Fiction Historical Fiction Speculative

“I will take the tower,” Alvar Montalvo shouted over the courtyard below his stairway climb. Wooden cases swung stiffly in each hand while scrolls threatened to burst from the crates wedged between ribs and arms. “No other room shall do.” He stared at the blue trim of his shoes while his haste turned to huffing. The black satin of his doublet burned as he crossed out of the shade and into bleaching sunlight, high enough now that he could spy the steeples of Ronda over the tiles of his family's villa. 

“Won’t they look for you here?” Sancha Tecla de Barri called from the yard. With a train of men and cases in Alvar’s tread, the only route to follow him was through the small square of the garden beneath a stairway built into the stone wall of the tower. He caught one glimpse of her exasperation - desperation, more likely, between the late-spring blossoms of a twisting jacaranda tree. “Peterio would put you in the west wing if you must stay.” She wrung her hands. 

“Where the mountain can block my sight? Bah! Contrive to end this man’s passion, and you’ll find it bursting over this yard like a hurled pomegranate. Juices everywhere, Dona Sancha, and I hear red is hard to scrub out of limestone.” Panting halfway up the steps, he paused to lean over the yard and spy her nervously patting at her wide skirts. He shuffled a little closer to the step's ledge and said, “look here. A dangerous spot indeed.”

“No one’s contriving to stop you. It’s just that… They’ll come to claim your estates.“

“Precisely! Ha!” Still heaving, Alvar swallowed and blinked past the burning sweat on his brow. “Considered and dealt with.” Alvar returned to the ascent. If he trusted his sister-in-law and her band of servants more, he might have sung his plan from the parapets. Soon, The Bishop of Cuenca will be endowed with a good many reports of Alvar from the city of Zaragoza to the far eastern coast of Girona. They may still send men to his southbound origin of Ronda, but this should buy time enough. It must be enough!

Alvar swiveled at the sound of a metal clink within the line of men behind him. “Careful with that chest, man.” 

The man in question shuffled a whale of a trunk onto his shoulder. Ivory flashed as sunlight caught the lid and the contents within chinked. He’d pack it with more straw on the next move, if there was a next move. But worry had already fled his mind and left only thoughts of assembling the device. He shouldered into the thick door of the north tower and broke into a small circular room grey with dust. Within minutes, the air was clouded by that disturbed debris, bringing the men to tears and coughing as they set road-worn trunks of books, glassware, and various small tools at the room's heart. He instructed the ivory chest to be placed near an arched window sitting opposite the door. While they complained to themselves and called for servants and cleaning, Alvar joined that chest near the window. 

“Perfection.” He said. A cobweb drifted down, catching in the black hairs of his mustache bringing him to sneeze. For several months, he’d keep that sneeze despite the tower room being cleared of its storage and laid out neatly with a narrow bed and table half-buried in stacks of thick tomes and scrolls with dry bread crusts and grapeless stems strewn around inkwells and broken quills. The curtains of those dismal west wing rooms now draped the walls in ghastly patterns of briar-caught wolves and prancing lambs. From floor to rafter, he pinned star charts and astronomical graphs of his work to the cloth. All of that work centered around the device that would bring him fame or ruin. His research, his love, his very life now rested on the globed stand of that telescope. 

Alvar circled his prized instrument. Newton’s device was juvenile against it. Galileo would be brought to tears by the sights it could reach. The brass body hid refracting lenses and mirrors within. Just before the eyepiece lens, the wall of the tube could be extracted and filled with etched lenses of chart lines and measurements, astrological formations, and dials. He was not the first to adjust Galileo’s telescope model in the years after he publicized Sidereus Nencius. Though he would be the first to discover the nature of that auric light traveling between planets and stars.

He had to thank Etienne Tempier, who, in defiance of all common teachings in the 13th century and 17th respectively, argued that there could not be just one world if God were to be true. To claim that only one world might exist opposed the obvious: that God was all-powerful and that power was held by no limits. Yet Tempier did not bring proof. Nor did William of Ware who expanded upon the idea some years later and proposed that, should another universe exist, it could not, by the means of our inability to perceive it, exist upon the same realm of our own; senseless and intangible, yet coexisting as a perfect mirror. And Alvar saw promise in Galileo’s observations of the aura between the stars. This would be his study, his elephantine boon upon science and cosmology. 

With thumb and finger, he clicked the lense levers up so that his view of the sky was unperturbed. Moving to the gazing lense, he peered through, marked the locations of the Pleiades and Hyades clusters for his day's measurement, and jotted down the numbers. He glanced once more, expecting to find the hot blue pinpricks of the Seven Sisters stars. Then he swallowed. His lips rolled beneath his mustache. Leaning back, Alvar peered into the leaning rafters above. There was nothing reflective there that could have given him such a strange vision. Something was wrong with the mirrors - perhaps jostled out of place when he’d moved the lenses. So he looked again, frowned, and stared out the window. Exactly as it should, the telescope leaned into the expanse of the heavens. Still, as he continued his work, he’d find himself staring blankly at the distant gleams of stars while thinking only of that brief glance of something else. Like a plague, it riddled through the work of that night. Perplexed pustules beckoned him to look up again and again, thinking there must be a cause. How could he have seen himself? 

A vision of his eye would be the expectation of some reflective flaw, some misalignment of the internal mirrors. Yet he knew without a doubt, that he had seen himself as though he sat in the rafters, looking down on his slovenly robes faded from rolling in and out of bed day after day. They draped over his rounded back while he stooped into the eyeglass, turning the apparatus to better his focus. He saw his desk as it was, every paper, every drop of ink in line. Though the rest of the room was shadowed by the frame of brass, it was clearly his. But the vision didn’t come again that night. Within two weeks, its fluttering curiosity had fled his mind. 

During the days he searched his books for theories and proposals on the heaven's light he sought. The air in the tower grew musky with the cycles of sleep and work, freshened only by the passing of a servant through the door twice a day to bring his meals. New summer heat boiled that musk into a heavy, permeable odor and sweat pooled so profusely from his skin that he could hardly touch a paper without it sticking to the heel of his palm, nor could he grip a quill for fear of it slipping wildly out of control. An echo of voices from the yard set his jaw firm, and he had a mind to tell whoever was in the yard to leave him in peace. He was already halfway to the door, hand on the lock when he caught a word: Inquisition. 

His brother Peterio had cast like a fowl incantation. Rubbing his mustaches, Alvar leaned into the door to spy through that thin crack of darkness. A sliver of light showed him the shoulders and cloaks of figures below. 

A stranger spoke, “the evidence is more than enough. I must read you the formal,” there was a pause. His voice reverberated up the walls. “By the decree of Grand Inquisitor Pacheco, Alvar Montalvo has been denounced by the claims of heresy and the practice of magic within the Academia de Matemáticas of Madrid.” 

Alvar’s breath shuttered against the door. Fearing they might hear the whistle of his escaping air through the gap in the wood, he sucked it in and held it. Sweat traced down his temples and his eyes watered the heat beyond the door. His nose tickled and curled, and he rubbed it furiously to keep that pestering sneeze away. A slivered view of Peterio’s arm shifted but gave no hint to his reaction. Was he pointing to the door, gesturing to this transparent fox hole? 

“I’ll admit, I’ve expected this day,” Peterio said. “Where is he being held?”

“He’s not yet been found.” The inquisitor went on, but Alvar missed what was said. A sneeze shot out of him and he covered his nose to muffle it, rattling the door as he lost his crouched footing. He froze, too afraid to look through the crack again. His eyes drifted to his desk, to his work. 

Peterio grew quieter. “We’ll settle his estates and any other cost.”

“One moment,” another voice joined, nasal and imperious. Alvar sucked another breath and returned to the crack, straining to peer further through. “Has your brother ever retired here?”

“Some years ago, yes.”

“You will show me his rooms.”

“Of course.” And they were off, headed through the arches into the cool shadows of the house. Alvar slid down and leaned his head against the door, panting hard. How long until they reach Girona and discover that no persons in that region had known him or reported him? 

“Not. Just. Yet.” Crawling to his feet, Alvar flicked back his sleeves and made way for the desk. “If you seek me here today,” he bit down on the quill while arranging vellum and ink, “then let at least this one measure be made into history…” 

By nightfall, he’ was lost in the eyeglass of the scope. With his sight set firmly on the aura of the heavens, the vision returned. Alvar nearly stood from his stool, knees clamped with the thrill of discovery, wanting to jump but unable to move for fear of dislodging that image. Through the fog of the heavens and glittering stars, he saw his room as though he were a stray ant just beyond the rafters looking down on his stooped form. Alvar dropped a hand and slapped around on the table until his fingers rolled over a quill, and he snatched it up, scrawling on a paper without pulling away from the glass. His mouth turned further and further down as the image didn’t move with him. The figure was transfixed while Alvar moved. He was certain now that this was no trick of reflections. 

Within the glass, papers fluttered behind his mimic’s back. A silver globe turned, but no one was there to turn it. 

Cold breath prickled across the back of his neck and he sat up, turning around, mouth slack but unable to shout at the intruder. There was no one there: not in his room, not in the spyglass.

Shivering, Alvar leaned into the glass again and swallowed, nearly bruising the skin around his eye as he pressed deeper into the image - it was still there! For the first time, the image remained, but the globe continued to move and his mimic turned around. 

“Yes, yes - who is it?” The real Alvar muttered, waiting for the appearance of another. Still, his mirror was alone. He stood from the telescope and moved to study the papers on the west wall, pressing himself into them, marking the pages with broad lines of a sharp quill, splattering ink down the diagrams in his haste. 

“What is it?” Alvar asked the mirror. “What are you writing - what do you know? You must know something.” He sat back, took hold of a quill, moved to the wall. “What is it you know? A relation to the minutes of ecliptic latitude? No, no, degree - have I measured this precise point before? Is this it? Have I breached into heaven? Beholden the eye of God himself? It must be. It has to be! But this mirror and I do not move in unison - so it must be a figment of myself, a replicant and yet we are in tandem.” Near in frenzy, he muttered on and scratched up paper after paper in the pursuit of some answer. No equation could divulge the solution, no book or text from the philosophers Agrippa or Pietro d’Abano could illuminate him on the matter, and he knew there was no answer from his astrological contemporaries. 

It was in the gardens some days later, when the heat and musk of the tower drove him out to brave a world where he might seen, where an idea fluttered down upon his head in the form of a dry jacaranda petal. It landed across the hoary hairs of his brow and naturally, he looked up at the thing cascading fragrant debris upon him. Looking up was the key. He’d done it when he first saw the vision of himself. Above him, the plaster steps to his tower caged the yard. He’d looked down through the jacaranda on his first arrival, teasing Sancha Tecla and her worrying while she too looked at him. 

“Avicenna!” He shouted and tossed the petal to the sky. “The Floating Man,” his robes flew as he bounded up the stairs. “To imagine oneself floating above their own body, with no physical form to move, was still the self - he was still consciousness - is that what Avicenna said?” The door banged into the wall and a heavy breeze wafted past him, rustling the papers as he knocked over stacks of books and muttered wildly. “Floating man, floating man - yes, yes, here you are, you brilliant man!” 

The book laid upon his floor for hours. When his back stiffened and ached, the book paced the room until the candles burned low, and after their replacement, he brought the reading to his desk. Penning his theories, he referenced his mathematics, drew coordinates. Near thirty times he tested these measures and each one failed but the last. Haggard, dry-mouthed and stomach gnawing from neglect to eat, Alvar leaned into the spyglass with all the wonder of a man entering heaven. 

Gazing into the faint cloud, the spyglass flashed red, violet, white, and he saw himself once more. He could trace the path of the heavens, calculate the location of this strange dimension. Clearing a dry scratch from his throat, Alvar pulled away to record the success. When next he leaned into the glass, the room had changed. 

“A torch?” Alvar stared at the cascade of orange light filling from the door behind his mimic. Papers ruffled off the desk. “Turn around. The shadows… Can’t you hear them?” Stifling a cough, Alvar sucked in dry, dusty air, entranced by the vision with such vigor that he could hear what his mimic heard, smell the smoke, feel the reverberation of the bells. “Move! Turn around!” 

Loose papers flew from the walls within the glass. A hot wind flushed over Alvar’s back. His vision turned and fell from his stool, shouting in the silence. In silence. Straightening, Alvar turned. 

Fire devoured the villa, blazing behind the backs of two inquisitors. One held a torch as he entered the room and inspected the walls, the curtains, the embroidered wolves behind his papers. The torch fell. 

February 25, 2022 22:36

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