* * * * *

As the discussion turned to the raids by the Slavic nomads on his vast empire Cyrus the Great looked to his Queen. She’d once ruled the small mountain kingdom bordering the Slavs, her knowledge of them far exceeded his own. Cyrus was pleased to see his advisors’ rapt attention as they recorded her thoughts and prepared to follow her instructions, pleased they no longer looked to him to nod his approval, that they accepted her words as they did his, as royal commands. Finished, the monarchs dismissed their retinue and stepped onto the palace’s garden.

Her kingdom had caused him no offense and its conquest, as he knew it would, had been difficult, costly, and long. It had strategic value, its fortresses provided protection against the nomads, but she’d ruled her land ably; she hadn’t needed his help to drive off the invaders. He knew of the whispers that he’d targeted her country not for its strategic value, but because of the portraits he’d seen of her, for she was a legendary beauty, and her poetry, the odes she wrote of her native land, that through them he’d fallen in love with her.

When he led the final assault on the final fortress he had seen her in armor leading her soldiers in fierce defiance. Later, when they brought her to him, he ordered her chains removed, but it made no difference. In her eyes burned hatred and when she spoke she spat out the words with the same indomitable ferocity that she’d defended her homeland, her loathing for him, for Persia, for the fall of her beautiful country marking every syllable.

In the garden she signaled a servant, who brought her lute, and with adoration in her eyes said, “My master, my love, my king. I have written a new song, about us. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes my darling.”

She sang it to him in her clear soprano voice and he thought it her most beautiful yet. He knew long after his empire had fallen that her love songs and love poems would memorialize his name. In this he was right, for her songs are sung and poetry read to this day.

When she was done they adjourned to their bed and made love deep into the night.

And the next morning, as they breakfasted in the garden, he looked at her, saw the love and devotion burning in her eyes, and knew the high priest had been right, the plants were magic.

* * * * *

My status as the most promising freshman in Humboldt State University’s Biological Sciences Department was confirmed at the end of the year when I was offered the internship in Dr. Hainkel’s lab. To an outsider it looked like grunt work. Heck, it was grunt work, monitoring others’ experiments, compiling data, janitorial duties when needed, but it was grunt work with the best minds and best equipment in the world.

Then one day Dr. Hainkel called me into his office, offered me a chair and a bottle of water — something was up — and said, “I have an unusual assignment for you. Dr. Boatner has a PhD student working on her dissertation. She needs help identifying a plant.”

I can’t say the prospect enthused me, but when Dr. Boatner, the formidable Dean of the Woman’s Studies Department and President of the Faculty Senate, asked a favor, it wasn’t a favor. You did it.

“What’s the dissertation about?”

He read me the title. It contained the words “reconstructing,” “problematizing pedagogies,” “commodification,” and “privileging,” some more than once.

I said, “What does that mean?”

“I have no idea, you’ll need to ask her. Her name is Naomi, she’ll meet you in the student lounge at the Union in twenty minutes, she said she’d recognize you.”

* * * * *

She waved me over, said something to the two women sitting with her, introduced me to them, kissed one on the mouth — more than a casual acquaintance — and as they left asked me to sit down .

She was pretty in an understated way, rail thin, pale skin and round face, no make-up, hair short, black, and spiky.

I introduced myself, said I was there to help, asked what her dissertation was about.

She talked for about fifteen minutes. I heard the words “androcentric,” benevolent sexism,” “kyriarchy,” “privilege,” “complementarianism,” “objectification,” “hegemony,” “internalized misogyny,” “intersectionality,” “patriarchy,” and “toxic masculinity,” again some more than once.

I was lost and when she was done I said, “I’m sorry, I’m trying to be a botanist, I’ve been preoccupied learning our jargon. Can you throw me a bone here.”

She laughed. We were going to get along just fine.

It turns out alchemists weren’t just trying to manufacture gold. A few tried to identify and work with a plant mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Persian, and Greek texts whose aroma was said to be a love potion. While leaving their skills and personalities intact, it caused women to fall madly in love with whomever they were with when exposed to the plant. It was, according to the texts, used primarily by priests to initiate the ecstatic female acolytes who, serving in the temples of the pagan gods, produced some of the most impressive art, religious and secular, of their time.

She said, “I need your help identifying the plant. I need to know if it, if not it’s purported effect, was a myth,” then handed me a flash drive. “This contains a summary of what I know about it, plus the back-up material for which translations are available. Interested?”

I said, and meant, “Yeah, sounds fascinating.”

* * * * *

She was smart, hard-working, and meticulous, her summary clear and thorough, the material well-organized. I regretted making fun of her and her jargon. Well, some.

The sources made it clear the Persians and Greeks imported the plant from Egypt, but where did the Egyptians get it? Did they grow it? Did they import it? I spent several frustrating days mining and re-mining the data, looking for a clue, but the Egyptian sources were completely mum on both questions, which led me to suspect it wasn’t native to Egypt. If you grew it you would, as part of your marketing, brag about your skill, but the Egyptians never did. However, if you imported it you’d keep its origin a secret. You wouldn’t want someone contacting your supplier and cutting out the middle-man.

Having made little progress I turned to the care and feeding of the plant, and quickly realized I should have started there. I was struck by the continuous trading in the plant. It was a plant, you should only need a few, after which you grow your own, which meant that the climates to which it was exported weren’t conducive to its propagation. The material Naomi provided showed that the plant did best when grown in a specific dense rich soil, baskets of which were exported with it, in the shade, and with lots of water and sustained humidity, all of which pointed to it being tropical in origin. Thus, the likelihood was that it came from the headwaters of the Nile. If that was right I’d reduced the potential numbers of species from 375,000 to a few thousand.

I had found several crude drawings of the plant’s leaf. Not much to go on unless you have access to a computer loaded with comprehensive data base of plant information and the world’s most advanced leaf matching software, which I did.

When I was done I was 95% sure I had it. The buttapboo, which consisted of six sub-species, all of which were endangered due to habitat destruction, grew only on Lake Victoria’s western shore. Then I found a detailed description of an insect that ate the plant’s leaves, the chronicler having not previously seen anything like it. I cross-referenced the information with my candidate and bingo, I found a match, an insect, also endangered, that lived on the shores of Lake Victoria and ate only the buttapboo. It must have hitched a ride in the baskets of soil.

* * * * *

Naomi and I met in the student union — every second women who walked by knew her — where, computer open, I gave her a zip drive and reviewed my results. She paid close attention, asked probing questions, and when I was done, with genuine pleasure in her voice, said, “You’ve done an amazing job, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. The way you laid out your material made it a lot easier. I tried to organize mine the same way. I included a step-by-step description of how I went about my research, including the steps that got me nowhere. Dr. Hainkel said methodology is important, you might need it in defending your thesis. If you have any questions call or text.”

“Thanks, I will.”

“Now if you don’t mind, I have a few questions.”

“Fire away.”

“Well, and I put this on the zip drive, I couldn’t find any evidence that buttapboo has psychoactive properties and the peoples native to the region make no use of it. If a plant has any medicinal benefit, or any use at all, pre-industrial locals almost always figure it out. It also has practically no smell. It seems like the last thing anyone would think had a magical aroma.”

She said, “That’s interesting, and actually supports my thesis. Think about it, a bunch of patriarchal alchemists, based on a bunch of ancient texts, believed, or at least wanted to believe, that if you mix this plant with a batch of ingredients you could reduce a powerful intelligent women to a love struck girl. So the alchemists spent years trying to recreate the formula and mixing it with the plant. They ground it into perfume, used it as snuff, burned it as incense, fermented it, packed it in amulets, got nowhere, and still kept trying. If you’re interested I’m happy to share my research on the subject, but the point isn’t whether it worked, of course it didn’t, the point is the effort men made to find it.”

I was curious. The next day at the union she gave me a zip drive.

* * * * *

I made a pot of coffee and opened the zip drive. By the time the sun rose — I stayed up all night — it was clear why the alchemists hadn’t gotten it, although they should be forgiven for their oversight. The ancient texts contained varying lists of materials to be added to the buttapboo, but unless you understood the underlying chemistry of the differing ingredients, and you wouldn’t have in the middle ages, you’d never have gotten it. You didn’t mix this stuff with the mature plant, you used it to grow and then sustain the mature plant. It was fricking fertilizer.

* * * * *

Two days later Dr. Hainkel called me into his office.

“Eric, Dr. Boatner called, she was prolix in her praise, said Naomi was very happy, that you went beyond the call of duty. I’ve got to agree with her, even I had to look up the buttapboo, I’d never hear of it. She even said you treated Naomi with respect, didn’t make her usual comment about piggy males. She thanked you, and so do I. We’ve earned some serious brownie points.”

“Glad I could help sir. The work turned out to be fascinating. There is something else I’d like to talk to you about. We’ve discussed me taking on a specific project. I’m thinking about a laboratory study of the buttapboo. There is almost no literature on it, it’s endangered, and there are only six subspecies. It would be relatively easy to do a thorough investigation.

I didn’t need to say, for Dr. Hainkel would already be there, that working on an endangered species would be a coup for the department and the cost of acquiring representative samples of the buttapboo, which grew in the wild near several research stations, would be close to zero.

“Eric, why don’t you do a proposal.”

Sliding my open computer across his desk I said, “I already have sir.”

* * * * *

I was a senior, it was my final semester at Humboldt State, and wearing the uniform of a local nursery I’d borrowed from a friend I rolled a dolly with a large potted plant into the university’s business school and asked for Adriana Guttierez’s office. I was not concerned about being recognized. I’d pulled my cap tight over my face and, as you can imagine, the botany and business schools didn’t mix. The secretary, trying to work amidst the omnipresent chaos on this day, half-paying attention, pressed a few buttons on her computer, determined where this visiting faculty member was to be housed, and provided the room number.

If someone had interviewed her that day she might have been able to provide a vague description of the delivery boy. If someone had interviewed her the following day, at best she could have recalled his height, race, and color of his uniform. By the following week she’d not remember the delivery.

Not that I was overly worried about Adriana Guttierez questioning the plant’s appearance. In a feature article in a recent San Francisco architectural magazine she’d talked about the health benefits of plants and the accompanying photographs of her law firm’s office showed it was liberally decorated with greenery. She’d treat the buttapboo as a stroke of good fortune, not something to be investigated. Leaving the buttapboo under the window, I placed a note on her desk purportedly from the office’s prior occupant, indicating he’d taken a position in Tokyo (which he had), that he hoped the office’s next tenant liked plants, and providing cursory instructions for the buttapboo’s care.

As a tropical plant the buttapboo matured quickly and over the last three years I’d raised thousands of them, some in the lab, most in the greenhouse I erected on the property I rented twenty miles from town. Their fecundity allowed me to study their properties in both their normal and enhanced conditions. The former had led to a series of published papers that, although my name was affixed last to the string of authors, had made me a department star. As to the enhanced buttapboo, a mature plant grown with a steady diet of the fertilizer would give off an odor for about fifteen minutes after additional fertilizer was added. A person exposed to low concentrations couldn’t help but like whoever was around them when it happened, which explained why I was the first intern Serena Wilson, the battleaxe who’d been the department’s administrator for decades, treated well. Higher concentrations? I’d slept with my fair share of my fellow students, but not so many as to draw attention, and far more than my fair share of the faculty, but they were diligent about keeping the secret.

And, analyzing the data, I was confident I knew how to take the next step, absolute devotion. It would take weekly exposure over several months and there was no doubt as to the identity of the ideal test subject. Adriana Guttierez had been teaching a seminar at the school since my sophomore year. Her looks, and smarts, were favored topics of male students over a Friday night beer. In theory getting into her class would be difficult, hundreds of students applied for the ten spots, but Dr. Boatner had made a phone call.

* * * * *

Adriana Guttierez flew low over the coastal properties she was negotiating to buy, admiring, as she always did, their pristine beauty, then turned her airplane north towards Humboldt State. The parcels of contiguous property had separate owners and she’d employed several brokers, each saying it represented a different potential buyer. The owners were now bidding against each other, the price steadily drifting down, and while the figures had become acceptable, she knew she could get them lower. Inwardly smiling at herself, she could afford it, she was rich after all, but still, she’d grown up fatherless and dirt poor, it was best to be careful.

Knowing the academic credential would impress the Silicone Valley egg-heads for whose business she was constantly competing with larger older law firms, she led a seminar on Intellectual Property Law at Humboldt State each spring semester. Several local universities had offered her the same opportunity, but she loved the land north of San Francisco and loved to fly; now she had a tax deductible reason to do both. It did cut into her billable hours, but there were only thirteen classes a year and her four associates, like her beautiful, smart, articulate, and tireless, were working late.

She made it a point to hire women like herself, wanting to spare them what she’d been through. Her first job had been at a prestigious old-line firm, which it turned out was far more interested in the fact she’d been the first Hispanic named Miss California than that she was the first Hispanic to graduate first in her class at Stanford Law School. She quickly decided she’d learn what she could, then leave and set up her own shop, but it happened faster than imagined. During her third year one of her firm’s major clients had watched his lawyer — gray hair, booming voice, $3,000.00 suit — so badly flub the cross-examination of the plaintiff that the judge, who had been watching the jury, called the lawyers into his office and suggested the defendant might want to settle. Adriana, however, calmed everyone done, suggested they not be hasty, then eviscerated the plaintiff’s expert, a man who, until then, could brag he’d never lost a case.

Two days later, over dinner, the client suggested Adriana open her own firm, promising and delivering more than enough work to keep her busy.

A year later, when she took a patent infringement case on a contingency basis, she hired her first associate. The $235 million dollar verdict put her name in the papers, generated enough work to keep her and several associates busy, and made her wealthy. She purchased a 68th floor half-floor penthouse condominium overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, bought this plane, loved her Jaguar, and would soon have the perfect place to get away from it all.

And if opposing lawyers and their clients complained she didn’t play fair, that during vital parts of their presentation jurors were distracted when Adriana crossed her long legs, or let her dress ride up above her knees, or brown eyes flashing, chewed on the earpiece of her glasses, or played with her long impossibly luxuriant light brown hair, what could be more tiresome than Silicon Valley billionaires and their $850.00 an hour attorneys whining about how unfair life was to them.

She guided her plane to a perfect landing and taxied to the hanger so the ground crew could prepare it for the return trip. The car the department sent to pick her up was waiting — there was no shortage of male students volunteering for that duty — and flashing her engaging smile gracefully slid her five foot ten inch, 33-24-35, 127 pounds into the SUV’s front seat and, after an exchange of pleasantries with the driver, opened her computer and entered the password providing her access to the business school’s computer.

After noting, with pleasure, that a record number of students had applied for the seminar, she reviewed the ten students chosen by the school. They were, until the final name, Eric Workholder, Department of Biological Sciences, Minor in Botany, the usual: pre-law or business students at the top of their class. Thinking Mr. Workholder was in over his head, she accessed the university’s data base. No questioning the kid’s brain power: straight A’s, probable class valedictorian, several published papers, and his laboratory internship appeared to be a big deal.

It would be interesting, she thought, to have a student with a different background.

* * * * *

The semester’s second class ended much like the first, male students hung in the classroom inventing reasons to talk to Ms. Guttierez, but one student had exhibited the most persistence. Good looking, talking mostly about himself, rich, destined for his father’s law firm, he was used to getting what he wanted, especially from the ladies, and ignored her polite attempts to end the conversation. Finally she looked at her watch and said, “Thank you Robert, but I’ve got to leave for the airport in a few minutes and Eric has been waiting patiently.”