I’d seen the so-called Wild Professor stalking the halls of the humanities building, a haughty, middle-aged man with a face going to ruin from booze and passion. He taught the poetry workshop and the Romanticism seminar. He spat curses at the coffee machine in the English Department lounge. He liked young girls, everyone whispered. He ate psychedelic mushrooms, kept up with cool music, and lived in a woodland cabin all summer long, typing masterpieces on a Brother electric typewriter powered by a generator.
Elliott has a knack for writing a certain kind of story: it starts out perfectly normal, then gets weirder and weirder so gradually you aren’t really sure it’s weird until suddenly you realize, you’re not in Kansas any more. Then you go back and read from the start and realize you never were.
The story references Christianity, Wicca, The Wizard of Oz, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and most importantly, a number of legends and mythologies involving nature and the sometimes-porous boundary between what is wild and what is human. I wish I had a better background in these areas, but I have to go with what I’ve got. The Erl King that I know of was a death spirit that carried away the souls of children; I don’t see that here, but that legend itself may well have roots in older tales that are more applicable.
I’ll have to leave the fine parsing to the experts, but it’s significant that the first sentence introduces the Wild Professor. We never get a more traditional name; for that matter, our first-person narrator goes unnamed as well, but her roommates get not only names, but adjectives: Punk Amy, Hippie Kim, Preppy Paige. It’s also significant that the Professor’s field is Romanticism, that kickback against the rationalism the Enlightenment and NeoClassical had ushered in, passion and individualism breaking free of reason and precision.
He gave me his famous look-over my first winter at college, in the humming submarine glow of the library. I peered up from a translation of Venerabilis Agnetis Blannbekin and and saw him stomping toward me in muddy hiking boots. I feared he’d trample me. But he stopped and drilled me with his legendary eyes: pale green organs that floated in the darkness of his sockets like bioluminescent jellyfish. He looked ghoulish in the fluorescent light, his scalp visible in sick pink patches, and I didn’t get his appeal.
I stared down at my book, reading the same line over and over: And, behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin a like the skin of an egg, which she swallowed.
I knew nothing about the book she was reading but suspected it would be relevant, so I looked it up. Agnes Blannbekin was a 13th century Christian mystic in Austria, a member of a lay order of religious women. Among her obsessions was the Eucharist, the consumption of the host and its subsequent transubstantiation into body of Christ. This is all kind of routine, until you get to the passage from her Confessions that is partly quoted above. The full text reads:
Crying and with compassion, she began to think about the foreskin of Christ, where it may be located [after the Resurrection]. And behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed. After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed it. And this happened to her about a hundred times. And when she felt it so frequently, she was tempted to touch it with her finger. And when she wanted to do so, that little skin went down her throat on its own. And it was told to her that the foreskin was resurrected with the Lord on the day of resurrection. And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin that she felt in all [her] limbs and parts of the limbs a sweet transformation
Whether that sweetness was spiritual joy or a more… physical pleasure is apparently a matter of debate. The point is this has some significance as the story proceeds: various items are ingested, various changes result.
The action of the story is contained between two parties in the woods. The first is an end-of-semester party at the Wild Professor’s cabin, attended by our narrator and her roommates, and a literary theory professor who says things like “The sex/gender binary is always hermeneutically destabilized and epistemologically overdetermined” to which the Wild Professor replies, “The world will be undone by the flick of a young girl’s tongue.” Creepy as it is, at least I understand the reply.
Our Wild Professor takes particular interest in our narrator, and after the theoretician leaves and her roommates fall asleep from his impromptu (and drunken) lectures and the wine, they go have a little sip of private stash:
The Wild Professor laughed like a teenage stoner, falling backward onto his bed and taking gulps of air between each howl. He thrashed and kicked and then went still. As he sat up, slow and stone-faced like a movie vampire, I tensed at the sight of his black hair – a wig, I thought, that he’d slipped on during his laughing fit. But his skin was smooth too, pale as a ghost salamander’s. His enormous eyes shed gold light. And his lips looked plump and red.
He grew six inches. His jowls vanished. Elegant muscles appeared. A beautiful man moved toward me.
“How the hell?” I said.
“The willing suspension of disbelief,” he whispered , his breath on my neck… The wild professor loomed over me, his antlers ivoried by the moon.
And this is only the fourth page of a twenty-page story. One of the differences I mentioned above is that the weirdness is accelerated. It’s also acknowledged as weird. From here it gets weirder.
Our narrator stays with the Professor, developing her own transformations (the Golden Hind, perhaps?), until the Solstice when the Professor holds the second party. Things get more complicated: the roommates attend, but so do a philosophy professor with “his fourteen-year-old daughter and his twenty-eight-year-old girlfriend” as well as one of the Wild Professor’s exes. A final battle between our two unnamed characters could be seen as Good vs Evil, as a protective measure, or as mere jealousy, take your pick. The final scene is not unexpected, but is presented with cinematic style.
The fun of the story is in how easy it is for the narrator to normalize everything, to immerse herself in strangeness. And, for those who do have a better background in folklore than I do, I would imagine recognizing tropes would be a lot of fun.
For me, it was kind of fun to start off with what I thought was another academia story (one of the subsets of fiction I particularly enjoy) and end up somewhere else – but never anywhere near Kansas.