Being advisor for three doctoral students is not advisable. But the department is small and smaller now with one on sabbatical and one—God knows where—so Dr. Areera has no choice. Her desk is awash in paper: files, dissertation drafts, and notes for her own overdue article. She needs the publications because she needs the promotion because after months of tightening her belt, she still hasn’t figured out how to make ends meet. She doesn’t quite know where the ends are, even. But today, this dim Saturday the first week of March, words, for once, do not hold Dr. Areera’s attention. She cannot concentrate. She cannot stop going to the window to look for the cow.
On NPR that morning, she first heard about it—the national news saw fit to report on a cow at large in Pentauk, Virginia for five days after jumping a slaughterhouse fence. At noon she turned on the TV for the local update, not a little astonished to hear that said cow was in the vicinity of her neighborhood. The cow is white. Guernsey, a milking breed, said the weekend anchor with the gap in her teeth. Last seen in University Woods.
Dr. Areera’s house, a 70s rustic contemporary with a deck out back, skirts the edge of University Woods. Dr. Areera presently lives alone in this house. Her husband, also Dr. Areera—though now possibly using an assumed name—walked out last June. He handed in a resignation with his grades and left a note, taped to her desk, saying he would be in touch when he figured out what he needed to figure out. A single page of cowardly scribble.
He could be dead for all she knows. And for a while, Dr. Areera wished the other Dr. Areera dead. She suspects that he is among the living, however, because of the way his friend in Classics blushed and stammered recently when she asked if he had heard anything.
There have been other rumors among her colleagues, only lately shared with Dr. Areera, concerning a buxom history major who did not return for the fall semester. The implication, of course, is that the missing professor and the missing student are missing together somewhere. Wherever they are, together or no, their bodies appear quite often at the edge of Dr. Areera’s mind, entangled in a pornographic knot.
For weeks after he left, she wandered around in a weepy, unkempt daze. She couldn’t eat. She could barely speak. Molly was the only person she could talk to. A friend since the Drs. Areera were teaching in Tuscaloosa, Molly insisted they check in “on the regular.”
Right away, Molly had pointed out how off her voice sounded. “I can hardly hear you.”
“I feel like a snake.”
“A snake. I feel like a snake,” replied Dr. Areera. “A snake with a rat in its throat, completely paralyzed.”
“Wrong!” said Molly. “He is the snake. And you’re better off without him.”
By September, she could talk again, though there was still something high, tight and breathy about her voice. From her limited knowledge of speech pathology, Dr. Areera believes the appropriate term for this quality in her speech is “susurrus,” from the Latin susurrare: to murmur or hum. She likes the word, anyway, and its absurd suggestion that she might actually be humming when she is frankly just relieved to be speaking again.
In her new susurrating voice Dr. Areera spent orientation week orienting colleagues who had been away for the summer and were thus ignorant of her marital woes. Yes, she agreed, it came as a shock. No, she confirmed, not a word. Yes and no, no and yes: she did her best to communicate in spite of the hard, furry fact lodged in her larynx.
Somehow she mustered the courage to meet her fall classes and since then she has been trudging ahead. Even so, her voice still lacks power and diaphragmatic support.
“Least you’re dressed now,” Molly says.
Dr. Areera’s appetite has returned, too, but she still has insomnia and indigestion.
Acid reflux is Molly’s diagnosis. But since her stinging heartburn is most acute at the first of the month, she suspects it has more to do with bills than bodily fluids.
The missing Dr. Areera had not made so much money himself, but he knew how to do such things as pay bills in timely monthly installments. (Before he left and raided their savings, this was perhaps less difficult than it presently appears.) Dr. Areera now has late fees on top of everything else. When the phone rings, it is usually one of those bitchy people demanding she pay up.
Molly is the only reason Dr. Areera still pays her phone bill. Molly uses the word “no-count” to describe the other Dr. Areera. Molly says there is no telling how long he was squirreling money away before he left. Molly says she should look into it, but Dr. Areera hasn’t had time for that.
She spent the entire holiday break researching her theory about Egyptian pictograms from the third century BCE. And since the second semester got underway, she has been up to her ears in other people’s words. Dr. Areera’s field of study—historical linguistics—involves the evolution of writing systems in all their parts and derivations, which means that the letters, characters, and other graphemes passing before her eyes at this very moment have to do both with the meaning of the words as well as the physical inscriptions themselves. And if she should put down her reading and pick up her pen, most of the words she would write would likewise comment on the nature of writing. Furthermore, while working, she is also reading and while she does not pronounce the words aloud as she reads, she nevertheless hears the signified sounds; their rhythms bounce through her mind as her eyes move over the page. So the act of reading, tied to speech as well as writing, is yet another subject that serves both form and function: the more one studies writing systems, the more one generates writing and reading about a discipline which is so reflexively, so utterly, itself. And so it goes around and around like that in Dr. Areera’s field.
She looks up from her desk—she won’t go back to the kitchen window again. Not yet. She leans sideways until she can see the edge of the woods out her study window. The stark gray trunks make her wish for snow.
Reading on, she tries very hard to forget about the cow. But every time she comes to a capital ‘A,’ the animal comes loping right back to the front of her mind. The letter A, as Dr. Areera knows, derives from an ancient symbol for the cow. The letter comes from the Phoenician aleph “<1”, which depicts the head of an ox with horns. The bovine appeared at the beginning of the early writing systems because the cow was considered to be of primary importance. Milk and meat: you couldn’t very well do without them. While traveling around the Mediterranean, the Phoenician “Aleph” rotated until the cow (and the letter) came to stand on its head (or horns) becoming the Greek “Alpha,” and, finally, the uppercase Roman “A” that Dr. Areera’s eyes meet so often on the page, causing her to think repeatedly of the cow.
Despite her resolve, Dr. Areera finds herself at the kitchen window. She drinks a glass of water and wonders what a cow might find to eat at this time of year. Her grass, streaked with sickly yellow patches, looks like the victim of a bad dye job, foils left on too long. Not very appetizing, even if you are a cow.
Again, she wishes for snow. To cover the tired winter ground, to take the edge off and turn down the volume. Expectations lower when it snows and things like classes and meetings are canceled, giving Dr. Areera more time. Time to work, yes, but time also to sit on the deck with a piece of velvet in her lap and catch the flakes.
Snow brings to mind her mother who died when she was seven. On one of their last afternoons together, her mother led her outside in the falling snow. She took off her black coat and laid it on the ground. Then she handed her daughter a magnifying glass. They knelt side by side. “Look, honey. Each one is different.”
“What do they say?” she asked. “Can you read them to me?”
“Oh, no,” her mother laughed, “that’s God’s language.”
For a long while after that, she believed that snow held a kind of code that might admit her to another dimension. Wherever it was that her mother had gone.
The kitchen window affords the best view of the place where her yard ends and the woods begin. From there she can also see the O’Hanlons’ deck next door. Nose to the glass, Dr. Areera scours the thick tangle of the woods—a nature preserve of some thirty acres. Or was it fifty? That’s the sort of thing the other Dr. Areera would know. The woods are so clogged with kudzu in summer and studded with briars in winter that she hasn’t ventured into them in years. There are trails back there somewhere. Every so often, the O’Hanlon boy emerges from the thicket on his bike.
Dr. Areera hasn’t ridden a bike for sixteen years, not since her honeymoon when the Drs. Areera rented a tandem and tooled around a coastal New England town. She could still recall the joy she felt while pedaling along in unison, the seat pinching her sore, contented crotch. How she had beamed, simply beamed, at the thought of not being called Guzikowski anymore. Though she had already published under her maiden name, she had gladly taken his. She disliked always having to spell out Guzikowski. She didn’t like saying it any more than spelling it. With its fricatives and aspirations, Guzikowski was rough in the mouth and hard on the ear. At least with Areera, she could say A-R-double-E-R-A, a much nicer refrain with its palindromic symmetry and Mediterranean alveolars. And Guzikowski always reminded her of her reprobate father who was aptly nicknamed Guz. Once considered a mathematical genius, he had been guzzling beer and paying exterminator calls in greater Chicago for the better part of two decades.
Dr. Areera goes upstairs to take a pee. While flushing, she peers out the small window above the toilet. From there she has a different angle on her sloping yard and the squat building in its far right corner. A couple years ago, the other Dr. Areera outfitted the glorified gardening shed with a desk, sofa, and space heater saying he needed some “head space” where he could maybe write a little poetry. By last spring, he had practically moved out there. Some mornings, he stumbled in through the back door just as she was coming down for coffee. It has occurred to her since that she was naïve. It has occurred to her that if he had indeed spent all those nights in the shed, perhaps he had not done so alone.
At the top of the hour, Dr. Areera tunes into the University’s public radio station. After a nod to the week’s most alarming alternative facts and the stock market’s all-time high, the announcer moves on to the cow, which continues to evade authorities. Cows often appear docile, but they do charge, according to the Pentauk Animal Warden. A baritone pipes up: We’re gonna bring it in, dead or alive. You can bet on that. Meantime, if you see the cow, call 911 immediately. Do not approach the cow. Cows can be dangerous.
A chirpy female voice is describing how the quicker-picker-upper will absorb all the unsightly spills in her life when Dr. Areera snaps off the radio. “Cows can be dangerous!” She repeats this absurdity while pacing her study. “Dangerous. Everything is dangerous!”
The sponsors are vested in keeping us fearful and dissatisfied. The sponsors want to prolong the disaster and protract the scandal, so they will have longer to sell her what she needs to soothe her indigestion and soak up her spills. The sponsors want her to watch and listen so she will, finally, buy. That was the sort of thing the other Dr. Areera was always saying, making constant jabs at the military-industrial complex which appeals to our vainest, greediest impulses, eclipsing any other values we might have.
Well, look at him!
Dr. Areera thought of THE SPONSORS in uppercase italics, a locomotive bearing down a track because she believes that soon—and very soon—a single corporate entity will be running the Earth. She would like very much to resist this. She would, in fact, fight vehemently against it, if she thought it would make any difference. But, as she told the other Dr. Areera many times, she doesn’t see how it could. It is too late to stop that train.
And just look at him! He didn’t hesitate to draw down their savings for his greedy ends. A disgrace, dead or alive!
Thinking this way makes Dr. Areera feel both inconsequential and terribly encumbered. She feels freighted with all that comes of being the one left holding the bag, the house, the bills, the tenured position. How could he throw out his tenure along with everything else?
And if he hadn’t left? Did she really want to live out her days with a crank who slept in a shed most nights anyway? An unfaithful, dishonest crank? So then, she reasons, why does it matter? Does anything really matter? This line of thinking makes her feel so airy and insignificant that she imagines rising above the Earth on a cloud of indifference. This line of thinking leads to inertia. This line of thinking is dangerous. […]
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Works by Elizabeth Logan Harris have appeared in Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Fiction Southeast, Glimmer Train, Longreads, Mississippi Review (2018 Nonfiction Prize), New England Review, The Rupture, and elsewhere.