Years ago, I took a literature class.
When the professor walked into the classroom, I thought I had traveled to wherever it is you have to go to buy print encyclopedias, purchased the “D” volume, thumbed through to the entry on “doddery,” found the image of this man, tore it out of the book, carried it to the local wizard who then transmuted it from glossy paper to the living breathing object now entering slowly through the creaking door on the right side of the yellowing classroom.
He walked to the front of the class, wisps of hair swirling around his head like tiny ghosts and looked at us with abysmatic blue eyes. I noticed that his hands were shaking.
“Once upon a time,” he intoned in a voice that was deep and powerful, “I was taking a flight from New York to Chicago, and I sat down next to a woman, much older than me at the time.”
An intake of breath.
“This was about two-hundred years ago.”
The class chuckled nervously.
“The flight took off, which is the part I dislike the most–all that rattling and rumbling.” He waved his hands shakily in the air. “I didn’t speak to her for an hour, and she didn’t speak to me either. We sat there in silence, which is not what I prefer, but I recognized then more than now that sometimes it’s better to just be silent.”
He paused for a moment, removing a key and handing it to a small, mousy-haired student in the front row.
“I realize that I’ve left the class syllabus in the printer upstairs, would you mind running up there and collecting it for me?”
The student nodded, took the key and left the room. The professor pulled a desk around and sat in front of the class, forming a small bridge with his hands. There was silence, and he allowed it to weight the air.
“There was a king who made the discovery that his wife had been unfaithful. He had her executed. This made him a little bitter about the human condition, so he decided to marry a virgin every day and then have her killed the morning after so she could not find a way to cuckold him afterward, which is what women naturally do.”
A third of the students chuckled, a third affected offended silence, and a third didn’t know what to think.
“The king’s libido didn’t give out, and soon there were no virgins left, except for one, the daughter of the vizier who had been finding these virgins, Scheherazade. She offered herself up to the king, who married her. On their wedding night, she told him a story about people in the sky. Then she started another story, about an old man in the desert, but she did not finish this one.”
He paused for a moment and raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
Nobody answered, but nobody looked away or checked their watches or phones.
He didn’t say anything and a young student with a nasally voice said, “So he’d have to keep her alive to hear the end?”
“So he’d have to keep her alive to hear the end,” the professor said. He let his words hang in the air before continuing: “And she stayed alive, and told him stories for one thousand and one nights.”
“There is a letter in my office that is tucked away in a secret place that only I know that tells me how I am going to die. It was given to me on a plane ride years ago by a woman with numbers tattooed on her left forearm.”
“I saw them when she reached up to turn on the overhead light. I knew what they meant, but I didn’t want to ask her, but I think she saw me goggling at it. She turned to me with eyes of cracked glass and she said ‘When I was a girl they came to my house and took me to the camp. My mother and father, my sisters and brothers, they all died.’ I wanted to say something, but it was like my mouth wouldn’t work. ‘I survived because I knew so many stories. The man in charge of the camp liked to hear one every night. I remember learning later that what I did was called a cliffhanger.’ It was only when she said this that I recognized the small twinge of a foreign accent in her voice. ‘He kept me alive because he wanted to hear the next story. The Americans came the day I had only one story left.'”
The professor rubs his watery eyes. The student with the syllabuses had returned, but nobody had noticed.
“She stood up and went to the bathroom, and I was alone. I didn’t know what to think. The horrors of the world are almost too much to bear.”
For a moment, tears formed in the professor’s eyes, drawing them forward from the silence where they had rested before. Then he continued, and those tears were a trick of the light.
“She returned, and I saw that she was holding a napkin in her hand, dabbing away the numbers on her left forearm.”
One of the students exhales sharply.
“She made sure I saw it, and then sat back down, and we didn’t say anything more for the remainder of the flight. I had just become a professor, and I was scandalized by this flagrant appropriation of someone else’s suffering, and so, naturally, I did what any upstanding moral intellectual would do–I said nothing.”
Half of the class chuckled. The other half didn’t really know what to do.
“When the plane landed, she stood up to retrieve her bag from the overhead compartment. Her right shirtsleeve slid back, and I saw numbers tattooed. She said nothing, just pulled a letter from her bag and told me, ‘this says how you die.’ I took it, and never saw her again. I don’t think I ever asked her name.”
The air crackled a bit, like the static between radio stations. He took the syllabuses from the still-standing student, and handed them out, saying nothing. Then we left the class.