. . . Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths . . .
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
Camelopardalis has no star brighter than Beta (4.0). It is a very barren area, lacking in
interesting objects, so that it need detain us no further here.
—Patrick Moore, The Amateur Astronomer
He came, therefore, as a surprise
from the place surprises rarely wait.
A new shape in the sky—and not even
the sequestered sky, some little lap
seen only briefly, almost below
trees at change of season. No,
he was there all the time, four-legged
and long, stretching his strange
unsecretive neck over cypresses
and pines, the tallest trees
at the property line, dwarfing
each one. He reached right up
to the Northern Star.
We had been green to the sky that season,
all the frigid semester long, out walking
campus past duskfall, the sheer dark
of eighteen degrees, following the east,
you could say we followed a star. . . .
Then finding the place, where the rows
of blinding lamplights ceased, leading
over incommodious walks, twisting
with trees and undisciplined side-paths
winding off into outer darkness.
In the cold concealment of tamarack
and cedar branches, we converged
convictionless pilgrims, with jackets
and backpacks, under plumes of breath,
awaiting the call of a key in the lock, to step
inside that holiness, a corrugated dome
moonlike and white, ready to track
each slow, unspectacular flight.
We had been in your backyard—October
fourteenth—the night we first found him
completely by mistake, with the Celestron
out and aiming at craters, maria, moons
of Jupiter that moved inside the hour.
Our map was your star-chart, outdated,
purchased used, trying to decipher
hemispheric simulations, flat in print,
unaligned with the chaos rising above.
Then to find that name (or rather,
that name find us—it nearly leapt
from the page in the flashlight beam)
strung like a kenning, like a Saxon’s
double-punch (as much a whale-road,
glee-beam or bone-house was that beast!)
And this one Greek. Just as the hippo
meant a horse among streams, or as we
call the Sea-Goat for his caprid horns,
so some ancient world-roving wight
must have coined this word when no
time-worn term could serve to describe
the sight of a disfigured dromedary
particolored as the pard. . . .
Camelopardalis. Giraffe. Entwined
by the Serpent and never-setting Bears, dim
but undeniable, a most unlikely surprise.
Yet there in the parabolic half-dark
of the dome, we never saw him—
we never saw much of anything, save
a Venusian crescent, Jovian ring, the fuzzy
imagination of nebula or cluster hovering
in glass at the end of the scope. Outside
was too bright for seeing. In observing,
the best we could do was revere the idea,
the mere act of retreating to that space, taking
time to lend eyes to things unconcerned
with Earth. Or even just to laugh
that life should insist on waxing so serious,
yet all the while hold that for half a year
every year, among ice-floes of the upper north
there treads a faultless camel-pard,
skimming black seas, unbitten by frost.
Yes, the Dippers form at top of sky
fine avatars for polar bears, but in that dark
the camel-pard lives ninety degrees too high.
So life persists in its capacity to shock
and amuse. And afterward, recrossing campus,
we always felt somehow renewed—Not
for what we saw, but what seeing saw in us:
as though focused through that scope, all speech
and thoughts refined, and in that cloistral seclusion,
in seeking to find, we forgot ourselves a moment,
and left ourselves to float. . . . All semester,
once each week, the year slowly finding its way
to light, we made our uneventful eastward trek,
awed by every starless night.
At the end of it all,
she and I walked out in the silence past three
and sat above a highway on a gravel
railroad overpass. We dangled our legs
over two-laned pavement, watching
intermittent headlights pass, taillights
flashing white to red, semis bearing in
the wind. Cars served as stars
as any devotion to any sight will serve.
And I told her then of so many things,
of hours spent observing, trying to find
frozen in the long cold dark, the trees,
the tracked dome sliding, searching
for something we could never hope to see.
And of October, the Celestron: Camel-pard,
our glacier-bound giraffe, our weird genius
rarely seen, so far away from zodiac fame,
the sure design of life's endless surprise.
That night we did not sleep until sunrise.
In the cold heat of infant day, we dreamed
as on the dream at summer's dawn long after
when she came back to me, without form or face,
a presence known only in narrative, she was
a goddess, perhaps (something serious, at least).
While fast stars whirled in fiery rings overhead,
in all black she said to me, she said her strange
and certain words:
rise from bed
some night, and go outside
to lie supine upon the roof
beneath that season's sky,
stare, stare until the dawn,
and in the passing of stars
view the passing of your life.
I awoke soon after. And soon the day began.
White sunlight, rising, filled the room.
And in that instant of waking, I understood,
and knew every word she had said to be true.
Ethan Grant is a graduate of Valparaiso University, where he served as an assistant editor at Valparaiso Fiction Review.