.

I stepped forward, drawn to the caravan by curiosity. Soon it was close enough for me to recognize the person who drove it.

“Mr. Filius!”

I waved at him, and then ran to meet him as the caravan clattered to a stop.

“Well, this is a welcome sight!” Mr. Filius called. He jumped down from the box and

shook my hand warmly. “I am relieved, Lady Frey, to find you looking so well.”

“I owe that to my friends,” I said, “and I’m glad to meet another friend here.”

The small wagon rolled to a stop behind Mr. Filius’s carriage, and a familiar young man descended from the box.

“I believe you’ve met my other apprentice, Honest,” Mr. Filius said, gesturing to the young man, who bowed cordially. “Of course, he will soon be a journeyman.”

“Is that so?” I turned to Honest, who wore a sheepish grin. “Congratulations.”

Mr. Filius turned to wave at a small crowd of pilgrims that were gathering at the cathedral door to gape at the strange sight of the caravan. Honest drew me behind the mound of canvas, away from their eyes.

“I haven’t polished my work,” he said in a low voice, “and I still have to present my findings to the guild, but I’ve completed the task Mr. Filius set for me.”

“I wish you luck with all of my heart, and if you need any assistance-”

Honest laughed a little. “Mr. Filius hasn’t let me forget that your admittance depends on my work. But I am as glad to accept your help as you are to give it, I imagine.” His smile faded a little as he regarded me with his wide, ernest eyes. “Lady Frey, is there any way I can assist you?”

“You have not turned away from me. You have not called me a witch or the devil’s whore. It is help enough that you shake my hand and meet me as a friend.”

“Lady Frey! Lady Frey!” I heard Celeste call from the other side of the caravan without restraint. “Do look at the caravan. What could be inside?”

Honest and I went to see that Celeste already being scolded away from the caravan by Prudence. Mr. Filius, however,  knelt by Celeste with a good natured chuckle.

“You aren’t the only one who is curious about my cargo. I was stopped on the road three times on the way from the hill country.”

“Oh!” Celeste said excitedly. “Did you have to fight bandits?”

“No no- my girl. The roads are much safer lately for uninteresting travelers. Inquisitors stopped us, instead”

“Inquisitors?” Prudence stepped forward.

“Oh yes. They had a mind to search the whole caravan, but each time they grew tired of searching after the first five layers of canvas.”

Abbess Joy came through the gathering crowd. “It’s so good to see you here again, Mr. 

Filius,” she said warmly.

“It is good to be here, Abbess,” Mr. Filius said with a nod of respect.

“There is still room in the stables. Where did you mean to take the…” she gestured to the mound of canvas on the caravan.

“To the field behind the abbey, if that is alright.”

Abbess Joy nodded her consent. “If you will excuse us- we have had a hard day’s work. Lady Frey and Sister Jubilee, please join me in my office for tea.” She gave Mr. Filius with a significant look. “I trust I will see you soon.”

Mr. Filius nodded again, and then climbed back onto the box. He drove the caravan away, taking a crowd of curious onlookers with him, as Abbess Joy led the way back to the abbey.

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The Coven, Part LIX

Once upon a time, a Prince ruled an enchanted kingdom of eternal summer.

This Prince lived in a beautiful palace, and he had everything his heart desired. Not only did he have the best food and drink, the most devoted servants, and the finest clothes, but he was married to the cleverest and most beautiful Princess in the kingdom. The Princess bore the Prince  a beloved daughter, and it seemed as though this family’s happiness was complete.

The Prince had a brother who ruled a nearby kingdom- the land of eternal winter. The brother watched the Prince’s sunny kingdom with envious eyes year after year, as the enchanted winter grew so cold that his heart froze.

One day the brother sent a gift to the Prince; a beautiful rosebush full of scarlet roses. This rosebush, however, had been enchanted by an evil fairy so that as soon as the bush was planted in the royal garden a cold wind blew in from the north, and snow began to fall.

The snow killed all of the beautiful flowers in the royal garden except for the rose, which grew larger and larger until the whole palace was encased in a cage of thorns. The Prince sought help from his wisest advisors, who told him that he must cut down the rosebush at the root. The Prince took his mightiest sword in hand and attempted to cut his way through the cage of thorns , but the iron sword broke as soon as it struck the vine.

At that moment, the Prince heard a cry from the heavens, and he looked up to see an eagle swooping toward him. The eagle easily slipped through the thorns to land at the Prince’s feet, where it dropped a single quill.

The Prince picked up the quill and struck at the vines, and the quill cut them away as easily as an iron sword cuts through silk.

The Prince thanked the eagle and bid his wife and child farewell, promising them that he would set them free. Then he set off through the dense tangle of vines, seeking the rose’s root, always dreaming of the day when he will return to his family and his home.

 

In a strange way, Hope’s letter to Celeste hurt more to read than the letter he’d written to me. I had expected to see raw anguish in his letter to me- it was proper that he would show me his pain. However, the fairy tale he’d written for Celeste, which he’d said he’d written to amuse, was a poor disguise for his current struggle. I briefly considered keeping it from Celeste, but the determination he’d expressed in the final lines gave me pause, and since Prudence expressed no concern in allowing Celeste to read it, I held my tongue.

I watched Celeste’s face very carefully as she read. We had sought privacy on a rock near the abbey that overlooked the dunes. The spot proved a good choice; the sun was bright, and wind was so mild that the paper barely ruffled in Celeste’s hands. Celeste’s eyes narrowed a little, as if she were trying to make out the tale’s meaning, and then she smiled.

“Isn’t it funny that Uncle Hope has been thinking of the same fairy tale that I have? I like his version better than any I’ve read.”

“What fairy tale do you mean?” Prudence asked.

“It’s the story of King Uriel, of course.”

“This doesn’t seem like the same story,” Prudence said thoughtfully. “There are two brothers and an eagle, and there the similarities end.”

“What about the rose?” Celeste cried. “The eagle fought the rose in Uriel’s song- the one from the book of verse Lady Frey read with me,”

Prudence shrugged. “Roses appear in many fairy tales. There are so many symbols that appear again and again in fairy tales, that if you pick out every similar detail you will find they are all the same. The story’s plot is different from King Uriel’s tale, and that is the most important thing.”

Celeste sighed. “I think the stories are similar. The Prince’s brother was envious, after all.”

Prudence paused, and then spoke in a lower, wistful voice. “Your Uncle Hope is a talented spinner of tales, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read one of his stories. I’d rather enjoy his creativity for what it is.”

Celeste’s insight had set my mind in motion, and against Prudence’s advice I found myself drawing lines between clues that seemed connected to a much larger plot. I could not, however, bring myself to disagree with Prudence aloud. I was too torn between tenderness and envy to speak, and I wouldn’t have disturbed her recollections for anything-especially to start an argument over a half-formed conjecture.

“Uncle Hope said that he knew you,” Celeste said to Prudence. “You must have been very good friends, just like Uncle Hope and Uncle Just were.”

“Yes- we were all great friends,” Prudence said.

“I wish we could have all stayed together,” Celeste said. “I told Brother Lux to stop the inquisition- to make it go away- but he said it wasn’t easy. I’ve made up my mind that I won’t call him Uncle Lux again until he makes the inquisition stop.”

She slipped down from the rock and turned toward the calefactory. “I’m going to write my letter. Would you like me to say anything from you, Mother?”

“You know why that’s impossible, Celeste. I must remain a secret,” Prudence whispered.

“One moment, Celeste,” I jumped down from the rock and followed her a ways to the calefactory, leaving Prudence behind us. “There is one more thing- when you write your letter, don’t mention King Uriel.”

Celeste groaned. “You don’t think the stories are the same, either?”

“If your Uncle Hope wrote the story on his own, you might hurt his feelings by comparing it to another.” I winced inwardly at the ease with which I was lying to Celeste, but she did not seem to notice.

“That makes sense- he might not have meant to take things from the other story,” Celeste said. “I don’t need to talk about King Uriel; I have so many other things to tell Uncle Hope.”

She smiled a little to herself as she skipped toward the calefactory, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

 

#

 

I had thought my last two letters to Hope were difficult to write, but this one was infinitely worse. I possessed one piece of information that would bring him joy in his moment of despair, but I could not convey it. The inquisition was reading all of my letters, and if they found any hint that Prudence was alive, Lux wouldn’t be able to protect her any more.

I spent the second day of Lux’s stay composing my letter to Hope, and when the sun set and it was time for me to meet with Mercy, the letter still wasn’t complete. I tucked the parchment into my pocket and went to meet her, unsatisfied.  

Mercy and I sparred in the open, and even though Lux had already seen us fight once, and no doubt he had heard reports of Mercy’s lessons from Miss Taris, he still watched our practice carefully. When we were done, Lux bowed slightly to Mercy and then left without a word.

I took advantage of his absence to slip away to the tower. I climbed up the the observatory, turned the crank to open the roof, and gazed up into the clear sky for a few moments. A strange feeling welled up within me, as though I were surprised that the stars were still present and still following their courses even as Hope sat in his underground cell.

I allowed the feeling wash over me, and then I went to the telescope.

Lystra was setting in the west, and I had just enough time to plot its position, which was refined by the powerful instrument. The image was clear and bright, free of any features, and I realized that the features I’d seen on Lystra through my own instrument might have only been an illusion- a fuzzy shadow imposed by my imperfect eyes when they looked through the weaker instrument.

I sketched what I saw in my observation book, and then Lystra sank below the horizon and I could examine it no further. I sighed heavily, laid my book aside, and closed my eyes in thought.

The instrument I viewed Lystra through was more powerful than mine, yes, but perhaps I could no longer see features because Lystra was brighter, and the brightness washed away all of the features. I remembered that there had been various eyepieces and filters for the telescope stored in the laboratory, so I stood to close the roof before I left to find them. As I touched the crank, however, I heard a voice behind me.

“Leave it open, if you please,” Abbess Joy said. “I would like to continue stargazing.”

I spun around and saw a glint of golden hair shining in the starlight. Abbess Joy was sitting on the edge of the platform, very near where I had been moments before.

“Abbess Joy- I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I turned out the lights below before I came up- I didn’t want to disturb you,” Abbess Joy said. “I didn’t have to be very quiet. You were very absorbed in your work.”

“I suppose I was,” I said with a laugh.

“I wish to speak with you alone,”Abbess Joy continued. “I am willing to wait until you have finished.”

“I don’t believe I will ever be finished, but I have reached a good place to pause,” I said.

Abbess Joy smiled a tight, thin smile. “Perhaps I worry too much. I have worried about you since you were born- if you were eating enough, if you would hurt yourself when you learned to tottle, if you were happy… when you were taken, there was no end to what I worried about. The worry was so great that I sent spies to watch you.”

She looked up at me with an almost sheepish expression that seemed out of place among her perfect, regal features.

“You spied on me? How?”

“There was always a Sister in your father’s employ. For some time it was the downstairs maid, and when she left the order, the scullery maid-”

“Sister Meek!” I said. “I have only seen her without her veil twice, but she looked strikingly familiar. I couldn’t quite place her, though, and when she caught me staring, she pulled down her veil.”

Abbess Joy laughed a little. “She was worried you would be cross when you discovered it. Please reassure her, when you get the chance.”

“I will.”

Abbess Joy nodded and resumed her story. “The Sisters told me that you did not get along with your father, and that you were lonely, but that you were healthy and very bright. When I learned Lord Ainsworth’s scheme to marry you to Lord Frey, I had a fresh source of worry- that you would be trapped in a loveless marriage. I never dreamed that you would fall in love with Lord Frey.”

“Nor did I,” I said. “But I think that was good for me. I quarreled with Lord Frey- I learned to stand up for myself. When we finally became friends, conflict resolved itself into passion.”

“Grace-” Abbess Joy said. “Prudence is not here, and you need not worry that you will offend me if you say anything of your true feelings. It does seem rational that, since you both love Lord Frey, you are natural allies in the quest to free him. But humans are not rational beings.”

“My feelings are not at all rational,” I said. “I should feel threatened by Prudence. I should be envious of what she shared with Lord Frey. Perhaps I would feel that way if I hadn’t become her friend before I learned the truth. I must admit that I feel some envy, but…”

I had to stop, take a breath, and reorder my thoughts. “I think you imagine that I’m trying to be selfless, but that isn’t the case. In truth, I am as jealous of Prudence’s friendship as I am of Hope’s love. I’ve already lost so much that I -”

My breath caught, and I choked a little on the tears that threatened to rise up within me. But the tears quickly faded away, and I was able to breathe once more. I looked down at my hands, and Abbess Joy placed her own pale, perfect hand over my small brown one.

“One day you will have confront what you are willfully ignoring. You must know that Prudence still loves Lord Frey. If Lord Frey is freed, he will have to choose between you.”

“Of course I know,” I said, snatching my hand back, “but I cannot think of it, now. I can’t bear the thought of losing either of them. All I can do is concentrate all of my energy toward freeing Hope.”

“Remember,” Abbess Joy said in a small voice, “that you have other friends. You will not be alone, no matter what happens. I can help you, if the burden becomes too great.”

My cheeks burned with shame at the hurt in her voice. “I’m sorry that I spoke to you so disrespectfully. You’ve been nothing but kind to me, and your concerns are…”

Abbess Joy did not respond to my apology. Instead she stood, removed her cloak, and draped it around my shoulders. “You shouldn’t remain exposed so long at this time of year. You must be cold.”

“My cloak is sufficient,” I protested. “Please, don’t freeze yourself on my account.”

“Don’t worry,” Abbess Joy said. “I can endure it.”

 

#

 

Dear Hope,

I’m writing this letter to you by the dim light of a red lamp so that the jewels of heaven remain bright above me. Lystra has just set, but in the east Nergal is rising, and Tigris is close to its apogee. The cat and the virgin’s cradle glitter in the north and south against the black curtain of night.

Even though you cannot see the stars, they are all still here, rising and setting in their procession far away from our human cares. Similarly, the sun still rises each morning, washing out the stars and flooding the world with light. The sea and the air and the creatures of earth are all still here, playing the litany of their days.

The flame you kindled within me still burns. I’m fighting for you, and I will continue to fight as sure as the sun and the stars still rise. Celeste is learning and growing more every day, and we are awaiting the day that you are freed, and we are reunited.

 

I lay the parchment flat on the floor and let the glistening ink dry as I closed the observatory roof. Then I gingerly picked it up and opened the trapdoor to descend the tower.

I was hit by a rush of warm air, which set my numb skin tingling. It had an intoxicating effect, like the steam from a hot bath, or a long drink of mulled wine, and I had to steady myself for a moment before I continued to descend.

As I’d expected, I found Prudence in the laboratory. She was perched on her usual stool, staring into one of the shining devices. Her black book lay open to an empty page beside her.

“I saw Miss Taris on my way here,” Prudence said without looking up. “She asked me where you were, and I said I didn’t know. You will need to compose your own alibi when you see her.”

“Thank you- I will retire soon,” I said distractedly. “Prudence…”

I paused, unsure of how to continue. An idea had come to me after my talk with Abbess Joy- an idea even more foolish than my rejection of her concerns. I recognized I was succumbing to impulse, just as Prudence had warned me, but I was unable to resist. I longed to give something to my husband, who was suffering alone. I longed to give something to my best friend, who had once suffered the same. I could think of nothing else.

Prudence looked up from her device and raised an expectant eyebrow, and when I still said nothing, she spoke.

“Before you go, I would like to show you something,” she said. She stood and gestured for me to sit on the stool in her place.

“This device is called a microscope,” she continued as I sat. “Do you know how it works?”

“I’ve only read a brief description,” I said, remembering the letter Mr. Filius had written. “It is somewhat like a telescope, from what I understand, only used to examine the infinitesimal.”

Prudence nodded encouragingly, and I looked into the eyepiece. I was unable to make out what I saw. There were hundreds of little pink spots, lit by a light from behind. There were a few larger spots between the pink ones, and here and there a shining, silvery star.

“I’m afraid I don’t have an opinion to offer,” I said at length. “I have no idea what I’m seeing.”

“This is a sample of normal, healthy human blood. The small red spots are called ‘cells,’ and the little stars are a type of animalcule that dwell in human blood and appear to be quite harmless.

She slid a glass pane from the instrument, and the spots disappeared. Then she slid a second pane in place of the first, and I saw another multitude of pink spots. I examined the spots for a few moments- they seemed the same size and color, and there were still a few large spots between them. I did not see any silvery stars between the spots, however. The stars were instead dark, and their shape twisted and distorted.

“These animalcules- are they dead?” I asked.

“I don’t know; I’ve never seen anything like this, even in samples taken from those who are ill. I don’t know what function the animalcules serve in the human body, if any; you are healthy in every other respect.”

“Me? Then- this is my blood?” I looked back up at Prudence’s earnest face.

“Yes. Aside from normal fatigue, you haven’t been experiencing any unusual symptoms, have you?”

“No- none at all.”

“And your diet?”

“I eat nothing more than what is served in the refectory.”

Prudence sighed heavily and sat on the stool next to me. “I’ll have to do more research. At least I’ve finally found a physiological difference- all of your other samples were normal.”

“I am not surprised that this is the only difference you’ve found. Even though I’d never been much in society before my marriage, I’ve always felt normal. The only indication that I am different is my ability to resist magic, which is hardly something that will manifest in everyday life.”

Prudence nodded, her wide blue eyes gazing past me in a distracted way. “I understand what you mean. Before my parents told me, and showed me my family’s writ of condemnation, I never had any clue that I was damned. I’d have thought that I would be marked in some way, or suffer from some sort of curse from birth, but I always felt normal.”

““I suspect that the one common thread between us- considering your condemnation and my lack of soul- lies in the High Priest’s seal. While you conduct your research, I’ll try to find some clue about how it works.”

Prudence turned her distracted gazed back to me, as though she had just returned from the past to the present, and gave me a wry smile. “I wish you more luck on that subject than I have had.”

I thanked her, and then fell into silence, still unsure on how to breach the subject of my visit.

“Grace?”

“I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I might as well do it awkwardly. Prudence, write something for Hope, and I will include it in my letter.” I took a blank piece of parchment and a pen from the edge of the table and pushed it toward her.

“Grace- that isn’t possible. You know why it isn’t possible,” she whispered, backing away from the paper slightly as though afraid.

“You don’t have to tell him that it’s you. I’ll copy it by hand into my letter, and no one will know.”

“Then why include my message at all?” Prudence looked back up at me, bewildered.

“Even if he doesn’t know it’s yours, at least he’ll have the message,” I said. “It’s not much, but it is better than nothing at all.”

Prudence reach out slowly and touched the parchment.

“Grace- I don’t know what to say to him. After I left, and after so many years have passed, we are strangers.”

“You understand what he’s going through better than anyone,” I urged. “You grew up with him. Just tell him how you feel.”

Prudence slid the parchment closer to herself.

“I will need time,” she said softly.

“Lux will be here until week’s end. I’ve finished my portion of the letter, and it will not take long for me to copy your portion, so take as much time as you need.”

Prudence stared at the blank parchment for a few more moments, and then she pulled me into an embrace. She did not speak, and for that I was grateful.

Part LX

Santa Claus and Modest Epistemology

 

There are four kinds of children. The first kind never believe in Santa Claus, the second kind believe at first and then work out the truth about Santa Claus for themselves, and the third kind continue believing until someone else reveals the truth.

The fourth kind of child makes an honest attempt to question the Santa Claus paradigm, utterly fail in their reasoning, and never understand where they went wrong until they are 37 and Eliezer Yudkowsky writes a book called “Inadequate Equilibria.

I think I may be the only person in the last category. If not, I hope you find this enlightening. If so, I hope you at least find this entertaining.

 

#

 

When I was five or six years old, I began to question the Santa Claus paradigm for the usual reasons. I had a rough idea of the size of the world- namely that is was really big– and I understood the difficulty with a single man visiting every house in the world in a single night. My own father was a pilot, and I was familiar with how long it would take for him just to go to Little Rock and back in a learjet. Even considering the fact that many people don’t have children, and many children don’t celebrate christmas, it seemed like an impossible task. My parents and my sister explained that Santa solved this problem using magic.

My second problem was a petty one, but it was still a problem. I knew many children at school who were not only naughty- they were huge jerks, and all of them got what they wanted for Christmas. In fact, many of them would brag very loudly about what they got for Christmas, and why it was better than what everyone else got. In the back of my mind, I excused this as their parents being nice enough to take the coal out of the jerk’s stocking and replacing it with a present that they’d bought before the kid woke up.

More troubling, the adults around me would often tell me about the importance of charity and of remembering those who were less fortunate during Christmas. But if Santa Claus was real and had magic powers to enable his generosity, why didn’t he bring poor children all of the clothes, food, money, and even toys they would need for the entire year?

(I’m not the only one who was troubled by this. Watch this- it is the best Christmas movie ever made.)

 

Soon, even the magical explanation for Santa’s impossible Christmas journey began to crumble. My own experiments with magic had not yielded any fruit. I was unable levitate objects by snapping my fingers, twitching my nose, or concentrating very hard. I wasn’t able to curse people no matter how angry I got. I poured salt in my bath water, but this did not give me a mermaid tail. (I was a big fan of the movie Splash.)

Anyone reading this may think that, at this point, I was one step away from rejecting the Santa hypothesis. However, when I sat down and thought about the problem, my brain argued that there were a lot of big, smart grownups who endorsed Santa Claus, and not just my parents. There were grownups who made movies about why we should believe in Santa Claus (like Miracle on 34th street.) There were grownups who used satellites to track the progress of Santa’s sleigh on TV every Christmas Eve. Santa Claus himself was in the Macy’s parade every year, and then he went on a tour of the nations malls to gather intelligence about all the children. Sure, there was the odd grownup who did not seem to believe, but my parents explained that these grownups were merely “grumps” and “grinches” who were unhappy, and therefore wanted to ruin Christmas for everyone else.

In the end, I decided that even though Santa Claus seemed unlikely, the idea would require a worldwide conspiracy to perpetuate (I didn’t have this vocuabulary at Five. What I actually thought was ‘everyone in the whole world would have to be in on it.’) Really- a worldwide conspiracy, just to trick me into believing in a jolly man who brought presents? Yeah, right. Even if I, a little five year old, didn’t understand magic, all of those big smart grownups probably did.

I will usually joke, at this point in the story, that when I found out about Santa Claus I almost became a conspiracy theorist. Becoming paranoid was obviously not the correct lesson to draw from Santa Claus, but if not, where did five year old me go wrong?

 

#

 

My First mistake was that I didn’t question the system that produced the Santa Claus story. I assumed that the only reason for creating the worldwide conspiracy would be just to trick me, and I didn’t consider that it was me and every other 2-10 year old (roughly.) I didn’t consider that one of the reasons why everyone might go along with this is that they were incentivized to tell children about Santa Claus. It is really fun to tell young children fantastic stories and have them believe it. In retrospect, I should have realized the incentive to trick gullible kids for fun- I did have an older sister, after all. I also failed to consider how many people follow traditions without ever questioning why, but I give myself a pass for this one. I had no idea grownups did that at even seven years old (when I was told the awful truth.)

My second mistake was not assigning a low enough prior probability on magic. I assumed magic a priori, and left my experiments to disprove the magical hypothesis. This made me accept very weak evidence for magic, such as rudolph’s teeth marks in the carrot we’d left beside the cookies and egg nog for Santa. The teeth marks seemed too large to belong to my Dad, but if I’d examined them more closely I’d have seen they were the same size. Even if the tooth marks had been too big, it would have been easy to fake. Finding a mechanism for magic, however, was impossible. Magic is, by definition, that which has no mechanism. Because of this, the improbability of magic should have had a much larger weight in my mind, and not only were my failed magical experiments enough- they were more than sufficient to invalidate the hypothesis.

My final mistake was that I was terrified to test the null hypothesis. I wasn’t just afraid of getting no presents, I had grandparents after all, but I was afraid of being naughty. I conceived of myself as a nice girl- not the kind of girl who dares to question nice men who give you presents every year and only ask that you mind your parents and not bother him. The type of people who question Santa are mean grinches. I did not want to be a mean grinch.

Even though the final mistake is the most difficult for me to correct, even now, I don’t give my younger self a pass. This mistake is a reflection of my greatest fear, but it’s the one I long most to break free from. The desire to be “good” has made me hold myself back for no reason time and time again. Now that I’m a little older, I’ve learned that the truth doesn’t mind being examined, and to do so doesn’t make you a mean grinch. In fact, examining the truth only makes it stronger.*

The last gift Santa gives to children who believe is the gift of skeptical inquiry. Whether the children discover the truth for themselves, whether they are told, or whether they discover it by accident, they come out on the other side with a +1 to WIS- an increased ability to question the  world around them. It’s the first grown-up step into a world that is much bigger than the world of magic.

 

Merry Christmas

*I’m keeping this line because it sounds nice and feels right, and because I’m going to tear it apart in a future post.

The Coven- Interlude

The wind was quiet and the waves were low as Miss Taris approached the shore. She walked slowly, trying not to disturb the gravel under her feet lest she break the rare moment of peace.

In the sparse moonlight, however, it was not long until she lost her footing. She tripped, and though she did not fall, she sent some gravel clattering down toward the dunes. She paused a moment as the sound died away, and then winced, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“You are a liar,” she said aloud, though no one else was present. “I may be forced to listen, but I don’t have to believe you. You are a liar.”

She took a deep breath, raised her head, and continued to walk through the dune path toward the shore. She stopped at the edge where wet sand met dry, and then looked up at the red sliver of moon.

“Wisdom,” she whispered. “Please, hear my prayers. Gain the power to hear the prayers of all who suffer.”

“Pius is transforming into Wisdom as we speak. It is all happening right now- I promise.”

Miss Taris spun around and face Brother Lux, who was walking toward her from the dunes.

“I know it is,” Miss Taris stepped forward to meet Brother Lux. A rare smile graced her face as she looked up at him. “I don’t need faith to tell me so. Every time I pray to him, I feel his peace. And now that you’ve arrived, I can see with my own eyes what he’s done for you. You have already become his angel- I can tell. You are resplendent.”

She moved with arms outstretched as though to embrace Brother Lux, but then she stopped and snatched her arms back.

“No- I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I might as well try to touch a flame.”

“My body has been changed, but it is still flesh,” he said. He reached out and placed his hand on her head, as though to soothe a small child.

Miss Taris frowned a little, but she did not object.

“My magic, however, has grown dangerous,” Brother Lux continued, and he let his hand fall to his side. “I feel as though I could move the sea itself, but I’m afraid it would cause a tidal wave that would destroy all of del Sol. I need to learn control .”

“Wisdom will help you,” Miss Taris said.

“Yes, he will. We must help him, as well.” Brother Lux removed his shoes, and tossed them aside, letting his bare feet sink into the sand. Then he stepped around Miss Taris and walked to the sea, wading until the waves came almost to his knees.

“Stop!” Miss Taris called. “You will freeze.”

But Brother Lux laughed in response, throwing his loose hair back behind his shoulders.

“I feel the cold, but it’s nothing like before,” he said. “There’s no pain- just a pleasant shiver of sensation. It cannot hurt me at all.”

Miss Taris stared at Brother Lux in silence for a moment, and then pulled her own cloak tighter around her shoulders.

Brother Lux waded back to shore until the waves barely licked his feet and looked earnestly at Miss Taris.

“How have you been faring? Have you found any relief, or at least the strength to bear your curse?”

“When I am near Lady Frey, I stop hearing the voices,” Miss Taris said. “If I stay with her long enough, even my headache fades. At night, however, I am alone, and the voices keep me awake.”

Brother Lux frowned. “Do you still hear the same voices?”

Miss Taris sighed and wiped her hand across her brow. “Yes-always the same voices, saying the same words. I hear my father telling me that I’m worthless. I hear Sir Montag telling me I am ugly. I hear Lady Fairfax telling me I am foolish. I talk back to them- I tell them that they are liars, and that I know my own worth, but they just laugh.

“I am more determined than ever to prove them wrong, but they do make my head ache terribly.”

Brother Lux went to her and, without hesitation, placed his hand on her head once more. This time she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Brother Lux. You are a much greater relief than Lady Frey.”

“I am sorry,” Brother Lux whispered, “but you must endure your curse a little longer. As soon as Wisdom has ascended, he will make you perfect, like he has made me. You will be rewarded for your faith.”

“I told you before- I don’t need faith.” Miss Taris pulled away. “And you must not blame yourself for my pain. Before you and Wisdom gave me power, I had to endure the true voices of those who hated me. My curse is only an echo of that, and it will pass.”

“Even so, I am growing impatient for the time when we can end all of this pain,” Brother Lux said. His shoulders sagged as he spoke, as though weighed down by an invisible burden. Then he straightened them again, standing taller than before. “Is there nothing else that can be done to make things easier for you? Can’t you be quartered nearer Lady Frey, so that you can sleep?”

“I’ve already moved into closer quarters, actually,” Miss Taris said. “I haven’t slept near her yet, so I’m not sure if it will work. Lady Frey spent three days at the southern shrine with Abbess Joy, and last night she went- well, I’m not sure where she went. She often disappears with Abbess Joy or Sister Jubilee.”

Brother Lux nodded and turned to pace around Miss Taris, his hands clasped behind his back.

“I am not surprised that they are conspiring. Still, I would like to know exactly where they go. I know you are tired, but-”

“I will try to find out,” Miss Taris said, turning to watch Brother Lux as he paced around her. “One thing puzzles me. Abbess Joy said that they were visiting Lady Frey’s mother at the south dunes, but I was under the impression that it was a pauper’s cemetery, full of criminals and slaves.”

Brother Lux paused in his pacing. “Everyone is given equal treatment at del Sol, even the dead. Anyone may be buried at the south dunes, no matter their station. Lady Frey’s mother is not out of place, there; you needn’t inquire into that matter.”

“I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” Miss Taris muttered, looking down as though she’d been chastised. Then she looked up again.

“Oh! I’d meant to tell you something else- Miss Mercy is teaching us all to fight, just as she and Lady Frey fought the bandits.”

“I’m surprised that Abbess Joy hasn’t stopped her,” Brother Lux said. “The only law at del Sol is that no one must harm a fellow pilgrim.”

“Abbess Joy said that Miss Mercy must be careful that we aren’t harmed, but everyone is worried about the bandits. I decided to learn alongside the others. I want to be strong in both mind and body.” She stopped and looked at Brother Lux in alarm. “Was I wrong to do so?”

Brother Lux smiled and shook his head. “Oh no- learn whatever you can. Gain strength and continue to spread Wisdom’s word while you are at del Sol. You’ve done very well, Miss Taris. Thank you.”

Miss Taris smiled at Brother Lux, her eyes shining with happiness.

Brother Lux made the sign of Wisdom over Miss Tari’s head, and then he turned back to the abbey and beckoned for Miss Taris to follow. Miss Taris picked up his discarded boots, brushed the sand from them, and then ran to catch up.

The Coven, Part LIX

The Coven, Part LVIII

It was difficult to avoid staring at Brother Lux while I dined.

He still possessed the unmistakable Frey features- the high cheekbones, high forehead, fine nose and round eyes, but he had somehow altered. The more I looked, the more puzzled I grew as to where the change lie. His eyes were a little darker than usual- I had always thought his eyes and hair were a lighter shade of brown than Hope’s- but it might have been an effect of the refectory dim firelight. His face did seem less soft, less youthful, but it was by no means aged. He glowed with vitality; I had never seen him look so handsome, nor seem so merry.

He brazenly ignored the sisters’ custom of eating in silence, and took every opportunity he could to engage Abbess Joy in conversation. Abbess Joy indulged his mood, answering his questions and even occasionally laughing at his jokes.

“I’m afraid I’m disturbing your respite,” Lux said in a solemn voice, though his eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement. “I had forgotten how good this place is for the soul. I’ve come here thrice before- twice in my troubled youth, and once in haste to bring Lady Frey- and each time I’ve found the peace that I sought. Your sanctuary is a boon to mankind, Abbess.”

“Thank you, Brother. I’m glad I can assist those who are able to journey to this sanctuary, but I’ve often wished I could do more for the wider world.”

“Perhaps, in time, you will,” Brother Lux said. “My cup overflows with optimism, and I can afford to share it with you.”

“It’s good you are in a generous mood,” I said, unable to hold my tongue any longer. “Some of us must rely on you for our optimism.”

Brother Lux turned and fixed me with his dark gaze. “In times such as these, it’s vital that you don’t give up hope.”

“Hope is all I have,” I replied.

Brother Lux turned back to Abbess Joy.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Brother Lux said to Abbess Joy. Then he turned back to me. “Lady Frey, if you would please join me…”

He stood and I rose to follow.

We walked to the Calefactory through the icy wind, which filtered through the cloisters and across the courtyard. When we entered the Calefactory, Sister Jubilee was already there, tending the hearth.

“Ah- Grace, there you are,” she said without looking up. “If you will fill the kettle, I will bring our books closer to the fire. It’s going to be a cold night.”

“The night will be cold, but tomorrow, I expect the sun will melt away all of the ice,” Brother Lux said.

Prudence paused in her work, and then began again as though she hadn’t heard him. I followed her lead, fetching the kettle and tea tin without a word.

Surely, he recognized her voice, I thought. Did he hear it the last time he was here? Will he allow her to remain safe here, or was he really not the one who rescued her before?

“You mentioned that you had letters for me,” I prompted Brother Lux as I worked. “Was there anything else you needed to discuss?”

“I’m sorry- I didn’t realize you had private business,” Prudence said. She stood and brushed off her robes. “I shall retire early.”

“Are you sure you wish to leave, Sister?” Brother Lux said. “You must be curious what I have to say to Lady Frey, and there is a matter I wish to discuss with you, as well.”

I froze.

“What business do you have with me?” she asked in a low voice.

Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand in the same gesture he had once used to cast a spell of silence on Abbess Joy’s office, though this time he did not say anything. Then he turned back to Prudence.

“There’s no reason for us to play games,” Lux replied. “We’re too old for that now, Prudence.”

This is a trick, I screamed in my thoughts as though I could make her hear me. Don’t reveal anything.

But Prudence sighed and pulled back her veil. “Funny- the older I get, the more games I’m drawn into.”

I dropped into the nearest chair.

Lux turned toward me, his eyebrows raised.

“You aren’t surprised, are you? I’d imagined that the two of you would be plotting together from the first day you met.”

Prudence came to sit beside me, and looked into my face with an anxious expression.

“Did you intend for us to find each other, Lux?” she asked after a few moments.

Brother Lux sat across from us and gazed at us with appraising eyes.

“Of course I did. There is little room for error,” he said. “I worried that Lady Frey’s part would prove too difficult for her to bear on her own. If you had acted as expected, Prudence, then Lady Frey would not look so fatigued.”

“I will spend all of the energy I can to free my husband, help or no,” I said. “Prudence isn’t responsible for my condition.”

Lux stood again, as though restless, and paced around the room while Prudence and I watched in silence. Then he came back and examined me more closely.

“You are fatigued, but you aren’t unwell. Your color is good, and you haven’t lost any weight. What’s more-” he paused and stood straighter, pulling a bundle of letters from his robes, “the letters I carry tell me a great deal about how you’ve spent your time in exile.”

He untied the bundle and placed one of the letters on the bare table that stood beside my chair.

“This is a note from your husband’s attorney, who has been making a proper nuisance of himself. He’s already examined the blood oath, and he interviewed the accuser without my consent. Now he is demanding the right to interview the accused.”

Lux smiled as though in approval, and placed a second letter next to the first. “This letter is from your solicitor. He attempted to send this letter to you in secret, but I easily intercepted it. Tell him to be more careful in the future. Thankfully, there’s nothing of any real import in this note. He conveys the gratitude of some of your husband’s tenants for your assistance, and he also makes some investment recommendations, though he advises caution. I believe he fears Abbess Joy’s displeasure should your assets not be well guarded.”

I winced. I’d hoped to keep my money a secret from the inquisition for as long as possible. “I shall ask him to be more careful. I certainly hope he didn’t include my account information in the letter, as well.”

Lux laughed- a fuller laugh than the barking laughter I’d last heard from him. “Don’t worry- you aren’t a suspect, so the inquisition will not touch your assets as long as you use them well. I knew you would inquire after the estate, but I didn’t expect you to provide so much material help to the tenants. Thank you.”

I opened my mouth to rebuke him for his lack of action, but paused. He looked down, letting his hair fall over his face, but I could still see a patch of skin on his cheek grow pink in the firelight. When he looked up again, he wore a look of shame in his eyes.

Prudence stood and went to him. “Why? Why did you let it come to this?”

Lux gave Prudence a sad, half-smile. “I might ask you the same thing.”

I stood, ready to defend my friend, but Prudence looked back at me and shook her head. Lux watched our silent exchange, but did not remark on it. Instead, he took a folded note and placed it next to the first two letters.

“I hope this helps you feel the good you’ve already done. It may fortify you for what’s to come.”

“What is to come?” I asked. “What is happening, now? Can you tell me how Hope is- how Captain Goode, Chastity, and Lady and Lord Willoughby are? Have you brought me the one letter I long to read?”

Brother Lux gently pressed me back into my seat.

“Please save your strength; you are fatigued. I really should insist you go to bed now, but your anxiety will be worse if I leave you unsatisfied. Before I give you Hope’s letter, I must warn you- he has entered the second degree of questioning.”

“The second degree?” I looked to Prudence, whose face had gone white as Brother Lux spoke.

Prudence sat beside me again, and reached out to take my hand- her own hand was trembling.

“The first degree of questioning is bad enough,” she said in a slow, careful voice. “They strip and examine your whole body, prod you with needles to provoke a magical reaction, and keep you up all hours, asking the same questions over and over. If you prove too ‘stubborn’ to confess under those conditions, the inquisitors start the true torture- that’s the second degree.”

“The prisoners are alive and as yet unmaimed,” Brother Lux said. “The mental effects of the abuse, however-”

Prudence glared up at Brother Lux with such ferocity that he stepped back.

“You cannot allow this to continue,” she said. “Your own brother, my brother, our friends-”

“I thought of you as my sister before your betrayal,” Lux replied with an edge of steel in his voice. “The laws of magic are stronger than the ties of friendship or blood. Even so, you have my word that they won’t die.”

Prudence laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh. “The worst part is that you really believe what you’re saying. As long as nothing unforeseen occurs, our friends might survive torture and emerge from their trial unscathed. This is enough to ease your conscience.”

“I won’t disabuse you of your anger- you will need it. Forget that you’re alive now because I willed it, and fight as hard as you can to save Hope. That is all I require.”

Lux turned away from Prudence and handed the last letters to me.

“There is real anguish and despair in his letter,” Lux said in a gentler voice. “Do not become infected by it. Give him hope for the future in your reply. I will remain at the abbey for three days, so you have time to compose your letter carefully.”

I looked at Prudence’s ashen face, and back to Lux.

“How can my words possibly be enough?”

“Your words can’t free him, nor can they take his pain away,” Lux said. “All I ask is that you remind him of the light in the world, and of everything he has to gain.”

 

#

 

That night I fell asleep during my third reading of Hope’s letter, as the tears dried on my cheeks.

I had asked Prudence to read the letter with me, but she’d refused. I knew she understood why I’d asked her, and in the same way, I understood why she’d refused.

She had spoken to me before she left me alone with the letter. The truth she offered me gave no comfort- rather, it was as though she’d lit the lantern for me to read by its light.

“I can guess what comes to your mind when you imagine torture,” she said, sitting beside me on my cot. “I can assure you that the torture machines that you read about are never used. The inquisition has built a few, but their only use is to be carted about and exhibited at festivals. The real methods of torture the inquisition implements are far more mundane, and probably far more effective.

“During the second degree, the inquisitors would dunk my head in freezing water until I thought I would drown, or hold me over hot coals until I thought I would burn. They would beat and whip me, all the while taunting me to call upon my demon to make the torment stop. It was unbearable, but I was never tempted; I knew that magic would bring me no relief.”

“But if the others don’t feel the same aversion to magic-”

Prudence sighed. “They are stronger than I was. Hope has literally seen hell, so whatever they present him with can’t compare. My brother was always strong, even before he was trained as a soldier, and Chastity possesses a quiet strength that enables her to endure constant pain. My greatest fear is that Lady and Lord Willoughby will betray themselves. They have lived a decadent life, and are unaccustomed to physical endurance.”

A sudden thought came to me, and I stood to pace the room and shake off my fatigue.

“Grace?”

“I don’t think that Hope literally sees hell when he sleeps,” I said.

A frown tugged at the corners of Prudence’s lips. “You must have witnessed his torment- you cannot deny such anguish.”

I stopped pacing. “I don’t mean to diminish his pain. I have seen it, and I would give anything to be able to go to him now and take it away. He described his dreams to me in great detail, once, and among those agonies he said that he saw you, beside his parents, suffering hell’s torment.”

“But I’m still alive.”

“Exactly.” I sat beside Prudence once more. “This means that he cannot really be seeing hell.”

“Then what does he see?” Prudence stood now, and paced the tiny room as I had a moment before. Then she stopped abruptly, opened the door, and looked into the hallway.

“No one is near, and Miss Taris’s room is still empty.” Prudence closed the door and sighed. “We are growing careless- this conversation is better suited to the tower.”

“I cannot go, tonight,” I said. I handed her Hope’s letter to Celeste. “Are you certain you won’t stay to read Hope’s letter with me?”

“He addressed it to you,” Prudence said softly. “I will read this letter to ensure there’s nothing that may alarm Celeste. I know he would never do so on purpose, but in his current state…”

“I understand. Thank you, Prudence.”

“Don’t thank me. Lux was right, you know- I should have been helping you from the beginning, instead of allowing that wall of mistrust to exist between us. From now on, I will give you everything I can to help Hope.”

“There’s no need to apologize. You’ve put Celeste’s safety first in your thoughts and actions, which is exactly what Hope would wish. I’m grateful that you are able to give her what I cannot.”

Prudence smiled a little, and the slipped her veil back over her face.

“If you need me, remember that I am just on the other side of Celeste’s door.”

The Coven- Interlude

 

Adventures in Amateur Astronomy, Pt II

 

I have been interested in astronomy since I was a child. I spent late nights sitting up with my Dad, watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos,  and we attended star parties and meetings of our local Amateur Astronomy Association together. Most of all, I’ve read nonfiction and scifi books that have encouraged my love of astronomy.

But the years went on, and as I grew I became distracted by my myriad other interests. Dance, music, photography, writing, and so many other wonders in this world have all held my interest, and I struggle to focus on just one topic. How can one lifetime be enough given everything this universe has to offer?

A few years ago, while sitting in a dark parking lot, I gazed up into the night sky and was drawn in, once more, by the infinite span of possibilities above me. After so many years, I was bitten by the stargazing bug again.

At first I was content to gaze with the naked eye, re-acquainting myself with the constellations with the help of the skymap app on my phone. Then I remembered that I owned a pair of cheap binoculars, which I used to take a shaky, blurry look at the moon and planets. Then I decided enough was enough, and gave into the temptation to buy a telescope.

In Part I of Adventures in Amateur Astronomy, I introduced several reasons why I should not get a telescope. I have no safe place where I can reliably stargaze, and I have no place to store my telescope when it isn’t in use. Still, I decided to get my telescope anyway, and after the initial ordeal of getting it set up, I was ready to go. So- given the limitations I’ve already named, how is my stargazing going?

My stargazing is going brilliantly, even though I’m struggling with even more limitations than those I’ve listed.

First of all, I still don’t have a place to store my telescope. It’s in the dining area of my house right now, next to the dining room table that was cleared out to use for eating and displaying my tea set. The table has been taken over again by a lot of *stuff,* including all of the eyepieces I’ve acquired for my telescope. My telescope, however, takes precedence over the dining room, especially since my spouse and I very rarely eat there, anyway.

Secondly, I still don’t have a safe place I can use for viewing. I live in a townhouse, where there is no backyard- just a garage that leads directly into the alley. There is a small front yard, but it’s on a busy street across from a well-lit shopping center. I have a good view of the sky from the alley, however, so most often I set up my scope across the alley on a patch of pavement protected by a transformer. I keep watch for cars and trucks that sometimes travel through the alley at night, and I wear a red light-up armband for safety. I also have to remain very still and quiet so I don’t activate my next door neighbor’s bright security lights.

I must admit that I tend to get a little nervous standing by myself in a dark alley. I’m not afraid of human attackers so much as nameless horrors that lurk in the night. I have, on occasion, gone inside because of this.

The first object I viewed with my telescope was Saturn, and I was blown away by how sharp the rings looked. I had to collimate the telescope because of some smearing in the image, but the process wasn’t as painful as I’d anticipated. The only problem I’ve had was with the finder scope, which I hate. It is a laser finder that is still not fully aligned despite a long effort. To make things worse, there is a small reflection in it which can trick me unless I’m very careful.

I wish I could show you what I see when I gaze through my telescope. I have an old CCD camera, but not one I can get set up at this time, so this is the best I can do.

The Moonawesome

I took this photo by carefully holding up my phone to the eyepiece. For contrast, here is a picture taken with the same phone of the same moon without the use of my telescope.

Themoonnotawesome

And here’s the best image I have been able to take with a proper camera sans telescope. This was taken of Fthe umbral emergence during the 2015 lunar eclipse.

umbra4

Keep in mind that the first image is just a poor replication of what I actually saw. The cell phone camera flattens everything out. The contrast is very poor, and you can’t see the shadows and the overall shape that pops out at you when you look directly through the eyepiece.

Still, these images should illustrate how my prospects have expanded. I can go outside on any clear night, now, and see the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, the Galilean satellites, globular clusters, nebulae, double stars, and galaxies. The universe is mine to explore more deeply than I have in years.

My telescope has been worth all of the trouble and more.