Parallax

Königsberg, 1838.

Freed from gravity, and from the need for air, Karl Strahlenheim’s spirit sees the small group of people at the scene of the duel in the cobbled square. He sees that his blood has overflowed the white shirt he put on an hour ago. His handsome young features are calm, and blanched, like the marble effigies in the cathedral. The doctor packs his instruments. The priest departs, his black cassock flaring behind him. Von Stein stands beside the corpse, head bowed as he slowly cleans his sword, his tearful wife hurrying to his side to embrace him.

Strahlenheim leaves behind his aching lust for Angelica, and his hatred for Von Stein. He is no longer bound to his world. The scene below him shrinks: the grid of streets on the oblong island, surrounded by the river Pregel, with its wharves and swans, and its seven bridges; the great buildings of the University of Königsberg, its ancient Library; the Observatory where he worked; the mediaeval Cathedral; the Botanical Gardens. He rises into the stratosphere. Yet science has long ago defeated religion in his soul, and he cannot find his way to God. The light of the world fades away behind him, and he looks out into the dark abyss beyond the Milky Way. He feels that he moves in the world of the spirits, a world between heaven and hell, where judgment will take place. He is not sure who is listening, but he starts to rehearse his story.

‘I was born down there, in 1802. My father was a watchmaker, and my mother died when I was born. After my father was killed at Waterloo, my aunt apprenticed me to Berner, the optician. I rapidly learned mathematics and optics, and became an expert in the science of optical instruments. In 1828, Friedrich Bessel, the director of the Königsberg Observatory, obtained a new heliometer from the Optical Institute in Bavaria to map the positions of the stars. I went to work for him. I was responsible for setting up and calibrating the lenses, and on clear nights I would record the measurements. When my position at the Observatory was secure, I courted Mathilde, the youngest daughter of a wealthy exporter of timber. I think she found me handsome enough, but she was a prude, and she refused me because I lacked lineage and wealth.

Julius Von Stein was my senior. He was the eldest son of the Professor of Classics, and had graduated from the University of Königsberg with the highest honours. Von Stein was precise in his appearance and his work, and his fingers were never ink-stained. He loved to criticise and correct my reports, confirming himself in his own refined education and his academic superiority.

And I had my first sight of Angelica on a spring afternoon in the Botanical Gardens. I saw a tiny elegant blonde, holding a midnight blue parasol, walking with two small sons and a nanny. I raised my hat to her. She sat down on a bench with the nanny, as the two boys chased each other up and down the wide avenue, and around the lilacs. I had an hour to spend before my lecture, and decided to sit on a facing bench and read my notes. Every now and then I glanced up and found her eyes on me, before she quickly looked away. She was bored with the company of her children and the nanny, restless and in need of excitement. I knew she liked me. She was a pretty girl, fine featured, with a good complexion and innocent blue eyes. She seemed too small to have borne children, even to have endured the marital embrace. I allowed myself to imagine a husband burying himself in her body, her head moving from one side to another during the act of possession, tangles of fair silky hair spilling across the pillow. Of course, I did not know she was married to Von Stein. I smiled, and glimpsed a subtle smile on her small pink lips before she glanced away. I turned my eyes to my notes.

It was galling to meet her a week later, in the Chancellor’s Hall of the University, after Von Stein’s doctorate ceremony. I was standing alone, watching the academics and their wives chatting in the great oak-panelled chamber. The walls were hung with the portraits of eminent scholars, long dead. Von Stein actually came up to me and introduced Angelica as his wife. Blushing deeply in pink silk, she barely came up to her husband’s shoulder. I thought how old and ugly he looked, in his dark plain suit, puffing himself out, with that dainty young girl on his arm, but I responded politely. I searched Angelica’s face for recognition, which she withheld. Von Stein told her I was a very talented young astronomer, and would one day be a great credit to the Observatory and make incredible discoveries. I modestly accepted his compliment, and congratulated him on his doctorate. I soon engaged Angelica in conversation.

‘You must be very proud of your husband’s achievements,’ I said.

‘Oh yes!’ she exclaimed, curving the sweet pink bud petals of her mouth. And then she said that she had absolutely no idea what he did. I quizzed Von Stein.

‘Have you not told her of the work of the Observatory?’ I asked.

‘Well I try to, but she is more concerned with, shall we say, the finer things in life.’ He patted his wife’s jewelled hand where it rested lightly on his forearm, and she smiled up at him.

‘But what could be finer, my friend,’ I said, gesturing to an imaginary sky, ‘than the stars, those celestial diamonds hanging in the empurpled firmament like the million crystals of a divine chandelier?’ I turned to Angelica. ‘Has he told you about the Milky Way?’ She shook her head, quivering the pearl droplets at her ears.

‘Do enlighten me,’ she replied, her eyes glittering.

‘If you look at the sky on a clear night, you will see a cloudy region, the Milky Way,’ I explained. ‘Yet there are no clouds, the night is clear, so how can this be? It was the Arab scholar Alhazen who first determined that because the Milky Way had no parallax, it was far from the Earth and did not belong to the atmosphere. This was centuries before Galileo saw it was made of stars. And it was Immanuel Kant, in this very University,’ I continued, ‘who gave us the Nebular Theory. He said the Milky Way is a flat disc of stars formed within a spinning cloud of gas, and we are within it, our sun being merely a single star, and that the other nebulae we can see are also discs of countless stars. We are but atoms in the huge cosmos.’ Angelica was staring at me intently.

‘What is parallax?’ she asked me.

‘Stellar parallax,’ I said, ‘is the main work of our observatory. Has your husband truly not mentioned it? It is how we can measure the distance of the stars from our planet. So, you will ask me, how can I measure this if I cannot reach the stars? But look.’ I held up my forefinger in the air in front of me. ‘Look at my finger and my face behind it.’ I smiled. ‘Now close your left eye.’

‘The finger moves to the left,’ she answered.

‘Now look with your left eye and close your right. It moves to the right. Now if I bring my finger further away from you, do it again, what happens?’

‘It moves less.’

‘Exactly, when it is nearer to you, it appears to move more. This is parallax. So, the stars move relative to each other as the Earth orbits the sun, changing our vantage point. Imagine that one eye is January, and the other is July. The stars closest to the Earth move the most, so if we can measure how much they move, we can determine how far away they are.’

‘Bessel has had a new instrument delivered from Bavaria for the purpose,’ Von Stein added. ‘It is a heliometer which allows us to measure even tiny changes in the angle of parallax. Strahlenheim is the expert on setting it up.’

‘Oh, I would like to see it!’ Angelica exclaimed. Von Stein was surprised, but he agreed that on the next clear night he would bring her to the Observatory.

A few nights later, I was at work on the heliometer when they arrived. I heard them climbing up the stairs to the tower. It was dark in the observatory. I saw Angelica standing uncertainly in the doorway, Von Stein behind her with a lantern.

‘Put the lantern out,’ I said, shielding my eyes. ‘Please, my eyes have only just got used to the dark.’

‘I’ll go down to my office with it.’ said Von Stein. ‘I have some calculations to check. Don’t be too long, and call down for me when Angelica wants to come back downstairs.’ He clattered down the stairs again, eager to get to his desk.

‘Frau Von Stein,’ I said. ‘I am over here.’

Angelica crept cautiously forward, hands outstretched, made contact with the workbench, and felt her way to my side. I guided her hand to the chair behind the heliometer and stood behind her as she sat. Starlight glinted faintly on the brass fittings and she found the eyepieces.

‘I can’t see anything,’ she said, giggling.

‘Excuse me, Frau von Stein, allow me.’ I stooped a little, running my hands down her silk sleeves to her slender fingers, which I placed on the controls. She did not shrink away from me.

‘Turn these until you can see the same star clearly in both halves of the lens. Then the angle can be measured.’

‘The sky is so beautiful’ she murmured. ‘I never realised it had such depths.’

‘Did you think the sky was like your parasol,’ I replied, ‘and the stars just pinholes pricked in the dark blue to let in the light of God? Just as people used to think the Earth was a flat disc of land, floating in the fishbowl of the oceans.’ She did not reply. Her hair gave off a maddeningly sweet scent. I felt my heart start to beat more strongly, heat growing in my blood. It was my chance. Von Stein thought himself so clever, but what a fool he was! Slowly I inserted two fingers into the neck of her dress, and ran them down the soft skin of her breast to rest one each side of her nipple. There was no resistance. I felt the skin pucker under my fingertips as the nipple grew tense.

‘We must not,’ she whispered, but she did not move away. I was aware of her breathing becoming more rapid.

‘I will come to your house when Julius is at work here,’ I said, resting my palm now against her breast.

‘No!’ she said, and then drew breath sharply as I squeezed and kneaded, taking both breasts now, pulling her back against me, pressing myself hard in between her shoulder blades.

‘Is Julius a good husband to you?’ I whispered down at her. ‘Does he give you what you want, when he is here staring at the stars, and you are lying alone in your cold bed? Do you think you are important to him?’

‘He loves me,’ she protested.

‘And you?’ My hands travelled back up her neck, turning her face, tilting her mouth up to be savaged by mine. Then she started to whimper.

And so, on nights when Von Stein worked alone at the observatory, I would creep along the deserted streets to his house, bursting with desire. I could never get enough of Angelica’s body; the fragile blonde hair and slender limbs seemed to me to be made to be broken. I would obliterate her, her passionate cries smothered under my chest, or in the pillows. I sought something that was never fulfilled, however much I spent myself inside her. It was like a constant physical pain in my sex. I longed to be with her, and I longed to be free of her.

After a few months, Angelica wearied of me. She told me that she thought the affair should come to an end.

‘The atmosphere in the house is corrupted,’ she said. ‘I must think of the children.’

My hatred of Von Stein inflamed me beyond reason. Other than being the son of a professor, what had Von Stein done to merit his position, and to possess Angelica? The research work published under his name relied totally on my observations and measurements. I had then only one thought, how to eliminate my rival.

In the end, he provoked the duel. It was midnight in the observatory, and he had come to take over from me. I was impatient to leave, my body already throbbing at the thought of Angelica’s bed. All evening I had been enervated by a dull physical irritation that obscured my concentration, and made me make stupid errors. She was destroying me. I imagined using her cruelly and obscenely, until her passion was mingled with pain. I showed Von Stein the recordings I had done that night, which he checked laboriously. He seemed to take hours, working down the columns of figures, sighing, crossing out and recalculating.

‘Don’t you trust me to get these things right?’ I demanded.

‘You are young, and you like to do things too quickly,’ replied Von Stein. ‘A small mistake is very hard to detect if it is allowed to pass, and will affect the accuracy of all future calculations.’ He meant, of course, that it would hinder his own work. When he had finished, he told me the whole sheet would have to be written out again. I told him I was not doing it. He had spoilt the page, and now he could rewrite it. I told him he was an idiot and that I would no longer allow him to take the credit for my work.

Von Stein was a veteran of the student duel, and had fought thirty or so of these as an undergraduate. It was nothing to him to reply almost automatically.

‘Swords or pistols, then?’

‘Swords! In the cathedral square, at dawn tomorrow!’ Hatred for Von Stein was now uppermost in my mind. I flung myself out of the observatory, slamming the door. I did not want to go to Angelica now. What was the point? She would be mine anyway if I killed Von Stein, if I still wanted her. I stayed awake in my rooms, drinking brandy and sharpening my sword, and just before dawn I went to wake an acquaintance to serve as my second.

I was exhausted and emotional, and the duel did not last long. I observed a curious phenomenon. Von Stein’s sword tip, by virtue of being close to me, appeared to move through huge arcs, Von Stein himself moved less, and the cathedral spire behind him, pointing up to heaven, was almost still. My movements were erratic, and the duel ended as I lunged to the right, and took Von Stein’s blade through my upper chest. I could not understand the look of surprise on his face.’

And now, The Voice fills the dark abyss. It speaks to Strahlenheim of judgment. Coldly analytical, it asks what he has done in his life.

‘I worked hard at the observatory. I helped to advance science and knowledge.’

‘And what of Angelica?’

‘I loved her!’

‘But you would have destroyed her, had you lived.’

Strahlenheim is silent.

‘Look back,’ says the Voice. ‘Can you see your Earth now?’ Strahlenheim is struck by panic. The small blue circle, with its little moon, recedes into the distance as larger planets, meteorites, and comets rush past him, changing positions in space like bubbles in a whirlpool. He soon despairs of identifying it against the glittering background of the stars.

‘I will take you back there,’ says the Voice, ‘and you will see how objects change, when viewed from a different vantage point.’

And he sees the observatory. He can see Von Stein’s eye staring up at him through the heliometer. Behind it, the soul is pure. Von Stein loves precision, because it represents the truth. Strahlenheim sees Angelica in distress, but it is not for his sake. She weeps for her children and for her marriage. He wishes for forgiveness, but it is too late. The Voice speaks.

‘Your punishment is to see. Without entering the world of men, without the human hope and interchange that brings happiness. Just as you once watched the stars, you will watch the Earth, forever, from the outside.’

Strahlenheim is looking down at Königsberg again. The whole city is on fire. He makes out the river Pregel surrounding the oblong island. The Cathedral, the University, the Library, the Observatory, the Botanical Garden, the streets of houses, are in flames. The portraits of the scholars are burning in the Chancellor’s Hall. The books explode in the Library, and a flock of broken pages flutters up above the smoke. Sirens shrill, and screams rise into the air. The fires die away leaving blackened shells. Away to the east are huge fields of rubble and the ruins of houses. Of the seven bridges, only five remain. Armies fight over the broken buildings, and the survivors are driven out. After many seasons, the rubble starts to disappear. The cathedral is rebuilt, but now it is the only building on the oblong. Where the University once stood, there is only grass and trees, traversed by an enormous road.

‘Have you seen?’ asks the Voice.

‘I beg you, let me rest,’ pleads Strahlenheim. He has not slept for over a hundred and fifty years.

‘But,’ says the Voice, ‘there is more to see.’

This story is available in my anthology:
Link to Amazon.co.uk

© M Wallis 2020

13 thoughts on “Parallax”

  1. Wow, there is indeed “more to see”. I cannot pretend to understand, but this is a mesmerising story, so thank you.

    Eternal life is not all it is cracked up to be. 🙂

  2. Sue-From Roman Brampton said:

    Loved the story giselle,was compelled to keep reading.Didn’t understand all the astronomical bits,but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of reading it.Great stuff!
    By the way I’m boudica in the Creative Writing Group and Short Story Club,I’ve commented on other WordPress blogs so I guess that’s why it shows my name as Sue-From Roman Brampton(which is the name I registered as there.)

    • Thank you Boudica, what a great pen-name! I chose Giselle as my pen-name on the forum because my big interest at the moment is the Algerian war of Independence, and a lawyer who defended an Algerian female terrorist who had been tortured by the French in jail was called Gisele Halimi.

  3. Max Hawker said:

    The quality of writing is, in general, strong and confident. I have two criticisms though. The first is that I think you should rethink some of the dialogue, as it doesn’t sounds natural, e.g. ‘those celestial diamonds hanging in the empurpled firmament like the million crystals of a divine chandelier’. Also, I was engaging far more with the ‘love triangle’ story as opposed to idea of your main character being outside of the Earth. For me, if you were to cut those initial two paragraphs and the end bit with ‘the Voice’, and then perhaps develop the middle of the story a little further, then the piece would be even stronger. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks Max Hawker, the ‘celestial diamonds bit’ is meant to show Karl as a bit of a poser, but I maybe could have made that more obvious. The brief for the story was ‘Moon stars Galaxy and all that’, so I just put the love triangle in to make the astronomy a bit more tolerable! But thank you for your feedback, it’s much appreciated.

  4. Beautifully written story, that feels, to me, like looking at a piece of Meissen porcelain. I did think the hero was a bit hard done by, humiliated, skewered and ending up the rest of his days in limbo just for a young man’s passion. To balance things up something could have happened to that b***ard Von Stein ( good name! ) ie both skewered each other at the same time thus ending up in limbo together. Well done!

    • Thanks Darwindude. Yes I was a bit mean to him, but then, he was an unreliable narrator! Still, the descendants of Von Stein will have copped it in the wipe-out of Konigsberg in WW2 (the scene of the buildings burning and the armies is from history).

  5. orangelight said:

    Your a hard woman………… 🙂

  6. Parallax explained through the story – good.
    The emoting at the start was unnecessary – but expiated by:
    interpolating parallax into the duel
    and this bit:
    “‘I will take you back there,’ says the Voice, ‘and you will see how objects change, when viewed from a different vantage point.’”
    which provides a platform for observers. 🙂

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