April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment


Come, look over here! The lake waters are lapping, lipping. Heads disappearing under the waves. Shall we walk across together? I don’t recognise you. Black men in Russian hats and long coats rounding us up. Who’s in control here? The water looks brackish – like bog water running out of a tap. Is it okay to go over? I can see their heads disappearing under the waves.

Black heads bobbing on the waves. Lapping, lipping. The earth is black around the shores and there are men in black hats and coats among the trees over there, with dogs. Yes. Big black dogs with red lolling tongues and sharp, white teeth. Canines. Yes, better. Shall we go in together? This is part of the journey, right? I don’t know you.

It is perfect, my head is bowing under the waves. I can see and breathe. No more black forest dogs or men. It is bright here. It’s getting brighter. Some underground city. I have never been here, and you?

She laughs showing her canines. NO. No canines: perfect white smile of teeth chattering with the cold. If I had a towel I would throw it around her shoulders. We’re in control here. Where have you gone? Shall we go in together? I like you. Can I hold your hand in mine, just for a while.

–  Are you still afraid? She is laughing.
–  With you, no.

It is perfect. So unnatural and real. There is a woman taking coats over there. Let’s go over. Magnificent. Very tall – I can’t see her head behind the hatch. Let’s see. There you are. Two drenched overcoats. When do you close? No answer. Two white disks with numbers: 36, 37. Thank you.

–  I feel better now, do you?
– Yes, much better.
– What’s your name?
– My name? There is a pause. She laughs. My name – I can’t remember.
– I’ll call you … Zoïka! And I’m Bernard, no Carlov.
– Okay, Carl. Do you want to see what those dancers are doing in there?
–  I think they’re … dancing. We’re in control. Let’s try not to lose one another.

There are many rooms: ball rooms, eating rooms, walking rooms, jutting rooms, fleeting rooms. One catches glimpses of bygone faces. Schoolmates and teachers. Pets and pet hates. Dreams and past lives all mixed, mingled. One is in control. I bump into an old school friend at the urinal. He says “You are pissing in the sink, Monsieur.” Does he not recognise me? Everything looks the same here. Sink, urinal. It’s all the same. I can’t remember his name but it was him alright. Z is waiting outside. She is smoking a Marlboro, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke blow out her ears, her nose, it’s all the same. They have given her a little white plastic mackintosh. Her shoulders are narrow and she is pigeon-chested. The top buttons are opened. I see flesh and a little heart-shaped pendant. She is leaning with one foot against the wall. The white-washed wall. Hospital wall. No. Cleaner than that. Almost transparent – heavenly. She winks at me. For the first time, I notice her straight mouse-coloured hair, her petite nose ending in a point.

– I hate when people call me that, she says.
– You’ve been listening to me, haven’t you?
– You were standing there staring at me, speaking out loud. I heard the word petite. I am not petite. I am who I am – Zoïka! She giggles.
–  I’m confused. Are you mad with me? I won’t ever call you pet… I stop myself, that word again.
– Good, she winks. Let’s dance.

The room is swirling with bodies more in a trance than in a dance. Everyone is wearing the same kind of mackintosh, in different colours. I look down. So am I. Mine’s dark green. No pale blue. I can’t decide. We start dancing. The music mimics our movements. When we dance fast it quickens and when we dance slowly it softens into a trancelike beat. There are flashing strobes. I can’t see where they are coming from. Just flashing and many colours, all swirling, twisting, turning, trancelike creatures. Zoïka is beside me. She is looking downward at her feet, shaking her head back and forth to the music. Her eyes are closed. Her mousey hair is flying out at the sides. First this side, then that. I let myself be sucked into the music. Swimming in wide concentric circles like water in a plughole. White enamelled walls. The circle is getting tighter. Flashes of colour. The music is trancelike. We are all in control. It slows like a gentle heartbeat. We are sea-anemones on the sea bed. The water around our spores and branches swells, swirls, tides. Swinging. Merry-go-round. Zoïka draws her arms in tightly against her body, clasping her elbows to her sides, her hands placed palm-down on her thighs. She groups her limbs in and spins, pirouettes, one foot out, the other foot on the ground. Her crazy hair flies with her. She is moving faster. I am out of breath. Nausea. Stomach-sick. Around me the grey muddy walls. The food in my belly is resurging. That’s not the right word but it catches it nicely.

I am alone. No-one seems to mind me opening doors, climbing stairs. There are many rooms. I open one and there is a doctor-lady inside behind a desk, writing. She looks up momentarily over her reading glasses and then continues scribbling. Her desk is bare except for this one sheet of paper, an in-tray and an out-tray. There is also an empty pitcher of water. I look around the room. There is a blue water fountain in the corner and a large plant, with yellowing, streaked leaves. Light pours in from a large window behind her. There is nothing outside. A white wall. The light is unnatural. I ask her:

– Excuse me. Do you work here? She looks up over her reading glasses, her pen poised in mid-air.
– Yes. How can I help you? I can’t remember what I was going to say so I invent.
– That window behind you, I say, pointing over her shoulder. She doesn’t turn round.
– Yessss. She says in an exaggerated tone. (I am not a child anymore.)
– Is there anything outside there? She seems confused by my question.
– There are more rooms.
– And after that? I venture.
– Many more.
– How many?
She uses the same drawn out tone, like a schoolteacher telling a group of children a fairy tale. – Mannny.
I try a different tack. – More than I can imagine?
Abruptly, she corrects me, her tone getting sharper. – As many as you can imagine. She places an emphasis on the word many. – Now, she says, with an air of finality, would you please close the door behind you. I have work to do.

Up a flight of stairs and down a corridor, I wander and choose a door at random. There is a number stuck to the door. 28B. And the words: Consult. Files. I twist the brass doorknob and enter. Files in black binders arranged in rows along the walls from floor to ceiling. No windows, just a strip light faintly flickering. I close the door and turn a little silver key which I then hang on a nail stuck into the door frame. In the first binder I pick out, at random, there are dental records. Bridge-work, root-canal treatment, sixteen hundred pounds. The signature is smudged. Dr. Denis Döpp…. I bring the flimsy sheet over beneath the light and turn it over. regnagleppöD. What a strange name. I’m sure I’ve heard it before. More dental records: orthodontic treatment, brace-work, head-mask to be worn at night. Yes, it rings a bell. There is a light tap at the door and someone tries to turn the knob from the outside. Slotting the file back into the gap, I creep over to the door and wait in silence. I am unafraid. Just playing hide and seek. Nothing else.

– I know you’re in there, a voice says.
– How do you know? I answer.
– Because the light’s on.
– Yes, but there’s nobody home. I giggle to myself.
– Suit yourself, says the voice. I’ll be back with my key.
A peculiar courage takes hold of me. – We’ll see about that! I shout.

Heeled shoes clop along the corridor into the distance. I take down my own key and unlock the door, making sure not to make too much noise.

Zoïka is outside, standing with one foot leaning against the wall opposite.

– I’ve been looking all over for you.
– I was just checking something.
– Yes, but that’s over now. Let’s go somewhere. I missed you.

We are walking along the banks of a river. Opalesque, aspic waves lap against the riverbanks. There is an island with a castle. An old, crooked wooden bridge spans the slow-moving river. It is summer, the beeches rustle overhead, and there is no cloud in the burning haze. We are holding hands in silence. Her hand is small in mine. Buried like a rabbit in my rough hand. She is wearing a red woollen sweater, a kilt and beige knee-socks. Her shoes are black with buckles and short heels. She is looking ahead to where the course of the river bends, beyond the bridge. She is not smiling. Her thin lips are tight. She may be crying. I don’t know. I’m afraid to look into her eyes. It might change things. I might not recognize her. I hold her hand and try to concentrate on the surroundings. We pass a quaint riverside hotel. There is a sign outside reading, “Le chat perché”, in white gothic lettering against a black background; and a realistically-drawn cat arching its back on a rooftop. The buildings are of soft sandstone, mellow in the full sunlight. There is no-one about. The streets are spotlessly clean. Not one leaf in the gutters. I let my free hand trail along the top of the riverbank wall. It is real. There is a park on the other side of the river and for a moment I think I see someone sitting on a bench by the river. I turn to Z to see if she has noticed it too. She pays no attention. She is not crying. Her hair half covers her face. I would like to kiss her. But I’m afraid it might vanish. We cross the bridge which creaks under our weight. It is cool inside. There are small portholes on either side looking out over the river; the island with the castle on one side, the bend in the river on the other. At the half-way point, there is a man in ragged clothes begging. I reach into my pocket and take out a gold piece which I flick into his hat from a distance of a couple of yards. He bows his head and reaches a dirty hand into the hat to examine his takings. For the first time I notice that Z is smiling. She looks over her shoulder at the beggar and gives him a little wave. He salutes her. “Merci, Madame!” His rasping voice echoes along the roof-beams.

On the other side, things are arranged differently. The gardens are in full flower. Fuchsia, rhododendron and clematis grow and creep liberally up against cracked stone walls. There are Scots pines, elders, hawthorn, and apple trees in bloom. The air is sweet and there is an incessant buzz of insects. A purple butterfly lands on Z’s hair. She doesn’t seem to notice. She begins to speak.

– It’s your first time here, isn’t it? You look so happy.
I can’t think of anything to say so I just nod my head.
– I’m so glad you like it. It is my favourite place. Let’s sit down over there on the grass under the willow tree.

She indicates a beautiful weeping willow, drooping its delicate branches into the river. This time she leads me forward tugging slightly at my hand. I am so tired. I lie down on the grass balancing my head on my hand. From a little leather satchel with flower-petal designs she takes out a pouch of tobacco and cigarette papers. She mixes in some white and purple weed, crumbling the dried leaves between her thumb and forefinger. Lighting the cigarette, she takes a long drag and holds it in her lungs for a few moments. The butterfly is still in her hair and flaps its wings slowly.





August 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

They were bigger than she’d expected.

The ad in the Farmers’ Journal said simply, ‘Piglets for sale; domestic breed’. They slept on beds of straw she prepared for them beside the hot press, their forelegs neatly tucked in and their hind legs sticking out to one side. She sat cross-legged on the carpet every evening and watched their rounded bellies rise and fall.

She fed them on milk and handfuls of dog biscuits. The pigs greeted her with expectant snorts each time she returned with bags from the supermarket. They let her scratch their chins and even rolled over on to their bristled backs to be tickled, their trotters dangling. She laid newspaper on the carpet and didn’t invite her friends around.

That September, there was a heat wave. Whenever she left the flat, she ushered the pigs on to the balcony. She had set up a little area for them away from the plants, under parasols, where they were to stay and be good until she got home from the office.

One afternoon the pigs got hot, then tired, then bored. They forced open the door to the living room and attacked the sofa and cushions, leaving yellow sponge and strips of upholstery all over the floor. They shoved over the kitchen bin and rooted through the spilled rubbish. They overturned chairs and smashed open the glass cabinet where she kept her mother’s china. Finally, as though realizing they would be punished, they crept up onto her bed, and, burying their fleshy snouts under the duvet, waited for her return.

The farmyard was at the end of a long track. Chickens and geese scattered as she pulled up next to a rusted tractor. The farmhouse door opened and a man stepped out followed by a small boy wearing a shiny tracksuit tucked into overlarge rubber boots. She killed the engine, got out and opened the boot.

– They’re … she pointed.

The boy peered in and pushed a finger through the wire mesh.

– They’re so quiet, he said softly.

– Would you like to see where we’ll put them? the man enquired.

The boy took her by the hand and they followed the farmer around the back of an old red barn to a sty with plenty of fresh straw and a trough filled with scraps: eggshells, potato skins and carrot ends. There was a tap by the wall and under it a plastic bucket.

– They’ll be happy enough here, said the man.

She nodded, but did not let go of the boy’s hand.

– Rua Breathnach


Tales of the Jungle by Horacio Quiroga

April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Flamingoes’ Stockings

Once upon a time the vipers gave a dance. They invited the frogs and the toads, the coral snakes, the flamingoes, the alligators and the fish. The fish, not having legs, couldn’t dance; but, as the dance was held by the river, they lay on the banks and applauded with their tails. The alligators, to adorn themselves, slung garlands of bananas around their necks and smoked huge Paraguayan cigars. The toads had stuck on fish-scales all over their bodies, and glided along, as though they were swimming. Every time the toads passed near the river banks, haughty in all their affected splendour, the fish would goad them and make fun of them. The frogs wore perfume from head to toe, and walked on their hind legs with their chests out. And as a finishing touch, each of them was bearing a small lighted torch; a firefly held aloft.

The coral snakes were absolutely splendid. They were dressed in long satin gowns; red, black and white in colour, and they danced in a truly serpentine fashion. When they danced and made little pirouettes on the tips of their tails, the other guests all clapped like madmen.

Prettiest of all were the vipers. Each one, without exception, was wearing a dancer’s costume matching the colour of its skin. The colourful vipers wore little skirts made of tulle; the green ones in green; the yellow one wore yellow skirts; and the yararás, a little smock made of grey tulle patterned with stripes the colour of bricks and ashes; this being the colour of the yararás.

Only the flamingoes – who at that time had white legs, and had then as now big twisted noses – only the flamingoes weren’t enjoying themselves. You see, being rather stupid, they hadn’t known what to wear to the dance. They were jealous of everyone else’s costumes, and most of all of the coral snakes’. Every time one of these passed in front of them, in a coquettish manner, their dazzling gowns flowing behind, the flamingoes felt sick with envy.

So one of the flamingoes said:
– I have a plan. We’ll  put on black and white coloured stockings. The coral snakes won’t be able to resist us then.
So all at once they took flight, crossed the river and went to knock at the door of a village store.
– Tap, tap! – they knocked with their feet.
– Who is it? – the store-owner asked.
– It’s the flamingoes. Have you got any black and white stockings?
– No, I don’t – came the reply – are you out of your minds? You won’t find stockings that colour anywhere.

So the flamingoes flew off to another store.
– Tap tap! We’ve come to buy some black and white stockings.
The store-owner raised his eyebrows, and asked:
– What’s that you said? Black and white what? You won’t find any stockings around here. Are you crazy? Who are you, anyway?
– We’re the flamingoes – they responded.
Once the man heard that, he said:
– Ah, well then you must be very crazy flamingoes …
So on they went to another store.
– Tap, tap! Hello there. Listen, we’re looking for black and white stockings.
The store-owner shouted from behind the door:
– What colour? Black and white? Only big-nosed idiot birds like yourselves would think of asking for black and white stockings. Get out of my sight!
And with this, he flung open the door and drove them away with the handle of a brush.

The flamingoes went from one store to the next and each time they were thrown out like fools. But, as chance would have it, an armadillo, who had gone to take a drink by the river, saw them, and wanting to make fun of them he called them over to him in friendly tones.
– Good evening, gentlemen!  I know what it is you’re looking for. You won’t find stockings of that kind in any store in these parts. Maybe in Buenos Aires, but you’d have to order them by mail. My sister-in-law, the Owl, might be able to get you some. Just ask her nicely and I’m sure she’ll give them to you.
The flamingoes thanked him, and flew away immediately to the Owl’s cave.
– Good evening, Owl! – they said – We’ve been told you have black and white stockings and we’ve come to ask you if we can borrow them for the night. Today is the day of the vipers’ big dance; and if we wear black and white stockings the coral snakes won’t be able to resist us.
– Why, of course! – said the Owl. Hold on a minute, I’ll be right back. And she went off, leaving them there alone.  In a little while she was back with the stockings. Only they weren’t really stockings at all; they were coral snake skins, which the Owl had lately acquired on one of her hunting sprees.
– Here they are, the stockings – she said. There’s nothing to worry about, only take my advice: dance all night long, without stopping for even a moment. Dance with you sides, with your tails and with your beaks and whatever you do, do not stop, because if you do there’ll be hell to pay. But the silly flamingoes didn’t quite realize how dangerous their predicament was, and they fit their legs into the snake skins without giving it a second thought and flew off to the dance in a delirious frenzy.

When the flamingoes were seen arriving kitted out in their fantastical stockings, the other guests turned green with envy. The vipers longed to dance with them, but because the flamingoes legs were moving so fast, they couldn’t make out exactly what material their wonderful stockings were made of.

Later on that night, the vipers began to have their doubts about the stockings. Whenever a flamingo danced up close to one of them, they would crouch down on the ground to get a better look. The coral snakes, in particular, were feeling very uneasy. They couldn’t take their eyes off the stockings, and lay flat against the ground whenever a flamingo came near, trying to feel with their tongues the dancing legs of the birds; the tongue of a snake being able to touch and feel like a person’s hand. But the flamingoes danced on and on, even though they were very tired and completely out of breath.

The coral snakes, becoming aware of this, asked the frogs to lend them their torches, which were little fiery bugs, and waited in readiness for the flamingoes to collapse from exhaustion. And so it was that one of the flamingoes whose legs couldn’t support him any longer tripped on an alligator’s cigar, and stumbling, fell in a heap on the dancefloor. All the coral snakes rushed toward the fallen bird and inspected his legs up close with the torches. They saw immediately what kind of ‘stockings’ these really were, and they let up an awful hissing sound that could be heard even on the far side of the river.
– These are no stockings! – cried the snakes.  We know what they are! They have tried to fool us. The flamingoes have killed our brothers and sisters and have put on their skins like stockings! Their stockings are made of coral snake skins!

On hearing these words, the flamingoes were filled with dread at having been discovered, and tried to fly away; but not one of them had enough energy to move a single feather. So, the coral snakes, taking their chance, threw themselves in a frenzy upon the birds, and biting furiously, they tore off the accursed stockings and snapped at the flamingoes legs hoping to kill them. The flamingoes, in agonies of torture, jumped this way and that, without, however, being able to free themselves from the snakes’ fangs. Until, seeing that there was not one bit of stocking left to tear off, the snakes, feeling avenged at last and putting their costumes back into place, finally released the flamingoes from their grasp.

The coral snakes were sure the flamingoes would die, because half of them, at least, were of the venomous kind. But the flamingoes didn’t die. They ran off to throw themselves in the water to relieve the terrible pain. They cried out in agony, and their legs, which had up to then been white, were now coloured due to the venom in the snake bites. They spent days and days like this, not being able to rid themselves of the awful burning sensation in their legs, which were now red coloured, because they were filled with poison.

All this happened long long ago. And yet, you can still see the flamingoes wading with their coloured legs in the water, trying to soothe the burning sensation of the venom. Sometimes they move up onto the shore, and walk around a little to see whether the pain has gone. But they soon feel the effects of the venom again, and run back to plunge their legs in the cool water. At other times the pain is so bad that they tuck up one of their legs, and stand like this on one foot for hours on end, because they can’t bear to straighten it out.

That’s the story of the flamigoes who once had white legs and now have coloured legs. The fish know this story well and are always making fun of the flamingoes. But the flamingoes, as they cool their legs in the water, never miss an opportunity to take revenge, and gobble up any little fish that comes too close to poke fun at them.

Translated from the Spanish by Rua Breathnach.

After Lu Ji (261-303)

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Goodbye, eternity!

There is no way back;

we go and never return.

Death lies up ahead

and birth behind;

further and further away

and more so.

No road, no friendly sign;

just the leaves falling on the patio,

the bitter weeds on the graves

turning bitterer still.

   – Rua Breathnach –

“Seul phare dans la nuit …”

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Pulsars are a type of rapidly rotating neutron star; the remnants of supernova explosions. These “stellar corpses” represent, perhaps, the ultimate state of matter, as we know it, in the Universe. Akin to the regular pulses of lighthouses, pulsars emit beams of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected as radio waves here on Earth. The  rate at which these beams are emitted ranges from a few pulses to over 1,800 pulses per second. Listening to recordings of the waves emitted by a neutron star spinning 8 times per second, one is reminded of the steady click of a stylus on a scratched record. In contrast, the individual pulses of the fastest spinning pulsars can be heard only by slowing them down considerably, so that they sound like skipping CDs.

The existence of neutron stars was predicted in the early nineteen thirties by two American scientists; Baade and Zwicky. The third component of the atom, the neutron, – the electron and the proton were already known – had only recently been discovered. Baade and Zwicky believed that neutron stars, if they really existed, would consist entirely of neutrons packed very tightly; the remnants of exploded stars. Thirty four years later, in 1968, the Italian physicist Franco Pacini went so far as to say that if these stars existed, they were likely to rotate very rapidly and to emit electromagnetic waves.

Convincing evidence of the reality of these strange celestial bodies was found in 1969. Jocelyn Bell, a Belfast-born PhD student working at Cambridge in England, detected what she thought at first to be signs of interstellar communication: pulses of radio waves travelling across the Universe at fairly regular intervals. She and her colleague, Anthony Hewish, slowly gathered evidence for these “pulsed radio sources” on mile after mile of magnetic tape. To their dismay, they discovered that these pulses were not alien civilizations trying to contact the Earth (or each other), but hard evidence for the existence of swiftly rotating star remnants, from then on known as pulsars (a coinage derived from ‘Pulsating source of radio emissions’). Nevertheless, once other pulsars had been detected, it was perceived that some of them emitted radio waves in irregular blips, and not in the regular patterns that had been predicted. This meant that their physics was much more complicated – i.e. difficult to measure accurately – than had previously been assumed.

Crab Nebula

The Crab pulsar, at the heart of the Crab Nebula in the constellation of Taurus, is one of the best known pulsars. This is mainly due to the fact that it emits a very regular pulse – 30.2 times per second – and is easily detectable by radio-astronomical instruments on Earth. Like all known pulsars, it is thought to be the end product of a supernova explosion. Incidentally, the Crab nebula (and, by extension, the Crab pulsar within it) was the first astronomical object identified with a historical supernova explosion. It corresponds to a bright explosion visible in the sky in July of the year 1054, recorded by, among others, Chinese, Japanese and Persian astronomers. It has also been claimed that an obscure entry in a number of Irish monastic annals originally referred to the same event.

A supernova explosion occurs during the gravitational collapse of a star that has burnt out the nuclear fuel – mainly hydrogen and helium – in its core. Approximately 4 billion years in the future, our own Sun will die such a death. All the matter in our solar system, including ourselves – from gold and oxygen, to the molecules that make up our DNA – is the product of at least two previous stellar explosions. Depending on the mass of the star, the end product of its collapse can be either a black hole, a pulsar or a white dwarf. A star with roughly 6 to 8 times the mass of the Sun, or above, will become a black hole; ordinary matter being unable to resist the force of the gravitational collapse of such a massive body. A smaller or medium star, at least 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, will most likely become a pulsar: on collapsing it will blow off much of its excess material, and stabilise again to become an extremely dense body of roughly 20 – 30 kilometres across. One teaspoon of the matter of such a pulsar would have a mass equivalent to all the water in Galway Bay.

Pulsars are among the most extreme objects known in the Universe. Examples have been detected that have a surface gravitational force 1013 (ten with thirteen zeros after it) timesstronger than the Earth’s. As Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity, space-time is extremely warped under such conditions. That is to say, light radiated from a star with a gravitational force of this magnitude bends such that parts of the normally invisible rear surface become visible. Time, on the other hand, as measured from a distant perspective (e.g. Earth’s orbit), will seem to pass more slowly in the star’s proximity. Pulsars have also been shown to have an atmosphere, and even a mantle and crust. The atmosphere of one of the roughly 2,000 known pulsars, for example, is thought to be composed of gaseous iron, about two inches thick, and extremely dense. The surface temperature of such a body is reckoned to be somewhere in the region of 1,000,000 Celsius, growing hotter as you move towards the core.

The most significant feature of pulsars, however, and the feature that distinguishes them from ordinary, slowly rotating neutron stars, is their massive magnetic fields. Millisecond pulsars – pulsars that rotate more than once every millisecond – have been shown to generate a magnetic field of over 1015 times greater than the Earth’s. As the pulsar spins, energy in the form of electrons and protons travels along the magnetic field at speeds sometimes approaching the speed of light. This energy is ejected from the magnetic poles producing an electromagnetic beam that we can detect on Earth as radio waves (provided the beams are pointing edge-on relative to our line of sight). The magnetic axis of the pulsar determines the direction of the electromagnetic beam, with the magnetic axis not necessarily being the same as its rotational axis. This misalignment causes the beam to be seen once for every rotation of the neutron star, which leads to the “pulsed” nature of its appearance: the so-called ‘lighthouse effect’.

At this point, two questions might spring to mind:

  • Why does a pulsar spin so fast? And,
  • What is a pulsar made of?

Basic physics teaches us that the larger the size of a body the slower it spins. When a figure skater extends her arms and legs, she turns more slowly than if she were to keep her limbs tightly tucked in towards her centre of gravity. In the same way, the velocity of a planet’s or a star’s spin depends on the distribution of its mass (how much space it occupies). Our Sun has a radius (the distance from its centre to its outermost surface) of approximately 700,000 kilometres, and a rotation period of 24.47 days (i.e. it takes around 24 and a half days for it to rotate once). Were you to retain the mass of the Sun but shrink it so that its diameter (2 × radius) was no more than 20 kilometres, it would spin much, much faster: about once every millisecond.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, p. 383.

The answer to the second question is: nobody knows for sure. There has been plenty of speculation, however. Some astronomers still believe that the cores of neutron stars are composed of quickly spinning neutrons (subatomic particles with a neutral electrical charge that are slightly heavier than protons). Others posit quarks (elementary particles that combine to form composite particles, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the building blocks of atomic nuclei).

Finally, millisecond pulsars might one day replace atomic clocks as the most accurate instruments we have to measure time. By comparing the rotational stabilities of these stars with one another and with terrestrial time scales, we might one day be able to narrow the margin of error in our time-keeping significantly. However, we would still need to adjust our timepieces by 1.3 seconds every million years: the current estimated rate at which pulsars slow down over time. We might take comfort in the fact that all civilizations have had to contend with the same problem; that nature does not produce regular astronomical patterns. Until we find a more accurate clock, we shall have to add 130,000 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second) to our calendar once every century, or so, to keep the accounts balanced.

Rua Breathnach

Relative position of the Sun to the centre of the Galaxy and 14 pulsars with their periods denoted as included on the plaques sent aboard Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft.

Urashima Tarō

November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment


The evening sun projected a tongue of flame over the calm sea. Red and blue fishing boats, moored a little distance from the shore, gently rocked on the waves. Urashima Taro, a fisher-boy of Suminoye, walked home along the beach. He was dreaming of the day he would take his own vessel and sail it over the horizon, out of sight. Ahead, he could see children playing at the water’s edge. They were running about wildly and chanting, and some of them were carrying sticks. When he got closer, he saw that the children were tormenting a sea turtle that had been washed up on the sand. Every time the little creature made for the water, they would poke it with their sticks and try to flip it over onto its back.

Urashima ran up among them and grabbing hold of one of the children’s sticks, held it above his head and shouted, “This turtle has done you no harm! Why do you torment it?”. The children were quiet and stared at their feet. After a few moments, their mothers could be heard calling them inside for their evening meal of fish and rice. They left silently in groups of twos and threes, trailing their sticks behind them in the sand. Urashima watched them go and then stooped down to see what condition the turtle was in. The poor creature was not physically damaged but was quite obviously exhausted and afraid. It had tucked its head and feet in under its black and green patterned shell.

Urashima spoke to it kindly, saying: “Now little turtle. Your ordeal is over. You can go on your way. I won’t hurt you.” But the turtle wouldn’t budge an inch. It lay there helplessly, no doubt wishing to be left alone. Urashima cupped his hands, and scooping up some sea water, poured it over the turtle’s back. He did this four or five times before the turtle dared to poke out its curious head and open its beady eyes. Urashima sat with it and spoke to it soothingly. After a while, the turtle extended its legs, and looking around warily began slowly, very slowly, to move towards the breaking surf. Urashima watched it as it tumbled around in the first breakers and finally disappeared beneath the waves. “Goodbye, my friend!”, he whispered, and turned for home.

Five years or more passed before Urashima fulfilled his wish to sail into the horizon. His father had grown old and seldom used the boat for fishing. In the natural course of things, Urashima had taken over as the family’s breadwinner, and it was now he who plied the waters and brought home the catch. And so, it happened that one evening Urashima was fishing a few miles out to sea. He had been fishing all day, but had caught nothing. He was loath to return home empty-handed. After all, his ageing father and mother depended on him for food. He made a wish and cast his net one last time into the darkening waves. Immediately he felt a small tug. “At last,”, he thought to himself, “something to show for my troubles!”. When he pulled the net in, he did not see the familiar silvery struggling body of a fish. Instead, a round body thumped down on the planks in the bow of the boat, entangled in the nets. “Turtle meat!”, he said aloud, and laughed. But when he had disentangled the creature, he saw that it was too small to feed even one person; let alone three hungry people. He was about to throw it overboard when a small voice said, “Don’t throw me back! I’ve come to find you. You who saved me all those years ago”. Urashima stood holding the turtle for a moment. He looked around him to see who was speaking. He was afraid. It was getting dark and he feared that it might be an evil spirit that was summoning him from the deep. He kept calm, however, and asked aloud,  “Who speaks?”. Again the little turtle piped, “Here I am. Do you not remember me?”. Urashima had no doubt this time who had spoken and, in his fright, dropped the creature overboard. At this, the turtle grew to an enormous size and swam alongside the boat. Lifting its head out of the brine, it said, “Don’t be frightened. I was sent by the daughter of Ryujin, the Dragon of the Sea. I have come to fetch you and bring you to Ryugu-jo, the Dragon’s Palace in the deep. The turtle paddled around to the stern of the boat and pushed its hind quarters up against it. “Sit up on my back and I will take you there.”

As though in a trance, Urashima, forgetting all danger, climbed over the stern and onto the turtle’s back. As he did so, he felt a great internal change come over him. He gasped like a fish on dry land and suddenly wished only to plunge into the sea’s murky depths. Soon, he was gliding through the deep waters, breathing naturally as though it were his native element. He held tightly to the turtle’s neck and thought not of his vessel far above nor of his distant home and parents. How long the journey lasted, he could not say. For who can tell the time when all is unchanging darkness? He must have slept, however, for when he awoke he was on dry land, lying on a bed of lush, green sea-grass.

When his eyes had re-adjusted to the light, he saw that a beautiful maiden was seated next to him, weaving a garland of anemones and singing a strange and enchanting song:


“Come to my father’s palace in the deep,

where time does pass but none do weep.

I’ll be your companion and flower-wife,

for this day you spared my life.”


She smiled down at him and made him drink a thimbleful of water. To his parched lips and tongue it tasted sweeter than honey. She kissed his forehead and bade him sleep. But he was not tired. He gazed around him in wonder. There was no sky above; only a vault made of red coral, resting on slender pillars of solid crystal. He looked and listened for what seemed like a long time and then fell into a deep slumber.

Urashima awoke to the same sight every morning – if morning it really was; the smiling maiden, the garlanding of flowers, the gorgeous palace above his head. He felt no need or desire to move. Words were rarely exchanged between him and the maiden. An understanding and appreciation of beauty and love seemed to pervade all things. He lived in a blissful, awakened dream, and wanted for nothing. He neither longed for the past nor hoped for the future. All was an eternal, unchanging present, where the hours were undivided and toil and hardship unknown. On awakening, he would drink a thimbleful of water and listen to the song of the beautiful maiden. The song never varied, and he never got tired of hearing it sung. The maiden, indeed, was a flower-like creature, and her kisses were as sweet as nectar. But, unlike an earthly flower, her splendour did not fade.

One morning Urashima awoke and found that he was alone. He was greatly astonished and afraid. He called out but only the echo of his own voice replied. He stood up, feebly, and walked slowly towards a source of light at one end of the palace. As he passed through a high arched doorway, he could hear long-forgotten sounds: the chirping of birds, the hum of insects and bees, and the great surging movement of life itself. He wandered, leaving the glittering palace behind. He walked through flower-carpeted meadows until he reached the sea. He walked along the beach blindly, drinking in the tastes and sounds and smells that reached his senses. He walked and walked following the curve of the shore. The landscape became barren and rough. The sea roared and thumped against the cliffs. Sea-birds were swept inland by high winds, shrieking. The sea-spray bit into his skin. It was cold and harsh. Still he continued onwards, the faint sun at his back. Again his surroundings changed. Thick drifts of snow blanketed the fields. Life seemed scarce in the air and on the ground. Small birds clung to the black-barked trees and did not sing. His feet were red and frost-bitten; his hair and eyebrows were encrusted with ice. Urashima realised that he must be on an island, or that he must have wandered a long time, for presently the sun shone on his face again. It was springtime and the grass grew underfoot. The Dragon’s Palace stood out against a clear blue sky.

At the doorway of the palace stood the maiden, his wife. She looked at him oddly. “Where have you been?”, she asked. “Have you seen the four seasons?”, she added with a smile. Urashima replied, “Yes, my love, and my heart is filled with sadness and longing.” The maiden looked puzzled as he uttered these words. “How can you be sad when you have me and all else you desire?”, she asked. “I must travel back to see my home and family again. I will never be happy unless you grant me this wish”, Urashima replied bitterly. The maiden looked at him strangely, and said, “You will be taking a great risk in parting from these shores. No mortal has ever done so and lived to tell the tale. But if it is your heart’s wish, I cannot stop you.” There were tears glistening in her beautiful eyes. She took him gently by the hand and said, “Before you go, take this box, where the weight of all the time you have passed here is stored. It will protect you. But I warn you: under no circumstances must you open it. For then surely we shall never meet again. ” Urashima accepted the box and kissed his wife on the forehead. A swirling mist enveloped the palace and, in the twinkling of an eye, the giant turtle appeared by his side and bade him sit up on its back. He took one last look around, but the maiden had vanished, and the Dragon’s palace grew faint like an image distant in time and space.

When Urashima reached the shores of Suminoye, he was surprised to find it familiar but somehow different to how he remembered it. No longer were there colourful fishing boats bobbing on the waves, and the wooden huts among the dunes were rotting, half-buried in the sand. No children played on the shore and, apart from an old woman sitting on the beach cooking a herring on a stick over a fire, not a soul could be seen. The old woman had spotted him as soon as he emerged from the waves. She hid the charred fish under her shawl and watched him suspiciously as he approached. He bowed to her and asked her if he might dry himself by the fire. He stood in silence for a long time. The old woman, perceiving that there was little threat to her fish, began toasting it over the embers again. Eventually, he asked her did she know his parents and if some disaster had overtaken the fishing folk thereabouts. The old woman looked at him curiously and said that there had been no fishing folk here for as long as she could remember, and that the names he had mentioned belonged to a time long past, and all but forgotten.

He was puzzled, and leaving the old woman he walked again among the dunes searching for a sign of life. He found nothing; only scraps of wood and iron. Desolately, he came down to the shore and looked out to the west. The evening sun projected a tongue of flame over the calm waters. He sat down on the sand and, handling the box the maiden had given him, thought of his father and mother and how they must be buried somewhere in the dunes. Perhaps some planks from his little fishing vessel had floated in with the tides and confirmed their worst fears and imaginings? Perhaps they had died of hunger, or of grief? Too much time had passed to know the truth; and yet, for Urashima it had hardly passed at all. For a long time he looked out to sea. At last, the sky grew dark and slivers of moonlight were reflected on the surface of the inky black waters. The chariot of stars rode across the heavens from east to west. His thin cloak ruffled and flapped in the breeze. “Goodbye, eternity”, he whispered and, lifting the lid of the box, he was immediately turned to dust.

– Freely adapted from the Japanese folktale, Urashima Tarō, by Rua Breathnach.

After Wang Wei (701-761)

October 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

Autumn on the lake

The water is pensive as a sky of iron.

In among the bamboo shoots,

the babble of washerwomen rises

and gently spirals across the lake.

The water does not stir;

the willows hang in silent contemplation.