The book you’re reading is called The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Its germ was implanted, like a seed that houses a Sequoiadendron giganteum in its entirety, into my cerebral cortex when I was nine years old. On the day he announced his intent to leave Mother for his research assistant, Akbar, a placid, dusky youth of whom I was quite fond, Father presented me with a text entitled A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem. Its contents burst like Lilliputian rockets into my frontal lobes, the area of the brain concerned with planning, decision-making, goal-setting, and relating the present to the future through purposeful behavior. Over time, original notions and ingested data would coalesce around this germ like the accreting layers of nacre that form a pearl, and the thing would blossom. But when I was nine, on the day I last caught sight of Father, I read only three pages of the text he’d given me before collapsing on the polished floor of his study. It seemed that I grasped mathematics in an a priori fashion, and as Mother applied cold compresses to my cheeks, I dreamt of my arithmetical future.
I did not, dear reader, allow the frailty of my sex to stand in my way, although I must admit, bringing my dream to fruition has not always been easy. But once Father traipsed with Akbar off to exotic locales like Patagonia and Tanzania and Albuquerque, Mother became overly indulgent. Father still supported us in the manner to which we were accustomed, and I eschewed the frocks and slippers and tea sets and beaded handbags and parasols under which Mother attempted to bury me, insisting instead that she purchase the latest mathematical journals and treatises. If she refused, I would throw myself down in the foul cobbled streets, smashing my fists until I drew blood. I was that rarest of children—an infantile insomniac—and I spent my sleepless nights poring over texts, including my rumpled, dog-eared copy of A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem, a book penned by Professor James Moriarty when he was just twenty-one years old.
Because I was Father’s daughter, I was given dispensation to study mathematics at Durham University, where the same Professor Moriarty chaired the department. Although I yearned to dress in trousers and a waistcoat, to paint on a mustache and blend in with my classmates, Mother insisted on arraying me in the latest Parisian fashions, and I bobbed among my fellows like a brightly-plumed, beribboned, whalebone-corseted seabird. In classes they spoke not a word to me; I felt only their withering, sidelong glances. In spite of my natural aptitude, in spite of my love of all things algebraic and geometrical, to them I was no more than a punchline. But I wasn’t bothered. I concerned myself only with Professor Moriarty.
And he concerned himself with me, although he was quite skilled at concealing his interest. From the moment our eyes met, I understood that our destinies were inextricably entwined. Of course, we couldn’t let on, so in class, he would not call on me—even when I was the only student with a hand raised. He was not slighting me, nor was he offended by the notion of a female mathematician; he was obliged to ignore me. So as not to make the others jealous. So as not to be accused of favoritism. Whenever I visited his office and found the door barred but heard his movements on the other side, I did not allow this to upset me. It was the way things had to be. Our relationship was so very clandestine that we, ourselves, had never discussed it.
When I arrived at Durham, Professor Moriarty had chaired the department for seven years. Thin, unsmiling, and introspective, he had the sort of high, domed forehead that speaks of profound acumen. He was unmarried and known for his infrequent but spectacularly destructive alcoholic binges. Among the faculty, his reputation was one of difficulty and coldness. He was thought by many to be cruel. But none could deny his brilliance, and his theoretical work was respected by all. He was at work on a new text, one that, it was said, would make A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem look as if it had been penned by an untutored child. Speculations that the book would ascend to previously unattainable heights of pure mathematics flew around the department, enticing me, whetting my appetite, stoking my flames. Professor Moriarty rarely drew his curtains, and from the box hedge outside his neat stone cottage, I sighted him night after night, sitting in his shirtsleeves, collar unbuttoned, scribbling in a fevered lather. With the aid of powerful Belgian Porro prism binoculars, a gift from Father and Akbar, who’d finally stopped globe-trotting and settled in Antwerp, I was able to spy the text’s title page. The Dynamics of an Asteroid. When I read the words, I collapsed on the dusty ground in a fit identical to the collapse I’d suffered in Father’s study nine years earlier, only this time, Mother wasn’t there to apply compresses. Once I was able to stand, I saw that I’d split my taffeta dress. Holding the fabric together over my frilly Victorian underthings, I made my way back to my well-appointed rooms, where, in a fit of unrivaled astronomical inspiration, I began writing this book.
The pages I tucked into Professor Moriarty’s desk drawers and slipped into his overcoat pockets prompted him to approach me at last. “How do you know about this?” he would say. “Are you spying on me?”
He would upbraid me, threaten to report me, but I knew he would never give me away. Professor Moriarty was frightened of his feelings. He was unnerved by the turbulent gulf of emotion upon whose edge we both teetered. He wasn’t equipped to deal with what was happening between us. He was a theoretician, comfortable only with suppositions, things fleeting and ephemeral. He had no idea how to contend with a flesh-and-blood relationship like ours, so I forgave him. I always forgave him.
“This is my book,” he would say. “You can’t write my book.”
“But it’s not,” I would respond. “It’s not the same book at all.”
And it wasn’t. My Dynamics of an Asteroid was less a text of pure mathematical theory than an arithmetical story of love. Professor Moriarty’s and my love. It cast us in the roles of celestial bodies, and it explicated, in an algorithmic, measurable fashion, the details of our attraction, of the galactic motions that had drawn us together. It was a celebration of romance, albeit in mathematical terms. What can I say? I may be a theoretician, but I am not entirely immune to the stereotypical tendencies of my sex.
“I won’t allow my work to be usurped,” Professor Moriarty said, stepping forward until his chest was inches from mine, “by an unbalanced female.” We stood in his garden, where he’d discovered me at the awkward hour of six a.m., crouched behind a blue hydrangea. Weak, milky light crept over the landscape, and a vaporous mist stood in the atmosphere. My mind barreled down branching neurological pathways, overcome by the proximity of Professor Moriarty. His breath hit me in the face, echoing my own—the stale respiration of the insomniac—and the pupils of his dark eyes vanished in the morning gloom.
“Please,” I said, placing a hand on his forearm. I wanted to tell him that my book was not simulacrum but tribute. Homage. That it had been burgeoning ever since A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem burst into my frontal lobes when I was nine years old. “Let me help you.”
His lips said no, but his eyes said yes, and The Dynamics of an Asteroid became a collaborative effort. He never again remarked on the pages I slid into his battered brown satchel or left folded in his postbox. In class, he continued to overlook me, but at night, peeking through the windows of his cottage with my Porro prism binoculars, I spied him consulting my work. Once he’d transformed them, I hardly recognized my own notions, but they pushed his text to mathematical heights that made me dizzy and weak in the knees.
As the academic year drew to a close, I received a letter penned in Akbar’s neat, slanted script. It seemed that Father had passed away; apoplexy had struck as he sat at his desk in the dead of night, straining to work out a brand-new formula. I know he failed you, the tender-hearted Akbar wrote, but I would be remiss if I did not tell you how much he loved you. How often he spoke of you and with what pride. He was a brilliant but difficult man, and I think I am a better person for having loved him. I am sending the manuscript of his last book which, with his dying breath, he bade me give you.
I’d never been able to blame Father for leaving Mother, but I’d always been miffed by his abandonment of me. He was the person who’d shown me the power of measurable computation, however, the person who’d first set my feet on a path strewn with postulates and logarithms, and although I hadn’t seen him since I was nine, the news of his demise undid me. I found myself blindsided by despair. When I opened the box that contained his manuscript, my vision blurred, but I was able to read the title through a veil of tears.
The Dynamics of an Asteroid.
Dearest, read the accompanying note, I sent a copy of this to your mentor Moriarty a year ago but never heard back. It is missing something, something I’ve become too aged and enfeebled to ascertain. Read it for me, and expound on the theories I have put forth. Say you’ll collaborate with your father on this, his final text.
I longed to crack the pages, to scrutinize every term and numeral, every computation, but I didn’t dare. If I shunned Father’s manuscript, I wouldn’t be faced with undeniable similarities. I wouldn’t be forced to reevaluate my position on the man around whom I planned to build my life. My illusions would remain unshattered, my foundations unshaken. I secreted the manuscript under a loose floorboard in my closet. I continued working with Professor Moriarty on his Dynamics of an Asteroid. I tried to wipe my father’s text from memory; it remained, however, lodged beneath the surface of my consciousness like a nagging, infinitesimal shard of glass.
We are none of us originals, I told myself, those of us who theorize and suppose. We read. We borrow. There is no helping the cross-pollination of ideas. Although they matter to us, although they set our minds racing and our feet on certain paths, in the grand scheme, texts mean nothing. Within their rigid covers one finds only a plethora of pages—thin, flimsy, easily torn. The assertions put forth do not exist unless one speaks the language in which they are written. What a thing to have built my life around, I thought as I sat long into the night, pulling volume after volume from the shelves in my rooms, poring over them until the phrases and numbers blurred together into one long, meaningless verse.
Once The Dynamics of an Asteroid was published, Professor Moriarty’s mystique mounted. He did not give me credit for my collaboration, but I forgave him. I always forgave him. When I took my doctorate, I accepted a teaching appointment at Durham in order to remain close to him, but our love continued to be a theoretical affair. In time, innuendo began to gather around Professor Moriarty. Whispers of his involvement in gambling, racketeering, extortion. Of a plot to rid himself of several rival mathematicians speaking at a conference in one fell swoop. Finally, under a cloud of suspicion, he was forced to resign his chair and move to London.
From then on, Professor Moriarty was said to employ his superior intellect in the role of criminal mastermind. Just last year, word came that he’d plunged from a waterfall in the Swiss Alps while grappling with a sleuth of great renown. This seems to me as unlikely, however, as the purported exploits of said sleuth, who is rumored to have written a monograph on the myriad varieties of pipe and cigar ash, and to be able to pronounce whether or not a man has done murder based solely on the condition of the suspect’s boots. These conceits strike me as the work of a fiction writer, and not a very inventive one at that.
I like to think, instead, that Professor Moriarty is holed up in a basement room, shunning sleep, diligently working on a new text. Pausing in mid-sentence to gaze through the barred window at the hurrying calves of passersby, he dreams of me. He wonders if I am in good health. He considers what the twenty years that have passed since last we saw one another might have done to my face. To my body. He hopes I understand how much I meant to him. That I understand why he had to leave.
I do understand. It’s all right there in his Dynamics of an Asteroid. If one knows where to look. If one peers between the formulas and beyond the theorems and beneath the postulates, one can decipher a stirring arithmetical tale of duty, sacrifice, and undying devotion. It’s no shock that critics cannot fathom the book—who can squeeze mathematical meaning out of a love story?
Texts are by nature variable. Editions come and go. One mistake in the ordering of typeface gives an entire print-run new meaning. Each of us writes our own Dynamics of an Asteroid, and one version is quite interchangeable with another. When I finally opened Father’s manuscript, voluminous tears streaked my face. There, represented numerically, was his undying love for Akbar; I even thought I detected a hint of his love for me. As I now sit writing my own Dynamics, the version that once blossomed like a Sequoiadendron giganteum hovers still in my mind. I can recall the algorithmic love story I abandoned in order to assist Professor Moriarty with his rendition. But the book I now write—the book you now read—is a pastiche. A potpourri. I’m accustomed to collaboration, and I’ve attempted to embrace all the disparate Dynamics that have come before.
And those that will come after.
JEN FAWKES’s work has appeared in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Her stories have won prizes from Washington Square, Writers @ Work, Blue Earth Review, and Salamander. She holds an MFA from Hollins University and a BA from Columbia University.