“He who teaches imperfect knowledge is to be treated as if he sinned intentionally.” Maimonides.
VonHenry University functioned as somewhat of an enigma to the outside academic world; especially when contrasted to the many references made to the entrenched faculty’s lackluster achievements versus the continually generous endowments received by its various departments. However, the faculty’s uninspiring performance over the decades predictably had undermined the trust traditionally held by many of the general public; especially those who paid tuition to enroll their offspring into that institution; with the consequences of a fall-off in enrollment. With the recent subsequent appointment of a new university president, there emerged in some faculty quarters a palpable undercurrent of anxiety.
The summer semester was finishing. The campus home of Doctor Sark Saint John, PhD in Paleontology and Archeology, sat back from a street shaded by a canopy of elderly, yellow poplars. A colony of four Roofvogel raptors sat high in those trees, occasionally opening their outsized wings, while they nervously roosted as though being prepared for immediate flight. The baldheads with hooked beaks preened their crepe black wing feathers. They had been known to vomit on passers below if startled. PETA were their benefactors, so they were never compelled to seek new habitat. The neighborhood residents prudently took to carrying umbrellas.
On the streets below, in a series of Tudor houses, lived the near-retirement, baby-boomer faculty; who over the decades of revolving college politics “tuned on, turned in, and dropped out” with both themselves and their students.
Professor Sark Saint John, from a newer generation than his neighbors and colleagues, pushed aside his disconnected land-line phone to set his hot coffee cup down on the solid rose wood table. He wanted no solicitous calls asking how he was holding up. Faculty and students knew the homicide investigation determined the cause of death to be the result of an accident. Specifically, the coroner listed those deaths were due to equipment malfunction while Sark and his colleagues were exploring the interior of a cave. This caving expedition was in support of their years of archeological fieldwork which focused on finding a Slav settlement on the Cumberland Plateau, and as a possible entrance to the rumored, lost valley.
Sark held a secret. He had impetuously jumped on the rope and speed-dropped into the cave pit causing the rappelling line to part under the load of his accelerating body. He crashed on top of his two research associates below him who had not yet reached the floor of the pit. Their broken bodies served as a life saving cushion for him. In those dark days after, he mentally abandoned his dead colleagues’ project.
Inside his university supplied housing, lay scattered, unopened scientific journals, and ungraded “blue books” from students failing to return to his lackluster class lectures. A badly stained antimacassar tossed from his Lazy Boy sat on the cold fireplace grate awaiting cremation along with discarded Styrofoam fast food containers. He paid the housekeeper on time every month, but kept the front door, for which she had a key, dead bolted. He pushed out of the recliner where he had slept, managing not to spill cold coffee from the cup clenched in his hand. Sark ran some tap water, splashed a couple of handfuls into his narrow face, and toweled off. He double-checked to see if he could get by another day without shaving his heavy beard and decided he could. With a couple of quick strokes, he brushed his black hair back. He used the rear door to leave.
Alone, Saint John, his tall frame allowing long strides, walked at a quick clip toward his office in the Earth Sciences building. The southern university’s usual frantic activity was temporarily curtailed, much of the tenured staff were off on their paid three-month consulting vacations. The grounds appeared forsaken, its paths empty. Saint John looked up to see four narrow tracks of ice crystals marking a jet’s hushed passage through the dawning skies; its contrails twisting in the upper currents as though being braided by a celestial goddess. Summer classes had drooped to completion during the rebellious heat of August and the fragile apparatus of higher education lay dormant.
Now ready to ply their morning trade from the yellow poplars, the four black raptors rose to the sky, dynamically soaring on the updrafts already beginning to form from the sun’s heat. Sark stopped to observe them rise on the wind shadow from a nearby hill. The Professor knew the drill. First, the buzzards went with the current, then turning back into the turbulence, their bodies lifted and then again turning to be one with the force. A black raptor, patrolling higher than the local buzzards, banked into a dive to accelerate with the air mass. She repeated this tactic until her airspeed was over two-hundred miles per hour. Unseen by Sark, a ground creature panics and breaks from cover. With Sark still watching, one of the now several raptors folds her wings to her body and dives. Sark loses visual contact. Concealed from Sark’s reality, the aerial matador at the moment of impact, closed to within six inches above the ground, pulling twenty-four gravities coming out of her aerial assault, locked her talons into the hair and flesh, exploded the prey, and soared back into those skies, the source of heavenly bliss. Now, both Sark and the raptor have begun their day, but Sark’s will be the less deadly of the two.
The latticed rays of dawn followed Sark’s steps. They infiltrated the landscape as the mercury vapor lights turned off like a line of falling dominoes across the campus. In the damp early morning silence, Sark caught the soft banjo sounds of forest and coal mining operations already reverberating off the steep slopes of the Cumberland Mountains adjacent to the campus. For a moment, he pictures the resonance skipping like a barber’s shears over the pattern baldness of state controlled clear cutting. During his archeological fieldwork he often slipped into Appalachian villages whose names were like incantations: Turkey Scratch, Hanging Limb, Dismal, Worm Wobble. There, on those field trips, he took time to sit in mountain and valley time warps and listen to the spark blown steel forge and a duet composed of black-smithing and horseshoeing. All that honest labor fed families and sent children to VonHenry, Doctor Saint John thought, as if preparing for a debate with his fellow faculty members; they who professed loudly to love the noble masses of the world … but trivialize the individual … especially low income southern folks, he amended.
The doctor hurried past the Dean’s office hoping, if seen, the Dean would mistake the newspaper folded under his arm for a manuscript, and start a rumor Sark was about to publish his research.
Refreshed from their predawn sprinkler shower, the U of V’s lawns glistened at their greenest. His Rocky field boots emitted squishes from the muddy plumes they created.
Sark’s deceased father, Professor Cunard Saint John, often waxed sentimental, “My VonHenry, isle of academia, always so absolute with its southern gentility, so welcoming, that the eye is loathed to close on this gift of tranquility.” Sally Saint John, Sark’s widowed mother once said, “Depending on your destination and which way you are traveling, life’s emptiness stops at the edge of UV’s campus. My husband’s citadel is where experts, by deconstruction, belittle important topics and people. There are no real jobs here, just positions. So some smoke, some drink, but all talk past and over each other, while I boil cabbage. As for the students they, as always, are wedded to another time and place.”
Sark, abruptly paused again and watched, while from an open dumpster, sheaths of student dissertations, laboriously written and researched, floated phantom like on an out-of-the-blue gust of wind. Above in the trees, squirrels stopped as well, to stare while the test papers fell to the tall fescue of the central quad. Before long, the curious gray rodents returned to the maintenance of their accumulating and hording of nuts. Most of the faculty had left days before on their university-sponsored retreats, some going higher into the cool mountains, just beginning to glow with faint autumnal hues.
The sun now completed its push clear of the horizon. On schedule, the Student Union belfry repeated its fourth dimension lecture seven times. Saint John checked his watch, not over concern of being tardy for an appointment, only to see if the analog was running. He was never on time and never trusted that device which was a gift to him from an always-waiting friend. The Humanities Building, not yet fully lit by the morning sunrise was where Doctor Saint John slowed his pace. A calico cat sat on the grass at the entrance next to an empty food tray, like a puffed-up patron waiting for service. Sark pulled a clear plastic bag from between his folded newspaper, opened the slippery bag, and then dumped the oily contents into her dish. Missy Sabrina quickly squatted. While never soiling a whisker, she expertly began to dine on the sardines. Sark watched and thought, if she had a linen napkin she would have patted her lips.
“You’ll forgive me Missy for serving lunch so early, but I’ve got things to do on this day,” said Sark.
Missy Sabrina elevated her head and looked at him. Sark scratched behind Missy’s ear, but she was having none of that, the sardines taking precedent.
“You never have anything to do, and those sardines stink like your office,” said a feline, but suspiciously feminine voice.
Sark turned and smiled up at professor emeritus Yma Stankowski standing on the top grey, granite step of the entrance to the Humanities classrooms. In the ugly humidity, in what she hoped would be viewed as an innocent apparel adjustment, she unbuttoned her blue business jacket and removed the white scarf exposing the shapeliness of her bosom, as she gracefully dropped two steps toward Sark.
“I was just coming to feed her, but from that odor she could be eating her last meal … I’m glad you didn’t feed me like that on our last date … oh … so … long … ago,” she said.
“I forgot – I brought them for my lunch yesterday, they’re still okay and it looks like she’s enjoying herself doctor and besides they couldn’t be any worse than the tenured mice she catches in your Humanities building. I’ll call you when I get back, I promise, and we’ll find the place which serves your favorite meal … beer, grilled kielbasa and cabbage, oh … you still working out? … you look great,” Sark said, grinning, waving, and not waiting for a reply as he left on a run. Doctor Stankowski smiled, waving like a dancing “flapper”. She put her hand to her breast running her other through thick auburn hair and thought, I’m surprised you didn’t say I look great for a chunky middle-aged broad and furthermore Sark, you absent-minded bastard, I never work out …. She formed the mental image of shaking her finger into that chiseled face she adored, You got it all backwards Sark, that sausage … was his grunt food … remember … oh how you must remember every day now, your old research partner Major Stankowski, but yes … yes I would enjoy sharing a kielbasa with you … call me when you reconnect your damn phones.
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