Authors: Sylvain Reynard
In memoriam Maiae.
Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx.
Engraving from 1870 by Gustave Dore
The poet stood next to the bridge and watched as the young woman approached. The world ground to a near standstill as he remarked her wide, dark eyes and elegantly curled brown hair.
At first he didn’t recognize her. She was breathtakingly beautiful, her movements sure and graceful. Yet there was something about her face and figure that reminded him of the girl he’d fallen in love with long ago. They’d gone their separate ways, and he had always mourned her, his angel, his muse, his beloved Beatrice. Without her, his life had been lonely and small.
Now his blessedness appeared.
As she approached him with her companions, he bowed his head and body in a chivalrous salute. He had no expectation that his presence would be acknowledged. She was both perfect and untouchable, a brown-eyed angel dressed in resplendent white, while he was older, world-weary and wanting.
She had almost passed him when his downcast eyes caught sight of one of her slippers—a slipper that hesitated just in front of him. His heart beat a furious tattoo as he waited, breathless. A soft and gentle voice broke into his remembrances as she spoke to him kindly. His startled eyes flew to hers. For years and years he’d longed for this moment, dreamed of it even, but never had he imagined encountering her in such a serendipitous fashion. And never had he dared hope he would be greeted so sweetly.
Caught off balance, he mumbled his pleasantries and allowed himself the indulgence of a smile—a smile that was returned to him tenfold by his muse. His heart swelled within him as the love he held for her multiplied and burned like an inferno in his chest.
Alas, their conversation was all too brief before she declared that she must depart. He bowed before her as she swept by, and then straightened to stare at her retreating form. His joy at their reunion was tempered by an emergent sadness as he wondered if he’d ever see her again…
Professor Gabriel Emerson’s voice carried across the seminar room to the attractive brown-eyed young woman who was seated at the back. Lost in thought, or lost in translation, her head was down as she scribbled furiously in her notebook.
Ten pairs of eyes swung to her, to her pale face and long lashes, her thin white fingers clutching a pen. Then ten pairs of eyes swung back to the professor, who stood perfectly still and began to scowl. His scathing demeanor contrasted sharply with the overall symmetry of his features, his large, expressive eyes, and full mouth. He was ruggedly handsome, but in that moment bitterly severe, which rather ruined the overall pleasing effect of his appearance.
A modest cough to her right caught the woman’s attention. She glanced in surprise at the broad-shouldered man sitting next to her. He smiled and flicked his eyes to the front of the room, back to the professor.
She followed his gaze slowly, looking up into a pair of angry, peering blue eyes. She swallowed noisily.
“I expect an answer to my question, Miss Mitchell.
If you’d care to join us.”
His voice was glacial, like his eyes.
The other graduate students shifted in their seats and stole furtive glances at one another. Their expressions said
what crawled up his ass?
But they said nothing. (For it is commonly known that graduate students are loath to confront their professors with respect to anything, let alone rude behavior.)
The young woman opened her mouth minutely and closed it, staring into those unblinking blue eyes, her own eyes wide like a frightened rabbit.
“Is English your first language?” he mocked her.
A raven-haired woman seated at his right hand tried to stifle a laugh, smothering it into an unconvincing cough. All eyes shifted back to the frightened rabbit, whose skin exploded into crimson as she ducked her head, finally escaping the professor’s gaze.
“Since Miss Mitchell seems to be carrying on a parallel seminar in a different language, perhaps someone else would be kind enough to answer my question?”
The beauty to his right was only too eager. She turned to face him and beamed as she answered his question in great detail, making a show of herself by gesturing with her hands as she quoted Dante in his original Italian. When she had finished, she smiled acidly at the back of the room, then proceeded to gaze up at the professor and sigh. All that was lacking from her display was a quick leap to the floor and a rubbing of her back on his leg to show that she would be his pet forever. (Not that he would have appreciated the gesture.)
The professor frowned almost imperceptibly at no one in particular and turned his back to write on the board. The frightened rabbit blinked back tears as she continued scribbling, but mercifully she did not cry.
A few minutes later, as the professor droned on and on about the conflict between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, a small square of folded paper appeared on top of the frightened rabbit’s Italian dictionary. At first she didn’t notice it, but once again, a soft
drew her attention to the good-looking man beside her. He smiled more widely this time, almost eagerly, and glanced down at the paper.
She saw it and blinked. Carefully watching the back of the professor as he drew endless circles around endless Italian words, she brought the paper to her lap where she quietly unfolded it.
Emerson is an ass.
No one would have noticed because no one was looking at her, except for the man at her side. As soon as she read those words, a different kind of flush appeared on her face, two pink clouds on the curve of her cheeks, and she smiled. Not enough to show teeth or what could be dimples or a laugh line or two, but a smile nonetheless.
She raised her large eyes to the man next to her and looked at him shyly. A wide, friendly grin spread across his face.
“Something funny, Miss Mitchell?”
Her brown eyes dilated in terror. Her new friend’s smile quickly disappeared as he turned to look at the professor.
She knew better now than to look up at the professor’s cold blue eyes. Instead, she put her head down and worried her plump lower lip between her teeth, back and forth and back and forth.
“It was my fault, Professor. I was just asking what page we were on,” the friendly man interceded on her behalf.
“Hardly an appropriate question from a doctoral student, Paul. But since you asked, we began with the first canto. I trust you can find it without Miss Mitchell’s help. Oh, and Miss Mitchell?”
The frightened rabbit’s pony tail trembled ever so slightly as she lifted her gaze.
“See me in my office after class.”
At the end of the seminar, Julia Mitchell hastily tucked the folded piece of paper she’d been cradling in her lap into her Italian dictionary, under the entry asino.
“Sorry about all that. I’m Paul Norris.” The friendly man extended his large paw over the table. She shook it gently, and he marveled at how small her hand was in comparison to his. He could have bruised it just by flexing his palm.
“Hello, Paul. I’m Julia. Julia Mitchell.”
“Good to meet you, Julia. I’m sorry The Professor was such a prick. I don’t know what’s eating him.” Paul gave Emerson his preferred title with no little sarcasm.
She reddened slightly and turned back to her books.
“You’re new?” he persisted, tilting his head a little as if he was trying to catch her eye.
“Just arrived. From Saint Joseph’s University.”
He nodded as if that meant something. “And you’re here for a Master’s?”
“Yes.” She gestured to the front of the now empty seminar room. “It probably doesn’t seem like it, but I’m supposed to be studying to be a Dante specialist.”
Paul whistled through his teeth. “So you’re here for Emerson?”
She nodded, and he noticed that the veins in her neck began to pulsate slightly as her heart rate quickened. Since he couldn’t find an explanation for her reaction, he dismissed it. But he would be reminded of it later.
“He’s difficult to work with, so he doesn’t have a lot of students. I’m writing my dissertation with him, and there’s also Christa Peterson, whom you’ve already met.”
“Christa?” She gave him a questioning look.
“The tart at the front. She’s his other PhD student, but her goal is to be the future Mrs. Emerson. She just started the program, and she’s already baking him cookies, dropping by his office, leaving telephone messages. It’s unbelievable.”
Julia nodded again but said nothing.
“Christa doesn’t seem to be aware of the strict non-fraternization policy set up by the University of Toronto.” Paul rolled his eyes and was rewarded with a very pretty smile. He told himself that he would have to make Julia Mitchell smile more often. But that would need to be postponed, for now.
“You’d better go. He wanted to see you after class, and he’ll be waiting.”
Julia quickly tossed her things into a shabby L.L. Bean knapsack that she had carried since she was a freshman undergraduate. “Um, I don’t know where his office is.”
“Turn left on your way out of the seminar room, then make another left. He has the corner office at the end of the hall. Good luck, and I’ll see you next class, if not before.”
She smiled gratefully and exited the seminar room.
As she rounded the corner, she saw that The Professor’s office door was ajar. She stood in front of the opening nervously, wondering if she should knock first or peek her head around. After a moment’s deliberation, she opted for the former. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath, held it, and placed her knuckles in front of the wood paneling. That’s when she heard him.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was in my seminar!” an angry voice, all too familiar now, spat aloud. There was a brief silence before he continued. “Because it’s the first seminar of the year, asshole, and because the last time I talked to her she said she was fine!”
Julia retreated immediately. It sounded like he was on the telephone, yelling. She didn’t want him yelling at her, and so she decided to flee and deal with the consequences later. But a heart wrenching sob tore from his throat and assaulted her ears. And from that she could not flee.
“Of course I wanted to be there! I loved her. Of course I wanted to be there.” Another sob emerged from behind the door. “I don’t know what time I’ll get there. Tell them I’m coming. I’ll go straight to the airport and hop a plane, but I don’t know what kind of flight I can get on short notice.”
He paused. “I know. Tell them I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” His voice trailed off into a soft, shuddering cry, and Julia heard him hang up the telephone.
Without considering her actions, Julia carefully peeked around the door.
The thirty-something man held his head in his long-fingered hands, leaning his elbows on his desk and crying. She watched as his wide shoulders shook. She heard anguish and sorrow rip out of his chest. And she felt compassion.
She wanted to go to him, to offer condolences and comfort and to put her arms around his neck. She wanted to smooth his hair and tell him that she was sorry. She imagined briefly what it would be like to wipe tears away from those expressive sapphire eyes and see them look at her kindly. She thought about giving him a gentle peck on his cheek, just to reassure him of her sympathy.
But watching him cry as if his heart was broken momentarily froze her, and so she did none of those things. When she finally realized where she was, she quickly disappeared back behind the door, blindly pulled a scrap of paper from her knapsack, and wrote:
Then, not quite knowing what to do, she placed the paper against the doorjamb, trapping it there as she silently pulled his office door shut.
Julia’s shyness was not her primary characteristic. Her best quality, and the one that defined her, was her compassion, a trait that she hadn’t inherited from either of her parents. Her father, who was a decent man, tended to be rigid and unyielding. Her mother, who was deceased, had not been compassionate in any way, not even to her only child.
Tom Mitchell was a man of few words, but was well-known and generally liked. He was a custodian at Susquehanna University, and the fire chief of Selinsgrove Borough, Pennsylvania. Since the fire department was entirely volunteer, he and the other fire fighters found themselves on call at all times. He inhabited his role proudly and with much dedication, which meant that he was rarely home, even when he wasn’t responding to an emergency. On the evening of Julia’s first graduate seminar he called her from the fire station, pleased that she finally decided to answer her cell phone.
“How’s it going up there, Jules?” His voice, unsentimental but comforting nevertheless, warmed her like a blanket.
She sighed. “It’s fine. The first day was…interesting, but fine.”
“Those Canadians treating you right?”
“Oh, yes. They’re all pretty nice.”
It’s the Americans who are the bastards. Well, one American.
Tom cleared his throat once or twice, and Julia caught her breath. She knew from years of experience that he was preparing to say something serious. She wondered what it was.
“Honey, Grace Clark died today.”
Julia sat upright on her twin bed and stared into space.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes. Yes, I heard.”
“Her cancer came back. They thought she was fine. But it came back, and by the time they found out, it was in her bones and her liver. Richard and the kids are pretty shaken up about it.”
Julia bit her lip and stifled a sob.
“I knew you’d take the news hard. She was like a mother to you, and Rachel was such a good friend of yours in high school. Have you heard from her?”
“Um, no. No, I haven’t. Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I’m not sure when they found out that Grace was sick again. I was over to the house to see everyone earlier today, and Gabriel wasn’t even there. That’s created quite a problem. I don’t know what he’s walking into when he arrives. There’s a lot of bad blood in that family.” Tom cursed softly.
“Are you sending flowers?”
“I guess so. I’m not really good at that sort of thing, but I could ask Deb if she’d help.”
Deb Lundy was Tom’s girlfriend. Julia rolled her eyes at the mention of Deb’s name but kept her negative reaction to herself.
“Ask her, please, to send something from me. Grace loved gardenias. And just have Deb sign the card.”
“Will do. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Do you need any money?”
“No, Dad. I have enough to live on with my scholarship if I’m careful.”
Tom paused, and even before he opened his mouth she knew what he was about to say.
“I’m sorry about Harvard. Maybe next year.”
Julia straightened her shoulders and forced a smile, even though her father couldn’t see it. “Maybe. Talk to you later.”
The next morning Julia walked a little more slowly on her way to the university, using her iPod as background noise. In her head, she composed an e-mail of condolence and apology to Rachel, writing and rewriting it as she walked.
The September breeze was warm in Toronto, and she liked it. She liked being near the lake. She liked sunshine and friendliness. She liked tidy streets free of litter. She liked the fact she was in Toronto and not in Selinsgrove or Philadelphia—that she was hundreds of miles away from
. She only hoped it would stay that way.
She was still mentally writing the e-mail to Rachel when she stepped into the office of the Department of Italian Studies to check her mailbox. Someone tapped her on the elbow and moved out of her periphery.
She removed her ear buds. “Paul…hi.”
He smiled down at her, his gaze descending some distance. Julia was petite, especially in sneakers, and the top of her head merely reached the lower edge of his pectorals.
“How was your meeting with Emerson?” His smile faded, and he looked at her with concern.
She bit her lip, a nervous habit that she should stop but was unable to, primarily because she was unaware of it. “Um, I didn’t go.”
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He groaned a little. “That’s…not good.”
Julia tried to clarify the situation. “His office door was closed. I think he was on the phone…I’m not sure. So I left a note.”
Paul noticed her nervousness and the way her delicately arched eyebrows came together. He felt sorry for her and silently cursed The Professor for being so abrasive. She looked as if she would bruise easily, and Emerson was oblivious to the way his attitude affected his students. So Paul resolved to help her.
“If he was on the telephone, he wouldn’t want to be interrupted. Let’s hope that’s what was going on. Otherwise, I’d say you just took your life into your own hands.” He straightened up to his full height and flexed his arms casually. “Let me know if there’s any fallout, and I’ll see what I can do. If he shouts at me, I can take it. I wouldn’t want him to shout at you.”
Because from the looks of it, you’d die of shock, Frightened Rabbit.
Julia appeared as if she wanted to say something but remained silent. She smiled thinly and nodded as if in appreciation. Then she stepped over to the mailboxes and emptied her pigeon hole.
Junk mail, mostly. A few advertisements from the department, including an announcement of a public lecture to be delivered by Professor Gabriel O. Emerson entitled,
Lust in Dante’s
: The Deadly Sin against the Self
. Julia read the title over several times before she was able to absorb it into her brain. But once it had been absorbed, she hummed softly to herself.
She hummed as she noticed a second announcement, which mentioned that Professor Emerson’s lecture had been cancelled and rescheduled for a later date. And she hummed as she noticed a third announcement, which declared that all of Professor Emerson’s seminars, appointments, and meetings had been cancelled until further notice.
And she kept right on humming as she reached back into her pigeon hole for a small square of paper. She unfolded it and read:
She continued to hum as she puzzled over what it meant to find her note in her mailbox the day after she’d placed it at Professor Emerson’s door. But her humming finally stopped, as did her heart, when she turned the paper over and read the following:
Emerson is an ass.