The Non-Epistemological Universe of Emmaeus Holt
The disappearance of Emmaeus Holt was quiet. The police had no reason to suspect foul play. No one had missed him, save for a student of the professor's who called the police after she repeatedly attempted, and failed, to deliver a draft of her summer research paper to Holt's derelict office. A secretary told the authorities that the professor had planned on retiring to his private observatory in the Alleghenies, but that he should have returned two weeks before his student had alerted the police. A bored county sheriff and his deputy were sent to retrieve the professor, who it was assumed, simply over-stayed at the observatory without letting the secretary know of his intentions. Finding the small tower locked, the professor's car nearby, also locked, and getting no answer to knocking or calling out, the sheriff and deputy obtained a search warrant in a matter of hours. Returning to the observatory, they broke a door down and entered. Transcriptions of police audio, punctuated by static and squeaks, reveal the unsettled feelings of the two as they related their findings back to dispatch:
"Schuster to dispatch."
"Dispatch, go ahead."
"Ah, we're going to need a photographer here. Maybe a couple of 'em."
"Copy. And a forensics team?"
"Yeah, but . . ."
"No coroner needed."
"That's affirmative, there's no body."
"But you're going to want to contact the local astronomy club, if I'm reading this right."
"Ah. OK. Roger that. Anything else? A psychologist for yourself, maybe?"
"Very funny. No. But I think we might could use . . . an interior decorator?"
"An . . . interior . . . decorator. Right. Got it. You sure about not getting the psych in?"
Hundreds of photographs, a series of academic papers written by Geoffrey Arvo, past president of the Greensburg Stargazers Association (now instructor of Astronomy at Greensburg Community College), and notes taken by an interior decorator (reportedly the sheriff's own wife)—all of these pieces of evidence, when observed in toto, leave one with little doubt as to the source, or sources, of the sheriff's consternation.
Besides the front door (which, when it was smashed in, sloughed off thick sheets of paint to reveal the worn wood beneath), the inside walls of the place were painted a half-inch thick with daisy-yellow low-gloss paint. In areas where angles intersected, at the junctures of walls and the ceiling, for instance, the paint was even thicker, giving the inside of the building more of an organic than an architectural appearance, having softened the lines. All furniture and appliances—chair, desk, even the Dobsonian telescope that pointed past the cupola to the open sky, were armored with this cheerfully disturbing multi-layered shell. Atop this yellow field, in barely-visible brown lettering, were notes, later determined to be Professor Holt's handwriting, in English, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek, separated into groupings, the sum of which formed a patchwork representation, in narrative form, of all the constellations visible in the summer sky—on the summer solstice, if we are to believe Arvo's investigations—as one would view them from the observatory. The English inscriptions were largely taken directly from the 1978 edition of Burnham's Celestial Handbook, the Greek from Aratus' Phaenomena, and the Arabic from Kutub al-anwā'. The smattering of Sanskrit came from an amateur translation—poorly done by Holt himself—of Vedic hymns, particularly those surrounding the Orion myth.
The most striking feature of the observatory, however, was not the walls themselves but the 5,179 holes bored into them. Each hole represented a star, the size of the bore indicating the visual magnitude of the star. Pigment had been added to the holes, indicating each star's color. Each of these holes was outlined with a black ring. Some holes were surrounded by a circular rim inscribed with mystical symbols, others were framed by portions of text, fictive and factual, extraordinary and mundane. The effect as one entered the room, was that of being stared at by thousands of gloomy eyes that peeked out from a golden field, each a dark faerie peeping through a wall of barley. Some of the faeries had stories in their eyes.
Each hole was plugged with rolls of parchment on which were written stories, poems, myths, pieces of autobiography, and mathematical calculations.
One of the more bizarre scrolls, tucked away inside a bright white hole at Theta Serpens, contains a series of poetic recombinants based on the letters composing the "host" star's primary elemental makeup: Hydrogen, helium, iron, nickel, silicon, lead, titanium, sodium. Many are fragmentary, some nearly nonsensical, but all contain a hazy background of internal logic. For instance, the series ends with these three short verses:
Shall destroy me
The ruined cloud king
I claim u
Cleanse my mind
In an hour,
Closing the killdoor
I, U die
Is cloaking my
In the ruinous
If Holt was a madman, his insanity was carefully calculated, which subverts the very definition of insanity in its more chaotic forms. Perhaps he was a well-ordered manic-depressive? But such diagnoses are problematic, as there is enough evidence to contradict psychological conclusions based on a fragmentary knowledge of Holt's stellar nursery. Taken as a whole, however, the corpus might be interpreted, by the erudite psychiatric practitioner, as clearly indicating the professor's many neuroses and even psychoses, a catalog of case studies bound up in one human subject.
But if Holt was not a madman, his artistic and literary magnum opus, though clearly the work of an amateur, must be respected for its ambition and imagination. Holt's sometimes baroque prose, along with his vivid imagery, lends a euphoric tone to such pieces as the fragment "The Stairs of Arcturus":
". . . and we were swept along the astral wind, my companion's thin-membraned wings acting as sails through the nebular mist, until we arrived at their scintillating silver and green gem-world of Xourath. Here, thin rivers of mercury course in the seams of gently rolling green hills, the blood of the planet pulsating through its every crevasse, giving it the appearance of a verdant, shining, vascular web. We descended through the thin, blue atmosphere, skimming the treeless ground toward the heart of the planet—a vast geyser, miles high, that reflected the white rays of the pale sun in a spray of mirrors visible for hundreds of miles. Liquid flashes of mirrored light dappled Xourath's short-cropped grass, a beautiful phenomenon that is named by the inhabitants of Yuggoth, but unpronounceable by the human tongue."
Holt's emotive capacity seems to be every bit as facile as was his imagination. This is particularly evident in a short prose piece rolled into two "tails," as many ancient manuscripts are or were, and wedged into the red/blue binary system of Algol. The area around the holes that represent the two stars is painted black and decorated with white sigils comparable to some of the magical symbols used by Aleister Crowley in his rites for The Order of the Golden Dawn. Each hole was plugged with a Greek coin bearing a likeness of the gorgon, Medusa, the demon (Arabic Al Ghul) most often associated with this variable binary in classical times.
The scroll's contents form a stark contrast with the horrifying wards and black magicks used, it appears, to protect it:
"It struck me softly, with pleasant thunder, your mellifluous voice, the parting of your red hair to reveal eyes of ice, like the first cool winds of autumn through the changing trees. A crispness filled the air, an awareness my heart—I was, at last, alive! And yet—a cloud threatened my sun—you were forbidden. Rules, regulation, taboo, conflict of professional interest conspired against me. But you, in your feminine bravery, did not care; you were intentionally oblivious to decorum, which made me desire you all the more. And you, returning that desire, a secret, unspoken exchange of vows in the hall of learning . . ."
Here the scroll is maimed, burned at the bottom of the page. One wonders, given the evidence of attempted destruction by fire, if the glyphs and dweomers surrounding the scroll were meant to protect it from outsiders or to protect outsiders from the scroll. Why hide such an incomplete fragment? Why create the work in the first place? Is it a true reflection of the author's feelings, or is it merely fiction? And why use Algol, the star that medieval astrologers felt was the most ominous sign of bad fortune in the celestial sky, as the hiding place for such tender written confessions? All of these questions, combined, cause confusion in one who wishes to understand the author's intent toward his subject. The dissonance is unsettling.
Not far from Algol, either in the night sky or on the walls of the observatory, shines (or darkens, in the case of this visually negative observatory) Nova Persei 1901, the first nova to be detected in the 20th century. The star is represented on the wall at its strongest magnitude, 0.2, making it one of the largest openings on that section of wall, a hole a full 2 inches in diameter. Contained therein was a scroll tube or hollow wand of an indeterminate species of wood, engraved with a tapestry-like vignette of a young man in long robes and a strange conical head-dress, almost papal, reading a book and represented in congress with a series of strange demonic creatures that look nothing like any animal of Earth, the product, it seems, of a schizophrenic drug addict's twisted dreams, or the doodling of an eccentric artist in his wilder flights of imagination.
The scroll inside the tube tells an insipid tale of a young man's misadventures with forces, he soon discovers, that are beyond his control. Again, the story is given only in fragments, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps of missing information and entire swaths of plotline. This is further complicated by the fact that the author chose to tell the story from end to beginning, as if retracing the chronology of the tragedy from its culmination to its origins:
8. The universe exploded.
7. Having sacrificed all, his family, his friends, even the love of his life, he came to understand that they, The Outsiders, were insatiable. They cared not for sacrifice or obedience. They sought only one thing, and that was entropy. He could no more control them than he could control the processes he had already set in motion that he knew and once loved, when he was capable of love, all that he had so callously given over to their uncaring care.
6. They were alone, the two of them, Edra and Oulise, looking out of their crumbling tower, a thousand feet tall, over the blasted plains of Arador, the earth blistered into cracks that seeped rivers of magma, setting ablaze the withered bodies of an entire planet's population—save two—in a final paroxysm of unholy burnt sacrifice to the Un-nameable Gods. But was this the final prayer? Was there not more to be done? Oulise turned her back to Edra, craning her neck out over the jagged balcony to see the gigantic forms of the approaching trio, each as tall as the tower itself. She stared, in terror, as their mind-shattering shapes shook the burned-out shell of the city beneath. She was distracted for the moment. It was enough . . .
5. "Oulise, you can't imagine the power."
She smiled slyly. "Oh, I think I can. But how do you plan to deal with your father? You have made him king of the realm, but only because circumstance, because cosmic accident, allowed it to be so.
"Circumstances that coincided with the right preparations, the right choices." Edra's brow furrowed in thought. "I can undo him. But I'll need your help, my love."
4. The invocation was a success. The yellow-tentacled akishkumeni rolled its five black eyes in consternation, defeated.
"What ish thy will?"
"A simple matter, really, for one of your talents," Edra said, adopting a formal tone. "There is a matter involving a small child."
The akishkumeni began to drool, wringing its tentacles. "A shild, you shay?" Its glee could hardly be contained.
"Yes, but things are not as simple as you might think. The child is my youngest sister, and she holds something that is very precious to me, something I must have, for a time, after which it shall be yours. For now you can have the girl. Do with her what you want. But I must have that . . . thing," he spat the word out with disgust, "that she holds."
The creature's many eyes betrayed suspicion. "What ish it?"
"My unborn son."
3. He read the tome from morning to night and into the next morning, entrapped in the tale it told, an epic of betrayal and revenge, of secret oaths and dark, hidden mysteries. When he finished it, he sat, exhausted, staring at the cracked walls of his underground tenement house, watching a pair of large insects wrestle each other in the flashing reflection of a neon light before being crushed by a cat that had taken an interest in the battle. "This will be my blueprint, my path."
2. Wiping the blood from his lip, he crawled inside, fearful that they might return and finish the job. He fell onto a pile of moldy blankets and began to wrap himself up in them. As he tugged at one of the thicker blankets, something large and heavy fell out onto the floor with a thud. It was a huge book covered in worn brown leather, embossed with a circle whose center was pitch black, like a void that cut through the pages of the book and through the space beyond, a lightless tunnel through everything.1
1. I have such a book.
It is unclear who the "I" mentioned in the superscripted (and inappropriately bulleted, rather than footnoted or endnoted) comment might be. Perhaps it is Holt himself, who is, perhaps the original author of the fictional piece to which it is attached. perhaps the original author of the fictional piece to which it is attached.
Not all of the writings discovered at the observatory are so cryptic. One hole, located at Mu Ursae Majoris, contains a series of headlines cut out from a number of different tabloid periodicals, newspapers, and research journals. They are, in no particular order:
•The Hurdy-gurdy Resurgence in Coastal France
•Full-spectrum Photographs of Io Reveal Volcanic Plumes
•Three-armed Fetus Fights for Survival—Against its Twin!
•Below the Line: A Review of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon
•Sunspot Activity Expected to Disrupt Communications
•On Wings of Dream: Your Body Loses Mass During Sleep!
•Large Hoard of Roman Coins Dug up in Antarctica
•Cholera Outbreak Ravages Southwest China
•Forbidden Planet Original Soundtrack Re-mastered
•Springfield, IL City Librarian Murdered Near Home
•Airplane Loses Engine, Lands Safely
Another hole, at e Eridani, simply holds receipts:
|Colorspray Art Supply||$16.85|
|Bay Area Glass Grinders||$200.00|
|A New Leaf Floral Design||$45.00|
|Impact Laser Etching||$120.00|
|Holst: The Planets||$20.00|
|Part: Perpetuum M||$20.00|
|Crumb: Songs Whales||$20.00|
Another, at SS Cygni, holds a quote from Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther:
". . . ach könntest du das wieder ausdrüchen, könntest du den Papiere das einhauchen, was so voll, so warm in dir lebt, daß es würde der Spiegel deiner Seele, wie deine Seele ist der Spiegel des unendlichen Gottes!—Mein Freund—Aber ich gehe darüber zugrunde, ich erliege unter der Gewalt der Herrlichkeit dieser Erscheinungen."
Yet, despite this foreshadowing of Werther's suicide, despite the letters of unrequited (and unrequitable) love, despite the many tiny evidences of Holt's day-to-day activities, there is no clue to the man's disappearance. No body was found, no trace of a struggle, no patch of hair, no streak of blood, only fingerprints on the few unpainted surfaces left in the room.
Searches of his home, school office, and favorite haunts yielded nothing. Phone records show no calls out from his residence. Police were dispatched to his late wife's gravesite, but they found no evidence of any disturbance there. Relatives were contacted, but none claimed to have had contact with him for many years, since his wife's death.
Two weeks after police raided his observatory, Emmaeus Holt was officially listed as "Missing."
Without a body, a funeral could not be held. Besides, none of his family or his wife's family had any desire to attend such, because he had been such a recluse in the years since his wife's death. Still, the student who first called the police to notify them of Holt's disappearance, along with the secretary whom police first questioned, held a tearful memorial ceremony in the professor's honor. The student, one Mariah Grosser, began with a recap of Holt's early biography, schooling, and professional accomplishments:
"But Professor Holt will be remembered not only for his academic record, however accomplished it might have been. Rather, Emmaeus, as he liked his students to call him, will be remembered for his kind heart."
At this point, sniffles could be heard among the crowd of forty or so students and faculty who had gathered for the eulogy. The secretary, later identified as Mary Giles, was inconsolable and wept openly.
"He treated his students as peers," Grosser went on, "and his peers revered him. Though a solitary man, his self-confidence was evident to any who took time to interact with him on a personal basis, whether in the classroom, in the office, or after hours either at his observatory or over a beer at one of the local pubs. Emmaeus had a mind far more brilliant than the masses, but he was 'of the people,' always analyzing, though never condescending. While it is evident that he was under great emotional duress, we should view his art—though the work of a frenzied mind, no one can call Emmaeus's accomplishment anything but art—not as a beacon of distress, but as the flowering of his heart beyond its bounds, a manifestation of his brilliance, his hope, his love, which embraced the universe."
The week after she gave the eulogy, Mariah Grosser dropped out of school and left, her parents claim, for San Francisco. Authorities are still seeking her whereabouts. She is rumored to have moved to a commune in the hills of northern California.
The observatory was dismantled over the course of several months, carefully deconstructed by a team of amateur astronomers, archaeologists, and parapsychologists. The provenience of each section of wall, every paper, every object in the room, was carefully recorded on a series of grids, photographed, and entered into a database, as if the team had discovered the lost city of Troy or Mohenjo Daro. Even the location of each fingerprint dusting was recorded. An air of reverence suffused the demolition, as if all involved had come together in some sacred understanding of the significance of Holt's masterpiece.
Still, there were discoveries to be made.
Upon dismantling the telescope that looked through the dome's window to the heavens, the team, especially one of the astronomers—a part-time lens maker—was astounded to find that the main mirror of the telescope had been laser etched.
The caption under the main image read: "For you, M.G., I am Edra, without the fatal flaw."
Because of the image on the mirror, the telescope's resolution of celestial bodies was severely limited. Etched on the mirror was the burned-in outline of Holt's face. Nested in the reflection of his left eye was an image of Mariah Grosse as, it was later found, she appeared on the photograph taken for her student I.D., which she had lost earlier that semester.
When the telescope was put back together in precisely the location from which it was taken, only one star, a faint star hidden in the glare of the Pleiades, shone clearly—in the pupil of Mariah Grosser's right eye.
This star had, since the night of Holt's disappearance, grown in magnitude as a newly discovered nova from magnitude 18 to magnitude 5.8, the birth of an eighth sibling of the seven sisters.
Forrest Aguirre, author of Fugue XXIX (Raw Dog Screaming) and Swans Over the Moon (Wheatland Press), is a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author living in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in such venues as Asimov's, Exquisite Corpse, and American Letters & Commentary. He has work forthcoming in Clockwork Phoenix 2. Forrest most recently edited Text:UR, The New Book of Masks (Raw Dog Screaming). He is currently working on his second novel, Panoptica.