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My niece posed one of those questions that teenagers come up with and adults get out of the habit of asking. "If you could have anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, to dinner, who would you want?"
I would ask a selection of mystery people. People who did something, or represented a group, of which we know little and would like to know more.
First, I would ask Lucy. I know she would not be able to talk, and that she would be shy and frightened, but I would take the utmost care to make her comfortable and welcome. I would ask her to bring a guest of her own choosing, perhaps her mate. He would likely be much larger than she, and be rather more dangerous. I would prepare a selection of tasty foods, both meat and vegetable, mostly raw. I would make sure that they were both well-fed.
Second, I would ask a representative member of Homo Habilis and her mate. They could talk, and use tools, and might even be pleasant company after they got over their initial discomfort.
Third, I would ask one of the painters of the Lascaux caves. Why did you go so far underground? What do these paintings mean? How did you do them? He, or she, and I would get along well because we're both artists. The painter's mate would be important, too.
Fourth, I would ask the Iceman and his mate. What do those tattoos on your back mean? Were you a trader? You could have been safe at home by your fire, but instead you died of cold and exposure, all alone in the mountains. What was so important that you took a fatal chance at the wrong time of year?
Fifth, I would ask a common English archer, a participant in the Battle of Crecy in which the English force, outnumbered three to one by the French, won the day. That morning, he was facing almost certain death, and by the evening was a participant in a great victory in which discipline and technology spelled the end of chivalry. Though only some fifty Englishmen fell, the French force of 60,000 was all but annihilated. Tell me about it. Tell me the story of that day.
Sixth, I want to ask Johannes Gutenberg to join us. A man of mystery, little is known of him beyond the scanty hints conveyed in two lawsuits. How did the idea of printing from moveable type come to you? What did you think you were doing? How did you solve the myriad problems of the Black Art?
Last, I would ask my favorite mystery man, Christopher Columbus. Where did you learn the craft of seamanship? Did you sail in the late 1480s with the English cod fleet off the coast of Newfoundland? Why were you so certain of where you were going? Had you already been there? Had you seen the surf of a new land before organizing the voyage that we all know about?
Let's see. Our table is unbalanced. We need four more women.
Eve, mother of us all. Bright and pretty, hardworking and industrious, tell us of the Fall, of the Serpent, of your first born son murdering his brother in a quarrel over sacrifice unpleasing to the Lord.
Lillith-Adam's first wife. A real spitfire. We'd have to keep ther and Eve at opposite ends of the table, but the woman created as the equal of the first man just has to be one hell of an interesting dinner companion.
Of course, there's no getting around it: Helen of Troy, the most desirable woman in the world.
Aspasia of Melitis, beautiful, cultured, brilliant and witty, an accomplished hetaera who was able to make her house in Athens the meeting place of the most remarkable men of her day, among them even Socrates and Pericles. What she doesn't know about Greek philosophy-and Greek philosophers-isn't worth knowing.
Pass the potatoes, please.