Roman pontiff, beware of approaching

A city watered by two rivers.

You will spit blood in that place,

Both you and yours, when the roses bloom.

-- from "Conversations with Nostradamus," Volume 1, by Dolores Cannon

"IT'S TRUE, we've been waiting for the present pope to be assassinated," says Dolores Cannon a little too cheerfully. "It didn't happen, but that's be cause our calculations were off, not because the prophecies are wrong."

Well, then, thank goodness for shoddy math skills, because Cannon predicted that Pope John Paul II would be rubbed out on March 17. Don't blame her, though, if you find such "prophecy" distasteful. A friendly, elderly, Huntsville, Ark.-based occultist, Cannon sincerely believes she's doing the world a service by passing along timely predictions. Her alleged source is none other than Nostradamus, the famed 16th-century French physician, astrologer and allegedly all-seeing prognosticator who, believers insist, foresaw such world-shaking events as the rise of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, the JFK assassination and the emergence of global warming, AIDS and Saddam Hussein.

And she is only part of a thrumming Nostradamus industry, which itself is one of the more sophisticated components of a larger approaching-the-millenium industry. Nostradamus prophecies are featured in at least two dozen current books and have played on six network or cable television shows in the past five years, with more to come. Cannon has appeared in several of these, and while she's inspired great controversy in Nostradamic circles -- she's been accused, among other things, of making the whole thing up to elbow aside competing interpreters -- she has many fierce defenders.

Not content to merely "interpret" his prophetic writings like so many others, Cannon says she's established a direct psychic contact with the man himself, who, speaking through trance-state intermediaries, has told her what all his major prophecies "really said."

Obviously, Nostradamus tripped on his Merlin robes this time, right? Not necessarily, says Cannon. Though she's "very happy" that the date was wrong, she doesn't think the pope should mothball his bulletproof mitre just yet. "The quatrain predicting his death actually says when the roses bloom,' " she points out. "That's springtime. The exact date came from an astrologer I work with. But it could still happen any day."

After which, in the chain of events seriously entertained by buyers of Cannon's three-volume "Conversations," we could be in for a fast, bumpy ride to Armageddon. First, two more popes will be installed and quickly murdered, leading to the downfall of the Catholic Church before the year 2000. Sometime soon the Antichrist -- a flesh-and-blood demon who is now 34 and in hiding -- will launch World War III with a nuclear terror strike in the Middle East. (With help from a sketch artist and Nostradamus, Cannon has even produced a "composite" drawing of the Antichrist's face. He looks like the creepier kid brother of magician David Copperfield.) For good measure, the planet will shortly suffer an escalating spate of earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and plagues that could kill billions of people.

On the up side, Cannon says the looming bad times could be avoided if enough earthlings get spiritually right with the planet. This detail distinguishes her prophecy from the woes predicted in the Bible's Book of Revelation, in which the idea of the millennial combustion originates, and which offers mankind no way to duck a major whuppin' (known to Christians as the Tribulation) prior to the dawn of a blissful thousand years. Nostradamians believe we can smoothly glide into a post-1999 time of peace if we behave ourselves. This will climax after 2010 with the appearance of a wise, technologically oriented, Christ-like figure called The Great Genius.

Unfortunately, Cannon adds, the soft path isn't likely. Her March 17 propheto-bonk notwithstanding, she says too many other predictions are coming true -- right on schedule. Yitzhak Rabin's murder, for one, which Cannon believes was "clearly foreseen" in this quatrain, one of nearly a thousand written by Nostradamus centuries ago:

The ancient work will be accomplished,

And from the roof evil ruin will fall on to the great man.

Being dead, they will accuse an innocent of the deed,

The guilty one hidden in the misty woods.

"Nostradamus predicted that in our time, the Time of Troubles," says Cannon, still sounding grandmotherly, "there will be so many assassinations of world leaders that it will seem commonplace." To the skeptical, she simply says: Wake up and look around. The Middle East and Russia are plenty unstable. Killer viruses are skittering out of rain forests like pale riders; the weather has been getting awfully cantankerous; and California's Mammoth Mountain, to name just one volcanic hot spot, is burping ominously. As for the pope, there is something about recent headlines from the Vatican that makes you wonder what's really happening under the groin vaults.

"The pope's left hand sometimes shakes uncontrollably," screeched a March 25 story headlined "VATICAN QUASHES REPORT THAT THE POPE HAS CANCER," "but {officials say} this is caused by nerve damage suffered when he was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981."

Scary. But before we all start trembling like damp chihuahuas, let's ask some additional panicky questions: Couldn't the dire assassination prophecy just as easily refer to, say, a papal visit to the dentist in Cairo, Ill., around Kentucky Derby time? Or is it time to insure your child's backyard sandbox against "sudden, inexplicable lava geysers"? Is Earth about to become God's pinata? Is the End, in short, really just around the corner?

Only time will tell, but know this: There definitely are grounds for hope. As a millennialist, Cannon, by definition, views current events through blood-colored glasses, but there's still room for the comforting, rational belief that, um, the planet only appears to be going to hell. Besides, like so many of the doomsayers who will stampede into our lives as the year 2000 approaches, Nostradamians have aimed at the center-field fence quite a few times -- only to fly out.

"By 1993," rumbles John Hogue's "Nostradamus and the Millennium," a hot-button book published in 1987, "we will either be finally at war throughout the globe or we will enjoy a new religious consciousness." Well, we aren't and we don't, and Hogue's prediction of "a nuclear attack {against} the United States fleet in the Mediterranean in the early 1990s" didn't happen either.

But also know this: To millennial enthusiasts, failed predictions don't really matter, so don't expect them to fade away when they experience what one scholar of the millennium has called "undeniable disconfirmatory evidence." In Nostradamus's case, this is true partly because his wording is sufficiently murky to allow reinterpretations that explain away any failures, usually by pointing a trembling finger at the "fallible" humans who translated his work. Cannon, for example, confidently reported in the original 1989 edition of "Conversations" that the pope would die on Jan. 30, 1992. When he didn't, she blamed another writer's bad translation of the fatal quatrain. Now she's blaming her own bad math.

Indeed, for the faithful, Nostradamus's writings have an undeniable power that will forever resist battering. James Randi, a professional skeptic and author of "The Mask of Nostradamus," a 1993 book that mercilessly debunks the prophecies, admits as much. "There were thousands of astrologers in Nostradamus's day, but he's the one who's lasted," he says morosely. "Instead of 15 minutes of fame, he's gotten centuries of fame. I have no idea how many Americans take these prophecies seriously, but I'm convinced that a majority think there's something to it."

No one's polled the question, but Randi may be right. Against his lonely squawk of disbelief, Cannon's loyalists comprise a vocal majority.

"The only people who've questioned her," says Theodora Goebel, a psychic, "are fearful, small-souled types whose panties are in a knot because they think, wrongly, that she's raising herself to deified levels through her work."

Goebel's bulldog tenaciousness invites the question of why anyone would fight so hard to believe we're doomed. That's impossible for an unbeliever to say, but my guess is that, weirdly, it's fun and comforting. After all, there's an Ouija board thrill in accepting that a distant mystic could somehow reach through the ages and predict our future. In addition, Nostradamus belief contains a do-good element: the idea that mankind can avoid disasters by consciously making nice.

"Nostradamus's underlying, golden' message," explains Albert Nanomius, a believer who maintains a Web site on the quatrains, "is that every individual contributes to the flow of history, that free will exists, and that we can avert disaster. Apathy is the most lethal reaction of all."

Even Randi, who buys none of it, clearly finds the man fascinating, though mainly as a medieval con artist. He concludes that Nostradamus, born Michele de Notredame in the town of St. Remy, Provence, in 1503, had no powers and a cheesy motive: making money. Nostradamus started churning out his prophecies in 1555, in a self-published volume of quatrains called "The Centuries," and the poems did help make him both wealthy and connected: One of his patrons was Catherine de Medici, who shielded him from the sort of fallout that might accompany such necromancy during the Inquisition years. Among many other writings, he left behind nearly 950 inscrutable quatrains, composed via a late-night ritual that consisted of him staring into a brass bowl filled with water. Here, for example, is Nostradamus in French, "predicting" Hitler:

Bestes farouches de faim fleuues tranner,

Plus part du champ encontre Hister sera.

En caige de fer le grand fera treisner,

Quand rien enfant de Germain obseruera.

Translated, this describes mad, hungry beasts swimming across rivers, as the Nazis did during World War II. But Randi argues that Hister is no anagram for Hitler, it merely refers to the Danube River.

For her part, Dolores Cannon says she had little knowledge of Nostradamus in 1985, when he essentially barged into her peaceful life in rural Arkansas. The wife of a retired Navy man, she was a long-time practitioner of "regression" hypnosis -- a controversial discipline that involves mesmerizing people to uncover facts about their past lives. During sessions with "Elena," a pseudonymous local who believed she'd survived a near-death experience, it emerged that she'd once been "Dionysus," a student of Nostradamus. Then, in a 1986 couch derby, something truly bizarre happened, as Cannon wrote:

"Elena's eyes moved under her eyelids. She seemed to be following someone who had entered the room \.\ .\ .\apparently Nostradamus \. \. \. . I felt the hair stand up on the back of my arms and a cold shiver run down my spine."

With help from other trance subjects, Cannon has re-interpreted every quatrain that could affect our destiny. The details of it all -- the battles, "cabals," human devastation, "earth changes," and the eventual triumph of righteousness -- fill three books, which are as Byzantine as anything in Revelation. And, like that masterpiece of religious horror, the cumulative effect can quilt your scalp.

Still, if you find yourself overly terrorized, you might take comfort in the "Rabin quatrain," which Cannon cites as hard evidence that the predictions are unfolding. Even to the most generous reader, it's difficult to see how it applies. Rabin wasn't shot from a roof. Yigal Amir clearly wasn't innocent, since he confessed. And he's not hiding in a "wood," he's in jail.

Quibbles, says Cannon, who offers a strained explanation for each of them. Just you wait and see. Which, as the year 2000 gets ever closer, is what a growing number of people will be doing. Alex Heard, a Santa Fe writer, is working on a book about millenial subcultures called "Apocalypse Pretty Soon."