It had moved again. The tiny pinprick of light which he had been tracking for a year had returned to its original position, just below Saturn. With a sigh of profound satisfaction, Boethius removed his eye from the cil of the aperture and stretched his back. He knew he was becoming hunched from his hours alone with his telescope, but it did not trouble him. A hunch was expected of an old hermit.
Standing on the roof of his home, with his hands on his hips, Boethius mused at the naked night sky. Stars never told lies, which was why Boethius loved them. To him, the glittering canopy of the night sky was a book to be read. Better still was the moon. From where Boethius stood, he could see it hanging shyly over the tops of the Oak trees. It was a rising moon in the east, colored more of blood than milk. It was no tame or chastened moon, but the wild huntress, the mother of madness.
Boethius loved the moon for how it would help him remember. Like a shot of gin, the sight of that tempestuous orb greased the wheels of his memory. It called to mind long repressed thoughts of his days in the war; more feeling than image. When the world had caught on fire, in what they had called the ‘war to end all wars’.
But as soon as the feelings would come, they would vanish, leaving him only with the image of the moon. Boethius was old and full of regrets, most of which he could not remember. In fact, he could not remember a time before he had lived on the island. Sometimes he wondered if he had ever lived anywhere else. Or maybe his solitude was beginning to make him stir crazy.
He knew everyone in town thought he was crazy, but he couldn’t blame them for thinking it. All the evidence the townspeople had supported the hypothesis that Boethius was slipping. After all, he had lived out his years in the backwoods, on a hill with a grounded steamboat for a home.
Boethius never could remember clearly how the steamboat got there, it just always had been there; perched atop a woodland hill known as Baker’s Hill. The slight elevation made for excellent stargazing, and below deck he had made the old sea vessel as comfortable as he could. During the days he would experiment below deck in a makeshift chemistry laboratory, and during the nights he would dabble as an astronomer on the roof with his telescope.
It was a life made comfortable by habit and an insatiable curiosity. Though often it was curiosity leading to little reward. Each question answered gave room for two more unanswered questions to take its place. A hydra of a thousand unknowns coiled around Boethius, every day multiplying.
Boethius rested his sore back against the smokestack projecting from the roof of the steamer. His eyes fell on a bright star, just above the rising moon. The fixed star; according to all Boethius’ records and observations, it had never moved. The stars never lied, but sometimes they spoke another language. The more Boethius thought, the less he knew; and the less he called himself a scientist, the more he considered himself a mystic. After all, the world was mysterious, and he would be a proud fool to say his observations reaped much truth. Boethius had the words of the ancients to rely on and compare notes with. He had the voice of his Lady to show him truth.
As Boethius watched fixed star, there came a noise from somewhere far off which stole all of his attention. The cawing of a crow, somewhere to the east. The sound put a lump in his chest and sent a thrill through body.
“Blackbirds…” Boethius mumbled to himself, “Damn the woman.”
It was a bad omen, and it was getting late. He began to think about going below when a second sound solidified his resolve to do so. The gramophone in his quarters began to play a song. The long, thin sound of a love ballad.
Boethius froze for a moment, his mouth dry and his fingers cold. He listened for any other sound, but could hear nothing past the song on the record. He slowly crept to the edge of the roof, where he could lean over and see any lights from the windows below deck. Sure enough, towards the rear of the steamer he could see the lights in his cabin were on, casting a warm glow out of the porthole and over the surrounding forest.
The crow called out again, nearer this time. Boethius hissed a curse and made his way to the ladder leading down to the wheelhouse of the steamer. Once he was on level with the wheelhouse, he quickly looked about him for any possible weapon. He spied a rusty pipe wrench lying amidst a heap of rope. It would serve, so long as Boethius’ old arms could swing it. He wasn’t a strong old man, but he wasn’t frail either.
As Boethius was gathering the courage to descend down to the ship’s deck, a new fear ceased his old heart. He could see smoke curling out over the ship’s rail from the open porthole below.
With intensified urgency, Boethius took up the pipe wrench and rushed down the stairs leading to the port deck. From there he had to go into the ship’s cabin to descend further below deck into the old cargo hold, where he imagined his chemistry lab was already in flames. But as Boethius threw open the door and stormed below deck, he was met with a very different sight than what he had expected.
Over the years, Boethius had converted the cargo hold of the old steamboat into a laboratory, resembling something like a large kitchen arrayed with glass bottles, beakers, tubes, and funnels. The rear portion of the repurposed cargo hold was where the boiler was still housed, which Boethius had become in the habit of using as a fireplace. This space was reserved for Boethius’ small library, a threadbare wingback chair, and a small table where he kept his gramophone, which was still playing.
Boethius tightened his grip on the pipe wrench until he felt scales of rust break off the handle and stick to his sweaty palms. There was a slouched figure in his chair with feet kicked up on the edge of the boiler furnace, which housed a dying fire. The smoke which filled the room had a bittersweet aroma, indicating the intruder was smoking.
“Who are you?” Boethius demanded, one foot on the last step and the other firmly planted on the floor. At the sound of Boethius’ voice the slouched figure sat up lazily and turned to face the old man. Immediately Boethius lowered his pipe wrench and heaved a sigh of mingled relief and frustration.
“Amos, what are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night.” Amos slouched back into the chair and fixed his gaze on the gramophone across from him. He removed the pipe from his mouth as he dreamily replied.
“Still listening to love songs…” Boethius didn’t reply, but began to scan the room. Sitting on a counter was an unfamiliar paper bag. Boethius put down the wrench and went to inspect the bag.
“It’s some of the butcher’s spare cuts, fish, and some vegetables.” Amos said without moving. Boethius had began to pick through the bag, then stopped and asked.
“You didn’t steal any of this?”
“Of course not.” Amos replied, returning his pipe to his mouth.
“Why so late? I was expecting you before sunset.” Boethius said, turning to face the back of the wingback chair. No reply came from Amos except for curling wisps of smoke. The needle on the gramophone hit a snag and began to repeat finally portion of the ballad.
“Always the same love songs…” Amos said, with a multiplicity of unrelated thoughts contained in his tone.
“There’s only so many records left on the island.” Boethius replied. There was a long pause. Suddenly, Amos began a cough, which gradually turned into a wheezing laugh.
“You’re beginning to love her.” He laughed. His laughing died and silence crept back into the room as the record stopped.
“What do you want, Amos?” Boethius said coldly. Amos took the pipe from his lips and dangled his arm over the arm of the chair. He heaved a long sigh, emitting a cloud of smoke.
“We need to talk…” His tone had changed, and Boethius thought he could smell the reek of alcohol amidst the pipesmoke. Boethius leaned up against a counter and crossed his arms.
“By that I can only assume you mean you want to talk and you want me to listen; even though you haven’t listened to me in years.” Amos breathed a low groan and began to fiddle with his pipe in his hanging hand. The chair creaked loudly as Amos sat up and heaved himself into a standing position. Amos was a mountain compared to the willowy frame of Boethius. His expression was clouded by the alcohol he had been drinking, and was half hidden by a thick, dark beard. Amos fixed his eyes on the old man.
“You can’t keep this up, Bo. They’re gonna find you out, and you’re gonna hang…or worse.” Amos paused, waiting for Boethius to give a defence. But the old man locked his lips and looked up at Amos’ towering girth. Amos continued, “Those boy’s you’ve been talking to, they’ve been chirping about you in town…I shouldn’t have to tell you it’s unwise to tell secrets to little boys.”
“And why should it be a secret. Everyone should know.” Boethius replied firmly.
Amos began to shake his head despairingly, shifting his gaze around the laboratory with impatience.
“This kind of science you do here is unlawful…you know that.”
“And since when do you believe in the laws of the College? They’re trying to keep this knowledge buried. They want us to be blind…I trusted that you knew that.” Amos did not reply so Boethius continued. “As for me, I’ve seen too much to give up now. Others before me have only ever had their faith in the outside, now I have proof.”
It was evident in Amos’ face that he had been preparing a harrowing response, but swallowed it when Boethius mentioned proof.
“What proof?” Amos asked reservedly, in the voice of a man accustomed to seeing hopes come up empty. Boethius smiled, and turned to the counter behind him which was strewn with papers, metal instruments, and various bottles of fluid. While Boethius hunted for the items he wanted, he said,
“I know you’re skeptical, I was too at first. But the more I looked at what I could see on this island, and the more I was taught by the Lady, the more I found what I could not see was more real than what I could.” Boethius had found what he was looking for. He turned back to Amos holding a folded piece of paper, and a bulb-bottomed glass bottle. In it was, what appeared to be, lead shot floating on the surface of a silvery molten metal. Amos looked up at Boethius, more skeptical than before, but remained silent with arms crossed.
“You could not have come on a more auspicious night. The star Mercury has aligned with Saturn.” Boethius was holding out the bottle.
“What are you doing?” Amos questioned, keeping his arms folded.
“It contains lead and mercury. Hold the bottle with both hands, and be careful not to spill.” He extended the bottle further toward Amos who stepped back a pace.
“Why?” He demanded. But to this Boethius offered no satisfactory reply. He only smiled a knowing smile, the kind which entices the imagination and coaxes it to turn.
“You’ll see.” Was Boethius’ only answer. Amos and Boethius had trusted each other for as long as either could remember. Holding little resentment toward the old chemist, only vague mistrust of his practice, Amos hesitantly reached out and cupped his hands beneath the round-bottomed bottle. As the glass touched his hands, Amos was surprised to find it was warm. Not scaldingly hot, nor warm like a cup of tea, but warm with a living energy, as if the bottle were electrically charged. Before he could ask any questions, he saw Boethius was unfolding the paper in his hands, and saying.
“This may seem odd to you, but I want you to look at these words and tell me what they say.” Amos furrowed his brow but made no complaint, as Boethius held up the sheet. But as Amos’ eyes fell on the hand-drawn script, he became incredulous. Scratched on the paper was a series of angular runes, completely alien to Amos, surrounding a drawn illustration of seven concentric circles, each labeled with a separate rune.
“What is this nonsense, Bo?” Amos scoffed, taking his eyes off the paper.
“Keep looking…” Boethius urged. With hesitation, Amos obeyed and returned his gaze to the mystic scrawl. Now really fixing his eyes on the symbols, Amos began to experience something strange. The Mercury in the bottle seemed to get warmer; its energy getting stronger. If Amos had been watching the bottle, he would see the Mercury begin to vibrate and the lead shot begin to sink; but Amos’ eyes were fixed on the paper.
Though he was unable to derive any concrete meaning from the symbols, Amos began to experience the sensation one has when looking non-fixedly at a familiar word. A word so understood and comfortable, meaning transcends form—like a name.
Amos began to see images through his thoughts, as if the circles on the paper had become a stage and the symbols had become its actors. He had an impression of enormous bird’s wings, an earthquake, the ringing of metal, and the smell of the sea. More deeply still—and in the wordless meaning of a remembered story—the impression of an angel dying and child being born in the woods. Then, overpowering dread, Amos’ own acute fear of age and time.
Amos let out a cry without much breath and staggered backward, dropping the bottle as he did. It shattered loudly on the floor, sending silvery droplets of mercury rolling and scurrying over the wood planks. Amos breathed hard gripping the chair behind him as Boethius calmly refolded the paper.
“Believe me, Amos…as a friend,” Boethius began, in a sincere and earnest tone, “the College would have you for a fool. The universe is far more complicated than they would lead us to believe. It’s not a machine, it’s a dance, full of partners. The stars, their metals, the ground, the sea. You, me, and the Luminaries, the whole world moves and we’re a part of it!” Amos glanced up at the old man with eyes of doubt and fear.
“And Amos, we cannot stand idly by.” Amos’ eyes fell again, though he released his grip from the chair.
“I don’t think I want your world.” Amos muttered without much resolve. Boethius immediately retorted,
“Only because it broke your heart once. You gave up on it and chose to blind yourself to the real world. We cannot pick and choose which truths we want; we can only choose to believe in the truth or believe in lies.” Boethius paused, as the room grew heavy in the wake of honest words. “You have no middle ground, Amos.” Amos shook his head and sniffed, in a vain effort to dispel the uncomfortable atmosphere.
“I didn’t come for all this talk, I came to warn you that you’ll be in serious danger of the College if you don’t stop all this.”
“And I’m telling you, that we’re all in serious danger as long as we stay on this island.” Boethius stood firm, but Amos groaned and began to pace the room. A faint sound caught Boethius’ attention. A fluttering and scratching on the deck above him. He continued,
“I’ve heard the call of the outside and I’ll be damned if I don’t respond. If it means death, I’d gladly drink it if only you would come to your senses.”
“You won’t listen to reason! This is hopeless.” Amos complained, pacing disgruntledly.
“I’ve heard your plea, and reject it. I’ve offered my reason and it’s yours to take or leave as you please, but listen to me Amos, you will only find death in the laws of the College. This island is venomous.”
“I know that!” Amos shouted back, becoming greatly disturbed. He stopped pacing and looked at the floor again. “What would you have me do? Any action I make is punishable by the College. You may call me a coward, but…I fear death.” Amos’ tone dropped as he spoke. But Boethius shook his head, ambling across the room to his tall friend’s side. He placed his boney hand on Amos’ brawny shoulder.
“I don’t believe that. Like me, you fear time more than death.” Boethius’ voice was not consoling, but spoke honestly. He then added, grimly, “And the College has time on their side.” Another scratching sound came from just over their heads. This time Amos noticed and looked up at the wood plank ceiling.
“Those boys you mentioned…” Boethius began, stealing back Amos’ attention, “They speak very fondly of you. Rafael in particularly shows great potential.” At the mention of Rafael, Amos’ became thoughtful.
“Yes…but not as a fishman I’m afraid. He shows more interest in your books than in learning my trade.” Amos paused, then returned his sharp gaze to Boethius. “You know, you put those boys at risk by telling them the things you know. You said yourself they can’t keep quiet.”
“Those boys are the beating heart of this island. The College is only the head. If I can change the heart, I will have changed the head.” Boethius replied. Amos took a deep and shaky breath, reaching into his coat pocket to produce a tin flask. Before taking a long draught, he smiled wryly, saying,
“You sound like a revolutionary.”
“And you sound like a cynic.”
Amos almost choked on his drink as he laughed, taking the flask from his lips. Returning it to his coat pocket he replied,
“It’s a comfortable life if you don’t mind the cold. It suits the life of a fisherman.”
“You were not born a fisherman, or a cynic…” Boethius paused, and added, “neither was Rafael.” Amos’ countenance took on a nasty transformation, now looking on the old man with contempt.
“You talk like you know me. You don’t know me! You call me your friend but you don’t know me, and you don’t understand the world.” Boethius was taken aback but did not show it. Amos began to sputter and pace again, becoming increasingly agitated.
“You’ve been drinking.” Boethius observed. Amos scoffed and reproduced his flask, saying,
“Any healthy man would after hearing your mind.”
“You’re not healthy,” Boethius said, while Amos took another deep draught from the tin flask, “you know you’re unhealthy, you’re dying on this island. We need to escape, over the sea there’s…” Amos suddenly shouted and kicked a small table covered with glass laboratory equipment.
“Don’t you get it!? We’re all there is! There’s nothing across the sea. Everyone’s dead!” Boethius did not say a word. He stood stockstill, arms flat at his side and eyes narrowed at Amos.
“You’re not yourself. Go home and sleep. If I’m still here tomorrow come and see me. There’s more I have to tell you.”
“Save your breath old man, I’ve said my piece.” Amos murmured in a growling tone. His shuffling feet crunched on the broken glass and scattered the remaining mercury still lying on the floor. He put on his flat cap and walked to a door built into the side of the steamboat’s hull, which served as the front door of the house.
Before Amos could undo the locks and open the door, Boethius had rushed to a cupboard and taken out an old book.
“Amos wait.” Boethius called, bringing the book to Amos, “If you won’t listen to me, that’s fine. I did not expect you to understand. But we have always been friends, through thick and thin.” He pushed the book into Amos’ hands. “If you’ll do nothing else for me, take this and hide it somewhere safe.” Amos blinked and looked down at the blank-covered book stupidly.
“Just do it for me…as my friend; and another thing…” Boethius took a long breath before continuing, “do not trust the College…you understand? Don’t believe a word they say. They’re a brood of vipers who hate justice. True justice,” Boethius tapped the hard cover of the book in Amos’ hands, “is right here.”
Amos did not reply. He sniffed and ground his teeth, looking into the face of the old man for the last time. Then, book in hand he turned, opened the door, and stepped out into the blackness of the night.