THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spirit-ous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.
By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos.
Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.
The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.
I did not find it strange that I was raised with no one father, nor did I marvel at the singularity of any other article in my upbringing. It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their articularities as general.
So I did not ask why I was raised in a house by many men, none of whom claimed blood relation to me. I thought not to inquire why my mother stayed in this house, or why we alone were given names - mine, Octavian; hers, Cassiopeia - when all the others in the house were designated by number.
The owner of the house, Mr. Gitney, or as he styled himself, 03-01, had a large head and little hair and a dollop of a nose. He rarely dressed if he did not have to go out, but shuffled most of the time through his mansion in a banyan-robe and undress cap, shaking out his hands as if he'd washed them newly. He did not see to my instruction directly, but required that the others spend some hours a day teaching me my Latin and Greek, my mathematics, scraps of botany, and the science of music, which grew to be my first love.
The other men came and went. They did not live in the house, but came of an afternoon, or stayed there often for some weeks to perform their virtuosic experiments, and then leave. Most were philosophers, and inquired into the workings of time and memory, natural history, the properties of light, heat, and petrifaction. There were musicians among them as well, and painters and poets.
My mother, being of great beauty, was often painted. Once, she and I were clad as Venus, goddess of love, and her son Cupid, and we reclined in a bower. At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body.
The house was large and commodious, though often drafty. In its many rooms, the men read their odes, or played the violin, or performed their philosophical exercises. They combined chemical compounds and stirred them. They cut apart birds to trace the structure of the avian skeleton, and, masked in leather hoods, they dissected a skunk. They kept cages full of fireflies. They coaxed reptiles with mice. From the uppermost story of the house, they surveyed the city and the bay through spy-glasses, and noted the ships that arrived from far corners of the Empire, the direction of winds and the migration of clouds across the waters and, on its tawny isle, spotted with shadow, the Castle.
Amidst their many experimental chambers, there was one door that I was not allowed to pass. One of the painters sketched a little skull-and-crossbones on paper, endowed not with a skull, but with my face, my mouth open in a gasp; and this warning they hung upon that interdicted door as a reminder. They meant it doubtless as a jest, but to me, the door was terrible, as ghastly in its secrets as legendary Bluebeard's door, behind which his dead, white wives sat at table, streaked with blood from their slit throats.
We did not venture much out of the house and its grounds into the city that surrounded us. In the garden, we could hear its bustle, the horseshoes on stone cobbles and dirt, the conversation of sailors, the crying of onions and oysters in passageways. The men of that house feared that too much interaction with the world would corrupt me, and so I was, in the main, hidden away for my earliest years, as the infant Jove, snatched out of the gullet of Time, was reared by his horned nurse on Mount Ida in profoundest secrecy.
When we did go abroad, Mr. 03-01 warned me that I should not lean out at the window of the carriage, and should not show my face. He told me that, should I ever run away into the city, I would not return, but would be snatched up by evil men who would take me forever away from my mother. This was, I know now, but a half-lie.
Excerpted from The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I by M.T. Anderson. Copyright © 2008 by M.T. Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.