The Abjuration of the Astronomer

A Short Story

Henry-Julien Detouche, c. 1900 (public domain)

You are quiet. Softer than usual—the edge is there, but your eyes sag with exhaustion. You’ve none of your usual confidence, none of the venom that has vanquished so many foolhardy critics. When you enter your new temporary residence (though a voice in my head says prison instead), you do it in shambles. You only brought one bag, and I can see the papers and garments stuffed hastily inside as you set it on the table, head bent, sighing heavily. You walk to the tiny window over the empty writing desk.

In the doorway, I clear my throat. “Well, it isn’t as charming as Palazzo Firenze, I’m afraid. But the view is a wonder, is it not?” Past your head is a glimmering sea of candles, sprawling Rome. We are high up, the topmost floor—they would not want you attempting a late-night escape—so the sounds of clopping hooves and rattling carts are distant.

You shake your head and put a slender, trembling hand on the windowsill. “No, ambassador,” you say. I linger in the doorway. There is so much I want to say, but in your presence, my words seem inadequate: you’re always prepared for any comment, any inquiry, any retort. And all I can hear are your words, impossibly uttered in that stuffy stony room not long ago.

(And kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals)

They wrench my heart, and how they must wrench yours! I must say something, though, anything to break the silence.

“Are you hungry, your Excellency?”

(Since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the center of the universe and immovable…)

“No,” you repeat.

“It has been a long day,” I murmur. “It would be good for you

(And that the Earth was not the center of the same and that it moved)

to at least have some bread. Can you stomach bread in your condition?”

“I am uncertain,” you say. More words I never imagined hearing you say, for you would only ever admit your uncertainty if you doubted yourself.

I look over my shoulder at the outer corridor. Empty, silent, long candles glowing along the walls. I swing shut the door and clasp my hands before me. Like you, my charge, I am exhausted, malnourished from hours of sitting, listening, waiting. My eyelids are heavy and my brain begs for sleep but seeing you there staring forlorn and dejected out that miniature doorway, I cannot bring myself to leave.

And the door is shut now. You can speak, bright one! Do what Galileo does best!

Please, speak.

The weight of the passing minutes. Eventually you turn, carefully, maroon robe sweeping the floor. “What would you I say, Francesco? That there is yet more to be done, more to be argued in my defense? Did your ears fall deaf upon the Word of God?”

“They did not,” I murmur. But when has Galileo ever backed down from an argument? This is the first and greatest argument you have ever or will ever retreat from—and it is because you believe you have lost. I remember the Cardinals’ words, each syllable stripping from you another shred of hope.

(We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that thou, the said Galileo, by the things deduced during this trial, and by thee confessed as above)

“Then you are inextricably aware of my position.”

Even your beard has given up. It used to be lush and dark. But when did those silver streaks appear? And when did your twinkling eyes wrinkle? When did you, who

(hast rendered thyself vehemently suspected of heresy by this Holy Office, that is, of having believed and held a doctrine which is false)

never bowed your head in debate, who never allowed another the final word, when did you decide your word less meaningful than that of a man in a hat?

“I am aware you have much life and time remaining yet to seek a brighter path,” I say. “I am also aware, your Excellency, that much thinking and writing can be done from the quiet seclusion of one’s study. The Cardinals cannot accept that you do not believe

(that the Sun is the center of the universe, and that it does not move from east to west)

the fictions they propagate, and in the safety of your mind, you cannot possibly accept it either.”

“You had best contain that silver tongue of yours, ambassador.” You settle at the writing desk, groaning, and rest an arm on the back of the chair. Across the room you implore me with those wrinkled starry eyes. “Why do you insist upon motivating my spirits? Can I not wallow in my defeat?”

“No,” I say. “It is too unnatural to see you so. We’ve known one another too long, and, quite simply, your Excellency, I care.” I could not in good conscience retreat to my quarters, knowing you still sit up here by the window, the greatest mind of our age, suffering!

“You do not need to prove your devotion to me. Were it not for your persistence with the Cardinals, I would be residing in a true prison, not the Villa Medici. But His Excellency the Pope would not be pleased to find

(that the Earth moves and is not the center of the universe: and that an opinion may be held and defended as probable after having been declared and defined as contrary to Holy Scripture)

I am even slightly connected with the world beyond my prison.”

“My visits will become forced, undoubtedly,” I say. “Permanent arrest includes isolation, admittedly.” Your eyes fall. I have never guessed at your affection for me. Or perhaps you are anticipating endless hunger for company. Even the great astronomer fears solitude. O, it will be lonely, that is certain. But you still have friends, and so many supporters. How can I make you see that you’ll never truly be alone?

Those who are good to you, they are rewarded exponentially with your good faith and humor. This is something no sane human would willingly abandon. And those who are foul and deceitful to you, may they be rewarded with your icy stare and reproachful tone. Should they never receive your disapproval, may it be rendered in its calamitous entirety

(in consequence thou hast incurred all the censures and penalties of the Sacred Canons)

upon their Judgment Day.

You break the silence. “Sit, your Excellency. You look as withered as I.”

I settle at the round, glossy dining table with the curling chairs opposite each other. You remain apart, at the desk, observing me. You are always observing, drawing conclusions you share only when prompted. I watch you, too, and for once I believe I understand.

“That door is shut. Locked,” I add quietly. “And it will remain so until my departure. Until then, old friend, we are the only two men in the world. You needn’t fear the Church’s ears.” You raise a quizzical eyebrow, as if to ask why

(We are content that thou shouldst be absolved, if, first of all, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, thou dost before Us abjure, curse, and detest)

that should matter, why your words should hold any bearing upon anyone, anymore. The judgment has already been made.

“This may be the last time you have a friendly ear for a long time,” I say. “An ear indifferent to

(errors and heresies and any other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church, after the manner that We shall require of thee)

the leanings of one party or another. I see that expression, your Excellency. I am Tuscany’s ambassador to them, nothing more. Never shall I be their mouthpiece. I have done all I am capable of doing within their operation to ease your strife. If my ears are all that remain to assist your Excellency, may it be done.” Relieve this anxiety, please. Debate with me the nature of sunspots, explain to me the function of the telescope.

That knowing, sardonic smile tempts your lips. But they fall, distracted by the reality of your predicament. You examine your knees, touching them with dry white fingers. Minutes expire before you raise your eyes. “Would you be surprised if I informed you Copernicus received no warmer a reception in his time?”

I am startled into brief laughter. “I think I very much would not be.”

You nod, still trying to smile. “When he died…just a short time after his theories were published, there was a clergyman who took it upon his enlightened self—or perhaps he was enjoined by some higher authority—to preface the text with a warning that the writings therein were merely simplifications of greater, proper works of astronomy—only those, you might expect, approved by the Church. Copernicus’s words, he said, should not be taken to heart, nor were they to be considered serious in any sense whatsoever. They should be considered supplementary. They were laughable. All because we—that is, we upon this Earth—had begun to feel displaced, brushed carelessly aside by this new theory. Now a greater entity challenged our place in the stars. Strange, isn’t it…”

Your words drop away and leave the silence hanging heavy and lost.

“A lifetime of work summarized briefly,” you murmur, “and in total defamation of its character. How vibrantly familiar.”

(I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed)

“Perhaps it is best not to dwell,” I venture. You are looking past me, vaguely not-seeing me. “Perhaps it is best to focus on the prospects of the future, not

(that the Sun is the center of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move)

that you have been misjudged and your efforts have been squandered by those lacking certain wit.”

“Silver tongue.” You heave another sigh, shifting in your chair till the window is in your view. In the blueing darkening sky the stars are twisting into being. “So far away.”

Perhaps it is the resigned dejection in your tone that ignites my temper. Suddenly I am standing, my chair is tipping backwards, balancing on its hind legs, and I am clenching my hands into fists. “Enough of this, Galileo. Enough of this self-pity. You have countless supporters throughout Rome and Europe, academicians and scientists of all manners, and clergymen too, who would balk to hear of your verdict. And balk they shall. You have worked tirelessly all your life pursuing the truth. This I know, for you have shown me as much in so many words, in the letters and conversations we’ve shared of your discoveries. You have invented impossible things, devices capable of expanding the reach of human thought. That a group of men too shortsighted and small-minded in their misguidance have deemed plausible theories implausible, to the detriment of all our collective intelligence—”

“Tongue.”

“Damn them!” I shout. “It’s no statement on your own integrity. You have been diligent. You have been precise. And most importantly, you have been steadfast. Enough of this defeat. You are no prisoner; you are an astronomer.” My chair falls, lands on its back.

You draw your cloak around your thinning form. You have shrunk impossibly before my eyes, and it murders my spirit. “My work has been my downfall, Francesco. Were I as clever as I claim, I’d have abandoned my work long ago.”

“How can you say—”

“Ever since I was first granted patronage to work freely, I have been trapped with the obligation to prove wise the investments of my patrons. But Urban’s favor has turned away from me and toward the Protestants. He must clarify the force of his authority. This I see clearly, despite your surprise. No matter his thoughts or lack thereof, the reality of his power is inescapable. This night is proof of that. I have pushed myself beyond my limits until I have depleted my path. I have gone too far, too far, and at last, I have lost control. I am a prisoner no matter where I am relegated, no matter the adornments of my cell. I am prisoner regardless.” Trembling violently, your voice has been fading until now, finally, it dies.

I come before you, lowering myself to one knee. I take your hands in mine.

“This day will end, and you will go forward,” I say. “You will be taken elsewhere, I am certain, but I will secure you back to Florence, in time, should my will hold any sway with the Cardinals—despite our friendship—and I shall secure you in your home, where you shall be safe. No, you will not be allowed to leave. But you will be home, as comfortable as possible. The only question is…what shall you do with your time? What shall you do with your mind, and all that useful silence?”

They gaze past me a long time, the very eyes that have determined celestial giants. I focus my eyes on yours until they are drawn to mine, and I offer a warm smile. “You must know this is not the end for you. You must believe there is something worth living for, even at the stroke of your darkest hour, even beyond the accusations of falsehood and proof against liars, beyond the slanders and arguments.”

Say it, Galileo. Say what you could only say in a room without ears. Bold, aging man, opening lips that have defied countless aggressors and protestors—do it once more.

You say, “I believe there are truths universal despite man. I do not

(abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith,)

believe they will always be lost. I have witnessed the otherworldly, and could never

(curse and detest the said errors and heresies)

forget its light. And when I recall the light, I am joyous, and

(I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion)

yet I must always be joyous alone. I may never share the light, much as I might, since

(if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him)

it is not the privilege of every body to glimpse a truth beyond their own. So,

(I submit myself to all the pains and penalties)

until the day I am freed. I will work, I will think, I will observe, and I will write…but softly.”

I know this is no victory, and I know you do not take yourself for the victor. But for the moment, for this one bright moment, your face glows alive, like the silhouetted stars beyond your head and reach. You stand, shakily, and you brace yourself against your chair, and you are the great astronomer again. You lift your chin and your jutting beard and the old twinkle in your eyes turns round and round.

“I, Galileo Galilei aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised… and hold myself bound as above.”

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