He didn’t know when he first became aware of intimations of metamorphosis. Perhaps the signs had been present all along.
What he did remember, as he lounged in the backyard by the blooming lilacs, hues from Tyrian purple to luminescent lavender flooding his field of vision, was drowsily musing if lilac is a color yet also a scent, and if when I smell lilac I also taste lilac, am I experiencing synesthesia? For as he inhaled the waxy perfume, a honeyed flavor tingled his palate. Lilac-land of the Lotus-eaters: he smiled at the mixed metaphor as vision blurred, flickered, shut down. On the underside of his eyelids crimson leaked across a field of amethyst.
Reclining in a lounge chair in the grassy plot behind the clapboard building that housed the English junior faculty, he’d been toiling through a stack of essays when sleep overwhelmed his senses. Jerking awake seconds or minutes later, he wasn’t sure which, he saw that his red marking pen had zigzagged down the paper he’d been reading, its wet felt tip resting against the fly of his chinos. A crimson circle seeped into the bunched fabric.
“Someone castrate you, Jonathan?”
Gliding across the soft lawn on bare feet, Kathleen, office manager extraordinaire, had come upon him unawares carrying two cups of tea. As she handed him one of the mugs—black embossed with the college’s insignia W in gold—she settled, with a satisfied groan, into the chair by his side. Convincing the department to buy the junior faculty lawn furniture, Jonathan was fond of claiming, might turn out to be his most important legacy to academia.
“I think we know the answer to that.”
He dabbed at the spot, redness staining his fingers.
“I told you that man’s had it in for you from the beginning.”
Indeed she had said as much, the day after the fall party at the Faculty Club that marked the start of Jonathan’s second year as assistant professor. Over the course of his inaugural year, colleagues had none too subtly stressed the importance of making a good impression on the legendary Dr. Charles Metzger Jergoff once the luminary returned to Wellington after a sabbatical year roaming the English countryside in search of the muse. “The purpose of literary criticism? Shedding light on the Great Minds of Great Britain’s Greatest Imaginations”: this dictate, handed down to every new English major in a glossy brochure authored by the one and only Jergoff—recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, toast of the college, unrepentant old-school humanist—conveniently justified his lifelong pursuit of literary biography. Even the New Criticism of the 1940s and ‘50s was too new for Jergoff. Having long ruled as departmental chair, “Chummy,” as close friends and acolytes called him, was still its ultimate authority though he no longer officially helmed the ship. His approval or disapproval, delivered sotto voce in back corners, had the power to shape departmental and collegiate policy, to make and break careers. Being a big fish in a small pond had conferred upon him a degree of power that, at times, even left the college president cowering in a cold sweat.
So here he was, the myth made manifest, his surprisingly unimposing figure haloed by the autumnal light slanting through tall windows as he discreetly held court with two equally hoary-headed colleagues on the far side of the Faculty Club drawing room. A patch covered his left eye—an unbecoming, perhaps syphilitic, infection, rumor had it. Jonathan took a sip of Dewars—decent Scotch a luxury he’d never sampled before joining this wishfully-Ivy college, where the spirits flowed as freely as academic witticisms flowed long. Breathing deeply, he began his odyssey across the crowded room to introduce himself to the Legend.
But mid-course he’d been waylaid by Jamie Ogburn, Chummy’s current protégé, a former undergraduate who’d leapfrogged the rungs from newly minted Ph.D. to full professor at Wellington in unnervingly short time and against all college policy—policy that Jergoff’s claim that Jamie was the most brilliant rhetorician of his generation (despite the modest publication record) was enough to bend. Sipping white wine and munching salted almonds, Kathleen had been watching from the sidelines along with the rest of the staff: all women, of course, most unmarried. They knew better than to mingle. And, as Kathleen darkly relayed the tale afterwards, at the sight of his precious Jamie serenading fresh-faced Jonathan, Jergoff’s Cyclops eye widened with hatred, shooting bloody daggers the arriviste’s way. “He’s Evil,” Kathleen intoned. “The Big Bad Wolf.” The Irish in her relished melodrama. Then again: “Watch your step.” She knew whereof she spoke: for two decades she’d observed faculty and staff come and go, succeed and fail, shine and vanish, at Jergoff’s whim.
Apparently, four years later, Jonathan’s time to vanish had arrived.
But he didn’t want to think about that now. Three days had passed since fulfilling his unexpected, last-minute summons to give a tenure lecture during exam reading period when attendance would be scarce, with all of a week’s notice to prepare, and nothing but dead silence since. Forget the fact that his teaching evaluations ranked among the best of his colleagues, even though mediocre teaching had been enough to tenure several of his slightly senior and minimally published colleagues; no matter that his hiring had been heralded in the department as the harbinger of a new era.
“Have you heard from Cecily?” Kathleen asked.
He really didn’t want to think about that, either. His relationship of four years had crashed and burned a month ago, a roadside wreck he should have seen coming before Cecily walked out on him—sped away on screeching tires, really, was the more apt metaphor, once she’d made up her mind. She’d never appreciated academic life, she resented the way it subsumed their private hours: the student demands that came with the expensive tuition that exclusive New England colleges such as Wellington commanded, the newly mandated publication pressures (despite all those slightly senior colleagues who’d squeaked through on teaching merits alone) that had kept Jonathan up late at night as he struggled to bring to an end a seemingly endless monograph.
Then, again, he’d never really understood how Cecily—boasting a law degree from Northeastern and a lively social conscience—could have made her specialty litigating for automobile consumers who claimed to have bought dud cars; even more, he couldn’t fathom her willingness to advertise her services on bus-stop benches and grocery-store shopping carts across greater Boston, her headshot blazoned for all to ogle with the words “Bought A LEMON? Let Me PUT A SQUEEZE ON THE CULPRITS!” Too many of his colleagues, upon being first introduced to Cecily, doggedly proclaimed they knew her striking face from somewhere, surely we’ve met before! up to the instant that, with an embarrassed shock of recognition, their jaws dropped. Still. In other ways they’d deeply loved each other. Or so he had believed.
“Total silence for two weeks. Says she needs to ‘heal’ before we talk about what’s next.”
“Give her time.” Kathleen patted Jonathan’s forearm. “I like her.”
But time, depending on one’s point of view, was what Jonathan had either run out of, or what there was about to be too much of, in the looming future. Stranded between his tenure talk and no news of the senior faculty’s deliberations, he felt every passing hour stretching out like a wad of warm chewing gum wedged in the rubber sole of his shoes.
Kathleen sighed, readying to heave upright and return to her desk. “Honey, don’t fret these papers. Just assign a grade and be done with it.”
Her bare feet padded as silently across the lawn as they had come. Feet that had grown up striding the sands at Quincy; feet that braced sturdy legs genetically primed to weather gales and all varieties of catastrophes, human and otherwise.
Jonathan glanced down at his stack of papers. On top was the victim of his errant marker pen. How to explain to the earnest writer this crimson mishap? But then again: how to explain, to himself, the mishaps that left him sitting here, prisoner to stasis, overwhelmed by the scent of lilacs? Enough: Jonathan rose to his feet, slipped the essays into his briefcase, folded the chairs to carry to the back porch. But halfway across the lawn, visions of lilac flooded the dark of his mind, seared his tongue, and emitted fragrances that became a yearning to touch. Setting down briefcase and chairs, he turned, yielding as his senses tugged him up to the edge of the wall of towering bushes. He buried his face in massy clusters of bloom, inhaling with something close to rapture.
That was when he spied the pieces of cardboard boxing, battened to the ground, in the hollow interior where two bushes had grown together: a pocket, a shadowy cave. This cardboard wasn’t random trash; it was the foundation of a snug nest, hidden home, outfitted for a human body. Jonathan’s eyes took in the signs of recent habitation: ratty sweater, grungy sofa pillow, cellophane wrappings of snack-machine food, rolled-up pairs of socks, empty soda can holding a toothbrush. Beneath the overpowering scent of lilac, Jonathan now recognized another, faint, fusty smell, scent of flesh and sweat and urine.
How long had someone been living here, under their very noses?
The irony was not lost on Jonathan that the generosity of one of the most fervent espousers of British Imperial Might had paved the way for the anti-imperialist English Ph.D. dissertation he was eventually to write. For the topic had come to Jonathan his second fellowship year at Oxford, compliments of Cecil J. Rhodes. With an M.A. thesis on Lawrence and Huxley nearing its end, he wasn’t sure whether he wished to pursue a doctorate in British modernism when he returned to the States or take a new direction. He remembered the precise moment inspiration dawned. He was crossing the quad at Jesus College, skimming an article in the Guardian about a ten-year-old girl who had been discovered living alone in the jungles of Uttar Pradesh. Her lupine growls, tendency to walk on all fours, and craving for raw meat, so her caretakers proclaimed, were definitive proof of her having been raised by wolves. The newspaper’s account was a cynical exposé of the claim as a money-making fraud taking advantage of a severely mentally-handicapped child.
But Jonathan’s musings had proceeded another direction. Monkeys, apes—he could understand why tales of feral children so often involved their upbringing by primates. They were, after all, the human race’s nearest kin. But why wolves, of all animals, in fables and legends reaching back to Romulus and Remus? By the time of Longus, Daphnis and Chloe’s animal mothers had become the more properly pastoral goat and ewe, with the wolf—in the guise of hapless Dorcon—the comic butt of the joke. Then why modern fiction and pop culture’s return to wolves? Why Kipling’s Mowgli? And why so often India as the setting, in local legends as well as fiction, of feral children raised by wolves? Why sexy teen werewolves?
Percolating in Jonathan’s mind, these questions led him to research the historical accounts of proclaimed feral children: Peter the Wild, “Victor” (the enfant sauvage of Truffaut’s film), Kaspar Hauser, Amala and Kamala, among dozens of others, teasing out the repeating tropes in their histories. Drawing on postcolonial theory and post-humanist inquiries challenging the human-animal divide, he developed a thesis about the intersection of literary imaginings of feral children and conceptions of Empire and its Others. Four years later, he graduated from Stanford with dissertation in hand and a tenure-track job offer from Wellington. His peers envied him his good fortune; presses inquired about his work; his younger colleagues at Wellington welcomed him as a talisman that their department was finally ready to embrace the future. No one else did work remotely approaching Jonathan’s, and avid students flooded his courses.
Now, five versions of his fifth and final chapter (each littered with ragged stick-ons) confronted him from his desk, untidy stacks chiding him for his inability to wrest from their sprawling mass a coherent whole. How had a project begun with such promise, so much talk of early publication, grown so unforgiving?
“Why in heaven’s name did you, of all people, get obsessed with feral children?” Jonathan remembered Cecilia asking, with biting sarcasm, one fine Sunday afternoon. They’d been living together two years, and she was pissed at his refusal to join her on an expedition into Boston because he “needed” to work on the manuscript. “I mean, you’re the fucking most domesticated creature I’ve ever met.”
It was impossible to miss the subtext—you’re no wild child. Two years later the words still worried his ears like a bad case of tinnitus.
Jonathan looked out the dormer window of his third-floor office, which jutted out of the eaves of the clapboard building. It was Friday night. The sky had turned deep sapphire, and blue too was the evening birdsong. A teasing breeze wafted the plaintive warbles—jug jug for dirty ears—through the screen, prickling his forearms with feathery strokes that made him flash on Cecilia’s boa. Remnant of a Halloween costume worn long before she met him, it had become a favorite bedroom prop: soft, soft, against his hard, teasing prelude to the moment when she mounted him, riding them both to besotted stupor in the early days of their courtship. Stop. These evenings of late he’d started coming to the office to escape the memories that haunted the corners of the apartment at night. Last week, he’d driven past Cecily’s new place, hoping to work up his courage to ask her to consider attending his hastily scheduled tenure lecture, it would mean the world to him. Just as he was getting ready to park, he’d sighted an unknown man, wolfishly handsome, exiting her front door. Of Cecily he only glimpsed a flash of bare arms as she relinquished her caller to the glare of day.
If the ghostly trace of Cecily’s absent presence made his apartment unbearable in the evening, Jonathan couldn’t help wondering whether, haunting a campus void of life now that finals period had ended, he had become a phantom himself. Why this inexorable pull back to the place that, if he were reading the proverbial tea leaves correctly, was readying to thrust him from its nest? No word had yet arrived about the status of his promotion; but the silence of his senior colleagues, several of whom he had expected to be in enthusiastic contact after his lecture, was equal parts depressing and ominous.
He looked at the computer screen, its pastiche of phrases, some from this draft and some from that, none of them pointing him forward, when a seductive odor wafted through the window. Not lilac perfume; his window faced the street. Some other mysterious night bloom, one that released its scent under the cover of darkness—and, in an instant, he decided to go out back for a cigarette; in the dark, perhaps, inspiration would blossom afresh.
Except for the carmine red glowing at the tip of his Lucky Strike, he saw nothing as he entered the lawn in back of the building. Yet, as his vision adjusted, colors began to seep through the inky black, hues having metamorphosed in the process: white clapboard now violet, crossed by azure shadows; waxy foliage of the lilacs deep aubergine; an aurora of light from a street lamp gilded the unfurling lime leaves on the elms overhead orange-bronze. The lilac blossoms themselves formed looming gray voids against the darkened leafery; and the arm lifting his cigarette, muted green. Night moths, pale silvery wisps, flitted in and out of the trees and bushes. Gone was the mysterious perfume that had enticed Jonathan outside; but the scent of night jasmine was as palpable as the touch of warm skin, and it mingled extravagantly with the fragrance of the lilacs—amorous, overrich, hinting at mortal decay—heavy clusters of blossom that, despite their gray near-invisibility in the dark, bombarded his mental vision with an effulgence as blinding as astral flares.
Sensations became sounds: slight exhalation of bent cardboard; rustling twigs; whimper of a wounded animal attempting to elude capture. The sound was close, feet away, yet strangely Jonathan felt no fear. Extinguishing the Lucky Strike with the toe of his Adidas, he approached the black expanse of shrubbery where, yesterday, he had discovered its interior bower. As he flicked his lighter on, blossoms leapt into lurid purple life. He pulled a massy handful aside, leaned forward to peer behind the odorous veil.
There, kneeling on cardboard, filthy hands raised before a terrified face, was a thin human form obscured by layers of filthy clothing. As he met its gaze, a barely audible wail, the high-pitched whine of a cornered beast, resonated in his ears.
“Who are you?” Jonathan whispered.
In the faint glow of the wavering flame, frightened eyes peered through dirty fingers: tawny, gold-flecked eyes. Cecilia’s eyes. The resemblance so unnerved Jonathan that his thumb slipped off the lighter, returned the world to blackness.
“Please, don’t cry.” He spoke into an invisible void. “Stay, I won’t tell anyone. You’re safe here.”
He retraced his steps across the night-dampened grass as silently as he could, as if the dweller in the lilacs had earned at least this respect. His last thought, before he punched the alarm code to buzz himself back into the building, was that he had absolutely no idea of the age or sex of the person who dwelt in the lilacs. Tufts of dirty blonde hair showing beneath a knit cap, shapeless clothes hanging on a panting, skeletal body, sunburnt and peeling face, those wary, golden, cat eyes—his inhabitant of the shadows might have been girl or boy, man or woman, animal-turning-human or human-turning-animal.
Charles Metzger Jergoff wasted little time expressing his dissatisfaction with what he deemed the anti-humanist slant of Jonathan’s work. Really, questioning the boundary between human and other life forms? Drawing on continental theories that demeaned great Western tradition? Obviously, his colleagues had made a most unenlightened choice when they’d hired Jonathan in Jergoff’s absence, his pedigree as Rhodes Scholar not withstanding.
So, early on in his tenure-track years, Jonathan knew he had a potent foe waiting to pounce should he step too far out of line. But he didn’t expect the real enemy to come from his own team.
Three years ago, to everyone’s surprise, a former English major hailing from Mumbai (whose performance had been so unremarkable most of the faculty couldn’t recall him) had bequeathed to the English Department a princely sum to be used to hire a senior professor in postcolonial literary studies. Jergoff went apoplectic. But there was no stopping a Board of Trustees salivating to make good on such magnanimity, and the next year the illustrious Vihaan Sharma arrived on campus with all the showy fanfare Wellington could muster—pomp and circumstance enough to evoke the glory days of Empire. Doctor Sharma, used to being feted in person by the very institutions he enjoyed deconstructing in print, didn’t seem to mind at all. Brahmin by birth, he enjoyed any event that spared no expense, particularly if he were its undeconstructed center.
So now there were two big fishes in one small pond, housed in the same department—though Sharma also held courtesy appointments in Comparative Literature, East Asian Studies, History, and Cinema-TV as befitted the cross-disciplinary expertise that had made him the darling of New York intellectuals for the past decade. Jergoff stalked the campus muttering that he’d be damned if anyone had ever read more that five pages of Sharma’s inscrutable prose; and if they had, he dared them to explain Sharma’s ideas in the Queen’s proper English. Jonathan’s scholarship seemed tame by comparison.
And that reset the game—call it academic shuttlecocks.
For it had taken Distinguished Professor Sharma even less time than Distinguished Professor Jergoff to cast a dim eye on Jonathan’s postcolonial endeavors. It was bad enough that the assistant professor was ventriloquizing subaltern realities of which his Anglo Being had no authentic experience; the fact that he was treating that retrograde colonialist Kipling seriously was an even graver affront. Thus Sharma roamed campus spreading his smile and wisdom wide, and, when asked about his aspiring younger colleague in English, he continued to smile but—himself an even more effective master of pronouncements sotto voce than Jergoff—sighed at Jonathan’s naivete in reproducing, sadly, the Essentialisms that his own work set out to expose. To Jonathan, of course, Sharma was sunbeams and encouragement; but soon enough word reached the junior scholar that the mentor he had been hoping to find in Sharma might not be so trustworthy a resource after all.
Which fact Jergoff made it his mission to drive home, surprising Jonathan by summoning him to dine with him and Jamie Ogburn at the Faculty Club. Wolfing down a slab of venison, he’d fired a slew of questions designed to ferret out weaknesses in Sharma’s scholarship. “Call me Chummy,” he had purred into Jonathan’s ear with unnerving intimacy and stale breath. Jergoff’s attentions reached a new intensity a year later—just last year—when the Dean announced an opening for a beginning eighteenth-century specialist in the Department. That was Jergoff’s field of specialization, so it was especially galling when the Dean mandated that a certain Molly Sterne number among the finalists. Ms. Sterne, it was common knowledge, was Sharma’s girlfriend (that her focus was on representations of the East India Tea Company in British fiction while her heritage was even more WASP than Jonathan’s didn’t seem to perturb Sharma). Out of the blue, Sharma invited Jonathan to contribute to a prestigious collection of essays he and Molly were editing for Duke. But Molly Sterne, alas, wasn’t an automatic shoo-in. The field of candidates included Diego Palgraeves, a former undergraduate at Wellington whose Ph.D. focus on biographical criticism instantly made him Jergoff’s candidate of choice, and whose vaguely Latino background, Jergoff was confident, would push him to the top of the list—what could be more irresistible, he chortled to his followers, than a minority candidate working in a traditional literary field?
Junior faculty participation in English hirings was strictly a formality, college guidelines not withstanding. Per custom, the non-tenured faculty was asked to canvas their cohort and submit their preference to the search committee (inevitably composed of senior department members). Whereupon the committee would make the recommendation to the Dean that it had always intended to make, regardless of input. While it therefore might seem that the junior faculty opinion’s was inconsequential, they were more or less expected to “fall in line” and “not rock the boat.” Given the Scylla and Charybdis that Molly and Diego formed, Jonathan and his peers were delighted to discover they preferred one Elizabeth Needs, a doctoral student at Duke who worked on representations of minority subcultures in the port cities of eighteenth-century London.
The chair asked the junior faculty to deliver its report in his office and in the presence of the search committee Tuesday at three o’clock sharp. Two of Jonathan’s colleagues taught at the designated hour, so fifteen minutes ahead of time the three remaining junior faculty set out for the elegant Georgian building on the east side of campus that housed the happily tenured English faculty.
Halfway to their destination, however, the most senior of the trio—Allan, coming up for tenure in the spring—fortuitously remembered a doctor’s appointment that he’d somehow forgotten and slunk off like a dog who knows he’s done wrong. All rather convenient for Allan, but not so much for Jonathan, since this left him de facto spokesperson; his remaining companion, Lucie, was his junior by two years, and a shrinking violet if ever there were one.
On the hour, the Chair’s secretary Eileen motioned Jonathan and Lucie into her boss’s elegantly paneled office with a roll of her eyes. Seated at a glossy mahogany table and turning to face them in unison were the Chair (who, rumor had it, had gone behind Jergoff’s back to help the Provost successfully secure Sharma), Jergoff (lighting a pipe despite regulations prohibiting indoor smoking), Sharma (sipping a glass of sherry), and Jergoff’s ever-present acolyte Jamie (doomed to oversee the paperwork).
The Chair opened the meeting with a languid wave at two straight-backed chairs some distance from the table. They sat. Lucie might as well have been invisible, for Jergoff and Sharma fixed their gazes on Jonathan, each intent on signaling to the young man with knowing looks that surely he knew which of the two titans had his best interests at heart.
“I trust the junior faculty has come to a reasonable consensus.” There was an audible clearing of throats. “Jonathan?”
Jonathan responded with becoming demureness, only too happy to declare the group’s preference for Ms. Needs. Jonathan’s happiness, however, was short-lived, as Jergoff pointed his pipe stem at his junior colleague’s forehead as if readying to take aim.
“Chummy, a question?” the Chair asked, deferentially.
“Surely you aren’t speaking for the whole junior faculty, Mr. Draper? You can consider that Needs gal D.O.A. Shall I assume Mr. Palgraeves ranks second in your esteemed cohorts’ opinion? Adding a person of color to your ranks, I should think, must be your top priority.”
“I object!” Sharma barked, before Jonathan could muster a reply. “Aside from Lucie”—who blushed furiously—“there are no women on the junior faculty!”
“None who’ll sleep with you!” Jergoff snapped.
“Perhaps your own protégés might have something to say to that? Eh, Jamie?”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen . . . !”
Considerably less languidly than before, the Chair dismissed Jonathan and Lucie from the office with a snap of his wrist.
The upshot of the heated discussion that continued behind closed doors was revealed, a week later, in a memo announcing that the Provost, having been convinced by the search committee that it had turned up two of the most promising candidates in the history of the institution, was generously allowing the Department to make offers to both Molly and Diego. And both—lacking, ironically, competing offers—jumped at the opportunity.
Any belief that a detente had been established, however, proved utterly naïve; upon Molly and Diego’s arrival, dark mutterings began circulating that the senior faculty were intent on weeding out redundant junior faculty; the latter’s numbers had grown too large to accommodate the courses they taught; tenure, henceforth, was going to be much more difficult; the bar had been raised. Such was the yearlong drama that preceded the summons, at the end of the spring semester, to Jonathan to give an unprecedented tenure lecture. In the past, senior faculty simply voted on whether or not to promote assistant professors, typically at the beginning of their sixth year; asking the candidate to perform was a new twist, and Jonathan was only completing his fifth year when the summons had arrived.
Amid the pressures of completing the semester, Jonathan somehow managed to cull together highlights of his manuscript. Nothing had gone wrong: he’d practiced his script; the Powerpoint complemented without overshadowing his verbal delivery; the microphone did not blow up in his face; enough colleagues, friends, and students filled the chairs of the small auditorium to make him feel he was actually talking to someone. But, omniously, those “someones” did not include “Chummy” Jergoff, conspiciously absent. Even more ominously, Sharma—the expert in Jonathan’s field—was conspicuously present, working the room as the audience filled as if he not Jonathan were giving the lecture. Yet he had not asked a single question in the Q and A. Instead it had been Molly, sitting by his side, who had fired off a list of provoking questions—no doubt from a list Sharma had drafted—with the assurance of a paid assassin.
Gossip, passed from Eileen’s desk to Kathleen’s, revealed that an off-the-record meeting of senior faculty occurred the Tuesday night following Monday’s lecture; Eileen knew because she’d had to give the college’s caterers an access code to bring in liquid refreshments of the hard variety after hours. Now, nearly a week had passed, and Jonathan had heard nothing.
Life, it seemed, had been reduced to limbo in the lilacs.
* * *
Sunday night Jonathan had a most remarkable dream.
He saw himself sleeping face down in a vast room that might have been either Alpine ski lodge or contemporary chapel: A-framed, unfinished wood and exposed beams, accents of stone and glass. He sprawled sumptuously on a king-sized bed commanding the center of a chamber otherwise devoid of furniture. Creamy sheets whose thread count surpassed possibility whispered to satin pajamas as his limbs brushed against them. The sheets exuded the white odor of lilies and jasmine.
His feet pointed towards a wall of stone and wood struts that culminated, at its apex, in a large triangular window six or more feet above the floor. At one moment the triangular aperture shone with stained glass of every hue in the rainbow welded together in a pulsating heraldic crest; at another, it transformed into translucent panels of milky alabaster. On the opposite side of the room, Jonathan’s head pointed at a wall of solid glass, beyond which loomed a star-besotted universe, cosmic depths of glitter against black void.
Now, somehow, he saw himself flipped onto his back, naked as a jay and eyes peering at the triangular window through the angle formed by his upturned feet, and he was watching the rainbow-becoming-alabaster panels shatter into a million pieces as a brilliantly colored bird of immense size crashed through the glass—mythic hybrid of cockatoo and Quetzal with extravagant plumage in mauves and emerald, dandelion tufts above a lime-colored beak, wings streaked with iridescent indigo and silver, wings that lengthened more and more as they undulated in slow-motion. The magical creature skimmed the air above the bed, dewy tail-feathers of crimson trailing over Jonathan’s body. And as the giant bird flapped in slow motion towards the transparent glass wall on the opposite side of the room, it transformed into a gigantic butterfly, paper-thin wings moving in rhythmic cadences to music Jonathan knew but couldn’t hear. With each measured flap the butterfly transformed from one genus to another: Polygonia satyrus becoming wood-nymph, Nymphalis antiopa becoming shimmering evanescence, as it soared through the glass wall as if there were no barrier, disappearing seamlessly into star-studded ebony.
Sunday the Chair called.
An hour later, Jonathan biked to the empty campus. Not a soul in sight. He was going to the office to leave his keys. The Chair said that Jonathan, of course, was welcome to stay his sixth year. But, Jonathan thought. But. At some point, an end was an end.
He set the keys on Kathleen’s desk, along with the stack of final exams he’d finished marking over the weekend. He’d posted the grades on line this morning, but a few overly industrious students always showed up at the office to retrieve their finals. He considered going upstairs to his office aerie to collect the versions of chapter 5 strewn across the desk. Then he reconsidered, and, pulling the entry door shut behind him, reset the building’s alarm.
One last cigarette. He promised himself that he’d turn over a new leaf once he finished this pack: no more smokes, ever.
Thus he found himself in the backyard, haunt of old. The remaining lilac blossoms still aroused visions of their glory, but now the edges of lawn were carpeted in fallen, decaying, browning petals. Tapping a Lucky Strike from its pack, Jonathan paused and laughed—why not begin now?—and tossed the unlit cigarette to the ground.
He knew what he wanted to do.
He walked to the shrubbery hiding his feral vagrant, half-expecting to find her, or him, or it, waiting to greet him. But the creature was absent, and its traces—sweater, wrappers, extra socks, toothbrush—all had vanished.
Yet the cardboard flooring remained, and so too the faint stink of mortality that hovered just beneath the odor of lilacs. Jonathan parted the branches, lowered himself to his arms and knees, crawled into the nest. It was surprisingly easy to curl into a ball on the cardboard, its surface worn as smooth as the finest of cotton sheets. Shrouded within the greenery, Jonathan shut his eyes, and readied himself for the future that was to come.