Connor van Bussel

The Frozen Star and the Greyhound


My old patron, may he rest, used to tell me that spacetime curvature is best described as the hind leg of a greyhound. I scarcely understood this at the time, and hardly understand it now, but I trust that when he told me this he was telling the truth.
                In our weekly lessons of revisiting concepts I’d been studying—momentum, entropy, Newton’s laws of motion—he would sometimes stop mid-sentence and stare off into the void of his chalkboard, at the gulf between the equations; severe and stoic as though he were gazing into the most delicious secrets of the cosmos.
                It was during these jarring, uncomfortable moments that my eyes would drift over to the trunk at the farside of the loft. To me, his study was like the workshop of Galileo; a hollow, dusty place, galvanized with old textbooks and armillary spheres; a genie’s cave of knowledge. There were many mysterious objects in that room, but the trunk was the one my eyes always drifted over to.
                The trunk. Black as night, interrupted only by silver buckles; an artifact stuck out of time. Sometimes when I looked at this trunk it was as if all of reality bent around it, as if spacetime curled inwards to caress its very form, as if this trunk was the centre of life itself.
                It was then that I first got the idea that perhaps this trunk was God.
                Once he was done he would smile and I would feel at ease. Then he would go off on a long rant, sometimes scratching the chalkboard with a fresh piece, talking at length about time dilation and curvature, and the infinite nature of singularities. Much of what he said during these meandering lectures I do not remember—only the part about space time curvature and the hind leg of a greyhound. Had I been able to understand the equations on his board, it is likely I would have saved myself much trouble and suffering in the future—but I was only nine years old at the time and knew little of such things.
                Outside there were fierce Russian winters, the same unrelenting blizzards that had once brought the third reich to its knees; no footprints in the snow outside his house aside my own. It was a solitary life he and I lived, and the weather did nothing for my aching, lonely spirirt. Still, it was better than where I’d been before.
                Before I remember only nights at the orphanage, hungry to bed and staring out at the northern flank of the Caucasus; watching the waxing moon and wondering how God had hung it in the sky. I do not know why he chose me as his assistant, only that one day he came with his long coat and his necktie and picked one of us to come north with him. I felt guilty leaving the others, as if by turning my back on them I was forsaking them to some grim, deterministic future. I missed prayer that morning and did not look back. In many ways, I have been praying to make up for it ever since.
                The first thing that struck me about him was that he was not a man of God. I could not fathom such a thing. On our long journey north I asked him why he did not rise for salah towards dawn. He told me that he did not believe in a God, so there would be no point in him praying to one. When I asked him if I too, would have to stop believing in God, he simply laughed.
                “I could never have an atheist as my assistant.”
                And so he allowed me to follow the pillars of my faith, happy enough to buy a prayer mat for me and a Qu’ran. All I had to do for him was make his meals, keep the house clean, and of course to tend the greyhounds.


He owned a great many dogs. The morning after I arrived he took me down the stables to see them. The night before I’d heard fierce barking from my new bedroom but dreaded to think where the sounds were coming from. In the cluttered, half-broken stable stalls were 31 greyhounds in total. As soon as we entered the squat building they began to howl; high pitched at the stern of the vocal cords, wolfen as the sounds carried out into the bleak, snowy morning.
                “This is to be your purpose,” my patron said. “The reason I have brought you to live with me as my assistant. These dogs are to help me in my research. From this morning onwards, they are your responsibility. You are to feed them, you are to keep their environment clean and hospitable, you are to befriend them.”
                He took me into the stalls and introduced me as a friend. He had named each one of them. Some were named after 19th century poets—Thoreau and Dickinson, Baudelaire and Verlaine—characters from plays he was fond of, or else after the great scientists of history. So it was that Nicolaus Copernicus first came to lick my hand—and soon after we were thick as thieves.
                Each day I fed them, each day I tended to their enclosure and took them out on wild, lolloping romps across the frozen country. It was a hard job. If you find yourself suddenly responsible for the lives of living things, your life is bound to bend without warning. I remember each cold morning, every bark and growl, every single one of their names. Beyond that, I was tasked with making meals for my patron, cleaning his jumbled house, and studying at the dining room table. He wanted me to have an education—my lack of knowledge in science, history, art and mathematics often puzzled him. It was as if he could not imagine a child born without innate knowledge of such things.
                Years passed, I grew. My patron had few friends or hobbies outside of his work. Most days he was locked up in the loft, scribbling equations, endlessly searching for something I could not understand. Most of the time my days were busy enough that I did not long for company, only sleep. Rise, feed the greyhounds, open my books and squint until I became smarter; cyclical days, the weeks broken only by our meetings.
                I was not to enter his loft unless invited, so I only saw it once a week. I came to look forward to these meetings, pining for attention as much as longing for another look at that strange trunk in the corner of the room. At that age I struggled with faith. I could not find God in those bleak mornings, nor did I find him in caring for the dogs, nor in the thick tomes I was tasked to study. Worst of all—much to my dismay and confusion—I could hardly find him in the Qu’ran. But I did find God in that trunk each week. Just one look was all I needed.
                The trunk.
                It became an obsession of mine, but as timid and weak from the beatings of my earlier childhood as I was, it took some time for me to ask him what was inside.


I first posed the question one afternoon when we were going over the science of refraction. The same events unfolded. My patron paused, he gasped and gazed into the chalkboard, stopping our lesson dead. In turn, I looked to the black trunk at the farside of the loft. My heart was beating, my bones and body melted away; my periphery dimmed. It was just the trunk and I for quite some time. I marvelled as its black surface deepened, as its body curved, and an exquisitely nauseating sensation came over me.
                “It’s best not to look for too long,” said my patron.
                I broke free, fell head first onto the floor. It took me a while to compose myself, the waves of dizziness were unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
                He patted me on the back and got me to my feet, raising me up onto the stool where I’d been sitting. There was a great silence between the two of us and he went about snapping all of my books shut and stacking them up for me to take. That’s when I asked him.
                “What is in that trunk?”
                Sometimes when you asked him a question he would take some time to answer, pausing as if focusing all of his impressive intellect on that one question; whereupon an idea could become infinitely dense and warp spacetime around it.
                “I’ve had dozens of people up in this loft,” he said. “But none of them have ever asked me that.”
                “It’s to do with your work, isn’t it?”
                “Inside of that trunk is a frozen star.”
                I knew little of the stars. He had given me two books to read about astronomy, but they were dry and difficult to follow. I’d never heard of a frozen star before, but when I asked him to elaborate he simply shook his head.
                “I don’t know it yet,” he said. “You have to know before you reveal yourself to the world. It is the only thing we have.”
                “It’s God,” I said, fighting the urge to look back at it. “That’s what you have in the trunk. You have God trapped in there.”
                “No, child. I do not have God trapped in that trunk.”
                My patron is one of the few bright souls I have known to never lie to me, though at that moment I thought he was a terrible liar. I could read it in his smile.


Things changed in November of my 10th year. My patron added an extra responsibility. Each month, around the 23rd—though it could be a day or so either side—I would have to bring one of the greyhounds to him. He told me to choose one at random, that it did not matter which it was, and to bring it all the way up to his loft on a leash. The dogs were not used to leashes, but they went trustingly into my hands and each month I took one from the stables into the house.
                The pretense was that they were to help him with his research. I did not understand at first, nor did I feel any need to, but I think dogs did. I remember their strange reactions to being in the house for the first time—the stooped haunches, the wary eyes, the uneasy glances up to me. Once we got up the first flight of stairs all of them would shiver, some of them would howl; something sinister in the air that I could not shake. But up I would take them to the loft where my patron waited to take the lead from me. He was rather bright about the whole affair, thanking me for the job and bending down to scratch the dog behind the ears. Although he hardly saw them, he was awfully fond of them and knew them all by name.
                After that I would be dismissed, and that greyhound would not be spoken of again.
                First it was Louis Pasteur, then Ada Lovelace, Mercutio and Benvolio, Jane Austin and Oscar Wilde. I took each and every one of them to the loft and left them there. It was not until the third month or so that I started to realise something was very wrong.
                I could not discern where the greyhounds ended up. In the fourth month I stayed up night and day to try and figure out where he was taking them, how he waited until I was asleep to whisk them away. But there was nothing. He rarely left his loft. There was never a trace of any of these dogs or what he might have done with them. Some mornings I scoured the grounds, searching all the way to the wood, but found nothing other than silence.
                When I first asked him he simply said:
                “Well, they have lived here in my estate to help me with my research. When they have served that purpose, I make sure to rehome them. 31 dogs is too many, as I’m sure you know by now.”
                “But where are they being rehomed to?”
                “Various places,” he said.
                He was a bad liar indeed. I knew that they never left that room, that somehow, he was doing something to make them disappear.
                In the sixth month I brought him Charles Darwin, but this time I had a plan. After he dismissed me I did not go down the stairs as I normally would, but lingered around the top, stealthy as an assassin, and pressed my ear against the door.
                I heard him lock it behind me and took a few steps that made the floorboards creak. Then I heard him mutter something I could hardly make out.
                “Yes, that's a good dog,” he was saying. “Oh yes, such a good dog.”
                And this is how it went for some time, so long that I almost went back down the stairs and about my business. But then all of a sudden his voice became rougher, deeper and more severe. There was a moment’s pause and then Charles Darwin began to bark—a strained, sharp sound that I knew to mean aggression. There was a scuffle on the floorboards and then a whining noise. It made my heart lurch, but I knew better than to reveal myself.
                I heard the noise of buckles being undone—the snapping sound of a trunk being opened.
                “Such a good dog, oh yes. My dog.”
                I heard one final noise, the snap of the trunk being closed, and then silence.


At night I drifted like a bottle in the ocean towards the trunk.
                In my dreams it had wide jaws, leering eyes that sprouted up out of its buckles, willowy limbs that would reach out and grab at anything that got too close. I imagined my patron leading the greyhounds to it—imagined the terrified look on the faces of Shylock with the brown fur and Euripides with the grey as the trunk descended upon them and gobbled them up. Some nights I would awake drenched in sweat and crying.
                The trunk. How could I have thought of it as God? Surely not. At night it became the devil. It was Iblis refusing to bow to Adam; Lucifer cast down from the heavens; the snake in the garden of Eden. And I was Simon during the passion, leading them up the stairs as though I were helping Christ carry his cross to a hopeless fate. Christ did not rise from the grave and neither would my greyhounds.
                And yet whenever I thought of God it was the trunk that came to mind.
                Black mahogany, dark as night—the frozen star.


One day I confronted him. I demanded to know where the greyhounds were—to know exactly what was being done with them. If nothing else, I wanted to know where their corpses were, so that I could at least give my friends a proper burial. During our weekly meeting I found myself shaking with anger.
                “Where are they?” I screamed. “You have to let me know where they are! I won’t bring another one to you unless you tell me exactly what it is that you’re doing with them!”
                He raised his hands, genuinely perplexed to see so angry. I had never dared to raise my voice to him in all the years that I’d known him. I pointed towards the trunk.
                “Are you feeding them to it? You are, aren't you?”
                “Child,” he said. “Listen to me—”
                “If you think I’ll bring more of them up so that you can feed them to that thing, then you’ve got another thing coming-”
                “Child,” said my patron, raising his voice to a level that made me shut my mouth and grow weak at the knees. “When I tell you something, you must listen. You are still young and do not know anything of the world so believe me when I say this — the work I am doing in this house is of vital importance. You could not possibly understand it even if I explained it to you.”
                “You’re killing them,” I said, my voice suddenly tearful. “That’s what you’re doing… Isn’t it?”
                He came close and put a soft hand on my shoulder—perhaps the most paternal gesture anyone had ever given me in my life.
                “Of course not. It is too much to explain to you, but I have not killed any of them. They are being rehomed, just as I said.”
                His affectionate gesture only made me cry harder, and with my tears he drew closer.
                “One day you’ll understand everything I’m doing,” he said. “Just know that you are doing fine work as my assistant. Together, we will break new ground.”
                “I don’t want to be your assistant,” I said. “I want my dogs back.”
                “Child,” he said. “They were never your greyhounds.”
                “What do you need them for, anyway? How could they be helping you?”
                He took a nervous glance over to the trunk and it was in this moment that I first realised quite how old he looked. It was as if years had been stripped away from him since the beginning of his experiments, as if time were slowly stripping the youth from his skin.
                “It’s just to see where they end up,” he said. “Because there isn’t much time left.”
                I wasn’t paying attention, wracked with grief as I was.
                “We never get enough time, do we?” he asked, mostly to himself.
                And that was that, though the next time he asked me to bring one of the dogs to him I refused. I had hoped this would be the end of the matter, but sure enough he went to the stable to retrieve one himself. I had fooled myself into thinking that they would simply refuse to go with him, that the only reason they ended up in the loft and the trunk was because it was I who was leading them—but the truth is that all the dogs knew their original master.
                More nights—darker by the day until the spring arrived and the snowstorms let up. Off went Edgar Allan Poe, Aristotle and Plato; Diogenes of Sinope with a tongue that would not fit in his mouth. My patron took each and every one of the greyhounds up to his loft, where they vanished out of sight.
                My spirit grew sombre, my studies frayed and uninteresting, the only thing that kept me sane was prayer. As my head touched the earth I cried out to God, begging him not to judge me for leading those dogs to their death. But when I tried to connect, my mind only went to one thing.
                The trunk. It couldn’t have been God—could it?


In April there was but one dog left, my favorite. I took Nicolaus Copernicus on a long walk the day before it was time for him to go, whereupon I considered letting him loose into the wilderness, where he would be endlessly free to dance and hunt in the hills. But I knew there were no options because he was an old dog and wouldn’t have stood a chance.
                And then I slept for the best part of two days. I did not rise for prayer, I did not go down to the dining room table and open my books, I did not go and feed the dogs because there were no dogs left to feed. I refused to be there when my patron came down to take Copernicus from me. All I could do was lay under my covers and try to blot out the image of the trunk from my mind. I could not forget the way it had looked—the lensing, the strange nausea that it had given me.
                Eventually, when I was sure that the deed was done, I rose from my bed and went down to the stables.
                Emptiness. Nothing but the bowls where I used to pour their food and hollow space. I cried, I could not help it. I fell to my knees, unable to make sense of anything, my chest rising in surges of anger between the sobs. I hated him—whatever work it was that he was doing it couldn’t possibly have been worth their lives. I would run away, I would go back south if I had to-
                But then I found the note. It was placed quite indescreetly, in the very centre of the stall where the dogs had laid their heads each night. I knew it was from him before I even picked it up. A small note, bound in an envelope. It had my name written in his artisan handwriting on the front. I opened it up, wiped tears from my eyes and read:

I’m afraid I’ve had to go away.
Like all great scientific discoveries,
This one took a small part of me—
Or rather, a great big chunk!
You’ve been a terribly good assistant to me
And I could not ever thank you enough.
In time I hope you’ll come to understand why I did
The things that I chose to do.
If you would be a dear, go and open that old,
Dusty trunk in my room for me;
And you may find your God ten times over.

                And so I went to the house in haste. I could not imagine that he would have left me all alone. As much as I hated him in those moments, he was still the man who had taken me in, fed and clothed me, taught me mathematics and science and history. When I came in from that bright April morning I found the house deathly quiet.
                Each step of the staircase squealed beneath my weight until I was up at the maw of the loft. I pressed my ear against the wood, half expecting to hear a monster on the other side. But I heard nothing. And so I opened the door, and found the room as cluttered and enchanted as when I’d first encountered it, years before. There was not a trace of my patron, not until I turned my head towards the black trunk.
                In a pile on the floor beside it were all his clothes, bundled up in a little heap. His jacket, his waistcoat, his necktie. All of them there, hauntingly devoid of a host. There was dust on all of the shelves and on the floor, a musty smell in the room that I’d never noticed before; mould on the wallpaper.
                And then there was the trunk. Closed tight, no longer nauseating to look at. My eyes did not focus on it as they had done before. I was able to get close—curiously close, my hand trembled. Before I opened it I thought about how spacetime curvature is like the hind leg of a greyhound, like a black trunk distorted by gravitational lensing; like a once great star frozen in some lonely corner of space; how a person’s life can feel infinitely dense.
                I snapped open the buckles. I took a deep breath in.


I did not find God in the trunk, only 31 greyhounds.
                Nicolaus Copernicus licked my hand and I smiled.

Connor van Bussel is a writer from Cardiff, UK, who specializes in horror and fantasy fiction. After graduating with an English Literature degree from Cardiff University, he was lucky enough to get a poetry chapbook titled Under the Neon published by Lumin – an independent press and magazine from Cardiff. Since then, he has focused primarily on novels but have also found some time to write short stories on the side.
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