A long bony finger, tinged with a yellow stain, slowly pointed towards me. I hung back in the shadows of this large bedroom lit by three large tallows and the sunlight poking through the glassed window. The finger hovered in space, trembling slightly.
“I know what you want,” rasped the old man behind the finger. Lying in a bed, his back propped up by an array of pillows as would have befit royalty, he stared at me through half-closed eyes, red and rheumy. His long nose stretched over a face lined with creases, yet, as he spoke, the signs of age smoothed out, the way a sudden splash in a river slowly fades into nothingness.
“You do?” I managed.
Of course, he did. Michel de Notradame, better known to the world as Nostradamus, knows everything. He has seen the future, the heavens above and the deep recesses below. I could barely speak. I gripped my sheets of rag paper as my head whirled.
I had come to the dying seer’s bedchamber to find the truth. Of course, he knew why I was there!
The finger crooked and beckoned me forward. I could not resist. Slowly, my bare feet stumbling on the hard wooden floors, I inched towards him. Nostradamus lay quietly, almost smiling. He had just finished eating a morsel of bread and seemed content. His hands were spread across the knitted coverlet, his nails were trimmed and bluish; his care-worn face, lined and crinkled, was elongated and narrow, an effect enhanced by the white beard that came to a twisted point well below his chin. His white hair, so thinned in spots that his scalp glistened through, spread across his pillow like thick spider webs.
I could hear the stomp of feet nearing the bedroom door, yet inside, where I stood trembling, I was alone.
“Come,” he said impatiently. “The jackals are returning.”
I quickened my step and let my knees dare touch the coverlet that fell across his legs and stretched to the wooden floor. From such proximity, I could see the reddening of his forehead from the heat within and the film that had formed across his brown, all-seeing eyes. His face was filled with sullen resignation, the same look of many a cow that I helped my father butcher. His breath came in shallow bursts. Several times, his thin, frail body quivered and shook. Still, his bony finger remained in space, pointing directly at my bursting heart.
“Your book,” he said. I hesitated. “I would sign now,” he mumbled impatiently. “My name shall be worth much in the coming years. Have you any ink with that quill?”
Realization stunned me. “No, no, honored sir,” I whimpered. “I did not come for your autograph.”
His face fell. The wrinkles re-emerged as he seemed to dry up. “Would you mock me?” he asked in harsh tones, drawing himself up a little. His gray robe bunched around his thin neck, the way a frightened bird fluffs out its chest to appear mightier.
“No, never,” I cried in agony. “I have come to talk to you, to find out the truth.”
“The truth?” he murmured, lying back. The effort had caused sweat to dampen his aged brow.
“All famous people know the truth about life,” I quavered.
“We do?” he murmured.
I shuddered. I must have touched upon a sore point. I decided to focus on fame and let truth come as it may. “I implore you,” I whimpered, dropping to my knees. “Tell me: how does one achieve such greatness? What is the secret of fame? Must one ingest nutmeg and dream great dreams? Do I have to be a doctor and find a cure for an invented disease? A lawyer with the speed to catch the fastest ambulance? Where does greatness lie? ”
“It simply lies,” Nostradamus said.
I digested that wisdom as I stared at dust balls collected beneath the great bed.
“Get up,” Nostradamus ordered. “I can’t see you down there.”
I arose, my paper pressed against my heaving chest. I pleaded with him for more, using my eyes in the way that always softened my mother’s anger and bemused my father. Nostradamus, the giant among us, was not immune. I knew he would lead me on the journey of his life, to show me the paths he followed. I would see the route to immortality through the eyes of the man who knows everything.
There was a knock at the door. I moved back to the small nook against the white plastered wall and readied my turkey-feather quill. A cauldron thick with black ink sat at my side. I had found the supply in a small room near the bedroom, but had to clean out the rancid brown liquid once inside it.
Quickly, the room filled with visitors. All entered with hushed tones and respectful expressions. Dressed in robes and formal attires, as though going to an investiture of a royal servant or a funeral, they tiptoed on soft slippers and gathered about the old man on the bed.
Nostradamus coughed and every head swiveled to watch. He closed his eyes, and every mouth immediately grew silent. He gave a deep sigh, and every ear perked up, listening intently. He opened his eyes, and everyone relaxed.
The old man stared at the underside of his blue, woolen canopy. I crept close to peer at the same surface. I could not see anything of the least interest on the weathered cloth. The old man continued to stare; I remained there, bent over, studying the woolen texture. Soon, I was joined by several others in the bedroom. In a few minutes, the bed was surrounded as everyone stared at the underside of the aged canopy ringed with a golden fringe.
“It’s wool,” Nostradamus finally rasped. Everyone nodded. After a few more seconds of intense contemplation, the visitors separated into smaller groups to discuss the latest revelation.
Some insisted the old man was making another prediction. Wool could mean anything: sheep, sheep in wolves clothing, flock, the Second Coming, Beelzebub. Every word should be recorded for posterity, the bald sage firmly insisted. Others nodded. “He always writes in riddles,” a third man noted, tugging thoughtfully on a full, white beard. “This latest comment about wool, while cryptic, could hold deep meaning for future generations,” he added with nodding self- assurance.
The mayor of St. Remy, a hefty man whose narrow view of the world endeared him to the city council, suggested hesitantly the single word “wool” might be nothing more than a description, but he was instantly silenced with cold glares.
“Nostradamus does not just issue idle blathers,” a scholar in a black robe solemnly said. “He pontificates, he clarifies, he enunciates. All we can do is record and try to understand. We are feeble humans, not blessed with is sixth sense, and can only ponder the unknowable, like supplicants at Mass.”
Some gasped; there was a murmur about sacrilege, but the conversation quickly shifted as the old man on the bed groaned. He rubbed his foot, hidden beneath the blankets, and said something about gout.
“Do you suppose he reads the future through his feet?” I hesitantly asked.
“No one knows,” the scholar whispered. “He usually retreats into his study and emerges with his findings.”
“Then could it be gout that guides him or his oft-time stomach pains?” I wondered aloud. “If so, I can’t wait until I am infirm. Imagine the mysteries pain can unfold.” I looked around. “Perhaps I could speed the process. Could someone hit me?”
“The secret, my son, lies not in pain, but how the ache is interpreted,” an apothecary said, to my relief. He was dressed, like most of the others, in a simple tunic and tights. “You could ache and not see the fall of the Medici in the agony. Nostradamus, on the other hand, does. The writhing in pain, the suffering, the agony he must go through.”
The speaker paused to admire the old man who was now muttering epithets from his bed. “On the other hand, I’ve heard that he relies on a code, a sort of Runic lettering like those found among the Vikings,” the apothecary said in a conspiratory whisper. The rumor now circulated the small room, until it was converted from heretical speculation into orthodox thought.
“It can’t be the devil,” I responded. “I’ve been here an hour and have not seen anything resembling horns and tails.”
The old man in the bed cocked an ear at this. “Humph,” he muttered. “Maybe all of you are in disguises.”
We all turned again to gaze at Nostradamus and his sea of blankets. He suddenly closed his eyes with hands folded on his thin chest.
“Is he?” someone asked hesitantly.
“Dead?” Nostradamus finished with his deep rumbling voice without opening his eyes. “I will let you know when that time comes.”
“Of course,” the scholar intoned. “As I have told you.”
A priest slipped through the door and approached the bed. “How are you, my son?” he asked tremulously, glancing nervously at those in the room and the long figure in the bed. He held a chalice in one hand, a communion wafer in the other.
“Out, rogue!” the old man shouted, coming alive with a burst of energy. His hair flew about his face. Nostradamus brushed it aside with a trembling hand. “Let the ghoul leave,” he demanded, using his grim, skeletal finger to indicate the way.
The crowd parted, and like Moses, the priest retreated. “I am just trying to perform my required functions,” he said apologetically, hastily crossing himself.
“It’s all right. We’ve bought enough indulgences for him for eternity,” a woman by the door whispered to him.
“Don’t talk to him, Anne,” Nostradamus barked at his wife. “You might get infected. He must know Hildegard. He will probably leave here and search out that villain, so that my hoary head will not go down to the grave in peace.”
The priest glanced at Anne, and shook his head. “I’m sworn to secrecy,” he told Nostradamus’ aged wife. “I would not reveal the secret locale of Nostradamus, even to Cardinal Hildegard.” He paused to cross himself by the crucifix hanging on the white plaster wall by the door and left.
“Michel,” Anne said sternly, “don’t address the poor father that way.” Those near her gasped at her audacity. Nostradamus waved away both her complaint and their response.
“You’d understand if you knew more about Hildegard,” he insisted. “That monk has pursued me across Europe and would wreak his vengeance yet.” The conversations ceased again. Everyone bent over, straining to hear the next words.
Nostradamus dramatically and heavily cleared his throat, gesturing at someone nearby. His mouth was closed, and he was pointing at it.
“A revelation,” the scholar exclaimed. “He’s using hand signals.” Galvanized by his outcry, they all edged closer. Nostradamus continued to wave his arms and point.
“Tomorrow,” the barber suggested. Nostradamus shook head.
The guesses came fast as the charade continued. “His mouth, that must mean the king.”
“No, the queen!”
“Does that mean France? Henry II has a big mouth. Could he be talking about England?”
“Or Spain? Philip?”
“Maybe it sounds like mouth. Louth, bouth, houth? South! Southern Italy will revolt!”
Nostradamus waved wearily, still gesturing.
“That’s it,” the scholar cried. His eyes glistened. “Someone write that down!” I did. I was recording everything as fast as I could.
Nostradamus shook his head again. His hand fell to the side of the bed with a thud. People pressed closer.
“He must be going fast,” the worried apothecary said. “He cannot speak.” Hurrying to the bedside, Anne softly began to cry.
Nostradamus tried to throw the covers back and stand up. Hands stopped him, guiding him gently but firmly back into bed. His face was reddening. “He’s getting delirious,” the apothecary said. “Get the doctor.” The door opened, and the blood-stained barber sprinted away. “Hang on, Master,” the scholar urged. “There is so much more you can tell us, so much you can see that we cannot.” All eyes gazed longingly; many lips mouthed prayers.
Finally, in desperation, Nostradamus grasped the robe of the scholar and spit into it. The yellowish sputum hung grotesquely on the black cloth before beginning to slide to the floor. The scholar quickly gathered up the cloth and tiptoed gingerly to a small wooden bowl held by a beggar collecting alms. The crowd reverently moved aside to give him room. There, the scholar leaned the cloth over so the collected liquid fell into the dish. He peered at it carefully. Others, including the apothecary, inched closer for their own inspection.
A white-robed doctor hurried into the room, but was diverted from Nostradamus to the bowl. He picked up the dish and eyed it carefully. Taking a thin wooded stick from his pocket, he prodded the globule, intently examining it.
“If you wait a few minutes,” Nostradamus called weakly, “I’ll use the chamber pot, and then you’ll really have something to poke around.”
“What do you think, doctor?” the apothecary asked.
“Most interesting,” the physician mused. “Yellowish and white. See the bubbles?” he pointed. “And there are bits of foreign material here and there.”
“Ahhhh,” the crowd commented.
“Bread,” Nostradamus explained.
“He’s hungry,” someone said. Several people scrambled to find food.
“A good sign,” the physician said, still prodding his sample.
“Mon deux, I mean there’s bread in that spit,” Nostradamus almost shouted.
“Write that down,” the scholar insisted.
“See the green? That’s another good sign,” the doctor continued. “I don’t see anything else of major importance, but we will analyze this further. My apothecary should be able to dissect it.”
“I will save it,” the scholar said proudly. “Everything produced by a great man should be saved. If only I had been around when Roger Bacon worked alone in his cell. Think of the wonders I could have collected.”
Someone had found a loaf of bread and placed it on Nostradamus’ chest. He looked down at it. “I just ate,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”
“He’s not hungry.”
“Doctor, what does that mean?”
“Write it down,” the scholar urged. “We cannot lose a single line. Posterity will blame us. Hungry. Hungary! The Turks.” He almost spun wildly in his excitement. “I told you.”
Nostradamus slowly pushed the food aside. Someone caught the bread before it fell to the floor. Nostradamus’ hand brushed against the apothecary’s thick forearm. The man jumped back as if shocked and then held his arm in wonderment. Those who had seen the contact came up for a closer look. They munched on the bread, splitting it up as they contemplated the skin.
“Are you tired?” Anne asked as attention was diverted. A sad smile graced her worn face. Nostradamus nodded almost in relief. “Then, perhaps, I should ask our many guests to go?” Anne suggested.
“Guests? Locusts,” Nostradamus snorted. “They eat nonstop. They’ll strip this house of everything!”
“They come to honor you,” Anne quietly chided.
“Professional mourners, paid to dine at my expense,” Nostradamus countered.
“Is the whole country paid to worry about you?” Anne asked. “Runners carry bulletins throughout the country. I am told the royal family gets regular updates. In England, Spain, Saxony, Bohemia, Rome, everyone waits to hear about your illness. King Charles wants to know how you are doing. He made you chancellor last year, as you know.”
“I bet the inns around here are doing well,” Nostradamus muttered. “And the whores.”
“Salon is always grateful to its most famous citizen. Those who come to France, come to see Nostradamus as if there were nothing else to see in the whole country,” Anne said.
“As long as Hildegard is not among them,” Nostradamus murmured. “That zealous priest would do anything to lay his heavy hands on me.”
Anne smiled wanly. “So far,” she said, “he has hesitated. Others have not. They arrive daily in droves.”
“All but Ernest,” Nostradamus said. “I wish he were here. I would like to see him again, face-to-face, once before I die. He countered Hildegard the way a chess player outmaneuvers an opponent.” He reached under the pillow behind his head. “Remember the missive that came earlier? It was another letter from Ernest.”
He glanced surreptitiously around the room. Only Anne and I were paying attention. His visitors were either engaged in deep debate over the particulars of some word Nostradamus had previously belched or were plucking crumbs from the remains of a wooden tray and soaking up the last drop of wine. Nostradamus held a letter aloft. “I looked at it briefly,” he whispered, “but have not had the time to study it. I have not been alone long enough to fart.”
“Do not, dear husband,” Anne urged. “I fear that would incite another round of medical examinations. Let them probe your gout and leave the rest to God.”
Nostradamus nodded. “Actually, the gout is better, now that the locusts are eating my rich desserts.” He opened the letter and it crinkled loudly in response. He read,
“There is an eclipse of the sun.
The monster will be seen at noon.
It will be interpreted otherwise.
Unfortunately, for none will foresee it.”
He repeated the lines to himself, then shrugged. “Does that make any sense to you?” Anne did not reply. “How about this one:
They will think they see the sun at night
As the pig-half man is seen.
Noise, song, combat, battles in the sky.
And brutish beasts seen talking.”
“Think about it. Is that a half-pig or half-man? I wish Ernest would write more clearly, “ Nostradamus said. “None of these quatrains have ever made much sense. Still, I should follow through. I suppose I’ll have to do something with these things and then publish them. They don’t rhyme or anything.” He glanced over the letter. “There are five more like that. I wonder if the number seven is significant.”
“I should show it to Caesar,” Anne decided. “Your son is young, yet he seems to possess some of your appreciation for the stars.”
Nostradamus shook his head. “He is only 11 years old. I do not know what Ernest will make of the boy. Besides, he seems a trifle distracted by other matters. At this moment, I would rather not do this to him. I am filled with lymphatic emotion and have no desire to part yet with this letter. I have hopes only of seeing Ernest before the stars signal my goodnight or Hildegard says his last hello.”
He gestured at the crowd still around him. “But how could anyone come with such a throng? Ernest must prefer solitude. Why else would he only write and never visit?” Nostradamus rose up on his hands. “Begone, all of you. You troublesome horde of fiends, you pack of devils sent to torment me. Take your robes and your tunics, your foul breaths and grasping hands. Go, begone.”
“He spoke,” the barber breathed.
“And with such fire, such energy,” the scholar said.
“I am so thrilled I can barely stand,” said the apothecary with his hands around the last piece of bread and his mouth stuffed with sausage. “It is as if the heavens opened and God himself thundered down to the multitude.”
“Now I know how the Pied Piper story got started,” Nostradamus groaned. “You have my thanks for your concern, my appreciation for your willingness to visit me in such an hour. Now, I ask you all to kindly depart.”
“Is someone writing all this down?” the scholar asked. “Someday, I will give a record of this momentous event to my children, so that generations to come may share in it.”
“You won’t live that long,” Nostradamus seethed through clenched teeth.
“A prophesy!” the scholar shouted. He fell at the foot of Nostradamus’ bed, hands clenched in prayer. “Tell me more, oh, my Master. Tell me everything that I might know my future.”
“There is food outside,” Anne said quietly.
“How kind, how thoughtful, how like the wife of such a man,” said the scholar. “I will refresh myself that I will be strong enough to face the truth.” He backed reverently away. Others followed.
“We should leave a scribe,” the scholar said, pausing by the door. No one volunteered. “Oh, now I know how Plato felt when last he saw Socrates,” he said.
“Is there hemlock in the food?” Nostradamus hissed at Anne. She just smiled matronly.
Slowly, a dozen people shuffled out the door. It was closed quietly. I remained alone in the corner, where shadows hid me.
“Would you like to nap?” Anne asked.
Nostradamus pulled out the letter again. “I intend to read awhile,” he said. “I also intend to pray.”
“That my wife remember the biblical precedent and send me Abishag the Shumannite to warm me as she warmed King David in his dying hours.”
Anne pulled the door open. “She would drain your last bit of strength, and you would die before your time,” she said. “The way a spider sucks away the insides of a fly.”
“Death where is thy sting?” Nostradamus replied jovially. “I should record that,” he decided.
“But, there was no one left to write it down,” Anne noted and closed the door.
“One stayed,” Nostradamus corrected, sighing wearily as his wife departed.
Timidly, I came forward again from my corner darkened by the shadow created by the bed and stood in quiet repose, hands held tightly in front of me, smiling wanly down at him.
We were not totally alone: the music from the streets below Nostradamus’ window created its own strange lullaby. Old donkey-drawn carts clattered along the cobblestones; an occasional horse galloped by. Once or twice, a carriage clopped nearby, its wheels clanging against the stone. Children called to each other and traded bawdy insults with housewives.
Breathing deeply, Nostradamus sucked in the hash aroma of the streets. It festered in his nostrils and added to the stench of the people who regularly visited his room. The combination was so overpowering, he probably could barely smell his own fetid odor. “Hildegard cannot be out there now,” he decided, sharing his thoughts. “The smell was not overpowering enough.”
I watched him closely. It was the 13th day of July in the year of our Lord 1566. Nostradamus was 63 years old and clearly looked it. I do not know what disease he had, but he coughed regularly. Nostradamus was taxed by gout, insisting it was unlikely anyone had suffered such a severe case. Nostradamus’ right big toe was swollen so badly not even his soft slippers could contain it. Often, he moaned, his troubled dreams were shattered by searing pain, which like streaks of lightning burst through the night shadows.
“What you say, boy?” Nostradamus finally acknowledged me. “So you have come to find the path to truth.”
“I could think of no better guide,” I replied in a tremulous voice. “The famous always know the truth.”
Nostradamus muttered something appropriately vile and fell back into his pillow. “If you want to seek at someone important,” he suggested wanly, “you would do well to gaze upon your father. For he planted you as a seed in your mother’s womb.”
I curtly dismissed that suggestion. “He is not famous.”
“Are you sure?” Nostradamus teased. “Perhaps his fame has somehow escaped your youthful ears. He might be famous among highwaymen or thieves, priests or lawyers. He might be the veritable Hercules of craven cowards.”
“No,” I insisted in feckless honesty, “he is a butcher. He sent me here and told me to remember this moment.”
Nostradamus sighed. “Is he renowned for placing a thumb upon the scale and so cheating even his poorest customer?” he asked.
“Then, he must be famous for his unusual honesty,” Nostradamus decided.
“And will you remember this moment?” the old man asked.
“I will try,” I said. “Could you tell me at least why you are famous? I can see no outward evidence. You look like my grandfather, only older and (dare I say) grouchier.
Nostradamus gestured me to come nearer again and embraced my small and pink left hand. “I once looked for evidence of difference both inside and out. I found none. My distinction is that I have both age and choler, mixed with gout and distemper. ’Tis a fine recipe for fame.”
I wrote down that formula.
With yet another sigh, Nostradamus released my warm hand. “Since you ask, I will tell you: At the request of a wretched Cardinal, I and a friend made some predictions about the future. They soon touched the ears of a queen, and she commanded that we produce more for her kin. ‘Tis a truism of all renown; to achieve true fame, you must collide with royalty and collect your bruises. I have not healed since, for with each new prediction came requests for more. I will soon be dead and will no longer be harassed by my errors in judgment.’
“Wow,” I exclaimed. “Predictions!”
“Oh,” Nostradamus said with heart-felt sincerity, “would that you were my son. Caesar simply cannot fathom the arcane arts and shows no interest in trying to learn.”
Resting on the pillows, the old man placed his hands behind his head. “I would find someone to take his place,” he said. An idea formed in his mind burst aloud through his tired lips: “Would Ernest find another?” He immediately regretted the comment.
“You would not understand,” he told me. “Ernest taught me the secrets of the bowl. What an exciting few days that had been learning this strange game: studying, learning, reaching into the arcane depths and squeezing meanings from the dark tea and roiling water. Ernest always did the translating, teaching, coaxing, code cracking, pulling forth the hidden meanings from my halting impressions. Then, everything made sense. Ernest seemed so sure and, as though the veil suddenly parted, I could see clearly, too.”
He then gazed dully at me. “What is your name?” he demanded.
“Raphael, good sir,” I replied.
“Not a messenger from the Almighty?”
“No, sir. Not that I know.”
“Pity. I would have thought he would have sent someone to discourse with me by now. I had hoped fame might bring such a glorious opportunity.” He waved a hand. “Begone. My energy flags.”
“But, sir,” I protested, “I have heard so little. Please, good sir, tell me how to follow your path to the truth? My father wishes me to follow that same road.”
Nostradamus smiled. “If you demand the account, I must begin at the beginning,” he cautioned.
“I will start there with you,” I said firmly.
“It has many twists and turns. I have been a lonely passenger on this arduous coach ride,” he murmured.
“You are alone no more,” I told him. I was ready to accompany him, unaware of the nature of the trek. I could not foresee the terror that awaited, the harsh events that so shaped a life. Yet, I did listen and record. Predicting was for Nostradamus; I was but a scribe.
“I feel the past encompass me,” Nostradamus said. He stared at the ceiling. “Tell not my followers. They would prefer the future gird me tighter.”
“’Tis the past I seek and, with it, your ancient path to truth,” I said.
Nostradamus eyed me suspiciously. “I’ll not have my life hawked upon a street corner,” he insisted.
“Oh, never, good sir,” I said. “I will pick and choose what words of great wisdom drop from your gracious lips.”
“Mark you avoid the spittle,” Nostradamus said, “although it seems to warrant great attention these days.”
He closed his eyes. “I will begin when I first met Ernest. For in that day, my future became so clear. I will tell you as I recall the moment, with words that still ring fresh in my aged ears.
He paused and cleared a raspy throat. “T’was the day before Lent and all through …”