The Adversary – a short story by Wayne-Daniel Berard

The Adversary

“This is English 202,” the professor began, “Introduction to Short Story. Let’s begin with this one,” and he commenced distributing a thin pile of xeroxed sheets to the head of each row.

A hand went up. “Excuse me, Professor …?”

“Abramovich,” he said, between silent nods and lip-synced numbers. Then stopped. He’d lost count, but looked up and smiled. “Yes?”

“Is this a course in writing stories or in reading them?” the student asked.

“Both,” answered the professor. “After all, to read is to rewrite, and to write is to read aloud …” He went back to counting, side-stepping from row to row as he did so, in time, like learning a dance. There were no further questions.

“What you have before you is a very old piece, Middle-Eastern, it seems originally. But it’s been used by Somerset Maugham, John O’Hara and others …”

At the sound of great names dropping, each student looked simultaneously at the top of his or her desk.

“Don’t worry; I’m not going to ask you about them!” Abramovich laughed. “Just take a minute and read the story through,” — a pause in the room — “It’s not even a half-page long …” Breathing recommenced; some had not yet looked at their sheets.

“And please note the title. Everything is important.”

 

DEATH SPEAKS

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market one morning. Not a half hour later, he returned, shaken and pale.

“What has happened?” asked his master.

“Master, cried the servant, “while I was in the crowd at the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman. When I turned and looked at her, I saw that it was death that had shoved against me. She looked straight at me and made a threatening sign with her hand I beg you, my master, if I have ever pleased you, here is gold, all that I have saved in my time of service. Sell me one of your horses that I may ride far from this place and avoid this fate. I will go to Samarra, my ancestral home deep in the mountains, where my people will hide me and death will not find me.

“Keep your gold, old friend,” spoke the master. “Take the fastest horse and ride. And God be with you. ”

After the servant had galloped off at top speed, the master himself went down to the marketplace, where he saw me standing in the crowd.         

“Why did you make a threatening sign to m servant?” he asked me.

“That was not a sign of threat,” I said, I only started with surprise. I was amazed to see him in Baghdad. I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. ”

 

“Now, what is the most important thing about this story, in your opinion?” Abramovich crossed back and forth at the front of the room like a talk-show host revving. Quiet. “I’m just going to call on someone,” he sing-sang, eyes sparkling.

A hand went up like a shrug. “The title?”

Abramovich stopped abruptly in front of the slight, blond girl in the front row. “The title?!” he almost shouted, and looked across the room. “The title??? Where did you ever get such an idea?!!!”

Hush. Then a little voice.

“From you?”

“Of course, from me!!!” said Abramovich and he even jumped a little jump as he said it. All eyes were now off the desktops. “What’s the matter with the rest of you? Good job, ah…”

“Julie.”

“Of course you are. And who’s Kristen?” A hand gingerly went up in the back. “And Jennifer?” Two more. “What about Kevin? Justin?” He hadn’t taken the roll.

“The point is,” he waved most of the room’s hands down, “that lack of ancestral imagination is no excuse for not . . .”

And he stopped, bent low, cupped a hand aside his mouth, and whispered loudly to the backwards cap before him.

” LISTENING!!??”

Not a flinch. Abramovich waved a hand in front of the young man’s face; everyone laughed (boy included). He went on. “And whom are we listening to in this story? Who is speaking to us?” In the back row, he saw a pair of lips set deep within a drawn, hooded sweatshirt begin to meet, to form a letter . . . “It’s not the Master,” Abramovich jumped in. There was gratitude in the nodding hood. “Death,” spoke a voice from the center of the room, one with a bit more assurance.

“Exactly. Death,” said Abramovich casting a look, quick but incisive. “Death is the narrator of this tale. Your assignment,” (his sentence raced their groans, and won) is to rewrite this story –with the same length –but with an important change. Turn the title into “Life Speaks.” Make your narrator Life. Any questions?”

Notebooks began to slap shut, book bags to make the sound of empty canvas sails. Abramovich, front and center, raised himself on the balls of his feet and slashed with his right forearm across the space before him. Everyone stopped. He wasn’t finished.

“Despite appearances,” he spoke deeply, “there are only two possible narrators for any telling: Death or Life. It is every story’s ultimate choice.” He paused, and so did everything. “E-mail me or leave a copy of your story in my box by this time tomorrow, and I’ll have

them ready for you by next class, as well as my own attempt at “Life Speaks” … Twenty pairs of eyes looked quizzically at him.

“Of course!” Abramovich smiled. “I wouldn’t assign you anything not worth doing myself. Until next time.”

* ***

Two days later, class reconvened. Abramovich had arrived ahead of them, xeroxed packets stacked upon his desk.

“I thought I’d just have you pick them up this time,” he said. Sheepish smile.

He didn’t call the roll; all seats were full.

“I enjoyed all your stories,” Abramovich began, “but in the interests of time I’ve chosen just a few for us to read and discuss today – anonymously of course. As you see, no names on the sheets.” But tension seemed absent that day altogether.

“Which one is yours?” a voice from the center of the classroom.

“Oh, it’s here,” said Abramovich, and half-pulled another pile of papers from his blue and white canvas bag. Then he half-sat on the desk’s edge, returning to their copies. “Which one should we do first? . . .”

“How about yours? You wouldn’t ask us to do anything not worth it to yourself …?”

Abramovich looked up from their stories. Breathed.

“Very well,” he said; eased himself from the desk, and passed his stack of papers out to his students. There was a soft deliberateness in his gestures. No one there thought of the word “Mindfulness,” but that night, one would write in a journal, “He moves as if he were wearing a great robe.”

Story distributed, the professor sat back upon the edge of his desk and began reading silently. His students followed.

LIFE SPEAKS

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market one morning. Not a half hour later, he returned, shaken and pale.

“What has happened?” asked his master.

“Master, cried the servant, “while I was in the crowd at the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman. When I turned and looked at her, I saw it was life that had shoved against me. She looked straight at me; I’m sure she recognized me. But then she hung her head and shook it, as if she were disappointed or ashamed. I wasn’t sure what to do, and when I looked again, she had vanished into the crowd

I beg you, my master, here is all the gold I have saved during my years in your house. Take it and release me from my service to you. You have been always a good and generous master to me, but I have stayed a servant too long. Indeed, I only left my home in Samarra to find work in this city because I was afraid. I had fallen in love with a girl in my village and she with me, but her family was better off than mine. She swore she did not care, that she would run away with me if she had to, but I wanted to make my fortune before approaching her father for her hand. That was too many years ago; she may have forgotten me or married another, I do not know. But regardless, I know that I must return to Samarra right away, today!”

“Keep your gold, my friend,spoke his master. “Accept it as a wedding gift, or spend it on passage to seek out your love if she has gone, or for a strong sword to fight for her if you must. Take my finest horse and ride. Only commend me to God in your prayer sand in hers.”

The servant kissed his master’s hand and galloped off at top speed. After he had gone, the master himself went down to the marketplace, where he saw me standing in the crowd

“Why did you hang your head and shake it at my servant?” he asked me. “He is a good man; how can you disapprove of him?”

“That was not a sign of disapproval, I said. “I have come with my betrothed to this, his home city, to be married; he is a merchant who has long had dealings with my father in Samarra. Many times he sought my hand, but I longed only for my true love who had left to make his fortune. That was years ago; he has never returned, and all this time my suitor has waited. Finally, I consented. Then this morning in the marketplace, who do I see but my great love? He looked straight at me; I’m sure he recognized me. But he made no motion toward me, said nothing. I shook my head in disbelief and lowered my eyes to hide my tears. Tonight, I shall be wed. ”

“Not until tonight?” said the master. “Then you have time to listen to a story . . .”

Stillness robed the room entirely.

“So you see,” began Abramovich slowly, “no matter if the narration is first or third person, omniscient or limited, whether the voice is that of a character or of its maker, there are really only two possible narrators. The choice determines one’s entire story, its progress, its destination …”

“But surely there is a third way, Professor.” An increasingly familiar voice. “A way which is neither. We see it all the time, especially in today’s stories. A life captured between life and death –no longer one, but not quite the other …”

Abramovich stood fast but said nothing. Listening.

“Take my stories, for example,” the voice continued. “I rewrote both. But mine are much more … realistic. More true to contemporary life. The servant flees to escape death. He gets part way to Samarra, but is so heavy with fear that he cannot go on. Nor can he return to his master. What would he say? So instead, the servant disappears into faceless anonymity. He does meaningless work for an innkeeper on the road, mucking out his stables, toting water from his well. Oh, he may even marry some other non-entity, perhaps an ill-used daughter who would do anything to escape a lecherous father, but finds herself forever joined to a hollow rattle of a man. Oh yes, he escapes the death which awaited him in Samarra, but he is in no danger of life either. He makes no choices; he grows neither better nor worse. He merely remains —The End.

“Similarly, the maiden hears the story the master tells, but it is too late. Convention dictates that she must marry her suitor, and she cannot resist. After all, the wedding has been paid for, the guests invited. What would people say? Each night of her life, she will weep into her pillow. Her young man, finding her gone to Baghdad for her wedding, is overcome by the black irony of existence. Young and disillusioned, he tries to take his life, but succeeds only in damaging himself, body and mind. Each day, his parents place him in a chair at their front window. Life has abandoned him and death has rejected him. Yet he is not truly different from the married servant at the inn, or so many others today, whose story is not narrated by either of the two you claim, but by the voice of pointlessness, of grey monotony and inertia …”

“Stupid assignment!” one of the students muttered under his breath, and others nodded and grumbled.

“Wait a minute.”

A voice from the back of the room. Commanding. Almost everyone turned in their seats.

A hood was pulled back from a burnished face. Dark, serious eyes. “I did a story, too. Not that different from his. In some ways . . .

“At first, the man is scared. He gives up, he hides from death and life. He’s lost everything, his girl, his job, his home. But then, slowly, something happens. Or, it’s more like it didn’t happen. The guy didn’t have an identity any more. He wasn’t the master’s servant, wasn’t a boy friend. But still, there he was. No labels, no expectations. Just him. And it begins to dawn on him. He’s free. There are limits to being a servant, how he’s allowed to act, to talk. Even lovers can fence each other in, lots of “supposed to’s.” (Nods) But with all that gone, this guy’s found that it doesn’t really matter. He is who he is, not what he does or even who he loves.

“It’s the same with the girl. When she hears the master’s story, she runs off, back to Samarra. But her boyfriend never made it there, remember? She’s shamed her family, her fiancé. Everyone disowns her. So she wanders back to Baghdad. The master needs a new servant. This is beneath her, but she takes it. She learns his business; she goes to the marketplace a lot. Soon she’s running much of his enterprise. She’s a woman; this is unheard of.   But she’s good, and it’s not long till she goes out on her own, with her old master’s blessing. Many men propose to her, but she turns them all away . . .”

“See, she’s pining for her old lover. She’s stuck.” The voice.

“Wrong,” said the hooded sweatshirt. “She doesn’t want to be owned; she doesn’t want to belong to anybody. Finally, she meets somebody who doesn’t want that either . . .”

“Her first love, right?” an expectant rise in the voice of Jennifer/Julie/Kristen. “In the end, they find each other?”

“Too neat. He’s a widower. He enjoyed his marriage, but knew what he knew. He’d seen his wife die. And like the guy from Samarra, he’d rather die his death than live someone else’s life. The girl, too. Maybe that’s the real question. Whose life narrates your story? Whose death? Yours? Or theirs?”

Nods all around, seeming to pump energy into the room.

“You’re kidding yourselves!” said the first voice. “Who says that ever happens?”

“Who says it doesn’t?” Dark hood. “They’re stories. Our stories. Our choice …”

There comes a moment when a class is spent. Abramovich took a step forward.

“Perhaps the opposite of life is not death. Perhaps the opposite of life is our attitudes about it, our beliefs about what life must be or can never be. And stories are the blossoming of the possible . . .”

Deep breath.

“And that’s where we’ll begin next time. Until then.”

Abramovich lingered as his students moved toward the door. The young man from the middle slightly bowed his head as he passed. He never returned to class, but never officially withdrew either, supposedly forcing the professor to fail him. Abramovich, however, refused to give him any grade but “Incomplete.”

The student in the hooded sweatshirt was the last to leave. “Thanks. Again,” said Abramovich in hushed tones.

Then the room was empty. The teacher slumped to his chair, exhausted, head wrapped in his arms like an invisible tallit. Just himself. Read aloud. Rewritten.

 

Wayne-Daniel Berard teaches English and Humanities at Nichols College in Dudley, MA. Wayne-Daniel is a Peace Chaplain, an interfaith clergy person, and a member of B’nai Or of Boston. He has published widely in both poetry and prose, and is the co-founding editor of Soul-Lit, an online journal of spiritual poetry. His latest chapbook is Christine Day, Love Poems. He lives in Mansfield, MA with his wife, The Lovely Christine.

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