Imaginary Numbers

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The Bean Field

Grottaglie, Southern Italy.


Inside the car rental lot, Vivienne stood wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She had forced the professor to buy her some men’s clothing after seeing an advertisement on his television. She remembered the story of Joan of Arc and told him that although she liked wearing dresses, she wanted to try wearing pants. (“If Joan could do it, then so can I!”)

The weather in Italy was much warmer than Switzerland, and she felt the mediterranean sun soaking into her copper skin. As soon as she disembarked the plane, people started addressing her in the bubbly dialect of the south; men, she noticed, were especially friendly.

The professor returned to her with a folded map in one hand and jingled the keys in his other. The clerk followed him with a case of water bottles, which he loaded into the trunk of a small car. Vivienne smiled happily, and the clerk took the opportunity to introduce himself in a fast flowing dialect, to which Vivienne raised her eyebrows and nodded. He took her hand and kissed it, and then the professor quickly coraled him away, thanking him for his service.

In the car, he told her that it would take about an hour to Metaponto. Vivienne wanted to know a lot about Italy, and he answered her questions to the best of his ability, describing, when he ran out of facts, how his father had been born in the north, near Milan. How as a child, he would spend his winters in the south, near Naples, where his mother convinced his father to buy a small cottage. He explained to her how the south used to be run down, and how many rich English people bought houses there because they could afford it. He told her that it was in Italy is where he practiced his English, with a boy named Daniel, who hated it when his parents took him away from his friends in Leeds to go on vacation. Daniel was a troublemaker, he told her. He would write bad words on strips of paper and slide them under people’s doors—only, he wrote them in English, and instead of infuriating his neighbours, they laughed, calling him maestro, as if he as giving them complimentary language lessons. After a few days, the boy became used to the slow pace and the rhythmic heartbeat of the sea, and then his demeanor changed from a street urchin to a beach crab.

“What happened to Daniel?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” he answered nostalgically. “I think he became a police officer.”

When they got close to Bernalda, Vivienne started to recognize landmarks. She pointed out an old Argonese castle.

“I know that! I’ve seen it before.”

“You have?”

“Yes! I have.” She rolled down the window as they passed by the brick structure with its round bailey. “But I’m not sure where.” Something inside her clicked, and she started to direct the professor. “Turn right here! Turn left and the next road. There will be an orchard.” And there was an orchard.

He followed her navigation, which took them down a series of rural roads, nestled between farm villas, where wheat, olives, and grapes were grown. To their left, some distance away, following a shallow slope, sprawled the blue Mediterranean sea. They were driving around a large bay, a natural port that had served the ancient city of Metapontum. The professor was entranced by the vista, which appealed to his own childhood. He used to imagine the Emperor Tiberius, the hermit, living on the isle of Capri across the bay of Naples, but now here he was circumnavigating the natural harbour of another ruined city. He pictured the bay filled with Carthaginian triremes unloading Hannibal’s reinforcements. African elephants bearing arms meant for Punic armies playing hide and seek in the Italian countryside.

“Hey look!” Vivienne had her slender arm out of the window, pointing at three large Doric columns sticking out of the greenery farther up the hill. “It’s Italy!” She turned her head back, dark hair flapping in the wind. Her dark-brown eyes shone in the bright sunlight. “Can we stop to take a look?” she asked.

He pulled over on the side of the tiny road. “Very well. I suppose we don’t quite have an agenda today. Let’s explore.”

The greenery surrounding the old temple turned out to be a field of legumes. Walking through it would be difficult, and the professor wondered why he hadn’t realised yet that being with Vivienne required hiking boots and not an expensive suit. At least, he thought, she was well equipped in her jeans and t-shirt. He handed her a sunhat he had bought, and she placed it on her head. He donned his fedora.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yes!” She jumped over the low wire fence, which had sagged to a height lower than her knees. The bean field made for a near impossible hike. It was not a farm, there were no neat lines, or supporting structures for the ranking plants. Instead the wiry mess of reaching tendrils created a netting that entangled them at every step. Vivienne was determined, however, and leapt lithely over the green bushes. She lured him on with a sweet voice and encouraging dances while waiting for him to catch up.

Soon enough, she was grabbing him by the hand, pulling him onwards. She seemed to be in a rush. “Come on, William! We’re almost there!”

Above them sea birds squawked. One landed on the remaining piece of the ancient temple, and watched the girl in her sunhat leading the man in the suit towards the ruins.

The beans curled around the bottom of the marble columns, ensconcing them in hairy green skirts. But the floor of the temple was more or less intact. They stood on it, admiring the beautiful work of those Hellenic masons. Vivienne stretched her arms out, and looked up at the sky. She felt wonderful, charged by a historic sense of the 4th dimension. Even after thousands of years, the location of the temple still felt sacred.

“Can you feel it?” she asked.

“I feel at peace here, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes. Well, that too. I feel like this place is a secret left here for all of time. It feels like a message.”

“And what message is that?”

“Well, I’m not sure, actually. Maybe it’s not a message, but a lesson.”

“That, I can see. History says that Metapontum was destroyed for taking the wrong side in the Punic Wars. They supported the Carthaginians against the Romans.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, around 250BC, an African nation of seafarers invaded Italy. Legends tell of the founder of Rome, Aeneas who spurned the love of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. She founded Carthage on the other side of the Mediterranean, buying land from the Berber king. He told her she could have all the land she could trace with a strip of cow hide. Dido’s problem gave us the geometric law of circles, a shape that will encompass the maximum amount of area. She was a smart woman, but I digress.

“Aeneas was a Trojan soldier trying to find a new home after his city was destroyed by the Greeks. He was shipwrecked on the African Coast, and there he fell in love with Dido. Unfortunately, he had to leave her to settle his own city, a city dedicated to the Venus, the goddess of love. Heartbroken, she burned herself on their marriage bed along with every object Aeneas had left in Carthage. So you see, my dear, these two cities had bad blood between them, and five-hundred years later, Hannibal invaded with an army of elephants. He fought hard and won every battle, but despite the fact that he got within sight of the city, he would not dare to attack Rome, which even in those days must have been a marvellous site. Eventually, he fled and left from the port of Metapontum.”

“What a story!” She said, inspecting a cracked piece of marble from the pediment, engraved with an equilateral triangle consisting of nine smaller triangles in an tessellating pattern. There was a worn inscription in Greek. Parts of the ruins were marked by cloudy black soot, as if in a bygone age, the building had been destroyed by a fire.

Vivienne, climbed on the large chunk of marble to survey the scene.

“I wonder what it says,” the professor asked himself, running his fingers over the elusive script on the fallen pediment. Then he turned to her. “What do you see from up there?”

“There is a river in the distance, some more ruins. It looks like that amphitheatre from my dream, but more overgrown.”

“You mean from when you were hypnotized?”

“Yes. This whole area looks so familiar. I swear I have been here before.” She squinted under her straw hat, and peered past at the ocean of surrounding green fields. “Do you think I used to live here, professor?”

“That is a distinct possibility, my dear.” He walked around the shell of the building. “However, that does not explain how an inanimate clay form came alive and told you to come here.” Vivienne shrugged from the top of her perch, a silhouette against the bright sky. When she turned around, facing the river in the distance, she was startled.

“Oh my god! You scared me!” The professor stepped to look past the broken ridge of the pediment she was standing on, and spotted a robed man standing about fifteen feet away in the middle of the bean field. The youth had long golden hair, wrapped in a loose turban, and he wore a flowing white toga. He said nothing, but stood there with one hand raised in salutation.

“Hello,” Vivienne said.

“Who are you?” the professor asked in Italian. Then added, “We apologize if we trespassed, but we were simply investigating the ruins.” The boy remained silent. Vivienne jumped down and advanced towards him. When she closed the gap, he beckoned her and started walking into the middle of the field.

The professor followed them, hurriedly jumping over vines. She tried to introduce herself in English, then in Greek, but the boy was resolute and maintained his course without uttering a word. She ran forward and grabbed his arm. The professor caught up to them, noticing that the boy simply stared at her, then looked at her hand on his body. His face was young and radiant, but completely expressionless. When the professor again asked him to identify himself, the boy made cold, emotionless eye contact with him, and motioned for them to follow with a shake of his head. They looked at each other and then stepped behind the youth, who Vivienne noticed, was not wearing any shoes. The boy gracefully stepped over the vines at a good pace, heading silently towards a rock jutting out of the field.

The boy came to a stop a few feet away from the rock, on which an inverted pentagram with the greek letter Φ was carved. He pointed at a spot below the rock. The professor noticed that directly in front of the rock no beans grew. Instead the ground was covered by the delicate leaves and flowers of angelica.

He investigated the rock, but except for the faded carving, he found nothing out of the ordinary.

“Professor,” Vivienne said, “I think there’s a doorway here.” The youth stepped forward and sat on the rock, watching them stoically. He cupped his hands to his ears. Vivienne stomped her foot, and a hollow thud resonated beneath her. “Listen!” she said. “It’s hollow.” They both knelt down and felt the earth beneath them.

“Here’s something.” The professor pulled on a strap of leather shaped like a curled root, and out of the ground a trap door rose. The boy nodded and pointed down with his finger.

They entered slowly, climbing down a long ladder into darkness.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the professor asked.

“I trust that boy.”

“And I trust you, my dear. So I shall follow.”

As they descended, a dull green glow emanated from the stones. It was a phosphorescent fungus which got brighter and brighter with each rung. Above them the bright sunlight was a perfect circle, and at the bottom, the professor could see a warm orange light. After a while, they could hear music echoing off the walls, rising up from the bottom of the well. It was unlike anything the professor had ever heard, something old and primitive, like forgotten folk music, or the tones of satyrs and fauns come alive.

Then suddenly, Dr. Borgiac understood the meaning of the plant around the rocks. The scientific name, he recalled, is angelica genuflexa, ‘kneeling angelica’, a symbolic gesture, directing attention to the ground below it. At the heart of this mysterious descent lay something profoundly intelligent, he told himself—perhaps simply to overcome his fear of the dark unknown awaiting them at the bottom.

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