The Professor

by Kristen Howell

The professor sat alone in his den flipping through his ancient tomes in front of the crackling fire.  It felt warm, but it did not warm his heart for he was unwarmable.  He was as grey as a marble statue and just as hard and polished.  There were some fine cracks in his skin, but no light would ever get in.  He sat hunched before his books studying morality, studying love. 

 

He liked to look at it from far off, from a good distance, an authoritative lepidopterist.  Pinning different kinds of love down to display boards, preserving it in mason jars of formaldehyde.  He twisted on the cap and looked at his most recent specimen.  This love was a curious one.  It did not die easily.  It was still twitching in its death throes.  He watched it twist and thrust against thick chemicals.  Finally, it fell into a rhythm, slightly irregular at first, and then increasingly rhythmic.  Disturbed, he set it aside.  Maybe if he neglected it, maybe if he did not look at it, it would finally die.  He nestled back down in books.

 

What can we learn about morality? He muttered to himself. What is the equation for ethics?  What is the right diet for immortality, for mitochondria that do not self-destruct, for stubborn cells that fall malignant, sprout out black tendrils in the body, pulling it down into the earth?

 

His important thoughts were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door.  The sound of metal reverberated through his den, his bomb shelter.  He had made the door heavy enough that it took three men to open it and to shut it. Three men or the right key.  There was another knock and the muffled cry of a small voice. 

 

“Let me in!” was the cry he couldn't hear.  He glanced sadly back at the mason jar.  It had finally died.  It hung there suspended in the thick liquid, limp and submissive.  No one loves me he complained to himself self pityingly.  “Open the door!” cried the little voice at the door.  He had heard it this time, but he didn’t get up from his chair next to the fire that wasn’t warming him.  “It’s locked!” he yelled back without looking up from his book.

 

There was a desperate sobbing, not his, someone else’s, so it didn’t concern him.  Morally, ethically speaking he was not responsible for the emotions of others.  That was outside his locus of control.  He could only control himself and what he felt, and he tried to decide that he felt fine.  I feel fine he muttered to himself.  No one comes to visit here in my den.  No one cares enough to come in and sit with me before the fire.

 

“The door is locked from the inside,” the voice said in despair.  The sobs had died down.  If the professor had wanted, he could have opened it with the key.  Instead, he waited until the little voice grew quieter and quieter, and then he looked up suddenly because he could feel she was no longer there, and a sense of relief lift from him.  Something caught in his throat for a moment that seemed like regret, but he choked it down.  No one loves me he said to himself.  He loved when his hypotheses were proven correct. 

Kristen Howell is a native to the grunge-scene in Seattle and has a background in poetry, literature, and smoking clove cigarettes. She currently teaches high school literature and digital journalism in Shanghai.

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November 2019

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