Signs & Portents

Chapter 14

Like Snow upon the Desert's Dusty Face

Carl decided to sleep in the morning after his participation in the riot, in spite of the fact that he was supposed to report to the unemployment office. Lack of sleep that night and a bruised soreness in his limbs undermined his interest in getting up. Around 10 a.m., Miri tapped on his door.

"Breakfast in bed," she called cheerily, "After your ordeal."

She entered with a breakfast of coffee and mushroom omelet that started to restore his battered condition. The food braced him up for the day, and now fully awake, he reflected on his earlier decision and changed his mind.

He could still make it, his appointment was at 10:45, and he knew it would save the endless reels of red tape that would result if he did fail to appear. Also, he could pick up his check. Currently, he had gathered that the unemployment office had reached the stage in their own regulations where it was their responsibility to "rehabilitate" him. But as there was not much in the way of work training for a displaced air controller, the rehabilitation interviews scheduled for once a month, were usually extremely cursory. He dressed hastily and entered the main part of the apartment to find it empty of Miri.

"Mother!" he yelled once to be sure, but no answer came.

Strange, he hadn't heard her leave. It also struck him as mildly out of place that the normally nocturnal Miri had been up and away at such an early hour. He felt a small stab of dismay and hurried to the windows that fronted the street but saw with relief that Miri had thoughtfully left him the car, wherever she was away to. He could still make it. He sped downstairs.

At the state employment office, he encountered what he should have expected, an enormous waiting room. Oh well, he reflected, in all likelihood, he had a good chance of getting away by noon, even so. Or, he modified, at least sometime shortly before one o'clock. The state employees had a strong union. All windows closed at noon and remained closed until one, they allowed no interference with their lunch time. But they did, he knew from past experience, try to take all morning appointments with some dispatch if they did not finish them before noon.

He hastily shoved his papers into the proper slot and then settled himself resignedly in a waiting room chair, still hoping to be called at somewhere near his scheduled appointment time. He briefly scanned the bleak distressed human faces around him, but found it depressing and attempted to occupy himself with the paperback book he had foresightedly squirreled into his pocket before departing. This was boring, he discovered, and his thoughts drifted back to the previous night's conversation with Miri. His mother was on a Nostradamus kick and he suddenly deduced her early morning errand. The public library, of course, it was only three blocks from the house, no doubt to carry out her avowed mission, to research the Nostradamus situation. Now that Robert had arrived, he was anxious to get on with the Undiscovered Worlds Press, that was the way to go. He wondered if they really should call it the "Undiscovered Worlds Press," there might be jokes made about it, Undiscovered, discovered, at last. Oh well, it was his mother's inspiration and Robert hadn't said anything and he should know.

"Carl O'Leary!" the voice intoned to the waiting room at large.

Carl started up and headed for the window. The clerk shuffled through his papers with a severe businesslike expression on his face.


"Papers, please."

Carl extended the papers he had not previously deposited and watched while these were duly stamped. A fan of papers were extended back to him, the stamping procedure being completed.

"Sign, please, where you see the X."

Carl picked up the chain attached pen and initiated the signing procedure. The clerk waited glumly, accepting back the signed papers.

"Mr. O'Leary, were you physically able to look for work?"


"Did you look for work during the week ending June 19th?"


"Was work offered to you during the week ending June 19th?"


"What time of the day do you usually look for work?"

"From 9 to 5."

The verbal questions were identical to the questions on the first of the forms Carl had filled out, but he was accustomed to this repetitive process. The clerk paused for inspiration, but after a brief fastidious rearrangement of the papers, he came up with nothing and glanced at his watch.

"Okay, Mr. O'Leary, that's all for today. You can pick up your check at the window A."

Check securely in hand, Carl decided to be efficient, hit the bank and cash it, and follow up with the supermarket to pick up some groceries, Miri had long ago abdicated most of the marketing to him. That would kill all the birds with one stone and leave the rest of the day free to do what he liked. He steered for his bank across town and there he encountered a blessedly short line for the teller window. The girl who accepted his deposit slip carefully examined the check he gave her and retreated from the window. Carl saw here in conversation with another older woman and reached for additional I.D. No doubt the bank was tightening check cashing regulations again. He watched the pair approach the computer outlet together and sighed impatiently as they again went into a conference. Eventually, the teller came towards the window where he waited, trailed by the older woman, both of their faces marked by some small concerned frowns.

"Mr. Jung." started the teller.

"O'Leary," suggested Carl, deducing that some mix-up over his name was the problem. This revelation caused a momentary flutter of confusion, but the girl recovered quickly.

"Mr. O'Leary, you do have an account with us?" Carl nodded affirmatively and she went on. "I'm sorry, we can't cash this check for you."

"It's a state check, Miss," Carl responded.

"Well, you see that's the trouble, Mr. O'Leary, apparently the state has not transferred enough funds to this particular account. All we can do is take it on deposit, since you do have an account with us.


When the state covers it, we can give you your money then."

The older woman intruded, "We are very sorry Mr. O'Leary. We think there has just been some sort of delay somewhere in the state offices. But you would have to take it up with the state."

Both women's eyes projected sympathy, with a certain guardedness, least his own reaction became immoderate. Carl obliged them, withdrawing quietly, retaining the check rather than surrendering it for a deposit. It sounded like a royal foul-up all right, especially in a depressed economy where large numbers of people were dependent on these checks. He could visualize more desperate individuals becoming panicky in their reactions. Quite possibly the trouble was only with his own bank, like most citizens, he had experienced some minor annoyances when the nearly foolproof computer hookups did fail at different institutions.

Not to be outdone, he sped back across town toward the Co-op Credit Union where he kept his savings account. This establishment was situated upstairs over the large Berkeley Co-op supermarket and he expected to get his shopping done downstairs. He would have gone there in the first place except for the fact that he had wanted to put something into his checking account.

The clerk at the Credit Union, who Carl knew slightly, smiled ruefully at the extended check.

"Sorry, Carl" he quipped, "the state is apparently paying with rubber checks these days."

Carl had already figured this out himself, but was still holding out a small hope, since the reality struck him as ominous, if not outright dangerous. Acting on an instinctual motivation that was not yet fully rationalized, he made out a voucher for almost all of his savings and withdrew the money.

"Uh huh," commented the clerk, you are about the fiftieth person to do that today. I've had to send out for extra cash and the day is only half over! Maybe we had better close," he added in parting, but smiled broadly to try to indicate that he was only joking.

Carl was unable to assess his true feelings, withdrawing the savings had been a gut reaction. Perhaps he was only responding to his mother's survivalist notions, this theme was likely to recur with her from time to time. Downstairs, however, he selected a cart and began to stock up the O'Leary household with considerable emphasis on easily stored items. He was smiling at his own mood by the time he reached the check stand. All the same he paid for the lot by check, thus withdrawing the remaining funds in this checking account.

Miri would be pleased, sometime earlier, she had called several household conferences at which she had advocated the exact steps he had just taken. Of course, it was possible that she had changed her mind by this time. Carl had always seen his mother as a mercurial, if not erratic woman. Unlike the more staid parental figures of his childhood friends, his own mother was decidedly unpredictable and dabbled in the unusual. Perhaps in compensation, Carl considered himself a rather serious practical sort of man. He had never known his father beyond the fact that he had departed their lives peacefully and unmourned at a time when Carl was too young to remember.

When Carl returned to the O'Leary apartment, Miri, did not notice his arrival as she was deeply immersed in the Nostradamus texts. He made his way to the kitchen to make coffee.

"Oh, you're back," his mother called from the other room. "How did things go, did you get your check all right?"

"No, the state is nearly bankrupt and they refused to cash the check."

"Oh, no." said Miri.

"But I did take out all my money in the savings account, so we will be all right for a bit longer. Where's Robert?"


"He went for a walk to get better acquainted with Berkeley. I think your office could be his room?" said Miri.

"Sure," he responded, "I'll just clear some stuff out."

While attending to this, Carl removed the cash from his wallet and decided on placing it in an envelope, which he taped to the bottom of his desk chair for lack of a better inspiration. It was a bit of a cushion against emergency in the O'Leary household and it was starting money for Undiscovered Worlds. Carl suspected that the state would ultimately come up with a remedy for its temporary embarrassment, but still, you never knew.


Some weeks later, just prior to the time his job at the airport had been phased out, as it turned out, he made a trip to Los Angeles to attend a congress of air controlers and found himself, to his surprise, in the very midst of a heated debate.

Thanks to the wiles and charms of a certain young lady, whom he had met on the plane, Carl had missed the presentation of the paper that had started the whole thing, but soon picked up from the generalized acrimony that a climatologist of some repute had seriously put forward a proposal for a new ice age in the time span of the present generation. Chief antagonists, naturally, where those who still espoused the greenhouse effect, but many others of a less cataclysmic orientation joined their ranks. All the same, the ice age theorist seemed to have gathered a small following so far as Carl could tell.

Few reporters, however, this time around, found a convention of air controlers interesting enough to cover, so no distorted sensationalistic stories appeared in the press to enliven the affair. All the same, a diplomatic, public relations minded individual had taken the floor and made an appeal that no alarmist press releases be given out suggesting such a radical event, inasmuch as this could have "unfortunate consequences" in its impact on the general public. As to the lack of agreement within the community, he recommended that all seriously take up the subject for further "research and study." Whether this was much of a sop to the individual who precipitated the controversy, Carl couldn't tell. But the debate spread, even Miri had fallen under the spell of "the impending ice age," which she had gotten some place. She debated moving to the tropics for a time, but had gradually lost interest.

In the meantime, Miri had run into frustration with Nostradamus. His "centuries" had turned out to be sets of one hundred four line verses rather than time centuries and she learned that he did intend to be obscure, quite deliberately. The letters he had written to his young son Caesar, and to his king, Henry II, upon the publication of his prophecies left no doubt about this. In these, he revealed his design:
"If my computations be not good among all nations, however all has been calculated by the course of the celestial bodies joined with emotion infused in me...the emotion which has been handed down to me by my ancient progenitors. But the danger at this time, Most Excellent King, requires that such secret events should not be manifested except by an enigmatical sentence...But rather under a cloudy obscurity, through natural infusion, coming near to the sentence of one of the 1000 and 2 Prophets, that have been since the Creation of the world, according to the calculation and Punic Chronicle of Joel: "Effundum spiritim meum..."

Miri adjured the Latin and looked up the "Punic Chronicle of Joel" which she happened to have on hand in English and read:

"And after that I shall pour out my spirit on every sort of flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. And your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions." Joel 2: 28

She smiled as she always did on finding perfect historical authenticity. Nostradamus was being careful to trace his prophesying to biblical authority, he was aware of the attitude of the medieval church. But she was no closer to a modern insight into the workings of Nostradamus. In his epistle to Henry II, he alluded to numerous future "epochs" in which earth shaking events would take place, and she deduced that this had been the design used by the makers of the documentary she had seen. Even if he did choose to be obscure, however, he assured his liege lord that he would "make clear" the events touching the immediate future in his own time.

A good beginning would be to sort out these verses pertaining to his own time, but having read the quatrains, she did not believe that this would be done with any hope of accuracy by an amateur. Briefly she entertained the hope of discovering a cipher in the quatrains themselves, for she was a decipherer of sorts, but she quickly learned that there was no lack of ciphers in the verses. Nostradamus used one, abandoned it and shifted to others with random ease, nor was there any lack of decipherers in the annotations.


Drama was plentiful also:

Heaven shall burn at forty-five degrees,
The fire shall come near the great new city,
A great flame dispersed shall burst out,
When they shall make a trial of the "Normans."

"New cities," Miri had learned were believed to refer to modern ones not yet existent in Nostradamus's own time. She checked the atlas for the 45° North latitude and discovered it intersected, or came very near, cities like Belgrade, Bucharest, Turin, Milan, Bordeaux, Halifax, Ottawa, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Portland and Salem, etc. Forty-five degrees South latitude was more sparsely populated by "great new cities." But this was by modern measuring methods, of course, she was not sure what sort of reckoning Nostradamus had available to him as she was no expert on the history of the 16th century. Of course, she knew that in old writings, "fires in the heavens" usually meant celestial phenomena, but this quatrain did have a modern sound.

What was needed for a deeper insight into Nostradamus was expertise in the history of medieval France with a good understanding of Latin and Greek, as well as the French language of the period. Only someone with that sort of background could hope to pick up the subtler influences, or detect any clues to what the "seer" was attempting to reveal or conceal. This expert was not herself, by any means, her preoccupation with the ancient world had left her little time for the medieval. Nor was it anyone of her immediate acquaintance. She thought briefly of the University faculty, but realized the staff for that sort of specialized and unfashionable material would be meager if existent at all. In fact, she realized ruefully, probably few such experts were left alive in the modern world, she was thinking of a bygone generation.

Briefly, she thought astrology might be helpful, for he was, he revealed, "an astronomer." But a quick check on his "astronomy" demonstrated that the monk Placideus, who had bequeathed modern astrology its computation method, had lived some years after Nostradamus. Whatever his "astronomy," its method would not equate with that with which she had any familiarity. She was for the time, stymied and disappointed.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers: and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

as rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald


Copyright© 2007, Undiscovered Worlds Press