Ten years ago today, the heavens smiled upon Manila. Literally, because there was a planetary conjunction involving Venus and Jupiter, that conspired with a crescent moon to form what we would call a smiley, in the night sky. It wasn’t spectacular in the way other astronomical events like eclipses are, but it sure was an amusing sight.
I haven’t had the privilege of seeing a comet in the sky. It’s not a terrible misfortune, as comets that are bright enough to be seen by casual observation, the Great ones, are rare phenomenon. Yet I’d very much like to see these celestial objects because they embody astronomical wonder. Their fierce streak and brilliant tails have brought awe and terror to people throughout history: they have been seen as omens of the death of kings, or the conquest of countries.
But astronomers, beginning in the Middle Ages, looked up at these objects and decided to study them, patiently tracking them through the years and performing calculations on their appearances. They speculated, and made observations to support their theories. They explained the legendary appearances as natural fact. Centuries later, and we now have scientific organizations sending their instruments right to the hearts of such heavenly objects.
At twilight on the day of the Offering, as Maya lifted her saltwater-soaked feet onto the boat, when it seemed like she would not turn and take another look, I repeated in my mind the words she whispered to me on the night before.
Even the constellations are not eternal.
They say she was born near midnight, at a clearing out in the woods before her mother could return to the village. When she came out she was feared dead because she was not crying, but when the mother looked at the child, she saw its eyes bright and dazed and fixed at the sky, its hand reaching out for the stars.
She would spend almost every night of her life observing the heavens. Outside of their hut, while weaving mats out of palm leaves whenever moonlight permitted it, she would just look up and gaze, allowing a meek smile every time she sees a bulalakaw. She would sometimes be seen at the fringes of village gatherings. She would not talk with anyone; as the elders recited the epics, she would watch the sky, as if she could see the old heroes’ adventures among the stars.
Two months ago, misfortune struck our community. Life left the sea, our source of living. The fishermen would set out at dawn and return at dusk without so much as a single, wriggling alumahan caught in their nets.
Gazing at the night sky to make sense of the countless blinking lights is clearly a universal hobby. All the ancient civilizations loved it: the geeky Greeks, the elegant Egyptians, even the mysterious Mayans. In between farming, warring, and the other simply joys of ancient civilization, these people found time, lots of it, to just look up and imagine all sorts of pictures that could be outlined by the random positions of the stars. (They found, among others, a crab, a cup, and a hunter along with his two dogs.)
Equipped with only their eyes and inquistive minds, they left us with all sorts of fascinating explanations for the persistent wonder of the night-time sky. We have stories of gods and goddesses, huge sky domes and celestial machinery that keep the sky moving through day and night.