Saturday, September 26, 2015

51. A Night Above Hoodoo Beach

On New Island, the night sky can be quite different!

After lunch it stayed warm on the beach. Chloe had been snoozing in her tent, with instructions for Alan to wake her up if she slept too long. Alan sat reading a while and then finally said, "Hey Chloe...wanna get up now? I'm ready for a walk and maybe a swim if you're up for another one!"

She stirred and said, "Go away." Then, "Oh...yeah, I'm supposed to get up now." She crawled out and sat up, blinking. "Off to the Hoodoos?"

"Sure."

Alan pulled out his towel and they set off to where Chloe had gone swimming earlier. When they arrived at the cove, Chloe said, "How 'bout you swim and I'll sit and watch?"
Alan, a bit relieved, said, "That's fine, but don't watch too close, okay?" Chloe grinned and said, "Don't worry!" (Alan was getting a little more accustomed to the swimming naked thing, and especially to that wonderful feeling of freedom!)

Later in the afternoon, Chloe showed Alan how to dig up Holyoke clams in the shallow surf. That evening, after a delicious supper of steamed clams with butter, they cleaned up, said goodnight, and Alan finally crawled into his tent, fully spent after a long day on Hoodoo Beach. 

He had been sleeping a while when he began dreaming that no-clothes-on dream again. He's dreamed this one before, and, as usual, he is walking through a very American suburban neighborhood, among people he kind of knows are his neighbors, and then he discovers he's naked - again! It's as if he simply forgot to put his clothes on that morning. He's very embarrassed, and frustrated, (it's happened again!) but what can he do except run and dodge his way behind bushes and fences until he can get back home. No one seems to ever pay any attention to him, and he's never challenged. Maybe they've seen it before so often they're used to it now...  

Then, Chloe woke him up, calling, "Alan, Alan...come out and see this."

Shaken from his dream, Alan was disoriented at first. Then he noticed an orange glow through his tent roof, and when he climbed out he was completely overwhelmed by the swirling patterns of thousands of stars and huge glowing clouds, all lit up by some very bright star clusters near the center.  "What is this?" he asked.  

"It's part of the Small Magellanic Cloud, Alan, a galaxy near our own. Sometimes we get a close-up view, like it's just beyond the sun, but actually this thing is 210 thousand light-years away. I've never seen it this clear down on the shore, it's a real treat!" 

Alan stood gawking. "So it just appears every now and then?"

"Well, yes. And it's usually this bright only up in the Highlands, and barely visible at sea level. No one has been able to determine or predict a cycle, like we can with the moon. It puts on this show whenever it seems to feel like it!"

Alan was in disbelief. "Sooo, this just appears here now and then? Then why have I never heard of it happening elsewhere?"

"No one on this island knows, Alan. The Astronomy departments at both Putney University and the School of Oceanography have studied this intensely, with help from the USA's Hubble Space Telescope. As yet, we have no answer to the riddle. Some think it's a mirage, others think this and other distant star groups are projected here somehow - put up in the sky for a few hours, then gone at daybreak. 

"Also, see how this is shining from the southeast? That is the general direction of the SMC, as we call it here. Up on your northern hemisphere, the SMC isn't visible at all; and on other nights we see only a tiny cloud-like shape among the regular stars in our sky. The Small Magellanic Cloud is a neighbor galaxy to our own Milky Way, you know."

"Oh." 

They sat down and stared at this slowly-turning fiery wonder, leaning into each others shoulders. They both could almost feel the heat.