Not From an Astronomer

story about astronomy

Heaven seems rounder at night. It cloches us, breathing frost.

The weather is fine; no one will worry about Lina until morning. Thank God for the illness that shrunk her in childhood, made her delicacy indelicate, pocked her and put her at the edge of protection. Thank God there is no God, only heaven rounding above. Everyone is gone away across the Channel. They’ve sold another telescope to another king and it will take weeks to carry it in pieces to Prussia. Thank the stars themselves for this empty, flat roof.

A sound of scratching, a scurry. A badger in the mulch, perhaps. There are folded skirts of darkness between the sound below and the ticking of the clocks beside her, sharp comfort in the cold. Now the waiting, for her eyes to settle and widen, for the dark to open up. It isn’t sharp sight that’s needed to see the distant stars, it is softening. Even her brothers know that.

The sky breathes tobacco from her father’s pocket inside a halo of unwashed linen, the metal scent of German snow in the English night. That is how things crowd round each other, how they layer up.

The first thing Lina sees in the darkness is herself singing Vivaldi with a sock in her mouth. Herself small and stifled. That girl, so desperate to be quiet, so desperate to sing, is not really here. Fold her away in lavender. No one will need her for two weeks at least. Not at night, anyway.

She laughs aloud and the badger startles, scuttles.


Once, her father lifted her in his arms and showed her Venus, blushing at the bottom of the sky. He showed her the winter triangle, and explained the degrees of arc between them. But first he made her hide her face against his scratchy tobacco pocket because, he said, you must bury your eyes in the darkness and hold them under for a time, before you can really see at night.


She is the bud under a glass sky, cold pinpricks of light to open her.

That other Lina sinks like a moon on disturbed water. She sees candles then, spots of light where she knows there to be trees, a stable, a dairy in the darkness across the gravel yard. These flashes of light, too, will soon stop. The eyes don’t like to be left empty; they rebel.

The brass optical is cold. The frame and the guide ropes are cold. The ink is thick in its jar.

Lina runs her finger around the freezing eye piece, thinking about her own animal lens, its defenceless jelly and its 1x power. Flexible enough to see ghosts in the dark, malleable and adjustable by hairs, tractable and trainable so that she sees things through her small sweeper that all the men in Europe have not seen through fifteen feet or twenty. The power of seeing comes from  being able to withstand the cold, to let your eyes paint their magic lantern pictures on the darkness, to wait patiently for those to fade.

Patience, Lina has.  For counting stars and counting linens, for polishing silver shaped like a tea service or silver shaped like a primary mirror, twelve hours without stopping. Patience for writing slowly in her darkness hand, once her eyes can make out the lines ruled on the paper.

‘Are you there, Miss Herschel? Are you out?’

Lina had not heard the steps approaching.

‘Are you sweeping tonight?’

‘Miss Selwin? What is it? Is something wrong at home?’

It’s long past midnight and almost cold enough to freeze ink.

‘May I come up?’

‘No. Close your light.’

She wears her brother Dietrich’s discarded breeches, the only ones small enough for her. They ride up her shins when she lies down to put her head over the edge of the roof. The cold is like kittens’ teeth pricking. Her toes are numb already and there are still six hours until dawn.

‘What has happened?’

‘I’m very sorry, Miss Herschel. I hoped to speak with you.’

‘Could you not come at calling hours? Bring me a cake and some apple brandy in a basket like a good neighbour?’

‘It is a private thing. A secret.’

‘Women do tell secrets in the day, Miss Selwin.’

‘Call me Sarah, please.’

‘Well, Sarah, if you will come alone at two in the morning to interrupt my sweeps, bring cake and apple brandy instead of light. Better still, come when the moon is full and I cannot see so well.’

‘I had not thought.’

‘That’s clear. Must I have your secrets? I am the last woman to whom a girl ought to bring secrets. I know nothing of being pretty and loved. I would rather have no body at all, but simply one perfect eye and a socket to keep it.’

‘But you are so capable.’

‘Also a brain I suppose, as it’s requisite to sight. Out with it! There is a visitor in my strip of the heavens. Tonight is the night to be sure who it is.’

‘We were together. I don’t know what I’ll do.’

‘You’ll need to give me more than that, Sarah. I’m no code breaker.’

‘There will be a child. What will I do?’

‘Ah, that is what you mean by together. Very quaint. How many times?’

‘Neither of us meant to, but it was like champagne or opium, like being turned inside a wave, like—’

‘Like two cows? Like dogs in the street, stuck together? Like pigeons, perhaps, all claws and over in a blink. Which was it? Do tell.’

‘You are hard, but that’s why I came to you. You are not shocked.’

‘I have a younger brother and two sisters-in-law with children. I am considered as one without delicacy, without sex almost. I have gathered bloody rags enough. No, I am not shocked.’

‘I’ll have to go away.’

‘Be still and breathe in some of this salubrious cold. You poison your lungs with hysterical flutterings. How many times, then?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘How many times have you simpletons felt like champagne?’

‘Oh. Once only. I will not do it again.’

‘Stop saying “oh”. If you cannot conceive an idea, wait quietly for your mind to work on it. Inchoate sounds serve no purpose, save for, of course, when you are under the influence of those opiate desires. You must wait.’

Silence. She takes instruction, at least.

‘How long has it been?’

‘It was yesterday. In the spinney.’

‘Ah, like pigeons then. Poor girl. Well, you must wait the full month out.’

‘But, my condition?’

‘You may be in no condition, apart from ignorance. It is possible your courses will come as normal. Have you bred that grey pony?’

‘Last spring. It didn’t take. . . Oh!’

‘Yes, oh! I give you one more thing, Sarah, and then you will leave me.’

‘I’m very sorry. You did say I might confide in you.’

‘Yes, I did. I had imagined normal calling hours, hair ribbons and a bit of inferior poetry. That last I did get anyhow, Lady Opium Wave.’

‘What is it?’

‘What is what?’

‘The one thing more you’ll give me?’

‘You may experience what is quite sublime enough without letting the thing itself inside you. Is he biddable?’

‘I believe so.’

‘Keep the upper hand, and do not let that thing near your open flesh again, under any circumstances and no matter what he tells you. Now go away and keep the light closed until you are under the trees.’


The eyepiece is cold on Lina’s brow bone, so cold it freezes to her skin. The girl’s candle has ruined her night vision and lying on the roof brought the chill right into her viscera. Her very kidneys are cold. It will be another half hour before she can resume her sweeping.

The roof is twenty-three steps end to end, sixteen if she’s running. Lina runs so lightly she can’t be heard or felt. She doesn’t make tremors enough to shake the scope from its position by a single degree.

She learned lightness in childhood, singing in the attic with a sock in her mouth, dancing from nail to nail on the floorboards so that none would move beneath her. Shrinking with smallpox and then with typhus. Learning to walk a second time, with hardly enough of her left for the earth to pull on at all.

Seven circuits of the roof and her limbs loosen up. She takes an accidental extra step, one shoe out over darkness and she almost cannot tip herself back in time. Pitching back and forth she feels the centre of her own balance, the place where she is hinged to the sky. And now she makes out the line of difference in the darkness that is the edge of the roof, the distinction between black surface and black depth.

It is time for seeing. Her irids have shrunk away so that her nerves can gather beams of light so stretched they tremble and shrink like the hands of old women, thin and breakable.

Eyes are made for so much more than people use them for.

The brass burns her broken skin, but she hardly notices. The visitor has moved. It is not a fixed star. The tail is there still, no blur in tired eyes. It is real. Lina has caught a comet in her sweep.

The ink is clotted so that she must cradle it inside her jacket for half an hour before she can make her notations. By that time, it is nearly dawn. She takes long breaths between pen strokes, watching the page whiten by each degree of arc as the earth turns toward its own star.


The stable smells of leather and rotting, the sawdust scent of horses’ breath. Hyp is excited to be going out before the sun is risen, with saddle instead of harness. She tosses and stamps and then turns her head to the side, looking Lina gravely in the eye.

‘That’s right, a new comet. I am sure, though I’ll say I’m not, of course.’

Hyp whickers and grows still. Female horses are far more sensible than female persons.

They are on the bridge at Richmond when the sun comes burning up over Putney Heath, a star almost too close for comfort. And all the other stars are suns too, so far away the light is weary long before it reaches us.

She has found a comet and all the men are far away. Should she write herself?

This is not a letter from an astronomer to the President of the Royal Society…

Hyp brushes the tall grass and the hiss is the sound of the sun, falling into the river.

Once, her brother made a little globe of brass. He engraved the planets on it, when they were children and even the grown-ups still believed heaven was round. Horseshoes on the packed earth are the clunk of that globe, dropped in a bucket of water to cool. In the same bucket, Lina watched her first eclipse.

And that is how things reflect. Light has no limit. Now a fish jumps through the sun. It shatters so easily.

…only a few lines to a friend of my brother’s…


It is Nevil Maskelyne himself who answers the door at Greenwich.

‘Good Heavens, what happened to your eye?’ But he is looking at Dietrich’s breeches. She had forgotten them.

‘It was cold, sir. The eyepiece took away some skin, I think.’

‘You think! Don’t “sir” me, and come inside before you are press-ganged. You look like a cabin boy out of the tavern.’

‘I am sorry. I hadn’t considered my looks.’

‘And what if a servant had opened the door?’ But he is excited. He knows there must be something very good if she’s ridden from Slough at dawn in her brother’s breeches.

‘My apologies Nevil, but, the horse?’

‘I’ll send someone. And breakfast, too. I guess you’ve been out in the cold without food since sunset last.’

‘I looked for cake and brandy when I was interrupted, but my persecutor did not oblige. I’ve been on the roof every night for two weeks. Everyone else is away. I must make hay while the sun does not shine.’

Maskelyne laughs like a dog growling in its sleep.

‘Nevil, I’ve seen a comet where there should not be one. A new comet. I’m certain.’

‘Have you now? Did you carry your notations with you? Of course you did, and perfectly made no doubt. Eat first. Tell me after.’

There is fire in the library, imprisoned in iron. The burning light looks out of place indoors, but it is good to be warm. There is chocolate and ham and fine bread.

‘I see you’ve observed it for several nights now.’ He speaks without looking up from her notes. ‘I’d trust you without these, but others won’t.’

‘I want to write to Banks, Nevil. You must insist that I do.’

‘You insist that I insist, eh? And I thought you came simply to share your joy with a friend.’

‘Well, I haven’t, but I’m glad to do that, too. With you of all people.’

‘Right, then I insist that you write to Banks yourself. Tell him I said you must.’

I, a mere female, have stumbled accidentally upon something which I beg you will notice… I’ve been practicing along the way.’

‘I’m sure you’ll simper beautifully. Now, tell me what you think about this question of the size of the heavens. I want your opinion.’

‘I promise you Nevil, we are right. They are all suns, every one, with their own planets and measureable miles of distance between. We are neither alone nor fixed. All of it is moving. Think about it. It’s obvious if you’ll allow for observable facts only.’

He doesn’t ask before he lights his pipe; passes it to her when she reaches out. They are silent and breathing. And the heavens are silent and breathing still, behind the glare of the sun. The brightness of the fire before them is some little piece of all the hot brightness there is, some bit of light that might travel ten miles at best.

‘We are killing God, Nevil. You do see that?’

‘Shhh,’ he hisses. ‘No need to shout about it.’ He laughs and puts his face inside the rim of his chocolate bowl, inhaling comfort.

She takes in tobacco smoke and closes her eyes. Without her calling it, the bearded star prickles up out of her optical nerves. It is burned there, within the round, raw circle pressed into the skin around her socket. Two memories of light captured in the body, fading already. Healing.

And that is the echo of loss.

…so that this woman, sir, may go back home where she ought to be, as soon as possible…




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