When her father left the garret, Hannah stayed in her chair like a prisoner, trying to clear the clouds from her mind and concoct a sensible plan. The only thing that looked like salvation was Edward. She’d be allowed to stay if he were home to act as chaperone and guardian— though he’d be first to point out that their roles ought to be reversed. Together, they could manage to oversee the farm and the chronometers, and even a contract with the Coast Survey, should one materialize.
The downstairs clock chimed her back into the present, and the fantasy of such a contract, along with the new instruments it would inevitably supply, vanished like a cloud of celestial dust. Sticky with unease, Hannah went to the garret door, opened it, and listened. The house hummed with silence. Her father had either gone to sleep or gone out.
She rummaged around the desk for the quill and inkpot, then scribbled a hasty note on the back of a yellowed bill of sale: Mr. Martin: Come up to the walk. When she’d posted it on the door downstairs, she climbed back up three steps at a time, as if she were being chased, and tried to pick up observing where she’d left off. But the cloud cover had thickened into fog. The nebula— if that’s indeed what it was— had disappeared.
Hannah stayed next to the telescope for more than an hour, checking periodically like a mother with a feverish child, but the stars and everything else in the firmament ticked by invisibly. There was barely any wind, nothing to suggest an imminent change in the weather. A film of despair began to settle in her, lightly, like an illness just taking hold, as she contemplated her father’s decision. There was nothing she could do to alter it, short of attaching herself permanently to a male— any male— who would contract to marry her.
The idea that she had always been powerless over her own future, but not realized it, was excruciating. She’d been propelled toward mastery— over her emotions, over her equations, of the biggest and most minute parts of the Universe— for her entire life. Dr. Hall had demanded rigor, his teaching method requiring total expertise on one level before advancement to the next. Fractions came before geometry; simple maths before logarithms and algebraic equations. Until tonight, she thought she’d understood the rules that governed her life as well: work hard, sweep the skies, seek a contribution. Be rewarded. How could she have made so great a miscalculation?
Grinding her teeth, Hannah peered through the telescope again, desperate for something else to focus on. This time she didn’t hear the door to the walk open or close. When she heard Isaac’s deep voice at close range, she gasped, clapping her hand to her chest while trying to catch her breath.
“I’m sorry to be frightening you.”
“It’s fine,” she muttered, embarrassed by her display. She smoothed her skirts and squinted at the telescope. “What did you say?”
“I have inquire what you look for? You seem to await.”
“I look for changes. New things in the night sky.” She steadied herself and glanced in his direction. He wore loose pants and a shirt under a woolen jumper and cap, and the same scarf wound about his neck. Hannah shook her head.
“You’re underdressed,” she said. “Take the coat from the peg just inside the door.”
He obeyed without comment, moving across the walk at his usual pace. A boatsteerer might move faster, she thought. The speed of the hunt, the small boats rocketing over the grey sea, the whiz of the reeling line: without a swift hand he should have failed or been maimed long ago, not advanced to his current place. Yet everything took him three times as long as it ought.
He returned, coat buttoned up to the chin. “Why?”
“Why do you look for this?”
“For knowledge,” Hannah answered. Was it not obvious? When he said nothing, she added, “The pursuit of knowledge is the highest calling.”
“Knowledge?” he repeated, as dubious as if she’d said there were little men winging about on the moon. His doubt— on top of her father’s, on top of everyone’s— was infuriating.
“Yes. What about it, then?” she snapped. As he stood there like a giant puppet, she wondered if the entire enterprise was a waste of time. Maybe there was merit to the claims that his race was inherently lazy, incapable of industry or intellectual achievement. She hadn’t ever thought it so, but then, she’d never really known any of them, had she?
“It does not change . . .” He paused, fishing for the next word. “. . . certain things.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.” She glared at the telescope, hoping he couldn’t read her thoughts.
“How men are.”
She tried to parse his meaning from the thin sentence.
AMY BRILL is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV, and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. In 1996, Brill took a trip to Nantucket and saw the girlhood home of astronomer Maria Mitchell, which planted the seed for what became her debut novel, The Movement of Stars.
Adapted from The Movement of Stars: A Novel, by Amy Brill. Copyright © 2013 by Amy Brill. With the permission of the publisher, Riverhead.