by Kikuna Matata (菊菜 瞬)
illustrated by beili
When the great comet of 1811 was attracting all eyes, my star-gazing was ineffectual. Night after night, the whole family of us went up to the long windows at the top of my father’s warehouse; and the exclamations on all hands about the comet perfectly exasperated me, — because I could not see it! “Why, there it is!” “It is as big as a saucer.” “It is as big as a cheese-plate.” “Nonsense; you might as well pretend not to see the moon.” Such were the mortifying comments on my grudging admission that I could not see the comet. And I never did see it. Such is the fact; and philosophers may make of it what they may.
– adapted from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography
* * * * *
Isabel runs out of money in Stockholm.
She could write to Sophy, of course; she did, in Vienna, where Bettina had said, We can’t have a mind like yours wasting away in that pit of a boarding house, only to abandon Isabel five days later to the company of her brother’s friends; and later in Berlin, where Alexander had said, very quietly, I don’t believe it is safe for you here, is it?, and Isabel had lived for some time under the protective watch of him and his servants: both, by long practice, most painfully discreet. Alexander had been a friend to her: he had even invited her to Paris, but she feared to overstay her welcome, and rode instead with Cenek Pechácek and his bad reputation to the university in Prague, where she picked up enough Czech to not be taken for a German and learned to drink with the scholars without ending the night vomiting into the snow; and when the eyes that fell upon her there began to stay too long, she went by carriage to Krakow, where she was dismissed from the observatory after a week and a half and, instead, bent her head over her calculations by wavering candlelight long into the night. She’d not given those sooty addresses to Sophy, no more than she’d written of the rattling carts that smelt of hay and dung; or the reek of tar and river-fish on her hands, or the expanse of ocean that finally at the end of summer lay itself at her feet at her in Danzig: lit in lavender twilight, her own silver road.
London, she had thought with a shudder in Danzig; and then, Paris, but of course Alexander had been called back to Prussia; and then: North, towards the comet in the belly of Ursa Major, with Polaris above her shoulder. North, to Erik Gärnö, formerly of the observatory in Lund—or to Teodor Wåhlin, perhaps, known to grind his own lenses and returned from Uppsala. North, to Stockholm: where the air has snapping teeth, and one never runs out of sea.
So Isabel in Danzig paid for her passage; then emptied her pockets entirely at the other end, for a week of lodging in a stinking alley-facing attic room off Prästgatan, and a broad flat hat in what appeared to be the local student style. It wasn’t of any use. Gärnö worked independently and always had, terribly sorry; and Wåhlin was so abstracted that she couldn’t bear the thought of offering herself to be his assistant, even if she could get him to focus on the issue at hand long enough to take her on. And she could write to Sophy—she could, of course: could tell her, I’ve run into a spot of trouble or I underestimated my need for funds on my journey from Paris; could lie, even, and write that she’d been robbed, that she’d traded her purse to save her virtue, or some other absurd story that Sophy, mouth serious and fretful, would be too earnest to take as anything other than the truth—but somehow, Isabel couldn’t bear it: the thought of offering her mistakes up in such a way: Dear Sophy, please send—to my stinking attic room off Prästgatan—addressed to ‘Frederick Dunstable’, you understand.
It would get back to Theo, for the one.
Instead, she puts her hands to different skills; and in September Isabel throws her shutters wide to the twilight, and hangs her hat upon its hook. The evening air flooding in is sweet with autumn, clean and cool. The comet glitters above her neighbors’ roofs: hanging low within Ursa Major, its tail burning bright. She loosens her boy’s tailored jacket. She hangs it beneath her hat. It leaves her in her shirt and her stays and her trousers in the Prussian style: Theo’s things had been worn to shreds, by Potsdam. Without the jacket she feels more herself. She rests her elbows upon her windowsill in the light from her second sun: glowing, glowing, golden and white. As big as a saucer. As bright as the moon.
Golden, Theo had said, and white. Pushing back a long damp strand of Isabel’s mousey hair, stuck to her shoulder. Theo had said, Golden, and white, and—and enough.
Isabel empties her pockets: silver and copper, no notes. A lady’s silk handkerchief, and a man’s pearl-inlaid pocket watch; foolish, that. An accident. She’ll never sell it herself, a boy like her—but Ulrika might take it, of course; Ulrika, who speaks French and German and more than a little English and roars at her sailors like a bull; who lets out attic rooms to foreign lads not past eighteen at the outside, and doesn’t say a word. Isabel puts the watch back in her pocket, and takes up her coat. Ulrika is behind the bar: scrubbing, scrubbing. Her broad hands red from hot water and soap. Fredrik, she will make it, reshaping Isabel to fit her tongue; she will say, Fredrik, s’il te plaît; as she had said it on the eighth night: Nous pouvons parvenir à un accord, Monsieur Dunstable—Fredrik. We can come to an agreement, Mr. Dunstable. If you please. To Isabel, and her empty pockets: S’il vous plaît. And again, now, Ulrika, with her brown hair frizzing with the steam: “Fredrik, s’il te plaît.”
And so Isabel goes to her, and stands upon the rickety footstool to hand the bowls and tankards up to their shelf as Ulrika passes them up into her hands, still hot from their washing and tacky with damp. “Fredrik,” Ulrika says, as she says it by candlelight—s’il te plaît—and then, in English, “a letter for you—a gentleman’s hand.”
Isabel’s face grows hot, and she knows how it must show. How red you are, Theo had murmured, uncurling long fingers against her burning throat—but no. Theo couldn’t find her, not here.
“Your brother?” Ulrika suggests, and holds it out.
“I haven’t any brothers,” Isabel replies, and takes it. Smooth paper, yet: it’s not from abroad. She finds that makes it easier to open.
Across the bar, Ulrika’s chin is lifting, her mouth curving. “Herr Bäcker, then,” she says, as she had said, your German poet, by candlelight; and there is enough amusement in her voice that Isabel lifts her chin, eyebrows raised and shoulders pressed up in a parody of the man himself; to make Ulrika laugh outright. Ulrika isn’t wrong: Bäcker will be returning, tonight, and he would like Frederick accompany them, to Den Gyldene Freden, to Hasselbacken, to buy a better class of beer.
Isabel folds it into her pocket. “I have happened upon a watch,” she says, instead of anything else.
Across the bar, Ulrika says something low and shakes her head; but she holds out her hand, not quite smiling. Isabel digs out the watch, and Ulrika takes it. “Le loyer,” Ulrika says thoughtfully. The rent. Isabel could without question, from the proceeds of the watch; but instead her mouth is moving: “Ne le puis-je payer comme d’habitude?” and Ulrika snorts, lifting her solid shoulders and then dropping them again. Can’t I pay it in the usual way? Isabel’s hot face.
“Lazy,” Ulrika says, half-laughing. “S’il te plaît.” Her thick eyebrows moving, speaking.
And so. And so Ulrika will sell the watch and keep only a very reasonable fee (behind her bar with her thick tattooed arms moving and moving); and Isabel will pay for her lodging at a later date and spend her schillingar on beer and herring with the low-capped well-born boys who write second-rate serenades to their drawing-room goddesses, neatly and decorously tidied away; north, in Stockholm, where the air snaps and bites, and one never runs out of sea.
Isabel bears her father’s name: Frederick Dunstable; Mr. Dunstable, from London. No, no—not a poet, I’m afraid; and her carefully measured half-gravelly laugh. A question for her philosophers: is an astronomer still an astronomer, with no telescope to put to her eye? She does her calculations by candlelight: the comet’s position in July, in August, in September, but unmeasured and unconfirmed; and in Hasselbacken with Bäcker leaning over the table, Isabel bawls: “NO, NO, NOT A POET, I’M AFRAID,” into the ear of a young gentleman with a very daring waistcoat and a turn for verse in German: a Mr. Videbeck; a Hans, she thinks; a Mr. Videbeck perhaps Hans with a daring waistcoat and a turn for verse who is standing up in Hasselbacken with a hand up for ale. These are, in Stockholm, Isabel’s friends: poets and novelists of not quite the first rank; young men who say, “An astronomer, oh?” in French, and then, “I always have found great inspiration, in the heavenly spheres,” and then raise their hands to call for ale. (In Suffolk: Sophy, serious-mouthed; with her elbow on her notebooks and her hair spilling out of its knot of coffee-colored curls, and a pen to write to Theo already in her hand.) In a previous life they might have bowed to her, perhaps led her in a single stiff and stilted dance; perhaps then taken a far more engaging turn with dashing Harriet Swinton—or Miss Gidlow herself, perhaps, with her laugh like bells—but in this one they go alone to attend the salons of women of culture, then drink with English astronomers in public bars. In Hasselbacken. In Stockholm. Where Mr. Videbeck perhaps Hans calls for ale.
At the edge of the city the observatory sits on its ridge, ringed by its fence and surrounded by little huddled houses, busy with industrious Swedes. At dawn Isabel rises empty-pocketed and walks to and fro and to and fro; and by twilight if her pockets are heavier the observatory fence remains unbreached. Back in Solen Tavern she takes off her jacket, and her scholar’s hat, and empties silver and copper on her coverlet, no notes; and past midnight in Hasselbacken, Franz Bäcker, arm around Isabel’s shoulders, roars above the crowd into her ear: Come along (uninvited) with us then, Fru Selvig would love you, Freddy; and these are her friends, in Stockholm, and Isabel has nothing better to do. Without Gärnö. Without Wåhlin. With the comet low in in the belly of the bear, with its tail flowing out behind. So, instead of nothing, Isabel will permit herself to circle through Bäcker’s wider orbit: his smooth-chinned poets and bright-eyed novelists and robin-puffed junior philosophers, down cobbled streets and narrow alleys into the bright lights of Charlotta Selvig’s overheated salon, where Isabel moves through the masses of literary society in her boy’s jacket and her trousers in the Prussian style, bowing and shaking hands: Frederick Dunstable, from London; our English scientist, Frederick Dunstable. Bowing, and shaking hands. Coincidence upon coincidence: Charlotta Selvig is the wife of a fellow at the observatory. He isn’t there.
The women move through the men, not touching. Fru Carpelan, and Madam Lenngren, and the dashing dark-haired opera singer whose name Isabel never seems to catch: elevated, and serene. Fru Selvig is as old as Ulrika at least: must be, but doesn’t look it, with her shy face and delicate white hands; beside her, her slip of a sloe-eyed debutante daughter in robin’s-egg duchesse silk done up in the Parisian style and her hair wound up in heaps of honey-colored curls. Fröken Selvig is called Elsa, only just seventeen; with the comet burning through the glass window as bright as her disquieting dark eyes. Only just seventeen, helping her mother hostess salons; and even if in her boy’s coat and Prussian trousers they never take Isabel for much more, Isabel is still not her fellow; not Elsa Selvig’s fellow nor Fru Carpelan’s nor Madam Lenngren’s; and still not Bäcker’s nor Videbeck’s nor Wachschlager’s, not at all. Isabel turned eighteen in a church in Suffolk, in a conspiracy of liars with a white veil on her hair; Isabel turns twenty-one called Frederick standing on a bench in Hasselbacken with her face burning hot and her tankard turned up while Wachschlager and Videbeck and Bäcker shout at her in celebratory verse, pounding their fists on the wood. Two hours later, Isabel goes back to Solen Tavern where Ulrika’s thick tattooed arms deal out tankards as she roars at the drunks; where Isabel pays for her lodgings by candlelight, ocean-wet all over her chin and her cheeks. The next day, in Fru Selvig’s drawing room, Isabel stands at the edges with her hands clasped behind her back while the men argue about the essence of poetry and the purpose of learning while Elsa, Elsa, golden-haired Fröken Selvig, switches into Swedish when she speaks to the others of the salon’s female attendants; and Isabel does not understand. These elegant urbane women, who glide like the little boats around their islands, and hide their mouths behind gloved hands when they laugh.
By candlelight. Isabel in her boy’s coat slides Ulrika’s chemise from her tattooed shoulders. Her hands parting with Ulrika’s broad hot painted thighs. Fredrik, s’il te plaît. By candlelight, in her boy’s coat, in Stockholm: where the air has snapping teeth, and one never runs out of sea.
September uncurls into October in icy, prickling drizzle and when Isabel returns wine-warm and poetry-sodden to her room above Solen Tavern, Ulrika is smoking her pipe with her heavy sleeves rolled up to her elbows, above her thick tattooed arms. Ulrika meets laughing eyes to Isabel’s: holding court above her sailors’ din, whistle and fiddle and song. (Her tattooed mermaids, caressing Isabel’s cheeks—) Ulrika with her heavy lined jaw and sharp green eyes (her thick, tattooed arms behind the bar: scrubbing, scrubbing—); and Isabel weaves towards her.
What do you look at? Elsa Selvig had asked, in perfect English; and when Isabel had turned her face from the window Elsa had lowered her eyes and murmured, You can see the comet quite well, from the little telescope—that is, the one upstairs, and Isabel without thinking had nodded and followed her up, and up, and up: before her on the stairs, Elsa, with her hand on her own skirts of robin’s-egg duchesse silk; and Isabel’s hand had knotted, without the exercise of will, in the nothing behind her own thigh. She had been thinking of her dresses, back in Suffolk. She had been thinking of Theo’s long fingers reaching out, to straighten her hat. She had been thinking about Theo’s hands, and how they had rested on her waist—her petticoats—her thighs. Without even unlacing her stays.
“Any letters?” Isabel asks, raising her voice up, up; thick with wine, and Ulrika nods and passes over two: one from Vienna—Bettina’s tedious brother, Isabel thinks, with a sigh; and the other, battered and fat, from Paris, enclosing a second redirected from Suffolk marked from Stabroek—and Isabel feels everything else falling away.
In her room. In her stinking attic room, too hot with the shutters drawn and freezing with them open; outside the window, the comet burns bright and then brighter, as bright as the moon; with its tail misting out across its moon-bright sky. Isabel turns the sheets over and over, unreading, until the lines sharpen at last with the wind: My dear Frederick, Alexander writes, has written; and Isabel’s eyes prickle as she reads, I am afraid that your letter informing Miss Burnet of your whereabouts has somehow managed to go astray. And Sophy—oh, of course, Sophy: writes four paragraphs about her garden experiments and barely has room to squeeze in two afterthought sentences in which she manages to reprimand Isabel without saying anything at all. Your father, Sophy writes, and his household are all in the best of health; and George is, I understand, growing quite as can be expected. Theo wrote—in South America, of late—and asked me to forward the enclosed to you, once I found out where—
Enough. Enough, enough. Isabel slides it into the box with the others; and puts off her scholar’s hat and her boy’s jacket and her trousers, in the Prussian style, and washes her face in cold water, and goes to bed.
“Bad news from home?” Ulrika asks, in the morning.
“No,” Isabel says. She perches so that her arms rest beside Ulrika’s thick tattooed wrists on the bar. “And with that number of forwarding addresses, it ought to hardly count as news at all.” South America. The North Sea. Isabel hardly ever reads the Navy Lists. There is a fish in blue and green, just below Ulrika’s right palm: twisting into a sea-breaking leap. When Ulrika plunges her hands into the basin to wash the dishes it dives, and dives.
“Hmph.” Ulrika clatters a portion of bread and cheese and herring towards her. “You children,” she says, in her accented English; “You can hardly keep track of yourselves, God forbid anyone else,” and Isabel presses her thumb to the fish’s feathered tail, and ducking her head. “Ah, well,” Ulrika says, sounding regretful and amused; “ah, well,” and Isabel drops her hand.
She returns to the observatory like a magnet drawn north. By mid-morning light, its walls glow like gold beyond the wrought iron. She straightens her hat and addresses the public entrance: an abstracted young lecturer directs her down the hall to the little cramped offices, with nameplates on the door. Wilhelm Selvig is kind, thoughtful, understanding; but not as senior, perhaps, as a young man like Frederick Dunstable might like. He will ask, of course; consult his fellows, but perhaps—if Mr. Dunstable were willing to leave Stockholm—go to Uppsala, perhaps—if Mr. Dunstable were willing to take his feet from the sea—
In her stinking attic room Isabel burns her paper. Sheet upon sheet. The least useless of her work she keeps in the box above her letters; the rest, she burns. Sheet upon sheet. She ought to feel herself fading, dissolving, melting away. She had feared it in Suffolk, this very thing, when Theo took her wrist before a conspiracy of liars and slid her into a manacle of a ring—but of course, Isabel sold her ring in London, just as she watched herself in the looking-glass and put her sewing scissors to her mousey hair; and here, in her stinking attic room, she puts herself to the torch. She crumbles her own lesser selves into dust. In Stockholm.
In Stockholm, by comet-light, in Charlotta Selvig’s drawing room, there is Elsa Selvig in robin’s-egg duchesse silk; and this time when Isabel follows her up the stairs, up the stairs, up the stairs, to look at the comet through the telescope whose use Elsa Selvig had coaxed and coquetted out of her astronomer papa, Isabel’s hands do not grab for things that are not there. Instead—instead. And when, past midnight, Isabel stumbles back through the door of Solen Tavern, Ulrika has pulled one heavy knee up to the bar and is yelling in her accented English, her thick hand in a fist with one red extended finger; as a sailor with dirty-blond whiskers shouts back from London’s East End, three of his fellows with better judgement dragging him back by his shirt: the war conducted only ever on paper, and over too much ale. Isabel turns, and weaves her way up the stairs. Flings open her shutters. Drops her hat, and her jacket, and her trousers in the Prussian style. Without the aid of lenses and mirrors the comet is imprecise, and thus mysterious: a star, large; bright and bridal-veiled; and how Elsa had flushed. Pink from forehead to ankles. Isabel had pressed her back against her papa’s telescope, whispered into her hair, her throat; had put her hands on her duchesse silk waist and her muslin petticoats and chemise; and Elsa had gasped, Frederick, as Isabel slid her fingers up the satin-soft insides of Elsa’s damp thighs, without even unlacing her stays. Theo hadn’t unlaced her stays. Theo’s eyes had been as dark as her candle-limned coffee-colored hair; and she had touched Isabel’s waist, and petticoats, and her wet thighs—and Isabel rolls onto her stomach on her narrow rickety bed, knees crossed, open mouthed.
“Fredrik,” Ulrika sighs over Isabel hunched over her plate in the morning; “Oh, you English.” Sigh upon sigh, as she fills up a mug with pale beer.
“I’m not weak,” says Isabel.
The observatory in Stockholm! Thick walled! Sea air! Isabel stiffens herself shoulders and spine, and calls upon the residence. A Mr. Dunstable, to see the Head; but no, he does not have an appointment. Herr Cronstrand, Mr. Dunstable believes, will see him anyway: he has come all the way from London, via Vienna, and Berlin, and Krakow and Prague—to study at Cronstrand’s far northern observatory, to monitor the movement of the heavens, in their long winter nights—
The maid does not believe Herr Cronstrand will be available; but she turns out to be incorrect.
“But why,” asks Cronstrand, in his soft and accented English, “should you come so far, when Mr. Hershel—at Greenwich—”
I had heard of your reputation, Frederick Dunstable ought to say. Your work with—. Isabel says, “I grew up in Suffolk. There was a great deal else that I wanted to see.”
“Hm,” says Cronstrand; but he is a young man, and he smiles.
“Hm!” says Wachschlager; “then—it is Bäcker’s round, I think—” but Isabel laughs (too high mustn’t immeasured) but she says, quick, “No—I shall have a proper salary—mine, no mine, I insist, keep your money—” and all of them roar with approval and drink, and drink, and drink; and Isabel, who learned her lessons carefully in Prague, manages to not end her evening vomiting into the snow, but only just.
“Hm,” Ulrika says, soft, with her lined mouth heavy, with her thick arm around Isabel’s waist. “Careless.”
“Ulrika, I would like—I shall be able to use their telescope,” Isabel says, the staircase wavering as she blinks heavy eyes. “And take my measures, and have a salary.”
Ulrika opens the door, murmuring, “Very good,” with her heavy red hand in Isabel’s hands oh her hands. Isabel tugs at Ulrika’s loose collar, her sailor’s practical coat, above her man’s shirt and her chemise.
“Tu as beaucoup bu, Fredrik,” Ulrika says, very softly, with her broad fingers wrapping around Isabel’s wrist; and Isabel surges up like a fish from the sea, and draws Ulrika’s hand to the front of her coat. “Fredrik,” Ulrika sighs, into her mouth; You’re very drunk, Fredrik; but her fingers curl around Isabel’s buttons, and tug them free. One, by one, by one. She unfastens Isabel’s hooks, and unlaces her stays. She does not seem surprised.
The shutters are open. Isabel lies open. Ulrika’s hands strong and rough on her ribs: so much broader, and wider, and heavier: ever so sure. Isabel’s bare prickling white legs that had parted, by inches, for Theo’s long coaxing fingers, until the whole of her lay spread open on clean sheets and trembled in her pushed-up chemise and her stays. Ulrika strips her to the skin. Isabel pulls, and Ulrika kneels up: skirts up, chemise up, to bare broad hot thighs marked with mermaids, the twining blue-haired twins who nuzzle their faces to Isabel’s cheeks. “Please,” Isabel says, and then, “please;” and Ulrika makes a low noise deep in her chest and hitches up, closer, kneeling above Isabel’s trembling bare belly as Isabel slides her fingers into her, slick—hot—Ulrika grabs for the head of the little narrow bedframe; gasps when Isabel strokes her down her slipping valleys. Caresses her peaks. Isabel had two fingers in Elsa, at first, and then petted her into making room for three; with her boy’s jacket buttoned up and her breasts aching to burst from her seams. By candlelight with Isabel bare naked and prickling, as Ulrika drips onto her arm. She is panting; she can hear herself. Her bellows-breath. Ulrika grabs at her throat, and digs her other hand into her cropped curling hair. Ulrika’s mermaids with their mouths half-open, desperate and begging, as they strain to kiss Isabel’s wrist.
“I would,” Isabel says, tongue thick, as Ulrika shudders above her, again—again— “I would have you—Ulrika, I would like—”
Ulrika’s thick voice, ripping around slipping Swedish sounds; and then, in English. “Up, then;” but with her back flat to the mattress Isabel pitches and yaws. Ulrika stands, with her soft belly and her heavy hanging breasts, tapestries on her hips and her ribs, and her grasping hands—”Up, please,” she is saying, as she pulls Isabel up to unsteady sitting. “Up!” Ulrika says, sharper. Drags Isabel up and over and Isabel—”Fredrik;” her spine bowed, face down—”Up, s’il te plaît,” with her arms sprawled over the mattress to hold her steady, and the gritty floor digging into her knees. Ulrika’s foot presses into the back of her legs. Knocks her calves apart; and Isabel moans, pressing her face to the sheets. Her burning bare thighs, dripping already; and her skin bursting open at her seams. Fredrik, s’il te plaît.
The shutters are open. The comet pours in.
“The comet,” Isabel manages, breathing deep. With her ribs still trembling, and her skin awash, she struggles for words. I will be able to measure its course. Beside the bed Ulrika is straightening her chemise. Her skirts. Its course: sa voie. Isabel says, “Je pourrai tracer sa voie.”
“Very good,” Ulrika says, and reaches one broad hand down to pat Isabel’s cheek. Her fingers trace down, down, down; pinch the peak of Isabel’s breast. Isabel’s skin jumps, as she squirms, giggling. “Félicitations, my friend,” Ulrika says; and Isabel is smiling, as her eyes slip shut.
“Sophy.” Isabel’s mouth is moving, unbidden. “She would be so very proud of me.”
“Sophy,” says Ulrika, from far away. “Who is she—Sophy?”
“My sister-in-law,” Isabel says, and is asleep.
Through her wide-open shutters the dawn light glints like knives. Isabel squints; dresses; swallows coffee and toast and herring and when Ulrika raises an eyebrow at her Isabel snaps, “Oh really,” and Ulrika laughs; but over mirrors to polish and lenses to grind in the cellar workshop at Stockholm Observatory, with Cronstrand leaning over her shoulder, Isabel’s skull aches, and her abdomen, and her back. When he finally releases her, she falls into bed, and falls into bed, and falls into bed until when, of an early November Sunday, Franz Bäcker calls, his eyes concerned—”But Freddy, we’ve hardly seen you, for weeks“—she is forced to admit him correct. Mirrors to polish and lenses to grind; and in the fire-heated half-light: Fredrik, s’il te plaît. But Bäcker is her friend, and has been, a younger Alexander even if they are not of a kind; and so Isabel concedes to follow him in the moonlight darkness of half past four in the afternoon to Fru Selvig’s overheated drawing room, crowded with talk of the purpose of poetry, and the essence of learning. Isabel attends, but only just; on the far side of the room Elsa Selvig’s dark disquieting eyes slant down and over, to the fine narrow waist of Captain Eklund, or perhaps the well-proportioned shoulders of Günter Lindskog; and if her eyes do not seem to fall on slight mousey-haired Frederick Dunstable at all, Isabel finds it hard to feel much but relief. It is very late by the time Bäcker, who lives in an ill-lit back room off Kåkbrinken, walks with Isabel to Solen Tavern; but Isabel has grown accustomed to working late into the night; and with the comet above her she forgets that Bäcker is a poet, that he calls her by her Christian name, that he sat beside her in Hasselbacken with his arm around her shoulders and said—
“Freddy,” very quietly, and very close; and she eases his gripping hand from her shoulder, and clasps it between them instead.
He draws a deep, deep breath, and pulls—
She says, “No—don’t—Bäcker—I wouldn’t.” His face is very red. His forearm held in her hand. “I wouldn’t ever say,” she repeats, and eases her voice; “to anyone,” she adds, sounding ever so much more herself. “You are my friend.”
His head jerks up. Lips parting. Eyes wide.
Her heart is pounding. She hasn’t ever said it aloud. She has never said: not to Bettina, who didn’t know and didn’t care, damn her; and not to Alexander, who recognized her anyway; and not to Ulrika, because there was no need. In nearly three years Isabel hasn’t once said, and she will not say it now, any more than Theo had said it to her. For Theo had said nothing, nothing; merely stood for Isabel, her scientist, in a maiden’s sprigged muslin morning dress, with her long hair wound tight around her head, to unbutton Theo’s tightening blue lieutenant’s coat: to bare Theo’s brown collarbones, her sea-worn shirt, and beneath, the white men’s corset laced tight across her breasts; and then Theo had met her eyes, and three weeks later wreathed Isabel’s third finger with a ring. So now in the thin sea air beside Solen Tavern, Isabel says nothing, and Bäcker says nothing, but his forearm is in her hand—and as his face settles back to itself, he turns his fingers, and clasps her wrist.
In Solen Tavern. The fire burns low; in these few sinking-dark sleeping hours between closing and dawn, and Ulrika is already gone to bed. Isabel latches the door and wends her way up the stairs, up the stairs, up the stairs; and throws open her shutters to let in the sky. The air is as sharp as snapping teeth; and smells of snow, and their fires, and salt. And in Stockholm, Theo had sighed, aching; the air is like—like snapping teeth, she had said, and it felt inconceivable, that I would ever run out of sea.
She had shivered, looking away. Her collarbones bare. Face pink.
Isabel loosens her jacket and hangs up her hat, and sits on her bed with her letter-box in her lap, and watches the comet fade into lavender and white. She’ll be expected at the observatory before noon, with her head still heavy with wine; to sweep up and carry coffee and Whisper, boy, do you hear us shouting?; to double-check the most tedious calculations and clean-copy papers with other people’s names; to grind lenses and polish mirrors with the threat of Cronstrand’s supervision constantly hanging over her shoulder; but in exchange, she will be permitted, perhaps, a quarter-hour of observation in the cloudiest bits of the night, and come home near dawn, exhausted and buzzing and full up of light.
You are, Theo had whispered, like the sun, with her hand upon Isabel’s cheek.
Isabel opens the box.
Crossed sheets from Paris, and Vienna, and Berlin; illegible notes from Pechácek in Prague and considerate replies from Mr. Herschel in Greenwich, and in between Sophy’s half-read impossible letters: a conversation carried on by Isabel only in silence, even to the face of her oldest friend. Isabel smoothes the sheets on her knee, and reads of Sophy’s recalcitrant hybrid pinks, and the difficulty of producing a climbing habit in anything worth growing and the mildew on the Celsiana and the unseasonable rain—and oh, your father keeping well and George growing just as he ought but more importantly: the roses in Suffolk in August: these sickly-smelling leggy whites, these recalcitrant hybrid pinks. In her mind Isabel sketches and shades: Sophy’s sun-flushed cheeks and disordered hat, and the ink on her fingers and the dirt on her sleeves: the first keeper of Isabel’s faith and her best friend for a decade. For eons. For ages, before Isabel thought to see anything of Sophy’s sister in the shape of her eyes; or glowing in all that coffee-colored hair. Isabel stacks the sheets together, and dashes her palm over her eyes.
The light through the window is full morning, of a Monday, in November; and Frederick Dunstable, lately of London, will be wanted at the observatory before noon. Isabel has calculations to do, for af Schultén and Svanberg—but not, she thinks, just yet. I am come to Stockholm, she will say. I am staying at an inn off Prästgatan, with a friend. She will say, After some difficulty, I have at last found a position at the Observatory; she will say, in Stockholm, on the coast. She unfolds the last of her paper, and takes up her pen. My dearest Sophy, she will write, hand shaking; I hope your hybrids have taken, since I heard from you last—and please send me news of Theo, if you have it—to ‘Frederick Dunstable’, you understand.
Ulrika will know a man who knows a man who has a boat who runs the lines. Isabel puts her pen to paper, to float her words to sea; and she will polish mirrors and grind lenses and do the most tedious calculations on papers bearing other people’s names; will drink with Wachschlager and Videbeck and Bäcker, with his arm around her shoulders as he roars into her ear; will dance with Elsa Selvig at the first party of the spring; and night after night nearing dawn, Isabel will put her eye to the heavens, and fill herself with light. The comet will fade, and the embargo will disperse, and English ships will trickle back into their harbor, and Ulrika’s accent will improve; and on the first of another September with a letter from Suffolk in her pocket, Isabel will pull her coat collar up against the snapping teeth of the wind and await the tides, at the edge of the never-ending sea.
* * * * *
A/N: First, on history, and my liberties therewith: (1) Because of its alliance with Napoleonic France, Sweden was technically at war with Britain in 1811, but there wasn’t ever any active fighting between them; and there was a lot of very active smuggling going on to get British goods into Sweden. (2) While the main players in this story are all fictitious, there are some cameos by real historical people, though I have played a little fast and loose with their places of residence. Simon Anders Cronstrand became the head of the Stockholm Observatory in mid-1811, at the age of twenty-seven; Natanael Gerhard af Schultén and Jöns Svanberg were likewise astronomy-affiliated Scandinavian scientists of the period, though I haven’t confirmed that they were involved with the Observatory in 1811 in particular. William Herschel and his sister Caroline were both astronomers of considerable renown, who, though born on the continent, worked primarily in England, and had close relationships with the British Royal Court. Anna Maria Lenngren was a Swedish woman of letters and salonist of the age. Bettina von Arnim was a German writer, whose brother, Clemens Brentano, was also an important figure in the Romantic period. Alexander von Humboldt, the model for Isabel’s correspondent in Paris and at the Prussian court, was a naturalist, explorer, and (admittedly Eurocentric) humanitarian, who is also widely suspected to have had affairs with both men and women. I have no reason to suspect that von Humboldt actually did ever offer any kind of friendship or protection to a young lady scientist passing herself off as a boy; but I likewise have no reason to suspect that he didn’t. (3) Similarly, I have no reason to suspect that any particular Royal Navy lieutenant of the Napoleonic period was secretly a lady-loving lady with a hot astronomer wife, but by gum I hope at least one was. And second: all my thanks to EJ for audiencing, encouragement, and a lightning-fast multilingual beta well at work on my questionable English, and nonexistent French.