Dr. Nicholson Barnaby endlessly cluttered his small desk, peering at old photographs, pondering aloud. “Is this Ferguson from the first trip to Athens? Or is it that Irish fellow who joined us later? Not much Greek on him, but Lord what a drinker.” Terrence Carter, slowly mopping in the hallway, peeked in the door and smiled sweetly. Barnaby looked up briefly but was quickly back to his own thoughts. If this is Ferguson, then the woman must be his second wife Mariela, the dark woman with the hip dysplasia and no end of rude jokes. Mariela? Was that her name? Mariel. Muriel. What time was it anyway? It would not do to keep the Chancellor waiting.

“Is it time yet, Dr. Kota?” he called out, but Dr. Kota did not answer. Dr. Barnaby and Dr. Kota had shared a single spacious office for a good many of the twenty years both had been on the faculty, first at the beginning, then near the end. A good man, thought Barnaby, but will he help me with the Chancellor? Does he hold a grudge after all these years? The things a man remembers are always a puzzle. The photos helped some, exposing a fragment here and there of a vast fading riddle, but mostly they disturbed him, since many that so obviously included him were beyond recall. Other memories leaped up for no good reason. Doggerel from third grade: Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Jews, if you can spell that, I’ll give you my shoes. The hymns from church: Lead on O Kinky Turtle he would sing with the boys in the choir instead of Lead on O King Eternal. And they would laugh every time as though the joke were newly coined. He remembered the little Turkish boy who befriended him at the dig at Helicarnassus. One night after dinner Barnaby had shown the boy a simple sleight of hand with an old piastre coin. Easy trick really: the heavy coin drops unseen from right hand to left hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. But that child had viewed him with something like terror, as though the fabric of reality had torn and was in danger of shredding altogether. Those dark frightened eyes, wide and searching, he remembered those eyes and how they frightened him in turn.

“Dr. Kota, is it time?” Again the call went unheeded, and Barnaby thought about his last discussion with the Chancellor. Really I am quite able to teach. It was only that the Chancellor did not have the necessary information at his disposal. Dr. Kota will accompany me to the Chancellor’s office and put in a good word. Gravitas, gravitas, thought Barnaby. A serious demeanor and a stern word would put things to right. His eyes fell on the creased photo atop the messy desk. What was his wife’s name? Was that the Irish chap? Or it could be Ferguson. Mariel. Mariela. He pondered idly. If only he had something useful to strengthen his case with the Chancellor. Then he recalled the treasure he had uncovered in the archives that morning. Yes! I’ll show him the coin, he thought, as he drew it from his pocket and held its pleasing heft in his sturdy wrinkled hand. Good story in that. It was a splendid specimen, perhaps a fine old Alexandrian tetradrachm, brought to light during the course of his strenuous career. It looked vaguely familiar, and with what lovely workmanship! What pleasing symmetry! Just the sort of thing to begin his conversation with the Chancellor. This retirement he proposed overlooked far too much favorable evidence. He brightened as he considered the silvery object.

“Ah, Dr. Kota, here you are at last. Look here, look at this coin. Won’t the Chancellor be pleased?”

Terrence Carter nodded warmly and considered the coin. “That’s a nickel, Dr. Barnaby. It’s time for dinner.”

Happy Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is my favorite day of the year. Regardless of what the rodent predicts, we’re halfway through winter. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, and that makes perfect sense to me. The tragic puzzle of ripeness is that it is followed so quickly by rot. To me, the saddest day of the year is Memorial Day, because thereafter you are using up the summer days at the inexorable rate of one every 24 hours, and to the extent that you don’t fill each one with laughing happiness and carefree leafgreen remembrance, you are squandering wealth. In short, the goody clock is running. Barren February, by contrast, presents challenge instead of wealth. If you happen upon goody, it’s like stumbling across an oasis in the desert, oil on the North Slope. Three cheers! Look at you!

So here is homely Groundhog Day squatting in the middle of the winter. It is too silly to be taken seriously even by the marketing wizards at Hallmark. It persists only because it mocks itself so affably. But from an archaeological point of view, if you knock down the modern convenience store called Groundhog Day, you find some solid foundations. The season is turning. The light is returning. The quickening is underway and the long march toward ripeness has begun. There’s goody enough in that.

I love the summer, but I trust the winter.

An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century Star Chamber, guaranteed to bring you a wholly satisfying, up-to-date, and quintessentially twenty-first century web-browsing experience. You’ll find no unsightly 1900s-vintage bugginess here: our Y2K Crisis Management Team has performed beautifully and has conducted the site safely across the millennial divide.

This week we present for your sophisticated twenty-first century reading pleasure a very brief poem by twentieth-century poet Joanne Kyger and some excerpts from a twentieth-century expedition to Japan undertaken by our own Paracelsus.

SUDDENLY! by Joanne Kyger

The same Moon in the next century!

Continue reading “An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan”