A haunting novel about a brilliant young man who enrolls at a small New England college and becomes entangled in a mysterious death and the ultimate scientific quest.
Eric Dunne is a sixteen-year-old academic phenom. Desperate to escape his foster family, Eric graduates early from high school and earns a scholarship to Aberdeen College, a small, prestigious school in northern Connecticut. Aberdeen is a school for the privileged youth of America's elite, an isolated world where hard drinking and hard studying go hand in hand. When Eric is assigned a work-study job with the college's head librarian, Cornelius Graves, Eric begins to hear strange and disconcerting rumors about his new mentor. Despite himself, he is curiously drawn to Cornelius, if only to divine whether it's true that he's searching for the Philosopher's Stone, a mythical substance that supposedly holds the secret to eternal life.
At the same time, Eric's preternatural aptitude for Latin quickly attracts the attention of Arthur Fitch, a charismatic and aloof senior who invites him to become a research assistant for Dr. William Cade, Aberdeen's most celebrated professor. Eric is accepted into Cade's small circle of sophisticated students, all of whom live off campus on Cade's country estate, and soon discovers that his new friends are not just conducting research for Dr. Cade they, too, are searching for the Philosopher's Stone. When an alchemical experiment goes fatally wrong, Eric is drawn deeper into the dark secrets surrounding the legendary substance. As the police investigation narrows and Eric gets swept up in Professor Cade's obsession, the tensions on the estate and in Eric's new friendships threaten to explode and, with them, Eric's idealized world.
Like The Secret History and A Separate Peace, Gods of Aberdeen demonstrates the selfishness and savagery that can lie at the heart of the most rarefied academic setting.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Micah Nathan was born in Hollywood, raised in Western New York farm country, and now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife. He is a graduate of SUNY Buffalo. Gods of Aberdeen is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Gods of AberdeenA Novel
By Micah Nathan
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Micah Nathan
All right reserved.
I arrived in Fairwich at dusk, and with my arrival came the rain. The clouds had been threatening all day, from New Jersey to Connecticut, and when I stepped off the bus there was a gust of cool wind, the clouds rumbled softly, and the rain began. I called for a cab from a payphone booth and waited in the booth, watching the sidewalk darken and the leaves drip. Down the street a little boy dropped his bright yellow bike on his front lawn and ran into his house.
The storm had worsened by the time the cab arrived. The cabby wore a green baseball cap, frayed around the edges, the plastic backing of the cap dug into the tanned, black-hair-bristled rolls on the back of his neck. A limp cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. I asked him to take me to Aberdeen, and he asked me if it was my first year. I said it was. He nodded, one hand on the wheel, the other draped over the top of the passenger seat.
"Where you from?" he said.
"I used to date a Jersey girl," he said.
I leaned my head against the window and stared at the trees, letting them whip by in a brown and green blur. The road didn't have any shoulder, just a thin line where the blacktop ended and spiky weeds began. It reminded me of my old home in West Falls, riding into town with my mom, staring at the road edged with dusty, dark earth.
"First time in the country?" The cabby eyed me in his rearview.
"I'm an American," I said.
He looked at me in the rearview again. "You serious?" He laughed. "I mean out here. In the country. Farms...forests..."
"Oh," I said, "I haven't been in the country since I was ten."
"Parents don't take you camping anymore?"
"I'm an orphan," I said.
The cabby took the cigarette out of his mouth, stared at it a moment, and flicked it out the window.
As the cab rounded the bend of the brick entranceway, behind the thinning maples and pines, there stood Garringer Hall. It looked less like a student union than a medieval castle, and I imagined a dragon, with green scales and membranous wings and eyes like glistening rubies, circling down from the gray sky and perching on the largest of the three spires. I pulled out the tri-fold map that had been sent to me in my acceptance package. Two smaller structures flanked the hall, with a covered brick and wood causeway joined to the westernmost building. This was the H. F. Mores Library -- where I would be spending two mornings per week, according to my work-study assignment -- not as tall as Garringer but longer, made of the same rough-cut granite blocks and topped with mullioned dormers. The easternmost building was all ivy-covered dark stone with a turreted roof, a massive clock sitting atop the center turret, and I recognized this structure as Thorren Hall, the main classroom center on campus. We drove slowly up the gradually sloping hill, students hurrying around us with their gray umbrellas and brown book bags and black shoes shiny from the rain.
I don't remember exactly what I expected of my housing, though I imagined it would be similar to every image I'd seen on TV of college dorms: small, carpeted, and a bed with a sagging, stained mattress. I was surprised, however, when I opened the heavy wooden door to my room in Paderborne Hall. Inside was a gracious space, with an eleven-foot peaked ceiling, a scarred parquet floor, and a dark-stained desk, set against bookshelves still showing the litter of students past -- gum wrappers, pens, and paper clips. Ivory-colored drapes fluttered in the breeze from an open window. I dropped my bag and sat on the floor, listened to the soft thunder, watched the sable-colored clouds rolling over the swaying trees with their pale leaves turned up against the storm.
Affinity for open spaces is in my blood; I was born and spent the first ten years of my life in West Falls, Minnesota, in a small house on a farm. My father left when I was five, and my mother died of cancer when I was ten, and I was sent to live with her second cousin Nana, in a two-bedroom apartment in one of Stulton, New Jersey's "urban renewal" zones. It was a prison sentence. Nana didn't seem too fond of me, and her husband Leon and their two sons were downright hostile. My classmates at my new school didn't like me because I was too young, having skipped a grade in grammar school.
There was something suffocating about Stulton, like a wet, gray blanket had been dropped over the city and we were all trapped underneath. Summers were the worst -- the squall of dripping air conditioners, hot bus exhaust, heat shimmering off the sidewalks. During summer I missed my childhood home the most. I felt if I could just return to West Falls and sneak back into my house and live like a stowaway in the crawlspace or under the attic eaves, that everything would be okay again, that I'd slip back into my former life and it would be as if my dad had never left and my mom had never died. But going back home was just as impossible as my mom's resurrection. West Falls had died with her, and Stulton was all I had left.
But eventually I adjusted, and I made the high school into my sanctuary, the only place where I could read in peace and not have to listen to the blaring TV or the barking dogs or the arguing neighbors. I'd stay in the school library after hours, reading my books until the janitor noticed and sent me home. Sympathetic teachers gave me paper and pens, notebooks and a calculator, and I won academic awards every year up until graduation. I displayed an affinity for languages, especially Latin. By senior year I'd made some good friends, and even though I missed West Falls, I'd developed a sort of hardened loyalty to where I was. It was misery, but it was a misery I knew well.
After graduation my friends scattered like seeds in the wind. I was the only one who stayed. I took a job as a stock boy at a convenience mart across the street from our apartment. Every month college brochures arrived, and every month Nana told me I was too poor to afford college. Slowly I felt myself catching her apathy and resignation about life. My friends were gone. My sanctuary -- high school -- was gone. So I lowered my head and kept working and stashed the money from my paychecks in a hole in our bathroom floor. And then one Sunday night, while taking out the trash, I saw the dark outline of a brochure with aberdeen college printed across the front in gleaming white, peering at me through the garbage bag's translucent plastic. I ripped open the bag, took out the brochure, and read it while sitting in the dim light of the stairwell.
Aberdeen College. Located in Fairwich, Connecticut. Established 1902. Its motto, printed beneath:
From the part we may judge of the whole. Literal translation: from the claw we may judge of the lion. The glossy brochure photos promised it all: gently sloping hills, lush trees, a shadow-speckled country field. Centered on the front of the brochure was Garringer Hall, looking like a Gothic cathedral with students standing on its front steps. The blonde women were smartly dressed with plaid bows in their hair, and the men had leather book bags and preternaturally confident smiles. Ex Ungue Leonem. Every student a representative of Aberdeen College, for now and the rest of their days. The tang of New England countryside will seep into your skin, snake its way into your bones, and there it will remain, tendrils of ivy forever enshrouding your limbs.
The seduction was brief and complete. Everything else was a formality -- the application, the pleas for financial aid and scholarships, the letters of recommendation from my teachers and my boss at the convenience mart. The day I received my acceptance letter I took my money from the bathroom floor hole and bought a bus ticket and a leather book bag. Three months after reading that brochure in the dirty stairwell of my Stulton tenement, I finally escaped. Aberdeen College was my deliverance.
A day after I arrived, as I walked past the H. F. Mores Library on the way to meet with my advisor, the library's front door banged open and a tall student stumbled down the stairs. His light brown hair was a tumble of cowlicks and his blue shirt was half-tucked-in. He stopped on the path, adjusted the pile of books under his arm, took off his glasses, and held them to the sky. He was taller than I, a little over six feet, with broad shoulders and a small, symmetrical face.
"Do you have the time?" he said.
I didn't say anything, not sure if he was speaking to me because he was still looking at his glasses.
"The time," he said patiently. "Do you have it?"
He put his glasses back on. "You ever get insomnia?" he said.
"It's like a dream," he said. "Staying up all night. The day comes and everything feels like a dream."
I just stood there.
"What's your remedy?" he asked me.
"I read," I said.
He laughed. "There's the problem," he said. "Reading keeps me up." He turned and walked away, clinging to his books. I watched as he disappeared down the path.
My academic counselor, Dr. Henry Lang, was a bald, thin-lipped, portly man, awkward as a horse fitted into a chair. His office in Thorren Hall was small and meticulous; everything had a holder -- his pens, his glasses, his pencils with separate erasers, and even his umbrella, snugly confined to a wooden tube near the coatrack.
Dr. Lang took off his glasses, placed them in their brown leather case, and looked at me, papers in hand. "You've done quite well on your placement examinations." He took a thick gold pen from its holder. "Although I didn't find any record of Latin classes on your transcript."
"They weren't offered," I said. "I taught myself. Mr. Suarez the Spanish teacher helped me out sometimes after school."
Dr. Lang raised his eyebrows. "Well, then, I'm sure Mr. Suarez would be happy to know I'm recommending you start in Latin 301. Dr. Tindley is an excellent instructor. You've chosen history as your major, correct?"
"I have, sir."
Dr. Lang almost smiled -- his upper lip struggled to curve itself, but the weight of his forehead and his flat, broad nose pushed it back down. "As you may already know, our history department is one of the finest in the nation. I, myself, am an esteemed member of the faculty..."
At the conclusion of his exegesis he leaned back, the chair creaking under his weight.
"So you see, Mr. Dunne, while you may have done well in high school, let me caution you against hubris. For someone of your economic standing, such opportunities should not be squandered. As for your work-study position" -- he glanced at the papers on his desk -- "you will be working for Mr. Graves, the head librarian."
Dr. Lang lowered his voice, leaning forward against his desk. "Most of the students at Aberdeen find Mr. Graves a bit difficult. I assure you he is eccentric, nothing else. A normal consequence of the aging process."
He leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on his stomach.
"We had a boy like you, a few years ago," he said. "Came from a broken home in the city. Father was a drug user, mother had gone to prison for something awful, I can't recall what it was." He pursed his lips as if he'd tasted something bad. "I told that boy if he needed anything at all, to please just let me know. You may find this hard to believe but I do appreciate the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture."
Dr. Lang shook his head. "The boy dropped out, nevertheless. I believe drugs had something to do with it. You grew up in the city, correct?"
"Tell me," he said. "Were illicit drugs readily available to you?"
"No," I said. "My foster parents weren't junkies, if that's what you mean."
"Goodness, no. I wasn't implying that at all." Dr. Lang shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I'm just concerned with the consequences of raising one's children in an urban environment. My niece lives in New York, and I worry about her constantly. She told me a classmate of hers is pregnant. Can you imagine?"
I heard some people in the hallway complaining about the student parking on campus. Dr. Lang sighed deeply and plucked his gold pen from its holder. "Adjustments are difficult. There's no shame in admitting that, and I'll tell you the same thing I told that poor boy: Should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, please do not hesitate to let me know."
At 7 A.M. the following Tuesday I walked alone across the Quad, toward the H. F. Mores for my first day of work study. The Quad was a large square of lightly wooded land left between the triad of buildings -- Garringer, H. F. Mores, and Thorren -- and the paved road that wound through campus.
The library smelled like old, cracked leather and antique wood. Its vestibule was carpeted in threadbare Persian rugs, framed by an ornately carved archway, leading into the main room with fifteen-foot corniced ceilings, and couches and chairs scattered about. A massive desk sat about ten feet from the entrance against the wall on my left. Tall rows of books, narrowly spaced apart from one end of the room to the other, dissolved into darkness. I walked to the desk, boards creaking under my feet.
An open book lay atop the scratched and faded surface of the desk, flat by virtue of its own weight, the pages thick as if made of linen. The text was written in Latin, in beautiful Cyrillic script, illuminations framing the page: green vines, blood-red roses, a maze of thorns curling around a small man in the upper left corner. He was entwined, every limb trapped, his mouth open, his one free hand clutching a stone from which beamed golden lines. The text contained only a formula, some chemistry experiment involving acids and minerals. It was the last line, however, that caught my attention:
"Experto credite, sic itur ad astra. Sed facilis descensus Averni."
Believe one who has had experience, it read. Such is the way to immortality, though the road to evil is easy.
I turned to the next page, smooth rustling of the paper breaking the silence. There was a piece of yellowed paper inserted in the spine, like a bookmark. Someone had written on it in shaky, uneven script, and the ink was faded, as if very old:
"Fiat experimentum in corpore vili." Let experiment be made on a worthless body.
A metal gate screeched like the cry of some monstrous bird. I straightened up, startled, and turned my head toward the dim recess of the bookshelves that lined the wall. I only saw the faint outlines of books fading back into unlit rows.
I felt ridiculous, shouting a greeting in a vast, silent room. A cloud passed over the sun and the library became dimmer still, outlines becoming ghostly and blurred. I put my work-study papers on the desk and hurried back to the entrance, glancing behind me. Before I closed the door I heard something tapping from within the darkened building, like a cane rapping on the wooden floors.
My first class later that morning was in Thorren. Dr. Tindley's room was a medium-sized lecture hall, the seats arranged in an ascending semicircle with a podium at the front and center. The colors of the room were brown and orange with gray carpeting, and when Dr. Tindley walked in he blended with the surroundings, in both voice and dress. He spoke with a clipped British accent, and had a sparse reddish beard, little round glasses, and a patch of white curly hair. His suit had probably been expensive at one time, but now it was a dated dark yellow and brown plaid print. His knit tie was flipped over, and a coffee stain marked the thigh of his wool pants. He picked up the black mug he had carried in and slurped at it.
"For those of you who had Dr. Rupprecht last year, I'm Dr. Tindley..." He sounded bored by his own voice. "As is my policy, I will be distributing an assessment examination today. It is not only for new students, who may have been placed into this section prematurely" -- he glanced at me, then looked away -- "but for all of you, who may not have kept up on summer readings. Please consider that today's exam is not a part of your course grade. I issue it for your benefit alone."
I finished the exam ahead of everyone else, and handed it to Dr. Tindley, who read my name on the sheet and beckoned me to follow him toward the door.
"I don't believe I've seen you before," he said in a dramatic whisper. "Are you a freshman?"
"Yes," I whispered back.
He nodded, as if all was understood. "I see, well, Eric is it? Yes, well then, I have some space available in both my 101 and 201 class. Would you like me to reserve a seat for you?"
"I think I'll be fine here, Dr. Tindley," I said, still whispering.
His mouth formed into a small o, then he straightened up and pulled the bottom hem of his jacket. "Very well. We shall see by tomorrow."
On Wednesday, Dr. Tindley introduced us to his student assistant, Arthur Fitch, whom I recognized as the student I'd seen last week stumbling out of the library. Art handed out our placement exams, and two words were written at the top of mine: Excellent work. Halfway through the hour Dr. Tindley called upon me to translate a particularly tough passage from Virgil. Two other students had tried and failed, but I had little problem with it. For the remainder of the class Art kept looking at me. When the hour ended I quickly left.
That night I ate dinner in the Paderborne dining room with two freshmen who lived across the hall from me: Kenny Hauseman, a skinny, soft-spoken kid with a wandering eye that made me uncertain which one to look at while he was talking, and Josh Briggs, whose pimply forehead was hidden behind blond curly hair. Josh's brother Paul was a senior at Aberdeen. I'd heard the entire Briggs family were Aberdeen alumni.
I asked Josh if he knew of Art Fitch. "Of course," Josh said, snapping off a celery stick in his mouth. "Everyone knows Art. He's like a genius. My brother was in a chem class with him last year. He said Art was hilarious. Always arguing with the teacher, bringing weird books into class. I guess one time Art stole all this shit from the chem lab and the teacher thought he was using it to make drugs in his bathtub."
"Was he?" I said.
Josh chewed loudly. "Who knows. He ended up paying for all the stuff he took. No one really cared. Art's folks are loaded, so you know how that goes. Speaking of money" -- Josh liked to tease me about being poor -- "how's that work-study thing going?"
"I'm in the library," I said. "Working for Mr. Graves."
"Mr. Graves is a devil-worshipper, you know," said Kenny.
"It's true," Josh said. "There's a grave of sacrificed pigeons in the woods behind Kellner."
I had only been at Aberdeen a week, and already I'd heard the rumors about the thousand acres of heavily forested land owned by the school. There was supposedly a marijuana farm of epic proportions hidden somewhere among the towering pines and dense thicket, genetically engineered marijuana stolen from a government lab. Some tales were more believable than others -- midnight professor/student trysts, fraternity orgies, druidic rites performed on summer solstice.
Josh picked at one of the pimples on his forehead. He winced and withdrew his hand. "Newell Nichols saw the grave," he said.
"That's right," Kenny said. "During freshman orientation Newell went hiking with a couple of his buddies, and they found it."
"Maybe Newell lied," I said.
Josh shook his head. Kenny glanced up at Josh's forehead, then turned to me.
"Come with us," Kenny said.
We walked past the H. F. Mores and toward Kellner, the honors and graduate student housing on the edge of campus. Its tall, rectangular shape was like a sentry outpost on the border of some village. Lit rooms speckled the dark brick, outlines moving around inside. I thought briefly of Art, whether he lived on campus, or if, like those impossibly cool upperclassmen and graduate students I eyed from afar, he had taken a place in downtown Fairwich.
Josh stopped at the edge of the woods, hands on his hips. Kenny and I looked back at him, his round head lit from behind by the half-moon. A gust of wind rustled through the knee-high weeds we were all standing in.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Kenny said. He had his hands stuffed into his pockets and his shoulders hunched up. His hair blew in the cool wind.
Josh turned to me, as if I was suddenly in charge.
"Are you guys scared?" I said.
They both shook their heads. "We're just cold," Josh said. "But whatever."
"Yeah," said Kenny. "Whatever."
We walked about a hundred yards into the woods, our shoes threshing through thick weeds until trees towered overhead, and where their limbs spread nothing lived beneath, so that the forest floor was soon a soft bed of rotting pine needles and the furled remains of old leaves. The forest canopy was broken in some spots, through which moonlight trickled, barely lighting the dark floor. We walked on, and Josh suddenly stopped and pointed ahead.
"That's it," he said.
I walked forward and bent down, and there they were: dead pigeons, piled into a shallow trench lit by moonlight, blanketed with sticks and leaves.
"What do you think?" Kenny said, whispering, standing near me.
"Disgusting," I said. I could smell their little plump gray bodies rotting. The smell reminded me of the Dumpster behind the Stulton tenement, especially during the summer, when the odor was so bad you could almost see it.
"It's satanic," Josh said. He bent down and picked up what looked like an old crumpled beer can.
"Why would Mr. Graves sacrifice pigeons?" I said.
Josh chucked the can. It clattered off a tree trunk. "I don't know," he said. "To conjure up the Devil, I guess. What else do Satanists do?"
I stared at the grave and shuddered. "What should I do?" I said.
"About what?" Kenny said.
"About my job at the library," I said. "I can't work for a Satanist."
"Quit," Josh said. "My brother can get you a job at Edna's Coffee Shop as a busboy. He's best friends with the cook."
"But it's work-study," I said. "If I quit I lose my scholarship."
"Well, what do they expect," Josh said. The wind gusted and he shivered. "There's got to be something in the school charter about not having to work for a fucking devil-worshipper."
I didn't sleep that night. Instead I sat at my desk and read my textbooks straight through until morning, until the rain that had been perched over campus for three days straight started again, and then I headed for the library.
When I saw Cornelius Graves for the first time, he wasn't the villain I'd imagined, but a hunched, decrepit old man with a sprig of white hair. He held a large stack of books in one arm and a cane in the other, shambling out from the rows of bookshelves. He moved toward me, yellowed eyes staring blankly, cane rapping in front like a blind man's. His mouth hung open. I couldn't see his legs or his feet, because his robe dragged along the floor.
He moved so close to me I could feel his breath, and then he craned his head up and squinted. White hair sprung from his nostrils and his ears. His wrinkled skin was draped over his bones like an old sheet over antique furniture. He looked like he was melting.
He pointed to a sign posted on the wall above the desk. It showed the library hours.
"Come back in an hour," he said.
I found my voice. "I'm Eric Dunne, sir," I said, backing away slowly. "I left my papers for you on Monday."
He put his hand to my chest and I stopped.
"Did you get my papers?" I said.
He unloaded the pile of books on his desk. "Your papers," he said. His voice was dry and weak. "Eric Dunne."
He sat down, rested his head on his hand, and clutched the green copper pommel of his cane. A pendulous, tarnished silver cross hung from a chain around his reedy neck. The library was silent except for the patter of rain hitting the slate roof, and outside I saw thick storm clouds hanging low, just above the treetops. A gust of wind spattered raindrops against the windows.
"My books interest you?" he said, tapping a closed book lying on top of the pile on the desk. I recognized it as the one I had looked at Tuesday.
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"This one, here...you read from it. Tuesday."
"Oh, that," I said. "It just caught my eye. I apologize."
"I don't know," I said.
Mr. Graves sat there, wheezing. He looked like he could die at any moment. Instead, he licked his lips and cleared his throat. "My mother had a saying," he began. "Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. A favorite maxim of Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon...Mother said he whispered it to her during dinner one night, at that time when General Lafayette was a brash boy wearing the cap of a revolutionary." He cleared his throat again. "Do you speak French?"
"A little. I took a year in high school."
He looked deeply disappointed. He leaned forward. "Who sent you?"
"I'm here for work study. The papers I left you -- "
"I threw them away. I was not consulted."
"Eh? Sorry again? Why are you always apologizing? Who sent you here?"
"Dr. Lang," I said, stammering.
"Henry tell you to watch me?" Cornelius rapped his cane on the floor. "I do as I please."
A clap of thunder rumbled close by. Cornelius opened a book and made as if he were reading. He terrified me, but I couldn't leave. How could I tell Dr. Lang I'd already been fired?
"I need this job," I said.
Cornelius looked up, hands resting on the open book.
"You need this, eh? Not want, but need, is that it? I hear the children talking of need all day. All their actions spring from these phantom needs, so why should you be any different?"
He waved his hand at me as if he couldn't care any less. "Shelve these books and stay out of my sight." He motioned to the stack on his desk, and then turned away.
I took the books and ducked into the first row of shelving, trying to calm myself, my face hot with anger and embarrassment.
I met with Dr. Lang later in the afternoon, at the usual spot, seated across from his wide desk while he reclined awkwardly in his chair. He had a cup of coffee and a half-eaten croissant spread onto a napkin, which was on top of a neatly stacked pile of papers. Dr. Lang had offered me a job as an assistant, and we agreed on a schedule of two days per week, any days of my choosing. I don't know what exactly I was supposed to do, and even now, years later, as a professor myself I can't say what I actually did for Dr. Lang. It all fell under the category "administrative" but other than stuffing faculty mailboxes with letters and making photocopies of syllabi, I don't remember doing much work.
"You must go back," Dr. Lang said, when I told him about my encounter with Mr. Graves. "If the bursar discovers you have reneged on your scholarship conditions, it will affect your ability to attend Aberdeen. I suppose I could intervene on your behalf, but I really don't see the need."
"But Mr. Graves doesn't want me there."
"All the same, you must go back."
"Maybe you could say something to him . . ."
His withering look provided my answer. The other half of the croissant disappeared within the pit of his mouth.
That night I looked up Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon. He was a French philosopher who had advocated a society governed by technocrats, one in which poverty would be abolished and replaced by rationalism. He published several books, including De la reorganisation de la socißtß europßenne. He was considered a radical in his time, and he died in Paris at age sixty-five from a burst appendix.
Cornelius said his mother had spoken with him at dinner. If youth only knew, if age only could, Claude had said to her, speaking of Lafayette, the same Marquis de Lafayette who had kept company with Thomas Jefferson and La Rochefoucauld. Cornelius was, if nothing else, senile; Claude-Henri died in 1825. For what Cornelius said to be true, he would have to be more than one hundred and fifty years old.
Over the next week my days and nights fell into a routine. My insomnia returned but I didn't care. Because I was on academic scholarship I was already obsessing about my grades, and I was convinced that if I got anything less than an A, Dr. Lang would ship me back to Stulton. So I studied almost all the time. I studied and I slept, and when I couldn't sleep I'd study some more.
Once my classwork was finished, I'd go for long walks around campus, exploring the buildings. There was Kellner Hall, beautiful Romanesque done in red brick, and at the edge of campus I found the Waithe Center, the athletic facility, built almost entirely of glass. I learned that Garringer Hall had been a Catholic church before Aberdeen converted to a four-year school, and a janitor told me the rest: the church was the first building on the land, later owned by a priest, Father Garringer, who deeded the building to Aberdeen's founder, Ephraim Hauser, in 1901. Remnants of Garringer Hall's old form still existed, however; the first ten rows of pews served as seating during presentations, held on a raised stage where the transept and altar used to be. Student organizations placed their tables along the sides of the nave, where the chapels had been. In midday multicolored light filled the hall, filtering through the original stained-glass windows, and local legend claimed the spirit of Father Garringer roamed the halls at night, angered that his church was no longer.
At dusk I'd leave my room and sit by a tree in the Quad and listen to the comforting noise of students milling around, tossing Frisbees and footballs, making plans for the weekend. Sometimes I'd see Art striding across the Quad with a short kid who looked my age, and Art would be talking excitedly the whole time while the kid listened with his head down and his hands clasped behind his back. Once I saw Art walking with a beautiful woman in a long gray skirt. He was talking and talking, as he did every time I saw him, oblivious to the stares and head-turns the woman left in her wake.
Wednesday Latin class had Art filling in for an absent Dr. Tindley. Art stood at the podium and ruffled a stack of papers. "Dr. Tindley told me to inform you that Friday's quiz is postponed until Monday," he said. Murmurs of relief rippled through the classroom. "And so we'll begin where Dr. Tindley left off last time. Please open your Aeneid to Book Six. Arnold...I believe it was your turn to read."
Arnold Ewen was a short, pudgy junior with a patchy goatee and drug-reddened eyes. He sat in the back row and fell asleep often, and I didn't understand how he'd made it into Latin 301. He looked up at Art and held his notebook close to his chest.
"I had some trouble with mine," he said.
"This is a particularly hard section," Art said. "I'm sure everyone found it difficult."
Arnold sighed and shifted in his seat. Someone snapped their gum.
"Okay, starting with line one?"
Arnold struggled through the section. At the end he slumped in his chair, the back of his shirt darkened with sweat.
Art looked at me, and, giving no sign of recognition, asked me to pick up where Arnold had left off.
I pulled myself closer to the desk and opened my notebook:
Those you see here are pauper souls,
The souls of unburied men.
Charon takes the buried across these dark waters
While all others remain until their bones find the grave
Or til they fret and wander this shore a hundred years.
It was, in my opinion, an excellent translation, one I had worked at especially hard. Art looked unimpressed.
We moved onto Aeneas's emotional meeting with Dido, Art asking me again to read.
I left your land against my will.
The gods commanded me to their bidding,
As they now spur me through this world of darkness and shadow,
These rotting lands and their endless nights.
"Eric's passage is a good place for us to start," Art said. "Here we have Aeneas pleading his case to Dido. Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate / The burning soul, Virgil writes. Our hero has learned -- too late, it seems -- that his duty is the calling to end all callings. It demands much from him at the expense of everything else: his happiness, his love, his hope for free will. Dido knows she cannot stand in his way, that his obligation to the empire of Rome is far greater than his love for her, or for anyone. Drop a few lines down, where it reads At length she flung away from him and fled / His enemy still, into the shadowy grove. Dido leaves him, her heart broken, and even though Aeneas is visibly moved...Aeneas still gazed after her in tears...look what the next line says: Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her."
Art nodded, his eyes wide with excitement. He jabbed his finger against the open book lying before him on the podium. "Read that again. Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her. It's not that he simply feels guilt. He's actually shaken. Aeneas sees his actions as coming from somewhere outside himself, and of course he's upset that Dido's been hurt, but this doesn't weaken his resolve. In fact, he doesn't even see himself as directly causing her pain. She's caught in the path of his unyielding destiny, which is why Aeneas pities Dido. There's the dichotomy -- her loss is emotionally devastating, and yet in the midst of his terrible sorrow Aeneas has no doubts, no regrets. He's prepared to sacrifice anything for the greater good, even the ideal that we, in our modern times, hold so sacred: Love. With this sacrifice, Aeneas becomes one of the great heroes in literature. And what is Aeneas's reward for his unfailing pursuit of destiny?"
I looked around the class. No one appeared the least bit interested. Someone snapped their gum again. I heard a kid chuckling in the back of the class.
"Aeneas's reward is a life of misery," Art said, clearly exasperated. "Now if that isn't heroic, I don't know what is."
Art approached me after class, as I packed my books. Up close he was taller than I first thought, a few inches above six feet, and his light brown hair was slicked back behind his ears. He had small features: a short nose, small chin, small mouth, but large blue eyes that were bright and intense, even behind his glasses. The mouthpiece of a pipe stuck out from his jacket pocket.
"Your translation was excellent," he said.
"Thanks," I said. "I really liked your lecture."
"I think you were the only one." He looked at his watch. "Do you have a class after this?"
I shook my head.
"Great," he said, and he flashed a smile. "Would you mind joining me for a quick coffee at Campus Bean?"
The Campus Bean coffee shop was in the student union basement, which had been expanded to also include the campus bookstore and the Commons -- Aberdeen's all-purpose eatery. Art and I sat at a small table in the corner. He drank an espresso, I ordered nothing. He asked me how I was enjoying school.
"I love it," I said. "I feel like I've been here my whole life."
Art sipped from the tiny white cup. "You think you're among the elite, is that it?" He smiled. "I'd be wary of confusing your surroundings with the inhabitants. Half these kids are here because their parents didn't know what else to do with them. They just want their sons and daughters going to a college where the brick is covered in ivy and the dorms all have leaded windows. Take that kid in our class, Arnold Ewen. He's a miserable student, and he's been on behavioral probation since day one."
"A prank his freshman year. They decided to run a kid up the flagpole, some poor little fellow who got stuck with Arnold and his cohorts in their dorm suite. Halfway up the flagpole the rope snaps and the kid falls. Busts his head wide open on the pavement."
"That's horrible," I said.
"No kidding. But do you think Arnold got punished? His dad is some big-time international lawyer, paid for Aberdeen's new boathouse. He bought off the kid's family, got the school to give Arnold a slap on the wrist, and that's all."
The boathouse was a monstrous wooden structure sitting on the edge of campus, jutting out into the Quinnipiac, with the legend FRANCIS J. EWEN BOATHOUSE emblazoned in white block letters on its face.
"Of course not everyone here comes from money," said Arthur. "Take me, for example. My family's not starving, mind you, but no summer homes in Ibiza. And then there's you," he said.
"Oh, yeah. One glance tells me what I need to know. Your shoes, your clothes. Hand-me-downs, am I right?"
I was mortified. "Is it that obvious?"
"Of course, but that's not the point. Don't think for a second that half the rich sots strutting about don't look at you and think: 'There's a kid who doesn't want his father's damn money. Good for him. Wish I had the courage to tell the old man to piss off.' The funny thing is that you're obviously on scholarship, so they don't know the half of it. You know how people say the rich can afford to be charitable? Well, the poor can afford to be noble."
Art stuck his pipe in his mouth, and then struck a match and sucked in his cheeks, puffing out a sweet-smelling plume of milky smoke that floated above our table. He sat back and rocked on the rear two legs of his chair, and looked around, watching students pass by.
"Tell me more," he said.
"I don't know...anything. Where you're from, what your folks do. The usual."
I gave him my story in brief -- both parents gone, relocation to Stulton, the cramped tenement apartment, and my fight for survival.
"How did your mom die?" he said.
"Ovarian cancer," I said.
Art whistled, impressed. He set his pipe down and pulled his chair in, facing me with both hands on the table. "What are you doing for money?"
"I'm working at the library," I said. "And Professor Lang offered me a position in his office."
"What do you think about that crazy old bird?" Art said.
"No. Cornelius Graves."
I lowered my voice. "I heard he was a devil-worshipper," I said. "Did you hear about the pigeons he kills?"
I nodded. "I saw where he dumps the bodies."
"In the woods behind Kellner," I said.
"I don't know," I said. "A bunch. In a shallow grave."
Art looked skeptical. "Did you see anything else? Any black candles at this supposed grave?"
"No, but -- "
"Makeshift altar? Defiled crucifix? Maybe a ceremonial knife?"
"I don't know what a defiled crucifix looks like," I said.
Art sighed. "My point is, the woods around here are filled with coyote and fox. Maybe you saw a coyote den. Like the scorched bones marking the entrance to the dragon in Beowulf." He smiled. "Dr. Lang on the other hand...now there's a world-class prick. If anyone worships the Devil it's that pompous bastard. I did a translation and analysis of the 16th-century Benedictine poet Teofilo Folengo's work for Dr. Lang's historiography course last year, and he gave me a C. I protested to the board but they protect their own so I was just wasting my time..."
He faded off. He looked like he was getting mad. He rubbed his pipe and the anger slipped off his face.
"Have you met Dr. Cade yet?" he said.
I hadn't, but I'd heard about Dr. Cade -- he was conducting a lecture series on the Crusades for the history honors students. Posters were stapled onto the corkboards in the Paderborne lobby, flyers had been taped to the hallway walls in Thorren. Dr. Cade was reputedly a scholar of international renown, and his classes were always filled to capacity after only the first day of preregistration. He had invited Professor Randolph M. Cavendish, professor emeritus from Oxford and host of his own PBS show The Wonders of Antiquity, to deliver a guest lecture during the series, which had become a big deal within Aberdeen's academic circles. One afternoon at work I overheard Professor Lang and Professor Grunebaum engaging in an excited, hushed discussion about arranging accommodations for Professor Cavendish. They had all offered their homes for use during his stay, and there was a certain cattiness to their tones when they discussed how he was, in fact, staying with Dr. Cade.
Thorren's freshman library (a small room in the basement with outdated, used copies of classroom texts filling its shelves) had a copy of Dr. Cade's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, This Too Must Pass, encased in a glass box atop a marble pillar, displayed prominently in the middle of the library. Below the book there was a quote, etched into the marble: If there is one thing to dread, let it not be death, let it be stagnation of the mind. The first time I saw Dr. Cade was from afar. I had watched him walk from Thorren across the Quad, carrying a small briefcase and wearing a dark, well-fitted suit. He was smaller than I had imagined he'd be, about my height and slimly built, but his form cut an impressive spectacle, confident and serene, a monk striding placidly across the lawn while all around undergraduates bustled and fumbled, sometimes stopping to stare and point at the dark susurrus in their midst.
Art relit his pipe. The coal flared and oozed smoke. "Dr. Cade recently secured a hefty advance for a three-book series on the Middle Ages," he said. "It's still in the developmental stage, outlining the chapters and such, but he already has some idea of where he wants to go with it, what sections to focus on, et cetera. A majority of the prewrite process is research, and tons of it, but Dr. Cade doesn't have the time to spend his days in the library. So I've been working as his research assistant for the past two years, myself and two others. He provides us with room and board, and a pretty nice monthly stipend -- "
"He pays for your apartment?" I said.
"We live in his home. It may sound strange, but logistically it makes sense. We're a team, and being able to share and compare notes is crucial. Researching enough material for three volumes requires a lot of work, especially a work that's going to be competing for the Pendleton. Are you familiar with the Pendleton Prize? It's academia's most coveted honor. Judged by a secret panel, awarded once every ten years at some exotic location, and never in the same place twice. I think last time they held the award ceremony in Khartoum..."
One of the students at a nearby table -- a thick-necked kid with a crew cut, dressed in jeans, work boots, and a sweatshirt--leaned back in his chair and stared at Art, but Art ignored him. "Anyway, I'm the project coordinator," Art continued, "and as you can imagine I'm under the gun. I'm always looking for additional help. Especially with translations and some of the prewrites. Your translations have a nice rhythm. I'm certain you could -- "
The thick-necked kid cleared his throat. He was built like a bear. His green sweatshirt had ABERDEEN RUGBY stenciled across the front.
"You're not allowed to smoke in here," he said.
Art puffed away. The rugby player cocked his head to the side. He looked at Art's pipe, then at Art.
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
"I heard you," Art said.
"Then put the pipe out."
"I will when I'm finished."
The rugby player sighed. "Don't be an asshole," he said.
Art turned back to me. The rugby player stared a moment longer, then returned to his lunch.
"That's what I'm talking about," Art said, and he drew on his pipe and blew a smoke ring. "Rich kids. No mettle."
I didn't know what to say. Art tapped the pipe tobacco onto the floor and crushed it with his shoe. "It must be liberating, knowing you're the last one," Arthur said to me, tucking his pipe away.
I smiled, confused.
"The orphan thing," he said. "You're all that's left. No siblings, I gather."
"How did you know?"
"Educated guess. You like Chaucer?"
"I don't dislike him," I said. To this day I've never read anything by Chaucer.
Art laughed. "Chaucer said it best: Over grete homlynesse engendreth dispreisynge. Familiarity breeds contempt. Spend enough time around death and it stops being scary, and becomes something you hate. Know what I mean?"
"No," I said. "I don't. I wasn't really scared of death until my mom died."
Arthur shrugged and looked at me sympathetically. "You should go see Dr. Cade and tell him I spoke with you. Tell him I think you'd be a good addition to our little club."
He gave me a quick salute and then walked away, briefcase in hand, while I remained at the table wondering why he had any interest in me at all.
Copyright © 2005 by Micah Nathan
Excerpted from Gods of Aberdeen by Micah Nathan Copyright © 2005 by Micah Nathan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although well written the authors style was distracting and did not mask a rather mundane story. The character's journey lacked depth and I failed to connect him or any of the other characters. The entire story felt forced.
GODS OF ABERDEEN is Micah Nathan's first novel and it is well worth the time to read it. While the plot moves somewhat slowly for the first half of the book, the descriptions of people, scenery, events, and actions are exceptionally well done. Many authors struggle with descriptions and end up setting them outside the narrative, almost as an intrusion into the story, but Mr.Nathan blends his descriptions into the story telling with a gracefulness that keeps you from realizing you are reading all that stuff most often skipped over by readers. You can actually feel the bitter cold of the winter setting, taste the food, feel the drinks going down your throat, and agonizing over the doubts and fears of the characters as they struggle with their problems. Unlike too many novels, GODS OF ABERDEEN does not just end, leaving you dangling with many unanswered questions. All the threads of the story are tied, the climax glides easily into the final chapter and the ending makes you ready to read another novel by this up and coming author. I hope to see more of Mr. Nathan's work soon.
Sixteen years old orphan Eric Dunne leaves his second cousin¿s home in New Jersey to attend Aberdeen University in Fairwich, Connecticut on an academic scholarship. To help relieve some of the costs, the teenage genius works at the school library under the guise of Cornelius Graves, a weird sort rumored to be investigating the immortality legend surrounding the Philosopher¿s Stone. --- Because Eric is proficient in Latin, senior student and research assistant Arthur Fitch recruits the freshman onto the team of Dr. William Cade, also pursuing the Philosopher¿s Stone. With fellow student researchers Howie Spacks and Dan Higgins, they conduct experiments, but one alchemist test goes awry killing Dan. Eric is stunned by the death, but also remains hooked as knowledge is everything to him although he has not quite yet attained the obsessed level of the rival professors or Art who all three blithely keep working as the show must go one. --- This is an interesting look at the end all pursuit of knowledge at any cost (a modern King Solomon) including death. Though the sidebars involving a female interest seem unnecessary even on a free wheeling campus like this one, the key players including that coed are fully developed especially the eccentric fixated professors and the senior. However, in the end this allegory belongs to Eric who has obtained an education the hard way.--- Harriet Klausner