As he’d never been swallowed by a lion before, Professor Pyle wasn’t sure what to do about the situation. Strange … whenever one of his colleagues presented him with a dilemma, he could come up with ten solutions on the spot — and as many classical allusions. It had occurred to him, more than once, that this might be the reason others referred to him as “Tweedmouth,” if that was the term. It’s so easy to mistake what people are saying from the opposite end of a busy cafeteria. Tweedmouth. As if one can help being well-read. “Reading maketh a full man,” as Bacon said, and surely a full man maketh a better companion than a hollow one. It was a puzzle, to be certain. But there were other things for the professor to wonder about now.
For example: What was he floating on, exactly? He’d reached down and felt something so much like a damp, spongy tongue that he retracted his arm in an instant. As there was nothing else to feel, and certainly nothing to see (the stomach was pitch black), all the professor could do was wait for something to happen…
And so Pyle sat, floating in the dark, knees drawn up to his chin. For a while, he recited poetry — Holmes seemed appropriate — but this was awkward going with a handkerchief over his face (the smell of a lion’s insides is as bad as one could imagine). Besides, he didn’t want to offend the beast. Perhaps it preferred Coleridge.
Inevitably, the professor grew contemplative. He thought of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which consoled him a little. Still, the situation was dire. It wasn’t very likely, no, that he’d survive. It was a wonder he was still living. At least his affairs were in order. Ever since a health scare some years ago (he’d been struck by a bus), Pyle made an annual habit of revising his will and burning certain personal documents. He wouldn’t be caught off-guard again. He had no children to leave behind, and little family. Certainly, his death would have an effect on his peers. Or would it? They’d been increasingly cold towards him. At times, he suspected they might not like him at all. Besides the solitary lunches, there was … the limerick. Something that had circulated through the department a while back, but wasn’t meant to fall into his hands. How had it gone?
The aged Professor Pyle
so firmly holds onto his chair,
that if cries of “curmudgeon!”
and “badger!” won’t budge him,
we’ll just have to pull on his hair
(or what’s left of it).
When he’d first read the limerick, he’d thought of raising hell, of taking a bucket up and down the halls to catch the rolling heads, but in the end, once the anger had subsided, did — nothing. Dismissed it as the errant opinion of a prankster (probably Dr. Allen, who taught pop fiction, of all the things to teach), and soon forgot about the matter.
A low rumble. The professor wasn’t sure if it was a growl, or some intestinal business.
Midway through deciding which, the fluid on which he was bobbing began to slosh around. Unpleasant as it was, he gripped the spongy stuff until the fluid stopped moving.
Remembering the silver Bic in his jacket pocket, Pyle fished it out — and flicked it on. In the few seconds before it fell from his trembling hand, he saw horrors enough to keep a braver man wakeful for the rest of his life.
The cavernous stomach (larger by far than he expected) branched out into many smaller chambers. And everywhere — floating in juices, sliding down walls — were the remains of the lion’s earlier victims, all in various states of decay. To judge by the preponderance of tweed and briefcases, the great animal had a fondness for academics. Floating close by was a skull, the flesh wholly eroded, but the glasses of its unfortunate owner still miraculously intact. This would have been comical if it hadn’t been so gruesome.
“Grisly, grisly,” the professor muttered to himself. “Like the Roman catacombs. Or something out of Poe.” He was thankful that it had been such a brief glimpse, and the place was dark again. Holding the handkerchief to his face, he thought frequently of Proverbs, and came very close to vomiting.
An hour, perhaps, passed. Pyle was about to nod off when a booming voice said,
The professor’s hairs (there weren’t many of them) stood on end.
It was the lion speaking. There was no doubt about it.
“Are you going to say something, or not?” the echoing voice went on.
“Hello?” said a frail voice.
“You’ve made yourself comfortable?” asked the lion.
Pyle didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if the beast was sincere or, god forbid, had a sense of humor.
“Can I offer you anything to eat? To drink?”
“No — thank you,” said the professor, in as gracious a tone of horror as he could.
“A little more light, maybe?”
“No, no. I’ve always enjoyed darkness. It stimulates … reflection.”
“Good,” said the lion, after one pause, and before another.
“Sir?” asked the professor.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Sir?” (more distinctly).
“I was just wondering if … well, if there was any chance …”
“If you could let me go, now. Or soon?”
“Absolutely not,” replied the lion.
“Ah,” said the professor, crestfallen. Then: “May I ask why not?”
A long pause.
“You may not believe me,” said the lion, at last, “but I’m a fair animal. If you can come up with one sound reason why I should let you go, unmolested and undigested, I’ll let you — happily.”
This was the first good news the professor had received in a long while. In the last week alone, his novel idea to increase student enrollment (by offering a course on Renaissance prose) had been scoffed at by the department heads. To add insult to injury, Anacreon, his beloved pet of 20 years, had keeled over in his litter box.
“Well, there’s my career,” said the professor hopefully.
The lion snorted. “Do you really believe the world will miss one more mediocre egghead?”
If there’d been any chance the lion could have seen the gesture, the professor would’ve drawn himself up stiffly.
“With respect, sir,” he said, “I’d hardly call someone who graduated, with honours, from one of the best — ”
“Tell me,” interrupted the lion, “are you truly better, or wiser, or more deserving than anyone who languished on campus a few years less? And I hope you don’t think someone who publishes the rare article in some dusty review — thousands do — deserves an asterisk by his name.”
“You seem to know a lot about me,” said the professor poutily.
“Of course. If you think I just go about randomly stuffing people into my jaws, you’re mistaken. I’m not that kind of lion.”
Pyle shuddered. No… This was an animal with very specific tastes.
“Care to take another shot at it?”
“Hurry up, now. I don’t have all day.”
Pyle stammered. He never was one to function well under pressure, preferring — not to dawdle, as some claimed — but to do a thorough, proper job of everything. His was a mind “that reveres details,” as Lewis would say, and that kind of reverence takes time. Whenever necessity forced him to outrun his natural pace, he became jittery, scatterbrained, and struggled to make the simplest decisions.
“You have no children?” asked the lion.
“Of course. Plenty.”
“Except they’re more colleagues and associates than friends in a genuine sense?”
“Come on, now.”
Pyle though for a moment. Then he answered, “I suppose, yes.”
“And these associates of yours. They wouldn’t mourn you, exactly, if you died?”
The professor said nothing, but the lion said: “A few might even be glad of it, eh?”
A long sigh.
“Isn’t there anyone who depends on you?”
“You would know,” muttered the professor. “My cat — until recently.”
“I suppose you enjoy your life?” said the lion.
“Immensely,” said Pyle.
“Immensely,” repeated the beast, stretching the word like sinew from bone. “And tell me, please, if you’ll be so kind, what brings you this immense satisfaction?”
“Oh, many things. My research, for instance.”
“Yes. On the nature and function of punctuation from Homer to Hemingway. For a book I hope to publish.”
There was a curious gush of wind (it was the lion, sighing). “Anything else?” it asked.
“Lecturing,” said Pyle. “Reading.”
“Walks in the park, and that sort of thing?”
“Very much so. And travel.”
“Ah, where do you travel to?”
“To England, mostly. My homeland. ‘The throne of kings, the sceptred isle, the earth of majesty, the seat of — ’”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to digest you now.”
Pyle nearly passed out. It was only the certainty of a death by drowning in noxious juices that kept him conscious and clinging to the spongy matter with ferocity.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” said the lion. “After all, you failed to provide a single reason for me not to.”
The professor couldn’t interject — because the lion kept talking.
“Do you have any idea how many people I eat every year? It’s more than you could imagine. Though it’s rare that your kind — the bald-pate bachelor academic — is anything more than leather and bone. A lot of chewing, with little reward. Sometimes I feel more like a panda gorging itself on bamboo than a lion.”
Pyle held his stomach.
“Still,” said the animal, “I eat fewer people than I used to. My former preference was for more robust men. But these robust men, you see, typically had large, robust families; and no sooner had I eaten the husband than I felt badly for the widow; rectified the matter by mercifully gobbling her up; then the children, grandparents, cousins, et cetera, following a similar logic. And going around eating entire villages is, as you can imagine, exhausting — not to mention, to my mind, immoral. I am, sir, above all, a lion with a conscience. I made some permanent changes to my diet and now, with the fussiness of a domestic cat, consume only those human specimens who can’t possibly matter to anyone.”
The professor groaned miserably and said, “Why didn’t you just kill me on the spot?”
“Oh, I could never pass up the opportunity to learn something about my prey,” said the lion. “I too have an inquiring mind.”
Pyle almost laughed. He almost wept as well.
“And what have you learned?” he asked, at last.
“I haven’t yet finished my examination. Or have you given up?”
“Good. We’ll continue. Let’s see … you’ve sacrificed the pleasures of love, family, and friendship for … what reason? Your little book? Something to do with punctuation?”
“The Nature and Function of Punctuation from Homer to Hemingway,” Pyle repeated, in one breath. “I feel there’s a distinct need for such a volume. It’s a branch of research that’s been cruelly neglected.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.”
“Can you blame a man for being ambitious?”
“No,” said the lion. “But I can blame him — and will — for being dishonest, deluded, or ignorant. Possibly all three.”
“Slander,” said the professor, surprised at his daring, “is something I will not tolerate.”
A low chuckle.
“It’s like this, fellow,” said the animal, eventually. “There are, I’ve discovered, little flourishes of wealth and status that give some of your kind an edge in life. But the bulk of people are on the same footing. Now and then, one of them decides he’s either better, or wants to be better than the rest. This same person would, if he could (the desire is insatiable), have the whole world kneeling at his feet — like Ramses. You’re familiar with Ramses?”
“Naturally,” said the professor, insulted. “All of the Ramses.”
“Good for you. I once swallowed an Egyptologist. He was a good conversationalist — for a time. Where was I? Right — the name given to this starving desire, this grossest form of vanity imaginable, is ambition.”
“I hardly want the world at my feet. I hardly expect it — despite the importance of my work.”
“But you’d take it if you got it?” said the lion.
“And if you didn’t — in your lifetime, at least — the adulation might arrive posthumously.”
“That happens quite often, yes. I think each generation is a little wiser than the last.”
“But never wise enough to catch the importance of things the first time around, eh?”
The professor was about to retort when a sudden draft sent the unpleasant lump of stuff upon which he was floating into a spin. A second gust sent his eyeglasses flying (there was a distant splash). It’s too dark to read, anyway, Pyle told himself consolingly.
“If you can’t think of a single reason why I should spare you,” said the lion, “you’re an even duller fellow than I imagined.”
“Charity,” said a small voice.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Charity,” repeated the professor with more confidence. “I give upwards of five percent of my income to various charitable concerns.”
“W — well, for a … for the sake of doing good, of course.”
“You’re a selfless man?”
“I’d like to think so, yes.”
“Or a self-satisfied one?”
“You’re a very cynical animal.”
“In search of water,” snarled the lion, “is it cynical to avoid the desert?”
Pyle had no answer, so the lion continued: “Charity is a quack medicine, professor. Poverty abounds despite it. No, the only real effect charity can have is on oneself. After all, people feel good when they help others, they derive pleasure from it. I’m surprised more people don’t approach charity the way they do sex, and give a little something to the poor every Friday night. Now, if it was painful to help others, if doing so produced a sensation comparable to electric shock, and people still emptied their pockets — well, that would be selfless, that would be charity. The rich know how unfair their position is. The only way they can assuage their guilt, and sleep soundly, is through grains of charity, taken like a sedative. Years ago, I swallowed a billionaire philanthropist who was at once the happiest and most despicable creature I’ve ever encountered. Now, there’s nothing wrong with generosity in itself. But delusion is a dangerous vice.”
“You do this to torment me,” said the professor. “A game. Anacreon wouldn’t just kill a mouse outright; he’d torture it for hours.”
“All in the interest of science. As I said, these interviews afford me an opportunity to find out more about my prey. With you, for instance, I’ve found … a confirmation.”
“Yes?” said the professor, hopefully.
“A confirmation,” continued the lion, “that you’re as worthless as I suspected, and it’s high time I finished you off.”
“But what if,” said a feeble voice, “what if I promised to change.”
“Hmm?” said the lion in an amused tone.
“I’d like to think I could … improve myself, in various ways. Whatever you suggest. Anything.”
“Sir, that’s a delightful idea,” said the lion warmly. “A perfect solution. I congratulate you.”
The professor sighed, relieved.
“Then you’ll let me go?” he asked.
“Of course not,” laughed the lion. “If you were 30 or 40 years younger, perhaps.” He laughed again. “It is, of course, by this point, far too late.”
A whimper in the dark.
“Don’t be a child about it, now.”
But Professor Pyle went on sobbing. The lion waited for him to finish — that took 10 or 15 minutes at least — and then said, in a slow whisper:
“There isn’t any reason, is there, why I shouldn’t kill you on the spot?”
A drawn-out silence …
A very brief scream.
“For supper,” said the lion, purring, “I think I’ll have … a poet.”
Featured image: Rolli
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