I followed the crowd down Fernberg Road onto Boys St where men in suits and shining shoes were selling stars. At first I did not know that was what they were doing. One suited man stood on a soapbox. The others sat behind a row of telescopes and their index fingers directed eyes about the firmament. I thought they were an astronomy club. But people were writing cheques; and a great celestial map clipped to an escritoire had pins and pen-marks all over it. Then I realised the man on the soapbox was conducting an auction.
I saw the weakest star of the Cross go for $100 000; someone whispered to the effect that he had bought the four major ones and was not greatly attached to this last only he needed it to complete the piece.
"What would the Cross be without it?" said the auctioneer to encourage the man through the bidding. The man intended the famed constellation for a light-feature in his garden. I felt a little sad for the ghosts of Cook and Magellan, lost upon dark waters below a bewildering sky.
In the background a ruckus was being subdued by the agency. Two men and an agent were fighting. It seemed the first star Dante saw when he emerged from the Inferno had been sold in a previous lot and there was a dispute over its authenticity. The agent was trying to reassure the man that though Florence was indeed in the Northern hemisphere, Dante had walked down through the Earth and emerged on the other side. The man's companion was showing the agent Canto XXXIV and the line where Dante mysteriously turns back in space and for a while believes he is going deeper into the pit.
...so the night proceeded and all the stars were sold. One by one.
The final lot was a small fleck of a star, barely visible and only now toward three o'clock in winter. By this time there was little money or interest left in the auction. The auctioneer began the lot sheepishly at a thousand dollars. I put up my hand amidst the scattering, disinterested crowd and said "Ten". The auctioneer laughed. He looked around the dispersing crowd and laughed again, but his confidence was gone.
"It's a star, you realize?"
"I know," I said, stepping closer to the soapbox. "It's worth much more, but ten is all I have."
The auctioneer scowled:
"I'd buy it myself if I had anywhere to put it."
Reluctantly he re-started the auction. He called "Ten dollars" three drawn out times and disgustedly brought the hammer down.
"I expect you can arrange finance."
I handed him the ten-dollar note.
"Now, where do you want it delivered?"
"I don't. Leave it where it is."
"But it's your star. You've bought it!" He held a contract up to my face as proof.
"I know. Only, leave it where it is. I like it there."
I signed the contract and the auctioneer walked away shaking his head.
An energetic few had already set about taking down their new possessions. The Cross was gone to the rich man's garden. The man who bought Dante's star had it on the pavement, looking at it suspiciously where it burned as hot as a con. He was threatening to default on the deposit.
I always liked the smallest stars, anyway, I told myself: the ones that show the reality of the dark as well as the possibility of light. Perhaps tomorrow I would stay up late again and see my star rise alone in the east
Patrick Holland, ABC Pool (radio), 2009
Background Image: Domenico di Michelino, Dante and His Comedy, 1465