In the Thick of the Woods

This is an excerpt from A Different Acquaintance by D. L. Pughe


Mayer thought himself a creature of the forest, familiar with dark thickets in the still of the night. Perhaps he was a deer, but he knew his slow, lumbering nature more closely resembled a badger. He recalled this now, making his way through the rolling woods of the Lake District where badgers were a staple icon. It was late afternoon with a queer silence and no other beings in sight.   He sighed, inwardly thankful for the surrounding trees. A bird here or there let out a soft call, and Mayer stopped from time to time to wonder at the columns of light that filtered down from the remaining sun, landing like flattering spotlights on a broken branch, or on the colorful leaves fallen to the forest floor.

In Rousseau’s thin volume The Reveries of A Solitary Walker, Mayer once sought an escape from the detritus the human world regularly coughs up. He’d picked it up at a bookstore in Paris and carried it with him on a trip to the Loire, then quickly found that, apart from the lovely introduction to the notion of a meditative path into the thick of the woods, most of the book was consumed with the petty jealousies and personal problems Rousseau faced back in the metropolis. Recalling this now caused a chain reaction, with the things Mayer would sooner forget fluttering up like leaves disrupted from the forest floor.

In his own department at the University Mayer had learned to dodge the skirmishes between his ballistic colleagues, stepping aside when two of them wandered down the hall in a tirade. He was not cowardly, he did not bow his head or scuttle away or duck. But he had attuned his defenses to know when danger might be about, how a passing entreaty to discuss a certain philosophical subject was a disguised desire to ravage a colleague whose book was gaining significant attention. He would step lightly away to his office burrow or to the library stacks near the department office where he could graze on something productive in silence.  He was always prepared for a refreshing walk at the slightest sign of conflict in the air.

His colleagues grew to expect nothing from him, a master of degagément, and the clever ones were thankfully not wholly dismissive since his quietly written books caused enough regard in their insights and erudition to not be termed ‘negligible’ or ‘slight’ or worse, the crush of fearlessly critical remarks which usually welcomed each new publication by members of the department.

In fact, his foreignness and diplomacy had made it easy for each colleague to feel a bit like Mayer were an ally, a congenial force. They turned to him at times when the monthly departmental meetings reddened to a fever pitch, fighting over budgetorial scraps for travel funds, for the number of assistants (particularly female ones) they might employ, and whose protégé was in danger of being stolen by whom. And of course there were extended diatribes over which senior offices with windows were being coveted or assigned. Mayer would sit taking it all in but with just enough attention and balance, and with studious difficulty he would summon up thoughts that mattered to him more—something bright a student had said that required thinking through, arranging and rearranging ideas for an article that was overdue, or, in the most tiresome discussions where long standing disputes seethed around him, Mayer would think of the forest.

He would assign the predatory behavior around him to the various animals each creature is trained to fear. And he would recognize the precarious co-existence of so many predators in his midst, ones who could turn on him and devour him easily, if they were not so currently well fed with stipends, spurts of recognition, and enough others like themselves for eternal sparring.

But Mayer knew the time may come when this balance could change. When the department, one coddled by the upper administration due to its formidable parade of international prizes each year, could receive less than before. Then Mayer and a couple of others who had managed to be productive on the outskirts of the fray might fall into the wild claws of the vociferous ones.

Already Mayer had seen the most senior emeritus fellow, Stevens, a gentle Englishman of charming antiquated Oxford manners, come in for some jibes of late. Though long retired, Stevens had been given a high attic room in the hall, one with a charming dormer opening out through the thick ivy and with a desk basking in the sun. It looked out over the quad and had rather wonderful dark built-in bookcases lining the low walls with a pleasant work table in the middle. Mayer had often had tea up there with Stevens, who kept a small cooler of cream and real china and saucers on a shelf. He often played recordings of string quartets on an antiquated record player, softly so as not to disturb anyone. It was an oasis of calm and culture, the scent of true wisdom hanging in the air and the amiable manners of a century gone by. And it was far different from the linoleum small offices of the less senior colleagues with their grey metal bookshelves, piles of folders covering the furniture, with Styrofoam cups of pitch black liquid perched precariously on top. Stevens nook was prime real estate in a department that prided itself on bringing in new blood from a worldly network of illustrious scholars.

It was one of the new bloods who in a recent meeting had stopped the show with a comment to Stevens. As usual, the meeting had progressed in a series of jumps, starts, clashes, interruptions and contested points. Stevens, who rarely attended, was there because he had heard his space may be discussed and was reluctantly prepared to defend himself.

Though a few years have passed since the height of deconstructive fashion made each meeting a vicious jousting match of jargon, the gladiatorial spirit remained and the younger faculty were still hopeful of impressing their colleagues (and themselves) with facetious interruptions and strategically placed bon mots which reveal at once their depth of reading, awareness of current events, scholarly fashion, familiarity with popular culture, and indeed, insider knowledge of the great bureaucratic pyramid within the ivory tower. Skewering and impaling were strongly welcomed if mastered in the right turn of phrase and the newest acolytes could be found laughing together and revealing what they’d thought to say too late, the esprit d’escalier which could have brought down the house and was worthy of even a posthumous performance.

At the meeting with Stevens, things proceeded from the greetings of the chair, murmured approval of an upcoming visit by a noted thinker from Prague, with a few ribald asides about how grim he may find his residency in what they called the Latin Quarter—some adjunct offices borrowed in the basement of the nearby languages institute.

This of course led to stridency and daring remarks about office space in their own hallowed hall and one of the new-ish brash scholars from Brussels turned to Stevens and asked if he’d be willing to set up a ‘time share’ on his attic library hideaway.

Stevens was nonplussed and quite unaccustomed to things being put so bluntly and bold. He began to speak, uttering how he “had not yet considered such a plan, but…” and let his pause fill the air. It was then that Altman, the Harvard wunderkind who was gathering a thick entourage of young female students and still smoked cigars on the attic balcony with like-minded cronies, piped up with “Cognitus Interruptus!” inspiring a collective guffaw and scattered applause. Except for Mayer, Altman noticed. Two of the female faculty were equally uneasy with the “dispensation of justice” as some colleagues called it. The fertility of Steven’s mind had been denounced in what had become an arena of testosterone-filled bullying.

Stevens reddened and then blanched and then looked grimly to the Chair and softly stated that he would do whatever was necessary to make things fair all around. Mayer felt it imperative to speak up

“I think having Stevens in our immediate midst improves all our chances for thought, for thinking.”

He said it quietly, firmly, drawing the conversation back to why they all claimed to be attached to the University in the first place. He did not say it defensively and no retorts snapped in his direction.  And he was supported by the two women on the faculty who also frequented and were encouraged in Steven’s sanctuary. The Chair shifted the space skirmishes down to the Latin Quarter until the time set aside for the meeting blissfully ran out, at which point Mayer left running as well as a badger can with a battered soft leather briefcase overfull with papers and heavily notated books.

This is an excerpt from the novel A Different Acquaintance

About D. L. Pughe

Freelance writer and artist.
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