©William Espinosa 2013. All rights reserved.
Moments before, Matteo Michelson had been standing erect only a few rows in front of her, comfortable in his command of the audience. His words—lightly accented with an Iberian cadence—were filling the room with stories of plants, flowers and medicinals flourishing under the forested canopies of remote regions of the Amazon. Then without warning his voice fell silent. His face recorded shock and fear. His shoulders hunched forward and his brown hands grasped the podium, but to little avail. In seconds he had fallen to the floor. Laura Feil’s heart sank with the gray haired man as he crumpled to the ground.
A young woman rushed to the stage to attend to him. Laura recognized her as the Nigerian medical student who had interrupted her effort to talk with Matteo the day before. This time she blocked Laura’s view. All Laura could see were patches of Matteo’s tan suit on the floor and sporadically twitching feet in the havaiana sandals he always wore.
A muscular man whom someone in the audience called Nikolai rushed up also. He was ill-dressed but seemed used to command and quickly pushed aside Matteo’s aides. Nikolai reached for his phone and put his hand on the Nigerian woman’s shoulder. Matteo appeared to be unconscious. The Nigerian woman shifted around to lean over his face, pinching his nose, putting her mouth to his, apparently helping him breathe.
Less than twenty minutes passed but to Laura it seemed like hours before the medics burst through the museum auditorium doors with their gurney. Laura cursed New York for the delay. Even with private cars virtually banned, delivery trucks, pedal driven rickshaws, buses, citibikes and pedestrians clogged the streets. Far too many people in far too small a place. One day, she knew, New York would be mentioned in the same breath as Babel and Atlantis—fallen monuments to human arrogance, materialism and “reason” and the inevitable ruin they brought.
The medics quickly took over from the African woman and placed a mask over Matteo’s mouth. He seemed to be breathing as they rolled him out of the auditorium. Laura felt the knot in her stomach begin to unwind.
She wished that David had been here. He had been with her for most of Matteo’s presentations but the annual Planetary Citizen’s Conference had attracted the world’s most prominent ecologists and activists. David, her companion and himself a well-known forest ecologist, had gone networking. He was listening to a talk from one of Wangari Maathai’s successors at the Kenyan Green Belt Movement. Maathai had founded it in the 1970s and it became one of the great tree planting successes of the late 20th Century. David had also said something about meeting a community organizer from Peru to talk about reforesting in the High Andes. Noble but still, she felt, David should have been with her.
Jean Marc—David’s close friend and a rising star in the European Union—was gone too. He was listening to Fatimah Karajan— a tall, dark-skinned, elegant woman whose transcendent vision and courage had helped bring peace to Israel and Palestine. But, David had said, her notions of sovereignties without borders deeply threatened traditional governments and organizations that saw themselves as humankind’s stewards. Jean Marc, David had added, was into governance and didn’t quite know how to assess Fatimah. Laura only generally understood what that was about but what Laura did understand was that Jean Marc had another kind of Palestinian connection, an old love. Maybe Fatimah reminded him of her. Fatimah was certainly beautiful. Someday, some said, Fatimah might even lead the world.
Laura didn’t like being alone when she was frightened. She briefly thought about speaking to the lanky, blue-jean and boot wearing American sitting near her. She had noticed that over the last two days he had glanced at her frequently. Laura was used to pursuing eyes but she had found herself actually enjoying his attention. There was something unusual about him. More than once she rearranged her tanned legs in her seat or arched a bared foot half out of her shoe to draw his eyes and a smile. If the lecture had ended normally and she had been alone, she imagined the man would have asked her for coffee. She might have accepted.
But she knew that engaging the man now was a bad idea; she was too upset. Without saying anything, she gathered up her coat and headed for the opposite door from the one the medics used, hoping to be out of the Natural History Museum quickly, free of its crowds. Beyond the door, she found herself moving at a near run down a dark corridor flanked by dusky dioramas of extinct peoples. One caught her eye: prehumans were fighting off buzzards to claim an animal carcass. The vultures of her dream? The males had hair, low brows and protruding jaws, the females were unclothed, showing hair-free bodies and sagging breasts. Near the end of the hall, on the left side in a brighter display, young Mesoamerican males were playing a life-or-death stick and ball game while half-dressed females watched. By this stage in evolution, Laura noticed with amusement, well toned swimsuit-model bodies had apparently become the norm.
Laura passed through an arched opening and sensed that she was nearing the main exit but instead found herself in a room filled with the sounds of Polynesian chants and a hanging skeleton of what appeared to be a sixty food wingless bird. It took her a moment to realize that what she took to be a bird fossil was the remnant of a sperm whale: large brain cavity and an even bigger “beak”. She felt disoriented and haunted by the chants but she didn’t stop. The next hall did take her to the exit and she made her way outdoors and down stone steps into a milling crowd of tourists, students and vendors all bundled against the winter’s cold.
Laura crossed the street and wandered into Central Park. It pained her to think that this “park” was virtually the only green for millions of souls who lived near it. They came for a view of nature, complete with ducks with clipped wings and food wrappers and coffee cups scattered around the pond. The sight made Laura long for her Costa Rican home, for the rhythms and diversity of its natural inhabitants, for the opulent growth of the flower rows she had nursed around their house, and for the layers upon layers of leaves and trees. Tears came to her eyes. David hadn’t forced her to come back to this unnatural world but he certainly had encouraged it. She felt mildly resentful, a touch misled.
And now Matteo. Whatever had gone wrong, she said a prayer for his recovery and cursed herself for not being able to tell him about the warning that had come to her. The first morning in New York she awoke next to David, shivering with the memory of a bad dream. A gloved hand and vultures sitting on the leafless branches of a desiccated tree. The wordless whispering of a goddess she had first encountered many years before in a bee-filled Adirondack glade and a strange unease, a sense that harm would come to Matteo, one of the few great humans of her age.
She and David had made love the night before. Then she had meditated and gone to sleep. When she awoke out of the dream and the shivering stopped, her body stayed stiff with apprehension. David was asleep, content and peaceful through her distress and the growing disturbance outside. Their hotel was near the UN building on the East River where walls were being built to hold the rising river waters back. The construction crews had started up at 7:45. The sun was just rising, lighting their room in a brilliant glare but casting long shadows from the towering structures of glass and steel. The sun, she thought, rose late—another reason to long for her home where from season to season there was little variation in the length of the day. There, the sun was her companion, reliable and tamed by canopy shade; here, it was of uncertain habits and threatening the Earth even in winter with invisible, unchecked warmth.
Laura drew herself back to the present and felt the cold of a January wind and a growing sense of dread about Matteo. Shadows were lengthening from the west. She knew she needed to change before dinner with David’s friends–another half-dreaded task. She wasn’t partner material; she needed her own path. She waived down a rickshaw and twenty minutes later walked into the colorful LED-lit lobby of their hotel.
That night at the restaurant Bernie Berenson and his new found client and friend, a cowboy booted Texan named Casey Hamilton, were late, so they were the ones who brought the news. Bernie had earned a joint degree in law and environmental science from Yale and then joined a Wall Street law firm where he quickly found that his clients not only had more fun, they were richer. He dabbled in pollution rights futures and soon showed sufficient skill to impress one of his firm’s clients, the Mother Earth Investment Bank. He was offered a position and in five quick years had been made a junior partner. His new friend, Casey Hamilton, an investor in slow water current energy, might open up a whole new field for him and a quick path to full partnership.
Like many others pursuing serious, fast-track careers, Bernie carried with him a high-powered hand held which continuously scanned the news channels. It was programmed to pick out preselected topics that were of critical interest to its possessor. The device assured that its owner would never be caught by surprise. A discreet beep had alerted him three blocks from the restaurant. He stepped into the privacy of a video booth to view his receiver’s report in large. The booths had been installed in public places for consumers who had grown tired of squinting at miniaturization and wished for a little privacy as well. YOU’RE NO CLARK KENT, someone had scrawled on the inside of the phone booth door. He glanced at the writing uncomprehendingly for a moment; graffiti had never made sense to Bernie.
He bumped his hand-held against the booth wall and it lit up the embedded screen. Bernie saw a flurry of flashing ambulance lights come on the screen. Medics were pushing a gurney into New York-Presbyterian. A voice-over described how a great ecologist, Matteo Michelson, had collapsed during a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History. He was to be named the Planetary Citizen of the Year at a gala that night. An announcer came onscreen to say that efforts at saving Mr. Michelson’s life had not succeeded and that only moments before, he was pronounced dead.
When Bernie arrived at the restaurant, he introduced Hamilton to the others—David, Laura, Katie, the French fellow—Jean Marc—and his girlfriend Lucinda. Then added quietly. “I just heard it. Matteo Michelson died, he never made it to the ceremony. I can’t believe I…we…were with him just a few hours ago.”
More or less. Bernie had actually jumped in and out the day before, catching fragments of the lecture as his schedule allowed. He had really come to maintain a bond with Katie. He wanted to marry Katie. She was intelligent, cheerful, and born to a well-connected New York family. But Bernie knew that her tie to him was fragile. She had an unyielding social conscience and didn’t seem impressed by his financial success. Worse, he suspected that she was still in love with Peter Flanigan, a milquetoast senator’s aide whom she had known since childhood. As he raised his voice to tell the story above the restaurant din, Katie’s blue eyes looked at him with interest but he was by no means sure that her interest was in him.
Laura was taken aback by the sight of Bernie’s friend—he was the same fellow she had nearly spoken to at the conference. She smiled at him and he smiled back. A good thing they hadn’t spoken. The distraction of recognition lasted a few seconds but then Bernie’s words penetrated. Matteo was dead. The words were like an anvil plummeting through her stomach and dragging her down into a dark hole. It was so rare that anything of significance happened to her and now it had. She had been given an opportunity and she had failed. In the face of as little as an indifferent look and another’s voice, she had backed away from warning a great man. Why should Michelson have believed her when she showed no signs of believing herself?
Laura remained silent most of the evening. The others talked about Michelson, his philosophy, his ideas. Had he played a decisive role in changing the human path, had he really been understood? Proof that he hadn’t, David had argued, was that governments around the world were using his name, among others, to inflate their bureaucracies with new health and environmental programs. Even the introduction of global minimum commodity prices coupled with a global minimum wage enforced by an army of more than 50,000 international auditors was widely credited to Michelson’s devastating critique of the world economic order. Yet if there was one single theme that ran through all of his writings, it was a profound distrust of large institutions, particularly governmental ones. It is not that men are evil, he had said, it’s that only the rarest of human beings have the power to avoid identifying with the collective energy and perceptions of large numbers of people to whom they are tied. That the collective provided economic security made matters even worse, and because the conforming force was largely unconscious, self-service and self-protection soon paraded unabashed in the mask of the public good.
“I saw it coming. I tried to warn him. He was killed,” Laura finally said. Everyone at the table looked at her in astonishment. A startled chorus of questions confronted her.
“He died, he was an old man,” Bernie interjected. “There wasn’t a hint of anything else on the information channels.” Bernie had drunk too much wine and a sharp, loud edge of anger and impatience escaped through his lips. He took off his glasses and wiped them. Laura irritated him. She lived on an airy fairy mountain where facts didn’t matter. In fact they didn’t exist at all. He was the only person with any information about Michelson’s death and now some fantasy born in dream time was going to move to center stage. If Laura weren’t so attractive, she would never get away with it.
David was more solicitous, “What do you mean, Laura?”
“Two nights ago, it was a full moon. I did a lengthy meditation. Later when I was asleep….” Laura’s eyes took on a distant look. Her voice rose sharply and then fell to a mumble. She turned to David, “Oh God, why did I let that woman interrupt me? Why didn’t I scream it? Why did I care what he thought of me?” Her voice faded away entirely. She looked down at the table and took a sip of water. Bemused looks ricocheted between her companions.
She recovered and continued, “That night the Bee Goddess brought me a dream.”
Everybody settled back in their chairs, knowing that they would be entertained by a story good enough to be retold in the coming years.
“In the dream I saw a lion. An old lion with a thinning mane, resting under a banyan tree. On the branches of the tree were a flock of vultures. They seemed to be applauding for the lion with their wings….”
“They had the clap,” Bernie whispered and everybody laughed.
Laura turned red with anger but was determined to continue. “Then there was a snake, part coiled, part erect like a cobra.”
“See, unsafe sex. I told you.”
“The snake struck the lion, bit him near the heart and returned to its coil. Then the snake became a gloved hand, the palm and folded fingers were where the coil had been, and an extended index finger filled in for the neck and head.”
“And that’s it?” David asked.
‘Yes, but in a way there was more. When I woke up, there was a fear I could taste and somehow I knew it had to do with Matteo.”
David had been mildly troubled. For Laura truth came from a pantheon of gods and goddesses long dead to virtually everyone else. Laura wrapped her insights in packages that he found hard to accept, but when he made it beneath the wrapping paper, he frequently found substance. He found it sad that Laura lacked the strength to attribute her insights to her own intuition. Her inner doubts added vulnerability to beauty and fueled his protective instincts. Yet, at the same time, it was unsettling….
He had met others who were in some superficial ways like her—captains and soldiers in the Galactic Federation, walk-in star people who, with the consent of their human-host souls, had checked into human bodies to carry out their Sirius instructions. Why did he attract such people? He knew that he had met more than his share.
He was being unfair. Laura had real substance. Still, he couldn’t take this seriously. He knew what the others were thinking and he was embarrassed for Laura, and, yes, for himself. She was so wonderful in so many ways, why did she have to carry with her this flakiness for which he felt driven to apologize and explain, which separated him from his friends and which, if he stayed with her, would probably damage his career with TROFAL, the Tropical Forest Action League. Only a few days earlier TROFAL’s Managing Director had asked if—and it was a big if—he was quick to add, David were to represent TROFAL at the Global Convocation, would he feel that Laura would have to come with him?
“Laura, you cannot blame yourself”, Casey Hamilton offered. “Many of us were there in the room. I saw you, you saw me. How could any of us have known? Was it a stroke? What could we have done?”
Laura appreciated the kindness and nodded her head, eyes tearful again, in his direction.
“It is a dream about your own soul,” Lucinda suggested. Lucinda had led a difficult life. Maybe because of that she felt sorry for Laura. Lucinda’s parents had fled with her during the Kosovo massacres. They had settled in Lisbon where her father, once a ranking Communist Party official, secured a job as a janitor and lived in constant fear. Her mother emptied bedpans at a local clinic operated by the Sisters of Charity. Lucinda had shown flashes of brilliance in school but these gave way to a sullen withdrawal and then years in the drug-park subculture of Amsterdam, Zurich and Stockholm. To support herself, she had let her dark-eyed, light-skinned features grace more than one erotic film for the Asian market. Then, one afternoon, near Copenhagen, she woke up to find herself in a rehabilitation hospice operated by fourth-generation Jungians. Life had changed—she avoided the word improved—after that.
David watched Laura drain a glass of wine and crush the starched linen napkin in her lap. He knew that Laura was sniffing condescension all around her and was probably on the verge of lashing out at Lucinda with a comment about her past. He felt her struggle to regain some steadiness. “It was real—it is real. He’s dead, I know he was killed. I’m afraid of what’s next,” she said.
“We all are,” Jean Marc said. Jean Marc Aubuisson was one of David’s best friends. He was an elegantly dressed, slender man in his mid-thirties—one of the rising stars of the Council of Europe’s bureaucracy. He waved his hand dismissively, displaying a heavy signet ring that his long tapered fingers seemed to carry without effort. He launched into a monologue about the new findings of the Council of Europe’s Commission for the Environment about the slowing recuperative powers of the Earth. “She is like a weakened patient, drained by too many illnesses for too long. We have taken extraordinary measures the past ten years but recovery of the soil, the water, the air, the temperatures, the Arctic and Antarctic ozone holes, the recovery is much less than we predicted, much less than it should be by scientific law.”
David resisted the temptation to take issue with Jean Marc. He was grateful for his friend’s intervention. In a curious way, even when he was predicting doom and gloom, Jean Marc’s faith in rationality comforted others. Even Laura. Eventually she allowed herself to blend into the flow of conversation and the evening slipped away.