On the Boughs Our Bodies Shall Be Strung
"I think . . . I'm afraid . . ." I stammered, but she put a steadying hand on my forearm and directed me toward the chair set next to the bed. As she did so she leaned her face close to mine--there was a faint odor of lilies-of-the valley--and whispered in my ear.
"Shh. Just sit down and talk to him. Tell him something. Anything."
"What? But can't you see he's--"
"Something you remember from his lectures would do, or even one of those nicknames you students gave him."
"But can't you see?"
"Shh," she whispered again and pushed me firmly down into the chair. "Go ahead," she insisted. "Please."
I couldn't bring myself to address the corpse and turned my face toward her. "I'm sorry. His nickname among us was The Stork--well, Der Storch, actually."
At that the old man coughed three times and rotated his head. His face, in which the lines were deeply set and that had looked as immovable as jade, broke into an unsettling grin. "So, you've come at last," he croaked as if he really were a stork. I remembered that disapproving irony from my student days. "No," he went on, "no, it's very kind of you. You can't imagine what it means to see my old pupils. You're all grown up and now it's you who run the world. How can you find the time for a superannuated relic like me? And yet you keep coming. It's so gratifying. Just yesterday it was Pfeiffer. You know, he's chief engineer of the waterworks now, and the day before that . . ." he trailed off and, with round-eyed desperation, looked over my shoulder. I had nearly forgotten the daughter, but she was seated in a high-backed chair by the door, knitting.
"The day before yesterday it was the Bishop, Father. Remember? He told that old joke of yours about the jackal and the goat."
"Ah, how could I forget?" The professor chuckled. "The jackal certainly got the better of that goat, didn't he?"
The daughter shook her head at me, rolled her eyes, crossed her needles, and slowly mouthed: "Other way around."
"Well, and now you've come to see me."
"Yes. It's good to see you, Professor."
"Tell me, how are things with you? Have you settled down? You have a nice plump wife, do you?"
"No, Professor. I'm not married."
He wagged one long finger at me. "You devil," he said. "So, tell Der Alte Storch what you remember from the old days."
The old man's challenge made me feel as if I were back in his class; my mind went blank for an instant then battened on something ridiculously trivial.
"I often think of the day you explained the difference between placing an adverb before or after a verb. We were all lost until you gave that clever example."
"Hee, hee. I remember how you all laughed--because the example was improper." He attempted, without much success, to raise his voice. "You hear that, my dear? Improper."
"Yes, Father, I heard. What was the improper example?"
The old man smiled encouragingly at me and nodded, certain that I could remember the example, granting permission for me to speak improperly in front of his daughter.
"You explained the distinction by contrasting two sentences: The young man accidentally brushed against the young lady's shoulder and The young man brushed accidentally against the young lady's shoulder."
"Full marks." The old man was delighted. He cleared his throat--a terrible sound--and proceeded to speak exactly as he had in class so many years before. "In the first sentence, the young man is innocent; it's merely an accident that he brushes the young lady's shoulder. But, in the second sentence, there is a hint of another possibility; namely that he was aiming at something other than her shoulder and only accidentally brushed it on his way elsewhere, so to speak. Now that's appreciating the subtleties of style."
The daughter clicked her tongue out of irritation or disgust. If he heard, the old man chose to ignore it.
At this moment there was a knocking on the door--no, a real pounding. The daughter leapt to her feet and ran from the room.
The old man lay back down, breathing shallowly, and gave me a wink. "That will be the Bishop," he hissed hoarsely.
And in fact I caught a glimpse of a tall man in the foyer wearing a clerical collar. His arm was around the daughter's waist. I heard them going up the stairs.
The old man managed to raise a forefinger. "Tomorrow it will be your turn," he said, then fell back against the pillows and closed his eyes. He lay still for so long that I carefully put two fingers on his wrist. I felt a faint fluttering like that of a tiny, trapped moth.
I made to get up but the old man, his eyes still shut tight, said, "No, don't go yet. Tell me, can you remember in which circle of Hell Dante puts the suicides?" It was no different in class; he was always tossing out unexpected questions. His curriculum had no boundaries.
"I'm afraid I can't remember, Professor. Was it the sixth?"
"Not bad. It's the seventh, quite far down. He tosses them in with the blasphemers and the perverts--above all, with the murderers. Does that seem unjust? Well, consider that part of what makes us modern--which is to say, faithless--is that we distinguish between violence against others and ourselves. Dante made no such distinction, all life being the property of God."
"Professor," I said nervously, "perhaps we could talk about something else?"
"Such as your wife?"
"I told you I'm not married."
"So you did. No wife, no children. You know, it was hard to keep my hands off them."
"The young women, of course. There were times I could scarcely hold my hands in check. You can't imagine how I sometimes yearned to kiss their necks."
I was shocked. "And did you brush against their shoulders? Accidentally?" I asked, not disguising my bitter disillusionment.
The sly look on his face was disgusting. "Once in a while. Quite accidentally, as you say."
"You're quick to give your grades, aren't you? You're certain that teachers should be sexless and that suicide's no sin."
"Suicide . . . suicide's the end of a tragedy," I said pompously.
The old man turned away from me. "Trees that speak," he said in a strangled voice. "It's horrible. What if I should convince my daughter to let me die? Wouldn't that be a sin?"
"Not a sin, but it would still be wrong. Plato and Aristotle were no Christians but you yourself taught us they both considered suicide cowardly."
"You amaze me. What a splendid student you were! We ought not to quit our post without permission of Him who commands us; the post of man is life. Fine words, yes; and yet Socrates, the patron saint of old professors, was himself a sort of judicial suicide. He'd resolved that he was a dead man before his trial began. How else could he have been so marvelous, so provoking to the Assembly? Death, he said, is the only subject--" but a cough interrupted this incipient lecture.
When he was silent, I told him what I thought. "I agree with the fellow who said all healthy men have thoughts of suicide."
Taking a breath he drew his hand slowly across his mouth and his eyes swam up at me as if he were drowning. "That's because you are not only modern but still young. Modernity wears off in time, just like youth."
"Professor, I don't understand you."
"Because you don't wish to. The same act is not one thing--can be love or lust, bravery or cowardice."
"There was an English actor who killed himself out of boredom. That was selfish and despicable."
"Yes, yes. I know the case. But unlike you, he was married several times, and to spectacular women," the old man chided. Then his tone changed again and he looked frightened. "It's hard to stay alive. It's terribly hard to keep me alive; and yet you can see for yourself what my daughter gets out of it, what she's turned into."
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head petulantly. "Ach," he said, "what am I saying? She's a wonderful child and completely devoted to me."
"You know," he said querulously, "I never wanted to retire. They forced me out. I waited for the president's office to be stormed by hundreds of alumni, for his desk to be buried under a mountain of indignant letters from my former students, from people like you . . ." He looked hurt. "Now, when it's too late, when I'm as good as dead, you all come to assuage your guilt and seek absolution from the victim who was once your benefactor. You make up to my daughter--I'm not blind--because you think this is a way to get at me, to propitiate, to please me. But I can tell you it won't work." His eyes opened wide and he tried to raise himself on his sticks of arms, the pajama top falling away from his thin chest. I could see he was worked up and meant to shout at me.
Just then I heard steps descending the stairs, the front door open and shut, and the daughter hurried in, adjusting her skirt. When she saw the old man's contorted face, red with anger, she rushed to his side and put her hand on his forehead. "Father, you must calm yourself," she murmured soothingly, but the old man's eyes were already glazing over and, instead of the denunciation he had no doubt intended to hurl in my face, a rattle came from his throat. I jumped to my feet but the daughter, with her eyes still fixed on her dying father, seized my hand and raised it to her mouth; then, with a terrible tenderness, she bit into it.
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