a possibly true story
At 6 o’clock, Henrietta watches Mr Pickering, Cecilia Payne, Williamina Fleming and the other computers go home. She promised to lock up, she usually does what she is told. The sun is dropping below the horizon, tinting the sky and the red-brick building next to the observatory. Cecilia walks the tree-lined avenue face upwards, feet confidently placed, drawn to the daily mystery others neglect. The pink-flushed clouds send delicate tendrils down, as if creating letters. Henrietta relies on letters now, to check her instructions and to remind herself of her voice. The stars are emerging, far enough away to be twinkling pin-pricks, too close to be the ones she has mapped. She returns to the ones on her desk.
The photographic plates are smooth, cool,
Like freshly-dug potatoes or bread forgotten in the panty, the little room is musty. When the other Harvard computers are packed in, she wallows in wafts of violet, hints of clamshell and flutters of vanilla. As she touches the lucent flecks on the stellar slides, she contemplates the Cepheid stars. They would smell of burning metal and gunpowder. But the essences of space will not linger on hatches and suits for sixty years
She wants to chew on her pencil, a habit from Sunday school when Miss Kelly insisted they all read aloud. She chews instead on a peppermint, rolling the freshness in the infinity between cheek and tongue. She worked through lunch today, oblivious to anything but cycles of brightness. The brightness and magnitude of Cepheid stars. Williamina had provided fudge, and she had nibbled a piece, long accustomed to following her lead. She was the reason they were present, Mr Pickering’s first hire. Earning her keep by finding the Horsehead Nebula. Henrietta swallows shards of mint. Stars would taste of burnt sugar or toasted corn.
A keen breeze rattles the blind at the only window. It brushes over empty desks, stacked with notebooks and slides. The sky is darkening, the moon scanning sickle. There lies her Leavitt crater, anonymous now, to be her memorial and symbol of fellow deaf astronomers. Henrietta shivers, she has always shrunk from cold. Wrapped up in layers in French vineyards. Buttoned-up coat sipping coffee in Italian piazzas. Before the fever that wrecked her hearing, she would be impacted by
She wanders to the bookshelf, rubbing her arms. The books are packed in tightly. Henrietta has scant time for leisure. More data is collected than can be catalogued. Before she left, Antonia Maury would perch on desks, or twist pencils into her hair, always moving. Henrietta is content to be handed her projects. Content to scan her data, identify the clusters, make her conclusions under Mr Pickering’s name. Antonia couldn’t adjust to being ignored.
Henrietta steadies her magnifying glass. The Cepheid stars have revealed their truth. Cycles of brightness give absolute magnitude. Later, when the information has enlightened us to the expansion of the universe, there will be petitions on her behalf for prizes and commendations. But Henrietta Leavitt will have already diffused back into hydrogen and carbon, into the elemental universe.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in The Brown Orient,