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Bitter Mercies

by Andrew L. Hodges

part 1

Professor Martin Calgrue shuffled briskly across the campus quadrangle, watching his feet kick. He looked hatefully contracted with his shoulders hunched and a grimace on his face. He hefted his trusty briefcase in one hand and had the other hand in his pocket, all the while moving at a fast and steady pace. His mind was consumed by a single word that had pained his existence all semester: the detestable name of Frobisher.

Calgrue had taught biochemistry for twenty-five years, and every semester produced a fresh Frobisher. Amongst the small collection of true savants and the vast swath of mediocrities, there was always some incompetent who could never seem to handle the material. Frobishers were those wide-eyed romantics who showed up the first day of class with dreams of grandiose medical careers and cancer research.

These dreamers, these Frobishites, without exception, drowned in their own expectations. There was nothing you could do to save them: the more you tried, the more cinderblocks they latched to their own ankles. The only course of action was to present the material as usual and hope they didn’t take their failure too personally.

What irked Professor Calgrue most was Frobisher’s refusal to acknowledge the problem. He had a bottomless bag of ready-made excuses that he could throw on the table whenever the moment merited:

“I’m sorry, professor, but my mother was ill...”

“I’m sorry, professor, but I wasn’t feeling well and...”

“I’m sorry, professor, but my car had a mechanical issue and I had to...”

On and on with drivel. After a while, listening to that rhetoric became standard proceedings for opening his lectures. At the beginning of every class, Frobisher would come forward to give his latest excuse for why a report was late or a class quiz had been missed before sitting down to absorb another useless lecture.

Calgrue checked the time on the clock tower sprouting from the main hall. He had two hours until his next lecture, giving him time for a coffee break. When it got cold outside, he killed time between classes by pottering about in the library. But it was spring, and the blooming trees lured the old naturalist to a bench at the corner of the walkway.

He sat in the shade of a large dogwood tree and opened his briefcase. From within he produced a thermos of coffee and a molecular bio periodical he had been meaning to read, intending to relax before enduring his next lecture. It made the aloof introvert feel more human to be out here in the sunlight with students speeding by. He loved these spring days, where he could breathe the fresh air and watch life happening all around him.

Sipping coffee, Calgrue thought back to Frobisher and, by proxy, his own days as an undergraduate. The awkwardness of high school had given way to a period of blooming where he had hit the ground running. From his first day on the campus of UCLA until his entry into the Johns Hopkins research program, he had been a shining example of future academic excellence. He had operated with the utmost efficiency, managing every second of his life and career in a seamless stream of successes that were destined to lead him into whatever field he chose. He had made sacrifices, some of them ruthless, but this was to be expected.

The Frobishers of the world would never understand the competition that drove the sciences and the ruthless examination that every academic had to undergo. This was a publish or perish market, and the standards were stringent and immutable. It was his job as a scholar to root out the lotus-eating Frobishers and maintain those standards that he held even for himself.

An hour passed, and the clock tower chimed its mournful song. Calgrue glanced at his watch and decided it was time for him to make his way to class. He stood, stretched, and started to pack up his things back into the briefcase. He liked to set up and be waiting before class began as a sign of both authority and professionalism, a standard that he insisted upon. There was a precedent that was required of him as a teacher, one which he maintained with all the constancy and regularity of a well-oiled machine.

As he turned to go, briefcase in hand, he saw something splayed on the ground. It was small and white, with a soft organic texture. Calgrue tried to trace its shape with his eyes as he shuffled closer. Given that he was within a few yards of the Natural Sciences building, his first thought was that someone had dropped a plastic model in transit to a lab. But, moving closer, he realized that this was something much more visceral

He stooped over to get a closer look, setting his briefcase on the ground as he did so. Lying on a bed of cement was a tiny fetal rat. The eyes were swollen and purple, the skin pink and hairless, with a head that looked enormous in proportion to the crumpled body. The creature looked soft and pristine. Further inspection made Calgrue wonder if the creature was even alive: blood dribbled out of the corner of its mouth and from one of the nostrils. No, the impact with the concrete had ended this creature’s brief existence on an oblivious planet.

Calgrue stared at it for a long time, pondering what he should do. The simplest course of action was to walk away: just one tragedy amongst unknown billions in a vast and impersonal universe. And yet, the longer he stared, the more transfixed he became. He badly wanted to pick it up, but he knew this was unwise. He had no certainty that the creature had not already been experimented upon, thus making it a biohazard. Any living thing that had been thus left behind was not something he could handle with his bare hands. Yet at the same time, he couldn’t very well leave it lying as it was.

It seemed so lonesome in its isolation, pathetic and crumpled like a discarded bit of cellophane tossed into the trash. There was a wrongness to its lying there, a sense that time and space were out of joint. Of course, he had dissected hundreds of Earth’s creatures throughout his career as a biologist. One more of the dead ought to mean nothing to him, and yet there was a futility to this tableau that both moved and annoyed him.

And then the creature twitched. The movement was subtle, such that it took Calgrue a second to realize what he had seen. The forelimb pawed at the ground, and the mouth opened slightly. He expected to hear a mewling, but there was no sound coming from it. The creature twitched again, as if trying to get its footing. It had come into a world that had no use for it, a world where it was unwelcome from birth. He wondered about the creature’s mental state. Could it understand enough to register the danger it was in and the suffering it was destined for if it survived? Could such a thing even understand death?

He opened his briefcase and ripped a sheet of paper off the legal pad he used for notations. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that he was not being observed, then used the sheet of paper like a glove to wrap the creature up. It weighed all of nothing, but he felt profane encasing it in his palm.

The softness of the body beneath the brittle paper sent a shudder up his spine, making his flesh break out in goosebumps. He carried it over to the dogwood tree behind the bench and stooped over. The mulch stained the knees of his slacks as he hunched over at the base as if in prayer.

Calgrue held the shrouded corpse in one hand and pulled dirt aside with the other. The absurdity of his position occurred to him several times, but he kept it from his mind as best he was able. His rational mind attempted several times to reassert its dominance, only to be pushed aside while he dug.

With his bare fingers, he cleared a dent several inches deep in the mulch and formed a primitive grave. With that, he laid the bundled mount into the hole and pushed dirt over it. He looked at the mound for some time, unable to decide how best to proceed.

Calgrue could find no reason for what he had done, nor any way to assess his actions. He considered digging the squirming creature back up and taking it to the science department. But what else could he do? The pathetic thing had no chance of survival, no matter what he did.

The professor went to his lecture and delivered it in his usual aloof style. The mound was relegated to the back of his mind, and he managed to keep himself preoccupied with his presentation slides. Yet contrary to his normally superb style of elocution, he found himself stumbling over his words. His mind would constantly wander back to that buried rodent, and how it had struggled for life.

Calgrue was grateful to finally wrap up his lectures and leave for the day. He went promptly to the suburban bungalow he called home with plans to spend the evening relaxing while grading some papers. He felt strangely exhausted and was simply happy to go off-campus.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2020 by Andrew L. Hodges

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