From the LabLit short story series
22 January 2014
I find superstitions and irrational beliefs fascinating. Especially the people that hold them.
"– not strictly a constellation, the seven brightest stars form an asterism that looks a little like an old-fashioned smoking pipe. This part of Ursa Major is known as the Plough in Britain and Ireland and the Big Dipper in North America." As the narrator spoke, the seven stars flared against the projected night sky. From the darkness a ghostly smoking pipe faded in around them, then a plough, then a ladle, then back to darkness. "The pointer stars, Dubhe and Merak –"
"Alpha Ursae Majoris and Beta Ursae Majoris," came the whisper in Jack's ear as a line connected two stars and continued on beyond them until it reached another.
"– Polaris, the North Star, in Ursa Minor. It appears as an almost fixed point in the northern sky, with all other stars seemingly revolving around it as the night progresses." Jack gripped the edge of his seat as the sky started spinning, his steady heartbeat thrown in response, his stomach thinking about it.
He kept his eye fixed on Polaris. Then glanced at Moon. Even in the darkness he could see she was relaxed and peaceful, taking in the star swirl, unphased. Probably a Libra. Or a Sagittarius.
"So, would you like to go out for a drink and a show some time?" she'd asked him.
"Sure! Next week?" A movie, the pub afterwards and then, depending on his luck, who knew?
"Friday?" He'd hesitated. "How about Thursday, the twelfth, or perhaps the fourteenth, Saturday? I wasn't planning anything on Friday...I mean, I have things to do, so I was going to stay in...all day. Saturday would be great. It's a good day for me."
Coffee followed by the planetarium had not been what he'd had in mind.
"Are you sure you wouldn't prefer a pub?" he’d asked.
"Maybe next time. Alcohol's a depressant; coffee's a stimulant. I think if we want to get to know each other better we should both opt for a stimulant. It increases heart rate and, thanks to cognitive misattribution and the anterior cingulate cortex, means you assume it's a feeling of excitement caused by the other person, making you feel closer to them. I'd like that." She'd smiled.
He'd smiled back. Moon was calling the shots. He was more than happy to be the target.
"I usually drink decaf if I'm having coffee," he'd said.
"I thought you were into homeopathy? Surely there's no difference between decaf and full-caf?"
He hadn't been about to argue.
"– hasn't always looked like this. We can travel back in time to see how the sky looked to our ancestors." The stellar whirlpool slowed to be replaced by a more gentle drift of stars and a year countdown that dropped rapidly and deeply into BC. Polaris drifted away from its fixed point as familiar constellations dissolved into pointillist chaos. Jack's nausea gave way to dissonance.
"Jack, this is Moon. She's into astrology too. You should have a lot to talk about!" Phoebe had said before disappearing back into the party.
"Is your name really Moon?"
"Yeah, my parents were New Agers. As teen rebellion I tried going by Diana for a few years, but all the princess associations were so not me. I switched back when I realised Moon made my name internet unique. And it was kind of cool it suited my interests."
"Yeah, Phoebe said you were into astrology. What sign are you?"
"Cancer." She'd smiled.
"I knew it! Given you were called Moon –"
"Just kidding. I don't believe in that stuff. Probably lose my job if I did."
"Yeah, Phoebe. She always gets it muddled up: I'm into astronomy. I'm a cosmologist at the university."
"But I find superstitions and irrational beliefs fascinating." A coy smile. "Especially the people that hold them." He'd met her smile with a revived one of his own. "Oh, and it's Scorpio."
Yeah, that figures, he'd thought. Typical Scorpio behaviour.
But she'd been kidding about that one too. And Virgo and Pisces and Capricorn.
"– out of alignment –"
Her hand touched his, covered it, fingers encircling his wrist.
"– galaxies moving closer together –"
Her other hand reached up and caressed his neck, from nape to jugular. He felt his pulse quicken. So did she.
"Some of that's the caffeine," she whispered in his ear. "The rest is you and me."
He turned his head and kissed her.
"– the instant of creation we call the Big Bang –"
Her hand moved beneath his shirt. His movements mirrored hers.
First base. Second base. Moon base.
"– a singularity of infinite density –"
Then without warning or transition Jack was returned to the here and now. Moon was standing, shouting at the narrator's silhouette.
The kiss was over.
"Excuse me, that's incorrect. My doctoral thesis, and the work of others in the field, have categorically shown that cannot physically or logically have been the case."
The narrator broke off his rote incantation. "I will take questions at the end."
"I'm sure you will. But this is an objection not a question."
"In that case, I will address your objection at the end." The practised sense of wonder in the narrator's voice ceded to patience.
"What, and keep feeding these poor people a fairy story?"
"Please, I must ask you to sit down or leave."
"And I must ask you to get your facts straight."
The lights went up, the magic of the shifting night skies banished by a hemisphere of disapproval, an auditorium of turned heads, scowling, tutting and leaving. Moon and the narrator were locked in a war of obscure words and references and all-too-clear raised voices and body language.
Jack no longer cared about Moon's star sign. He crossed his legs. He was Aquarius, the water carrier, and the coffee had caught up with him.