A GLOBE OF HEAVEN by Salman Rushdie
A celestial globe is a portrait not of the earth but of the skies. Globe-makers in many cultures - Persian, Mayan, Indian, European - over the centuries made many such representations of the heavens and of the pictures they saw there, working in papier-mâché, wood, brass, and sometimes in precious metals. These globes were Earth-centric, of course, and humanist; the human view, the view from the Edge - for the Earth is at the rim of its galaxy, which itself is a hick town in a far-flung province of the universe - was placed at the centre of Creation. And because of the distances involved, the unending light-years, the globes were fictions, as the night sky is; they were portraits not only of space, but of time.
When the young woman from New York, Ava, who had spent much of her adult life restoring sky-globes for this or that museum or private collector, read a story in an online news source about a crackpot American in the Mexican desert who claimed to have discovered an ancient buried globe from outer space, she naturally suspected a fraud.
The American, Maria Celestis, had spent years trying to prove that aliens had landed on Earth in that barren Mexican wilderness, setting down their spaceships on landing strips in the desert whose marks could still be seen. It was a small story, and it probably wouldn’t have been printed at all if Maria Celestis at seventy had not been a woman of striking beauty, wild-haired, majestically tall and slender, with black ferocious eyes.
She had been coming and going across the US-Mexican border for much of her life and when she was young the men in the frontier town of Parallelville had all lusted after her, but none of them got close. Lately she had begun to drink, and it was in Orson’s bar in Parallelville, when she was in her cups, that she first told the story of the celestial globe buried in the desert, a globe made of stone. “I suddenly saw,” she said, “that the stars were in the wrong places, that this was a globe whose point of view was not Earth-bound. Not human.” She claimed to have found the Rosetta Stone of UFOlogy, an artifact that proved that we had been visited by migrants from across the galaxy, or from another galaxy far away.
“Those damn illegals,” said Orson the bartender. “No telling how far they’ll come just to get into the USA.”
The young Manhattanite, Ava, couldn’t get the ridiculous story out of her head. If the globe existed it would be a rarity. Stone globes had not often been made. She didn’t believe in the space travellers, but she wanted to believe in the globe. In the end she took a few days’ vacation and flew to Mexico to look for Maria Celestis.
It wasn’t hard to find her. There she was in Orson’s bar near the bottom of a bottle. She led Ava to a shed at the edge of town and showed her the globe. It was a huge orb, with a diameter of perhaps twelve feet. It stood on wooden struts, illuminated by a triangle of lights set around it on the floor. “I dug it up,” said Maria Celestis, “in case anyone was interested. But you’re the only one who came.”
Ava was Maria Celestis’ antithesis. The older woman was flamboyant, loud, fiery; Ava cut a small, scrawny figure beside her, plainly dressed, low-voiced. She circled the globe for an hour. The animals and winged creatures etched into its surface, representing constellations, were fantastic creations, unlike anything that had ever walked the earth or swum in the sea or flown through breathable air. The whole surface was richly worked to suggest the great whorls of galaxies and the cloud pillars in which stars were born. It was clear that a skilled sculptor had made this. Finally Ava said, “At the archaeological sites of Gandhara, in northern Pakistan, local artists carve stone heads in the manner of the ancient Gandharans, bury them for a few years, and then dig them up and sell them to tourists as antiques.”
Maria Celestis did not reply.
“You made this,” said Ava. “That’s obvious.”
Maria Celestis remained silent.
“It’s very beautiful,” said Ava.
Maria Celestis finally spoke. “There are over a hundred of them,” she said. “Buried out there. One hundred and seventeen. I have the co-ordinates.”
“You are a great artist,” Ava told her. “Perhaps I can help. There are museums, collectors. You don’t have to bury them or age them. Your artistry has its own authority. You don’t have to pretend.”
Maria Celestis did not reply.
“Nobody will believe in the space invaders,” Ava said. “Though it could provide a theme for your first gallery show.”
“You think it’s a fake,” said Maria Celestis, heavily.
“It’s not a fake,” Ava demurred. “It’s a work of art.”
“You think I’m a liar,” the older woman said.
“I think you’re an artist,” Ava told her.
“Go away,” said Maria Celestis. “I will bury it again tomorrow. Nothing should have been said. You can’t prove anything to a world that won’t believe the evidence of its own eyes.”
About a year later, on a whim, Ava Googled the name “Maria Celestis” and found the end of the story. The “crazy American” had walked out into the Mexican desert one day and had never been seen again; she was missing, presumed dead. Her globe had gone too. Maybe the aliens came and took them both away. Maria Celestis had no heirs, so nobody was very concerned. Ava herself briefly mourned the beautiful, vanished globe and its unrecognized creator and then went about her business. Life on earth continued, and the universe gave no indication that it noticed.
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