The Fair Heavens

 

At first, we rode back to the campus in silence. The professor was brooding and malcontent, and his unspoken thoughts filled the car with a suffocating weight. I wished it were dark outside, so I couldn’t see the angle of his high cheekbones in the relentless sun.

“She’s wrong — that Amish woman. She and her family are either lying or delusional or both. They’re probably inbred.”

I bowed my head. For me, an angry man was a thing to be feared. I stared out the passenger side window, trying to avoid Ballard’s reflection in the windshield. I focused on an empty meadow bordered by unruly tangles of forsythia whose yellow flowers were falling off their curved branches.

“If you must know, Miss Porter, I am a proud member of the National Association of Aerial Phenomena, and I have been for five years now, ” Ballard pouted pulled the information from him under great duress.

“Oh,” I squeaked. “I’m not sure I know what that—”

“It’s prestigious and reputable and headed by very fine men of the highest caliber. I’m talking about a Navy Admiral and a former CIA Director. I’m talking about aerospace engineers and other sober-minded people with brains and vision,” he hammered. “One has to prove oneself in order to gain admittance. I had to take a polygraph test. I had to solve pages of logistics problems. And even after I passed both of those with flying colors, I was still only an associate member. But that was five years ago, and now I am fully qualified and vetted to head investigations. I have rank.”

We were nearing the school, and I was grateful. I wanted to get out of the car and go to my room. Ballard was roiled and driving too fast, gripping the steering wheel with such force his knuckles were white.

“We have reams of data: interviews, photos, detailed descriptions. We are careful, and we are dedicated. And there is more too, so much more. I have literal proof that we have been watched and studied by an advanced civilization for hundreds and hundreds of years.” His voice was tight and high. “They observe us the same way zoologists observe monkeys and other primitives — but they don’t interfere. That’s what I know and it’s what history reveals. The Renaissance masters understood this and undoubtedly other civilizations knew it too. Renowned and brilliant men with tremendous powers of observation have seen the truth.”

This was a sermon but for whose benefit, I wasn’t sure. The open gates of the university’s campus never looked as good as they did at that moment. Down a corridor of weeping willows we drove, the Bel Air’s V-8 growling ferociously, startling a group of indigo bunting, which took to the sky in a shimmer of blue. A groundskeeper in a wide brimmed hat who was mending fence glared at the professor who barreled on, unaware or uncaring or both.

When we came to an abrupt stop in front of his cottage, Ballard’s feverish mood was unchanged. “Accompany me inside and learn.”

For the next thirty minutes, the professor shared with me a pictorial gospel of hidden truth. In color reproductions from scores of texts, he pointed out strange craft hovering in the skies of Renaissance paintings: radiant ships and saucer-like omens in oil, tempera and ink delivering unearthly benedictions to holy events. In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 15th century Madonna with St. Giovannino; in a 1490 drawing, The Assumption of the Virgin; in Caro Crivelli’s 1486 Annunciation; in Dutch artist’s Aert de Gelders Baptism of Christ; in the jarring, Sputnik-like object of Bonaventura Salimbeni’s circa 1600 painting, Glorification of the Eucharist; in the 1428 Masolino Panicale painting, The Foundation of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

And there were more — many more. I lost track as he jammed his long index finger at various pages with a fury. “And do you know, Miss Porter, that there has been a dramatic uptick in sightings? Right here in Lancaster County, there have been twenty of them this Spring, alone. It is remarkable. It’s why I was out at a farm the other night.”

“That’s amazing,” I said with a twitch. I stared at the open book in front of me, afraid of his gaze. I could see his button down shirt had come untucked.

“I believe the time is drawing nigh,” he said, marching to the kitchen and uncorking a bottle of wine. “The H-bomb is what did it. We are powerful now and need their help — can’t be trusted without guidance, that’s clear. They will contact our elected officials, maybe even land on the lawn of the White House, and we will take our place in the cosmic brotherhood. And when that happens, oh!” His fist pounded the counter top and I gasped.

I glanced up to see him smiling. He was enraptured in his own vision.

“I will no longer be forced to hide in the shadows. I’m not sick, I’m different — but very much part of the human race. We will soon all be linked in a galactic citizenship. And then… then I will be known, and I will be loved!”

I was grateful for the open windows. I could see trees. I could see the sky, though I looked at it differently than I had before. I nearly jumped when I spotted the sun glinting off a plane in the distance. “I think I’d like to go to my room and lay down now, ” I told him.

“That’s fine. You’ll need to rest up for our visit this evening. 7 p.m., as Miriam asked.“

I hesitated. “Well, I….”

“You will be joining me,” he commanded. “You were requested, after all. I haven’t known you to be rude, Miss Porter. Perhaps I’ve misread you?”

“No.”

Ballard leaned in close to my ear. “We’re in this together now. Tonight’s interview with those troglodytes might be a farce, but I’ve shared the big picture with you. You might consider showing a little gratitude that I have let you in on what is the most significant research in the history of mankind.”

A big, red lawnmower began roaring in the field below us, obscuring my “thank-you.” I nearly bolted from the room and into the blinding, late afternoon sun. I could feel Ballard’s eyes on me as I hurried away. I clung the to side of the gravel road, catching every shadow as I hid from the unforgiving light.

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