There are few primate civilizations in the galaxy, as once they develop, they invariably destroy their planets within a few hundred years. Planetary Item 457-K2 was no exception.
As the seas rose and swamped even the highest peaks, the primates of 457-K2 dreamed of escaping to some more hospitable clime. But where could they go? What other world possessed the verdant hills and gleaming cities that were now only sodden memories? A child’s singsong illustrated the problem —
The moon is dead,
Mars is red,
Venus has rivers of molten lead.
Then a new dimension of time was discovered and the vast expanse of the past opened right next-door — “Earth as it was before Elijah,” came the breathless reports. Millions of refugees traveled there in the first decade, never to return, and by the second century of this diaspora, nearly the entire population was living as expats in antiquity. The rich settled into comfortable lives as aristocrats and functionaries while commoners subscribed to restaurant tours and thousand-year pub-crawls. Art excursions were popular, especially as time travel brought the subject alive as never before. One could even pose for “the real Mona Lisa painted by the real Leonardo,” as one tour company put it. More than three thousand women and a handful of men sat for this portrait, driving the artist to question his sanity. Leonardo had once been known as Leo the Quick, dashing off likenesses of popes before adoring fans on the Ponte Vecchio in twenty minutes, but the Mona Lisa took him four years of painting, scrubbing with turpentine, and repainting. Leonardo had first titled it “Lisa with Crossed Hands,” renaming it after he encountered the most troublesome sitter of all, one Mona Petkovic. The word mona was a vulgarity at the time, and this summed up his feeling for the project, as did his raven hair, which faded to ash after years of frustration.
“How can it be,” he complained to Michelangelo as he scrubbed the wooden panel down to a fat pontiff he’d painted the year before, “that this morning Francesco’s wife is stout and after lunch she is lean? And on Tuesday has skin like mother of pearls and Wednesday a beard? She says she has been underwater, or in the sun, or on the moon — all these fantastical excuses!”
“Use the boys,” Michelangelo replied dryly. “Those soft-bottomed altar boys from the Santa Maria.”
Leonardo made a final pass with his rag, then picked up a nearly empty bottle of Lambrusco and finished it off. “Raphael tells me you’ve ruined the best ones.”
“Raphael! That donkey! His words are like farts. They stink without substance.”
“He says you should have spared them your ‘flaccid rod.’”
“He should have spared us his flaccid paintings. His only talent is for slander.”
Indeed, Raphael had mocked Michelangelo incessantly. Most hurtfully for failing to finish the Pope’s tomb after forty years. Such a plodder! Now Michelangelo rubbed his broken nose while glancing around Leonardo’s studio, finally fixing on a clay model of a horse half covered with oilcloth.
“You do a decent job with the equines. Paint one on your board and give it to Francesco. Be done with him.”
“And what will he say when I unveil the painting and he gazes upon a snorting stallion instead of his wife?”
“I’m surprised at your want of perspicacity, Leo. They say Francesco has no wife.”
“Then who is this sorceress he sends me? And why hire me to paint her?”
“Perhaps Raphael is behind it, eh? A donkey’s trick to waste your talent.”
But Leonardo did not trust Michelangelo any more than he trusted Raphael. He struggled on with his onerous task, blaming his own rich imagination for these discrepancies. Petkovic’s resemblance with previous models was only in the lips, which this sitter used incessantly. No matter, for Leonardo’s attempts to capture this motion produced the portrait’s most celebrated quality. Moreover, her words — and stranger words he’d never heard — proved a fertile fount for his art. Many have seen his renderings of underwater cities, Martian landscapes, and even modern-day chrono ships. These surprisingly accurate visions came from Mona’s lips and no other. Mona Ianovich Petkovic, that is, who was born in Bulgaria five centuries after Leonardo choked to death on a melon ball.
Mona Petkovic’s first job after journalism school was with the People’s Daily in the capitol city of Sofia. This was the official paper of the Bulgarian neo-tsarists while Mona was a classic anarchist, thus readers versed in the political history of Bulgaria will appreciate that they got off to a prickly start. Within weeks she’d received three reprimands, saving her job only by sleeping with the boss, a Mussolini lookalike who called her “my little cabbage.” On this Monday she arrived in the early afternoon with a stunning hangover, a blouse turned inside out, and a feeling that everything was backwards. This last item was a novelty. Was it that third bottle of Mastika? Or had she been drugged by that handsome tourist who whispered he’d come from a great distance to kill her?
Ah, Johnny, you say such crazy things.
And maybe Johnny didn’t exist and the whole thing had been a dream? She wasn’t sure that morning, and now she wasn’t sure of anything. She leaned back in her swivel chair and squinted at the communist era buildings out the windows. Fuck. Still facing the wrong direction. And in the wrong windows!
“You see the Office of Cultural Assessments?” she asked the food editor as he waddled by her cubical with his 2k-calorie mocha latte.
“I can’t even see my feet,” he replied — the first honest words Mona had heard from a man in twenty-four hours. Or in her entire life, though she didn’t know it.
© 2021 Lou Dischler