Look Up

Mercury can only be seen at twilight, and only then if you know where to look.

I was always attracted to twilight when I was a boy. Summer was a magical time. Fireflies arose from nowhere just as the noise of the city began to fade with the heat. In winter, snowflakes faded to grey before being freshened by streetlamps.

One twilight, the man I knew as my father took me out with a Palomar telescope he’d bought me for my seventh birthday. The largest mirror, at the base of a plastic cylinder, caught the image of the planet, and reflected it on to a smaller mirror, which bounced it onto the lens. So you saw only the apparition of your target as a cooling light wave.

Mercury was small, but I did make it out through the telescope, once. It was a quivering violin string for seconds before vanishing into the darkness.

I pestered my father to find Mercury for me again, but he refused. He doubted that I had seen it at all. Venus and Mars and even Jupiter were easier, he said. For Mercury, you had to be in the right place at the right time. My father thought himself unlucky. And I guess he saw no reason to dwell on it by pursuing Mercury night after night.

Until he passed it on his way to the stars.

How Mercury Was Born

In the old days people were not the chiefs and did not hunt animals. Animals were the gods and they hunted people. They killed all of them except for one girl and her little brother. Who hid in a cave. The boy learned to kill snowbirds with a bow and arrow and make a robe from the feathers. The girl made soup from the bodies of the birds and that was the first time people ate flesh. When the bright sun ruined the robe one day the little brother swore revenge. His sister helped him fashion a snare. He searched for the hole in the ground where the Sun rises. As the Sun rose the next day he caught it and tied it up so that there was no light or warmth. The animals were afraid and amazed by this. They sent the biggest and most fearsome animal to try to free the Sun. This was the dormouse, which in those days was as big as a mountain. The mouse chewed through the snare freeing the Sun but meanwhile the intense heat shrunk him down to his present size. Since that time the people have been the chiefs and the hunters, and the Sun has found a new hole for sleeping.