Brecaccio spent his whole life looking up at the cosmos. He tracked the movements of the planets and charted the arrangements of the stars.
A life spent with his face pressed against a telescope left him with one puckered eye, no wife to warm his bed, and no child to inherit his vast knowledge of the sky.
Brecaccio blinked his rheumy eyes and looked past his yellowed beard at the thick horns of his toenails sticking out from under the blankets. His feet framed a table. Soft bread and pale, crumbly cheese lay under the glass cover of a wooden tray. Beside the tray stood a bottle of mellow wine. Beyond that, dusty brass orreries lined the top shelf of a vast bookcase. Star maps and volumes written by Brecaccio himself were shoved haphazardly into the shelves.
Above it all, on a folding ladder he’d rested against the ceiling beams, stood Melchick. “Magistero, I don’t see anything.” Melchick’s Buerbec accent stumbled along the rhythms of the Flerosi language, hardening the consonants and thickening the vowels.
“What are you looking for, boy?” Brecaccio asked.
“I was told we have an infestation of pixies.”
“Magistera Ofelia will be excited about that.”
Melchick squealed and scurried down the ladder. His face was clad in lacy, gray spider webs. He peeled them away, and wiped them on the yellow robe that marked him as a second year student. “It’s time for me to go.” The metal fittings on the ladder squeaked as he folded it. “I need to study for my mineralogy examination. Do you have everything you need?”
“I think so.”
“Ring the bell when you get hungry,” Melchick said, pointing to the pull cord that hung near the headboard, “and I’ll come back to help you.”
“I can get out of bed by myself!”
Melchick picked up the ladder and clutched it under his arm. “Please, Magistero. I don’t want you to fall again.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Were you alone?”
Brecaccio sucked his mustache into his toothless mouth. “Yes.”
“Then who else is to blame?”
Brecaccio waved a hand. “Fine, fine, you win. Congratulations. You can go now.”
Melchick bowed. “Good day, Magistero Brecaccio.”
“Hurry along now, boy.”
Melchick spun, his yellow robes swirling, and carried the ladder down the stairs. Brecaccio liked Melchick well enough, but the boy never knew when it was time to leave. He was a poor boy, from a poor country. Taking care of aging instructors helped pay his way.
Brecaccio’s room was in the attic of the building that bore his name: The Desinte Brecaccio Observatory. Faculty and students lived in the rooms below, and through the door on the South wall laid a railed catwalk that ran along the roof that led to the great dome of the observatory itself; a massive contraption of glass and brass.
If Brecaccio wasn’t so afraid of stairs, and the rushing summer winds that always threatened to tear him from the catwalk, he’d be holding court. Peeling back the layers of the cosmos, to reveal its mysteries to the students gathered there.
But no, better to remain in bed. To rest and build his strength. Maybe he’d go tomorrow, and give the bruise on his hip time to heal. He slipped his hand under the covers and patted his thigh.
He sucked in a breath. Still too tender. A little wine would dull the pain, but now that he’d angered the sore spot, he’d rather not get out of bed. He considered the pull cord, but now that he’d finally gotten Melchick to leave, he didn’t want any more annoying visitors.
But one came anyway.
A black speck crept along the white plaster of the ceiling, scuttling here and there, coming to quick stops and changing course in seemingly arbitrary directions.
Brecaccio reached for the little wooden telescope that hung in a leather case from his headboard. It’d been his first telescope, purchased by his father when Brecaccio was only ten years old. A boy with starry eyes, prone to sneaking out at night to gaze up into the sky. His father, a pig farmer, recognized the boy’s proclivity, and saw a chance to turn one of his sons into a man of learning and letters.
Brecaccio gave silent thanks to his father, fixed the telescope to his eye and focused it.
A black spider inched its way along the ceiling, and then stopped and anchored a web and began its descent toward the floor.
Before it’d fallen an inch, Brecaccio heard a small pop, and the spider dangled dead like a bauble from a woman’s ear. He heard a faint trampling, and then a tiny cadre of tiny men approached and gathered around the spider as if it were a prize stag in a hunt, their rifles over their shoulders and smiles upon their faces.
They walked upside down on the ceiling as if it were the ground itself. And though the spider hung, a victim of gravity, the tiny men kept the hats atop—or more properly, under—their heads and the contents of their pockets secure.
Brecaccio had attended Magistera Ofelia’s lectures about these ceiling-dwelling pixies, had even dallied with Ofelia for a time. But that was years ago, and her raven-haired beauty had paled in comparison to the pinpoint-diamond majesty of the stars. If Brecaccio didn’t want to have yet another annoying conversation about why he’d broken it off with her, he’d ring for a student to go and fetch her. Pixies had become rare as of late, as had her lectures, though her last one, about changes in pixie physiology, had sounded interesting.
The constellation of six pixies split into two groups. Four of them took up a spot directly above Brecaccio, and the other two set about butchering the spider.
Brecaccio’s oldest friend, Magistero Pampa, Professor of Natural Philosophy, would’ve loved to see this miniscule dissection. To peer through the pixies’ eyes at the inner workings of the spider’s leg. But no. He’d passed away years ago while giving a lecture on the anatomy of beetles.
Brecaccio wiped away the tears that wet the eyepiece with the edge of the bed sheet. He missed his friend.
The group of four pixies began running in a circle above Brecaccio, and with each circuit a white line began to thicken into existence. When they were done, they made additional notations around the circle’s edge.
Brecaccio focused on the writing, but it was too small to see. Glancing about the room, he spied a larger telescope on a tripod near the window. He set his little telescope down and tried to get up.
He strained and wheezed, but did little more than summon a burning tightness in his chest. He lay there, breathing like a man who’d run a marathon, until the feeling passed. And when he was able, he took up the little telescope again.
The pixies stood at asymmetrical, but cardinal points along their notations. He couldn’t really tell, but he’d only ever had a passing knowledge of pixie magic. It’d always seemed like nothing more than mere twaddle to him.
The pain came back, intense and tight, but then faded and a feeling of comforting release washed over him.
Brecaccio’s point-of-view traveled up through the telescope and floated up toward the ceiling. The pixies ran in circles again, but now they sang a high-pitched song. When Brecaccio’s head brushed the plaster he stopped, but didn’t bump his head. He’d cringed in anticipation, but felt no pain. In fact, the pain in his hip was gone too, as were all of the aches and pains that came with his eighty-two years.
A pixie walked upside down toward Brecaccio. It stood so close that he could only focus one eye on it. “Good afternoon, Magistero.”
“What has happened?” Brecaccio asked. “Am I dead?”
The pixie pointed at the bed. “Yes.”
Brecaccio looked down. His body had gone slack, but his right hand still clutched the telescope. It lay against his chest like a nursing baby at its mother’s breast.
Brecaccio tried to wipe away his tears, to mourn the loss of his life, but his ghostly hand passed through his face. He screamed and flailed his arms. He’d been unmoored from the insistent clutches of gravity, and it scared him.
The pixie let the tantrum pass, and soon Brecaccio relaxed.
“I don’t understand,” Brecaccio said.
“Have you ever died before?”
The pixie shrugged. “Then nobody would expect you to understand.”
“Oh…” Brecaccio thought back on all of his conversations with Magistera Ofelia and the eldritch volumes that lined her bookshelves. Nothing came to mind.
That bothered him. All of his knowledge, everything gleaned since birth, had always been at his instant disposal. Rarely had either a student or another professor ever stumped him.
But this situation, while beyond his understanding and control, offered new knowledge and a way of staving off death for however long it lasted. Both were good reasons to go along with it.
“What happens now?” Brecaccio asked.
The pixie smiled. “This conversation will go much easier if we put you the right way around.”
“I am the right way around.”
“Not for our purposes.”
Brecaccio flapped a hand. “Fine.”
The pixie took up his position at the edge of the circle, stuck a finger into the air and twirled it around. The pixies ran, faster than before, and sang a song of quick-time arpeggios.
Brecaccio spun, and then began twisting into a tight-woven ghost rope. The ghost-rope shrank, coiled in upon itself and condensed Brecaccio’s life essence down into a tiny ghost-man. And when it was done the pixie walked over, grabbed Brecaccio’s leg and spun him sideways, until his feet floated just below the ceiling. The pixie put his hands on Brecaccio’s shoulders and pressed down. The feeling of gravity returned, but coming from the wrong direction.
“Come with me,” the pixie said. “I’ll make introductions.”
Brecaccio took a few tentative steps. The ceiling felt solid under his feet, and he didn’t have the sense that he was upside down. He looked up at the floor. His old room seemed like a vast cathedral, painted with a rather mundane fresco.
“Please, Magistero, we don’t have much time before nightfall.”
“What happens at nightfall?”
“That’s up to you.”
Brecaccio followed the pixie to the campsite. The other pixies set down their meals of roasted spider leg and stood. All of them–both male and female–wore slouching hats, short pants with hose, leather jerkins and duckbill shoes. Each was doe-eyed and had pointed ears that rose above their caps. The men wore long mustaches that they tied to the points of their ears. Silver baubles hung from the drooping hair.
“I am Pischle,” the first pixie said. The silver baubles along his mustache jingled, “and this is Quaver, Boute, Dombray, Licksie, and Footfeet.” When he finished the introductions he asked, “Why don’t we talk about why we are all here?”
“Go ahead,” Brecaccio answered, sitting down at the fire, but refusing the offer of roasted spider leg.
“We are explorers. And we’ve been tasked with finding other worlds and other magics.” Pischle said. “You humans, in these places of higher learning,” he twirled the chunk of spider leg in his hand, “have girded the borders of our magic. It used to extend from one end of this world to the other. Our lands, and our influence, are shrinking, because of your ever-expanding cities, and ever-spreading knowledge. You’ve defined a world that once lacked definition, a world that once worked on superstition and the magic that surrounded it. The maps have been drawn, all the way to the edges. Nothing has been left a mystery, and nothing has been left for us. We are small, but not so small that we can live in this ‘nothing.’”
Brecaccio stood. “But we spread word of your kind. Why, Magistera Ofelia-”
“Nobody respects what she has to say.”
“How long did you stay with her? How many times did you laugh about her work with your colleagues?”
“But…I…” Brecaccio remembered some of what he’d said. Sure her work had validity, proof of it sat about him in a circle, but everyone knew that magic was fading, and that the real work of humankind lay in defining the world, cataloging every detail. Everyone knew that knowledge was finite, and that soon they would know everything. And then humankind would be complete.
The very motto was carved into the archway of the University. All Will Be Known.
Brecaccio had worked his whole life toward the idea of completion. He knew everything about the heavens. He’d written it down for everyone to read, and had lectured about it for decades. He was happy to let magic fade. It blurred the borders, made categorization difficult, and made knowledge slippery.
“I’m sorry,” Brecaccio said. “We only sought to learn everything there was to know. To achieve perfection.”
“And then what?” Pischle asked.
“I don’t know. There’s still so much to learn. It’ll take decades.”
“Meanwhile, our home,” Pischle waved a hand at the other pixies, “gets smaller every day.”
“There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Ahh!” Pischle held up a finger. “Yes there is. We can use your knowledge of the heavens to find a new world. If only you’d help us?”
“And if I refuse?”
“Why would you do that?”
“For the sake of argument.”
“We turn you back around, unbind your life force, and let you find out what happens after you die.”
“And maybe you can write a book about it,” Footfeet said. “But nobody will get a chance to read it.”
All the pixies laughed.
“What do you need me to do?” Brecaccio asked.
“Come with us,” Pischle said.
The pixies finished their meal and packed up their camp.
“Is everyone ready?” Pischle asked.
“Where are we going?” Brecaccio asked.
“To the observatory.”
Brecaccio followed, curious, but still unsure about how far he’d go.
Using a rope the pixies had left behind, they climbed up the doorframe and crawled through a little hole in the plaster above the door and passed out onto the catwalk, arranging themselves single-file along the underside of the railing. A light breeze ruffled Brecaccio’s clothes, and it was then that he realized that he was still wearing his long sleep-shirt and robe. His feet were bare, and he was ready to be embarrassed of his thick, yellow toenails when he noticed that his feet were different. Gone were the fine blue veins that webbed the pale arches of his feet, and his toenails were clear as clouded glass—almost elegant compared to what he’d grown used to.
His hands, arms and beard betrayed certain changes as well.
Brecaccio grabbed Pischle’s shoulder. “You’ve given me back my youth!”
“Of course I did. We couldn’t have you gallivanting around on arthritic legs.”
Brecaccio daintily took hold of his robe and did a little curtsy. “You could’ve given me new clothes too.”
“That’s just silly. I’m not a seamstress.”
They continued on down the railing, weaving around the spindles, and when they reached the dome of the observatory they used another set of ropes the climb to the scratched, brass keyhole. It was a tight fit, but they all made it through.
Inside, they climbed down the door, using handholds that the pixies had cut into the wood.
The wide bowl of the dome was like a vast empty lake, the oculus at the nadir having served as the drain. The 10-meter brass telescope hung in the center of the domed space within a web of chains and pulleys. The telescope was pointed straight up at the oculus, but it could be focused on nearly any point in the sky through the many levels of shutters that’d been cut into the dome.
The pixies removed their jerkins, bunched them up under their posteriors and took turns sliding down the long, curving slope in a space between the shutters.
Brecaccio removed his robe, folded it and braced his feet on the ledge. The oculus looked so far away, and he feared breaking his hip, but then remembered that he was young again. But not in spirit. Three decades’ worth of honing his world down to safe and reasonable activity had made his world small.
Brecaccio laughed. His whole world was small now. Or was it instead humungous, now that he was small?
The pixies called to him from below. They waved their arms and encouraged him to let go of his fears and slide. Brecaccio scooted forward and lifted his feet. He descended in an exhilarating whoosh and had to roll off of his bundled robe so that he didn’t crash into the lip of the oculus. He ended up tangled in his robe, giggling and wondering if they had time to climb back up and go again.
The pixies removed their shirts and added them to the pile of jerkins on the ceiling. Brecaccio averted his eyes, but when they laughed at him he turned back. The chests of the female pixies were nearly undistinguishable from those of the males, the only variation being that their nipples were pink instead of brown.
Brecaccio’s interest in their gender differences faded when he saw their wings.
“Why did we walk all the way here, climbing ropes and sliding down the dome, when you could’ve just flown here?” Brecaccio asked.
“We’ve changed our wings,” Pischle said. “They don’t work like they used to.”
Brecaccio looked again. Their wings were bigger–he’d seen several paintings in Magistera Ofelia’s room–and lacy rather than solid, and not much good for catching air. And instead of their usual glow, magic flowed through the traceries of wing like blood through veins.
“I don’t understand,” Brecaccio said.
“You will,” Pischle said.
They heard a rattling from below and then voices. A row of students filed into the room. They rushed toward the telescope and gathered around the eyepiece. They moved with the feverish excitement of youth, orbiting each other in tiny groups. Their behavior and white robes identified them as first years. Magistera Ofelia came in behind the students and they parted to let her pass to the eyepiece. Her graying black hair lay in long coiled knots down the back of her head, so long that they almost touched the floor.
“Before we take this any further,” Pischle said. “I want to be sure of one thing. Do you know how this telescope was constructed?”
Brecaccio smiled and readied a lecture in his head. He stood up straighter and pitched his voice to carry. “Glassmaking was first discovered by…”
“A simple yes will do.”
“…the Lemadician. Emperor…” Brecaccio had always had difficulty stopping a lecture once he got going, and it’d become harder with age. “Yes.”
“And given simple tools, could you construct one of your own?”
Diagrams, tools and methodologies filled Brecaccio’s head, threatening to burst forth from his throat in a storm of pedantry. He twitched and swallowed. “Yes.”
“Good,” Pischle said, looking down. “Choose a student. One with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, and tell us when he or she approaches the telescope.”
“Easy enough,” Brecaccio said. “Magistera Ofelia will do nicely.”
Brecaccio had always found her sustained joy in looking at the heavens a trifle immature. Her gaze, while learned, was still like that of a child. So willing to see the magic in everything. They’d debated the point more than once.
“Hurry then,” Pischle said. “We need to stand on the lens while she is at the eyepiece.”
The pixies, one by one, spread their wings and glided over to the telescope. They flipped in midair and came to a rest on the lens, as if the sudden reversal of gravity was commonplace.
Below, the students stirred and began talking about the “birds” up on the lens and arguing about who was going to climb the stairs and investigate.
Soon only Pischle and Brecaccio stood on the lip if the oculus.
“It’s time to go,” Pischle said.
“I don’t know if I can make the jump.”
Pischle stepped over, grabbed Brecaccio’s nightclothes and pulled them off. Brecaccio was left naked, save for the linen undergarments that covered his nether region. Brecaccio felt tingling, his first unfurling and a rush of energy that ran up his spine to his brain.
Lacy wings spread out behind him. He flexed his new muscles and his wings undulated.
“You can use those,” Pischle said. “Now, come on!”
Pischle glided over to the lens, executing the flip perfectly.
Brecaccio stepped to the edge of the oculus and looked down. A student had been tasked to investigate the disturbance on the lens, and she had started the long journey up the stairs. Ofelia pulled away from the eyepiece looked up at the oculus and then leaned back into the eyepiece.
“Jump,” Pischle said. “I can feel her.”
The pixies had spread out to the edges of the lens. Brecaccio imagined that they appeared as dark blotches arrayed around the view of the telescope blocking out portions of the stars.
Magic coruscated through the pixies’ wings, and sparks drifted slowly up off of them like glowing drops falling in the wrong direction. Brecaccio felt no such magic. His wings lay dormant.
Brecaccio laughed. It seemed so silly, so undignified to be standing there, upside down, in his smallclothes, with tiny wings sticking out of his back. It defied reality. It defied the rigors of science. And yet it was happening. Right now. To him. He, the observer. A man who’d trusted his eyes for decades. A man who’d trusted his mind to measure the observable and write it down, so that others could benefit from his hard work.
But who was he to deny the new learning that lay before him? Who was he to deny the very things that were happening to him at that moment?
He’d lived his whole life knowing that one day humankind would know everything. But that sense of completion implied a limit on knowledge. A willful ignorance of things that lay outside the tightly bordered world of human insight.
If only Ofelia could see him now, among a coterie of pixies. He’d be forced to admit that Ofelia’s work held promise, and had, at this very moment, dovetailed with his own life’s work.
Brecaccio spread his wings and glided to the lens. His midair flip was less graceful and he needed a moment to stand after landing. As he paced to the center, his wings stiffened with magic. He looked down, wondering if Ofelia could see the smile on his face, and waved.
The pixies gathered around him. Their wings spread, dripping sparks into the sky.
Directly above lay the Hubstar. All other stars wheeled around it. It was the center, the apex, and their destination.
Brecaccio crouched and leapt into the sky, riding on waves of Ofelia’s imagination. The pixies flew near him in a ragged circle. They must’ve looked like a fleeing constellation to Ofelia.
To her, Brecaccio was the center. The Hubstar of this tiny constellation, fading in the sparkling dark of the heavens. He wished he had the time to stop and tell her that her sense of wonder had powered their journey.
But it was too late. There was no going back. And though he was a young man again, he had the powerful sense of regret that only an old man can feel.
Dale Carothers lives in Minnesota with his wife, Sara, and an emotionally demanding beagle. He provides independent living training for adults with disabilities and eats way more cake than he should. Find links to his work and leave a comment at dalecarothers.wordpress.com.