Ethan Grant: "Observation Hours"




     . . . 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Our map was your star-chart, outdated,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.