The professor of literature enjoyed great success for a little more than two years, growing far larger than the small, New England college where he taught. His volume of esoteric poetry based upon the idea of reincarnation, his odes of love to the timeless soul mate he was searching for, his ardent, torturous waiting with giant wings made of words, his overwhelming loyalty remaining by the banks of the waters of time in which she had drowned, trusting that she would surface where his heart was, his faith in the return of laughter, in the immortality of lips that are both wet and burning, his belief that the void is only a deception invented by our minds to test love, had captured the imagination of lovers and mystics everywhere. In the foreword of his little, intense volume, which some compared to the best of Omar Khayyam and Rumi, he wrote: "This river of poetry which flowed, not from my hand, but of its own will, as if obeying some mysterious law of gravity which dwarfs the known sorrows of my own life, was born side by side with dreams and fragments of memories that I cannot lay claim to." The professor, in his foreword, bravely exposed strange visions of life in some Middle Eastern land in the distant past, and sketches of himself and his lover in that time, when their skin was dark, nurtured to the most beautiful shade of brown by the tender embrace of the sun, which licked them with fire, like a savage lioness who knows how to be sweet, with claws retracted for her cubs. For months, an artist worked with him to get the faces right: the woman’s earth-brown face and eyes like black diamonds, like flames torn from the night; the long waves of soft hair reaching out, with curiosity that could barely be combed, to explore the world; the smile, like legs revealed by a dress that is lifted to cross a stream, quick to undermine the safety of indifference; and his own face, made of fine and chiseled features, a large nose and eagle-like eyes, a thin dust of harshness coating an endless abyss of frightfully articulate vulnerability. "Did I live these memories or are they only dreams?" the author wrote. "I see that man writing with the pen that is in my hand, I see that life, not this one, as the foundation for the despair that shines like gold, it is his tears that have become the ink that digs into these pages, searching for her grave, searching for her mother’s womb. Am I imagining, or am I awakening?" Looking at the beautiful protagonists of his vision, made even more alluring by their exotic, ancient garb - for modern clothes are so belittling – he only knew that he would never again be happy until they returned to each other’s arms. "I believe I am writing these poems, which I wrote before, to find her, to trigger in her a memory of me and our perfectness together. I am fighting against centuries of death to live again." But the threat of the modern world was too much to ignore, and so, even though he was a literature professor and more easily pardoned for forays into the absurd than the engineer who constructs bridges, he still felt pressured into admitting the possibility that he was merely a creative genius. "Or maybe, after all, it is only a fantasy," he reiterated, "although until now my passion has mainly been an appendage of the anguish of others. This is the first time I have ever, deeply, cried for myself, and felt, in my own soul, something that belongs to me."
The professor’s admirers, beyond the tolerant, skeptical literary circle which admired the product without believing for a moment in the esoteric processes reputed to have engendered it, had no doubt that he had actually lived before and that the poetry he had written was actually salvaged from the depths of forgotten memories of a previous life. Words the professor had written before, in another time and place - somewhere in the ancient Middle East or India, it seemed, when he had been a poet and a scholar, and fallen madly in love with the life-filled daughter of a practical merchant who did not approve, but who they defied - had erupted from the subterranean prison of memories, which keep our many lives separate by repressing the past, and leaving us stranded in the present with the terrible illusion of mortality. He had rebelled against the silence, broken into the vault where his treasures from another time were stored, seized up in his hands jewels that distraction had hidden, to use again, torn off the veil of One Life and seen his many faces. He had found, in the library of fate, in a corner of his own mind, the map to his heart; no more must he stumble blindly off the road into marshes, plot his course through deserts, or come, unexpectedly, upon uncrossable rivers, barring his path with the raging, indifferent torrents of a fruitless flood. Now he knew. He wanted her, he needed her. "I think her name was Asha," he wrote. Once again, his life had purpose; the tiny college where he was entombed, living comfortably as a parasite of the great, ceased to confine him. "I wonder what she looks like now?" he asked himself. "Will she be the same sweet secret, hiding in the shadows, made of shadow, but with hands as hot as fever? Will she recognize me, or despise the pale thing I have become? Now that I have smashed the mask that conceals me with the face of my soul, reshaped my body into words, crushed the lie of my appearance with timeless truths? Will she hear me? Will she come?" He fought against the strangeness of writing the words in English, he felt as though some language he had spoken before had been a more perfect vehicle for releasing the outpourings of his heart, for exposing his bashful depths, hung like laundry out to dry in the breeze of Humanity’s love of poetry. There were times when he felt his words were soaring towards a rhyme that did not exist in his current tongue, that somewhere there was a pun he could not reach; at times the legs of his pen felt heavy, he sensed the awkwardness of syllables and cadences which had not troubled him in the past, he had to describe the sun without the words "bright", "shining", or "light", he battled with the place he had ended up, running as fast as an antelope but still feeling he was slow, reshaping, approximating, guessing; he stood in the sea and tried to redirect the waves. But though he remained dissatisfied, the world did not feel his discomfort, it reveled in his brilliance, and found the tale of his "writing, uncomfortably, in my second language" forgivably eccentric and endearing.
For the professor, the few months of his fame were both joyful and trying. Lovely coeds showed up in his class, in troves, overwhelmed by the romance, hoping to be her, to be Asha without remembering, though they were now trapped behind white faces, and tarnished by upper-middle-class American backgrounds. Like Cinderella with her delicate foot perfectly matching the glass slipper of the prince, they all hoped to see his eyes light up with recognition when he beheld them in his class, they all hoped to have an essay returned to them with a note written in the margin, with ink as red as blood: "Please come to my office, we must talk." One girl even signed her name "Asha." For the professor, all of this was acutely distressful – he could not bear to have so many hearts to hurt, so many sensitive, poetry-loving souls to disappoint, to hurl back to the earth with superhuman efforts of kindness, to kill with elaborately cushioned NOs, which were exhausting to craft - and yet he could not completely barricade himself against the onrush, either, because what if one of them really were Asha? Naturally, the phenomenon earned him the reputation of being a philanderer and lady’s man on campus, although he struggled with great earnestness to resist the temptations of power and to resist the impulse to rest in the oasis of someone else’s hope while he was waiting for the caravan of true love to arrive; in this effort, he was greatly aided by the uncompromising ideal of Asha, which sustained him and warded off the hordes of beautiful, deluded impostors, who were enriched by his rejection, because it also contained acceptance. Several times, the Dean spoke to him about the attention of the young women – the "harem" as some called it - but each time, the Dean left satisfied that there had been no impropriety.
However, on the campus there was one colleague, a professor from Egypt who had spent her whole life struggling between her Western upbringing and the limits imposed upon women by fundamentalism, who could not make peace with his presence. She had been driven by the burkas and veils she had never worn and the lashes she had never felt, except on the high-principled back of her solidarity, to abhor every form of the exploitation of woman by man that was possible, and for her, the sight of this suddenly famous and undeniably appealing professor surrounded by scores of fragile, impressionable girls who she could only see as prey aroused her indignation. She had a word or two with the professor, who was surprisingly apologetic, but still, showed no willingness to become aloof. "This is different than Robert Frost with snow-white hair surrounded by young male poets talking about birch trees," she told him.
He replied, "I cannot betray the passion I have discovered in myself by becoming distant."
She said: "You are a predator. They look up to you, they are helpless, like deer in the headlights of your talent; they are like clay in your hands, longing to live. It is up to you to teach them that they can live without you. You are like a father going after his own daughters."
He told her: "You are wrong. I am not using them, I am, in fact, trying to repel them, as gently as I can. I am giving each one of them a parachute, in the form of continued access to me, as a friend."
"You are surrounded by them, you are snorting them like a drug. The literary critics have patted you on the back, but you want more. You need to be praised on a mattress. You are degrading the integrity of this institution."
"You have an axe to grind" the professor replied. "Don’t insert me into your private drama, whatever it is. I have done no wrong." From then on, the battle lines were set.
For this intellectual woman from Egypt, the apparent impunity of the professor in the midst of imagined crimes was intolerable, and it drove her to seek means of defeating him. She found a point of attack in the fact that he, himself, had never produced an original work of poetry of any substance in the past; nor had his journal articles on literary analysis been of particular worth, while his thesis on the image and meaning of the nightingale in world literature had really been quite lame. In short, there was no indication in anything he had ever done or said before the mysterious, esoteric production of his masterpiece that he contained even an ounce of greatness in him, that the slightest element of literary potential resided in his sterile, flatfooted psyche. Not believing in the power of epiphanies, she could only come to the conclusion that the work he had produced must be derivative, stolen, and she determined, like a master detective, that she would find the source of the myth he was creating about himself, identify the plant from which he had made his aphrodisiac of words.
As any master detective, she considered where the most likely crime sites might be found, where the most fertile quarries of the deception might be located. Where were the limestone cliffs from which the stone of his lie had been gouged, to build temples for the gullible? She consulted, over the Internet, with professors from Columbia, Yale, Cairo, and New Delhi, in the process discovering that the sketches of his past-life self and Asha contained important errors in costuming: Asha was dressed in an Indian sari, while he was garbed in an Ottoman robe and turban. That, in itself, seemed to disprove the visions that had made his book as much of an occult as a literary classic. In fact, she delighted in informing him of this in an e-mail: "The garments which you and Asha wore during your past-life romance, that is before you flung them off to jump into bed, belong to two widely separated geographic areas, and irrevocably divergent cultures. Your visions are clearly created from a modern foundation, using clothing taken from the West’s generic fantasy wardrobe, in which the sari, the turban, the kaftan, the tunic and kimono are all lumped together, with no regard for historical accuracy, into a single exotic category representing the possibility of love and adventure in a land without consequences. These are either inept fantasies, exposing the ignorance of the dreamer, or else improperly researched lies. In no way can they be true memories. I hope this knowledge will deter you from making further use of your ‘past-life memories’ as a basis for seduction."
Although the professor was, in fact, disturbed by the revelations of his determined antagonist, his mind was able to come up with plausible explanations for the inconsistency, rooted in the possibility of trade between cultures, or more durably, in the imprecision of human memory, which, even in his present life, had played many tricks on him, putting him in jeans when he had really been wearing corduroys, and making the score of the lacrosse game 5-2 instead of 5-3.
The professor from Egypt did not think he would be vanquished by the riposte of the scholars of fashion who she had enlisted in her cause, and so she continued to dig for the secret source of the book she believed him incapable of writing. According to her contacts, the whole reincarnation theme ought to place the original work from somewhere in India, probably a product of Sanskrit and the Hindu sensibility; however, certain references definitely pointed towards Islam and, in fact, a capable linguist determined that many of the professor’s lines seemed to mirror Arabic forms of expression and to be struggling towards rhythms more often seen in Arabic poetry. Could the work be based on some sort of historical layering; could it perhaps come from an original Indian text shaped anew by an Arab hand, which tried to batter it into conformity with Arab culture and religion, but finally succumbed to its beauty and surrendered to the power of reincarnation as a literary vehicle for expressing love’s transcendence of death? At this point, another scholar, joining in the hunt, reminded her that the Druse of Lebanon were both Muslim and believers in the doctrine of reincarnation, though their version of it was substantially different from the Hindus’; he suggested that a search of literature originating from the Druse areas of Lebanon ought to be launched: "It is there that you are most likely to find the tracks of the charlatan," he said. And it is this concept which shaped the strategy of the professor’s Egyptian tormentor, who pursued him with all the vigor of Hatshepsut, the brilliant woman pharaoh whose statues were sculpted with beards so that she might hold her own among men.
The professor was dining out with Shana, a lovely and exotic woman of part-Irish, part-Slavic background, in a dimly-lit café off campus, when he received the decisive text message from his nemesis: "You have been busted." A name in Arabic followed. "Your source has been unearthed. Tomorrow, the star of the lady’s man will fall from the sky, the genius will be exposed as a plagiarist. Decency will return to our school."
"What’s wrong?" Shana asked him.
"Nothing," the professor said, frowning. "A paper cut, of sorts."
"Ooo, I hate those," said Shana. "They hurt so much!"
Sure enough, next day, the professor was called in to see the Dean at 4 PM, just as his afternoon class on the art of William Blake was letting out. Grimly, without speaking, sitting behind his enormous desk that seemed better suited for the president of a country than for the administrator of a small college in the mountains, shielded from the world it attempted to explain behind ramparts of pine trees, the Dean slid a box of papers over to his star pedagogue. "The original Arabic has been scanned. They found it in a library in Cairo, based on a manuscript written in Baghdad by a poet and scholar whose mother was Druse. Apparently, it was supposed to be destroyed because of certain passages which were problematic from the scriptural point of view, but it was spared by an admirer by being ‘misplaced.’ It was found a few centuries later and catalogued by bureaucrats who did not appreciate it. Here is a crude English translation, provided by Dr. Sayyid’s contacts, which has been scanned and sent along. Take a look."
The professor picked up the pages of the translation, and stunned, read the first lines of his own book: "The wailing with which I tore at her departure has become green, I have awakened in a new land. I know she is here. Scripture cannot keep her from me, love is stronger than what old men have to say about God."
"No!" he exclaimed, amazed, tears welling up in his eyes. "This can’t be! Surely, this must be a hoax!"
"I am afraid not," said the Dean. "All of this is notarized by the keepers of the archives, university officials from Cairo, and the Smith-Hasan Translation Services which are so highly regarded as to be utilized by the State Department."
"Amazing!" gasped the professor, the light of absolute joy spilling out of his eyes, like a body gashed open by a sword pouring out blood, if it were possible for such a thing to be wonderful instead of horrible. "I have – I have had such doubts!" he exclaimed to the bewildered Dean. "Such doubts! The Ottoman turban and the sari – but now I see that those are mere trifles! The emerald was scratched, it was damaged by the journey through time, but it is still an emerald! How could you carry a glass full of water for a hundred miles without spilling some of it? And they leap upon every flaw as though it were a horse and attempt to ride the whole thing away. But it is real! I am Abu Fayyad! These words in front of you are proof of immortality! You hold in your hands the fountain of youth, the balm for every heartbroken soul that has ever lived! I, who was dead in this lifetime because I did not have her, have erupted from who I was, because I longed for her, to become the highest peak of myself! And now, merely because I loved like a madman, because I loved so much that I kept on loving after I died, I have inadvertently stumbled upon proof of life after death, my heart has smashed open the sanctuary of eternity for the fleeting and the momentary, all the desperate creatures of the twilight! Or rather, I have been blessed to be the fool who led the earth to water!"
"You don’t seem to understand," the Dean stammered out, incredulous at the professor’s naiveté. "There is no cause for celebration, here. You have been caught red-handed in the act of plagiarism, and now our school is going to have to spend thousands on damage control. As for you…"
It was only then that the professor understood that he and the world were not on the same page. Whereas, for him, the discovery of the ancient manuscript, which he had remembered and reproduced in modern times, was proof of reincarnation and confirmation of the essence of his past-life visions, for the world represented by the Dean, it was nothing less than a sign of his corruption. Unable to believe in past lives, it could only believe in deception. Unable to believe in miracles, it could only believe in treachery. Unable to give up its prejudice against the impossible, it could only view his vindication as damnation. "But – but – I never saw this manuscript before," the professor protested. "Not in this lifetime. I remembered the feelings, and from the feelings came words that clung to my soul like stowaways on a ship of longing, weathering the loss of bodies, the violent storms of outer forms collapsing. This manuscript you have found – it is like digging up my body from the grave, proving that I lived! It is like Schliemann finding the gold of Agamemnon!"
"You have it backwards, I am afraid," replied the Dean, with a coldness the professor noticed for the first time, like the winter winds that swept down from the mountainside, making one wish for a lover underneath the blankets. "Don’t dare to deny what you have done! The manuscript is not proof that you lived before, but proof that you have lied! It is not your baby, it is your mother! You did not give birth to your book, it gave birth to you! You have not remembered, you have copied! You have not soared with inspiration in the sky of poetry, you have crawled with deceit in the mud of self-interest! You have not created a work of beauty, you have stolen another man’s heart, scavenged his magnificence, you have committed the high crime of artists and academics, you have plagiarized!"
The professor was stunned, shaken by the sudden hostility of a man he thought had been his friend, but he tried to reassure himself, after he staggered out of his office, feeling completely naked like a concentration camp prisoner underneath his clothes, that things would be set right. How could he have plagiarized the text of an obscure volume of poetry hidden away for centuries in the back chambers of a labyrinthine library which he had never visited; a text written in Arabic, a language which he did not understand, which had never previously been translated into English? No, the world would realize its mistake in a matter of days, after the hysteria and fear of disgrace died down. Logic would reassert itself. If the ancient manuscript which he had rewritten in the present, from memory, had finally been unearthed, the only possible conclusion was that the essence of his memory was true, in spite of the superficial mistakes of the sari and the turban. The essence of the memory was true, meaning that Asha, whether that was her name or not, was real, and that past lives and future lives were also real. A great tree of hope had been planted in the middle of mankind’s despair. This did not lead to the humiliation of a professor, but to the liberation of a world which lived as though nothing but today mattered, but which might now commit itself to broader visions and to deeper truths.
However, much to the dismay of the professor, the Dean proved to be absolutely correct. He, the professor - Abu Fayyad in another time - had got it backwards. The concept of reincarnation was so esoteric and at odds with the tangible, and so dangerous in terms of what it might do to the world, that it seemed much easier to believe in the dishonesty of a man. "But how could I have seen the manuscript in this lifetime?!" the professor protested. Critics replied: "It is easier to believe in the ingenuity of a man than to reorder the cosmos." Somehow, another copy must have been existed, one of which fell into his hands. Was it not easier to believe this than to learn how to desire and to cry a different way?
From being a hero, a sensitive and valiant prodigy, the professor was turned overnight into a cynical bandit, despised by all. He was forced to leave the college, and blacklisted from obtaining comparable posts. The sales of his book plummeted, the tours to colleges and bookstores dried up. The girls who had flocked to his lectures and dazzled him with their fresh, womanly light, limped away from the wreck, feeling wounded and betrayed; they let deep truths become mere fads and put them away into boxes alongside their childhood dolls. They erased the timeless arms of the love he had taught them to seek to find men their own age on the edge of dances and drinks. There, they found lives that were tangible and doomed, and they built altars of not looking too far in the center of their new homes.
"I am sorry," Dr. Sayyid wrote to the disgraced professor in an e-mail with which she tried to assuage her conscience, "but I had to stand by the young women of our school. Every teacher must recognize the power of his position, and strive to insulate himself from the seductive effects of his status."
The professor shook his head like a man whose house has been blown away by a tornado; this woman had successfully used him to gain revenge against someone else, perhaps a shadow. He wondered, in fact, if perhaps he had known her in the past: perhaps, he thought, she was Asha’s angry father, hating him without knowing why, driven by a subconscious compulsion too powerful to resist; Asha’s father, determined to get his daughter back and to destroy the man who had run off with her. Wherever Asha was in this time, she must be kept away from him, and what better way to separate the lovers than to beat the poet to his knees and poison the words with which he sought to woo her? The songbird is a liar. Do not wake up, it does not mean the sun is coming. Whether true or not, Dr. Sayyid had won, but only on the shallow field on which she was playing.
For the professor, there was ecstasy in the downfall. The tears came out as drops of gold. For though he had fallen in this time and place - though he was utterly disgraced - by means of the instrument of his destruction he had wandered through the gates of Eden, and now stood triumphant in the garden mankind has longed for since the dawn of time. The doubt that had lurked around the edges of his experience, his angelic moment of digging through the desert sand to yesterday’s water, had been vanquished. The absurdity of withholding conviction because of the turban and the sari, mere wrinkles in the cloth of a great revelation, had become obvious. "The sun flashed on the wing of an eagle. I thought its wing was the color of gold, I did not perceive it perfectly. But though I was wrong about the color, I perceived an eagle, nonetheless." The ancient manuscript discovered in a library as far away from his knowledge as the surface of the moon had proved this, had become imbedded like veins and arteries in his vision, given it life and strength, like the arm of a giant. Though Asha still eluded him, and though he had lost his platform for finding her - his voice and his position in the limelight - he now knew that she was as real as the hand that had written about her, and covered reams of paper with her aura, filled pages of unbearable silence with the ink of her footsteps, and the rustling of her dress turned into words cascading like a water fall from the heart she had changed. He knew she was an immortal part of the universe, just like him, and that there would be time to find her, in this life or on the other side of this life’s empty hands.
What troubled him most as he struggled to survive in the world of shame and obscurity into which he had been cast, was the terrible fate of the truth that had been uncovered in his wake, and then abandoned. What of all the suffering, desperate people, the greedy mad impulses without perspective, the blunt grasping as if the world was about to run away, the callus of mourning grown thick over life, entombing soft things that could no longer stretch their hands to the God of Joy, the paralyzing fear of death, the invulnerability of appetites which only had to answer to one life; what of all the people who could be healed if they only knew what he knew, believed what he had discovered to be true, believed in the light shining through the window of his life into their room, believed he was God’s proof given to them to free them, and not a plagiarist? It was heartbreaking to see the sunrise alone; to hear the cries of children whose mothers were already holding them.
"How is it possible?!" he cried out in frustration, "That I who have loved proof of life-beyond-life into the world, and rung the bell of the universe’s greatest secret by following a woman’s trail through the valley of death, have been dismissed as a mere plagiarist, and cut off from Humanity like a leg with gangrene? Is it possible that only I can be saved by my salvation?!" It was unbearable, at first, this thought: this thought of being the only man in the world who was happy without being distracted. But finally, painfully, he got used to it. He had no choice. Around each human being’s revelation, around each human being’s miracle and awakening, around each human being’s proof that holiness is a fact and not just an ideal, there is a wall that separates him from the rest of the world. His revelation, his miracle and awakening, and his proof are for him and no one else. Discovery is personal and cannot be shared. Nothing is sacred until it is experienced; truths are recited but not believed, until they crash like a meteor into the middle of a life. What a devastating insight for the compassionate, but the wall around the moment of being convinced that shuts the world out from a man’s epiphany is too high for his altruism to leap over; it is as high as the peak God has given each of us to climb.
One night, after a hard day’s work on a different rung of the social ladder, as he left his job and came out onto the street, he chanced to meet Dr. Sayyid, who was visiting the city into which he had disappeared – his battleground and her field of leisure. "Lies have a long reach," she said, "and their repercussions have great stamina. They are like wolves who never tire, hunting down those who sought to profit by them."
The professor, now merely a "worker", looked at her; he saw, in her eyes, her pride, her elaborate ignorance bristling with the weapons of the intellect, the thin layer of the earth she fought for and the pain of the crusades that did not reach the place where she was bleeding. He was open to feeling rage for what she had done to him, but he did not. Tranquility was not his intention, it just happened. There was quiet in his soul, and sorrow, not for him, but for her: like the time, when he was a child who could not swim, that he saw a cat drowning in a river, and just watched the waters carry it away, meowing to the shore. He wished he could have done something for Dr. Sayyid, helped her in some way, but for her he was only a plagiarist. She was too tenacious in the defense of her desolation to take his hand.
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents