CHAPTER TWO: A Computer-Security Conference
Ambrose Jerusalem finished the slides for his presentation before his flight landed at Heathrow. After a brief layover, he arrived in Naples in the early morning. Heavy with sleep, he took a taxi to the marina. He waited on a dim concrete pier, empty of passengers but occupied by stray dogs flopped over on their sides and stomachs. One cocked its ears and rolled its eyes after Ambrose as he passed; the others lay sunk in sleep or lethargy.
The morning brightened, and small clusters of travelers formed. Soon it became crowded and noisy. As the hydrofoil for Amalfi approached, the passengers swiftly massed at the end of the pier. Ambrose, in his stupor, found himself at the end of the queue and last to board. Just as the ferry left the pier, he secured a seat beside one of the brine-stained windows. He gazed across the enamel blue water toward the coast, watching the slow approach of Mount Vesuvius. Across the lower slopes of the volcano, the outlying suburbs of Naples spread heedlessly in its shadow.
Contemporary Italy, Ambrose remembered his father saying—particularly southern Italy—is not a solid, self-regarding civilization. It is the fragile plastering-over of an ancient, massive armature that cracks through here and there, as buried nations and natural forces stir and shake themselves to life. Even today, the streets of central Naples follow the ancient Greek layout. In the city’s outskirts lie shabby houses and apartment buildings around and atop the Roman town of Herculaneum and its half-buried, half-resurgent city blocks. Down the coast is Pompeii, with her Roman buildings and statues, her mosaics and murals of fresh color where the lava and ash have been laboriously removed. The city is largely still buried. One day—perhaps before Pompeii is fully uncovered—the ancient destroyer Vesuvius will shatter its crust and erupt again.
As the hydrofoil passed the southern extremity of the city, the smog fell away. Cliffs and rocky hills rose along the coast, crenellated with juniper and cypress trees and indented with high-perched caves. Travel-weary as he was, Ambrose decided that he needed to see beyond the dirty windows. Perhaps there was someplace to stand outside. He walked to the aft door. He came upon a group of colleagues sitting on the opposite side of the vessel: the French contingent, with whom he was on largely amicable terms. Among them, though, was Denais, who avoided his eye; he and Ambrose had exchanged frosty words over precedence in publication. Ambrose waved and pointed inquiringly to the aft door as an invitation to the group to join him outside. After a few friendly gestures, they resumed their conversation.
Atop a flight of stairs outside was an open deck. Here the more exploratory passengers were sitting, standing, talking loudly above the churn of the engine, and photographing the bright white and pastel buildings clustered like birds’ nests on the steep hills. Ambrose leaned against a pole and looked into the distance. The island of Capri materialized off the port side as a hard-edged mist. Soon, thought Ambrose, the ferry would be approaching Li Galli, the tiny islets from which the Sirens had sung their songs of deadly beauty to Odysseus. He watched and listened. The sounds of the motor and the wind flicked around his ears, and the sea, fixed vaguely in his eyes, blurred into a blue void; he almost believed that on the threshold of audibility, thrumming faintly, elusively, lay the promise of something fantastical.
He turned. A man stood poised to buttonhole him. “Yes?”
“It’s Allen. Allen Dunn.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.” The man’s features were only vaguely familiar at first. They snapped into coherence as Ambrose realized that a ponytail and goatee had gone missing. He shook hands. “Good to see you.” Dunn had finished his dissertation recently. With employment had evidently come more conformist grooming, Ambrose noted. Dunn’s youthful penchant for writing viruses had found expression in more profitable channels; his black hat had been exchanged for a white one.
“Let me show you what I’m working on.” (Daphne was always complaining to Ambrose about the dislocating absence of pleasantries among his colleagues.) Dunn eagerly fished a loose-leaf binder from a stout briefcase beside him on deck. He flipped to a page containing a hand-printed, rectangular array of abstract symbols intermingled with block letters—some of them reversed. Centered prominently beneath and drawn with primitive crudity, like a cave painting, was a cross overlaid on a circle. “This isn’t our usual academic stuff. It’s off the beaten path. But take a look. I think I’m onto something.”
“What are those letters and symbols?”
“This is the Zodiac killer’s last undeciphered message.”
“The Zodiac killer?”
“Yeah. You don’t know about the Zodiac killer?”
“No, I’ve never—”
“He was a mass murderer. In the sixties. Really twisted and devious. He sent encrypted messages to the newspapers. A schoolteacher cracked one of them. It talks about how the souls of the people he killed will be his slaves in the afterlife. But no one has ever deciphered this message . . .”
Beyond the Bay of Naples, the rocks and ledges grew fantastic in shape; the villages brightened and performed ever more ambitious acrobatics on the hills. Now and then, watchtowers of rough stone appeared, medieval bastions against marauding Saracens. Ambrose peered longingly over the railing at one of these ancient fortifications, which beckoned to him from an outcropping behind Dunn’s back. Dunn continued.
“I think I’ve made some progress. You see, the double pluses must mean that he used a small symbol set. It can’t be a simple substitution cipher . . .” Politeness compelled Ambrose to listen.
“It’s not real science—just a pet project. But you know, we spend so much time doing theoretical stuff. I’m figuring,” Dunn said, “that this is the way to get your name in the newspapers. Don’t you think?” Another enchanted Saracen tower rolled away to stern.
Dunn’s explanations went on for twenty minutes, until at last, with an unceremonious word (“Oh, geez! Hold on, I’m supposed to be rooming with that guy over there . . .”), he hastened after a colleague who appeared in the hatch at the top of the stairs.
Liberated, Ambrose sat alone by the stern. From visits long ago with his father, he conjured up the memory of weary-legged exploration of the paths on these cliff-tops, precipitous drops to the sea, dangerously narrow passes, lizards, olive trees, wild thyme, and that sun-soaked, ageless rubble as profuse in the countryside of Italy as litter in its southern cities.
The hydrofoil docked in Positano. He saw Dunn disembark, followed in absentminded haste by the French contingent. Very odd, Ambrose thought. Were they staying here, so far from Amalfi? As the hydrofoil departed, Dunn ran frantically up the pier, dropping his suitcase midway and waving to the boat to return.
Ambrose fell asleep in his hotel in the early evening. He rose restlessly just before dawn. He rarely stayed up late enough or woke early enough to see the sunrise. This morning, though, the jetlag invigorated him. It rendered his nerves raw and receptive to even the gentle tonic effect of freshly squeezed orange juice on his unfurling senses.
Breakfast was served on a patio overhanging the bay. The far hills with their crumbling watchtowers and white houses crawling up from the sea—and nearer, less self-proclaiming cues like the rustic floor tiles and the inefficient ways of the serving staff—told Ambrose that he was far from America, but in a milieu closer to home. Hints of early-morning heat, tempered by a cooling breeze on his linen shirt, created a sensation of paradisal freshness. He ate a light breakfast and looked out at the water. His stomach and mind delightfully unencumbered, he felt ready to face the presentation he was giving at the conference in a few hours.
It went well. In face-to-face conversation, Ambrose often stammered ponderously as he sifted through the multiple ideas and half-formed witticisms that his imagination thrust on his attention. When he delivered a public presentation, he found that he became focused and fluid—at his best, witty and theatrical as well. So it was at his talk that day. This success was particularly gratifying to him now. He would be finishing his dissertation at Berkeley soon, and was on the prowl for a job.
When the talks ended in the late afternoon, he went to the beach with his friend Jean-Claude. They rented chairs in a private area and lazily watched other beach-goers treading gingerly on the pebbled shore, splashing sun and water together in the shallows, swimming in the sea. The silence between them was a pleasant one. On Jean-Claude’s side, it was laden with professional contentment. Here they were on the Italian Riviera. He was going to present a big research result. He was collaborating with colleagues simultaneously on four papers, and two had a good shot at being accepted to Eurocrypt, one of the top conferences in the field of cryptology. It was said that with four published Eurocrypt papers, one would be invited by academic potentates to the elite workshop at Luminy. For a postdoc, he was well on his way. A result of his had even been mentioned in a Times article that year and a journalist had approached him at the conference that very morning for an interview. Successes like these merited a moment of repose.
Enjoying the warm sun on his skin, Ambrose felt an equal measure of contentment. He contemplated the layers of doom of old Greek and Roman colonies around them on the geologically volatile coast. He wondered: Did these beach-goers know that under their feet lay a portion of Amalfi sunk in an earthquake hundreds of years ago? What new cataclysms were overhanging them and the rest of the world, for that matter? What thrilling new upheaval of civilizations?
Jean-Claude rolled over and applied suntan lotion to his back. He complained with conspiratorial good humor about his girlfriend, who wanted to get married. Knowing full well that he would take a plum job in the U.S., he insisted that he was about to move home to France. His girlfriend, being American, he said, wanted to live in the States in a big house with an even bigger car; and she needed an automatic transmission. She would not compromise. He could not live with a car that drove itself. And what about Ambrose? His research was strong. He’d get a good job—maybe a faculty position at some top university? What were he and his girlfriend going to do now that he was graduating?
“In some unaccountable way,” Ambrose said, the moment calling for languid philosophizing, “the Fates always make these decisions for me.”
The program the next morning was long. The conference room, which usually received only the small-bodied and irregular Sunday-school-goers of the archdiocese, grew stuffy. Jean-Claude’s paper was popular—too popular. The planners of the conference hadn’t reckoned on the presence of more than half the attendees at any one session. Ambrose, who found himself squeezed into the back of the room, heard little of his friend’s presentation.
There were no conference sessions in the afternoon—only an organizational meeting. Ebullient, Ambrose slipped away and hired a taxi. Delighting in his loosened bonds as the scraggy trees whizzed by him on one side and the sea hung below him on the other, he traveled some thirty miles—an hour’s drive along the steep hillsides of the Amalfi coast—to the site of an ancient Greek city known today as Paestum.
Greeks had settled Paestum around the time of Homer, when their world was expanding vigorously and their network of prosperous new colonies stretched from Spain to the Black Sea and lapped the shores all around the south of Italy. Sometimes the colonies of Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece,” attained great wealth, as the legendary Sybaris did, waxing to eclipse their mother cities, thriving in commerce and battle, and ultimately tumbling one by one to foreign powers—until the Roman Empire swallowed them all up.
Ambrose had traveled to Paestum ten years ago with his father, the celebrated archaeologist. The elder Jerusalem had spun wonderful stories for his son, reerecting buildings and repeopling the streets, gardens, byways, and plazas with genielike wondrousness and fragility. Ambrose now picked over the broken marble of the forum and the recessed stone structures of the swimming pool. Carefully, and somewhat breathlessly, he took photographs of the sacellum, the small stone building created to enshrine the founder of the city, who, in the tradition of the time, had been regarded as a quasi-divine hero. Where was it that his father had taken him to meet the archaeologists? It must have been the northern side of the so-called basilica, past the temple of Poseidon. Ambrose found that there were still excavations in progress, but to his disappointment, none of the excavators was at work.
At the highest point of the site stood the temple of Athena, now a shell-like ruin similar to its younger sister, the Parthenon, except smaller, squatter, more roughly pitted, and more archaic. Ambrose stood at the base, staring up at a huge fragment of the cornice balanced above him, imagining the terrors of the approach to the inner recesses when the goddess and her priests still inhabited the temple. He called up from memory a passage in the Iliad: “The goddess Athena threw around her shoulders the formidable tasseled aegis, which is beset at every point with Fear and Strife and Force and the cold nightmare Pursuit within it . . .” And what else? Yes, “ . . . and the ghastly image of a Gorgon’s head . . .”
As he recited to himself, he heard rising in the distance a dread, pontifical voice. It approached from one side of the temple. He let out a sigh. The voice was familiar. How had he forgotten that there was an excursion to Paestum from the conference that afternoon? Dunn was serving eagerly as an impromptu tour guide. “It’s very interesting. The base of the Parthenon, you know,” he said loudly, “is an exact rectangle in the ratio 4:9 . . .” This was a turgid bullet of misinformation—an insulting simplification. Ambrose bit his lower lip. Among the many brilliant achievements of the Parthenon’s architects were the slightly skewed and bent contours that compensated for the optical distortions of the human eye. The trampling of this sacred ground by his colleagues drove Ambrose into hiding. He quickly walked around the other side of the temple.
He worked himself sideways down the dusty hill and into a grove of cypress trees. Hidden there was a mound of marble fragments. He sat among them. He ran his finger along a crack in one of the slabs. These rude fringes, scattered clusters of hewn stone, hints and markers of undisturbed mysteries underneath, were nobler than the richer and brighter places cleared and cleaned up for tourists. Much of the nearby land was private and unexcavated for lack of government funding. Why not come here, buy a plot of land, and dig in secret for a year? Why had he given up the raw emotive mysteries of ceramic, bronze, stone, and bones for the crisper lines and drier secrets of mathematics and cryptography? Why had he relinquished kingdoms for numbers? Was he too caught up in the whirligig of a prospering scientific field?
Near the Temple of Ceres was the museum, famous for its collection of locally excavated tomb paintings. In a state of bland reverie, Ambrose drifted through the galleries. The squeaky echo of his shoes faithfully accompanied him. He remembered visiting the museum with his father. To his frustration, he could not recall anything his father had said about it. It was too long ago.
A marble statue seized his attention: a nude Venus in the style of Praxiteles. Bent slightly at the waist, she stood with her hands held before her in a pudic gesture that was less concealing than alluring. The cascades of her hair and folded garment set off cool, smooth flesh and rounded hips and breasts. He circled and scrutinized the base. Arms akimbo, he lingered, smiling. He was about to pass on when a woman appeared silently at his side. Ambrose did not look carefully at her face, but recognized her strikingly red, curly hair, and slender figure. She was a conference-goer.
“Very graceful, isn’t she? A director’s choice,” the woman remarked, pointing to the open page of a guidebook.
“Actually, she’s a fake,” Ambrose replied.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, there are several clues. Look at the front foot, for instance.”
“I see. It’s broken. But that’s not surprising. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a fake. The statue is obviously very ancient,” the woman said, running her finger down the open page of her book. “According to this, it dates to the fourth century B.C.”
“But look carefully at the base she’s standing on. If the foot were whole, it would extend beyond the edge of the marble.” Ambrose pointed at the damaged area. “The forger broke the foot to cover up his mistake. You can see it. The break is implausibly deep.”
“Here, you mean?” the woman said tentatively. She crouched and reached forward as though to touch the broken limb, but held her fingertips respectfully a few inches away. “You’re right.” She rose. “Yes, I think you’re right.”
“I’d date the statue to the 1930s. She looks a little like Greta Garbo.”
“Maybe,” the woman chuckled. She turned her head slightly to one side; she seemed strangely pleased. “But seriously, do you think the museum knows? If not, you should tell them that it’s a fake. You shouldn’t let them keep believing it’s real.”
Ambrose shook his head ruefully. “It’s a sad trade secret. Many if not most museum pieces are forgeries—or at least misattributions. This museum is better than others. Many of the objects here come from officially sanctioned digs. But sometimes they buy objects that are supposed to have been discovered locally.”
“You mean you’re not going to tell someone?”
“I can’t, really. If it’s in your guidebook, then it’s someone’s baby. And people don’t like to hear that their children are changelings.”
Ambrose heard a small crowd approaching, the voice of Dunn again in the vanguard, amplified by the cold acoustics of the building.
“The tomb paintings in there are authentic,” Ambrose said to the woman, pointing to a nearby gallery. “Lovely, too,” he added as he walked away. “They almost make one believe in an afterlife.”
He did not have an opportunity to leave Amalfi again. He grew increasingly absorbed in the conference. One evening, there was a cocktail party on his hotel terrace. Ambrose circulated, looking for job leads.
With the pleasure of trials overcome, he recalled his first conference only three years before. He had known no one, apart from a few luminaries whom he recognized from their home page photos. A glass in hand, he had wandered around the room trying to graft himself onto some circle of conversationalists, bobbing in between and around clusters like the runt in a litter of pigs looking for a place to suckle. He remembered the lively gleam of recognition—really a gleam of relief—when he saw someone he knew. Ambrose had hailed the happily met acquaintance, affixed himself to the person’s conversational circle, and tried to join the ongoing discussion, laughing politely with the others at old jokes. “A cryptologist? That’s just a crook who knows math.”
Ambrose saw other young students and first-time attendees in that old hapless state. For him, it was now different. He knew many of the people there and moved around the terrace more comfortably. It was never easy to talk to people in his field; a good number of them regarded social graces as wasteful excess. Most of the people at the reception were not talking socially, but instead jealously pursuing professional courtships—arranging research meetings, hinting at ways to improve colleagues’ improvements of papers, striving after that highest prize of the field: a “result.”
But it was far easier now than it had been in the past. A few senior scientists had been asking Ambrose when he would be graduating. Now he could happily say that he was almost ready. A famous academic—the one he most admired—stopped to talk with him. (A lamp of humility amid the hubris of lesser lights, the man was rarely seen in anything but jeans and old sneakers. His brilliance betrayed itself as an elfin twinkle in his eye or speech and in the sharp interrogations with which he lashed speakers.) Ambrose harvested business cards and rumors about the hiring plans of this or that company or university. He talked to colleagues about working together on research papers, and made vague appointments for research meetings on the beach in the coming days. He and Jean-Claude had been working for several months on a problem and thought they might have a result. He saw the red-haired woman from the museum watching him. He caught her eye, and she smiled at him. He turned to Jean-Claude.
“Do you happen to know the woman with the red hair over there?”
“The one talking to Jane Birnbaum and Don Dryer?”
“She’s cute. I have seen her before, but I don’t know her. I think she’s a consultant.”
“She’s your type, is she?” Jean-Claude winked with special emphasis, sure that he would discomfit his well-mannered friend.
“My girlfriend is the exemplar of my type,” Ambrose answered with embarrassment. “And I’m happy. I’m just curious.”
Jean-Claude laughed. “Is she going to offer you a job?”
“You never know.”
The two friends planned to meet on the beach again the next morning. Ambrose slept badly and rose at seven. He read research papers for a few hours. He arrived at the beach at ten, but Jean-Claude was hopelessly nocturnal and probably wouldn’t arrive until eleven or eleven thirty. Ambrose roamed the narrow public beach, picking up pebbles and shells. He tried to free his mind from the conference. He should have put off his work, he thought. He might have spent more time at the nearby archaeological sites, however hopeless it was to see them as he did with his father when he was a boy.
He picked up a tiny nautilus shell and held it in his palm. Even its regular geometric spiral seemed to embody mathematical principles that drew him back to thoughts he sought to escape. Conveyed by computers, mathematics ramified its power too obtrusively everywhere. And yet it could not be entirely everywhere, surely? There was a solid intellectual or emotional realm beyond Number, or else a human being was a computer, and philosophy ended in the eighteenth century with Laplace and his dry, mechanistic “System of the World.” What about literature? Number crept even into the poet’s grotto: the Latin word numeri meant “number,” and because prosody is numerical it meant “poetry.” The concept even trickled down into English. Alexander Pope said of his poetic virtuosity as a child, “I lisped in numbers and the numbers came.”
But poetry does reach beyond numbers, Ambrose thought. That’s why it is so hard to translate a poem from one language to another. Verse and poetry are incommensurables. Fixing on the sea as a theme, he tried to summon some poetry to his aid. He still knew many verses by heart. His arms outstretched toward the ocean—just enough, not to attract attention to himself—he incanted softly, trying to awaken the genius of the shore:
interea magno misceri murmure pontum
emissamque hiemem sensit Neptunus et imis
stagna refusa vadis . . .
(The god Neptune felt boiling and
A tempest sweeping over the sea,
And by the roiled stillness of the deep seabed . . . )
A crunch on the pebbles startled him, and then a voice. More than the voice, what surprised him was the name that the woman called out.
Ambrose turned around. Nearby stood the woman with the red hair.
“I think you’re confusing me with . . .” He was going to say “confusing me with my father,” but then he understood the mistake. Ambrose said, “I’m afraid it’s not ‘doctor’ yet. I’m still a graduate student.”
He had not studied the woman’s appearance carefully before. Her luxuriant, curly red hair had led him to suppose a different-looking face. He now saw in the pale half circles below her eyes, in the creases beside her mouth, and in a slight hollowness around the cheeks that she was older than he had thought—perhaps in her mid- or late thirties. Her eyes were an efficient brown, rather than the flirtatious and prettier blue intimated by her easy laughter at the reception the night before. Jean-Claude’s judgment of this delicately freckled woman as “cute,” however, was not entirely wide of the mark.
“You don’t have too much longer to go on your dissertation, right?” she said to him.
“I hope not at least.”
“You were talking to the sea?”
“No. Reciting something.”
“I see. What was it?”
Ambrose bristled at this offense against his native reserve. “I’m sorry, you seem to know who I am. I remember you from the museum, but I’m not sure we’ve met.” Extending his hand, he said, “I’m Ambrose.”
“I know. My name is Rochelle,” she said, shaking his hand. “Now that we’re formally introduced, I guess I can say how much I enjoyed your talk. And how much I like your work.”
“I’ve been wanting to chat with you. I’m a consultant, you know, and I’m working on a project that I could use your help with. Are you walking in this direction?”
“A walk would be nice, but I’m supposed to be waiting for someone.”
“He won’t be here for a while.”
“How do you know that? And how do you know who it is I’m talking about?”
“Your friend Jean-Claude’s not a morning person, is he?” Rochelle said, smiling. She pointed along the shore. “So let’s take a walk. It’s already hot. It’ll be blistering soon. Thankfully not so muggy as Boston gets.”
She headed toward the dock. Strung along by curiosity, Ambrose walked at her side. “You’re a classics expert, I hear,” Rochelle continued. “You must love it here, with Pompeii and the other archaeological sites so close by.”
“Who told you that? I’ve always loved this part of Italy. But as for the classics, I knew much more when I was younger. I’m really just a dabbler now.”
“Still, there aren’t many of us who can claim to know anything but computer science, are there? People in our field are so narrow, aren’t they?”
“Many of them, I suppose,” Ambrose said, wondering who this woman was to set herself apart from her peers.
“So, Ambrose,” she said, stopping and turning to him. “Tell me. What makes you different?”
Ambrose told Rochelle in a cursory way about his upbringing, offering a vita he had rattled off many times before. It was correct in its ordering of the facts, but he always felt that he distorted the truth by having to recount his story in misappropriated modern educational jargon. Ambrose explained that he had been “homeschooled” for twelve years by his father, a classical archaeologist. As a boy he memorized Latin poetry and used Euclid as a textbook for geometry. “The stones of the Palatine were my playground” was close to the mark, but would seem impossibly pompous. After so many failures to explain himself, Ambrose knew now to tell a blander story.
People usually registered their incomprehension by declaring how terribly interesting it all was and asking, “Weren’t you lonely?” Ambrose had the sense, though, that this rather forward woman, nodding at inappropriate moments, was only half listening. He couldn’t tell whether she was uninterested or whether she knew already what he was going to say. By this time, they had walked halfway down one of the piers. A boat owner called to them, offering an excursion. “La Grotta dello Smeraldo?”
“It’s an eerie green cave, I hear,” Rochelle said. “Sounds like fun, huh? Let’s go out for a little while. It’s a good place to talk.”
“I’m not sure—”
“Don’t worry. It’s quick. I’ll have you back at the conference for the next session. Come with me.”
Ambrose said nothing, but shrugged and smiled. Without fully understanding why, he followed this strange companion, whom he was beginning to like. She told the boat owner that she’d like to leave immediately.
“I wait for other passengers,” he insisted.
“No, I’d like to leave now. I don’t like crowds. I’ll pay for six other passengers.”
“Yes, I’ll buy eight tickets.”
“There are six more people?”
“No. Just two people. But I’ll pay for the whole boat.”
“You pay the whole boat? If you wait—”
“I don’t want to wait.”
“OK. Eighty Euro? OK?”
“Va bene,” said Rochelle.
The boat owner shrugged and offered his hand to Rochelle to help her from the dock to the boat. She leapt nimbly into the boat on her own.
By this time, despite his light shirt and trousers, the growing heat had left Ambrose damp with perspiration. He felt cooling relief when the motor churned up foam behind the boat and the wind began to rustle through his hair. He and Rochelle positioned themselves by the railing near the stern. She watched the white wake draw out while Ambrose meditated on the receding harbor.
“OK,” she said after a time, moving close to Ambrose and raising her voice just above the sound of the motor. “Now we can talk more freely.” She glanced around her, then looked Ambrose in the eyes. “My full name is Rochelle de Vere. I work for the NSA . . .”
There was a historical animosity between the National Security Agency and university researchers dating to the early days of cryptography as an academic discipline. Alarmed by the spread of cryptography that they could not break, the government agency had tried to bully scientists and suppress publications. A détente had been achieved years ago, and even evolved into a form of amicability, but the distrust between the two camps had not entirely dissipated. If this woman was from the NSA, Ambrose thought, she could only have lured him there to recruit him—or to threaten him for some reason. The little she had revealed that she knew about him, while vaguely charming a moment ago, took on a disturbing light. Ambrose stiffened. He tried, with a haughty glance, to retract his gullible overture at friendship. “And what can I do for you, Ms. de Vere?”
She was unabashed. “There. You’re annoyed. I thought you might be. Please don’t be just yet. And please call me Rochelle. I don’t know why you think I’ve brought you here, but you can’t possibly know the real reason. Your country—”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that my country needs me.”
“As a matter of fact, I was, Doctor— Ambrose.”
“Please go on.”
She replied to his tone of voice, not his words. “I know, I’ve cornered you on a small boat. I’ve lured you here on false pretenses—actually, on no pretenses. But look at it this way: I’ve made a good-faith gesture by exposing myself and telling you who I am. Haven’t I? Everyone else here thinks I’m just a consultant.”
“That’s true. You extend your right hand in friendship. But you have to expect me to wonder about the sinister hand. You’ve obviously been gathering information about me—”
“Yes, I admit it. But let me explain. And think about it, Ambrose. I have spent years building up a useful cover in this community. You could blow it if you wanted now, and if you do, you might blow an entire NSA operation. I made this gesture intentionally to gain your trust. I could have had someone else approach you.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” Ambrose said, relenting. He felt disquieted by lingering distrust or frustration at having his objections so easily dismissed while he remained bothered. He looked away.
Rochelle cocked her head. She tried to mollify him by catching his eye. “Let me tell you why I brought you here.”
“Yes, please do,” he said.
Ambrose waited for her to tell him about the inevitable commonplace government intrigue: a blackmailed senator, a foreign power compromising a diplomatic mission, a drug ring, a terrorist plot. Instead she asked,
“What do you know about the Pythagoreans?”
CHAPTER THREE: A Stroll Down Memory Lane
The Pythagoreans? There seemed to be little in the Amalfi Coast in September or in the name of Pythagoras to cast the mind back to a late summer’s day in rural Massachusetts. And yet, so close to the Sentiero degli Dei, the cliffside path where the old gods still lived, Ambrose was alive to his forgetfulness. These Greek fragments conjured up the memory of a conversation with his father in Dorington, some twenty years earlier.
Outside of the two crowded tourist seasons—midsummer, and a space of two weeks around the peak of the fall foliage—Dorington was a picture-book specimen of rural New England. Even as natives of the region, if not the town, Dr. Jerusalem and his nine-year-old son felt a heightened sense of charm as they walked a dirt road away from the town center. The town consisted of a clutch of white, wooden buildings: a clapboard post office, a general store, and a pattern New England church with a single steeple atop a square base. (Savoring the irony, Dr. Jerusalem pointed out that such churches were modeled on the architectural template of an English Catholic.)
Ambrose’s mother was spending the summer at the Community for the Arts. He and his father were staying with her for two weeks. They were going now to visit a well-known poet nearby, a friend of Dr. Jerusalem’s from his student days. The elder Jerusalem strolled along in a brown corduroy blazer and a crude-looking, off-white, hand-knit scarf. He was short but muscular, square in jaw and shoulder—handsome despite dark excesses of eyebrow and stubble against his pale skin, with fuller lips and more delicate ears than wholly consonant with his otherwise sharply masculine face. (Ambrose would grow to look nearly identical.) The asymmetric bangs of his soft, black hair tumbled over one eye; it sometimes irritated people to watch Dr. Jerusalem incessantly brush his hair aside as though warding off a fly. His gently faded clothing provided a cover of artistic anonymity when he talked literature or sculpture in the communal dining room.
Now, in Amalfi, it was a nippy evening in mid-September, and had rained in the morning. The ground was still sodden in late afternoon. The trees turned forth cold, luxuriant greenery touched here and there with hints of autumn. Ambrose’s photojournalist’s vest—his favorite piece of clothing, with the pockets of many treasures—was just warm enough. The bleak weather seemed to embalm the isolated houses in a way that brought a cozy pleasure to him. There could be no vain scrambling to find one’s destiny, here. It lay not more than five feet from the fireplace, as in ancient years. His father frequently set Ambrose ruminating on civilizations tens of centuries old, on the frenetically unfolding, spreading, and splintering empires of the Mediterranean. Several times together they had visited archaeological sites. Now, as then Ambrose ran his mind over the traces of antiquity. The jewelweed and blank yellow and copper leaves scattered on the forest floor, the broken stone walls and raw timber of old buildings evoked, if they did not resemble, the altars and groves of Greece or Italy.
Warming his hands in his trouser pockets, and bringing one or the other from time to time to his face, Ambrose felt an unclean mixture of warm and sensitive with cold and numb flesh.
Dr. Jerusalem stopped by the side of the road and picked up a miraculously dry husk of birch bark. “It used to be, Ambrose, in those grand and venerable days when there was beauty in thrift, that one could send postcards made out of birch bark. The post office nixed that old practice.”
Ambrose felt as if there were a sort of settling film—like the fragile skin that forms on cooked milk when it cools untouched—that protected him from the cold. He didn’t want to disturb it by talking, so he merely nodded. The fact that his father should talk familiarly about birch postcards surprised him. He assumed that his father knew everything—but even about backwoods things like birch bark?
“Shall we bring a postcard to your mother, since we can’t mail her one?”
Ambrose nodded again. His father cracked off a piece, reddish silver on one side and pale white on the other. Ambrose observed that the road was lined with many such postcard-bearing trees. Dr. Jerusalem tucked the piece of bark into an open pocket on Ambrose’s vest, and they continued walking.
“It seems an ageless country, doesn’t it? Strange to think that most of this was farmland a couple of centuries ago. There’s nothing to betray the upheavals, all of that displaced water and earth. Still, not too long ago, ‘The lowing herd wound slowly o’er the lea.’ And did you know that we have an Atlantis in Massachusetts? A town that was flooded and evacuated and now lies under the Quabbin Reservoir. You can still see houses under the water. We should visit someday, don’t you think?”
They approached the edge of a pasture enclosed in wire, in which horses grazed. Dr. Jerusalem bounced the back of his hand on the top wire, the ends of which stretched between white plastic cylinders on wooden posts. “Not electrified.” A dappled gray horse came over to them, and Dr. Jerusalem stroked it under the forelock. The animal awkwardly tilted its head up and down, as if unsure of how to nod approval and enjoy the scratching at the same time. Dr. Jerusalem encouraged Ambrose to pat the horse’s head.
Ambrose unconsciously broke his protective film. He said, “It’s an intelligent horse.”
“Yes, she is. A beautiful mare,” his father replied, stroking her head. “There’s soul in those eyes.”
“Maybe there’s a person trapped in the horse. Like in the story I read by Apuleius. He was turned into an ass, though. That’s like a donkey.”
Dr. Jerusalem laughed. “Yes, or maybe this is some Russian empress who, according to the great wheels of cosmic justice, was reincarnated as a mare.” He chuckled at his private joke. “Reminds me of Xenophanes’ story about Pythagoras and the dog. Have I ever told it to you?”
“I don’t think so,” Ambrose said seriously.
“Pythagoras was the ancient philosopher who coined the word ‘philosophy.’ He also invented—or at least popularized—the Pythagorean Theorem. Yes, I know you know that already. Well, the Pythagoreans thought of numbers a little like we might think of gods. Pythagoras himself was a bit of a loon.”
“How?” Ambrose asked in surprise.
“Well, one story goes like this: He was walking down the street in Kroton—in southern Italy—one day, when he saw a man kicking a dog. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered anyone in the ancient Greek world. But Pythagoras was different. ‘Stop,’ he shouted at the rogue. ‘Stop that at once! That dog is a friend!’ Pythagoras explained that the dog was a reincarnated friend from a previous life. He recognized him by his bark.”
“Did he take the dog home?”
Dr. Jerusalem laughed. “A very good question. But that’s the whole story. My guess is that Pythagoras had probably collected too many friends at home as it was, and I doubt his wife appreciated it—although Theano herself was also a formidable philosopher. I’m sure the dog kicker was stunned, and left his dog alone for at least a few days.”
“How cruel!” said Ambrose. “Pythagoras should have taken the dog home with him. Is that why he didn’t eat animals?”
“You mean why he was a vegetarian?”
“That may be a myth. But almost everything about Pythagoras is a myth, Ambrose. All we know with anything approaching certainty is that he was some kind of genius—and that he abstained from eating beans and ox hearts. It’s not impossible that he was vegetarian, though.”
Father and son fell silent. An old pickup truck with a wood-railed cargo space drove by, forcing Ambrose and his father to the edge of the road. Damp, colored leaves glistened on the forest floor like the shiney coat of an exotic, broad-backed creature. Ambrose mused, “I wonder whether I’d remember if I’d been a horse in another life.”
“Do you?” Dr. Jerusalem laughed. “What would you remember?”
“I don’t know. Maybe my pasture. And people petting me. And how hay tastes.”
“I’ve raised a confirmed Pythagorean, then. Do you know the Pythagoreans tried more or less just that?”
“What do you mean?”
“They used to perform exercises to improve their memories. Every evening, Ambrose, they would try to recall all of the events that had occurred over the course of the day. Imagine it. They’d try to recollect finer and finer details: faces, clothing, what they ate, whom they saw. A word that a friend deftly pulled out of a hat in a conversation on philosophic doctrine in the morning. An odor that wafted with the midday breeze near the western entrance to the agora. Variations in the shapes of the clouds during the afternoon before a storm broke. How the texture of their tunics felt from hour to hour. Then they’d try to extend their recollections to more and more distant times: previous days, weeks, and years. They hoped, eventually—they claimed in certain cases, as Pythagoras did—to recall events from former lives.”
Again they walked for a long time in silence. The sun set and the sky began to glow. Ambrose tried forcing on himself a consciousness of the texture of his clothing. He attuned himself to the places where it touched, brushed, or lay lightly on his skin. He felt his stomach rumble. As he turned his attention upward to the orange evening sky, he felt a ghostly attraction to the place—or rather, its tutelary spirit—a desire to embrace it, to sleep by its side. He didn’t know what this meant, and he could not articulate it. He could only experience the bagful of sensations and submit to a feeling that was too grand and tenuous, predicated too glimmeringly on a slant of light, for him to possess.
Lowering his head and speaking softly, as though making a confession, he said, “I sometimes feel like I really have had other lives.”
“This place, for instance. Have I been here before?”
“Dorington? No, not that I know of. Do you feel as if you have?”
“I feel like I know it. I recognize something. Like the old buildings we’ve visited after seeing photos,” said Ambrose.
“Hmm, yes. It’s like many other little towns here. Where do you think the feeling comes from?” Dr. Jerusalem asked the question in his tutorial voice. This was the voice that governed the hours when he taught his son. Dr. Jerusalem would sit at the desk in his study, and Ambrose, biting his lower lip, would sit on the sofa with a pile of books, a hardbound notebook by his side, and his frustratingly leaky fountain pen in hand. He plunged instinctively into his analytic frame of mind, classical allusions uncorked, forehead furrowed.
“I guess it’s kind of like the simulacra in Lucretius. They trick people in their sleep and make them think they’re seeing centaurs and dead friends and parents.”
“Yes. Very good. Clever. They’re ghosts. The mind lends a special importance to these images which come from what we would call today the unconscious.”
Ambrose felt as if his father were glibly discouraging something important. But he had no way to protest.
“So do you think that the feelings are lies? Are they bad?”
“No, not bad, Ambrose. Quite the opposite. They are too important to be badly handled. The successors to the Pythagoreans went wrong. They tried to reduce them to a superstitious system, to explain these poetic and highly individual experiences in terms of a simplistic universal, like reincarnation or numbers. I can’t prove it, but the original Pythagoreans to my mind clearly believed in living in the world. Memory—historical, personal—of course it is the substance of life. Without that depth of perception, we’re Cyclopes, one-eyed monsters. But today we replace our human memories with computer memories, with exomemories and exominds. That spells the death of nostalgia, the loosening of the deep cord with which an ancient ruin or this spot of countryside resonates in you, Ambrose. Recall that Mnemosyne, ‘memory’ in Greek, was the mother of the muses.”
“The world is placing less and less value on such things. Fewer and fewer people with memories these days. Memnosyne has been shunted off to a nursing home. The muses will follow soon. I have you learn poetry by heart to nourish your spirit and your mind—to glue it to your soul, Ambrose. That’s just one reason I’m educating you myself. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Do you know the famous poem by Frost about the two paths that ‘diverged in a yellow wood’? The Pythagoreans called it the Furca Pythagorica, the Pythagorean Fork. They represented it by the letter upsilon. Upsilon resembles our capital letter Y, right? It’s forked. You will face the Furca Pythagorica many times in your life, Ambrose. I’ve led you down a different branch of the fork than nearly anyone else will follow.”
Ambrose looked at the road behind them, which lay straight as far as the eye could see. He held up two fingers as though in a sign of victory.
“What happened to them?” he asked. “To the Pythagoreans. They chose the wrong branch?”
“The Pythagoreans were the original utopians, Ambrose. Bringers of the gods’ fire to Earth, if you will. The first aristocrats in the true sense of the word. I don’t mean lazy snobs from privileged families with a ‘de’ or ‘von’ in their names. Just the opposite. I mean that they tried to create a community of aristoi, the ‘best’—noble, wise, elect guardians of civilization. It was too much. Most of Pythagoras’s followers couldn’t understand. Pythagoras had unearthly mental gifts and vision. He was strange; he was godlike. Some of his early followers forgot what they had learned. Plato, Augustine, More, Jefferson—they all owed a debt to Pythagoras. They remembered some of the important teachings. But too many have forgotten.”
Dr. Jerusalem stopped and put his hand on Ambrose’s shoulder. “I sometimes lose sight of how young you are. But this is one of the burdens I have to place on your shoulders. We’ll make sure that you don’t forget entirely. You’ll be rooted in other places and times. It is the only way to understand our own. You’ll be one of the last with the gift of a classically educated mind, Ambrose. The barbarians are again sweeping over the land, and it’s time to retreat to Hibernia—to bide our time across the sea. Perhaps the aristoi will come again. But perhaps you’ll be alone.”
All that his father had said was axiomatic to Ambrose. Ambrose was used to seeing him regretting lost days and civilizations. In contrast to most everyone else Ambrose knew, the larger world that was optimistic about Progress, his father was always regretting the disappearance of all that was good. Still, his tone of grim importance today was unusual. Ambrose looked to him to explain more. A gust of wind sprinkled rain from the trees overhead. Dr. Jerusalem stopped, took off his scarf, and wrapped it around his son’s neck.
“Good. There. I’m babbling and scaring you. Riddles to spin a boy’s head. Enough of that,” he said, sloppily knotting the scarf like an ascot. “We have a way to go before we reach our poet’s cottage. Still a few sacrifices to be made at poesy’s fane. But we don’t have to freeze at least.”