by Amalia Gladhart
The book presentation was held in the Best Room, on the second floor of Flagship University’s Building 3. The prior, prior Provost had renamed the buildings of the central campus in response to protesting students’ reasonable suggestion that the murder and mayhem credited to several of the namesakes made them unworthy of institutional immortality. While a few campus sites simply recognized the Founders (about whom little, mercifully, was known, and less was acknowledged in public), other commemorations were not so mild, and the Provost was persuaded to substitute less controversial forebears. But his successor had been met with a similar spate of unrest. Screaming blocs faced off outside his office, one side to decry the dishonoring of history, unfairly subjecting the past to the light of the present, the other to bemoan the opportunity squandered in the dishonorable mediocrity of the replacement names. The current Provost had stripped the names from all but the most recent residential complex (named for the triplet daughters—Bibi, Bora, and Babe—of the school’s chief contemporary benefactor) and numbered the buildings in order of their construction.
—Dollars to donuts someone blasts the hierarchy implicit in those numbers.
—Smart money says the next Provost makes a move to some kind of neutral symbol, circles or dots or squares.
—Next Provost? Already?
The interiors of the inelegantly numbered buildings had not been changed. The Best Room was, indeed, the best on campus, with oak paneling and rugs that might be old, might be Persian, and paintings on the walls that truly were old, the benevolence made manifest of Mr. Charles and Mrs. Bernice Wallingham Best, champions of education and, thankfully, of style. Flagship U was a proudly public university, its buildings the predictable progression from College Gothic brick through all the intervening contemporary styles as the winds of change and state support might dictate. There were suites of lecture halls and standard classrooms; there were faculty offices (small) and administrative offices (more expansive) and the obligatory ballroom that had never seen a ball. But there was only one Best Room, antiquated yet timeless, elegant yet unpretentious, flatteringly lit, a room that dripped Old Money at a school where all the other money was New and, more to the point, Scarce. The Best Room hosted ceremonies and awards, distinguished speakers and opportunities for self-congratulation—an activity at which most of those assembled excelled, though a few suggested they ought to do it more often: pat themselves on the back in the midst of all the cuts and contractions and overarching recalibrations attempting to undo last year’s restructuring or the restructuring of the year before that.
The school’s sartorial tone skewed casual, but for an occasion such as this (a book!) ties had been retrieved from closet floors, sandals had been replaced with strappy heels (though these were soon abandoned as too dangerous for walking), and more than one novice had made an attempt at ironing. The honoree wore a corsage in the school colors, its flowers obviously dyed; the school’s colors were not drawn from Nature.
—How many books is this for old Tortuga?
—She’s not that old.
—Seven, I think. God, maybe it’s eight.
—She’s the authority on Literato, the famous Ecuadorian writer.
—There are no famous Ecuadorian writers.
There were, and Dr. Celeste Tortuga had the record to prove it. Expert in the literature of Ecuador, Professor Tortuga was also expert in taking a slight and turning it to her own advantage. There are no major writers in Ecuador, an advisor had once told her. She didn’t know, and had spent little energy trying to find out if it was a gentle warning or a vicious dig. Untrue then, the jibe was even less true now, as Eladio Literato’s reputation, already considerable when Celeste Tortuga first addressed his short stories in the third chapter of her dissertation, had only grown—assisted, particularly in the English-speaking world, by Tortuga’s own work.
She had written no fewer than seven books on Literato, establishing his fame, consolidating his fame, subjecting his fame to its due critical questioning, and finally reconfirming his fame: a full career arc for both of them. Literato was a poet and a dramatist, a pioneer in his country’s experimental theater, and a composer of tiny songs—less than a verse, sometimes, Tortuga explained—sung to the accompaniment of guitar and Andean pipes. Tortuga strummed a mean guitar herself and had once joined Literato on a busking tour through Central Europe, all in the name of research and a summer of extraordinary meals, though few of her colleagues realized the venerable Dr. Tortuga had been so adventuresome. They hadn’t asked.
At the front of the room, a table draped in the school colors held copies of Tortuga’s latest book and its immediate predecessors—it never hurt to remind people of the depth of one’s CV. The dark mahogany podium bore on its front the school seal in its full glory. A tuxedoed pianist tickled the keys of the grand piano (also bequeathed by Mr. and Mrs. Best, along with an endowment to ensure its maintenance and regular tuning). Two visiting experts—one from out of state—and the Chair stood ready to speak to the book’s merits as well as its author’s.
The ceremony opened with a heartfelt tribute from Professor Anna Innovatova, Director of Language Instruction.
—Languages not English?
—Or English. How many of our students can scarcely speak or write their mother tongue?
Professor Innovatova’s remarks were not long, but they rang true. She pulled out a passage from the book for a dramatic reading, and she bowed deeply to her colleague before leaving the podium to the distinguished visitor, who spoke for a quarter of an hour on themes that had little to do with Celeste Tortuga’s work, though much to do with his own, giving everyone time to look around the room, size up the other guests’ outfits, and consider how they might praise Tortuga, should there be an open mic, in such a way that at least half the praise reflected back upon themselves. Those who had skipped lunch felt their stomachs growl and regretted having allowed themselves to be steered toward the name tags rather than the buffet table as they came in the door.
The praise was fulsome, but not embarrassingly so, and even those in the assembled crowd who had never heard of Eladio Literato were left wanting to know more about him. The questions were genuine. Everyone was nodding. The Chair (Alice Loost to her friends) said a few congratulatory words. She had known Celeste Tortuga since their graduate school days, and had only come to respect her more as the decades wore on. Flattered yet confident, Professor Tortuga basked in the attention, justly proud of her work. There were canapés. There was even wine, several cases donated by a winemaker alum who had recently joined the family business, taking over responsibility for marketing, special events, and generational positioning. Sadly for his family’s profits, he had not yet divined that the meeting-goer distinguishes only between complimentary beverages and the no-host bar. Ties were loosened, sleeves were rolled, tongues flapped. The pianist was revealed as a not-too-shabby jazz improviser with an encyclopedic knowledge of beloved pop tunes going back three generations.
—Aptly named, don’t you think? Slow and steady wins the race?
—Seven books isn’t all that slow. Her hair’s not even gray.
—No one’s hair is gray here.
And so it was. Even the distinguished elder statesmen at the top of the food chain combed the raven locks or honeyed curls upon which the mortar board had rested when first they were hooded doctors of philosophy with all attendant rights and privileges. Perhaps the damp climate, reputed so good for the skin, protected hair pigmentation as well.
Professor Wilder Gnat stepped up to the microphone. “Excuse me, but may I add just one note—one further, festive note—to this delightful gathering?” No point waiting for an answer. He turned to the crowd, most of whom dragged their attention back from the open bar where their eyes had begun to stray even before the Chair had pronounced the magic words, Please do stay to partake. . .
“Here in the groves of academe—Shakespeare coined that, you know—we are so grateful to share in the shade and in the light that dapples through the leaves of those trees of knowledge that our beloved Dr. Tortuga has helped to cultivate.” Eyes rolled, but Professor Wilder Gnat rolled on. “I was in Oblivonia until only the day before yesterday. I’m so relieved to have returned in time for this glorious event. It’s important for me to be there, but it’s also important to be here.” Before the last dictatorship destroyed the presses and forbade the use of colored ink, tiny Oblivonia had a thriving, original, and woefully overlooked comic and graphic novel tradition. The preservation, interpretation, and translation of that trove of aesthetic production was Wilder Gnat’s life’s work. But not a limiting life’s work. He had made notable contributions to other subfields as well—he was no blinkered academic, as he would be the first to say.
He straightened his cuffs, smoothed his hair. Wilder Gnat’s hair was red. Not the dyed red of the preternaturally dark-haired Flagship faculty, but a genuine, born-that-way, true-blue red. It was a red that saddened him (it could only make him conspicuous when he longed to blend in with his fellow man), delighted him (to stand apart is to feel oneself at one with the Creator, singled out for special mention), even as it dismayed and demoralized him to carry so long the baggage of the misconstrued, the burden of presumed witchcraft, of hot temper, high pain tolerance—not me, he’d always say, waiting to be contradicted, I’m the biggest wimp in the book—and to bear the stigma of the highly sexed. He didn’t mind that last one so much, though he pretended to.
“Since we’re all together, we thought we could use this lovely occasion to celebrate a pair of birthdays,” Gnat continued.
Professor Tortuga blushed.
“I’m Professor Wilder Gnat, Founding Director of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies—yes, it spells GNAT,” he smiled modestly. “Sorry. Couldn’t be helped. I am also honored to be a colleague of Professor Tortuga—proud collaborator, I might add, as we organized the International Pan-Generic Great Minds Meeting last year—was that two years ago?” he nodded toward the correction coming from his right, “I stand corrected. How times flies. Three years! Well. But time flying is what brings us here today, what brings me to the microphone—time flying as we read our beloved colleague Professor Tortuga’s peerless prose, time flying as the years make their inevitable progression, the earth its inevitable rotations (let’s hope inevitable, no? let’s hope some environmental or bellicose catastrophe doesn’t pull the plug and hold things up), those rotations that bring us years and, most important for us here today, bring us birthdays.”
Professor Tortuga—amiable, thorough, dependable—was a private person. That it was her birthday was a generally unknown tidbit that Wilder Gnat had ferreted out in his jocular way. He was good with birthdays and anniversaries and condolence cards when necessary. He liked a party.
The Chair’s assistant was alarmed. The budget had not allowed for cake, and none had been ordered. No need had been anticipated. But maybe catering had some treat in reserve, a tray of emergency cookies in the van. Part of Flagship University’s charm was its homespun air, its lack of pretention. Only the cynical repeated their conviction that lack of pretention was just another word for lack of means.
Wilder Gnat’s red hair shone like a beacon, it caught the last orange rays of the sun. One might be pardoned for expecting the bouncing sunbeam to somehow pick out the magic switch, the passageway, the secret lantern. One might be pardoned for expecting the light thus conveyed to land in a revelatory spot, the center of the Persian carpet, perhaps, opening the treasure chamber, the inner sanctum. Alas, no. The light bounced, it focused, but all it picked out among the scrolls and ivies of the thick wool rug (it really was a good one) was the wine stain near the center where the former Dean had spilled an entire glass of cabernet in the act of toasting the departure of the Head Librarian, who had set the catalog alight and burnt herself (thankfully, only in effigy) atop a mound of the recently decommissioned scholarly journals that no one read anymore but that many among the faculty felt could not be let go at any price, for any reason.
Wilder Gnat raised a glass triumphant (he had finagled one from the barkeep ahead of time), and held up his other hand, palm out, for quiet. “Today is Celeste Tortuga’s birthday, so I and others have taken the liberty of providing a few additional treats—outside the official budget, because we all know we could not hope for such a gesture from on high, times are genuinely hard, funds are genuinely scarce—and of course, too, because the personal gesture, the homemade, the genuine. . . Well, I won’t go on. But I will note that there is yet another birthday to celebrate today, another dear colleague (and my own dear wife), the inestimable Dr. Thea Nuffsed.” The Chair’s assistant exhaled. Wilder Gnat pulled out two fat bouquets he had earlier hidden behind the drapes, one for his colleague, one for his wife, each of them a tribute to the local florist’s ingenuity and taste.
He cleared his throat, said something unintelligible, then translated himself. “As we say in Oblivonia, wend merry!” Wilder Gnat was one of the country’s few fluent speakers of Oblivonian, a rich, underappreciated language that offered nuances and avenues of thought, rivulets of self-expression that were simply unavailable to minds tethered to a single tongue—unless, of course, they were fortunate enough to have Wilder Gnat to explain things.
“Wow,” Tortuga said, hefting her bouquet. “It’s a floral barbell.”
Dear colleague and wife was also blushing, whether out of discomfort at the unplanned and not entirely graceful party-crashing or out of a general unwillingness to be the center of attention for anything unrelated to her work. Like Gnat, Professor Nuffsed was a rising star in the firmament of the Division of Qualitative Studies. Not yet promoted to Full Professor—that would come—but relentless, so collegial, so warm, the phrases boundless energy and remarkable contribution heard at every turn. She hadn’t published a book of her own in quite some time, but even without that second monograph, she inspired a near-fanatical devotion among the graduate students. Everyone wanted to be near her—the food people, the gender people, the digital conversion people, the historians in search of a hidden gem not yet yanked from the archives. Students were drawn to her like flies. Professor Nuffsed had been working on Shakespeare’s Sister’s Cookbook for years, and it was going to be big. Timely, relevant, rigorous yet accessible, original without being gimmicky. When Nuffsed hinted at great discoveries and revelations yet to come, people believed her. Why wouldn’t they? Thanks to her, plays our parents never heard of were now on everyone’s syllabus. Her first book—a heavily theoretical yet eminently readable exploration of women’s drama that had been nominated for a national prize—had made her a household name, at least within academic households. Still, the Dean had been pressing her to produce more visible preliminary results. A conference paper, if she wasn’t ready to publish. The idea of a public cooking demonstration had been floated, but thus far Nuffsed had resisted, unwilling to let crass showmanship dilute the intellectual content of her work.
“Please!” Wilder Gnat gestured toward the drinks table, where three elderly undergraduates (old enough to pour wine, perhaps even to drink it) stood behind the ranks of green glass bottles ready to do battle with the cheap corkscrew and the thirsty crowd. The pianist essayed a little boogie-woogie. Feet began to tap. The assembled hips proved more mobile than previously imagined.
Orderly but determined, the assembly moved in formation toward the bar. The pianist quietly placed a dish on the edge of the piano, an ancient ashtray from a past generation, molded black plastic in the shape of a grand piano. A tiny Beethoven action figure perched where cigarette butts once rested. The composer held a tiny picket sign. Tip the scales and change my tune. They weren’t paying for their drinks, why not pay the piper?
Celeste Tortuga was left stranded, until Thea Nuffsed reappeared at her elbow with a drink.
“Sorry,” Nuffsed bent to whisper. Easily a head taller than Tortuga, she wore her hair long, usually piled up in one of those irritatingly effortless buns that never seemed to come loose. Naturally, not a gray hair to be seen. “Didn’t mean to steal the spotlight. You know how Wilder loves to make everything an occasion. Not that your book in itself wasn’t an occasion.” She tapped her brimming plastic cup against her colleague’s.
“Happy birthday,” Tortuga said.
“To you, too. And congratulations on that book. It’s really marvelous.” Professor Nuffsed had actually read it. Her prodigious capacity for reading, quickly and well, was legend.
The Chair returned to the microphone. It seemed to have been switched off—the in-house fee for audio/visual equipment was strictly timed and more strictly enforced. She tapped it impatiently, then raised her voice. She, too, knew how to project. They were all teachers, or had been once. “I am overdue at another meeting,” she apologized, raising her plastic tumbler, “but I could not leave without adding my warm personal wishes to the professional congratulations already expressed. Celeste Tortuga and Thea Nuffsed, many happy returns!” And then she left. Conveniently, some later thought.
Others raised their glasses in her wake.
—Shouldn’t we sing?
The pianist played an experimental arpeggio, circling the crowd with a melodic lasso, rounding them up.
—No, wait, first cake.
—Are there candles?
—Of course not. Fire regulations.
So many antiques, so many people, so much to worry the Fire Marshal. “Of course there are candles,” said Wilder Gnat.
In addition to the bartenders, the university deployed an undergraduate to oversee the catering. Not to handle the food—that fell to catering proper—but to be present in the Best Room whenever food was served. Like most chaperones, this one was preoccupied, his attention wholly upon a comic book so battered it seemed to have been pulled from the trash. He wore a headset with a mouthpiece, as if he must send reports back to headquarters, but he had nodded off even before the lids were lifted from the warming pans.
An empty table beside the trays where the tiny eggrolls and miniature meatballs had reposed (nibbled at throughout the event so that when the Chair did make her invitation to partake, many already partook) now held three luscious cakes, as well as plates, napkins, and plastic forks, all in the school colors. There was the obligatory chocolate, along with a frothy white concoction, and a third cake that looked almost wooly, groaning under the weight of an abundant streusel topping, shaved coconut and sugar. The last had been prepared by Karma Mariscal, one of Thea Nuffsed’s ever-present students. Not much inclined to bake himself, Wilder Gnat had let her in on the surprise. Yet more proof, as far as Karma was concerned, that Gnat’s supposed devotion to his wife was just a front, a way to make himself look good. He didn’t deserve her.
“Slaves to commerce, we will use one package of candles per cake, regardless of the age achieved, thus avoiding awkward questions and leftover candles,” Wilder Gnat declared.
Three packages of candles, even tiny ones, is a lot of tiny flames to cross. It was perhaps inevitable that a cuff would be singed in the process of lighting them all. There followed a yelp, a jump. The floor shook softly.
—Blow them out, quick!
—A pinch to grow an inch!
The piano chords were loud, the singing raucous. The two celebrants leaned forward, one from either side of the table, to blow out the candles together, huffing and puffing but plenty of air between them.
The Food Chaperone, alerted at last, leapt to his feet. “You can’t have candles in the Best Room!”
“So sorry, I had no idea.” Wilder Gnat was all innocence. Never in his wildest dreams would he want to endanger the precious surroundings, still less the lives of the treasured people gathered round, but tiny birthday candles—where, truly, was the harm? And wasn’t it striking how the powers that be were willing to crush the smallest attempt at community and celebration under the excuse of purported danger? Really, how many house fires, how many institutional fires, had ever been caused by birthday candles?
The Food Chaperone may have been sleepy, but he knew his brief and he knew his search engines and he had the figures in no time flat. A lot of house fires, that’s how many; not so many institutional conflagrations, though just last year there had been a birthday candle incident at Rival State.
That explained it. Mustn’t be outdone by Rival State. Of course, Gnat understood the young man was merely doing his job (and how unfair, that he had to work so hard to get through school); Gnat removed the candles quickly and efficiently. Though tempted, he didn’t lick the frosting off their little wax feet. If he had, he might have noticed an unusual flavor in the streusel.
Catering, with some nudging, began to cut the cakes, setting the pieces on the paper plates. Cake service was normally an extra charge, but Tortuga and Nuffsed were beloved professors, and the servers had to be there anyway for another half hour. The school colors didn’t really complement food, but people were used to that by now. The chocolate cake went fast, and the swirl of seven-minute icing over lemon. The streusel-topped carrot cake, less quickly.
Perhaps because they were in the Best Room and so on their best behavior, perhaps because the holy ceremony of the birthday party had been imprinted on them early, no one touched their cake until the birthday girls each held a piece, until one of them took the first bite.
“You really didn’t need to do this,” Celeste Tortuga murmured, taking a small bite of chocolate. “But it is delicious.”
A cheer went up.
“Mmm,” echoed Thea Nuffsed. She had taken the sampler plate, a bit of each. She was a food expert after all. A nibble of chocolate. A nibble of white chiffon. A nibble of streusel. “Unusual,” she mumbled, as a ripple crossed the room among the streusel-eaters.
—Did you try this?
Dr. Nuffsed twitched violently. Her face began to turn red. Her left arm, holding the plate of cake, sprang wide. Had she been a clown at a circus, a protester at a board meeting, she could not have more exactly planted the cake on Celeste Tortuga’s face.
The pie-slap divided the crowd’s attention. Those nearest the podium immediately saw something was wrong, but those further back were confused. Why this humiliation of Celeste? Hadn’t her book presentation already been hijacked, hadn’t she been a good sport? Tortuga smiled, drew two fingers down her cheek, and licked off the icing. “I always wanted to do that to someone,” she said softly.
Karma Mariscal, hovering to her left, heard her. “Be careful what you wish for?”
“Her lips are swelling!” someone screamed, pointing at Thea Nuffsed. That was the necessary catalyst. The campus emergency dispatcher received a record number of calls that afternoon, all within seventy-five seconds. (In the incident report, the dispatcher noted the cluster of calls, and noted too that the aging circuitry was overloaded. Officers reported actual sparks. But they got the job done, dispatched the paramedics. Service was offline for less than three hours.)
Professor Nuffsed’s face was red as a beet, the reddest anyone had ever seen. Her skin seemed to be rising in bumps, as if middens had been strewn across her arms and torso. Thea Nuffsed wore an oddly cropped tunic with a hemline few had observed on anyone, anywhere. Was she ahead of the curve, as her frumpier colleagues assumed, or far behind it, as the undergraduates averred? Wherever she fell on the fashion spectrum, the tunic asymmetrically revealed the left half of her waist while it kept the right side covered, and that left side now bore three large red welts, too big to call hives, more like red mounds. Burial mounds.
Her lips swelled so quickly, there was no time for a tasteless jibe about collagen injections. They looked ready to explode, balloons about to burst. A calf’s tongue poked out between those swollen lips, lolling and bloody from the pressure of her teeth, no doubt too big to avoid biting.
—I bet she gets stretch marks. Did you ever see that?
—Is that even possible?
She gasped and wheezed, the sound of a bellows sucked backwards, an un-whistle, uueeeh, unheh. High-pitched and flutey but airy as well, except she obviously wasn’t getting any air. She clutched her gut and vomited, fell to the ground clawing at her throat. But then she jumped up again, her last effort, last words before dying: “Where is my purse?” she cried, and then, “Hermes!”
—Where is her purse? Is this it?
—That is no Hermès purse.
—Of course it isn’t. She meant the librarian.
—Hermes Brigannd? Didn’t he take over after the library fire?
—She said, ‘Help me.’ She needs one of those pen things, the allergy one.
The cry for Hermes had transformed Wilder Gnat. His eyes were slits, his fair, redhead’s skin almost as flushed as his wife’s. Little puffs of smoke came out of his ears. His fiery temper on full display, his vocal chords were throbbing and thrumming. “Hermes Brigannd. How could you?”
Pushing him aside, Celeste Tortuga pulled an injector from her own purse and plunged it into Nuffsed’s thigh.
“What are you talking about?” Nuffsed demanded of her husband. The drug had already started to do its work.
“Her breathing should improve as her heart is stimulated and the blood vessels are tightened,” came a voice.
—Looks like we have someone from Quantitative.
—At a Qualitative gathering?
After years of studies, memos, plans, and negotiation, the Provost’s immediate predecessor had settled on the reorganization of Flagship University into two divisions, the Division of Qualitative Studies and the Division of Quantitative Studies. Those few who might credibly claim to cross the divide had been forced to choose. Many more had left. Now, out of the prior plethora of Departments and Programs and Units and Areas and Coalitions and Consortia, new associations and groups had begun to form. They had vaulted over and beyond the post-academy, the staid and stogy, and circled full around to the first evolutionary steps, thinking so far outside the box that boxes had yet to be invented. It would all be organic, rational, necessary. They were in the primordial ooze of institutional organization.
“You may be wondering how that works,” continued the unexpected representative of Quantitative Studies. Few of those present realized it, but she was the partner of Dr. Tortuga, an accomplished tropical biologist and—most relevant to the current proceedings—deathly allergic to peanuts and wasps, which accounted for her wife’s swiftness with the injector pen. “It contains a neurotransmitter, epinephrine, also known as adrenalin. It relaxes the muscles of the airway,” she went on, though no one had confirmed the expected curiosity. “It’s what’s called a vasopressor, meant to raise blood pressure by tightening the blood vessels. The swelling of her lips should go down as well. Recovery generally occurs within minutes, though some victims require a second dose.”
“She’s strong as a horse,” Gnat said. “She won’t need two.”
Dr. Nuffsed sat up slowly. She was hyper-alert, but tense. Anxious. She looked around quickly, looked around again. The air was clear glass, she noticed everything. Her breathing became more regular, more like breathing.
“I won’t share,” Gnat snarled.
“You won’t have to,” Nuffsed answered.
At last, the question of cause began to stir. Was she stung? Was she allergic to coconut?
—Did a bee sneak in with those flowers?
—Wasn’t an anthropologist at Rival State killed by a poisoned dart?
Karma Mariscal’s hands went to her face, another silent scream—not quite silent, because while she wasn’t actually screaming, she was keening, ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod. She’d been sure the allergy was Gnat’s. He’d bemoaned the lack of spicy food so often, the sacrifices he was forced to make, not even a speck of pepper allowed to cross their threshold. “These food allergies are such a limitation,” he’d complained. “And a redhead like me, you know I’d have a taste for pepper.”
At last the paramedics arrived. Thirty-six calls had made it through to dispatch, but many of their directions had been confused. Pinpointing the location of the emergency had been complicated by outdated campus maps, which had not been fully revised since the Great Renaming and subsequent Great Numbering. The campus community, notoriously resistant to change (although demanding change at every turn) had been uneven in its adoption of the system. Perhaps half those in the room realized they were in Building 3, no longer Reprehensible Forebears Hall, as they had been accustomed to call it since their arrival on campus sometime in the previous century.
“Can someone tell us what happened? Was she stung?”
“I think it was the cake,” Karma said softly, ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod, and then she fainted. Under questioning, once revived—that day, the next—Karma admitted she might have mistaken the cayenne in her cupboard for cinnamon.
Karma’s anxiety and remorse were genuine, but the poisoning, so quickly accepted by investigators as a near-tragic misstep, the kitchen incompetence of an absentminded professor in training, had not been entirely accidental. Karma Mariscal knew the difference between cinnamon and cayenne. Knew, too, that Wilder Gnat loved streusel topping, the more coconut, the better. The beauty of her intended poison was that cayenne allergy was rare. There was unlikely to be more than one sufferer in any given room.
Stretched out on a gurney but struggling to sit up, Professor Nuffsed was starting to breathe almost normally, or seemed as if she would soon.
“She’s a star!” Gnat gloated. “Unbelievably strong reaction, right? But she bounces back fast. Bounces back from her marriage vows, too.”
“Vows I’ve only taken the once,” said Thea Nuffsed, clearly enough that the whole room heard her, “though maybe one time too many.”
A gasp rose from the crowd. It was too bad the organizers had not thought to bring an event survey, because this book presentation was exceeding expectations like nobody’s business.
—He was married twice before, you know. Kids with both wives.
—Got plenty of mileage out of it, too.
—A real campaigner for work-life balance.
He had been married before, but that was long ago. His first wife, offered a job on the far side of the country, had packed up their two children and left in the middle of August while Gnat was lost in the Oblivonian archives, enjoying the tenure-clock extension—two full years—granted him by the birth of those two children. He’d managed to squeeze in one more wife and one more paternity leave before his tenure review. The second marriage didn’t outlast his promotion, though he had remained, or tried to remain, close to his younger daughter. Ex-wife #2 had recently been appointed to the local district court. The daughter was about to start her first year of college. She had, incomprehensibly, chosen a college in a distant city, where she planned to major in math.
—You’d think he was the one who went through labor.
—It’s because he’s so connected. So empathic. Their labor pains were a personal burden to him.
—Only because he felt for them so deeply.
Wilder Gnat, unused to self-doubt, suspected he might have gone too far. Apologies did not come naturally to a man who understood himself to be utterly on the right side of history, his personal objectives so fully congruent with the truth, the light, and the way that it was genuinely difficult to conceive of himself as being at fault. In this instance, however, his own imagination was not required. The look on his third wife’s face, the set to her recently pained and suffering shoulders, the low bite to her voice that one who knew her less well might not have heard but that Wilder Gnat could not now miss, filled in all the blanks. Some kind of apology was in order. “So sorry, my dear, not the time or place,” he began. “With the shock, I may have let my emotions get the better of me.” But then he recalled what she had said, felt afresh the wound to his considerable yet not invulnerable pride. Hermes? Hermes Brigannd? Squirrely little deputy whatever in special collections with the miniature tweed suits like a carnival munchkin and a voice like breaking glass? “I expected better of you,” he said heavily. “I thought ours was a partnership.”
“Stuff it, Wilder.” Thea Nuffsed turned to the paramedics. She had been on the verge of insisting they let her go, dust her off and wish her well. Now she turned to them to make her exit, graciously ceding as if she had been in agreement all along. “Ready,” she said. They trundled the gurney out of the room, feeling the eyes of the assembly upon them and trotting a little for better effect. In reality, most eyes had turned elsewhere, though whether from discretion or indifference or simply the urgency of refilling that plastic tumbler one last time before the free wine dried up, it would have been hard to say.
Wilder Gnat looked around. He should thank Celeste Tortuga for her quick thinking, her amazing preparation. But he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Better his ungrateful wife had died there in the Best Room, she an innocent victim of accident, he the innocent bereaved, honor unbesmirched. (That was a Shakespearian coinage, too, but he couldn’t tell anyone now without mentioning—and besmirching—his honor aloud.) No one was looking, so he pocketed the pianist’s tips. Might as well realize something on the afternoon.
The sound of the punch reverberated through the room, a sickening thud.
The pianist stared at his hand. He had never hit anyone before. He flexed his fingers; nothing seemed broken. Jacob Price, who had taken a break from the seemingly eternal task of writing his dissertation to attend the event, plucked an ice bucket from under the bartenders’ eyes. “Drop your hand in here, keep down the swelling. You need to protect your instrument,” he told the pianist. Grateful, a little dazed, the pianist did as he was told, but not before pointing in the direction of the thief. A jacket dangled from his uninjured hand. As the force of the pianist’s blow had spun him around, the thief had wriggled out of his coat.
Halfway to the door, Wilder Gnat paused. Had he truly gone unrecognized? Was his flaming red hair no barrier to anonymity after all? He had long felt his myriad contributions insufficiently noted, but to be simply unseen, so soon after he had even made a charming toast?
He may have gone unrecognized, but the effort to catch the thief was in full swing. Blows were flying. Clumsy fists unused to fighting connected with soft bellies; screaming fake karate chops sawed into heaving chests. How long had they wanted to do that, to stop with the debate and the veiled threats and the superciliously faint praise? But like a sudden squall on an inland lake, the storm lasted only long enough to swamp the nearest boats before passions began to subside.
The paramedics had already left with Dr. Nuffsed, leaving the campus police to administer first aid. No one had to be sent to the infirmary—a good thing, because clinic hours had been drastically reduced in the last round of cuts.
The bartending staff handed over all the ice they had in order to treat the mushrooming bumps and contusions. But then, showing the wisdom of their years, they worried the white wine would grow warm and perhaps unpalatable, and so they began to pour a little more quickly—sip of wine with your icepack? might dull the pain?—which did little to quiet tempers or ease the tension. “At least there’s no beer to keep cold!” someone said, as if lack of beer could ever be a good thing.
The Food Chaperone, frustrated at the lack of regard for his authority, kicked over a table, only to be pummeled by remorse. But after a few minutes down on hands and knees, trying to blot at the rug, he abandoned the task and helped himself to a glass of chardonnay.
Karma Mariscal picked up Thea Nuffsed’s forgotten bouquet and cudgeled Wilder Gnat over the head. How dare he suspect his wife, insult her in public, think only of himself in her time of need?
Anna Innovatova grabbed the microphone. “A song of peace!” she cried, “99 Luftballons.” Audience members of a certain age, transported back to high school, were moved to sing along. Others looked bewildered. Professor Magnus Fitt, revealing a surprisingly resonant baritone, picked up the rhythm line, swaying to the beat and tapping his foot.
Yet the more anxious souls still hid under the piano with the visiting speaker. The pianist returned to his bench, settled the ice bucket between his knees, and with one hand submerged, treated the madding crowd to a virtuoso one-handed ragtime. Jaunty and fun but not quite the thing to settle the spirits. Celeste Tortuga allowed him to reach the end of a particularly transporting flourish and then whispered in his ear. The music shifted instantly to a tune just this side of a lullaby, one of Randall Chyme’s compositions. As if by magic, fists unclenched, shoulders dropped, voices softened. Celeste Tortuga gathered up her books and left with her Quantitative spouse. The visiting speaker scurried out in their wake.
Wilder Gnat approached the campus police, arms extended, wrists bent, ready to be cuffed. “Take me away!” he wailed and then, more quietly, “I am a terrible husband. My wife has as good as left me. Why should I not spend my remaining days in jail?”
“He is yet vincible,” said Magnus Fitt. Gnat glared at him.
The officer, unware of the theft, looked confused. He put his hand on his cuffs, hesitated.
“Don’t bother,” said the pianist. “I won’t press charges.” Faculty were lousy tippers (grad students were worse, but they had an excuse) so there wasn’t much money at stake. More importantly, he had no intention of enabling Wilder Gnat’s martyred charade.
“You press charges? Wait ‘til I bring you up on assault!”
“You stole from me! It was self-defense!”
“Legally, I’m sure you’ll find I’m right. Your claims are laughable—that’s Shakespeare’s, too, you know. Laughable.” Still, he gave back the money—“Here, take it!”—with an ill grace so acid it blistered listeners’ ears. He even turned out his trouser pockets, shaking them a little like droopy bunny ears, “Nothing more in there, maybe you’d like a little lint?”
The officer shrugged and turned away. This was the first genuine, knock-down brawl he’d seen since joining the university police. He had applied for the position after his partner at his last job died in a drive-by shooting and the chief was indicted for obstruction of justice for the second time. What could happen at a university? The officer made a mental note of the spilled wine, the clumsy but painful haymakers, the singing and dancing, the flower-wielding graduate student. His better half enjoyed a good yarn over dinner. He imagined the headline, “Bruised Flowers Bruise Prof.” He should be a poet himself.
Karma Mariscal and Jacob Price gathered the last of the canapés in paper cups to take home. Wilder Gnat limped toward the door. The Food Chaperone wrote out his letter of resignation on a napkin using spilled teriyaki sauce and ranch dressing. The bartenders slipped the last two bottles of wine into their backpacks. The party was at an end.
Alice Loost had begun as Chair of one of the larger departments, then became chair of two or three more as units were consolidated and authority centralized. Within the Divisions there were still subdivisions—departments, programs, congregations; the task force appointed to determine the new nomenclature had yet to convene—with eight or nine chairs deployed to corral their members. Now she thought she might be chair of what had once been five departments, but while her nominal sphere of influence seemed continually to expand, her range of motion was ever more constricted, as the Dean had to review so the Provost could determine so the Trustees or the President or perhaps God Herself on High. . . the uppermost link in the chain of command was no longer clear.
Since her appointment as Chair, she had made it a habit to call her counterpart at Rival State from time to time, to keep channels open, foster collaboration, think about how both of their institutions might move forward—even thrive—in a state that was never inclined to fully fund half an institution of higher learning, let alone three. (Not that anyone seriously counted Urban Commuter U, but it was on the books.) Too, the Chair called in hopes a little horse-trading might ensue, a little mutual aid. Such as an alternative berth for one Professor Wilder Gnat, though she didn’t like to ask, savvy enough to know it was better to bide her time than put her desire to be rid of him, even a hint of it, on record.
The gnashing of teeth at Flagship U when Rival State announced the creation of four Impact Chairs in the Arts and Sciences had sent a full third of the senior administration to see their dentists in search of emergency crowns. The president of the local dental association had personally called the president of Rival State to offer his thanks. Mired in a budget morass of historic proportions, Flagship had no hope of matching the announcement with named chairs of its own. Not any time soon. It was unfair, of course. Wholly unjust. Everyone knew Rival State enjoyed untold and undeserved advantages, with its ag school, its medical college, its proximity to the state capital, its no doubt cheaper housing, cleaner water, a more forgiving microclimate for ornamental plants. Between all those GMO patents on the one hand and coddling the heirloom organic crowd with seed storage and UltraManure on the other, Rival State was raking it in. The one hope among the Flagship leadership had been that no one from their faculty would relocate to a school at least half a rung below their current home on the ladder of greatness. Rival’s town was smaller, its football team questionable, its school colors unappealing. Still, some liked that quaint, college-town vibe. There was no accounting for taste.
“Are you open to recruiting in state?” the Chair asked, when she next spoke to the Rival Chair on the phone. She had half a mind to make a move herself.
“Funny you should ask,” he said. “I have an application I wanted to talk to you about. From a Dr. Wilder Gnat. Do you know, is he serious about the application?”
Gnat had threatened more than once to shop his considerable scholarly wares to other schools; on the most recent occasion, his Chair had just barely resisted the impulse to blurt something damaging, ohpleaseohpleaseohplease. Be careful what you wish for, she’d reminded herself. But now. Now, without a move on her part, the ground had shifted. Rival State was only three hours away. It was not by any means an impossible commute. After the book party, Gnat might not even need a matching job for his wife. The Chair had dreamt of just such a moment as this.
She must recommend Gnat fulsomely. Be lavish in her praise, lament his possible departure. But not so lavish, not such overwrought lamentations, that extreme retention efforts would be expected or sought. Not so bereft that the Rival Chair, who had no need to stir up bad blood between schools or between a respected colleague and himself, turned his attention to another applicant, easily as fit as Gnat but with less (or different) baggage.
“He’s generally serious in all his undertakings,” she answered. “He has a very clear sense of his priorities and aims.”
“Why does he want to leave Flagship?”
“He’s applying for one of the Impact Chairs? That might be reason enough.”
“Yes. I think our President envisioned the Impacters—that’s what they’re calling them—more as a matter of anointing than a regular hire, but Dr. Gnat has definitely expressed his interest. Between you and me, people found that a little nervy.”
“He doesn’t lack confidence,” the Chair said. “But he does good work.”
“He does offer an impressive package. Center director, world expert on. . . Oblivonia is it? I’m not sure we’d have the library resources he’s after. Is he just angling for a raise?”
“Oh, no. I’m sure he’s angling for an endowed chair. Which you know we can’t match. We’ll try, of course. But he may be ready to spread his wings.” She did not want to be seen as pushing someone out—not unless she was certain she could make it a decisive shove.
“I appreciate your candor.”
“He’s made some noises lately. He warned me someone might check his references, apologized for causing so much trouble. For the disruption his departure was likely to cause, if it came to that, and for being such a distraction and taking up so much of my time. He may also have personal reasons.” But his marital troubles were still only rumors. “We would be sorry to lose him,” the Chair said firmly.
“Reminds me of the fable,” the Rival Chair mused. “You know, the gnat and the bull? Must be the name, I guess.”
The Chair did not know the fable, but she looked it up as soon as she set down the phone, and wondered that it had never occurred to her before.
Jacob Price looked out the window, then back at the Chair. He wore a yellow sweatshirt emblazoned with a rectangular label: MUSTARD. An odd choice, the Chair thought, but she had begun to see condiment shirts everywhere—ketchup, salsa. Chipotle mayo. She was making a list. Ever since she’d been ruled Qualitative, she’d felt a strange compulsion to count things. Words, syllables, iambs. Wary, she did so only in private.
“I understand you’ve decided to revisit your research focus. Shift the dissertation topic—perhaps change it completely?” the Chair asked. “Your advisor asked me to speak to you. She’s concerned you may not be making satisfactory progress. We all know you’re capable of very fine work, but she tells me she hasn’t seen any written work in months.”
Jacob Price demurred. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
The Chair was sympathetic. She had had him in class a few years before, knew he was a strong student. “You can talk about the book, or you can write the book, is that it? A lot of people say that.” It was the kind of writing advice heard at the start of every term, one size fits all, meaning fits almost none.
Jacob Price snorted. “You can talk about the book, and someone else can write it.” Three juicy topics had been stolen out from under him. One was already a major motion picture. He had sworn an oath: he would tell no one what he was writing on until it was complete.
The Chair nodded. She wanted to help if she could. Still, there was only so much she could do. “It does make it difficult to recommend you for fellowships. Quality of the project—which requires some knowledge of that project by the recommender—being of prime importance.”
Jacob sighed heavily and settled back in his seat. The Chair’s office was sparsely furnished, but the seats were comfortable. “Do you know Bennett Marksman? His dissertation should have been mine.”
“Can you prove that?”
“Of course not.”
But the Chair knew it was probably true, and knew that she, too, had been among those praising Marksman, recommending him for jobs and awards and recognition. Unto those to whom much is given, yet more will be awarded. “We can’t continue your funding without proof of progress. Something to put in the file. A research question. A prospectus.”
Jacob Price stared at her for a moment, then opened his notebook and wrote:
The Best Laid Plans –A dissertation by Jacob Price
I am writing my dissertation. I will be done soon. Sensitive evidence that will dissolve in sunlight supports my thesis. You will just have to trust me. In the past, I have been defrauded by classmates and faculty who have stolen my research. I will be ready to schedule my dissertation defense by June.
He shoved the notebook across the desk. The Chair read what he’d written. “The Dean might want it in blood,” she said dryly.
Always thin, Jacob Price now looked gaunt, as if the conceptual mustard of his shirt had provided most of his sustenance that day. He pulled a pushpin from the bulletin board behind him, allowing a sheet of emergency contacts for students in trouble to fall to the floor. He stabbed his thumb with the business end of the tack, made a print on the paper. Rather practiced, the Chair reflected, as if he’d been fingerprinted before. “That should do,” she said, pursing her lips. She took the sheet he handed her, stared at it. “We do have one internal fellowship,” the Chair added after a moment, “awarded at the chair’s discretion.” She pulled a folder from the pile on her desk, looked at the first few pages, came to a decision. “I am pleased to offer you the Jones Smith Smith Jones Founders Foundation Fellowship,” she said. It was the least she could do.
Jacob Price was surprised. It was the Division’s most prestigious dissertation fellowship, he had hardly dared to hope. “Thank you,” he stammered.
“Materially, it’s not a great award, but it does confer some standing.”
Most prestigious, but not most remunerative. The endowment had run dry two years before, but to surrender a named fellowship was to hobble recruitment, bruise morale, afflict their rankings (God forbid). Everyone with any say in the matter—all the higher-ups—had instantly agreed, the fellowship must be maintained at any cost. Save, of course, the cost of an infusion of institutional funds, but that went without saying. “Don’t lose that fellowship,” the Dean had said. “You’ll regret it if you do.” It was a simple statement of fact.
Not without resources, the Chair had taken matters into her own hands. She promised herself it was temporary, a kind of bridge loan to keep the fellowship afloat. Her spouse had been an elephant trainer. He had moved on to other pursuits—and had some reservations about performing animals, though he’d tell the activists and anyone else who might listen that it wasn’t as bad as they assumed—yet he maintained cordial relations with the circus crowd. He had connections. Pachyderms work for peanuts. Why not postdocs? The recipient would receive “an equivalent stipend in lieu of teaching duties.” General Counsel had long ago determined that “equivalent” did not mean “numerically equal dollar amount.”
Later, Jacob Price asked himself why he didn’t turn it down. But in favor of what? It was an award. In the convocation parade each year, there was a special place for fellowship holders. There was a plaque. His CV would grow by an important line, inaugurating a whole category of its own, Honors and Awards. Also, in fairness, the terms of the award were vague. Equivalent stipend didn’t sound bad.
“I would be honored.”
And so the Chair’s assistant drew up the award letter, which was duly signed with the requisite fanfare and broadcast in the department newsletter. Jacob Price updated his CV and wrote his parents to assure them he had secured another year’s funding and might finish his degree at last. His parents had learned not to ask intrusive questions. They sent cash, sometimes beef jerky, wool socks, ibuprofen.
The peanuts were delivered monthly in a 75-pound sack. Beautiful, old-fashioned burlap—the Chair’s husband saw to that himself. Artisanal, nostalgic—Jacob Price wasn’t sure what to do with them, but the sacks were definitely too good to throw away. Perhaps he could sew them into kilts.
The first month, he ate the nuts. He toasted a few, tossed them into his oatmeal, munched them straight out of the bag, hungry after a day in the library. Sadly, his first attempt at peanut butter fried the motor of his second-hand blender.
The second month, he began exploring other options. There were a startling number of peanut recipes to be found, though ingredient lists were long and their components costly. Save for straight-up peanut butter, most treated the groundnut as a garnish, a base for the sauce or a bit of extra crunch. A peanut stew called for a scant cup of peanut butter and a handful of chopped peanuts sprinkled on top. Peanut satay sauce, peanut butter cookies, peanut butter pie—but the acrid scent of burnt plastic still hung in the air of his apartment, and he had no cash with which to replace the dead blender. Peanut fudge, chicken with chilies and peanuts. Peanut tofu with sautéed cabbage. Finally a peanut soup—mainly peanuts and vegetable broth. He ate a fair amount of that, though it wanted a blender too. Still, if it cooked long enough, he got decent results with a potato-masher and a fine-mesh sieve. Then he came across a recipe for caramelized nuts. The list of ingredients required was refreshingly brief.
Sugar became his obsession. A typical sugar packet contained two to four grams—about a teaspoon. Forty-eight teaspoons to a cup meant ninety-six packets for his perfected recipe. Make it an even hundred. Some of the tonier coffee shops offered heftier packets along with their heftier prices—those that didn’t limit themselves to antique pewter sugar-shakers or tiny cubes and slippery tongs. Jacob Price became an expert on the layout and offerings of every café within a two-mile radius of his apartment. He made his rounds, varied his route. It wasn’t always easy to sweep through and make off with an entire counter’s-worth of packets the way he could do in the campus library café with its dim sightlines and poor lighting. One angry barista at a high-end chain nearly forced him to order a drink, but then a crowd of middle-schoolers jostled in, new to the world of caffeine and eager for more, and he was able to slip out the back, a scant quarter cup of sugar the richer. He crossed that shop off the annotated map he kept in his wallet and never looked back. The next time the Chair saw Jacob Price, his shirt read SUGAR.
The Chair had asked Gnat to come to her office. She looked at his bruised face—the black eye was now a purplish-mustard-yellow-black-raspberry eye—but did not ask for details. He did not stoop to explain.
“Do you know Jacob Price?” she asked.
“Jacob Price? Of course! He’s an idea factory, isn’t he? Pretty amazing the energy he generates. He might have some trouble settling down to one topic. I’ve talked to him about that. Why do you ask?”
“Progress check on all the graduate students. Weren’t you on his committee?”
“Just at the start, a couple of years ago. He decided he wanted to go in a different direction. Didn’t really explain but, you know, intellectual freedom, autonomy, developing interests.”
“He’s working with Gracie Foible now.”
“What was he writing on before? When you were on the committee?”
Wilder Gnat flushed. “I, ah. . . you know, I really don’t remember. It’s a while ago now. As I said, trouble settling. Wasn’t too defined at the time.”
The Chair jotted a note to herself. Maybe Gnat wasn’t the culprit. “I was disturbed to hear of events at the end of Celeste’s book presentation,” she said, changing the subject.
“Yes, really unworthy of all of us, I think,” Gnat said quickly. He sounded more than a little relieved.
She waited for him to go on. Wilder Gnat had no appetite for silence. “I assume you know what happened,” he said at last.
“I heard there was an altercation between you and the pianist,” the Chair said.
“He punched me full in the face. I’m a little surprised he didn’t recognize me,” Gnat said, running a hand through his hair as if to emphasize the red that should have been unmistakable. “I’ve been a member of the senior faculty for quite some time.”
The Chair nodded.
“Too, he and I are fundamentally on the same side. That he should have to work for tips? It’s outrageous, the university’s exploitation of the artist. Is scholarship our only value? What about performers? Mine was a quiet protest, but we’re an intellectual community. Subtle shouldn’t be a problem. Still, he doesn’t seem to have appreciated that.” He rubbed his bruised and swollen jaw. He’d been a virtual punching bag, one, two, bam! bam!, black eye and a jaw that probably came close to being broken. Lucky he didn’t bite his tongue or lose a tooth in the fray. Talking had been difficult, never mind eating, but it was getting better, he was almost back to normal, good as new. He rubbed his jaw again.
“So snagging the tips was a protest action on your part?” the Chair asked.
“It was,” Gnat said carefully, a man at a crossroads, ready to choose the path of least resistance.
The Chair shook her head. “Never mind.” She sighed. “At least it wasn’t a premeditated scuffle.”
“Wow, a twofer!” Gnat said brightly. He’d found his path.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Shakespeare gave us both of those—premeditated and scuffle.” He leaned back a little, to give the full magnitude of his information the space it warranted.
“The Bard’s gifts are abundant,” said the Chair.
“Indeed they are.” She was eating out of the palm of his hand.
The Chair waited a beat. “As a matter of fact, I had reason to look up premeditate the other day. The OED shows a usage predating Shakespeare.”
“You don’t say?” Nor did she say why she had been so interested in premeditation. Wilder Gnat began to worry. Just a little.
“Language always surprises, no?” The Chair did not elaborate. “And how are things at home? Thea’s well?”
“We have, um,” Gnat looked down at his lap, then raised his eyes with an expression the Chair had trouble reading. “Challenges, I guess we’ll call them. We have challenges.”
Now the Chair was worried. “I had thought the allergic reaction was—what do you say? Contained? Arrested?” Wilder Gnat winced at the last word. “That the treatment was effective?”
“The treatment? Oh yes. She’s fine. Strong as a horse. Outlive us all. No, I meant. . .”
The Chair waited. She’d heard rumors. She didn’t really want to know.
“Work-life balance,” Gnat said at last, seizing on a phrase that had served him well in the past (three tenure-clock extensions after all, though not much father-child bond to show for it). “We both spend so much time at the library.”
The Chair no longer remembered what language Anna Innovatova had originally been hired to teach. She had begun as a temporary instructor, so energetic and skilled that the precariousness of her appointment was soon forgotten by her supervisors (it was not forgotten by Innovatova; she had bills to pay). But a round of cuts, followed by a second and a third, had made it painfully obvious that her position was in jeopardy—and with it, the language program. Innovatova’s department had then been able, triumphantly, to move her to the tenure track, although the triumph came at a cost. She had fractional appointments in six different languages. In the mornings, she taught Romance languages. In the afternoons, German and Scandinavian. Asian languages, along with Arabic, were overseen by a junior colleague (whom she supervised), teaching on alternate days. There were other instructors, of course, but the overall responsibility was Innovatova’s. The ship was hers to steer. And what of minor languages, languages less studied—indigenous, African, endangered? Anna Innovatova had a number of forward-thinking approaches. A pirated satellite connection streamed in soap operas and local news from around the globe; a flight attendant cousin sent her any foreign newspapers or magazines left behind when passengers deplaned. Her students, used to collecting box tops to support their underfunded public schools, were easily trained to continue the practice, bringing their bits of colored cardboard to Anna Innovatova, who worked her alchemical magic and turned the trash into (a few) textbooks. Yet because her teaching obligations were continually adjusted—expanded, contracted, reconfigured—she never completed the full six-year probationary period. Because she was, technically, each year serving in a different position, she was perpetually on the tenure track. Most of her colleagues were unaware that, with the redivision of the spoils at the time of the Great Reorganization (and the corresponding loss of Quantitative students from Qualitative classrooms), Innovatova’s appointment had been reduced to two-thirds time. The change was announced to her (by letter) with a certain institutional self-congratulation: she would retain full benefits.
Yet even before her job was made semi-permanent, Anna Innovatova’s daring had been awe-inspiring. The work mattered to her, and what did she have to lose? She had recently become more daring still, more experimental in her methods. Faculty in nearby classrooms complained of excessive noise. Students complained she had begun wearing a sunbonnet to class.
“Why would she do that?” the Chair asked.
“Well, she hangs the sunbonnet up on a hook by the door when she comes into the room. But she wears these old-fashioned dresses, too, I think she said the cloth is calico, long sleeves and everything, it must be hot. Sort of like Little House on the Prairie, you know? Someone asked her if it was for her religion. He was really polite, he wasn’t disrespectful or anything. Just, you know, some ladies wear long dresses and everything and cover their hair. But she said no, she had faith that God would help her, but she was trying to make a different point.”
“And what point might that be?”
“She told us to look up one-room schoolhouses, and then she just taught the class. She’s a great teacher, you know, super nice. But I think she’s under a lot of stress.”
“Does the bonnet disrupt the learning environment?”
“No, nothing like that. She should wear what she wants.” The student wore a shirt that read CHUTNEY, zebra print leggings, ankle boots. “I don’t want to get her in trouble. It’s just weird.”
“I expect you’re right. About the stress. I will talk to her.”
The student had spoken to the Chair on the Quad, unable to commit to a formal complaint in the office. Just as well, for Innovatova’s sake. But Gracie Foible, headed across the lawn in search of her third mid-morning coffee, had discreetly paused beside them, ready to bring her own concerns to the Chair and, should the fates allow, snag a gossip tidbit for her pains. She smiled as the student said her goodbyes and drifted away, then lingered in the Chair’s field of vision as if she were next in line. There was no escape.
“You said this would be a good week to discuss symposium funding,” Gracie Foible began.
“Yes, I did. The annual speakers’ pittance has just been released. You’re in good time. And what is the theme to be this year?”
“Despair, Dystopia, Dementia.”
“A worthy successor to Demons, Disease, Demise.”
“I thought so.”
“And how is Jacob Price doing with his fellowship?”
“He’s working harder than ever. I barely see him.”
“Anything in writing?” the Chair pressed. Gracie Foible looked away. “Well,” the Chair went on, “I suppose I’ll have to remove you from the selection committee. If you’re applying for symposium funding.” The Chair knew there were those who would throw together a slipshod proposal just to be excused from another committee, but she hadn’t figured out how to stop them.
Foible simpered. “I don’t envy you, being Chair.” Foible was ambitious enough, she knew she’d be a fine Chair, but Lord deliver us, she wouldn’t want to be in those shoes.
Foible’s shoes were now pointing skyward. Not for nothing had Alice Loost medaled at the collegiate judo championships her junior and senior years. Foible’s loose silk blazer was easily gripped, her center of gravity shaken. It was like throwing a sheet over a clothesline, a swift snap and down. “I don’t envy me, either,” the Chair said, straightening her own jacket. “But it seems someone has to do the job.” The Chair hurried off, leaving Gracie Foible to wonder if she hadn’t simply tripped, in her absentminded way. She wasn’t hurt. The Chair had made sure she fell on the grass.
Karma Mariscal had gotten away with it. It never crossed Gnat’s mind that the pepper had been deliberately placed, and placed for him; that bellyaching about how his wife’s allergy inconvenienced him had made him seem the sufferer, and nearly turned him into the victim. That level of oblivion alone deserved the punishment that Karma Mariscal had tried to bring about. (Her name, in addition to being an inexhaustible source of humor for her schoolmates, had given her a heightened sensitivity to the likelihood of comeuppance comin’ round the mountain eventually. She had been ready to help it along.) But he had gotten away as well. Her intended victim was unharmed—though the end of a twelve-year marriage might be viewed as harm in some circles, at least as a loss.
Karma Mariscal, now alerted by her own experience to just how easily a murder attempt might be plausibly framed as a bizarre but wholly understandable accident, began asking questions. She did not for a second believe Thea Nuffsed had been unfaithful. That Wilder Gnat leapt to such a conclusion was just more proof of his unworthiness. That he had described his wife’s food allergy with such force and anguish that Karma thought him the sufferer should have been proof enough. Gnat’s automatic assertion of infidelity was petty, demeaning. Why didn’t he attack his wife for her publication record, steal her insights—somehow, even in his evil, pay homage to her intellect? Karma was sure there must be some other reason for the name Nuffsed had called out.
It was hard to pinpoint the single thing that had turned her against Wilder Gnat, allowed her to see him for the blowhard he was. He simply took up too much space. Every good idea, no matter who introduced it, turned out to have originally been his. He had long overshadowed his wife, slowing her progress on the second book, a book that was going to be amazing, a book that was going to redefine the field. He had no sense of territory, no boundaries, because his was the kingdom of knowledge and he was everywhere at home.
Which would have been bad enough, but then there was the constant complaining, the sense of grievance. He had more funding than anyone else in Qualitative Studies—he spent months each year in Oblivonia—and yet felt himself downtrodden, unrecognized. If the staff failed to print him a nametag prior to a campus event, leaving him to write out his name by hand like a casual latecomer, he felt the slight. If his seminar failed to enroll, it was because the new catalog format didn’t highlight it properly. His perpetual tardiness was the result of the excessive demands placed upon him. He never missed a chance to draw attention to his red hair and the historical prejudices associated with it, which was why Karma had thought of the hot pepper in the first place.
She saw how Gnat’s posturing was costing his wife, slowing her progress. What else could be holding up her work? Thea Nuffsed was no slouch when it came to self-promotion. She was a whiz at external funding, a frequent invited speaker, sought after for editorial boards and advisory commissions. Her first book remained in print. And still, Gnat sucked up three times the oxygen. Karma had watched Gnat introduce himself a hundred times, always that self-deprecating chuckle, Founding Director, Center for GNAT. He was his wife’s biggest booster, always touting her work, and yet in his telling, her work seemed to be all about him. For her birthday, he’d given his wife a locket with a curl of his flaming red hair.
She considered alternative modes of attack. Push him in front of a bus. Engineer a bicycle crash, rush forward to greet him and somehow collide. A public humiliation that would induce him to resign in disgrace and slink away like a toad. Actual poison, arsenic or drain cleaner. But none of these were as elegant, as hands-off, as the cayenne caper—and much as she hated Wilder Gnat, watching Thea Nuffsed’s reaction to the misplaced pepper had been horrifying, staggering, miserable. She wasn’t cut out to be a murderer. She couldn’t bear to think about anything bloody or painful or agonizing. Unless, maybe, it was going to happen to Wilder Gnat. . . But if everything happened for a reason, maybe she wasn’t meant to do away with Wilder Gnat after all.
Karma wanted to study coming-of-age novels. Even more, ever since the seminar she’d taken in her first term at Flagship, she wanted to work with Dr. Nuffsed. Thea Nuffsed thought highly of herself. She was an independent operator, a rogue star, her own far horizon. But she looked out for her students, the ones in her classes and the ones she advised. She explained things, rather than assume they all knew how things worked. She taught them to write book reviews and cover letters and grant proposals and thank you notes. And she took them to the library, every term, for an informational tour and what she hoped would be an inspiring peek behind the curtain, a glimpse at the treasures still to be mined, the insights yet to be gleaned.
Thea Nuffsed made it clear she wouldn’t advise just anyone. She was already over-extended—there had to be a good fit. So Karma had been looking for a food angle.
“Have you defined your corpus?” Nuffsed had asked her.
“How much definition does a corpse need? Anyway, this isn’t anatomy.”
“Cor-pus. Group of materials, collection of texts you propose to study.”
“Oh. I’m working on it.”
“Don’t leave it too long.”
In the meantime, she took every class with Nuffsed that she could. Fortunately, she still had another year of coursework, so she had time to figure out that topic. Coming-of-age novels were no longer fashionable, but that didn’t mean people didn’t still want to read them. Karma was hoping to find a group of novels with a sufficient focus on food that she could have it both ways. She refused to say corpus. Her working title was Coming of Age in the Kitchen.
Everyone knew Thea Nuffsed was working on a cookbook (but more than a cookbook, she always told them, much more); knew that the cookbook’s author would be a great surprise.
“But I thought you said it was Shakespeare’s sister,” asked a girl in the front row. “It’s right there in the title.”
“And I thought Virginia Woolf made that sister up,” said another.
“And you’re both right,” Dr. Nuffsed said enigmatically. “And you’re both wrong.” It was the first day of class, her advanced seminar, enrollment by instructor approval only.
Virginia Woolf had proposed a sister for Shakespeare, Judith. A fictional sister. But Judith Shakespeare had become real through repetition and speculation; she was real, and more than real. Thea Nuffsed proposed to find the reality of this sister. Not the true poetry, the poetry that was never written. Nuffsed’s take on Shakespeare’s sister was not the frustrated, suicidal poet of Virginia Woolf’s speculation, the woman who “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.” This sister had channeled her poetic gifts into the kitchen and Thea Nuffsed had found the manuscript evidence to prove it. Didn’t Sor Juana say Aristotle would have written a lot more if he’d spent time in the kitchen? Something like that. Modern Renaissance cookbooks, or Renaissance cookbooks in their modern-day versions, tended to focus on the banquet, the ceremonial, the elegant and fancy. No one wanted to buy a lavishly illustrated tome on the preparation and serving of porridge and pottage. But what had regular people eaten or cooked?
“But why Shakespeare’s sister?” the girl in the front row blurted out.
“Because without someone at home doing the cooking and the washing up, there would be no plays. Because they run in parallel, these gifts of different kinds of creative production. Because of the voices that filter through the recipes, voices we can hear, and amplify, and understand, and learn from.”
Amen, the class breathed—or would have, if they’d had a proper church upbringing. Some came close.
Larks in meat pie was a favorite in Shakespeare’s day, Nuffsed told her students, one she wanted to try, though assembling the needed songbirds (eaten with bones intact, thankfully—imagine the deboning of all those tiny birds, two dozen at least for a generous pie) was a challenge. Larks’ tongues were especially prized, but so small—was there really any point? Even Thea Nuffsed was skeptical. The larks’ shrinking habitat was another issue. Committed to authenticity, Nuffsed hesitated on the edge of the endangered. Scholarship’s equivalent of the Hippocratic oath—in your pursuit of knowledge, do not make things worse. But there might yet be a way.
“What if you substituted, like, chicken?” Karma had begun to suspect front-row girl was some kind of a plant, but Professor Nuffsed didn’t dignify her chicken with an answer. She moved onto herbs.
In support of her research, Thea Nuffsed had developed a substantial garden, sowing all of her backyard, and most of the front, with edible plants. The Elizabethans’ use of herbs, she never tired of telling people, was much more extensive and varied than anything imagined by modern cooks encountering the word “herbs.” When today’s cook might think no further than oregano and thyme, the Elizabethan thought of strawberry leaves, lettuces and endive, even the leaves of fruit trees. Carrot tops, beet greens, spinach, parsley, pennyroyal. Nuffsed scoured the garden stores for heirloom seeds, she mixed and matched. She and the Provost exchanged herb starts, a pot of hyssop for a handful of comfrey.
For Thea Nuffsed, historically-informed cookery was the perfect fusion of fiction and possibility. Larks’ tongues, and then the drudgery, the reality. The stew baked in bread and kept for months. “Food should not be studied only as a way to understand something else—what did rich people eat, what did religious people eat? That was my first focus, and it remains important. But I wanted to know how much work women had to do, preparing the food itself. Fancy or plain. We don’t have a lot of texts by women of the period, but we have evidence of women in all the mentioned food. People eat every day, several times a day. When I read that so and so is eating such and such, I wonder, how hard was that to make? Could it be prepared without kitchen help? When the Clown in The Winter’s Tale talks about warden pie, can we follow his steps to the market for saffron and the rest, and come out with something edible?”
“Will you show us?”
“Isn’t there a demo kitchen in the Bibi-Bora-Babe complex?”
“Is there?” Professor Nuffsed seemed to consider the possibility, intrigued by the reminder of this newest campus resource. “I’ll have to give that some thought. Don’t want to do anything half baked.” The class tittered appreciatively. (Since she’d begun the cookbook, all of Thea Nuffsed’s aphorisms referred to cooking—people were in the same pot, not in the same boat; they jumped from frying pans to fires, rather than struggle between rocks and hard places; and always, too many cooks spoiled the stew.)
Dr. Nuffsed returned to the syllabus.
“What are the questions we must ask of a recipe?”
“Put it another way: think of every text, whatever it is, as setting up a dialogue.”
“Whom. The reader.”
“Even a laundry list?” Front-row girl again.
“Sure,” Karma said. “The list is no good unless someone reads it and remembers to pick up the shirts.”
“Exactly.” Nuffsed beamed. “So the recipe addresses the cook. As scholars, decades or centuries later, we have to ask, what kind of cook? What did the recipe-recorder think the cook would know?”
“Like, where to get stuff? Or what the ingredients even were?”
“Right. Who had access to these ingredients? To these tools? Does it call for an oven, or just a hearth? Does it tell the cook how to skin the squirrel or wring the chicken’s neck—”
“—or is she clearly heading to the local butcher to buy her meat already cut?” The class squirmed in their seats. The thought that they might be asked to engage in squirrel-skinning or poultry-throttling loomed suddenly large.
Thea Nuffsed pretended not to notice. Shock was part of the value—it was necessary to move beyond hidebound contemporary notions of the edible, to regain a visceral appreciation of what it means to eat. “Old recipes often offer few details of quantity (a handful; a goodly amount), or cooking time (until thickened and readye), or temperature. But the lack of information tells us something about audience: they’re writing for someone in the know, someone who knows how to cook. Think of all the more recent popular recipes that call for ‘a can of tomatoes’ or ‘a stick of butter,’ because the recipe-writer’s local grocery only sells one size can, so the question of what size never comes up.” Some years earlier, she had published a study of small-town recipe collections, a promise of things to come; her detractors whispered there was no more where that came from, but Thea Nuffsed was busy in the archives, early and late. Her students understood that, if no one else did.
Dr. Nuffsed habitually took her fall “Modes and Methods” class on a library visit, so they could get a hint of what their own library held, what it might hold, and could begin to dream. For a school of its size, Flagship University enjoyed a surprisingly rich and varied set of special collections. There were gaps and oddities, based as it was on the whimsical generosity of patrons with the means and inclination to collect, but there were real treasures.
It wasn’t a large class, that was the beauty of it, but it was an odd mix, graduates and advanced undergraduates stirred in one pot. Flagship knew itself to be a university of the first order, dedicated to graduate education and the leading fronts of research so cutting edge it barely sensed the blade behind it, all without losing sight of the nurturance of undergraduates who had entrusted their futures to the august institution. Yet the determination to be all things to all people created strange bedfellows and unexpected compromises. But opportunities as well—overlooked and underestimated resources there to be exploited and enjoyed by those who knew where to look.
Karma Mariscal sometimes imagined the university as a lumbering animal, large and furry. Stooped—not yet fully bipedal, no longer graceful on four legs—with something like an anteater’s snout, or maybe fangs; a half-drawn werewolf, slobbery, determined, friendly and ambitious and inept. It helped to think of it that way, rather than the cold bureaucracy of the upper administration that had her classmates riled up. When mention would come of what Flagship must do, usually couched in a collective pronoun meant to encompass faculty, administration, and students alike (groundskeepers and office specialists might fend for themselves when the we began to stir), Karma found it more helpful to imagine the beast, with its single mind, its need to hibernate, its lumbering gait. She’d sketched it several times in notebook margins, doodling in class.
She didn’t doodle during the library visit. They were largely on their feet. Professor Nuffsed asked Hermes Brigannd leading questions about the collections. Brigannd answered with hints and evasions.
Professor Nuffsed had told her students she had stumbled upon an unexpected trove of recipes and menu notes in the special collections. A find that had redirected the whole course of her work, as they had reason to know. Loose scraps of paper, seeming scrapbooks from long ago—she had been looking for playbills, theatrical ephemera, back when she imagined her second book would basically be the same as her first, only more so. All that had changed in Special Collections, a change—a possibility—she wanted her students to share. Her spark was electric, inspiration tangible as fire. Even Hermes Brigannd was lit by the reflected glow. She had been allowed to examine boxes not yet catalogued. She did not warn her students that the privilege was a snare.
“Do show us the catalog,” she said to Brigannd.
He bowed. Not a full bow, but the students noticed it. In its excess formality, it was a slap in the face. His tweed suit, expertly tailored, showed signs of wear at collar and cuffs. His stylish boots were shiny as patent leather, the same glossy obsidian as his hair. Brigannd lived on whole grains, vegetables, the occasional egg. He had never cared for cheese, finding it too rich. Nor did he care for wine, allowing him to feel his superior sobriety at university functions that, when they did serve alcohol, never went beyond beer and wine. He possessed an extensive collection of distilled spirits.
Forced to speak in public about the treasures of which he was steward, Hermes Brigannd was cagey. He praised original research, the importance of sources not yet understood or studied. He hinted that the full extent of the library’s collections might never be known—a suggestion that seemed more ominous the more Karma thought about it, as if he were warning them off. There were boxes in the corners of the reading room, boxes that looked ready for shipment more than for cataloging. But maybe she was being unjust. Perhaps he, too, had simply been decrying, as they all did, the lack of resources and attention and prestige accorded the library by the upper echelons, a confirmed and ongoing lack that might well stunt any hope of fully knowing what was there. More and more of her classmates complained about titles they’d been unable to find in the stacks. But no one would ever have enough research assistants to follow up every citation, or their quota of deep-storage paging requests would be used up, or improper maintenance of the library’s aging infrastructure might lead to physical loss. Hermes Brigannd, practiced trickster, spun all the angles, highlighted them all, now together, now in isolation as the expectations and attention span of his audience might demand.
How could someone talk so much and yet move his mouth so little? Brigannd’s smile reached his eyes, but not his lips. Perhaps he had bad teeth. Karma nudged the student next to her. The classmate asked, “So how do materials get into the collection? How are they catalogued—like, by what process?”
Hermes Brigannd bowed again. “That is a librarian’s work,” he said, implying a sacred trust, a labor of love. “Little by little, we sit with the boxes, we evaluate the contents, we tabulate keywords and media type and provenance.” Which sounded pretty tedious, like something you’d want to hand off to an underling. He didn’t explain how they might get some idea of what was yet to be cataloged. How they might choose which box to open next. For the students, it seemed a matter of waiting in vague hope of discoveries yet to come. When she went back to the library, the boxes Karma had glimpsed piled in corners or in the corridors between the stacks were gone, as if she’d only imagined them.
Hermes Brigannd had a camera in his front tooth. A gold tooth, the upper front incisor. The camera was activated by a small tap, either with his lower teeth or with the tip of his tongue. The camera came in handy when he was looking at documents, though sometimes he forgot himself. He had more images of food approaching his mouth than he might need.
—That Hermes Brigannd, he’s like a kid in a candy shop, still hasn’t lost the childlike innocence.
—Mouth agape in wonder.
—A candy shop of books.
—More like a witch’s gingerbread house.
The video clarity wasn’t good, but still photos were sharp as glass. It came in handy for birdwatching as well, though other members of the local Audubon Society sometimes wondered why the past president was so often grinning at the finches.
The Deputy Director of Special Collections had wriggled out of trouble before. His work hours were erratic, his travel expenses considerable. He was the only member of Flagship’s staff other than Wilder Gnat to have visited the fabled shores of Oblivonia. The now departed Head Librarian, a cautious woman but not for all that inexperienced, had chosen to bide her time rather than confront Hermes directly when she first suspected theft.
It had started with a nephew’s medical bills. The boy had a rare blood disorder, treatable but chronic. His sister had been at her wits’ end with the paperwork and the insurance wrangling and the credit card debt, the sleepless nights. Hermes, scrimping, had been able to come to her aid. He found he enjoyed playing Uncle Bountiful. Later, when a friend ran into a financial snag, he wanted to be able to help; when his sister’s freezer broke, he wanted to buy her a new one. When his other sister’s fiancé had a breakdown on that giant Ferris wheel in London, minutes after he proposed, Hermes wanted to pay for his repatriation and treatment—anything to see those two, sweethearts since second grade, through to an actual wedding. He donated to the candidates he thought most likely to support education, he rescued exotic pets whose owners had lost interest. And while he, too, muttered no good deed goes unpunished from time to time, he didn’t believe it, not for one second. It was all greed, maybe, greed for money and greed for recognition, hunger for thanks, but in his search to satisfy that latter hunger, he did quite a bit of good. So long as one could overlook the thefts that underwrote his kind largesse.
Before his first unauthorized sale, Hermes Brigannd had fended off numerous offers. He even had the records to prove it—his tempters were so incautious as to document their efforts—which helped him deflect the first round of questioning, and the second, when questions began to arise. That would have been the end of it, if nosy parkers like Karma Mariscal and Thea Nuffsed had been able to mind their own business and play by the rules.
“Yes, I was approached,” he had replied when challenged. “And I informed the agent who approached me that inter-institutional cooperation was always welcome, but Flagship University’s library collections were not for sale.” Whatever his faults, Hermes Brigannd bled Flagship colors. The man was filled with school spirit, like a keg topped up with beer before the game. And while he did not publicly name the “agent,” that first unsavory offer of purchase had been proposed by a low-level counterpart at Rival State, meaning there was no possible way he could ever accept. But he was not so scrupulous when it came to private sales. His appetite had been whetted. Given what was on offer. . .
The Rival State rival, as it happened, had offered to buy the very item Hermes Brigannd ultimately sold to a private collector. And how did a private collector come to suspect—to imagine in his wildest dreams—that the Deputy Director of Special Collections might entertain such an offer, such a possibility for even five seconds? Hermes Brigannd preferred not to ask. If pressed, he might have noted that librarians’ salaries, as with all public employees, were a matter of public record for those who knew how to look.
And so Hermes Brigannd had made a sale: a first edition of poems by a local luminary, privately published and lavishly illustrated. It was one of the university’s crown jewels, but only to those who had never read it. Later editions, cheaply printed with poor reproductions of the illustrations in black and white, were stocked at every souvenir shop in the state. The books gathered dust and filled space, but they allowed the state to feel its cultural heritage to be deep and varied, and gave the clerks something to talk about when they rearranged the shelves—did you ever hear of this guy?
But collectors were another species, seeing value where others saw only expense, treasure where others saw junk. And the edition Brigannd had (briefly) in his care was truly grand: full color, fantastical illustrations, gold leaf, each poem on a separate page. Even with all the padding—lovely endpapers, long dedication—it was a thin volume. It took up almost no space on the shelves. No one would miss it. And if they did, he would say the book was not gone, not lost, only in storage. The shelves were filled to bursting with volumes no longer in active demand. It was time to make room for materials more current, more timely.
It was a cash sale. He’d insisted on that. A suitcase full of small, unmarked bills. Not that he knew how to identify a marked bill if he saw one. But if he was going to sell his soul, he wanted some drama. He’d watched his share of TV.
Yet he had overreached. When a potential donor became curious about the poems, the Head Librarian had been only too happy to invite him for a viewing—only to be deeply embarrassed at her inability to find the book to show him. They had perused several of the library’s other gems, she had spun him a yarn about conservation and repair, and he had been grateful for the attention and intrigued by the possibility of donating his own papers. There the matter rested, until a prominent scholar from a still more prominent private university had inquired about the book, eager to study the trajectories of otherwise forgotten yet locally famous poets across the country. Still the book could not be found. This time, the Head Librarian did not let the matter rest.
Never before in the history of Flagship University had a member of the library staff—no matter how lowly, or how poorly paid—betrayed the public trust through private sale. The Head Librarian’s full title was Head Librarian, Director of Special Collections and Archives, and Minister Plenipotentiary for Extramural Bibliophily. (Flagship U seldom hired enough people to get all the work done, but the staff did not go unrewarded: a high official’s titles could fill two or three lines on a business card, easy.) The Head Librarian took her complaint straight to the top.
If the Head Librarian was surprised to see Hermes Brigannd on the steps of Building 2 that morning, she did not let on. The more the merrier. It was high time the upper administration understood the needs of the library (not that she hadn’t attempted to apprise them in the past) and the detrimental effects on both educational mission and institutional standing of the sorry state of the collections, the gaps and holes, the insufficient investment in archiving, storage, reading spaces, shelving. Even the scrap paper beside the catalog terminals was scavenged from the wider margins of book catalogs and the cover letters that came with them; work-study students were kept busy trimming them down. If Hermes Brigannd wanted to accompany her in his capacity as Deputy Director of Special Collections, he was welcome. Perhaps he had brought along a petard he was looking to hoist.
In addition to the President and the Provost, Building 2 housed the Core Conference Room, an inner well of sky-lit glass washed in the school colors when the sun shone. Avant-garde in its day, it was now largely forgotten. The temptation must have been great to put a throne at one end of the long meeting table, to raise a platform along one side of the room that might support the more dignified dignitaries, the best of the best. So far, the leveling impulse had endured. The door was heavy, the chairs were oak, the cushions vinyl (school colors again), the carpet muffling. The skylights were a considerable expense, requiring precision cleaning twice a year, a fact that occasioned some derision among the less aesthetically refined. The Head Librarian had never been inside. Few people had, below the rank of Dean, though from time to time, when space was especially tight, a magnanimous scheduler might make the room available to a faculty committee. The Grievance Committee met there, in hopes the dappled light would soothe them to mercy and reconciliation, lift their spirits heavenward—where dwelt, as well, the administration, so in need of understanding and compassion.
The Head Librarian made her case, outlined the losses and the damage. There was much nodding, genteel murmurs of dismay. Papers rustled, notes were made, throats cleared. “Library stakeholders are more demanding than ever before,” the President said. The Head Librarian heard stakeholders and imagined a team of scouts setting up camp, half of them holding the tent stakes, the other half holding the poles; her next meeting—all the same words but two hours later, closer to lunch—would leave her imagining waiters holding juicy steaks on silver platters.
“They are, and they demand to find the books our catalogue tells them that we own,” the Head Librarian repeated.
“She is absolutely right,” Brigannd agreed.
—We need better messaging.
—Collaboration spaces going forward.
—We don’t want to lose academic rigor.
—Calibrated citational metrics.
—Student-centered, always. That’s the library.
“Library users expect that they will be able to locate and read the books listed in our catalog,” the Head Librarian said yet again.
“The shelves are too crowded,” Hermes Brigannd cut in. “It leads to shelving error. Wasted space.”
He began to outline his plan. His notion was to make space in the library by moving near-obsolete journals to off-campus storage. Print journals were rarely read nowadays. Many bound volumes had never been opened. Peer and competitor libraries had developed consortia to ensure continued access and retain at least one print copy of every issue (though how easily that exemplar might be located and retrieved, and in what timeframe, was anybody’s guess). Hermes Brigannd had already rented a unit at StorEez U-Stor; the sign said units were heated—that should ward off any damp—and StorEez sounded like books.
His suggestion was taken up as clever and timely and forward-thinking. There was more nodding around the table, big smiles.
—Flagship could be a real leader.
—We could innovate.
—Measurable rankings boost.
“Innovate, collaborate—that’s what people do at libraries today. They need room. All those books are taking up space that could be occupied by readers. Innovators, doers,” said Brigannd.
“With respect,” the Head Librarian cut in, “what brings me here today is the fact that a specific, unique item—a first edition of a book of considerable local historical interest, if questionable literary value—is unaccounted for, and painful as it is, I have reason to suspect that book was improperly sold, de-accessioned in the most direct and blatant, need I say illegal, sense.”
The Core Council overflowed with praise. “The de-accessioning plan is brilliant. Free up shelf space while retaining vital collections in storage. Thank you for bringing it to our attention, both of you. It’s a program that clearly needs to be expanded.”
“Anything we can do to help,” the under-bigwigs chorused.
“But,” the Librarian attempted, “that is not what I said at all. There may be merits to some aspects of the storage plan—though frankly, the details of retrieval and proper conservation are not yet well thought out—but my point is a different one. A valuable book has gone missing. Our cataloging and security systems lack the necessary resources. And it is possible one of our staff members is a thief.”
Hermes Brigannd didn’t flinch.
The President stood. “Timely, forward thinking. Attention to the bottom line and to users of the future. That’s who we must serve. Again, my thanks.”
Hermes Brigannd shook hands around the table and glided from the room, fleet of foot as always. The Head Librarian was ushered out, with many further expressions of thanks and offers of assistance with the move of journals—start with the old ones, say, older than two or three years—and reiterations of commitment to the library, heart of the university, vital, irreplaceable, such memories of hours cramming for exams, they serve coffee there now, don’t they? Quite the advance over my day, anything we can do, you are indeed a credit, Head Librarian, perhaps we can add to that title.
“A salary raise?” she suggested. They were in the foyer. It was now or never.
The Senior Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Abbreviation gave a gentle, knowing chuckle. “How I wish. Salary increases for non-faculty academic staff in leap years only, you know that. Would that it were otherwise.”
He heard her clearly enough in the corridor. In the Core Conference Room, he’d been among the first to stuff Brigannd’s specious justifications back into her mouth like an apple between the Christmas boar’s jaws, as if she’d been the first to spit them out in the first place. But salaries were always a sticking point. One the administration so wished they could address, as Flagship U’s outstanding faculty and staff so richly deserved. Alas, their hands were tied. State funding, tuition, public ennui. Thank goodness Flagship’s faculty hadn’t unionized, as Rival State’s had done, tying administrative hands still further. Still some room for merit, for individual reward.
“In leap years only,” the Head Librarian repeated.
Such melancholy on that distinguished face. If she could only take it to the bank.
Anything we can do to help—they’d said it more than once. But no one present in that conference room went looking for the missing volume. And like the soundless tree falling unheard in the forest, or the fabled bear relieving itself in peace and quiet, soon the book wasn’t really missing, because no one was looking for it. The prominent scholar had moved on to greener pastures, the donor was inventorying his personal files.
The Head Librarian seethed. She wrote memos and made phone calls. She wrote more memos. Her public complaint was the fear that the deep-storage journals would soon become inaccessible entirely. (It seemed hopeless to get her concern about the illegal sale heard, though she had contacted the poet’s next of kin, a great grandnephew once removed, in hopes that outraged filial piety might move the mountain she had been unable to budge; so far, no answer.) Meanwhile, Hermes and the bigwigs (wasn’t it time they started a band?) proposed to consign to StorEez anything published more than three years earlier. And somehow in the official record, the story had been established that the storage plan was as much her idea as it was Hermes Brigannd’s. When the faculty (including those who, as had been documented, had not opened a print journal in 3.6 years) rose in protest, they objected to the Head Librarian’s collaboration as much as to the administration’s budgetary shortsightedness and buzzword buffoonery.
“It was as if they didn’t even hear me,” she said to the Chair, describing the way her accusations and complaints had been graciously received and, in the act, seamlessly recast in words she had never said, would never say. “Or they heard me without hearing—they were aware of my act of speaking, the fact of my speech, but not the content. My lips moved, but someone else spoke, a kind of reverse ventriloquism.” Brigannd’s bald-faced assertion that it was all part of a move-into-storage innovation had become the received truth.
She began to build her pyre. She expected to find a heap of unceremoniously de-accessioned journals beside the dumpsters, ready for recycling, but there she was pleasantly disappointed. Determined to give her work-study students all the hours she could before they were put out to pasture, she set them to making false journal covers out of cardboard pulled from the recycling bins. Just enough to convincingly adorn the top of the pile, which could be filled beneath with the remains of the card catalog, crumpled newspaper, charcoal briquettes. Her own self in effigy was a classic scarecrow, easily constructed from old clothes and worn pillows. She put a pair of reading glasses on a chain around the figure’s neck, so everyone would recognize it as a librarian, though she herself had twenty-twenty vision.
First reports hinted at the worst, some hideous incursion of chaos and terror onto university grounds. Then the thought of censorship arose, historic book burnings, and wasn’t that a body writhing in the flames? It took hours to put it out, to sift the ashes for teeth or bones.
She had managed an impressive blaze, but she had not advanced her cause. Indeed, once the remains—the decoy remains—were identified, most were at a loss to explain her motivation. Surely she was trying to make a point, but what?
—Wasn’t the library in a whole change process, one she initiated?
—Maybe she wasn’t in favor of the whole journal storage thing after all.
—Death to the card catalog!
—She was obsessed with some poet.
—Flagship’s first Poet Laureate.
—I thought librarians were against book burning.
The Head Librarian had no name that anyone could remember. She didn’t need one. There was never any other librarian. In the aftermath of the fire, in the anxiety of sifting the ashes and making the necessary public statements, ascertaining that the scarecrow was, indeed, a scarecrow, the need to hire a replacement was pushed aside for a more propitious moment, a moment that never arrived. Hermes Brigannd, Deputy Director of Special Collections, was free to work undisturbed. There was now no chief above the deputy, but no one remembered that.
Of course it was an effigy. She wasn’t an idiot. After all Flagship University hadn’t done for her, she was hardly ready to die for the place. The Head Librarian retired to a houseboat in a neighboring state. And while she had the last laugh (she had found love with a Tasmanian cyclist, the houseboat was comfortable, the natural surroundings spectacular), the way had been cleared for Hermes Brigannd. The storage scheme was the least of it.
Karma Mariscal approached Celeste Tortuga after class, troubled by something in the reading. She’d gotten bogged down in volume I of the three-volume tome Professor Tortuga had assigned. (Tortuga seemed to think her students could read as unflaggingly as she could write.) Almost as an afterthought, Karma remembered her recent library visit and the class exchange with Hermes Brigannd. “Did you ever notice how he barely moves his mouth?” she asked Professor Tortuga. “There’s something seriously weird about that guy.”
Tortuga looked thoughtful. “Have you read Eladio Literato’s story, ‘The Tooth of Gold?’”
Karma shook her head. She had been warned, Tortuga always brought the discussion back to Literato.
“It’s just been translated. Come by my office tomorrow, I’ll give you a copy,” Tortuga continued.
“Okay. What’s it about?”
Tortuga raised an eyebrow. “And what does it have to do with Hermes Brigannd?” She knew what people said behind her back.
Karma looked at the floor. “Well. . .”
“You might say it’s about messages. Or change.”
In Literato’s story, the villain had two gold teeth. He used them to attract women and also to send messages. He polished them like crazy, they glowed in the least light, and he’d cover them selectively to transmit a kind of Morse code. Was he simply a villain, or did he have something else up his sleeve?
“Why didn’t the translator choose, ‘The Gold Tooth,’ or ‘Teeth,’ however many there are? Wouldn’t that sound more like regular English, not so old fashioned?”
“But it is old fashioned. That, too, is part of the story.”
Celeste Tortuga was a riveting storyteller. Karma Mariscal was a child at her knee, rapt and wondering. The opposite of “less flashy,” this man with the two gold teeth. He was a fisherman in a coastal village, just as outboard motors were coming in, nothing he could afford but he chipped out one of his gold teeth to buy one and then he could no longer send messages. A telegraph operator had taught him Morse code as a boy, retired by then as they put in the telephones. He was the first and last telegraph operator at the end of the rail line, and the mute boy with the gold teeth had lost his teeth on the tracks, he’d been running after an older brother and tripped and fell. He was seven years old; he understood everything anyone said to him, but he had never learned to speak. He didn’t learn now, but the telegraph operator found him, bloody and crying, and took him inside, cleaned him up. The boy learned the code, he learned to climb mountains. He married a devoted schoolteacher in the one-room schoolhouse of the village where he was born, a day’s ride on horseback beyond the end of the railroad, or it used to be. There was a bus now. Two teeth, one for the dots, one for the dashes. When he lost one tooth, he had to relearn how to speak.
The gold tooth was like a bank account in his mouth. It was what gave the thief away, when he was hidden behind the sacks in the dockside warehouse and the police came in with their flashlights and loud voices. He opened his mouth, maybe smiling at the thought he’d gotten away, maybe just to breathe, low and quiet and deep through his mouth, trying not to make a sound, but he caught the light, and maybe not all that glitters is gold, but that time it was.
The story shifted, one gold tooth, another. “Wait,” Karma interrupted, lost in the teeth, the warehouse, the code.
“Bear with me,” Tortuga said. “A story is also a way to send a message.”
Unusually shiny, even for gold which doesn’t tarnish, the remaining tooth caught the light and gave him away. Once it had fallen out in his food, lost in the bones and skin of a big fish, and he picked through the fish bones until he found it and popped it back in. He thought, after that, he would never lose it again, but he didn’t count on the unreasonable luster picking him out in the dark. Because something went wrong, and he became a thief.
He had found a nugget, made a ring, but his beloved left for Europe to become an opera star. Keep the ring, she told him, and he had the ring made into a tooth, to keep it close, a bittersweet reminder every time he touched that tooth with his tongue or glanced in the mirror or felt it when he bit down on a piece of bread or ripe melon—because it never felt the same—that he had let her go. She sang in all the finest opera houses in Europe and the Americas, but never returned to her hometown. It didn’t have an opera. Write if you get work, they always say; she didn’t write, but she sent money, not to her first love with the gold tooth that should have been her wedding band, but to the local library, the children’s hospital, the restoration and landscaping of the village square. And the local museum, a collection beyond the realistic dreams of any such town, a vast and surprising assemblage far from anything but scenery. Scenery meant vacation homes, wealthy sojourners. One in particular, a collector of old masters and new—a little-known, early Claude Monet was a point of pride—had left his collection to the town, along with his mansion to house it.
But keeping up with the damp and outwitting the occasional flood had absorbed most of the available cash. The security system left much to be desired, and the man with the gold tooth easily suborned the youthful guard, then almost as easily made off with several small paintings (even the small ones were bulky). He made it as far as a warehouse at the port before he was discovered, betrayed by his beloved tooth.
And that was why it was called the tooth of gold, not the gold tooth: that tooth of gold reached out and bit into him, it was lost love and loyalty and betrayal and bereavement and greed all rolled into one.
“Hermes Brigannd has a gold tooth, doesn’t he?” Karma said slowly. He’d opened his mouth just enough during the library tour, split his tight-lipped smile, for her to see it flash. There weren’t a lot of gold teeth in Karma Mariscal’s life. There weren’t a lot of visible gold teeth at Flagship U, period. Maybe there was more to the old tortoise than Karma had thought. Dr. Tortuga had given her a clue.
As she left, Tortuga handed Karma a note from the Chair. “An opportunity,” she said, “that I was asked to share with you.”
For a brief, irrational second, Karma thought the Chair might be offering judo lessons. The Chair didn’t know others were aware of her decorated past, but Karma Mariscal had seen her throw Gracie Foible to the ground. She had no desire to rat her out. She just wondered if she could learn to do it herself.
“An academic opportunity,” Tortuga clarified, as if she had read Karma’s mind.
Karma Mariscal had agreed to take the opportunity the Chair offered, to lead a short book discussion, give high school students brought to campus for the latest college-readiness scheme a taste of the classroom. The kids had either expressed some interest in attending Flagship, or had been identified as at risk of not going to college at all. One or two were just the book-loving kids at their schools; they had jumped at the chance.
“Would you mind, Karma? It’s important outreach,” the Chair had said. Wilder Gnat had been supposed to lead the discussion. He was vociferous in his commitment to undergraduates and prospective students, especially the disadvantaged, but he’d been asked to give a keynote and had (regretfully) cancelled at the last moment. Karma could tell from the Chair’s expression that this was not the first time.
“I think you might find it a worthwhile experience,” the Chair said bravely. “We’re hoping you’ll develop a rapport with the high school students.”
How could she mind? After all, it was right up her alley. Karma said, “You want someone who looks a little like them, whose parents maybe didn’t go to college, either.”
“We want someone they will listen to, and learn from.”
Karma shrugged. Her paternal grandfather had been chief of surgery at the largest hospital in Lima, but whatever. Her mother’s parents hadn’t gone to college.
The preparation wasn’t onerous. It was a book she’d wanted to talk about for a long time, one of the coming-of-age stories she loved, with an edge. The language was beautiful, sentences you wanted to read aloud to someone even if you weren’t a person who looked for sentences to read aloud. And it was short—the hero didn’t come of age minute by minute; broad strokes were employed, months or years were skipped over here and there. It was a book they used to read in high schools, but now schools were shying away because some aspects were deemed upsetting or controversial.
The kids filed in, fifteen of them, wary but interested. No one had forced them to be there, but the adults had made sure they knew this was an opportunity. They must not fail to make a good impression. They were on their good behavior. They’d kept their guard up for a long time, but here they were among friends, or at least fellow outsiders—the ones who had accepted the invitation, signed up or let themselves be signed up. Willing to identify themselves as college bound, they’d taken the risk of showing an interest. Now they were wary of being slapped down (they’d been rejected before), they were in unfamiliar territory, and (just below the surface) they were bouncy and thrilled and excited. They could still accept a little fun when offered, they were still hopeful, but they were grumpy, too, brittle; quick to know when they were being slighted. And some of them had even read the book.
Karma could have wished for a more glamorous classroom, but maybe it was better to show them up front what they were in for, not encourage great hopes and greater expectations. “Don’t scrape your feet back and forth like that, you’ll aggravate the asbestos,” she teased the students in the front row. “Kidding. As you can see, not all our classrooms are super fancy. But our best professors are really amazing.” The ancient tablet-arm desks were bolted to the floor of scuffed linoleum tiles laced with asbestos that supposedly remained quiescent so long as no one asked. Karma knew to bring her own chalk, but there was a new projector, new bulbs in the fixtures, four out of five window shades could be lowered as well as raised. She couldn’t get their seats into a circle, but she encouraged them to sit near the front and most of them did. She told them a little about herself and why she was there.
“You visited a class or two this morning, didn’t you?” Some nodding, a few hands in tentative confirmation of where they’d been. “So this is a chance for you to participate in a way that maybe you couldn’t on your tour.”
“Why don’t we have a real prof? Didn’t you say you’re a student?”
“A graduate student, yes.” She didn’t have a ready answer. The professors were busy, and too poorly paid to take on more work for free—but not as poorly paid as she was. One more reason to hate Wilder Gnat. “You were scheduled to have a professor, but he had to cancel at the last minute.”
What the hell was she doing up at the front of the room? Karma felt herself no older than they, no more expert. But she did have notes, at least enough to get her started. It was an in-with-a-bang-out-with-a-whimper kind of book, but that was maybe just as well. If they’d read anything, it would be the first few pages. “Let’s start at the beginning,” she said.
“What about the fire?” one of the kids asked.
“The fire?” Karma drew a momentary blank.
“The driftwood fire, where they’re all down on the beach. It’s like,” the girl riffled through the pages of her book, “here, near the end of chapter one. It’s a huge bonfire.”
“Right,” Karma said. She’d found the page, too. “It’s a big scene. Why do you think it’s important?”
There were groans from the desks, but the girl persisted. “Because it’s really beautiful, the way it’s described, and it sets up what comes next, but it also seems like the characters are really afraid, like it’s a bigger deal than they want to admit.”
“You’re not supposed to burn driftwood,” one of the other kids supplied. “It’s, like, against state law.”
“Who gives a fuck?”
“It’s just so you don’t start another, larger fire. It’s just basic common sense.”
“So you can burn driftwood?”
Karma needed to bring them back to the scene at hand, the book as a whole. She only had a half an hour with them. Half an hour to model college and make them love learning and literature and feel included and welcomed and prepared to start sending in their checks for tuition and fees. “You’re right,” she said again. “It is beautiful. I can’t believe the scene had slipped my mind. I had all these things I wanted to talk to you about.” She waved her notes. “Can someone read that paragraph, page 14?” A boy in the back of the room met her eye, probably by accident, and she nodded encouragingly before he had a chance to look away. “Can you read, please?”
“Sure.” He stumbled here and there—this wasn’t a kid who read aloud often—but he found his stride. His voice was surprisingly deep, resonant as a singer’s, and Karma closed her eyes for a moment, just to listen. She remembered the Head Librarian’s fire, the leaping flames and papery ash, threatening the ancient oaks that ringed the library quad. She had to pull herself together when he stopped, but that was okay, it just made her own reaction more genuine.
“Wow,” said one of the kids, after he’d stopped. “It’s like you can see the flames lighting their faces.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Karma nodded again to the boy at the back. “Thank you,” she said. “You read well.”
“Way to go, Benny!”
“Ben,” he said quietly.
“It’s still pretty tense,” the first girl said. “Like, you know something bad has to happen. Or, it seemed that way to me.”
“And does something bad happen?” Karma asked.
The whole class laughed at that, because the plot was pretty much one bad thing after another, and the girl was right, it started with that fire. Not because the fire itself got out of hand—forbidden or no, the protagonists kept their blaze under control, well clear of the bigger driftwood—but because that was when the group began forming, when the narrator perked up, when everyone, inside and outside the book, began to pay attention.
“How many of you finished the whole book?” Karma asked. The kids looked at one another warily. “It’s not a test. I just wondered.” About half the hands went up. Not bad. “Okay, for those who did finish, what made you keep reading?”
“It was just hard to put down.”
“You sound like an ad—I couldn’t put it down.”
“I wanted to see what happened next.”
“It just sort of carried you.”
“I kept wanting to read parts aloud.”
“Me, too. I never did that before, you know? Found myself looking around for someone I could read something to.”
“And it maybe sounds cheesy, but that is one of the reasons I’m in front of this class.” Karma heard herself and groaned a little, inwardly. She might be laying it on too thick. “Those who didn’t finish,” she said. “How come?”
“Too lazy,” said one of the finishers.
“This isn’t graded,” Karma said. “Let them answer for themselves.”
“It was kinda boring. Sorry.”
“Too much real homework.”
“I have a job after school.”
“It was too sad when the dog died, and then the grandfather, and then the horse. It made me mad.”
A few of them laughed at that, too, but Karma said, “That’s fair. There was a mystery series I loved, but I quit reading when the author killed off my favorite character. I think I’ve missed three or four new ones by now.”
“Are you ever going back?”
“I don’t know.” She flipped ahead to a passage she’d marked near the end. “So, this will be new for some of you, familiar for others.” She read them a few lines. “What’s going on here?”
“They’re about to set the trap. First there’s the race, and the horses, and then everything falls apart. Again.”
“There’s a race?”
“There’s a race, and there’s an auction, and then there’s a funeral.”
“Wrong order,” said the girl in the front. “Funeral, then auction, then race.”
“Tell me what the book means, not everything they did next.” In her mind, Karma heard the echo of her high school English teacher’s favorite warning, shun—eschew—plot review, but thankfully, she didn’t say that out loud.
“So what does it mean?” asked Ben, the boy who had read aloud. Karma realized she should have done some kind of name-learning activity, maybe put them in groups, asked them to write something. So many opportunities missed, and there were the high schoolers’ minders at the door.
“It means I hope I’ll get to read with all of you again sometime,” Karma said, and found that she meant it.
Ben paused on his way out of the room. “Thanks,” he said, looking at the ground.
“You’re most welcome,” Karma said. “Thank you.”
And as he left, his voice echoed for her again, and she opened the book and read the scene of the campfire over to herself, silently. Worse was yet to come, and why hadn’t she seen it before? The Librarian’s fire, too, was just the beginning. She remembered what Professor Tortuga had said about the Head Librarian, that she’d pinpointed the problem but wasn’t able to make herself heard. The novel talked about the green and blue mineral flames born out of the salt, but Karma saw the green and blue inks of the journal covers in the librarian’s pyre, the lashing orange of the taller flames. They should have seen it coming then, too, seen something coming, everyone gathered around that burn, not sure if it was real, not sure when to step in, until one of the undergraduates from the neighboring dorm got a bucket brigade going, just like olden times. No one questioned it, they just kept passing and dumping buckets of water until the real firefighters arrived. And then they waited in horror for them to extract the remains, and all they found was a bent wire mannequin—old fashioned, too, just like the librarian—with the last melted twisted hint of those reading glasses dangling around its neck.
“Possets will be my downfall,” Thea Nuffsed said, ushering Karma into her office. Nearly dusk, but it was the only time she could manage in a packed week. Karma wanted to talk about how she might focus her term paper, but she quickly saw this was a kind of interview. Thea Nuffsed was notoriously picky about the graduate students she accepted. She was just as notorious for the numbers of students she directed. The frequency with which she bemoaned her overloaded state betrayed a perverse pride—at least she was popular. She needed to keep that stable full. She had even been accused of hoarding graduate students, keeping her academic rivals from achieving the rank of full professor by directing all the available dissertations herself.
“If I were ever going to poison Gnat, I would have used a posset,” she said.
Karma stammered in confusion, but fortunately Nuffsed mistook the source of her misgiving and explained, “Like Lady Macbeth drugging her porters. What a shame to poison something so delicious.” What a shame so many readers today knew the posset, if they knew it at all, solely from that grim association. Too, it sounded like something you’d slap on a wound—what was the word she was thinking of? Poultice.
But a posset. She had come to relish her evening posset: sweet cream and eggs and heated sherry, nutmeg and sugar, thickened almost to a kind of custard. Probably too rich for bedtime, but delicious. Poorer people made possets with ale, thickened with bread; made with figs, it was called “fig-sue” in the Lake District.
Professor Nuffsed explained all this to Karma Mariscal. She worked late often, and had set up a small hotplate and a microwave in her office—justified to the uptight Risk Management people who were always sniffing around as in fact a necessary and well-supervised laboratory in which to test preliminary findings. It was a big office. Even with the equipment, it never felt cramped. People might kill for an office that big. Rumor had it, people had.
She kept perishables in a small refrigerator behind her desk—locked, to keep her materials safe from prying eyes or sticky hands—and she made Karma cover her eyes as she mixed the posset, as if it were a secret formula known only to her. What about all those poor people making do with figs and beer, Karma wanted to ask. She held her tongue a little longer.
Karma tried to describe where her interests lay, but Thea Nuffsed had little time for the sort of dissertation project Karma had in mind. She tried to discourage her students from studying anything so pedestrian as well-known novels published long ago. She had tried to steer her students, as much as possible, toward fields of discovery and archival revelation. From her rarified heights of scholarly discovery—recovery—it was easy to overlook the importance others might give to plain vanilla books to be found in the open stacks—or not to be found, as was more and more often the case.
But that she had given up murderous plots, Karma Mariscal might have borrowed her own page from Lady Macbeth and drugged the posset of the rising historical cookery star. She had longed to work with Thea Nuffsed. She had admired her from afar. She had admired her up close, but now the closer she got, the more she doubted. She continued to work with Thea Nuffsed, convinced she needed the imprimatur of Flagship U’s most prolific and sought-after dissertation director to give her that final boost out into the world. And yet, she had begun to notice how seldom Professor Nuffsed strayed from her chosen themes: the importance of her upcoming book, soon to be finished and change the world—sooner to be finished, or would be, if she directed fewer dissertations, which work she loved and prized above rubies, the opportunity to bring the next generation into the archives, to approach the treasures overlooked, hidden or unknown, where she herself had found untold riches, the basis for her own long-promised, much-anticipating forthcoming book. . . It was like being on a playground merry-go-round, dizzying, thrilling, and then dull, dull, dull as the momentum of the parent’s push wound down into tedium, and then nausea, and then clear desperation.
The public library was the one spot in town where all sorts truly rubbed elbows: parents with toddlers and high schoolers with homework and runaways and homeless people trying to stay warm or cool off, depending on the season. Anna Innovatova had set up shop just outside the front door. A bronze statue of a grandfather reading to a muddle of assembled children and dogs gave her a place to rest, a focal point, and a base from which to accost passersby. The sidewalks were busy, but not too busy. Sufficient potential targets, but not too many bystanders to get in the way.
A gentleman in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and dark glasses stepped unwarily into the sunshine. Anna Innovatova gave the signal and her co-conspirator jumped him, right in front of everyone, no dark ally required. What was the city coming to? The assailant demanded cash, but demanded it in a language the man couldn’t understand. Hand in his pocket poking wildly, arms flailing, eyes rolling—the assailant was beside himself, he was about to kill his victim with his bare hands if he had to.
Elegant, calming, sunhat pushed back on her head just so, long skirt, so modest, unfashionable—did she belong to one of those religious groups?—Anna Innovatova stepped forward. She murmured in a soothing beekeeper’s voice, she spoke the attacker’s language, she translated for the intended victim.
It was not a robbery at all. The man’s wife was suffering a seizure just around the corner, he desperately needed help. He needed money—who doesn’t?—but more than that, he needed a ride to the hospital, he needed someone to call the police, the paramedics, tell him everything would be all right.
Anna Innovatova did all those things. She translated, she explained, she calmed.
And then she preached. That was her mistake, but what could she do, anxious as she was to reassure the victim of the imaginary mugging that the seizing woman was no more real than the threat to take his wallet?
Because the sometime victim had sprung into action. Where was the wife? How could he help? He had extensive first aid training, he knew CPR and protocols for choking and bleeding and stroke.
Alas, there was no wife. He was meant to understand only how much more useful he might be to his fellow man if he spoke another language, if he had attended all those years ago in high school French or Spanish, if he had kept up his skills, found a way to expand.
The gentleman did not take it well. He knew his pulse was racing, knew his blood pressure was now dangerously high, knew he might soon be a candidate for first aid himself. He knew he’d been made to play the fool, toyed with recklessly to make a point. But patient Anna Innovatova settled him, or thought she did. After all, who could object to an opportunity to learn? At last he took his leave, looking over his shoulder now and then as he walked away, and Anna Innovatova felt a stab of something like remorse, a fleeting doubt that she had gone too far, disturbed not just the man’s complacency, but his inner peace. But he would forget! It was the heat that made her doubt, the bright sunlight making her squint, the contained tension. She felt herself shaking.
She sought refuge in the nearest coffee shop. She liked a green tea latte. Iced, in summer. The shop wasn’t crowded, but a young man at the self-serve spoons and sweeteners bar seemed bent on gathering every paper sugar packet in the place.
“You like your coffee sweet,” Innovatova said, in English. “In my country, we drink it sweet as well.”
Jacob Price looked over his shoulder at his questioner and nodded. He thought she looked a little familiar, but the sunhat threw him off. “Helps the medicine go down,” he said vaguely, but he didn’t take the third handful of sugar packets he had planned on.
Anna Innovatova might have said something further, but there was a pileup at the door just then. One of those idiots who never take the time to check the sign (pull? push?) was fighting with the door and then fell back when it opened too quickly to his excessive force. His stumbled over-correction launched him smack against Jacob, bringing him down.
Jacob sprawled on the floor—it felt stickier than it should be, he wouldn’t drink the coffee there again—the contents of his bulging coat pockets spilled and piled around him. “Sorry, man, you need all these?” the other said (his assailant, in Jacob’s mind, but of course it had been a simple collision; a confusion and accident). “Let me help.”
Jacob nodded, accepted the help, refilled his pockets.
“So what’re they for?” the other said. He was sorry to have knocked him down, but he’d been helpful, too; he hoped for an explanation.
“You know.” Jacob shrugged and left.
“You forgot your coffee!” the clerk called after him, but Jacob didn’t turn.
“I don’t think he had any,” Anna Innovatova said.
Early the next week, the Chair called Anna Innovatova into her office.
“We must make language study more evident, more necessary,” Innovatova said simply, when asked to explain her methods. “It’s not just decoration, being well rounded. It can be life or death.” She smiled. “You asked me to try something new, yes?”
“Much misunderstanding—even violence—could be avoided if people spoke more languages.”
“And if the public saw the value of language study, I do understand. But was this quite the way to do it? Did you really create a teachable moment? Don’t explain, I’m familiar with invisible theater. But instead of turning a passive spectator into an active learner, I think you might have turned him into an active litigant.”
As, alas, she had. Mr. Farview, visiting their fair city with his wife and in-laws, did not appreciate having his emotions so mercilessly trifled with, did not appreciate the humiliation, the fear. What if he had had a heart condition? What’s more, how could they assume that any given language was the one to learn? The whole premise was flawed. The feigned mugger might have been speaking Thai or Russian or Swahili, while the pretended victim might have been fluent in Spanish, Quechua, and Icelandic. No overlap among them, but hardly a benighted, monolingual dummy. He was suing for emotional distress and for intellectual mockery and disrespect.
The city might also be suing, for damage to reputation, lost branding dollars: all stops had recently been pulled out to draw in the tourists. The university was supposed to enhance, not undermine those efforts, to be a beacon of culture and light, of inclusive welcome, creative thought, strong values, reliability, safety. . . the list went on.
Anna Innovatova wrung her hands, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. She had meant no harm. She would never harm any living creature. Indeed, she was known across the university as an animal lover; more than one student had found with her a refuge for the stowaway Fido or Fluffy ejected from the dorms, for the caged bird forbidden to sing in the next year’s rental. She had no children of her own, but she had the affection of devoted pets and their grateful past custodians. She held visiting hours for the former owners.
“They seek,” here the Chair referred to her notes in disbelief, unable to trust her recollection, “the recovery of lost branding momentum and investment.” Innovatova, whose uncles grazed sheep and cattle on federal land in the US and on tiny ancestral plots in their distant country of origin, imagined a rapidly accelerating conveyor belt that sped hapless bovines toward the branding pen. She let out a sympathetic bleat, or perhaps it was a moo. “Just so,” said the Chair, taking the sound for a comment more than an involuntary protest. “We have a branding office, too. I have been informed that Flagship U letterhead must be employed only with designated fonts.”
Anna Innovatova was a quick study. She didn’t bleat again. She asked, “Might we not enhance the city’s brand through our commitment to knowledge and educational outreach?”
“We might. But I think they hoped we might do so more quietly.”
“Well.” Anna Innovatova sighed heavily. “I am sorry. But I don’t really know what they expect us to do. Low enrollments are our fault, yet outreach isn’t wanted. I can say it six different ways—cul-de-sac, oxymoron, dilemma, impasse, Catch-22. I have said it, in so many words at the highest levels. But they haven’t heard me.”
“I know. Have you tried the phrase S.O.L.? Because I think we may be.”
Innovatova was nodding. “I will try that,” she said, pulling out a tiny notebook even as she rose to leave. “I will try everything, you know.” She was never down for long.
The Chair almost said, “Please don’t,” no longer sure how, if at all, she could protect or aid her. But she closed her mouth again before the words came out and let her go.
“I don’t envy you, dealing with that one.”
Startled, the Chair looked up to see Magnus Fitt. He stood in the doorway, watching Anna Innovatova’s receding back, ready to offer his aid.
At last. The Chair stood to greet him, sliding her left foot forward as she did so. The button was smooth as silk, just enough resistance to let her know it had been tripped, a satisfying silent settling like a click, and then the levers worked and the floor fell away beneath him. The trapdoor was the best thing about being Chair.
He wouldn’t have been hurt. There was a sofa placed beneath the trapdoor, down in the basement where the graduate students had their cubbies. Trash-picked in the dead of night by the previous Chair’s assistant, the sofa was what passed for a graduate lounge.
It was worse than the Chair’s wildest imaginings. It always was. She had once thought herself prone to catastrophizing, but it turned out she was not nearly as good at imagining the worst as she had believed. The worst (so far) arrived on her desk in the shape of a fat file of correspondence and a terse note to call General Counsel at her earliest convenience.
Had she been aware of Innovatova’s plans? No, she had not.
Had she asked Innovatova to promote the study of languages to all and sundry, on campus and off?
“As Director of Language Instruction, promoting the study of languages is obviously part of her brief.”
Naturally. But had the professor been urged to work off campus as well as on? Had she been instructed or encouraged to continue her promotional activities on Sundays, holidays, nights and weekends?
“I try not to impinge on faculty down time more than I have to,” the Chair said. “But Anna treats her work as a calling, and I have certainly said—and the Dean has certainly said, and likely the Provost as well—that we must do all we can to make the public aware of our work. To live the Humanities, as it were, so that people know what we’re up to. Out of the Ivory Tower and into the fire.”
“So you’re saying you did encourage her.”
“I’m saying a reasonable interpretation of the explicit and implicit stipulations telling us that if we didn’t do something to shore up enrollments, our programs would die and we would have no one to blame but ourselves—a reasonable interpretation of all that might be that one was being asked to think creatively. Outside the box. Pushing the envelope. Shifting paradigms, expanding best practices, moving forward, reaching out, the whole nine yards.”
General Counsel’s pause was a little longer this time. Late of Gainsay, Grumble, and Flack, General Counsel had given up a senior partnership in the private sector to take this job. She had been misled as to her new clients’ tractability. “In your estimation, then, Professor Innovatova is a reasonable person.”
“Highly reasonable. Rational. Erudite. Experienced.”
“Not desperate. Off her rocker,” Counsel rattled paper, reading notes, “a bit unhinged.”
“No. As I said, rational, experienced, highly trained. That doesn’t mean she isn’t also beleaguered, over-extended, perhaps distraught.” Too late, the Chair realized she had missed a better chance to protect her colleague. At least to mitigate the damage, break the fall. She said, “Would it be better or worse if she had been on Flagship business?” She came so close—too close—to calling it FU.
“Are you thinking to change your story?”
“I have no story to change. I’m trying to understand.”
“False pretenses are always worse,” Counsel admitted, with evident reluctance.
“Language enrollments are down. Dr. Innovatova’s course load is up. Yet her faith in the power of language study to move mountains, even to save the world, is undiminished. Don’t ask me why.”
“But she was not on university business. She was haranguing private citizens in her own capacity as a private citizen.”
“With a workload like hers, it’s hard to see where the professional part of the day ends and the personal begins.”
“That Professor Innovatova is a language instructor—indeed, the Director of Language Instruction—at Flagship University does not mean she represents the university always and everywhere.”
“But if she were engaged in language instruction?”
“Instruction seems a very generous, not to say loaded and misleading, term to apply to her histrionic activities.”
In sum, if financial ruin was to ensue, it would be Innovatova’s ruin, not her employer’s. In sum, even a small sum of legal fees would be ruinous for Innovatova, whose innovative approach to teaching, to publicity, to making something from nothing, did not, alas, extend to an innovative ability to spin straw into gold or paper toweling into cash.
“What does that mean, really, for Anna?” the Chair asked quietly.
“The university will not defend her, if it comes to a legal issue. Our insurance does not cover her expenses.”
For a year in his twenties, Randall Chyme had looked like the tiny Beethoven action figure that had adorned the pianist’s ashtray in the Best Room, but the wild, wavy hair—long but not too long—had required a level of maintenance Chyme was unwilling to sustain. For a year after that, he looked like a prog rock cover band refugee, locks to the middle of his back, sometimes in a braid. Now he looked like his music: calming, encouraging, unchallenging but supportive—a person to lean on, a face to confide in, a warm presence who would make you feel a little better and never let you down. People had difficulty describing him. Even Anna Innovatova, after their first night together, could only say that his beautiful hair was very, very soft. He dressed in blues and grays, in wools and silks. Warm even when wet, he’d say of the wool, noting the climate.
Chyme had begun his professional career as a church organist (his Sunday job) and moonlighted late nights at piano bars specializing in experimental jazz. But his musical life began in high school, when he started playing the lute in a Renaissance reenactment society of which his parents were members. He had polished his lute skills, learned the piano, made his way to one of the nation’s foremost conservatories to study composition, with a secondary focus on music history. He was as conversant with ancient music as with the latest pop. He understood music for ceremonial occasions and had enjoyed long conversations with Dr. Nuffsed about the music that might have been played to accompany the meals whose preparation she was studying. She was interested in the ordinary cook as well as the grand banquet, in the common woman’s common lot. Only recently, historically speaking, had that common woman had music to accompany her labors in the kitchen, the transistor radio, say, or the oldies station making her feel like a kid again as she packed her own kids’ lunches—or did it only make her feel old? Another reason Nuffsed was just as glad she’d never had children. Randall Chyme had countered that music was to be made as much as listened to, and that the humble cooks who sparked Thea Nuffsed’s interest likely hummed to themselves or sang to their stewpots, at least the musically inclined among them.
“Whistled while they worked?” Nuffsed’s look was wry. She pursed her lips, sensing a trap. Randall Chyme was so mild-mannered, so self-effacing, he was hard to get a handle on. Smart enough, but undefined.
“Perhaps their children made music for them as well,” he said mildly. All that cheap commercial spa pap had left him impervious to baiting. “A child singing to herself in a corner while she plays is a sweet sound.”
Randall Chyme had begun at the Ren-Faire, but he had concluded that the reproduction of a thin facsimile of a reimagined past was a facile retreat from real life, and he had put historically-informed practice behind him. Not that he couldn’t trot out a historical justification for his methods and means if he needed to.
—Hard to take seriously, really.
—Don’t you enjoy a massage?
—No, I really don’t. Especially not with that unmusic-music.
—Well, most people like a massage.
Sellout, lowbrow, middlebrow, no-brow; unoriginal, too commercial—none of this was news to Randall Chyme. He himself, years ago, had listened to the flutey, mellow music playing in the day spa (his then-girlfriend had signed them up for his and hers facials) and thought there wasn’t much to it. But the lack of substance was with the girlfriend, who left him the next day for the second cousin of a friend back in Texas. The music stayed with him. Chyme found himself wondering what kind of music the great spas of Europe had played for the guests who came to take the waters. He had done a historical survey, scorned by some as a transparent bid for academic legitimacy, and even published an article on the music played at those elegant havens, where composers and pianists were regularly among the guests and performed for the others, filling leisure hours and providing aesthetic enjoyment that might contribute to pleasure as much as to healing. The therapeutic landscape was enhanced by the eminent violinists’ evocation of the music of the spheres. And so forth.
At some point, spa music had changed from a public part of the destination’s entertainment and prestige, to a discreet, nearly hidden part of the treatment, the creation of ambience more than of art—though that, too, was an art, as Chyme later strove to demonstrate, in both criticism and practice. He still taught “Music of the Spas: Ancients to Moderns” in alternate years. But by now, he had achieved a legitimacy anyone could understand, could envy if not admire: legitimacy at the bank. Randall Chyme had amassed a not-so-small fortune selling his recordings. His production company, Wind-In-Song, was among the largest privately held music distributors in North America. And now that financial legitimacy could be put to noble use, as he rode to the aid of Anna Innovatova.
Randall Chyme had admired Anna Innovatova from afar for years. He had audited her introductory Icelandic class, just to listen to her voice pronouncing all those long words. He had incorporated her tone into his latest composition. He had remained at Flagship University to be close to her, though he could well afford to retire. Too, the university connection remained of value. At the more advanced spas, the scientifically-tested nature of his relaxation play-lists was a selling point.
He was shy. Gentle. Quiet in a way some read as timid. He knew his music was good, aesthetically and practically. His weekly massage was accompanied by his own music, the better to gauge its effects. He scheduled a luminous rejuvenation facial peel or a balancing sea salt scrub every month or so, hopping from spa to spa around the region, sound-sampling as he went. He traveled widely, gathering tones and tunes and instruments, searching out that vaguely-Celtic, vaguely-Asian, vaguely-Native American, vaguely-vague musical idea that would complete his next assemblage. His hair was neatly trimmed, yet fluffy, wavy—just enough. Just so. He, too, was able to blend in with his surroundings.
Chyme had heard rumors that Innovatova had been left financially on the hook for all legal repercussions of her outreach efforts. He went to her home, knocked on the door, took her in his arms and let her cry and vent and then he told her she had nothing to worry about, not financially, that he would cover whatever costs might accrue, he would underwrite any countersuit she might wish to undertake. Perhaps against their feckless employer? But that was a discussion for another day.
He imagined all of these possibilities, even imagined (why not?) the snow-white steed. But he found her slumped and crying in the corridor outside her tiny office.
When Chyme came upon Innovatova sobbing in the hall, she was twisting in her hands the silk scarf she had worn to evoke the fluttering breeze of the Icelandic hills in the day’s last lesson, visual onomatopoeia for tired undergraduates who nonetheless were willing to undulate with her, following the movement of the scarf, to hum, to practice, to attempt. They loved her, and the scarf. So what if it was silly, woo-woo, thick with the dense unplaceable perfume that followed her in a gentle ineffable cloud? The scarf had helped, and every student in that class had learned at least a little. But now the scarf looked like a garrote prepped and ready for the next attack. It looked like a thin and sorry thread, a thin and ragged, wrinkled rope, twisted and twisted and wrung in her hands, tugged and tumbled. Tear-stained, sweat-stained. Somewhere, there must be blood.
Anna Innovatova’s office was so small that when a student visited during office hours (which she conscientiously kept, two hours per class per week as per university regulations, though no one had troubled to count up how many hours that really was for an instructor teaching seven or ten or more classes a year; even Innovatova had finally been obliged to double up, inviting students from different classes to partake of the same consultation slots); when a student came to see her, the student’s chair had be pushed halfway into the corridor to leave room for the student’s knees between the chair and the desk. Innovatova herself sat on top of her desk. There was no space in the room for a second chair.
But she had no visitor now. Why did she not go inside, seek the slight privacy her cubbyhole afforded? She had lost her key. For a moment Chyme thought she had been obliged to surrender it, that she was no longer employed but no, it was not that bad. Indeed, long and windy statements had been made about the institution’s absolute commitment to academic freedom at home and abroad; the one caveat—gently, clearly underscored—was that what happened on an employee’s own time was outside the institutional purview. And really, wasn’t that a feature, not a flaw? More proof, if proof were needed, that Flagship University was a bastion of integrity and restraint. It would not seek—would not stoop—to dictate the faculty’s after-hours words or deeds.
“Can I help?” Chyme asked softly.
Anna Innovatova looked up. “I don’t think so.” She handed him the letter, confirmation of what rumors had suggested, of what he’d read in the paper. No numbers were attached—no judgment had yet been reached—but the import was clear. Dr. Anna Innovatova was on her own.
“I think I can,” Chyme said. He sat down beside her on the floor, legs stretched out straight in front of him. They looked for all the world like study partners practicing their dialogue before the oral quiz. The corridor was generally full of Innovatova’s students, even in these times of declining enrollments. As employment had dipped even more steeply than enrollment, nearly all the language students at Flagship U were Innovatova’s students. Indeed, her many students represented such a large proportion of the undergraduate population, and she received so many requests from advising initiatives, study abroad programs, retention counselors, diversity outreach specialists, and college development officers to use just a few minutes of her class time to share the attached announcement—slides, short video, interest survey—that she had begun to charge for the privilege, renting access to those students’ precious attention by way of a simple electronic payment system that one of those very students had helped her to design.
Between classes, those many students sat and stood and stumbled and sprawled around the corridor, studying and practicing and waiting. Years ago, or so the story went, there had been a student lounge, with ugly potted plants stuck full of cigarette butts and a microwave oven cleaned each time the census rolled around, but the room had been requisitioned for administrative offices, and then the entire building had been torn down, to be replaced with a state-of-the-art classroom building that, alas, had not yet been built. The Governor must first approve the use of funds; he was said to be close, troubled only by some doubt as to whether the classroom building or a proposed greyhound track for the school’s athletic and gaming complex was the greater need. In the meantime, there was a small donations jar beside the till at the campus coffee shop, like the old UNICEF boxes children used to take around on Halloween. Jacob Price had accidentally spilled it twice, fumbling with his sugar packets, and many of the quarters and nickels at the bottom of the jar had been accidentally misplaced in the cleanup. In another century or so, they’d have enough to break ground.
Chyme sat close to her, but not so close as to crowd. Close enough to speak softly, but never to intrude. He explained his situation. It would seem unlikely, unreal, impossible, he knew, and so he took it slowly.
His faculty position was more secure than Innovatova’s (he was tenured, after all), his salary higher. He was a frugal man, had lived always well within his means. But his means were considerable. Because he had taken seriously the notion of dissemination. He did not simply write about music. He did not simply compose music and then direct his students and the local symphony in the performance of his compositions. He recorded his music. And far from being a specialized, rarified taste—unlistenable, academic art music, say; something repulsive and restrictive that pushed the listener away—his recordings found a ready market in the day spa and relaxation crowd. Who, in these times of stress and worry, does not welcome the soothing roll of ersatz ocean waves? Randall Chyme had amassed a fortune selling CDs by mail, licensing his recordings for some of the bigger resorts, filling treatment salons and Vichy-shower stalls and dressing rooms with the soft bells that might drown out despair, that might lift the careworn from their care.
Anna Innovatova was not one to feign coy misunderstanding. More skilled than most at following odd turns of phrase and stumbling arguments, sentences that began in one language and ended in another, she had no trouble following Randall Chyme’s roundabout, not quite embarrassed but somewhat hesitant offer of help. She did not shriek or gasp in horror or surprise. She was a practical woman, a woman literally with her back to the wall (a wall that was probably leaving her sweater smudged and smeared with chalk, since she had painted it with chalkboard paint at her own expense, to give students a place to practice notes and conjugations). She said, “Thank you.” She said, “I would like to hear more of your music.” She said, “There is no possibility that I can repay you, if it comes to that, but of course I will try.”
Randall Chyme said, “I never really wanted to learn Icelandic. I was there to listen to you.”
Now she was surprised. She blushed, and moved a little closer. “Maybe,” she said, “all the fuss will bring a little attention. To the languages. If we had a third instructor, my colleague and I could be responsible for fewer than sixty contact hours per week.”
“That should be mathematically impossible, to have you teach so much. There aren’t that many hours in the day,” Chyme protested.
“Such calculations are a matter for Quantitative Studies. Here in Qualitative. . .”
Chyme pulled out his phone. “This is what I’ve been working on,” he said, and played the opening passage of his latest composition. Which sounded exactly like the middle and final portions of the composition, but that was the idea.
“Perhaps it will soothe the jury,” Innovatova smiled.
“That is what we must hope.”
They had staked out a table in the back corner of the campus pub (happy half-hour, 5:15-5:45), a room dark enough to avoid attracting notice, close enough to the office to avoid a long walk in the rain, and unfashionable enough that they were unlikely to run into too many awkward conversations. The Chair had invited Celeste Tortuga for a drink, to celebrate the double triumph of her latest awards. Perhaps a triple triumph, or triumph squared, given that books such as Tortuga’s—eminently readable but no less rigorously scholarly—seldom won awards beyond those sponsored by the professional associations or the universities themselves. And here she had not only won the Association for the Advancement of Lyricism’s Silver Pearl, but had been a finalist for the National Book Award and for the Pulitzer Prize. And for once, Tortuga’s success had not gone unmarked by the higher-ups. The President himself had invited her to join his leadership team in the Core Conference Room for a much-deserved champagne toast.
If that invitation had produced a wave of euphoria, a well-earned happiness at the recognition, the bubbly had already burst. “My first visit to the inner sanctum, so that’s something,” Tortuga told the Chair, without bitterness but also without enthusiasm. “But I’m not really sure why I went. I don’t think they even heard me say Cheers! It was as if they never even saw my lips move.”
Tortuga’s complaint was not new. “Wasn’t the last president finalist a woman?” the Chair mused aloud.
“I heard she didn’t have much to say.”
“Maybe it’s the room.”
“Don’t you remember the women’s basketball coach? The one with the cheerleader uniforms?” The coach shouldn’t have been speaking in the Core Conference Room at all, but her efforts to get new uniforms for her team had fallen on deaf ears within the athletic department, where the question properly belonged. Within the Core Conference Room, they fell on deaf ears as well. Her team went to the national championship wearing cheerleaders’ uniforms, causing no end of confusion. They did win the championship, though few on campus were aware of the fact.
“Hello, Alice.” The Chair turned. Outside the office, General Counsel looked almost human.
“Hello M.W. Do you know Celeste Tortuga?” No one at Flagship knew what the initials stood for. General Counsel had adopted the cloaking device back in law school; when she did so, responses to her job queries went up by sixteen percent.
“Pleased to meet you.” General Counsel turned to the Chair again. “Alice, how do you say your last name?”
“Loost.” People didn’t usually ask twice. Sometimes they got it right.
“Buy you a drink?”
“My treat, this time.”
“That is largess!” boomed a voice behind them. The walls had ears, the phones had eyes, and the most determined seekers of news and connection moved across the campus on little cat feet, whiskers twitching, ready to pounce. The Chair took a deep breath, the kind her physical therapist continued to insist was calming, and turned to face Wilder Gnat.
Gnat held out his hand, introduced himself. “Wilder Gnat, Founding Director of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies—sorry, if I don’t spell it out, we have the acronym GNAT, doesn’t look good.” His apologetic smile was almost convincing, but General Counsel, late of Gainsay, Grumble, and Flack, had seen a lot of apologetic smiles.
And where had he come from? Not for the first time, the Chair thought he ought to wear a bell to warn of his approach, like a cat with a bell on its collar to warn the birds.
“Sit down, Wilder,” Celeste Tortuga said.
“Participating faculty in the Center for Metriphonics and Bleak Aesthetics,” Gnat was saying, still introducing himself, his red hair undimmed by the dim light.
“Do sit down,” Tortuga said again.
“Remind me what Metriphonics is? Is that legal?” the Chair whispered.
“No idea. But you’re thinking hydroponics. Ask Gnat,” Tortuga whispered back.
“God, no. He might tell me.” The Chair turned to Gnat. “We were talking campus history,” she said. “Here at Flagship University. . .”
“Why must we be flagship?” Gnat interrupted. “Isn’t that awfully militaristic? Imperialist, masculinist?”
Did General Counsel roll her eyes just then? The light was dim. Nothing could be proved.
The table was a long one, eight seats to a side. A row of chairs along either wall doubled the room’s capacity. In the past, before she’d become Chair, Alice Loost had amused herself predicting who would sit where. The flashiest egos often sat against the wall, the better to bring their wrongly overlooked views to bear from the sidelines. Back then, she could eat her lunch during the meeting like anybody else. Now she watched Magnus Fitt lay out his midday meal: cloth napkin, three tightly-lidded stainless steel boxes, a salt shaker, a budvase, something that smelled warm and delicious. The Chair’s stomach growled. “Did you bring enough to share?” she asked Fitt.
Magnus Fitt smirked. He thought she was joking. “Is there an agenda, please?” Fitt was a stickler for process.
“Yes, Magnus.” The Chair passed out printed cards. She’d taken some trouble this time, arranging the topics as for a three-course meal. “Your menu,” she said. “I know how you relish our luncheons.”
Gracious in defeat, Magnus Fitt smiled. “Touché.”
“Our agenda includes the annual call for symposia proposals, the—”
“Perennial Crisis in Crisis: A Roundtable.”
“Demand, Dilapidate, Defile.”
“Spring, Sprang, Sprung: Why April Really is the Cruelest Month.”
“The Past of the Present Past (is) Perfect.”
Was the Chair alone in thinking that last air parenthesis bordered on the obscene? The Chair raised her voice. “No need to shout out your answers, just make a note of the deadline. There are forms by the door, also available electronically, due Tuesday the 9th, in triplicate, signed by your Peer Evaluation Buddy, your Chair, the Dean, and two character references; if you’re a person of faith, your clergyperson would be a good option.”
Wilder Gnat slipped into a chair near the door with ostentatious stealth, his 100% late arrival record intact. “Sorry!” At Gnat’s first sorry, there was a clicking of pens. Someone must have passed out the bingo cards when the Chair wasn’t looking. “Meeting of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies,” Gnat continued, breathless. “So sorry, ran late. And a grant proposal to review. Also one of my students asked, and I think we should add this to the agenda if at all possible, when the Administration is going to recognize the innovative work we—”
Magnus Fitt referred to his menu card. “The budget,” he read, “a memo from General Counsel, and Assessment Compliance Worksheet Clarification. Soup to nuts.”
“Sorry, of course we have an agenda, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Gnat said. “No doubt another fun-filled, zany afternoon. Shakespeare coined that one you know—zany.” Click, click, click went the pens. “What’s the Assessment Compliance Worksheet?”
Thea Nuffsed drummed her short, perfectly trimmed nails. “We’ve been doing them for three years,” she said.
“I haven’t,” Gnat said. He looked around the table for confirmation.
“Then you’re out of compliance,” the Chair said wearily. “This one needs four copies. Start with your syllabus. Confer with your evaluation buddy, it’s fairly straightforward. The clarification is that no one will be considered for promotion, merit increase, or drinks tickets at the Divisional holiday reception without a complete portfolio.”
“What if I don’t like my buddy?” Gracie Foible complained.
“None of us do. That’s why they’re assigned,” Celeste Tortuga said. “And Here, Koffee-Koffee’s clean out of sugar. I went in for my pre-meeting double—it’s not you, but you know me, no caffeine, no meeting—and some clown had wiped them out. Not a packet anywhere.”
“Sugar, sugar everywhere, but not a grain of sweet.”
“I bought some peanuts on the corner,” Thea Nuffsed announced. “Artisanally candied.”
A furtive hand reached toward Magnus Fitt’s feast, fingers extended toward a deviled egg. Fitt smacked the offender away without missing a beat.
Again the clicking of pens.
The Chair referred to her notes. “I have been asked to speak about the budget.” She cleared her throat. “At some time in the future, the Division will receive a budget. At some point after that, your Chair will receive a budget from the Dean. None of us will get as much as we need or feel we deserve.” She paused.
“As you know, there will be a new budget model. It is in development at an undisclosed location. Nothing like it has ever been seen.”
Gracie Foible raised her hand. “Seems to me the library budget has already been slashed. Haven’t you noticed the gaps in the stacks?”
Nods around the table. People had begun to notice that crucial things were missing. Nothing brand new. Not the latest utterance of today’s field-defining star. But the classics. Foundational texts. Things you expected to find in the library when you went to look. Flagship’s small collection compared to its more prosperous peers was a long-running joke—more of an open sore—but these were books they supposedly owned.
“Shouldn’t we have Pride and Prejudice?” Foible insisted.
Wilder Gnat interrupted. “That must be public domain, isn’t it? It must be available on line. We really should be making more use of—”
Magnus Fitt set down his fork. “The Compendium of World Mythologies. I always put it on reserve for my first-year students—nowhere to be found.”
“Is there still a reserve room?”
“There must be. Though I haven’t visited in years,” said Randall Chyme.
“Library couriers, right?”
“Yes, and automated reserve request systems. Still, one assumes there are materials there to be put on reserve,” Tortuga said. “Or couriered.”
“No there there, anymore,” said Magnus Fitt.
“I think there’s more there than you realize,” Thea Nuffsed observed. With the 21st-Century Storage Initiative in place, she suspected Hermes Brigannd had begun to widen his reach, seeing his chance to box up not just old journals, but a lot of other books that were gathering dust. If they were going to gather dust, why not let them gather greenbacks?
She was right. Brigannd started with the books everyone hated that no one would miss. The reading list for tenth-grade English, for Intro to Lit, for “Declines and Falls,” the seminar taught by Magnus Fitt since time immemorial.
Brigannd had started with the not-easily-missed, the no-one-would-care, but nearly every book had at least one champion, someone who needed it for a class or wanted to read it to settle a bet. The circulation desk filled a shoebox with request slips, and then another, for all the books patrons had requested that no one had been able to find. Hermes Brigannd, meanwhile, began planting seeds for catalog renewal, insinuating that a thoroughgoing catalog review was long overdue; errors had crept in and if something wasn’t done soon, they’d all have egg on their faces.
Wilder Gnat spoke up. “I understand Rival State has recently bought new library software. I hear it’s grand.”
“Oh, please,” moaned Gracie Foible. “Must we live and die by Rival State?”
“There’s been some library reorganization,” Nuffsed went on. “I’m not sure it’s a catalog problem. Maybe you need to look harder. Special Collections, I can tell you, is an amazing resource. I’ve found invaluable materials for my project.”
“And when are we going to see that famous cookbook? You’ve been talking about it for quite a while.” Magnus Fitt looked around the table. “I’ve developed quite an appetite,” he smirked.
“Then it’s a good thing you brought your lunch, Magnus,” Celeste Tortuga said.
“It takes time to write important books,” said Wilder Gnat, unwilling to be left out.
“Embodied experience, embodied work,” Thea Nuffsed intoned. “Like the hunger you’re feeling, Magnus. I’m working on the tansies chapter right now.”
Magnus Fitt looked at her for a moment, eyes narrowed. A stickler for process, he liked nothing better than a clear agenda, clearly followed. And yet Professor Nuffsed was poised to dig herself a generous pit, given a chance. He handed her a spade. “And what might tansies be, to merit an entire chapter?” he asked.
Thea Nuffsed sensed a trap, but she couldn’t resist. “Tansy is a plant, same family as daisies. It’s bitter tasting, strongly scented, but the juice has been used in medicines and cooking. It was long used as a stomachic, to increase appetite or aid digestion.”
Even seated, Fitt could manage a magnanimous bow. “Thank you for the clarification. If only you had brought some today.”
Anna Innovatova, never without access to multiple dictionaries, chimed in to read the definition from the OED: “It says here a tansy was also a pudding, omelet, or the like, flavoured with juice of tansy. Said to have been eaten at Easter in memory of the ‘bitter herbs’ of the Passover.”
Nuffsed bristled. Her work went well beyond simple definitions easily accessed in any dictionary’s electronic mode. There was a reason she so seldom displayed her project’s details, yet unfinished, in public. Still, faculty meetings were usually so purely bureaucratic, with so little of intellectual community or exchange of ideas. She could do her part to elevate the discourse, remind them all of what they were about. “Exactly,” she said, smiling thanks to Innovatova. “But you don’t want that bitter memory to be too dominant, do you? So you’d generally want to mix the tansy with other herbs, to dilute that bitterness, if not outright mask it. Beaten eggs and spices, so you had a kind of omelet, or maybe an egg pancake. Sometimes walnut leaf buds, also bitter, were used in place of tansy.” The bitter, minty hyssop the Provost had given her might come in handy.
“Might you share a recipe or two with friends?” Magnus Fitt inquired.
“I’d rather not just yet,” Nuffsed demurred. “You understand. You’ll find the manuscript evidence I bring to bear is quite surprising.”
“Bitter herbs and purgatives. I’m sure there are more than a few around this table who could use that treatment,” Wilder Gnat snapped.
“Peace, chewet, peace!” Thea Nuffsed hissed.
“Ooh, good one! That’s Henry IV, Part I, ladies and gentlemen, act V scene I. Prince Hal to Falstaff.”
“Thank you for the annotation. Much appreciated.”
Celeste Tortuga tried to pull the discussion back to topic. “Can you give us any details?” she asked the Chair. “About the budget model?”
“I do have details,” the Chair said. Those watching carefully saw her eyes twinkle. “Under pressure from anxious Chairs, the Administration has provided the following explanatory memo. Please listen closely.” Removing a sheet of paper from the folder in front of her, she read: “The new, new, new budget model will be called New Budget Cubed. Funds will be counted, allocated, and accounted for. Units, still to be designated, will submit requests. Using the formulae of New Budget Cubed, the Administration will review each request and determine an allocation. Benchmarks and strategic prioritization will be reevaluated on a rolling basis.” The Chair looked up. “Don’t panic,” she said, “but expect the worst.”
“She used to be more encouraging,” Gracie Foible whispered.
“That’s when she was a new Chair,” Randall Chyme whispered back.
“There will be metrics,” the Chair added.
“Bingo!” crowed a voice in the back.
Around the table, faculty glanced at the clock and began closing laptops, rustling notebooks, zipping backpacks—as scrupulously punctual as any of their students about the end of class. Thea Nuffsed shook her head. “I don’t envy you,” she told the Chair.
Well done. In the Chairs’ pool, Alice Loost had laid odds she’d be the first to hear that phrase more than twice this week. Time to collect her winnings and treat a friend to lunch. “I know you don’t envy me,” she said. “Maybe you should.”
It did not occur to Professor Wilder Gnat, Founding Director of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies, that his Chair, let alone his other colleagues, might not wholly lament his departure from Flagship University, should it come to pass; that they might greet the possibility of his departure with anything but abject grief was beyond imagining. Nonetheless, when he did tell her, the Chair’s panic and dismay at his announcement were more muted than he had anticipated. True, she had always lacked vision. Like so many women—his third wife largely excepted—she had an eye for detail but no real flair for the bigger picture. Had she gone head-to-head more effectively with the Administration, numerous matters would long ago have been resolved in his favor. More than that—because he did care above all for the good of the Cause, the Department, the Division, the Field—more than that, all of them, not to mention the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies (GNAT), would have gotten their due in a way they so far had not. Gnat hesitated to say anything; he wasn’t one to criticize unless it was absolutely necessary, but really, his impending departure was only one of many things that could be laid at the Chair’s feet.
“I’ve received an offer,” Gnat said sheepishly, with a dip of the head that was his best rendition of modesty.
“Oh? Then let’s talk,” the Chair said, her eyes suspiciously dry. “Why don’t we have lunch? Where would you like to eat?”
“Well, naturally, The Deli,” Gnat said. Could there be any question? “Such a relief to finally have a real deli in town, don’t you think?”
She should have said, “One more reason I hope you’ll stay,” or “Maybe that will give you one more reason to stay,” or even a sympathetic, “Yes, we’ve all been through a lot, haven’t we, waiting for that deli?” But the Chair ate lunch at her desk. Doing so got her home before nightfall, several days a week. She said, “I’ve never eaten there.”
“No?” Gnat’s eyebrows rose. He was aghast. But then, it was hard to expect others would be as culinarily informed as he. Especially given the company he kept at home. Used to keep. “It will be my pleasure to introduce you.”
They ordered at the counter, craning their necks to read the options printed on chalkboards over their heads. Wilder Gnat was moved to observe that the bread most popular in his home region had yet to be recognized as central to the nation’s cuisine; authentic as The Deli was, his own regional bread was nowhere to be found. He was explaining to the Chair, as they waited in line, how in his position as Founding Director of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies, he had also devoted countless hours to understanding the place of food in modern life, the neoliberal exploitative mode that was the deli sandwich in particular. She had to give him a little nudge when the young man behind the counter asked to take their order. Gnat didn’t miss a beat, he gave a rueful laugh at his complicity in the whole mess and, “Yes, please, pastrami on rye—would that my mother-in-law’s eastern European origins were more suitably recognized, you know? a whole culture reduced to seeded rye—that’s sharp mustard please, no tomato, pickles on the side. Chips or fries?—let’s say chips, in the British sense.” He winked at the order-taker, who didn’t look up, and went on: “Arugula—you don’t have arugula? radicchio maybe? well then, romaine—and extra mayo, my weakness.”
The Chair ordered roast turkey with cheddar and tomato.
“You know,” Gnat cautioned her, “authentic cheddar is not traditionally eaten with meat.”
“Is that so?” He would probably tell her if she asked for his source. Rather than inquire, the Chair opted to order a cup of potato soup to round out her meal. They carried their trays to a table near the window. Gnat marveled that there was no table service. The Chair silently counted to ten.
“He did say the greens were locally sourced, didn’t he?” Gnat worried.
“I’m sure he did.”
“Well then, bon appétit!”
The Chair inwardly thanked her forebears for her iron stomach. She could eat through anything, even the tedious posturing of the founding director of the Center for GNAT. The potato soup smelled like a snow day at home in the third grade, before homework.
But her sense of nostalgic peace was fleeting, and not for a reason she would have expected. Wilder Gnat took off his glasses to eat his meal. It was a gesture too intimate. His face, without the heavy wire frames, was naked. Had he stripped down to boxers and an old-fashioned singlet, she could not have been more shocked.
Wilder Gnat and the Chair had never been particular friends. There was no great distance between them, and she had gone on the occasional early-evening walk with his wife, but they were not chummy. They did not dine at each other’s homes save on university occasions; indeed, he had never been to her home, though she had been to his, for one of the very few recipe preview nights Dr. Nuffsed had staged (sadly, more talk than food), and again for a reception honoring a distinguished guest of the Center for GNAT.
“So, you have an offer,” the Chair said after a moment.
“Yes,” Gnat said. “Yes I do. And it’s a generous one. Of course, I’d love to stay.” He did not mention that he was presently staying at the University Guesthouse, a cramped but respectable option he was able to utilize at no extra charge; under the pretense of being one of his many distinguished collaborators from overseas, he had checked in using an assumed name. The grant to which he was charging the expense had yet to be approved, but Gnat was confident it would all come out in the wash—which, mercifully, he no longer had to do for himself, laundry service being included in the Guesthouse amenities, unlike his own home, where he had to wash own his shirts. There were some advantages to being a bachelor again.
“Well, we’d certainly be glad to have you,” said the Chair, smiling encouragingly.
“I’m glad to hear that. Relieved, even,” Gnat lied.
“Well, one never knows.” As if his standing at Flagship U could ever be in doubt. More truthfully, he added, “I’m not sure my wife feels the same way.”
Indeed, she did not. After the last faculty meeting, Professor Nuffsed had consulted the Chair on what arrangements might be made to keep her soon-to-be-ex at bay. Not a restraining order, nothing like that (“Wilder couldn’t hurt a fly,” she’d scoffed), but it wasn’t going to be pleasant, interacting with him at meetings and colloquia and the like, it could easily become a hostile environment.
The Chair knew a red flag as well as anyone, but as the hostility of the Nuffsed-Gnat domestic environment seemed entirely of their own making, she declined to get involved beyond offering a few sincere if shallow remarks on the pain of a concluding marriage and a renewed commitment to expecting the utmost professionalism from all concerned. And now here was Gnat, pumping her for information or ready to play the martyr or at any rate looking for some way to draw her into his personal domestic swamp.
The Chair shook her head. “I don’t think I should take a position on that,” she said. “But I would hope, I think I. . . well, I’m no marriage counselor, but perhaps you should see one. Perhaps you already are. It’s none of my business, of course.” She and her pachyderm-protecting, peanut-procuring paramour were enjoying their third decade together. She had little experience of Gnat’s variety of serial espousal and no desire to sample. It wasn’t the morality of it that bothered her (aside from the opportunistic use of the tenure extension to his own benefit—everyone knew he’d never changed a diaper, no night feedings, no canceled conferences to stay home with a child’s cough). But the constant change, the upheaval. Of course, his wives kept leaving him. What could he do?
“I appreciate your concern,” he said. “But it may be too late. Too, I have tuition bills to think of.”
“That’s right, your daughter is about to start college, isn’t she? Has she considered Flagship?”
“I could not ask her to stay so close to home.” Not that she would have considered it if he had. “She is anxious to study mathematics,” he went on. “She has her heart set on the program she feels is best for her. I can’t help thinking,” —here he dropped his gaze, fiddled idly with a sugar packet— “that her interest in mathematics, her turn from the kind of work I do—we do—while to a degree a logical outgrowth of the kind of meticulous work I have shown her, the care and measurement and preservation, the accuracy so crucial to my own scholarship, is also a response (again quite rational, although regrettable) to the hostility of the world to my work and all I stand for. She has been driven to math because the humanities and social sciences are not adequately valued, particularly as practiced by one such as myself.”
“As practiced by any of us,” the Chair said. “We’re all in the same boat.”
“True, true,” Gnat nodded vigorously. Of course she understood him, was on his side. “And the question, of course, is how to keep the boat afloat.” He smiled modestly at his modest rhyme.
“Perhaps you should tell me a little more about the offer you’ve received.”
“Right.” He paused, waited for her to look up from her soup. “It’s from Rival State.” Another pause. The Chair waited. “They’ve offered me an Impact Chair,” he said triumphantly.
“Well, that is something! Congratulations!”
“Thank you. It’s really quite an honor, I’m a little overwhelmed.”
“Of course you are. But it must be gratifying.” The Chair found herself peering at Gnat’s roots. Was that a little gray? Even—gasp!—a little brown?
“Yes, I’ll admit it is. It would be hard to leave Flagship, but it’s really more than I had ever hoped for. And given my current personal circumstances. . .” He paused.
The Chair sipped her tea. “In that case,” she said, “I expect your mind’s made up.”
He had overplayed his hand. “Nothing’s set in stone,” he said. “If there were. . .”
“For the Dean to consider a match, I’ll have to take him the offer in writing.”
“What? Oh, yes, of course, of course.”
The Chair nodded slowly. “An Impact Chair. That’s a signal honor.”
“It is. I’m humbled, I had no idea.”
“That you were under consideration?” Surely he didn’t imagine she had not been contacted at all. Was he going to pretend he had not even applied, that the appointment came out of the blue?
He was. “The call caught me quite off guard,” he said. “I had not even planned to throw my hat in the ring.”
“Until, as you say, your personal circumstances changed?”
Gnat swallowed. Smiled. “Er, right. Until then.”
“Well, it’s a shame, but we can’t match an Impact Chair. Not in the current climate. You know how tight support has been, particularly in our Division.”
“That’s why we have to fight.”
“Yes, fight we must. Fight we do.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“What could I possibly offer you? The new new new budget model is expected to have a formula for retention raises, one that addresses salary differential, institutional rank, degree of lateral vs. vertical movement in the faculty member’s position. But based on the provisional calculations I’ve seen, your offer from Rival State is simply too good for us to match. Unless the Impact Chairs are all title, no dough.”
Wilder Gnat drew himself up. “To impugn the integrity of our competitors simply out of a reluctance to meet a competitive offer. . .”
“I impugn no one,” the Chair said. “It is my impression that the Administration, weary of banging the institutional head against the brick wall of uncompetitive salaries, is throwing in the towel and concentrating strictly on Life Quality and Faculty Appreciation measures.”
Gnat was not without self-discipline. He did not stomp off in a huff. “What measures?” he asked. “One wants to feel the institution’s warmth.”
“I’ve heard the renovated rec center is quite luxurious. Perhaps we could spring for a membership.”
“Are you saying I need to lose weight?”
Was he trying to entrap her into an admission of bias, find grounds for grievance in the university’s unwillingness to respect his size, its demeaning of his supposed girth? “At stressful times, exercise is often recommended.”
“True, true. Still. . .”
“The Life Quality Enhancement Service offers a choice of two goldfish in a classic bowl or a twenty-five gallon tank of tropical fish, both meant to relieve stress and enhance the aesthetic value of a faculty member’s surroundings.”
“I heard they were down to neon tetras.”
“They’ve restocked. The tank comes with a cute little castle, you can watch the fish swim in and out.”
Gnat absently touched the side of his face—the bruise was taking an awfully long time to heal—as if drawing some comfort from that tangible sense of his own existence. Or reminding himself it would not be productive to get angry. Not yet. The hapless Chair was doing her best, though she didn’t seem to understand the danger, the big picture. As always, her leadership left much to be desired. “Flagship has long been at the forefront in quality of life,” he said seriously. “But this is more of an academic offer. One acknowledging my stature, my research.”
“I can offer you a research assistant,” the Chair said. “No more than 2.5 hours a week, and you’d have to pay half their wage out of your research account. Sorry, but that’s the new rule. The Provost also has quite a selection of gift-cards to draw on, I’m sure you’d find one for a local retailer you favor. Many of our best local restaurants are represented. The Branding Office will offer a consultation—”
“Oh?” Gnat’s ears pricked up.
“The package is a one-hour meeting to discuss how best to position your work for global visibility, and three mockups of message templates or personal logos you might choose. Within the framework of the Flagship logo, of course.”
Gnat was nodding. “Concern for our visibility. . . It’s an important acknowledgement, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I do. Of course, there’s no funding for messaging or dissemination beyond those mockups. There is an overlay you can add to letterhead.”
“But it’s not available to everyone?”
“Not yet. They’ve started first with Deans, Chairs, prominent faculty. Colleagues we hope to retain, like yourself. The goal would be to include all the faculty eventually.”
“So I’d just be a little ahead, but not really.”
“Something like that.”
Gnat shook his head. “Frankly, it’s more than a little disappointing.”
“For me, too,” the Chair said. “Faced with a competitive offer I’d want to match, naturally I wish I could offer more. It’s peanuts, really, I know that.” She considered whether she might be able to finagle another bag from her husband’s source, and whether Gnat’s outrage would be worth the bother. “Our dwindling resources just don’t make it possible.”
“Dwindle is another Shakespearean coinage, did you know?”
“I did not. It’s a nice word, though not a nice process. Dwindle.”
She was savoring the word when she was supposed to be savoring his savoir faire. He had known something of her work once, had lost track of it in the press of family and archival research and directing the Center for GNAT and the nearly annual symposia he organized because, if he didn’t, who would, and how to guarantee their damp campus wasn’t just a wasteland? But perhaps he should have taken a bit more of an interest. Especially now that she could help him. Perhaps they could still bond. He didn’t really want to stay—she was right that his mind was made up—but one wanted to be fought for. He had honestly expected some rending of garments, perhaps tears—sorrow, or frustration and anger at her inability to provide what he so justly deserved, much as she wanted to, hard as she would try. But perhaps there was still time, a bridge might yet be built.
“Tell me again what you’re working on these days,” he said. “Assuming the pressures on the Chair allow you still to do some real work? I don’t envy you.”
She did not crack a smile, did not look up. “I study the rhetoric of bureaucratic memoranda,” she said. She didn’t mention her dissertation on baroque funeral orations, published to great acclaim and two national awards, or her second book on the language of grief in Nepalese women’s poetry. Wilder Gnat was left to ferret out those facts for himself later on.
“Well,” he said finally, lingering beside the table just that extra minute, stooped with all the false sorrow of a weeping crocodile on wheels, “I think it’s an opportunity too good for me to pass up. I know you wish you could do more. I fear this time, Alice lost.”
“Two o’s,” she said automatically.
“Not today.” He waited, but she didn’t respond. He nodded again, still sadly. “Awkward, this, but I’d have to take the appointment up quite soon. Immediately, if I accept.”
“That’s unusual.” Be still, my heart. She’d already been steeling herself against a year of Gnat’s gloating over his new plum prior to the move.
“Yes. Well, I probably should have brought this up a while ago.”
“Thea always tells me I take on too much, deadlines pile up and I leave things to the last minute. But Rival State moves fast. They call it an executive streamlined leadership model.”
The Chair stilled her feet, which were starting to tap out a little victory tattoo of their own accord. “Streamlined, indeed,” she said.
There was a small room to the left of the Divisional Office, with a full length glass door opening onto the corridor. At the back of this room sat the Bean Counter. He wore a green visor and a white smock, and he methodically transferred dried navy beans from a tray in front of him to a glass jar, one by one, counting under his breath. From time to time he separated out a tiny dirt clod, a bit of straw. Naturally, Flagship University used only all-natural, organic beans. He had joined the faculty fresh out of graduate school, the top candidate in a competitive search and still a point of pride for his doctoral program, which trotted out his successful placement as a lure to attract the next crop of students in his wake. But, tired of answering to the bean counters, he had elected to become one himself.
Just inside the door, a steel cart held trays of beans awaiting counting. Black beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas. Some had suggested the beans should be ancient varieties, regional favorites but, really, vegetable breeding remained the province of Rival State. Still, one of the Chairs insisted on sending only cranberry beans, an heirloom variety, mottled white and pink as sunset, passed down through his family over six generations.
Jacob Price paused at the door, wondering how quickly he might snag a handful and make his retreat, but the bean counter looked up and smiled. “Help yourself,” he said gently.
“I didn’t think you were real,” Jacob said.
“I didn’t either, until I learned the trade. I’m like the bogeyman.” The Bean Counter smiled again, waved him further in. “That’s why I asked for that glass door,” he added. “So people could see me up close. But they seldom look.”
“What are they for? The beans?”
“Someone has to keep track.”
He finished his tray of kidney beans, made a notation in a ledger, and reached for another tray. These beans were white, speckled or saddled yellow as a pinto pony. “Kenearly Yellow Eye,” he said admiringly. “I’ve learned most of them by now. You look hungry.”
Jacob shrugged. “Writing,” he said.
The bean counter nodded. “They usually bring me the new trays on Tuesdays, late afternoon. Sometimes they’re left in the hallway a while. The custodian’s been known to spill a few. They keep the lights low after hours, he sometimes bumps into the cart.” He held Jacob’s eye, let that sink in. “You look hungry,” he said again. “They’re never counted until they get to me.”
After that, Jacob did visit the corridor on alternate Tuesdays. It was a welcome addition to his rotation with the sugar packets and the peanut selling.
An unintended consequence of receiving the fellowship had been reduced contact with undergraduates. Jacob Price had yelled as loud as anyone, and with good reason, about the unreasonable time pressures of trying to write a dissertation while relentlessly teaching first-year students, term after term. But those first-year students lived in the dorms (sorry, residence halls), and any student with a meal plan could invite any member of the teaching staff, from grad students on up, to a free meal in the cafeteria any time they wanted, no extra charge. Jacob Price wasn’t the only grad student who had figured out how to include “coffee consultation” or extra-credit “lunch and crunch (the numbers)” sessions that could only take place in those selfsame cafeterias—they reasoned it was more convenient for the students, more accessible. Jacob usually cadged at least two meals a week that way. The food wasn’t bad. But now it was unavailable. A student could dine with as many TA’s, professors, or lecturers as she might wish, but each and every one had to have an up-to-date Flagship U ID, and if there was one thing Flagship kept up on, it was whatever software and scanners were needed to make sure any given ID was truly tied to the benefit its bearer sought. Don’t even think about using that bus pass an extra week, pretending to have a TA appointment when you were loafing on fellowship.
Which left him with the peanuts, and now the odd handful of beans.
His recipe perfected, Jacob Price had staked out a corner at the entrance to campus, where he could be sure to catch hungry students heading home from class as well as late arrivals ready for a snack. He used an upended milk crate as a display table, a crate that had never held milk, having been specially manufactured for the dorm and studio apartment furnishings market, and which he had trash-picked at the end of the previous term, always alert to the move-out specials his fellow students left behind.
He was proud of his candied peanuts, knew they were delicious. Yet he was uneasy going public with this new aspect of his work. Graduate faculty regularly touted alternative careers for doctoral students, comfortable on their own professorial rungs and either ashamed or a little smug that few of their students could realistically expect anything similar, but he was pretty sure selling candy on street corners wasn’t what they meant. But hey, it was artisanal candy, theoretically informed, rigorously traditional yet bravely innovative. Also, tasty and profitable, if he didn’t burn himself and risk a visit to the campus clinic, where the student insurance that had seemed generous in the initial negotiations came with a raft of exclusions, prohibitions, and co-pays.
Gracie Foible had recognized him one day, as had Wilder Gnat before he left for Rival State. Both had urged him not to let entrepreneurship get in the way of completing his degree; neither had asked how he had come by the peanuts or how he had happened upon candied peanuts as his signature product. Neither suspected he was leveraging his fellowship support, literally reselling his stipend. Only Gracie Foible had bought a sample of his wares. After that he wore dark glasses, sometimes a beaten-up straw hat (also trash-picked), and he experimented with accents, with throwing his voice, as if the bench behind him or the Facilities and Greenscape van parked to his left were speaking. He wanted to attract attention to his product, not to himself. He made beautiful signs on reused cardboard boxes, with meticulous lettering in the school colors. At first, he mostly just stood quietly, hoping someone would buy. But he needed to move product, he needed some cash, he needed to get off the street and back to his library carrel. So he pushed himself. He called his sister, four-year cheer captain at their suburban high school, to ask for some pointers as he developed his own buy-my-nuts cheers. He dressed himself, not just his signs, in the school colors. He kept the dark glasses, and carried a thermos of hot water, with lemon and honey if sales were going well, to soothe his raw throat.
Pennies on the dollar, all stand up and holler!
Love your school! Love your snacks!
Know what’s cool? Value packs!
Give me a P! Give me an E! Give me an A, N, U, T!
Give me an F! Give me a U! Flagship Peanuts For You!
“Great cheer! I’ll take two packets.”
Lost in his private world of peanut promotion, Jacob was startled to hear a customer address him directly. She was three inches taller than he was, with sandy-colored hair in two tufting pigtails sticking out at the sides of her head, like a six year old might wear. Jeans and a V-neck sweater her mother had probably worn to college—they didn’t make that quality anymore: Jacob Price knew his clothing resale shops.
“Thanks.” He set down his pompoms, pulled out the pouch he kept under his shirt. No sense leaving a cashbox lying around for anyone to snatch.
“Reminds me of a guy I heard in Argentina.”
“Selling churros. He had a horn, though, and a bicycle.”
“Pretty good. I’m doing a study, you know. I mean, of course you don’t know. I’m Franny Kramer-Fahr,” she held out her hand, shook his, paid for the peanuts. Seemed in no hurry to leave. She wore a condiment t-shirt, too: SALSA GOLF. “Doctoral candidate, International Studies. At least, that’s what we used to be called.”
“Before the Great Consolidation,” Jacob supplied. Caught in the act, he was a little embarrassed (he was supposed to be a scholar himself) but he was also a little proud: he was good at this peanut gig. Plus, she was cute.
Franny laughed. “Right.”
“Qual or Quant?” he asked.
“I’d have to say a little of both.”
“Is that allowed?”
“It better be. I’m almost done.”
“So what are you writing on?”
“Street vendors. It’s a comparative study—international, intergenerational. Ecuador and Argentina. But now, maybe. . .”
“You work with Dr. Tortuga?”
“Just for background. I’m interested in the chants, you know, like you were doing. In low-budget, homemade advertising.”
“Sounds like Qual. I’m all about the low-budget aesthetic. Ask me anything.”
“But there’s the economics of it all. That seems like Quant.”
“The economics suck.”
Franny tore open a peanut packet with her teeth. Jacob had folded them in reused newspapers, scavenged from Building 7 (the former Student Union). The student paper had been endowed in perpetuity by a rich alum, but that didn’t mean anyone read it. It did mean there were great piles leftover every morning, which Jacob Price harvested along with his sugar packets, giving his peanuts that extra artisanal, even third world touch; also, the practice was environmentally friendly. Reduce, reuse. . . “These are good. You weren’t here last year. How’d you settle on Flagship as a place to ply your trade?”
“I’m a doctoral candidate.”
“Buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you my tale.”
“Tell me a good one and I’ll put you in the study.”
“I’ll be famous.”
And he was, or hoped to be, by the end of that coffee. His peanut stand would round out the previously anemic chapter three, giving Franny Kramer-Fahr such a robust series of examples and possibilities that her dissertation was sure to be a world-beater.
“Should I be embarrassed that you’re putting me in a study with a bunch of third world street vendors?”
“They’re good at what they do,” Franny said reasonably. “No shame in that. And there is no first world/third world anymore. All one global family, right? Third world’s just around the block.”
“Or right here on campus.”
“Exactly. Selling scholarship peanuts. They ever try to tax you on those nuts?”
The color drained from Jacob’s face.
“Kidding, kidding,” Franny said quickly. “You should see yourself.”
He might have been embarrassed, but Franny Kramer-Fahr had been well trained in the arts of participant observation and respectful interviewing. The fact was, she was impressed with his resourcefulness and ingenuity, after she got over her shock that the renowned Jones Smith Smith Jones Founders Foundation Fellowship actually paid in peanuts. She’d gone after that award herself, been disappointed not to get it. Her jaw spent a while on the floor after he told her, she had to lift it back up with both hands and sort of wrestle it into place, as if the joint were unhinged, and she didn’t really, truly agree to put him in the chapter until he took her back to his room and showed her the month’s sack of peanuts, nearly empty by now, because they were coming to the end of the month.
“I can give you a horn,” she suggested. “One I got from my churro guy in Argentina. Impossible to ignore.”
“Won’t that distort your data?”
“Not at all. It’s an experiment. We see if some cross-cultural cross-pollination brings in the customers, see how they react.”
“Might go against campus noise rules.”
“Possibly. But that’s all grist for the mill.”
“Not if I lose my license.”
“You have a permit for this?”
“Of course not. This kind of operation is strictly don’t ask, don’t tell.”
She had videos of vendors at bus stations and riverbank parks. Older people with traditional cries (¡Huevos! ¡Huevos duuuros!), younger ones with air horns and tinny recordings, like the ice cream trucks of yore. Jacob Price was a little uneasy at the thought of himself as the star of an ethnographic documentary but really, what made him so special? He was no different than anyone else trying to eke out a living on less than nothing. He couldn’t sleep with her, of course. That would distort the data. But who had time for sex? She was determined to defend by June, and he had his own dissertation to work on, mostly under cover of darkness or deep in the library stacks so no one would steal his topic this time around. But the stacks didn’t give him as much cover as they used to. The shelves were increasingly empty. Much of what he needed was either in deep storage or available only through interlibrary loan.
—Did you hear about the grant Rival State gave Gnat? Full support for a year in Oblivion, Oblivaria—what the hell is the name of that place he works?
—Full year, full salary, all expenses paid.
The emoluments enjoyed by the newest Impact Chair at Rival State had been many, chief among them a generous grant supporting a full year’s research leave. Why didn’t I think of that? the Chair asked herself, instantly understanding her Rival counterpart’s gambit. He admitted as much the next time they spoke. “Strings were pulled,” he allowed. “We needed one of those chairs on our list. But everyone knew he’d be a problem once he got to campus. That’s the beauty of a field grant. Makes the recipient happy, and gets him out of the way. At least for a year.”
“Coinciding with the end of your term as Chair?”
Unhappily for Wilder Gnat, out of the way was soon all too literally true.
Some had doubted whether Oblivonia existed, but exist it did. Gnat had gone there, had hiked into the mountains, beyond the reach of roads. He had stood on the parapet of the greatest monastery, a far redoubt upon a rocky crag. He had joined the patterned chanting of the Oblivatan Monks. Or Oblivonian, whatever. He had transcribed, translated, rendered. And he had plunged to his death.
—Was it true about the eels?
—Gnat used to talk about a moat full of man-eating eels.
—They appear in some of the earliest stories, some kind of foundational myth, but Gnat insisted they were real. I heard him lecture on it once.
—Did they find the body?
—Some of it.
—Someone saw his red hair. Said it glowed in the dark.
—So I guess the eels were real.
—Of course they found the body. Rival State’s paying to have the casket shipped back.
Who among them would not remember ever after where they were when they received the news?
Anna Innovatova was enjoying a celebratory brunch with Randall Chyme. They were not celebrating Wilder Gnat’s death (not yet), they were celebrating the first step in the resolution of her suit, the fat packet of legal papers she had just received stating (or seeming to state; even for the multilingual and polysyllabic Innovatova, it was difficult to parse) that all charges had been dropped and she might go in peace. The legal posturing had gone on for months, but the entire mess had finally been thrown out of court. The alleged victim was long gone, back to wherever he had come from. A loss to the local economy, as he would surely be retiring elsewhere, vacationing elsewhere, but the climate likely wouldn’t have agreed with him anyway, he was never a sure bet. Down the hall in the clerk’s office, Randall Chyme and Anna Innovatova tied a civil knot, never to be torn asunder.
The Provost was in his garden, weeding his herb bed. A cloud passed over the sun, just as his wife read him the news. Wilder Gnat—wasn’t he the one Rival State poached? Gnat hadn’t gone quietly. He’d let all and sundry know how much better he would do elsewhere. The Provost nibbled a sprig of parsley, felt his breath freshen, his outlook clear.
Celeste Tortuga heard the monthly trial of the civil defense sirens just as the radio announcer read the headline and for a moment she thought the two connected, as if the sirens were Gnat’s version of local flags at half-mast. She recalled Eladio Literato’s old micro-verse protest songs and went to look for her guitar.
Hermes Brigannd was poring over forged receipts from a fictitious vendor in Outer Mongolia. Surely there was a way to redirect those fictitious funds, patch some of the holes he’d created with the promise of future returns.
Jacob Price, stirring his peanuts when the news broke, spattered himself with hot sugar. He couldn’t pause to attend to his burns—the candy would be ruined. He didn’t receive the details until much later.
Karma Mariscal was at the library. Startled and worried, she bubbled with instinctive anxiety that she might have been found out. Then she was gratified—the world was rid of Wilder Gnat and she had not had to lift another finger. The one finger she had lifted had found the wrong target, and while Professor Nuffsed seemed almost good as new, Karma thought she’d noticed a small, twitchy limp. The incident had driven a wedge between her and Professor Nuffsed, who now thought of Karma as a little less careful, less meticulous than she might be. There was certainly a greater anxiety about spices. Ingredients were double, triple, quadruple checked.
Thea Nuffsed was in her kitchen, basting a capon at the hearth she had installed—had built with her own hands—over Gnat’s objections to the danger. He was quite fussy and anxious about fire. But he had no fear of heights, which proved his downfall. And since he’d moved to the Guesthouse, she’d had the hearth to herself.
The Chair was on her doorstep, bending down to pick up the paper. She was among the last of the morning paper recipients on her street. Neighbors had complained about the noise of rolled newsprint hitting her stoop, the carrier’s unmuffled motorcycle. She felt guilty about the waste, slick discount flyers from stores she would never enter and a sports section she had yet to open. But she liked the morning ritual, breakfast and headlines and a few favorite comics; she liked grumbling over the advice columns and unhinged letters to the editor.
“Do you think we’ll have to hold a memorial service, or is that Rival State’s problem now?” the Chair asked her assistant when they spoke on the phone.
It would be her problem.
“Would you organize a memorial?” Thea Nuffsed asked the Chair the next morning. Not out of sentiment for her late-lamented, but out of a sense of closure, propriety, her own importance. Her parents had been in the diplomatic corps; she understood protocol.
It was tempting to return to the Best Room, scene of Gnat’s most memorable public campus scuffle. But, “I think the chapel, don’t you?” the Chair suggested. She hoped the chapel would set the proper tone. It looked likely to be a tissue-free affair, but perhaps they would manage a few sniffles. Outside hallowed ground, there was no telling what the assembled mourners might say.
Had Gnat remained on the faculty, the chapel rental fee would have been waived. As it was, the memorial service fell under the “non-academic, other” category reserved for funerals and weddings of persons not affiliated with the university. (Alumnae received a break, whether married or buried—get ’em while they’re young, sink those hooks of sentiment, then lean on the mourners in hopes of a bequest. But faculty were considered something of a risk, bequest-wise. Many were poorly paid, and bitter about it, and inclined to leave their bodies to science but their cash, if there was any, to their children or to wildlife sanctuaries or to foundations devoted to world peace or the preservation of insects in wax.) As it was, the event was a private one, for which no one was particularly inclined to pay. The Chair had tried to argue that, while a memorial service was indeed a private—that is, non-academic—event, it was also a departmental meeting, but chapel rules were unbending and her effort fell flat.
Thea Nuffsed agreed to foot the bill. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll pay the caterer, the rental fee, whatever. Just keep it small.” She submitted a strict budget and a precise menu: Lemon finger tarts, shortbread cookies, tea, coffee, lemonade. Perhaps she regretted so unceremoniously throwing him out, now that the deed could not be undone. Perhaps working so long on celebrations and feasts made her unusually sensitive to appearance. They had been married too long to let his death go wholly unmarked; he had been too long a member of the Flagship faculty. It would be a short memorial. Dignified, somber, never maudlin. For Thea Nuffsed, playing hostess was a chance to get her own back, though she would do nothing so crass as to trumpet her own work. Too, there was a chance to lure Hermes Brigannd into a fatal error. Listening to praise of Gnat, he might be unable to resist a reply. If she could just hold forth about the acquisitions Gnat was on the verge of making, the discoveries, vanity or outrage might startle an admission out of the Deputy Director.
“I don’t envy you,” Magnus Fitt began. He had heard Nuffsed’s request. With a wink, he sidestepped the trapdoor.
“I should put you in charge,” the Chair said.
But she could organize without having to lead. She asked Randall Chyme to give the eulogy. He was always so calm. “I would be happy to provide music for the service,” Chyme said gravely. “But I’m not sure I want to speak.”
“Well, someone has to.”
“Very well.” And so he spoke from the piano, as if it were a concert, playing the soothing, funereal music the occasion demanded for a few moments, then turning to address the assembly, then turning back to his keyboard. Electric candles bathed the sanctuary in a feeble light. Carnations in the regulation school colors adorned the altar.
The sanctuary was blessedly small; a few mourners became a substantial congregation. The local ex-wife was there, taking a break from her municipal bench to sit in judgment with her mathematical daughter in the pews. Neither of them rose to speak, or said more than a few words to the other guests. The Chair recognized them and said hello. Thea Nuffsed nodded regally, secure in the knowledge that hers had not been a marriage-busting, professor-student romance, though she no longer felt as superior as she once had, when Wilder Gnat described the shortsightedness of that wife whose fertility had given him yet one more year to finish his first book at last. Karma Mariscal had stayed away. She couldn’t take credit for the occasion, so she had even less need to put up a false front. She took a friend to the movies.
“We come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him,” Chyme began. There was a short, cooperative chuckle from the pews.
“Shakespeare coined that one!” came a voice from the back, to loud applause and laughter—much louder than the original joke had inspired.
Chyme continued. “His was the life of derring-do, the scholar’s risk. I, too, have borne my share of risk—we all have: paper cuts, dust allergies, sunburns when reading out of doors. But Wilder was out there on the edge—and then went over it.”
“And it is appropriate to laugh as we remember our colleague. His absence was felt among the Flagship faculty even before his untimely death.” Alert listeners noted he said felt, not mourned, but no one laughed this time.
“He would have hated that,” Gracie Foible said quietly, pointing at the program.
Celeste Tortuga looked over. “What’s the matter with it? Simple, elegant?”
“No mention of the GNAT Center he was so proud of.”
“I thought it was the Center for GNAT?”
Magnus Fitt rose to recite: “No man’s pie is freed / from his ambitious finger.” He paused to let the ponderous words sink in, then explained, “Buckingham said that, of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 1. But it might have been said of Gnat.”
“Hardly a thing to say at a funeral,” Gracie Foible objected. This time she spoke to the whole congregation.
“No, it’s not. But look at it another way—he was interested in everything. He wanted to take part,” Fitt said.
“Always putting in his thumb, pulling out someone else’s plum,” said Anna Innovatova. The ever-energetic Gnat had once tried to establish an Oblivonian language program—just a pilot project, self-study under his direction—and had ever after declared himself a fellow sufferer among the underappreciated language teachers of the world. All he’d really contributed were loud exhortations and a heavy sense of grievance. Innovatova had felt the drag of a fellow traveler weighing down the sledge, not a pulling member of the team.
“Good luck getting him to sit in a corner,” Fitt agreed.
It was hard to settle the crowd after that. Chyme began to compose a piece on the spot, a melody he would later record as “Funeral in Tranquility,” a title more hopeful than descriptive.
“Should there not be funeral baked meats?” Gracie Foible suggested.
“There are,” Thea Nuffsed answered. “I’ve brought a tray of meat pies, just like Hamlet might have eaten, had he gone to his mother’s wedding. Edible crust, by the way, not coffins.”
“Sometimes the crust wasn’t meant to be eaten. Coarse rye flour for the most part, and the grease or gelatin in the filling helped to seal it, so they’d keep for days. Months, maybe.”
“Just like a coffin holds the dead,” Foible said.
“Not very appetizing,” said Magnus Fitt.
“No, well, death isn’t.”
“Wasn’t there a scandal about a library coffin a year or so ago, something Gnat was trying to acquire? Nothing illegal, all above board, but somehow off kilter? A weird shipment, maybe?” Tortuga asked.
Hermes Brigannd, present of course (plenty of nudging and whispering in the pews when he was spotted—wasn’t Brigannd the root cause of the divorce?) finally spoke up. “Oblivonian manuscripts were often stored in coffins,” he said. “Hidden at an undertaker’s during the last dictatorship, for instance. I would hardly call it a scandal. Professor Gnat was instrumental in preserving the cultural patrimony of a community too little understood.”
“Too true, too true, that he was,” Thea Nuffsed agreed. Brigannd had spoken at last, but was it enough?
“The tradition of graphic narrative expression is an ancient one, and even before the modern versions we all know and love, the monks of Oblivonia had pioneered the form.” Randall Chyme rattled off these facts so quickly, it was as if he were reading a press release. In fact, he had cribbed from one of Gnat’s own bulletins, regularly sent to all the campus outlets.
“He died doing what he loved,” said Gracie Foible. A wince snaked through the crowd, as congregants imagined themselves keeling over while eating potato chips in their underwear, or playing racquetball, or drinking beer, or just petting the cat, or sitting on the beach with their one true love.
Magnus Fitt bowed gravely. “One would not wish to use an occasion of grief, such as this must be, to toot one’s own horn, as the quaint saying goes, but if you’ll permit me just a brief tootle, I’ll note that I knew Wilder Gnat when he first came to us, fresh from graduate school, freshly married, fresh-faced and all the rest of it, and we were briefly co-editors of our now sadly defunct journal, Parent(hetic)al—though Mr. Brigannd assures me all back issues remain accessible with prior request to offsite storage using form 2A and allowing three to four business days for recovery.” Catching his eye, Hermes Brigannd nodded brightly. Magnus Fitt went on, “Wilder Gnat was a parent,” (here he made invisible parentheses in the air) “and in some ways a heretic,” (pause for a chuckle) “and always. . . well, something or other.” He look another little bow. There was scattered applause, before people wondered or looked around or remembered that maybe applause wasn’t entirely appropriate to a memorial.
Thea Nuffsed rose to speak last. She had prepared remarks, but she spoke from memory. “Ah Oblivonia. Wilder did wax lyrical, didn’t he?” She hummed a few bars of the Oblivonian anthem, which Gnat had liked to sing in the shower. “Rousing, right? That’s the anthem. But there were sadder songs, too. Ever since the last dictatorship’s penultimate massacre, he’d found materials more difficult to come by—scarce, expensive, travel more restricted. Wilder more than anyone knew the risks one might incur in the course of scholarship.” She picked out Gracie Foible. “I’m sure we can assume he died doing what he loved.” She nodded to the room at large, then looked down at the lectern, gathering herself. “These last few months have been a whirlwind,” she continued, “months that have taken me in wonderful directions I never anticipated, and months that brought great pain as well. Wilder and I were married for twelve years.”
And then she stopped. The electric candles flickered as the lightbulb flashed over her head. “We still are married!” she said. “Why didn’t I think until now to wonder about the legality of it all? Well,” she added, as if to herself, “I’ll have to look into that, the legal end of things.” She remembered where she was, looked up. “I was crushed that Wilder would leave me, but furious at his reasons for doing so. Wilder was a scholar, and also a collector. I believe he was very close to an important discovery. Perhaps, as his papers are more fully reviewed and put in order, that will come to light.” She looked around the room, nodded to one or two of the assembled mourners. “But here we are now,” she said, “all together. I thank you for coming. Wilder had a sure hand with a mixed drink. He loved to read the comics in the paper every morning. He never forgot a relative’s birthday, he always sent a card, and sent it on time. He was, in sum, a man of many gifts. May he rest in peace, though he was not a peaceful man. I’d like to read something to you now, something I feel evokes Wilder in all his dimensions.”
She had found an early draft of one of the local poet’s sonnets in the archives, had compared it to the published version bought at a gift shop when she’d taken a few days away to clear her mind and settle her grief after Wilder Gnat’s untimely death. “You would think,” she observed in a well-planned, spontaneous aside, “that our library would have an early edition of the poet’s works, maybe even a first edition.” She looked around the room again. Hermes Brigannd smiled weakly—enough to express his sorrow at their beloved library’s limited collections, not wide enough to let his gold tooth flash in the sun. A wily one, our Deputy Director. The sun had just peeked through the clouds and through the chapel window; had Brigannd smiled fully, the flash might have been blinding. “But it’s the words that matter,” Professor Nuffsed went on, “more than the variants.” She read in a clear, dry voice. People remembered how, before the pomp and circumstance of food, and the long, secretive, suspenseful process of her ongoing work, she had been a literary scholar of great acclaim. It was a poem that spoke of love and separation but also, for those who listened closely, of unmerited sacrifice, the unfairly unequal costs of partnership; it spoke of the shadow of the figure who thought he was the sun, it spoke of eclipse and renovation, of renewal. Wonder, acclaim, misunderstanding. All in fourteen lines. It could hardly have been more apropos. Perhaps the local poet wasn’t such a hack after all. There was not a dry eye in the room.
Thea Nuffsed paused to let the lines settle. Chapel pages (dressed in school colors) passed packets of tissues to those in the pews. “What you may not know,” she said at last, “is that his body is missing.”
A hush fell. Randall Chyme folded his arms, the better to resist the impulse to play something haunted-housey, or maybe the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th. “The coffin was full of books,” Nuffsed went on. “Customs opened it. Maybe they always do that, it’s routine. Maybe it was just heavy. Maybe it was never meant to be Wilder’s coffin at all and he’d had it shipped in advance, more of those books and manuscripts hidden with the Oblivonian undertakers. Whoever put them there, Wilder’s casket was filled with flip books—primitive, antique flip books depicting fur-hatted dancing monks and writhing carnivorous eels.” Hermes Brigannd squirmed in his seat.
“Don’t get your hopes up that he might still be alive somewhere, might have faked his own death,” Nuffsed continued. “The morgue attendant who identified the body was an old friend, a drinking buddy from Wilder’s first trip to Oblivonia. But we don’t know yet where the body is, whether misplaced or held back for ransom. Nor do we know the source of the books, or their destination. Maybe they’re meant to be the ransom—so far, it’s impossible to say. Meanwhile, Wilder may already have been buried as John Smith or Jane Doe, far from friends and family.” She paused again. “He’d like that, I think. The intrigue, the irregularity. He always felt a little set apart, a bit unrecognized. Our losing his body—someone losing his body; it wasn’t us—would justify all his suspicions. Gnat was a loss to me personally—though, clearly, he and I had our differences—” A deeper hush crossed the room, the hope of salacious revelations, but Nuffsed’s next words were barbed only to certain ears, “and a loss to our university, to our library, when he took his considerable acquisitive acumen to Rival State. I’m sure, had he lived, we would have soon heard about the establishment of a new Center for GNAT, or perhaps an even wider undertaking, and with it a new reading room, a scholarly archive. There was an excitement about Wilder, he was always on the verge of something. This time, I think he was ready to really bring those Oblivonian archives home. And sadly, that home was no longer with us.” Hermes Brigannd sat as if frozen. He twitched and prickled. He was about to raise his hand, to leap to his feet. “Wilder Gnat is no longer with us, but his memory will live within us,” Thea Nuffsed concluded at last. Just as Hermes Brigannd tore from the room.
It was time to bring the ceremony to a close. Gracie Foible sang “Amazing Grace” in a wavery, watery voice that carried them all through the old hymn. “Join hands,” she urged the assembly, and they did (most of them). Many of them sang; several even knew the words.
But someone had to spoil it. “I just can’t see Wilder Gnat as fit for grace. He wasn’t graceful.” It was Jacob Price, usually more tactful, but he was hungry.
“It’s not physical grace the song’s talking about. It’s divine grace, like forgiveness,” Gracie Foible said.
“Wilder could dance,” Anna Innovatova said. “He taught me to foxtrot back when the faculty club still held dances.”
“He was here then? You were?”
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“Coffee and tea on the lawn,” Randall Chyme said as the song trailed off (even Gracie Foible only knew a couple of verses). The chapel wasn’t a real church, so there was no fellowship room, no church basement for after-service gossip and refreshments. They would have to gossip out of doors.
The mourners filed out, solemn again, holding their tongues until they crossed the threshold. A few of them felt sad at not being sadder than they were, but it couldn’t be helped, and they were gentle with themselves. Everyone signed the guestbook—ex-wife and future mathematician daughter included—but no one collected the keepsake after the service. A secular school, Flagship employed no permanent chaplain to oversee the chapel. Some weeks later, the custodial staff swept through, gathered the abandoned programs along with the guestbook and tipped them into a banker’s box to be left on the library doorstep, like a baby abandoned at a fire station, like Moses in the rushes—the lead custodian had a spiritual bent and regarded the contents of the chapel, overlooked though they might be, as touched with meaning. Hermes Brigannd, entrusted with yet another box of dubious provenance and questionable worth, took the trouble to open this one and duly entered the guestbook into the Flagship University collection. Anyone who cared to look might see that his dealings with all things Wilder Gnat remained above reproach.
Before he left, Gnat had given the Chair a packet of overdue peer evaluations and crumpled Assessment Compliance Worksheets. Some were so old, the adjuncts whose classes he had observed had already been let go in the last round of cuts. Riffling through the stack, the Chair noted there were no activity reports among the documents—Wilder Gnat never missed a raise, or an opportunity to ask for one.
But Wilder Gnat was not the worst offender when it came to missing deadlines. Shortly afterward, Thea Nuffsed brought in so many peer evaluations and committee reports at once, the trapdoor gave way under the weight of them all, sending her sprawling onto the sofa below. Nuffsed was outraged, but the Chair gave her no chance to complain. Boarding up the trapdoor was one of her last actions as Chair. She came in on a weekend to remove any trace of the past construction and soon the trapdoor was but a myth, the rueful wish of once and future Chairs.
For without warning, the Chair had found herself elevated to Dean. The previous Dean realized, after years of patient striving, determined public service, and sufficient self-promotion, that what he most longed for was more time to spend with his family. The flash of illumination came to him the night of the Grants Pageant.
The pageant had been the brainchild of Dean Hoobris and the late chair of the Board of Trustees, a local girl made good who had amassed an impressively diversified fortune in home décor, payday loans, and speedboat design, all after financing her education—all the way to that MBA—with pageant winnings. That had been her insight: If students could compete for scholarship money while showing themselves well-rounded and accomplished, why not researchers?
When asked about the relevance of a pageant, its suitability, the Trustee reminded the Dean that pageants served not only to celebrate beauty as both an ideal and an achievable reality—with a grants pageant, knowledge would take the place of beauty as that ideal—but also as a platform for advocacy, an opportunity to expose an ever-expanding audience (think ripples in a pond) to the importance of a worthy cause. “You’ve watched beauty pageants, right?” she asked the Dean, who quickly shook his head. “Or you’ve heard about them. The contestants all have causes they want to champion, feral cat adoption or free breakfast for kids or save the whales.”
“That could get out of hand,” the Dean had said, thinking of the causes his faculty were likely to espouse. What if the causes were all local, or academic—limits on class size, the outlawing of adjuncts, an eight-year tenure clock, free donuts at meetings? The Trustee had pushed for a swimsuit competition, but there the Dean held firm. “We’ll stick to evening wear.”
“Just think about it,” the Trustee had urged. “Remember, there’s more to pageants than big hair and long dresses. Competition need not be grim and joyless. And think about your interview questions. That’s a place for them to shine.”
A lesser man than Hoobris might have quailed at the prospect of inviting—nay, requiring—the faculty to compete so openly, to parade across the stage and explain their work to all and sundry. Dean Hoobris was a convert. He and the Trustee worked out all the details, pleased as punch with themselves and their paradigm-pummeling approach. Didn’t faculty all whine about those lengthy grant narratives they had to prepare? In his more active research days, the Dean (he was a world authority on ancient metallurgy and symbolic adornment) had done some of the whining himself. Why not make the whole process more festive, more accessible? Build public support by giving the community a way in, something they could understand. Give those blessed with musical talents and good figures and better teeth a fighting chance against those who had dominated by means of superior logic and verbal luxuriance. It was only a matter of time before the vision caught on at the national level—federal grants and foundation awards were sure to follow. For now it was an internal affair. Which might have made applicants scarce, but research support was scarce enough at Flagship U—particularly on the Qualitative side—that more than a few were willing to play. Willing the way lambs go happily to the slaughter. Willing the way a man with a gun at his temple might hand over his wallet or his car. The Dean himself would emcee, assisted by a panel of judges.
When the Dean asked the Chair what she thought of the plan, she said only, “I guarantee you, there will be fireworks.” He did not yet know the Chair seldom used figurative language. She worked on poetry, after all. She must be metaphor incarnate.
The Dean labored for weeks over his list of questions, seeking the level of gravitas that would enable a level of fun. He wrote the questions out longhand on a legal pad, then revised, abbreviated, culled. He knew all the contestants, after all, at least to say hello to. The questions could be personalized, distinct. Nothing facile, irrelevant, banal. The judges would have the greatest questioning responsibility, but surely the emcee could make his mark.
The date was set, the call for contestants broadcast. Sadly, the Trustee had died, victim of a shark attack while water-skiing—after the pageant announcement was made, but before the competition. Undaunted, the Dean carried on, in her memory and in her honor. The Trustee had suggested they approach some of the university’s major donors as potential judges. The Dean had insisted, however, that the intellectual integrity of the event must be maintained. This was a scholarly exercise, directed toward the awarding of research grants. While the contestants’ ability to make their case, to persuade an audience (judges included) of the worthiness of their projects would be pivotal, those projects must be evaluated on their scholarly merits alone, their potential to contribute to the expansion of knowledge, the betterment of humanity and—basking, of course, in that welcome reflected glow—ultimately the greater glory of Flagship U. Only then would the donors be courted, seduced with yet more compelling evidence of the innovative excellence and boundless commitment of the Flagship community of scholars.
He’d begun by asking past recipients of the awards to judge. Three of them turned him down flat, but two, about to regain eligibility (past recipients were ineligible to apply for a period of three years) had agreed. If this was the wave of the future, they might as well learn what they could. A third distinguished faculty member canceled at the last minute, claiming an emergency need to take his son to the hospital. (The Dean, somewhat to his shame, checked up on that but, yes, the boy had been admitted with a burst appendix.) What to do?
The Chair maintained she knew all the contestants too well to be objective. “Ask Jacob Price,” she suggested. “He’s one of our shining stars among the graduate cohort. He could use the experience.”
Jacob Price agreed immediately. Unwilling to reveal his topic, he wouldn’t have considered competing, but as there was no graduate division, there was no conflict of interest. He came for the free food he assumed would be served, but another line on his CV, however brief, was no bad thing. “What do I do? Is it like a campaign stump speech? A job interview?” Where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years-tell-us-a-little-more-about-your-dissertation-and-then-about-your-plans-for-your-second-book-how-would-you-teach-introduction-to-your-speciality-in-ten-or-thirteen-weeks-how-will-you-contribute-to-the-excellence-of-our-institution-and-establish-a-national-reputation-in-the-next-six-years? Jacob Price had not been on the job market yet, but he had heard the horror stories and could rattle off the questions rapid fire, almost without breathing.
The halls of Flagship U were abuzz. Contestants received instructions on printed cards, bordered in the school colors: Present a demonstration of the viability, relevance, and potential impact of your research. This will serve as the “talent” portion of the competition. Prepare for eveningwear and interview rounds.
—Will there be a swimsuit competition?
—Will there be a Miss Congeniality?
—Will the winners be crowned?
—A tiara. We better see a tiara.
The Dean was a bit put out that some of his brightest stars refused to play, despite the sweetening of the pot with not one, but two summer research awards (both generously endowed in the low four figures) beyond the usual allotment of three. Celeste Tortuga, for one, was nowhere to be seen. “I don’t believe she has a talent,” sniped Gracie Foible. “Beyond writing all those books, I mean, and the articles. Oh, and I hear she gives riveting lectures.” The Chair thought Professor Tortuga might be protesting, with her absence, that silent toast among the bigwigs, her book acknowledged and yet unheard. But Tortuga didn’t waste time in grumbling that could be spent writing. Knowing her, the protest would take the form of yet another worthy book. Foible sent in her forms, and Magnus Fitt was there. Gratifyingly, Thea Nuffsed, who had been frustratingly tight-lipped about the details of her project, had agreed quickly, and the requests she had submitted to the equipment people suggested there would be something to see.
Drums rolled. The lights dimmed, then rose again to frame Dean Hoobris center stage. The Dean wore tails, accessorized from head to toe in the school colors. The sheen on his satin vest was almost blinding, the voluptuous crease of the pocket square fresh from the package. He’d last worn a tux at his high school prom; mercifully, the Trustee lived long enough to talk him out of the ruffled shirt.
The school mascot, a furred or maybe feathered creature of surprising grace and uncertain species, pranced onto the stage to the Dean’s left. It had brought a hula hoop—like all cartoon mascots, this one was fat—and began to gyrate to the beat of its different drummer. The Dean was horrified, but the crowd began to clap along. Maintaining the dignity of the affair was going to be a challenge. But the Dean, unwilling to lend credence to the faculty’s reflexive accusations that he’d crossed over to the dark side, joined in the applause. The mascot, used to being a cheerleader, not the main event, gradually subsided.
“Irrepressible!” gloated the Dean. “That’s the spirit of Flagship U! On stage, in the classroom, in the lab, even in the library. Have we got a show for you tonight!”
The mascot took a jiggly little bow and bounded away.
Seated near the middle of the auditorium, Karma Mariscal thought for the first time that the mascot bore some resemblance to her imaginary beast—though a polished, cartoony version, one cleaned up for company—and wondered which came first. She wasn’t a sports fan, had little money for licensed insignia t-shirts—plus the school colors made her look sallow—but maybe she’d noticed the mascot out of the corner of her eye without realizing it.
Backstage, the contestants rustled nervously. Some had brought friends or relations to hold their bags, help with makeup. Others stood alone, bewildered yet determined, long ago persuaded that you have to play the game, even if the game makes no sense at all. Music played in the background, a cheerfully generic march that the Trustee had recalled from her own pageant days. Hearing their cue, one by one the contestants paraded across the stage in eveningwear, pausing to twirl or bow or simply stand stupidly in the spotlight glare for a moment or two. Some seemed comfortable enough in their finery, dapper or dandy or delightful. Others had difficulty negotiating long hems or high heels, and more than a few tugged at the strangling necktie of enforced elegance. Some had been on stage before and glowed. Others were creatures of the library, the study, at most the classroom; they shrank from the light and looked distinctly sorry ever to have agreed to be part of the event.
Thea Nuffsed swept across the stage in a vibrating, iridescent blue gown that for all the world resembled a peacock, its train embellished with hand-embroidered eyes, a fringed wrap across her shoulders. The Dean felt a pang, eyeing that embroidery. Had contestants over-extended themselves, purchasing outfits they could ill afford in pursuit of what were, after all, rather modest grants? He had forgotten that women’s eveningwear was generally purchased, even custom made, not rented.
The judges sipped their ice water and took their notes. At the far side of the stage waited the Dean with his questions.
“Casablanca or Dr. Strangelove?”
“The Princess Bride.”
“Dog person or cat person?”
“I breed parakeets.”
Would they next be asked about their preference in colas? Boxers or briefs? Margaritas, frozen or rocks?
No. He had just been warming up.
“We are always already perplexed.”
“Jacket copy on your next monograph?”
“Essential reading for all but the most cretinous fools.”
“Sum up the state of your field in six words or less.”
“Rapidly shrinking under shortsighted administrative demands.”
“If you were a tree, what species of tree would you be?”
“The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
That brought a standing ovation. Who would have thought the old man to have had so much wit in him? He was an Old Testament scholar. He had not been seen in public, outside the classroom, in sixteen years.
There followed a brief intermission. Then the lights flashed once, twice, and a lush recorded voice urged the audience to return to their seats.
The mascot ran across the stage, tugging a banner: TALENT. With her dying breath, the Trustee had insisted on the mascot’s inclusion, and her wishes must be respected. After all, whatever the hyper, furred, and feathered creature was supposed to be, the costume was worn by the Trustee’s favored grandchild, though not even the Dean was supposed to know that.
“That’s right folks,” the Dean proclaimed, making the best of it. “This will surely be the highlight of the evening.” He hoped the questions had been revealing, well-chosen, but the next part was serious. “This is when our contestants present the relevance, viability, and potential impact of their research,” he said. “The passion, the excellence of each and every one them. It’s astounding.” He had practiced his lines in the mirror. He didn’t miss a beat. The mascot was at his elbow again, jumping suggestively, ready to marshal a cheer, but the Dean elbowed the hapless creature aside. “And now, Mr. Musicology, Professor Randall Chyme!”
Randall Chyme, with the gentle bow of the practiced performer, stepped onto the stage. “Suite for Mandolin Flute,” Chyme said. He receded, like a wave pulling back from shore, toward the keyboard set up further upstage.
“Suite for Mandolin and Flute,” the Dean repeated.
“No, no,” Chyme said quickly, returning to the microphone. “Not ‘and.’ The mandolin flute is a near-instrument of my own devising, one that draws on several traditions to pull the melody outward, allowing for a more capacious sound valley below the melody. I can only approximate the sound on the piano, but I was asked to ‘present a demonstration of the viability, relevance, and potential impact’ of my research, and this is my latest contribution, still in progress, though I have completed a first recording of the piece.” He held up a cardboard square, pulled from his pocket or from behind his back, the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, held it on the side of his body away from the Dean, and pointed ostentatiously. Available Now the card read, with ordering details. “If any of you fine people are interested in buying a recording, of this or of another piece, I always have a few with me. Please see me after the show.”
As Chyme began to play, the audience began to droop into a drowsy swoon. No so the Dean, who stood tactfully to one side, nearly offstage, as an emcee ought. He looked puzzled, doubtful. So much so that Randall Chyme, exquisitely attuned to the attention of his audience, approached him afterward, taking the interviewer’s role to himself for a moment. “I hope my music helps people to relax, to reflect, but you looked troubled as I was playing. Did it bring up memories?”
Dean Hoobris raised his eyebrows, surprised to have been asked such a direct question. “Not so much a memory, more a sense that it ought to be familiar.”
“Many local massage therapists license my recordings,” Chyme said. “Perhaps you . . .”
The Dean shook his head. “No chance of that.”
Chyme spoke quietly. He had no need to embarrass the Dean—Hoobris would likely do that for himself before the night was over—but he never liked to miss a potential sale, and he was genuinely surprised that the man didn’t show some degree of recognition, even the kind of scorn he used to get from Wilder Gnat, a man unable to take the time to slow down, to enter the music’s natural habitat (much as he said he’d have liked to) who nonetheless claimed excessive familiarity with the unchallenging and intellectually pointless musical drivel Randall Chyme composed. Clearly, the Dean was working too hard.
And the Dean began to think so, too. He smoothed his jet-black hair. Why should massage music be utterly foreign to him? That was the first sliver of suggestion, perhaps, that a change of plan, a change of path was in order, though it took the events of later in the evening to firmly make up his mind.
Randall Chyme returned to the center of the stage, took his bow. The audience, hypnotized to a level of semi-static, semi-conscious bliss, roused itself to applaud. Chyme acknowledged the judges, busy scribbling on their score cards, nodded again to the Dean, and disappeared backstage. The undergraduate chamber ensemble struck up its march once again.
Chyme’s performance had set a gentle tone. The next contestant was flashier.
“Please welcome our next contestant in the talent competition, Ms. Ancient Cookery, Dr. Thea Nuffsed!”
“Thank you, Dean Hoobris!” She turned to the audience. Professor Nuffsed had read the competition announcement and known at once what her talent would be. “Thank you all for being here tonight! Tonight’s dish,” she announced, “is roast peacock.” Gasps and murmurs. Glossy, show-offy, the regal bird was ideal for the requisite lecture on her work’s reach and impact. “I will discuss the symbolism and cultural importance of the peacock; I will demonstrate its culinary preparation; and I will give you a chance to sample the roast. Through this process, you will come to see the relevance of my scholarship. I hope, too, that you will enjoy yourselves and feel, even with the scholarly trappings (an Elizabethan lady would not have so thoroughly explained the menu to her guests!), some of the ebullience, the shining brilliance, the spark of joy and celebration that moves the feast.”
She was still wearing the peacock dress, now sheathed in a crisp white apron, but the Dean need not have worried. Dr. Nuffsed had bought the dress several years earlier, when she first began experimenting with peacock recipes (they had taken some time to perfect) and had been alert for opportunities to wear it. Not too often—no need to dilute the effect. She had donned it eighteen months earlier at a conference in Leeds, an early, partial foray into publicizing work that she had been careful to keep under wraps as much as possible, both to protect her insights, not wanting to steal her own thunder or embolden her rivals, and to postpone the day of reckoning with Hermes Brigannd.
“With historically-informed cookery, you must follow the recipe exactly,” Nuffsed told her audience. “You must understand it fully, and then you must follow it exactly. No editing for modern tastes or easy tools beforehand. No recourse to the food processor. You won’t know what they were making unless and until you make it yourself.”
Unfurling a scroll, she began with a dramatic reading: “‘To prepare a peacock for a feast, the bird must be skinned, the feathers saved intact. Roast the bird, rub the skin with spices and then wind the skin around the body, arranging the tail so that the feathers burst upright. The neck must be propped upright as well. Sprinkle or rub with fine gold powder or leaf and serve with a rich sauce, for the meat may be dull and tough.” To the audience, she said, “You’ll have to judge the flavor for yourselves!” The audience chuckled appreciatively. A cart was wheeled onto the stage, chopping board at one end, small bowls of prepared ingredients at the other. She had laid it out backstage before the eveningwear competition. “There are a number of recipes circulating for roast peacock,” Thea Nuffsed explained. “The one that informs my demonstration today, with its slight but important variations, is to be found only in manuscript.”
She went on, “Such a rich dish of symbolism, almost faith on the plate—resurrection, immortality, renewal. People believed the eyes of the tail feathers brought to earth the all-seeing, watching eye of God. The bird could dispel evil spirits, and its meat might be used to cure snakebite. Some called it Destroyer of Serpents. According to legend, the flesh of the peacock does not decay. What a boon before refrigeration, no? In the Early Modern period, it was believed the bird could dispel evil spirits. So perhaps this presentation is an exorcism of sorts.” Her tone was scholarly, erudite, firm.
“She should do a cooking show,” one of the judges whispered to her neighbor.
“She already is,” came the reply. “Right now.”
A professional TV cook might have prepared the recipe several times, always stopping short of full completion to give viewers a sense of the process without obliging them to watch the full operation. Dr. Nuffsed (ever the teacher) had brought slides of the intermediate steps, which she projected on a screen behind her. “I couldn’t possibly cook four different peacocks for you,” she said, “much as I would like to. And how on earth to afford so much gold leaf?” By way of compromise, she had two birds, one which she would spice, stuff, and prepare for the oven before their eyes, and another, still offstage, that she would bring forth ready for the feast.
“You may be wondering how I came by a peacock. I assure you, the bird was purchased, not poached.” An acquaintance of hers had introduced peacocks onto his rural property, only to have them multiply beyond expectation. While he still found them beautiful, he was only too glad to reduce his flock of the loud, territorial birds.
“Some might note that I have been talking most recently about common women’s cooking. That is true. And the peacock is no commoner’s dish. But the cookbook I will soon complete—Shakespeare’s Sister’s Cookbook, with documentary support and archival evidence never before published—will change how we view English cooking, European court cuisine, and women’s roles at home and hearth, from the most humble porridge to the grandest banquet. Tonight, in keeping with this august occasion, I give you the most grand.” She took a little bow. There was scattered applause, a little doubt, nudging, looks to the left and right. Was that all there was?
It was not. “Grandeur must be earned,” Nuffsed continued. “It must be built. Remember, embodied practice is key.” With a flourish, she pulled aside the white cloth that had draped the low table to her left. Slumped upon the table was a limp, blue-feathered bird. She pushed up her sleeves—planning for the occasion, she had added elastic at the wrists—and picked up a knife.
The knife was cardboard. “Campus security,” she explained, brandishing her prop, “would not allow a knife permit at such a large gathering.” People tried to recall the knife-wielding student run amok who had brought such scrutiny to campus kitchen knives, but if there was a proximate cause, it was a generation or more in the past. Whatever the reason for the constraint, Thea Nuffsed was undeterred. “You don’t want to watch me skin the bird,” she said, setting down the cardboard knife. “It can take a long time, and if you slip up, it gets bloody.” She began to carefully lift the skin she had loosened earlier in the day. “The object is to keep the skin, and the magnificent plumage, intact,” she explained. “I skinned it earlier,” she went on, “so as to be able to show you the process without running over my time.” The naked bird hunched, ready, its still-feathered skin laid out beside it like a cloak.
“Now to the spices.” And she used the cardboard knife to sweep the small mound of ground pepper into her hand before patting it onto the bird. She went on to rub the inside of the skin with cumin and cloves, naming each spice as she did so, and to stuff the bird with chopped onion and lard.
The Dean was not the only person in the room who felt a little faint.
“Now, if you’ll just excuse me a moment.” Did Dr. Nuffsed actually wink? It seemed so. She stepped off stage, just briefly, and returned bearing a large platter that she carried to the prepared pedestal table that waited downstage, almost within reach of the audience, certainly within scent. The spectators began to sniff and grin. Surely they’d get to sample.
It was magnificent. The neck had been propped and elongated. The feathers had been returned so that the bird, redolent of cumin and warm poultry grease, was once again blue, once again king, once again adorned with an all-seeing fan of tail feathers resurrected to pull the Divine back into the room, to make this a feast for all the senses, to remind them of their humble spot amidst the bountiful variety and magnificence of creation, and at the same time lift them up, bound in shared and joyous celebration.
“Some folks think it’s a better cure than a meal,” Nuffsed said, a warm light of friendly conspiration in her eyes. And then a sharp bang, percussive as a pistol shot’s retort, and the bird burst into flames.
Women screamed. One of the judges fainted. Dean Hoobris gasped and fell to his knees.
But no, the flames were not general. No one had died. The bird breathed fire.
“It is a self-containing phoenix,” Dr. Nuffsed said softly. “Too, peacock meat is an aphrodisiac. Perhaps the flames at the beak prefigure the flames of passion.” She winked again. “It rises from the ashes, as seemingly dead knowledge rises from the ashes that are the accumulated dust of neglect and oblivion. A heartfelt thanks to our departed Head Librarian, and to all stewards of those precious tomes.”
—Departed? Did she die?
—She threw herself on the flames, don’t you remember?
—The one who burned herself alive.
—In effigy. She burnt herself in effigy.
—I heard she bought a houseboat.
—I thought that was an inheritance.
—I heard she had become a nun.
—She was Buddhist, wasn’t she? Do they have nuns?
—Why wouldn’t they have nuns?
—She’s probably still on campus. Some kind of witness protection thing. Like a spy.
—Who does she need to spy on?
—I heard Hermes Brigannd is stealing books.
—Isn’t he the one Nuffsed left Gnat for?
—That was just Gnat’s crazy accusation. I heard she was sleeping with the metals guy, the one who makes her all that historic cooking stuff. The pots and whatnot.
Thea Nuffsed waved her arm in a wide arc and a clutch of costumed pageboys popped out of the wings as she again removed the feathered skin and began to carve the bird. It took a while, sawing away with a plastic knife. At least it wasn’t cardboard. The pages fanned out to distribute tidbits to the crowd on tiny plates. Those in the back, craning to reach a plate as they were passed, needn’t have bothered. She had warned them. The meat was inedible: dry, with a harsh bitter cast of burnt spice. But by the time anyone tasted it, Thea Nuffsed had taken her bows.
The final contestant was Anna Innovatova in a diaphanous cloud of sunrise golden silk. Her nails shimmered, her eyes sparkled, her braid trailed down her back, as long as the longest hiking trail of ambitious imagination. Unexpected dimples marked her cheeks. She was ready for this, she was hopeful. She was going to win.
“Is she eligible for full points?” one judge whispered to another. “Her appointment is only 2/3 time.”
“All or nothing,” the second judge whispered back. “Any one of these contestants can take it all.”
Randall Chyme returned to the stage, this time as accompanist. The two had been compiling a collection, one song for each of the languages ever taught at Flagship University (including those dropped due to low enrollments or the shifting fads of geopolitical crisis). Each song was a shining example of its culture of origin, a capsule lesson in diction and pronunciation, and a chance for students to express themselves artistically and ease their inhibitions while they learned. “I will sing two songs for you,” Innovatova said, as Chyme tickled the ivories in a luscious harpist’s roll. “The first is a favorite Peruvian drinking song, made famous by one of country music’s greats,” her eyes twinkled, “and it calls for audience participation.”
—She’s kidding, right?
—What, you never sang 99 bottles of beer?
—Not once I was old enough to drink.
“Stand up, please!” Anna Innovatova said, and whether she had cast a spell with the subliminal shadings of her voice or maybe they just felt sorry for her, every man, woman, and child in the auditorium stood up, linked arms, and followed her lead. One demo verse and they were belting it out, though a few did bemoan the lack of grog. They careened to a halt after a number of choruses that would have left even serious drinkers under the table. A little flushed, Anna Innovatova gathered the applause, underscored the lesson (if you can speak one language, you can sing another) and then, allowing them to regroup, like students in a class ready to shift their focus to the next activity, softly introduced the next song. The audience was eating from the palm of her hand. Now she would challenge them.
Innovatova’s second song was an ancient lament from the far north, the dismissal of the Heron Princess at the end of her reign. The song was tragic, long, majestic, a ballad of loss and renewal and then renewed decay that pressed against the borders of every broken heart in the room and pushed the edges of melodic possibility, dropping and sweeping and rising again.
—Can undergraduates—I mean, other than music majors—really sing that?
—Well, Innovatova can’t, whatever her students can or can’t do.
Anna Innovatova had once had a lovely voice. Not a trained voice, not a voice for the concert hall, maybe not quite church choir-worthy (but surely God was merciful there as in all things), but a bell-like, reedy alto that carried a tune with grace and filled her shower and her garden with song. Years of excess repetition of pronunciation drills, r’s rolled at the tip of the tongue and the back of the throat, hours spent demonstrating the phlegm-clearing voiceless velar fricative, had taken their toll. Where there had once been flutes and bells, there now were only cattails, bent and broken in the wind and hardly able to stand upright against the onslaught of winter (what bends, as it turns out, will also break), let alone to stand up straight and bear the pressure of a thousand watching eyes, a thousand pricked up ears.
Dean Hoobris had long been known for his tact, his gentle breaking of dreadful news, his grace under pressure. But the spotlights, the footlights, the smell of the greasepaint, the peacock firecracker, the pressure of asking so many questions—it was too much. At the first off-key, off-beat note, the first B-flat that should have been a C, he let out a bleat of anguish. “What language is that? Is that supposed to be a frequency tuned for dogs?”
Dr. Innovatova dropped the mic. She did not burst into tears or run weeping from the stage. She simply stood there. Silent. Alone. Head high. When the faculty rose as one in her defense—they, too, stood silently, each in their own way alone—the Dean felt the irresistible call of hearth and home. Anna Innovatova waited for absolute quiet. And then she finished the song.
Lights dimmed. Drums rolled. The judges filed out to consult in private. The pianist who had so delighted them at Celeste Tortuga’s book presentation played the Jeopardy theme. The audience seemed unsure whether to leave the room—was this an intermission?—or remain in their seats. A few stood to stretch their legs, a few others hurried to the bathrooms. Most simply sat, subdued, uncertain, patient. As the deliberations dragged on, a few more trickled out in search of snacks or an illicit cigarette (the nearest designated smoking cave was three blocks off campus), but they were all back in their seats when the judges filed in. No one was going to miss the coronation.
The Chair, mercifully relieved of judging responsibilities but nonetheless seated among the distinguished guests in the front row, turned to her husband. She had never quite believed the Dean would go through with the pageant, but as the day approached, she had asked her long-suffering consort to join her for moral support. He had been happy to do so, as much out of professional curiosity as solidarity. He was, after all, a retired circus man. Spectacle had been his stock in trade.
“What do you bet they say they couldn’t make up their minds, didn’t have enough data to go on, and send everyone back to do the usual paper applications?” the Chair whispered.
“After all they’ve been through?”
“Dollars to donuts.”
“You know I am not a betting man.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
The drums rolled again, confetti rained down, the concert band played Ode to Joy. Indeed, the judges had not been able to make up their minds. The pity vote must go to Innovatova; the performance and surprise garlands easily were Nuffsed’s. But what of all the others who had been forced to strut their stuff and lurch and weave across the stage?
A jury of one’s peers can be a saving grace. Those assembled in judgement had too often themselves been asked to redo, recast, redivide, reconfigure, reinvent the goddam wheel that had just run over their feet. The lead judge spoke: “We will not oblige the contestants to re-apply, reverting perhaps to the traditional four-page essay and timeline submitted in triplicate. But we do not have adequate or ethical grounds for comparison or choice. And so we are choosing by chance.” Resolved to make the best of the evening, the judge had worn a top hat with his tails. This hat was now placed in the center of the table.
Jacob Price—youngest of the judges, fresh-faced, disinterested—made a show of rolling up his sleeves. He cracked his knuckles, squared his shoulders. The audience began to beat out a drum roll of its own against the backs of the chairs, first just a few of them toward the back of the auditorium but soon everyone joined in. The sound rolled forward in a wave and Jacob Price waited for it, extending the moment. The unfortunate front-row dignitaries had nothing to do with their hands, but a few discreetly tapped their complicit feet.
And then the footlights, the whole bank of them, burst into flames. Old and sputtering, they should have been replaced years ago, but where was the money to be found? At first people thought it was the return of the fire-breathing peacock but no, it was the full line of footlights, electrical crackles and bite of burnt plastic in the air. The fire was waist-high before the sprinklers came on. The Dean was trapped on stage, face shadowed and flashed with flame, as the audience flowed, almost orderly, toward the exits. Some waited a moment longer, just in case it really was all part of the show, Dr. Nuffsed’s notion of a flambéed dessert.
The contestants would have to write their essays after all.
The Chair, once elevated, had to be replaced. Randall Chyme turned down the chairmanship, being prosperous and busy elsewhere and considering early retirement. Celeste Tortuga, too, parried the administrative thrust. Anna Innovatova couldn’t take it on without decimating the language program—and (though people tended to forget this) she wasn’t yet tenured, despite having taught at Flagship U for close to twenty years. Gracie Foible was now Chair.
And yet, everything remained the same. After the pageant humiliation, Anna Innovatova returned to the classroom, sunhat tied briskly under her chin, collection plate at the ready. The lead judge returned his rented tophat. Jacob Price went on selling his peanuts. But Jacob’s sympathy had been engaged. It seemed, whenever his situation looked most absurd, most impossible, most unjust, someone else’s lot was even worse.
“I was at the pageant,” he told Innovatova. He had lined up with the students queueing for office hours, and now he hovered outside Innovatova’s door, not sure whether to try to step inside. “I had the, um, dubious honor of serving as judge. I wondered if you might not have more songs up your sleeve—I mean, of course you do—but songs I could use in selling peanuts.”
“Selling peanuts?” She looked at him more closely. She recognized him as the sugar-gatherer she had seen months earlier in the coffee shop. She had an excellent memory. “We’ve met, haven’t we? More or less.”
“Right,” he admitted. He had tried to forget that particular encounter. But if anyone would understand, it was Anna Innovatova. So he explained his project, as well as his starring role (perhaps exaggerated a little) in the third chapter of Franny Kramer-Fahr’s dissertation. He was wearing his SUGAR shirt again.
“We should make those shirts in multiple languages,” said Innovatova, who never missed a chance to make a few dollars for the cause. She was already pulling out a sheaf of songs. Jam-packed though her office was, it was studiously organized, with hanging files hanging not only within their metal drawers, but in transparent plastic boxes suspended from the ceiling, alphabetized, color-coded, chronologically arranged. Bumped heads and stubbed toes were just another teachable moment—how do you say I think I just poked my eye out in Swahili? She handed Jacob the lyric sheets. “Good luck,” she said. “I’m sure I can find more if you need them.”
Jacob backed out of the doorway. He didn’t want to be late for his off-the-record appointment with the bean counter.
“Look at this,” Hermes Brigannd whispered, his forehead sprouting tiny horns that Thea Nuffsed, absorbed as she was in her own dreamworld, failed to see. He had showed her the letters of the Duchess of B—, the private diary of the Lady B— B—, the cookery book of the Marquesa de B— y B— de B—. Hermes Brigannd had not sold everything. And he had added as much as he had removed. Brigannd had no more idea than anyone else what was in some of the uncatalogued boxes cluttering the aisles and storage cupboards of the library basement. There were boxes that had been logged (Lot 9, Box 7) but never opened. The Head Librarian had acquired them, or he had inherited them from the previous Deputy Director; some had been donated. Brigannd himself had bought full lots and odd lots and jumble sale specials, gambling that at least a few of the items would be worth his time. He hinted, he teased, and Thea Nuffsed—wily, rigorous, sophisticated Thea Nuffsed—took the bait. She admired what he deigned to show her, she oohed and aahed, and then she kept looking. She was careful to cover her tracks, even to carry dust in a salt shaker to sprinkle behind her, just a little, nothing damaging, only on the floor. Just enough to make the place look un-lived-in.
Then came the night of her greatest discovery, the night that bound her to Hermes Brigannd forever. The Deputy Director had pulled out a wide, flat archival box, heavy as lead, sealed with a giant blob of purple wax that he didn’t pause to examine or explain. The box throbbed with possibility, it all but quivered in their hands, alive. Hermes Brigannd broke the seals, then gallantly stepped back. He handed Professor Nuffsed a pair of pristine cotton gloves and let hers be the first steps on this fresh ground. Thea Nuffsed pulled a mask over her face and bent over the box. He had brought it out from storage, closed to all but library staff. After hours, there was no one else in the reading room. Some libraries kept their special collections in the soaring upper reaches of their most cathedral-like gothic tower, but Flagship U’s gems were housed in a bunker, in a vault. No sound from outside—no rustle of leaves, no drip of rain. No footsteps at this hour from the floors above.
She opened the box, lifted and sifted, reading one page after another—a letter, a note, a diary—and then she stopped cold. “Judith Shakespeare wrote this,” she breathed. It was the proof she had been searching for all these years. Hermes Brigannd didn’t know whether to believe her or not, didn’t know if Judith Shakespeare was real, but he knew his mouth was watering.
Wedded to the past, to her scraps of ink-stained paper and foxed pages and Coptic bindings, Professor Nuffsed had been outspoken in her opposition to the long-term storage project. It didn’t matter how many surveys, polls, or statistics were placed before her, how many times she was invited to re-do the calculations herself. She refused to believe what everyone could see: the bound journal was dead, long live the electronic copy. But Nuffsed was not only outspoken and flashy, she was influential. With Gnat gone (and then expired) she was as well an object, if not of pity (one scarcely dared to pity Thea Nuffsed) at least of sympathy, making her more influential still.
When Gnat had snarled for all to hear that he wouldn’t share, people imagined he was tormenting his possibly dying wife with his mad sexual jealousy. But he had meant something quite different. Before he left Flagship U (and his third wife into the bargain), Wilder Gnat had been working with Hermes Brigannd to acquire a collection of Oblivonian materials smuggled into the country by the sole known survivor of the last dictatorship’s penultimate massacre, a collection far beyond the library’s budget. Gnat had assured Nuffsed the items were priceless, but in fact they had quite a clear price on them, and the price was quite high. Gnat didn’t want to share the acquisitive gifts, the guile and subterfuge of his pet librarian, not before that barrel of bloodstained letters and childlike drawings (all done in colored pencil, it was uncanny) was in the safety of Special Collections or, better yet, in Gnat’s locked faculty carrel, from which, if one or two of the more valuable pieces were to go missing, no one would notice. Not that he would ever dream of selling them. He lived only for scholarship. No one must see the primary sources before he, Wilder Gnat, world authority on all things Oblivonian, had a chance to publish.
Nuffsed never tried to correct the misunderstanding, to curb the rumors, willing to let everyone think it was jealousy rather than endanger her own research. Gnat’s jealousy gave her a sympathetic aura—there goes the poor, wronged wife—behind which to go about her own business in Special Collections. But her anger became real quickly enough when she saw how willing Gnat was to let the rumors fester and spread. That was the real betrayal, that he turned out to be deeply invested in some twisted notion of honor after all—as if it were her fault people leapt to conclusions he had set them up to reach.
Nuffsed strongly suspected the Chair (now Dean) had something to do with Gnat’s appointment to the Impact Chair at Rival State. She had not seemed as dismayed by his departure as Nuffsed would have expected—but maybe she, too, had simply bought her ex-husband’s propaganda, and there was no reason the Chair (now Dean) should have been any more dismayed than she was.
In any event, prior to Gnat’s departure, prior to Nuffsed’s ill-timed exclamation, Brigannd had been threatening to expose the unsavory methods behind Gnat’s vice grip on all things Oblivonian. Brigannd was a greedy man, but he had no time for the tall poppies of the world, for those who rose above their station to lord it over the rest. Fastidious in his personal habits, he eschewed violence in any form. There could be honor, of a sort, even among thieves. Like so many of Gnat’s faculty colleagues, Brigannd had begun to resent Gnat’s willingness (and maddeningly smooth ability) to get his fingers into every possible pie and then claim credit. Gnat was probably one of the original Bible translators; without him, Gender Studies at Flagship U would never have taken off; but for Gnat’s disinterested attention, Comparative Literature might have withered on the vine. Soon he would be proclaiming himself a librarian, an archivist, expert conservator and codicologist, not just the world’s leading scholar of Oblivonian graphic novels, Founding Director of the Center for Graphic Narrative Arts and Technologies with its glossy quarterly reports and pointless weekly newsletters, Impact Chair Professor to the Stars.
In exchange for his continued silence, Brigannd had demanded Nuffsed come out publicly in favor of the long-term storage project that she and many faculty had opposed. That was why she had cried out his name, afraid Brigannd would go ahead with his threat. For a moment, she really had thought she might be dying. She had only had the allergic reaction once before, at her best friend’s eleventh birthday party (the result of a dare), and so while she had conscientiously carried medication ever since, and had assiduously avoided cayenne pepper, she had no track record to make her fully confident that the antidote actually worked.
In that moment, she wanted to save him from Brigannd, but a moment later, Gnat spoiled it all. Hell hath no fury like the disillusioned savant. Her perspicacity called into question, her judgement, her discernment. . . From such an insult, there was no going back.
Fortunately, she could go back to the library. Nuffsed no longer had any motivation or desire to defend Wilder Gnat. But she did need to protect her own work.
Wilder Gnat had maintained a years-long effort to be granted a private key so that he might access the library collections any time he wished, but Thea Nuffsed preferred to arrive precisely at the moment of opening, when no extra trouble or assistance need be sought, when no one would bother her and she could work undisturbed. This morning, Professor Nuffsed arrived at the library as was her custom, two minutes prior to opening.
In the reading rooms, a previous decade’s tired shades of mauve and teal had been replaced with the current decade’s urgent shades of violet and lime. The chairs were as uncomfortable as ever, but undergraduates would surely collaborate more freely, innovate more collectively and make their marks more persuasively (going forward) if they were enticed with the colors of their own generation. The library had recently abandoned the age-old effort to keep food—and its attendant rodents, insects, bacteria, grease, and stains—away from the collections. Where stern signs once forbade comestibles of all kinds, paper towel dispensers had been installed, hung with mild labels imploring those responsible to clean up any messes they might make. For some, the prezel crumbs and sticky spilled drinks no doubt helped to give the library the scent of home.
But Special Collections remained pristine, impervious behind sign-in sheets and air-lock doors and lighting that would not fade the older inks. So dim was the lighting that some scholars brought illegal penlights or used their phones to illuminate the pages they wanted to read. But not many. Because it was true, Hermes Brigannd’s contention that much of the library would never be missed were it sold or burnt or—the safe and reversible option he had been recommending for years—put into secure long-term storage, out of the way but available in the (unlikely) event of need.
Nuffsed had identified the peacock for good culinary reasons, but she also understood Hera, jealous wife of Zeus. Then there was Hermes Brigannd, with his hundred eyes watching the treasures of the library. Like Hera giving Argus’ eyes to the peacock, Nuffsed had taken the eyes of vigilance for herself, turned them to a thing of beauty, an adornment, but used them also for revenge.
Hermes Brigannd, like his traveling namesake, moved quickly, almost silently. He was at her shoulder, looking over her work before she heard him. “It would be a shame if something went missing,” he murmured.
Nuffsed jumped. “Are you accusing me?”
“Not at all! Only thinking aloud. So many of our materials remain uncatalogued. . .” He trailed off. Nuffsed waited for him to continue. “It would be a shame if something went missing,” he said again. “Something one of our scholars was working on. Something they might then be unable to prove had ever existed.”
He drifted away—cat-like, demon-like—before Nuffsed could do more than contain her shudder, steeling herself against his threat and quietly taking her notes. Of course, anything she had ever used, she had photographed. But that wasn’t the same as the paper itself, wasn’t the same as the parchment or codex or letter, as both of them well knew.
She worked for another hour. No need to display her anxiety. Soon it wouldn’t matter, because the publication of her book would establish her claims once and for all.
She had been working on Shakespeare’s Sister’s Cookbook for years. Years and years and years. Some doubted it would ever see the light of day.
—The Inedible Shakespeare.
—My kingdom for a recipe!
—Thea’s Labors Lost.
—In Search of Lost Recipes.
—Ay, there’s the Cajun spice rub!
—Allergic to cayenne, remember?
At last, the book was published. It was a serious project, not a stunt. But after the pageant, after the peacock-phoenix, she had become convinced of the value of outreach, the need to take faculty research to the public. She had long resisted showmanship, fearing it would dilute the intellectual content and import of her work; with the pageant, she had found in herself a taste for performance. Better yet, a public event would allow her to confirm the existence of her sources before Brigannd could pull them away. But most of all, she needed to sell books. The publisher had agreed to a large number of colored plates, but had also demanded a hefty subvention, for which Professor Nuffsed had invented a specious Office of Embodied Research that she then re-mortgaged her home in order to finance.
Embodied experience was her watchword. Improvisation was not. Thea Nuffsed’s book deserved—demanded—more than the customary quiet clapping and genteel notice of the usual scholarly tome. The book was extraordinary, glossy, coffee table-ready. It had been years in the making, and it was making a splash. She was interviewed by the divisional communications specialist, who got her name into the local paper and onto the news. She finagled a special issue of the unit newsletter. She arranged for the art museum to mount a display of early woodcuts, highlighting any that bore images of food or feasting or fire. There was no parallel exhibit in Special Collections, no invitation into the cellar reading room to breathe the air of scholarly discovery up close.
—Didn’t Tortuga manage a library tie-in with the last book?
—Early editions of Eloy the Literate, or whatever the guy’s name is.
—That’s the one.
—It’s so important to get students into the library, make them aware of what we have.
—But have you noticed how little we have? There’s only one out of how many English translations of Don Quijote, and it’s not the best.
—At least there is one.
In truth, Hermes Brigannd hadn’t offered, and Thea Nuffsed hadn’t asked. There were other venues. Building 7 (formerly the Student Union) held a display of photographs enlarged from the book. She had insisted on being her own hand model, her own food stylist. Almost eerie, looming, Thea Nuffsed’s magnified hands—quadruple sized—held a vast bouquet of heirloom herbs, a rippling sheet of gold leaf, a cleaver poised above a bloody pile of meat. The Vegan-Peace Alliance had protested that one. Twenty or so students circled outside the main doors carrying signs, Meat is War and Not Our Hands; when they didn’t get much notice, they moved inside, where they lost their way in the labyrinthine building and found themselves seduced—the vegetarians among them—by free samples of a sweet apple custard Karma Mariscal had prepared under Nuffsed’s watchful eye. The four or five true vegans drifted away.
The event posters promised “Comfort Food, then and now: Possets, chewets, and brandy.” The brandy had been Karma Mariscal’s suggestion, one that had earned her Thea Nuffsed’s cautious endorsement and a (temporary) post as a research assistant. If she was going to bring the project to its conclusion, she needed some help. There was recipe testing to complete, ingredient documentation to nail down, angle after angle on the illustrations. Karma hoped the assistantship might earn her some academic credibility as well. Nuffsed had been wary of taking her on, worried Karma might be as careless in the lab kitchen as she had been with the cayenne.
Karma siphoned spirits into a dozen antique-looking bottles she’d scored at a thrift shop. “You checked the seasonings?” Nuffsed asked.
“Did you double check? Are you absolutely sure?”
“I’m sure.” Karma gritted her teeth. It was mortifying to be known for such a colossally stupid mistake, but she could hardly set the record straight and tell her she’d done it on purpose.
Thea Nuffsed had insisted on the Best Room, its old world elegance the one campus venue suited to what she had in mind. The modern scientific angle had been addressed in the photo exhibit in Building 7, the personal glamor angle in the glossy spread soon to appear in the school quarterly. There would be no music. Randall Chyme was too busy to perform, and the pianist had learned his lesson the last time. The event was arranged around three stations: spirits, meat pies, and sweets. At a fourth station, a student worker from the university bookstore sat beside a stack of books for sale.
Nuffsed had hoped to build a full-on reconstruction of a historic kitchen, a wood fire hearth with a metal spit at the side—not over—for roasting as its centerpiece. She had built one at home and used it regularly, now that Gnat and his fussing about fire danger were out of the way. So many people imagined roasting as happening over the fire, not beside it. Just one more area in which the public’s enduring misapprehensions must be addressed. But that would have to wait for a less restrictive venue. The Best Room rules were absolute: no open flame, no heat source beyond the (supervised) chaffing dishes sent by catering. So she constructed a replica kitchen and planned a tasting of dishes she would prepare in advance. She wouldn’t be allowed to roast, but she wanted to convey a realistic notion of a period kitchen. “We will make do with cold meat pies,” she said. Karma felt like Cinderella, pushing and pulling the cauldrons and fritter molds, ale pots and skimmers into the tableau of Nuffsed’s imagination.
Professor Nuffsed had scoured antiques shops at home and abroad, assembling a breathtaking array of pans and utensils. (Gnat had hinted that she spent more time shopping than writing. Takes one to know one, she’d said at the time, and now—ha!—her book was finished, too late for him see.) The metals section of the Art Unit knew her well, for she was constant with her questions and proposals—a distraction, at times, from more abstract or aesthetic sculptural work, but a welcome chance to practice and an argument to be trotted out at need (sadly, there was always need) about the concrete applications of the arts and the benefits of collaboration across fields. She had bribed the curator of the university museum to loan several delicate items. She had wined and dined the backstage staff and the chief set designer of the university theater.
The pageant had been the first time she’d cooked in public, but it would not be the last. Thea Nuffsed had plans. One more triumphant campus whirl and she was out the door. It had been a point of pride to finish the book. She knew people whispered behind her back, though the whisperers had half as many advisees as she did. It was important to cement yet again her scholarly bona fides. She would hold a blind tasting (identify the exotic filling in your chewet), then go out in a blaze of flashbulbs to pursue TV stardom. Filming of Cooking with Shakespeare’s Sister would begin the next week. Six episodes to start, with an option for six more. She’d be playing it in character, as Judith Shakespeare.
Thea Nuffsed had invited every bigwig in the book, running down the organization chart with the campus directory in hand. The past several years had seen a bumper crop of newly-anointed Senior Assistant Associate Vice Something-or-Others, each with a six-word title and an expansive mandate. “How can we grow our own leaders in-house?” the prior, prior Provost had mused, and so (with the help of a generous donor and a small diversion of classroom maintenance funds) Flagship University had built a greenhouse beside the proposed dog track where budding leaders were arrayed on potting benches, grow-lights above and vermiculite below, and watered and fed at regular intervals. Tags worthy of a horticulturalist identified the growing leaders by variety, aptitude, and comfort zone. Properly pruned, they could be sustainably harvested for decades. The latest crop had just been released. Thea Nuffsed had met them all. She scanned the crowd and identified a few, though not as many as she would have liked.
Nuffsed moved through her hypothetical kitchen like an actor in a living history display, poised, in character, welcoming without being overly familiar. In character, but not in costume: she had dressed professionally, though she did, as the guests took their places, don a billowy white apron over her jacket and skirt. Her makeup, heavier than usual, was camera-ready. Her hair was twisted into its usual precarious yet unmoving bun. She had begun to wear glasses for close work, and she peered out over the tortoiseshell frames at the crowd.
“They’re called chewets. If you’re interested, please sign up to take part in the blind tasting. I’ll have some special treats for you then. Something you’re unlikely ever to have tasted before.”
“No turkey drumsticks?” came a voice from the back, an evident refugee from summer Renaissance Faires with their reliably inauthentic ye olde food. Randall Chyme, raised at such events, felt his mouth water.
“Think of hand pies. Some find the amount of suet in traditional recipes off-putting. The meat is finely minced—you can make them with fish as well—and combined with currents or dates, maybe both, and eggs and breadcrumbs to bind it together.”
—What’s suet, anyway? Isn’t that what you put in birdfeeders?
—Not to Shakespeare’s sister it wasn’t.
—Isn’t that like tallow?
—I think there’s a difference.
—Not a big one.
Hungry Jacob Price was present, finding nourishment and silver linings where few dared to look. “With the new metrics, the Bean Counter gets twice as many trays every week as he used to,” he told Franny Kramer-Fahr.
“And it’s still just him?”
“Uh huh. I’m thinking about a communal chili feed on Fridays.”
“More or less.”
Her first customer had just bellied up. Karma had purchased a suit for the occasion, but still felt dowdy beside her would-be mentor. With the scarf at her neck, she probably looked more like a flight attendant or a hotel bartender than a scholar in training.
“I expected Sack,” said Hermes Brigannd, leaning against the drinks table. “Isn’t that what the Elizabethans drank?”
“They did. Sack and claret and small beer. And spirits. Aqua vitae, sometimes medicinally, other times not.”
Karma Mariscal had promised the crowd exotic brandies from long ago, but it was just a bunch of flavored vodka she had assembled for the occasion in fancy bottles. Nuffsed had stressed the importance of authenticity, but Karma found several sources describing scented, herbal spirits.
“A pleasant surprise,” Brigannd said unpleasantly, eyeing the line-up of bottles.
“Where would you like to begin?” Karma asked sweetly. “We’re offering single shots, for those who have a favorite, or a tasting flight of six.”
“The full flight, naturally,” Brigannd said. “One lives to learn. And don’t skimp.”
Karma Mariscal did not skimp.
Hermes Brigannd sipped. “What is that flavor?” he asked. “Or is that a great trade secret?”
“Celandine and galingale,” Karma answered, only because she liked the names of the plants. She couldn’t have identified them. She’d steeped some herbes de Provence in no-name vodka for a week or two, then poured it through a fine-mesh sieve and added a little food coloring.
“One of Professor Nuffsed’s archival finds? Recipes in that long-awaited cookbook?”
“Absolutely.” Karma looked around for another taster she might engage, but people were gravitating toward the other end of the room, more interested in the food than in her oddly colored potions.
Hermes Brigannd surveyed the gathering. “The Best Room holds more secrets than you know,” he told Karma.
“Skeletons in the closet?” As soon as she said it, she was sorry. Hermes Brigannd was creepy enough, he probably did have a skeleton somewhere, or an old-style sideshow collection, bats in formaldehyde, severed limbs.
“Should it be renamed as well? Was the Best family not really the best?”
“More recent history than that,” Hermes Brigannd said. “History near and history far.” He teetered away, his topped-up sample shots sloshing only a little onto his plastic tray.
The Senior Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Outcome Assessment Enhancement was talking to Franny Kramer-Fahr. Franny had a chapter to finish, deadlines to meet, but she’d been hearing about the cookbook-to-be ever since she’d entered the graduate program. She wasn’t about to miss the great unveiling. And as a bonus, here was a chance to explain her own project to a Senior Assistant VP.
Mindful of her predecessor’s ill-fated pageant, the new Dean had made no changes to the annual dissertation competition. Advisors nominated, committees reviewed, awards would be announced, awardees feted. Jacob Price, sadly, had not made enough progress to be nominated, though he claimed to have completed a full chapter and insisted he would be done within the year. Might the Jones Smith Smith Jones Founders Foundation Fellowship be extended? Alas, no. But that was hardly a surprise, and he had already begun to make alternate arrangements, copying the address off his peanut sack (hard to do–the ink was light, the burlap porous) and contacting the wholesaler.
Franny Kramer-Fahr, however, was right on schedule, with her defense and with her award submission. She knew, too, the importance of the elevator speech, the value of campus-wide visibility. Those little pigtails were deceiving. Franny knew her political science, knew social movements, liberation theology, the history of snack foods in the Americas; she knew her economic theory—the school’s only Nobel laureate, an economist, had invited her to lecture in his class—but people didn’t expect that before she opened her mouth. She had been no more industrious than Jacob in seeking funding, but she had had better luck. No one had snapped up her topic, perhaps an added advantage of working far from home, studying the meek and mild, though as she was quick to tell anyone, there was nothing meek about a street vendor. But all that street food, bane of tourists—surely there was some risk? Franny Kramer-Fahr took her precautions, took her risks, and suffered nothing worse than a single nasty stomach upset, and that after eating a candied apple at the state fair while visiting her grandparents. Could have happened to anyone.
She had been delayed in her dissertation work only by the difficulty of locating a particular statistical abstract, crucial to complete her introduction with its obligatory survey of literature. When she pressed the circulation staff, and then the reference desk, they could tell her only that periodicals that had not been cited for over 2.6 years had been removed to storage at the behest of the Deputy Director of Special Collections, de facto Head Librarian. “Don’t you appreciate the new collaborative space?” one circulation assistant had asked her. “It’s a big empty room with a few ugly chairs,” Franny answered. She had filled out the paging slip for deep storage, and filled it out again, filled out another. Inter-library loan was restricted for graduate students and she was past her quota. Flagship’s was the only subscription in the state, and so she had finally driven out of state on a personal inter-library mission to consult the volume she needed at a private university that offered generous community access out of a sense of noblesse oblige.
But she had cleared that hurdle. The Senior Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Outcome Assessment Enhancement was duly impressed. He approved of international research, understood the need to train global citizens and raise the profile of Flagship University and speak to the future through the eloquence of the past and get academic boots on the ground wherever and whenever possible going forward. “That’s just what the field needs—take scholarship outside the classroom, beyond the campus,” he said.
Franny protested, “Scholars have been studying the practices of far-off merchants and cooks and caregivers for decades. But the so-called third world is closer than we think.”
The gentleman nodded sagely (he’d been practicing in front of a mirror since his last promotion). “As the job wheel turns, you might go into consulting one day,” he said. It must be the pigtails again. He thought she was six. Her dissertation was brilliant, timely, nearly finished, with parts of two chapters already published in article form, but she didn’t have a job yet, and any senior anything for outcomes assessment should have understood the delicacy of her position without having to ask.
Franny Kramer-Fahr would be the first to admit that travel was a strong motivation in her study design. There were places she had visited that she longed to see again. There were haunting echoes scoring her dreams, horns and hoots and little rhymes, singing the praises of candies and fried pastries and popped corn. But she soon tired of other people’s assumption that only the far-off were exotically industrious, colorfully entrepreneurial. She had no axe to grind, but Jacob Price was a godsend.
The dilemma that emerged was this: if the comparison was too convincing, her critical thesis (look what the poor of the world have been pushed to, even the privileged poor pursuing advanced degrees) would be lost in the teasing possibility of the how-to manual: look how this young man made the best of things, even turned a profit! You’re paid in peanuts? Well, make that lemonade! Then, too, she admired all her subjects. Not past the point of scholarly objectivity (to the extent that was even real), but as resilient, clever, bright people in and of themselves. She didn’t want Jacob Price to be the only star.
The Senior Assistant Vice was intrigued, but troubled. “Explain more about what you said about the third world being right here at home.”
“One of my case studies is local,” she told him. “Right here at Flagship.”
“Really?” The Senior Assistant Vice Provost’s eyes widened before his face folded into a knowing smile. “The hotdog seller across from Building 7?”
Franny shook her head, chagrined. The hotdog cart had been there so long, she’d barely registered it. “Guess again,” she said, then walked away before he could.
It was just a stroke of luck that Benny Sagaz found Karma Mariscal. He hadn’t consciously sought her out, not Karma specifically, but he’d been mulling the book they’d talked about ever since the class trip, mentally chewing over the discussion. He had appreciated Karma’s willingness to entertain ambiguity. He accepted that the characters weren’t all strictly good or bad, find the hero and the hidden meaning, but he was still troubled by a detail. Was the trickster figure in their story really ultimately working for a good cause, or was he an amoral opportunist? Ben was wandering the campus, ducking his school group to explore on his own, when he heard the noise from the Best Room and decided to peek inside.
Karma recognized Benny from the book discussion, though she was a little surprised she so quickly remembered his name. “Hey, Benny. You’re back?” She hadn’t expected to see him on campus again so soon.
“Ben, please.” His t-shirt read RELISH.
“The high school got another grant, but they’re not allowed to use it to pay regular teachers, it has to be enrichment. So it’s the same fieldtrip all over again. But I’ve already been on the tour. I thought I’d look around on my own.” He waved his arm in a broad arc. “What’s this?”
“It’s a book presentation,” she said, “only with lots of props. And historically accurate food.”
“Well, I can’t give you brandy, but there’s lemonade or something over by the chewets at that other table—those are meat pies, if you care to try some. And later there’s a tasting.”
“Cool. Hey, can I ask you something?”
But before he could ask, Hermes Brigannd was back at the brandy table. “I’ll come back,” Ben said.
“Might I try your ancient brandies?” Hermes Brigannd asked, as if he had not approached the table before.
“Of course.” Karma was happy to oblige. “Do you know which one you’d like, or would you prefer the tasting flight of six?” Brigannd’s teeth looked faintly green. Maybe she had overdone the food coloring.
“Oh, the six, please,” Brigannd said. “One lives to learn.” He swayed a little to the left, dreamy or distracted, then righted himself to attention. He accepted the miniature tray of tiny, overflowing plastic shot glasses and found the one unoccupied pedestal table, near the center of the room. He was well on his way to sloppy drunk.
Too late, when she was already wrist deep in a linen coif full of names, Thea Nuffsed thought of the unfortunate echo of the pageant conclusion. It couldn’t be helped. She would choose six tasters as planned. Anyone who signed up got a ticket for the drawing that would select the participants in the blind tasting. A book purchase came with two extra chances, but the book was expensive—hardcover, and all those full-color illustrations, a copious index. Most people were happy to make do with their single free entry.
Each participant was given a small notepad for jotting notes and a souvenir pen courtesy of the publisher (with the book’s title spelled out in luscious, swirling script); each was seated before a narrow, rectangular porcelain plate. A low curtain ran the length of the table, shielding the food samples from their eyes. For added protection, each individual set of samples was screened by a three-sided cardboard screen. Nuffsed had considered blindfolds, but worried about the claustrophobic, and those unwilling or reluctant to mess up their hair. Each had signed a release swearing they had no known food allergies, sensitivities, restrictions, or observed adverse reactions.
They would sample three meat fillings, three fruits. “Please don’t speculate aloud,” Thea Nuffsed urged. “Taste, consider, savor, and write down your best guess as to what you might be eating. Remember, some of these ingredients may be foods you’ve never tried before; others might be familiar foods prepared in unfamiliar ways.”
—How can they guess if there’s nothing to go on?
—Peacock again? I’d know that taste anywhere.
—Like shooting fish in a barrel.
—People used to keep trout in their rain barrels, you know.
—Just to keep it fresh for a day or two.
—Is that true?
—Maybe it’s a pop quiz. Like, if you’ve read the book, you know what to expect.
—It doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re not winning prizes.
—Not very academic, is it?
“You are not contestants,” she said quietly, through the pageant’s awful echoes. “You are participating in university research, contributing to our understanding of the foodways of our forebears.”
The first sample was set on each plate, a small morsel resting on a tiny spoon. Nuffsed had carved the spoons herself out of cherry wood. Another reason the book had taken so long.
“We’ll start with the fruit pies,” she said.
“Quince!” pronounced the taster on the end, almost as soon as the spoon touched his lips.
“What’s that? Are you sure?” The taster at the other end of the row leaned forward to quiz his counterpart, closer to the hidden samples than Thea Nuffsed liked.
“You never had quince paste and cheese for dessert?”
“My grandmother’s favorite.”
“Never heard of it.”
The other four tasters made no comment. They swallowed appreciatively, blinked, smiled, looked ready for more. Thea Nuffsed was a little put out. She had almost saved the quince for last, thinking it a likely stumper. Never underestimate your guests’ palate—she’d written that herself, in the cookbook’s introduction, urging cautious hosts to be brave, try something new, impress the neighbors. But the meat pies would get them. She still had something up her sleeve.
Ben Sagaz was back at Karma’s table. “Sure I can’t try one?”
“Sorry. And you might not even like them.” Most people didn’t. She’d been storing their comments up in the back of her mind, just in case Professor Nuffsed wanted feedback, though on the whole, she’d found Thea Nuffsed wasn’t much of a listener.
—Man, this one, too!
—I guess Shakespeare’s sister was one of those embittered spinsters.
—Isn’t tansy just a weed? I think my grandfather sprays it out of his fields.
—Your grandfather’s a farmer?
—They’re real, you know.
Karma turned to adjust the cards she’d placed in front of each of the bottles, listing the principal flavorings (excepting the herbes de Provence). She hadn’t seen Jacob Price, but Franny Kramer-Fahr had come by the table, and a couple of bigwigs she recognized from their regal condescension, if not by name. The room was full—not shoulder to shoulder, but a steady stream of admirers, gawkers, skeptics. She thought Professor Nuffsed would be pleased, though the stack of books at the sales table wasn’t noticeably shorter.
Karma came out from behind the table rather than lean across the sticky bottles to talk to Ben. “What’s up?”
“Why do people keep stumbling there at the middle of the rug?” Ben asked. “People keep tripping.” He’d stood at the edge of the room watching for a while, before he got up his nerve to ask Karma his question.
Karma Mariscal looked where he was pointing, and then she saw it, too. It was the wine stain that had long bedeviled the keepers of the Best Room, but it seemed, subtly, to have grown, spreading not horizontally but vertically. She saw an unevenness to the carpet and the floor that she hadn’t noticed before.
“So I was wondering, in that book we read for your class. . .”
“It wasn’t really a class,” Karma said.
“Whatever. I was wondering, how come that one guy, I forget his name but you said he was a trickster, what did it mean when he found the gold coin in his grandmother’s pocket?”
At that moment, Karma looked across the room and saw Hermes Brigannd smiling his best, slightly drunken smile. The last rays of the afternoon sun caught his gold tooth as they had once caught Wilder Gnat’s flaming red hair.
“It means you are a genius, Ben.” She took a step forward and promptly tripped on the edge of the hallowed carpet, though she caught herself and didn’t fall.
At the tasting table, they had begun on the meat pies.
“Are these feathers?” someone asked. “Bones?”
The tasters were stumped. “Chicken,” one finally offered. “Everything tastes like chicken, right? For once, that’s probably what it is.”
Thea Nuffsed waited to be sure there truly were no more guesses.
“That is a lark pie you’ve just sampled,” she said. “A dish both commonplace and far away. Even today, larks are not unknown on the menus of southern Europe. Very delicate, very wholesome. Sometimes eaten whole, bones intact—a boon to the cook. Still, the plucking. . .” Here she trailed off. She would win no hearts or minds with images of tiny, denuded bird carcasses in the cook’s bloody hands. “Isn’t it delicious?”
—Lark? What’s a lark?
—It’s a frolic. A whim.
“It’s a bird,” supplied one of the tasters. “A songbird.”
—They’re eating baby birds! Little baby birds!
—Now aren’t you glad your name wasn’t picked?
—Aren’t larks endangered?
“Larks?” bellowed Hermes Brigannd, his voice emerging from the buzz of chatter like a foghorn on time-delay. His hair bristled with outrage, his breast swelled, his plumage fanned. “How dare you? What were you thinking?” He was more than a little in his cups, several sheets to the wind, and unsteady on his feet as he sailed across the Best Room’s revered and glorious carpet to take the grandstanding pseudo-scholar to task. But he sailed gracefully, Karma noticed, right around the unevenness Ben Sagaz had just pointed out.
In his outrage, Brigannd had forgotten that he had come to the Best Room that afternoon not to expose the exploitative anti-ecological excesses of the great Thea Nuffsed, not even simply to partake of the exotic booze and bonhomie, but to keep an eye on his own interests, to deflect any attention that might stray where he had rather not, and to do what he could to shoo the herd on its way before the appointed hour when he very much needed the room to himself.
He had set the date long before the tasting extravaganza was scheduled. There was no turning back. But he knew the event would drag on—Thea Nuffsed always had more to say—and the room would be open for hours, what with set up and gathering and formalities and mingling, and more mingling after that, the last stragglers finally drifting away, and only then the cleanup, the coming and going of catering carts and folding tables and a small battalion of undergraduates in school-colors polo shirts trying to earn a few bucks before their final exams. One or two more people marching to and fro, perhaps raising the edge of the rug for a proper cleaning, might go unnoticed, if they were careful.
But he was not careful. The brandy was a temptation he had not expected (though after the third tasting flight, he began to doubt the authenticity of the perfumed elixirs). The pie of larks was a pie too far.
“Why larks? Why not something else? With that vast store of recipes at your disposal, plenty of opportunity to shock the children and make your mark and all the rest,” Brigannd demanded.
“Does authenticity mean nothing to you? Judith Shakespeare would have cooked larks in a pie.” This was scholarship, truth, discovery. Hermes Brigannd had no right to question.
“But she’s just made up. Virginia Woolf made Judith Shakespeare up,” Gracie Foible (now the Chair) objected.
Brigannd favored her with a bow, his expression more grimace than smile.
“Be quiet, Gracie!” said Nuffsed.
“You killed a lark, the herald of the morn?” Magnus Fitt was all shocked innocence and worldly hauteur. Nuffsed had made sure his name didn’t surface in the tasters drawing, but there he was in the front row, looking as angry as Hermes Brigannd.
“That’s right, Romeo, I did just that,” Nuffsed snapped.
Magnus Fitt drew himself up. Unbeknownst to her, Thea Nuffsed faced not one, but two past presidents of the local Audubon Society that day in the Best Room. “Surely the shrinking songbird populations of the world are sufficiently imperiled without renewed human predation in the service of an ill-conceived. . .”
Nuffsed interrupted, “Their habitat has been reduced considerably, by urbanization and climate change. But there are many species. The larks you are eating were not caught in the wild.” She had persuaded her friend with the feral peacocks to expand his aviary. These were captive larks, farm-raised.
“Factory-farmed songbirds? That’s hardly an improvement,” Brigannd snarled. He waved contemptuously toward her unsold books—waved a little too contemptuously, a little too close, and knocked the entire stack of them to the floor. He did not stoop to pick them up; that was left to the student worker from the bookstore. “Your bloodstained hands,” Brigannd slurred, then added, “a word—bloodstained—that the late Dr. Wilder Gnat would have reminded us was coined by Shakespeare,” and he nodded in the direction of Building 7, where the troubling photographs still hung.
Thea Nuffsed narrowed her eyes. “How much do you know about the so-called Vegan-Peace Alliance?”
“Vegans for Peace,” he said. “How much does one need to know?” He had egged on the Alliance to get under Nuffsed’s skin, but the meat pictures in Building 7 didn’t bother him all that much. It was staged outrage. The gasp of horror when he heard her begin to explain the mystery filling—of course no one identified it, how could they?—was genuine.
Thea Nuffsed smiled sweetly and raised her hands, manicured as always, clean as clean. She was not displaying her innocence. She was waving. And now there was music, a high, bold descant coming from the doorway, growing louder.
—I told you there would be dancing.
—Will there be fireworks this time?
The dancer entered dancing sideways—a kind of grapevine step with a little hop in the middle and the occasional twirl, as if he just couldn’t keep it in, the joy, the merriment. He was a thin man wearing a tall fur hat and a long, skirted coat. His hat was easily two feet across, a heavy disk of fluffy gray crowned with a cap of red and gold braid that must have weighed several pounds. He danced to his own drummer, but it was not a silent one: there was a speaker inside the hat. Randall Chyme was immediately intrigued. He would have to get a recording.
“Excuse me!” Nuffsed had to shout over the music. “This is an academic event.” The dancer stopped in his tracks, looked around quickly—too quickly, as if trying to avoid letting his gaze settle too long in any one place. “Turn down the music,” Nuffsed directed. “Please.”
A loud stream of agitated argument followed. His tone was explanatory, conciliatory, but no one could understand a word he said. The dancer evidently spoke no English.
“Hello,” said Thea Nuffsed, claiming her rightful role as host. The dancer bowed deeply, spun fully around twice, and continued his dance around the perimeter. Was that a rosary in his hands, a string of beads? The music continued, louder now, accompanied by chanting, though the dancer did not sing himself.
“What is he speaking?” asked Celeste Tortuga. Might she have been tempted to join the dancing monk, just for a minute, if he had beckoned, held out his hand?
“Wait, wasn’t Wilder’s supposed coffin filled with books or pictures of dancing men in fur hats? Dancing monks?”
“Right. Gnat used to go on about the dancing monks and how they saved civilization with their devotion to comics—excuse me, graphic novels—and the defense of free speech in the free world,” said Gracie Foible.
“I think you’re conflating,” said Thea Nuffsed.
“At last, a chance to hear the patterned chanting of the Oblivatan monks,” said Randall Chyme.
“Where is Anna? She speaks everything. Maybe she can help.”
“She had to teach.”
“Of course she did.”
“Anyway, since we’re citing the late, great Wilder Gnat, wasn’t he one of the few speakers of Oblivonian in the whole country?”
“He was. He was founding an institute to teach the next generation, but it never really got off the ground. Or maybe he founded it with his dying breath and it’s already alive and kicking at Rival State.”
“Doesn’t matter now. This guy speaks English.”
And so he did. The dancing monk was now speaking breathless, broken English—still dancing, now gasping. His imaginary Oblivonian was too much to keep up—a man used to expressing himself clearly could only do so much with fake gibberish. He made a valiant effort to sustain his invented accent, but that didn’t hold up either. His French was superb—near-native—his Mandarin passable. But he spoke not a word of Oblivonian, a language whose country of origin he had heard of for the first time when Wilder Gnat appeared on his fair campus. Given his linguistic resources, and the pressures of the moment, he soon sounded more like Pepe Le Pew than like an eastern (central? southern?) European (or was it Asian?) monk defending the manuscripts of his tradition.
Being a fake monk, the dancer might have been expected to trip on those long skirts, but he had practiced and practiced the dancing. Oblivonia was obscure and far away and yet there were numerous instructional videos available for anyone who wanted to emulate the fancy footwork of the famous monks of the last redoubt (most of them recorded and posted by none other than Wilder Gnat; perhaps in the future his contributions to ethnographic film and intercultural popularization would be recognized as they deserved).
“You!” Normally curled as tight and close to his skull as the collar of his astrakhan coat, Hermes Brigannd’s hair was standing on end. Brigannd had recognized the interloper. It was none other than his counterpart in Special Collections at Rival State.
It was then that Karma Mariscal went for the hidey hole under the rug.
The bump in the carpet was in fact a subtle seam. “A trap door,” the Dean said helpfully, hoping against hope. It was, in a way: a rectangle sliced out and almost—but not quite—perfectly realigned and stitched back in. The conservator from the art museum, present at Thea Nuffsed’s special invitation to appreciate the recreated kitchen and the overall aesthetic effect, fainted dead away. Everyone else crowded closer. Karma pulled the carpet patch up a little further, began to roll it back. The unevenness of the rug masked a disruption in the floorboards. Under the floor was a coffin. Was there a body in it? No. Inside were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tiny, brightly-colored booklets, some water-damaged but most pristine.
Hermes Brigannd lunged at her, clawing, screaming. Ben Sagaz pulled him off. The Dean was just as pleased to see Ben Sagaz grab and restrain him, being a little reluctant to throw him herself.
Brigannd stood up, put a hand to his mouth, and fell back to his knees. He crawled toward the coffin, patting the carpet around him as he went.
“Looking for this?” Ben Sagaz held up what appeared to be a tiny gold nugget. Hermes Brigannd opened his mouth to demand its return, and the nugget was revealed as his missing tooth.
Ben turned it over in his hand, turned it over again, brought it up for a closer look. “This isn’t a tooth, it’s a camera,” he said, showing it to Karma. He was something of an espionage geek.
“Let me have a look,” the Dean said.
“It’s mine!” Brigannd shrieked.
“In that case, you’ll get it back,” the Dean said, slipping it into her pocket.
The coffin had been hidden by Wilder Gnat. The purchase was underway, the shipment en route, when Gnat accepted the Impact Chair, but Rival State didn’t know that, and neither did anybody else, save for Hermes Brigannd. Once Gnat knew he was headed to Rival State, he decided he would hide the coffin and come back for the materials when he was ready. His (ex)-wife remained at Flagship. He had not yet arranged to relocate the Center for GNAT. He would have plenty of pretexts to visit, to attend a lecture or an intimate concert in the Best Room and then linger as the other guests drifted away. He would choose an event without catering so there would be fewer people around at the end, he might hide behind the drapes and slip out with a penlight after dark and recover his booty. But, of course, he was able to do none of those things, having become eel food some months earlier. And having been found out by Hermes Brigannd, who was sharp as a tack, whatever his other shortcomings, and missed nothing. When he was sober.
Brigannd, having found out, decided to sell the items himself. He had financial needs of his own, most recently an ailing uncle in Calgary and a pledge of support to the local raptor rescue center. But he might not have moved so swiftly, so decisively, had he not been incensed at Wilder Gnat’s treacherous willingness to decamp to Rival State.
Brigannd’s teeth had flashed so brightly because now he had two gold teeth instead of one. The first tooth held the camera, as Ben Sagaz quickly observed. The second held a sub-mirco-miniaturized archive of Oblivonian texts long thought lost, among them a sketchbook depicting the tiny nation’s last king’s efforts to defend his crown and family, along with photographs of documents Gnat had ostensibly purchased just before his death. If discovered, Brigannd had planned to lay it all on Gnat. A bill of sale or shipment had been found in his breast pocket (or the soggy remains of such a bill, painstakingly reconstructed from bits of damp mush by the Oblivonian forensic investigators after his body—what was left of it—was pulled from the moat).
Somehow tipped off to the coffin’s existence—one last treacherous cable sent by Gnat from beyond the grave?—the Rival State librarian, under cover, reached out to Brigannd to buy the coffin (or its contents). He would have been glad enough to have the materials for his own collection but mainly, he was out to unmask Brigannd. Word was getting out and librarians had become suspect, the latest class of evil genius undermining the academy and eroding public support.
Brigannd had expected his Rival State rival—surely no match for his own cunning—to be wearing mufti. The planned rendezvous was supposed to happen after the cookbook event, but Nuffsed’s soiree had run late. Probably on purpose—for a second, at least, Brigannd wondered if she hadn’t set him up, doubling the double cross with a deuce of her own.
Thea Nuffsed had let her producers know that she would be presenting her work and suggested they might want to attend. She had imagined appreciative, bowled-over tasters, excited book-purchasers caught on camera. Not the shrieking protests of the local Audubon chapter, of whom Hermes Brigannd was but one representative. Not the outraged tasters furiously scraping at their tongues as if to remove the sullied taste buds altogether. But what she had really never imagined, what had not even crossed her mind for a second, was the possibility that she might be ignored entirely, upstaged by the downfall of that criminal mastermind, Hermes Brigannd, and the gloating hysteria of the library crowd. Naturally, she did not predict a dancing Oblivonian monk and that droning, relentless, infuriatingly catchy music blaring from his fur hat.
“They’re supposed to be filming me!” she muttered angrily, only to see that she was not as alone as she felt. The (new) Dean raised an eyebrow. “The TV crew,” Thea Nuffsed explained. “They’re from my production company. I’m doing a cooking show. I’m leaving Flagship.”
“You, too? Does your Chair know?” the Dean asked.
“Of course. After all I’d heard from Wilder about your unflagging, extraordinary retention efforts on his behalf, I wasn’t sure how much she’d be able to offer, but I felt certain she’d try.”
“There’s no retention prospect for TV stardom. It’s not considered a competitive offer.”
“Better or worse?”
“Not relevant. But worse, of course. Lowbrow. Unworthy. Except for the money.”
“Enjoy your stardom,” the Dean said, using the word as easily as Thea Nuffsed had. Why not?
Again the campus police were called. Hermes Brigannd was led away in disgrace. Further sales had been thwarted. But the library’s overall collection remained pitted, as if it were moth-eaten, with materials missing all over, a few here, more over there.
“You might pass a hat,” suggested Anna Innovatova, who had some experience along those lines. “Or a collection plate, to begin taking up the slack, start plugging the holes.” She had arrived a little breathless, straight from class. She didn’t want to miss the cookbook launch entirely—there was bound to be some excitement at Thea Nuffsed’s big event.
“Yes, we have no librarian,” announced Magnus Fitt.
“The way the collection’s been shrinking, we have almost no library,” said Gracie Foible.
“Oh, who gives a damn?” said Thea Nuffsed. “They found the documents, Special Collections are safe. The books in the regular stacks can be replaced, if it’s really all that important. But this is a research university.”
“Thea, I think you’ve said quite enough,” said the Dean.
“First editions can be hard to come by,” Tortuga pointed out, but Nuffsed was using one of the tiny plastic shot glasses as a mirror, trying to fix her hair. She threw her shoulders back, headed for the camera crew.
Karma stared after her. “Nuffsed didn’t give a damn about the other books, the ones we can’t find in the library, did she? Not really.” She tried to explain how moved she had been that Ben Sagaz came looking for her, even if he wasn’t really looking for her, it was more a happy accident. But he remembered her, he remembered the book, he remembered the discussion. “That’s what I want to do,” she told Tortuga, “write about those books, the ones people keep thinking about, only they don’t, because they’re not reading them, especially not kids, because they’re not hip anymore.”
“Then you should,” Tortuga said. “Hip isn’t everything. I probably have some of the books you need. My wife’s quite a reader. If I don’t have it, she does.”
“I guess it’s time to dump out the brandies,” Karma said.
“Even the best of us can become a little unhinged by the end of a major project,” Tortuga said generously. “She’s been through a lot lately.”
To accept the post of Provost (Interim) might have been unwise, yet it seemed irresistible. The challenge, the opportunity, the blah blah blah. . . if she continued her rise, true apotheosis might await and Alice Loost, at last, could spend more time with her own elephant trainer.
The Provost’s departure had been no surprise to those able to read the arbutus leaves. The Provost had long maintained two gardens, one topiary (precision, old school, boxwood hedges), one large and shaggy (vines, shrubs, tall annuals). “It tames the blood lust,” the Provost said when asked about his horticultural proclivities, though it was unclear if he meant the detailed trimming of the one (dwarves and squirrels, pyramids, idols) or the exuberant, freeform, unburdened lopping of the other. He had been seen out with a machete early in the morning and just before dusk. Others swore they had seen him on his hands and knees with nail scissors beneath the shrubbery. Those in the know would drive by the house to gauge his mood. Rumors abounded as to what might be in the rear yard, but his was an odd estate, all front-facing, the house well back from the road. The back yard, which almost no one at the university had ever seen, held a simple patio, a fire pit, a lap pool.
In the weeks before his departure, the dwarves had gotten shorter and shorter, the pile of brush awaiting the county waste-hauler higher and higher, as if the bloodlust were hardly tamable any longer. People were expecting a massacre, perhaps the elimination of a whole division, heads rolling on the library quad, lions loose among the cattle. But he went quietly, without explanation or fanfare. His wife, a poet, had been offered a residency on a delectable Greek island. The Provost went with her. He, too, wanted to spend more time with his family.
Alice Loost would take the job, and she would make a difference, putting a defensible floor under graduate support and beginning to reconcile the absurd Qual/Quant divide. She knew she would be unable to accomplish both, perhaps unable to accomplish either—the dizzy heights of the Provost (Interim) post had not wholly gone to her head. Yet it seemed here was an occasion to address, or at least begin to address, both the abysmal state of graduate funding and the hobbling confines of the Great Reorganization, which might have been called the Great Disorganization, and in any event remained steadfastly a Great Divide. She was, as it turned out, ambitious in her own right, tempted by the teasing fruit of possibility, the seeming chance—at last!—to put things right. To put a thing right, at least.
It was felt, at Flagship U, that Interim following, in parentheses, was more dignified than other schools’ practice of labeling an Interim Provost or Interim Dean. The Provost (Interim) knew women regularly went unheard within the confines of the Core Conference Room. But she had assumed it was a matter of attention—of failure to listen, not inability to hear. At her first meeting, however, she began to suspect a problem of acoustics. It was as if the room itself were a kind of noise-canceling apparatus, like the headphones frequent flyers bought to travel undisturbed, here writ large and canceling only certain kinds of noise, from certain kinds of speakers. Now putatively in charge, still she went unheard.
“I think we should do the following,” she said, and briefly outlined her plan to restore graduate funding to near-competitive levels.
The President nodded. “We should absolutely take those steps.” And he detailed several steps in direct opposition to those she had laid out.
The Provost (Interim) restated her proposal.
The Associate Vice Provost for Best of Best Practices said something different altogether, as if she had never spoken.
This was the Council of Academic Bigwigs and Leaders, the Provost’s Core CABAL. (The faculty senate had debated whether “bigwigs” was too undignified a term for official use, but the temptation of being led by a cabal—of having a cabal to which to attribute all malfeasance—won out.) The Provost (Interim)’s mind filled with apple puns—rotten to the core, a few bad apples in the Core CABAL. She resisted the temptation to say anything about the size of the pie.
“You should say what you mean,” she said, channeling her namesake. “Is ‘I see what I eat’ the same as ‘I eat what I see?’” No one batted an eyelash. No one even breathed, except to prepare the way for the next sip of coffee, the next measured agreement with the man at the top.
The Provost (Interim) repeated her recommendation a third time, more sharply. She had assembled data to support her case. She had expected to have to stand her ground. She had not expected to be so fully overridden. Not even overridden: appropriated, misappropriated, assimilated as if she had said what they wished her to say. They gave her full credit for brilliance, but it wasn’t the brilliance she had actually displayed.
“The baseball coach has been accused of selling children to human traffickers in Montreal,” the Provost (Interim) announced. “Film at eleven.”
“The state intends to tax administrative stipends at 73%.”
The proposal raised by the Associate Vice Provost for the Best of the Best was taken up yet again, with the President’s approval, his endorsement echoing admiring remarks, attributed to the Provost (Interim), that she had never made.
The Provost (Interim) screamed—a full-throated, bloodcurdling scream. “There’s poison gas seeping up between the floorboards! We’re all going to die!”
The President nodded cheerfully, his smile avuncular, his voice warm. Such a productive discussion, so helpful to have a fresh perspective. “This has been a good meeting, Alice, gentlemen,” the President said. “And again, Alice, welcome aboard. I look forward to further fruitful exchange. It’s good to have your perspective. I think we’ve already seen that today.”
It had taken a single meeting to understand that, within the Core Conference Room, a woman simply went unheard. Even if warmly invited in. Even if visibly present and moving her lips. Even if she was the Provost (Interim) and had convened the meeting herself. But if it had become obvious to her so quickly, how had the riddle gone so long unsolved?
A little digging through the minutes revealed that, in fact, few women had been previously present in the room. Fewer still had lived to tell the tale, or stuck around to try. She had heard how the Head Librarian fared, and the women’s basketball coach. Now she learned there had also been a finalist to replace the prior, prior Provost, and once the office manager of a department subsequently eliminated had opened the wrong door in search of a photocopier. That seemed to be the sum total of women who had crossed the venerated threshold and seen their skin dappled with the many-colored splendor of the stained glass windows.
Once she understood that in the Core Conference Room she was simply inaudible, the Provost (Interim) knew she would have to think outside the room. She convened the next meeting with care. Invitations were sent in multiple formats, announcing and then confirming (lest there be any doubt) and then reminding the invitees that they would meet outdoors, beside the Founders’ Grotto. Yes, there would be a canopy in case of rain.
The Founders’ Grotto nestled within the Forester’s Grove, a semicircle of deciduous trees selected and planted decades earlier by a leading botanist, one of the school’s early stars, to represent the seven continents and assorted islands. The Provost (Interim) was unaware of the grisly tales undergraduates told about the Grotto, but two of the trustees present, proud Flagship alumni, felt themselves on edge, recalling stories of drunken bears and headless horsemen and something unspeakable with a snake and an owl. There was a special peril for every hour of the day. They knew better, of course, but a story savored for years does not subside in an instant.
The suits gathered on the lawn in folding chairs, with small tables in front of them. The Provost (Interim) thought for a moment of a large family gathered in front of the television with their TV trays, ready to eat their frozen dinners while they watched the news. She was almost tempted to send for aluminum plates and pass them around. They could watch the first installment of Thea Nuffsed’s much-anticipated series. But they had another purpose, and that would give them plenty to chew on. A simple, one-page agenda was distributed to all attendees.
To their credit, the CABAL looked forward to the annual awarding of the year’s outstanding dissertation plaque, the chance to see scholarship up close, to meet a student—a successful one, soon to be hooded in that medieval drape of black taffeta and the school colors. Not one of the perennial complainers or protestors or victims determined to have their day in court, but an actual success story. They were justifiably proud of Flagship University’s outstanding graduates. The Provost (Interim) counted on that.
The assembly quickly recognized that this was not quite the Provost (Interim) they had already grown to admire. She’d been more tractable indoors, more predictable. Even her voice was different now—higher pitched, more like a woman’s voice, and louder. Everything was different, because she was audible, and yet nothing had changed, because they had been sure they could hear her all along.
“We have three items of business,” she began. “First and happiest is to recognize the winner of this year’s Flagship Dissertation Prize. But celebratory and justly positive as this pleasant duty is, it also introduces the chief points I’d like us to consider, as we develop our plans for the year ahead and beyond: the abysmal state of graduate funding at our fair university, the erosion of library resources and with them opportunities for scholarship at every level, and the unseemly and unworkable divide that plagues us—a divide most adroitly crossed, questioned, and re-sutured by this year’s prize-winning dissertation, the remarkable work of Franny Kramer-Fahr.”
She beckoned to Franny, waiting at the edge of the grove. Franny came forward and took a little bow. “Gentlemen, I give you Dr. Franny Kramer-Fahr,” said the Provost (Interim).
Delicate applause joined the gathered hands, gradually growing louder until it was a standing ovation. Franny, sporting her usual pigtails, had put on a tailored suit. She took a seat before a small tray table of her own. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m honored to be here.” The Assistant to the Provost (Interim) poured her a glass of water (disposable plastic water bottles had been banned from the Flagship campus within minutes of her swearing in). Franny began, “My dissertation addresses the traditions and possibilities—economic and aesthetic—of street vendors, using case studies from Argentina, Ecuador, and Flagship University and its environs.”
At first the bigwigs were irritated at the parallels Franny was drawing between the far off, not entirely deserving Third World and folks here at home, but Franny’s erudite yet approachable delivery quickly won them over. The Provost (Interim) had been similarly surprised at just how bad it was for their students—and also encouraged by the creativity and resourcefulness of both Franny and Jacob.
She had known, of course, about Jacob Price’s dissertation woes, his funding shortfall, but his featured role in Franny Kramer-Fahr’s dissertation, and with it his entrepreneurial ingenuity, had been a surprise. She knew all about the peanuts-as-stipend, but not about the peanuts for sale; she had supported Franny’s claim to inter-disciplinarity, but did not realize how the two students were connected. When she read the dissertation, she was shocked and enlightened. And impressed.
Outside the grove, a flash of color, obscured by the trunks, and then the first notes of a chant—no, it wasn’t a chant, it was a cheer. The assembled dignitaries turned in their chairs, worried, uncertain, almost alarmed. Had the meeting been scheduled opposite an athletic event? Were they expected elsewhere? Would they need the school-colors, easy-care blazers they had stashed in their offices or the trunks of their cars? But no, it wasn’t that kind of cheer. Was it a protest? The speaker didn’t seem bothered by the interruption. Far from it—she was waving the cheerleader in, only it wasn’t a cheerleader, it was a shortish young man, dressed in jeans and a school sweatshirt. Were they going to be harangued about that women’s basketball coach yet again?
Give me a P! Give me an E! Give me an A, N, U, T!
Give me an F! Give me a U! Flagship Peanuts For You!
“In the spirit of non-exploitative research,” Franny Kramer-Fahr was saying, “it seems only fair to introduce you to Jacob Price, a doctoral candidate here at Flagship U but also, due to straightened circumstances, subject of my third case study. And, as you’ve just heard, perhaps a candidate for the cheering squad.” Jacob Price took his own little bow and stepped aside to let Franny complete her talk.
When Franny had finished, to a further, exuberant burst of applause, the Provost (Interim) called Jacob over. “This round’s on me,” she said. She bought two packets of candied nuts for each of the leaders there assembled, cleaning out Jacob’s current stock and so giving him the afternoon off.
Flagship University, being fully post-disciplinary, had been forced to devise the concept of Interdivisionality to account for those few holdouts who refused to choose sides. Franny Kramer-Fahr and her award-winning dissertation were among the Interdivisional.
“But is it Qual. or Quant.?” the President asked at last.
“It’s both,” Franny said. “It’s interdisciplinary.”
“Disqualified!” The assembled dignitaries spoke as one.
The Provost (Interim) rose to address her peers. Her response might have been unwelcome but, outside, close beside the Founders’ Grotto, they heard every word.
“No,” she said, a single word that resonated across the entire campus and reached the bell tower beside Building 7, empty since the bells had long ago been stolen and sold for scrap. The daring heist remained unsolved, the daily chimes replaced with a tinny recording that, for reasons no one could explain, tended to skip in damp weather. Her no paused there, bounced around the reverberation chamber, and burst forth with a full tenor bong! “Fully qualified,” pronounced the Provost (Interim).
And there were fireworks.
Had she been present, Karma Mariscal might have seen the beast in the Grove: lumbering out of hibernation, snuffling, listening, munching a few dropped peanuts, the fresh leaves of grass. Grazing.
Amalia Gladhart is a writer and translator. Her short fiction has appeared in Saranac Review, Cordella Magazine, Stonecrop, Eleven Eleven, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. Recipient of an NEA Translation Fellowship, her translations include Trafalgar (Angélica Gorodischer) and The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands (both by Alicia Yánez Cossío). amaliagladhart.com