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Ophelian 2012 (2nd Prize - 13-15 years)

March, 2013
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Ophelian 2012

My father died on the cusp of my transition to full manhood.

The funeral was swift. My father was a frugal man, his will more so. In his small, economical handwriting he scribbled down half a page’s worth of statements – in my mind coolly and with a tinge of sadness, in the Presbyterian priest’s with a touch of incredulity – hereby bequeathing Charly Mahew Smitt’s house and all furnishings within to Matthios Abott  Smitt. A few meaningless possessions here and there he offered to distant relatives of mine, but who were clearly the objects of strong emotion by my father, whether of contempt or affection.

One such possession – an ornate wooden box containing a multitude of photographic plates; he had taken up astronomic photography a few years past – instilled a bout of shivers in the receiver, my uncle Gregorium. He and I had had sparse and terse meetings in the past, often when he came over to have tea with my father and discuss astronomy in the confines of his observatory.

Even so, when the gasclouds overhead billowed outwards in concentric circles and dissolved into odious rainwater, and I found myself doused and in dire need of shelter, I sought him out. He was clambering into his rotamobile, a silk umbrella above his top hat, doing little to staunch the heavenly flow.

"Hoy, Mr. Gregorium?" I called, tipping my head as I maneuvered the slippery dirt slope pocked with stones that lead down to the main road.

"Yes?" He looked up at me, his expression inscrutable.

"Well, you see the weather as it is now –" I gestured at the sky tumbling down around our ears. "Could you be troubled to provide transport to my father’s – er, my lodgings?"

He glanced around him, though there was naught to see in the humid mist perpetrating the gloom of the graveyard. The tombstones rattled with sibilant menace. The tightly woven hillside now discharged its former solidity into many rivulets of bubbling mud. It roiled up the side of my shoes, soiling them. It didn’t mind me in the least.

"Yes, yes," he abruptly barked. "Yes, yes, come on in. Other side," He jutted a gloved hand over the hood of the machine, indicating towards the door opposite his side.

I hurriedly made the rest of the way down the slope and manhandled the door into opening. The interior of the rotamobile was a welcome change from the turbulent open. I thanked him, but he merely grunted in response.

"You know," he said as he acceled the car, breaking the silence that had settled between us since I had entered, "Charly. A good man. Great man." He nodded gruffly, but approvingly. "I know you and I don’t talk much."

"I suppose not," I replied cautiously. "I mean, I was but a child back then, and you had business with my father."

"If you can call it business." He snorted. "What we did, it was a hobby. A mutual hobby of ours."

"Astronomy?"

"Yes." He took a breath, and pushed a lever on the side of the wheel, triggering the wipe antennae from the bottom corners of the window. They unfolded out into my vision and proceeded to extend, drag, and retrace, wiping away at the rain that has splattered onto the window. "I knew your father better than anyone," he said. "Probably better than you. He was my brother, after all. The truth is," he rested one hand on the wheel, the other reaching up and behind his head to scratch, "Your father was a complicated man. Both of us."

"Tell me, who do you think your father was?" he asked.

There was a moment while I struggled to find the words to convey my meaning, and once I did, I realized they conveyed nothing meaningful at all. Still I spoke them.

"My father was a beekeeper. He often ‘found’ connections between astronomy and his practice, and his interest in the stars and beyond defined him more than the bees. And he took photos."

Gregorium waited for more, then chuckled.

"That’s all you have to offer? I see. Well, have at you this. Your father was bloody keen on star history. Especially the Other Colonies and the Source."

"What?" I laughed. "But those are nothing but rat’s tales/tails. Stories to entertain children, to explain the unexplained."

"Well, you’re wrong on that point, I must say." His expression soured. "Don’t go believe everything the Presbyterian Church feeds you. They’re not always right."

I let the blasphemous comment slide. "The Church is the Source. The source of truth. They don’t tell lies."

"I’m sure they believe they’re telling truth as well, but you ever consider that they might not know all?"

I looked at him for a long moment. He was suggesting that their teachings were fallacious. However, that violated any sense of decency in this sacred world. I was tempted to rebut fiercely, but the selfsame teachings also told of practicing leniency. Even blasphemy could be excused, if the blasphemer chose to repent.

"What am I talking about?" He shook his head. "How could you have ever considered it? Charly nurtured you in the shadow of the blasted Church. Reminds of –" he hesitates. "You know of the Parable of the Cave?"

I shook my head. It sounded like something that might have been in the Enchiridion, but I doubted that. I knew it cover to cover, and nowhere did it mention such a tale. Could it possibly be a pagan story? I looked at Gregorium through a new filter of suspicion.

"Boy, you know so very little." He opened his mouth, looking as though he was going to continue to pontificate, but he said something else. "Well, there’s your house. Your new lodgings, as it is." The rotamobile rolled to a step, and peeking through the misty veil of raindrop-splattered glass, I could see the front porch, its corrugated tin roof sloping precariously downwards due to the weight of the shower.

"I suppose I must take my leave then," I quickly said. "I thank you, Mr. Gregorium, and –" I saw that he was opening his mouth, and hesitated. As did he. After an uneasy silence – as silent as the interior of a vehicle swamped by a falling ocean can be – he spoke.

"I wonder if I might accompany you." His fingers drummed the rim of the wheel. "Thing is, you understand, I’m obligated to reveal to you some information about your father. Something left… undisclosed in his will."

A voice speaking from the back of my mind told me to agree. That voice may have been my father’s.

 I heaved a couple of balelogs into the fireplace. The flames roared upwards, greedily consuming wooden flesh.

"Would you like some tea?" I asked.

"Yes, thank you."

As I made the tea – its recipe inscribed within the pages of Enchiridion – on the kitchen counter, I could hear him behind my back, shuffling around papers from his satchel.

I returned to the table, the pot steaming, and poured two cups of soothing elixir.

We went immediately to business. Gregorium laid out several sheaves of paper. On the top layer, I could catch glimpses of astronomic diagrams, maps of the stars, anatomy, and other strange things. Strange for others, perhaps, but seemingly not for my father. Well, my father and his brother.

"I’ll get straight to the point. Whatever misconceptions the Church may have taught you, discard them." He stared into my eyes. "There are no Progenitors – at least, not in the way the Church describes them. The Progenitors were men and women, just like us." He shushed me before I could speak.

"Misconception number two: that which exists among the firmament are the Progenitors’ domain. Incorrect. What lies out there, above our heads, is a vast darkness, empty of life. Those stars you see, those orbiting planets? Lifeless.’

‘The Church’s origin story says we were made by the Progenitors, doesn’t it? Culled from their own flesh, nurtured into fully-grown beings, implanted with souls, shot into the many planets like this one, Ophelia, to flourish and triumph, et cetera. You know the drivel. The truth is, my poor boy, is that we are no gods’ pets. We are, like the gleebird that sings even in the rain, like the remsey that scurries on the ground and climbs up trees, like the galeworm of which the winds are its steed, mere mortal animals."

Tea, spilt from an overturned cup – mine, naturally –, cascaded down the edge of the table in tiny waterfalls.

            "Acknowledge your ignorance, but take it in a bad way. You must learn more. Which is why I am here." He pushed the pile of papers towards me. "All of your father’s research. The ‘Progenitors’ lived – hopefully still live – on a planet they called Earth, or Terra. A small colony of them somehow, the details of which are privy only to their deceased minds, left that small sphere and landed on Ophelia. We are their descendants."

"I…" I had no words. Most of me felt an outraged disbelief and amusement towards his words and ungrounded allegations, but a kernel hidden deep inside yearned to accept his words for what they were – the truth. It hardly needs to be said that that kernel was my father, his soul residing within my vessel.

"…Do you know what his goal was, Matthios? He wanted to find a means of establishing contact with those who lived on Earth. He wasn’t the most ardent believer in the Enchiridion, as you no doubt see. That considered, I don’t suppose he was the best father, leaving you to them." He looked downcast for a moment. "But that hardly matters. What matters now is that you must follow in his footsteps. You have to help me." He said this in a plea.

I considered this seriously. I looked at my own life, looked at my father’s, looked at these words that could be the truth, and were.

Gregorium is long gone now. I saw his rotamobile drive into the distance.

The rain has long since dried up. The gasclouds look thin and wispy, but it won’t be long before they’re full to the brim once more. 

He left a few papers with me. He insisted that I should give this some more thought. The other papers he packed up in his satchel when he left. 

As for me, I am sitting by the window in the observatory, watching the empty road. This is first time I have ever entered. It’s not much. The walls are plain and black, though it does lend the room an ethereal atmosphere. The main attraction that dominates the space is the large telescope that penetrates the ceiling at a slanted angle. At its widest, I can barely wrap my arms around it and have them meet.

No better time than now, I suppose. I stand up, glance longingly at the outside, and step towards the telescope. Its controls feel intimately familiar, even though I have never manipulated them. I look into the viewing glass, and adjust a few knobs.

It takes several sweeps, but I finally have it. A shimmering blue dot, amidst a sea of speckled black and white.

I realize that today is the last day before the 2012th Year ends. I feel a bit wistful – strands of regret, memories of happiness, nostalgia of bygone moments, they all tug at me. But I know better than to pull back.

The shimmering blue dot winks out. It scares the living daylights out of me. I sweep back and forth, panicked, looking for it. Nothing. Nothing.

And then I see it. Still shimmering, still blue. I breathe a relieved sigh, and wonder what they are doing on this momentous day ­– that is, if they are like us.

A gong strikes somewhere in the distance – the Church bell, signaling Mass.

The 2012th Year has ended; The 2013th Year has begun.

And still that pale blue dot shimmers.

 

By Michael Chau,

Western Academy of Beijing

 

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