21 November 2013

How Peter Met Gordon

A scene I'm working on for St. Peter Ascends.

***

He’d first met Gordon Lessenby purely by accident—Gordon’s accident, not Peter’s own. Peter had been prompt as ever to a meeting with Dr. Davidson in that esteemed old man’s cluttered office, where they were to suss out the finer points of some inscriptions on fragments from Tusculum.

“There will always be a need for turning one language into another,” the professor often encouraged. And that evening Gordon Lessenby had come needing something German broken apart and put back together.

Peter knocked and without waiting for an answer opened the door. Dr. Davidson sat behind his desk, the silver-white hair combed back, the watery eyes and toothsome grin turning Peter’s way. And another, darker set of eyes also turned, and in the second of them raking over him, Peter felt he’d been combed by them, evidence picked off his person in a kind of optical assault. He scowled at the intrusion, and at the stranger who stood in front of Dr. Davidson’s desk.

The man was a couple inches shorter than Peter, but so were many men. Broader, too, but so were many. The man’s coat seemed to Peter too heavy for a fine spring evening, and it covered too much of the man’s body for Peter to determine a shape. But the face was lined and slightly baggy, as if it had once been fuller and had lost weight. Peter guessed the man was of an age with his own father; the dark hair was showing streaks of grey at the temples. But the eyes were most certainly keen, and Peter felt no desire to walk any closer to allow the man any better a look at him.

But Dr. Davidson was waving one liver-spotted hand. “Peter! Yes, we had been planning . . . Oh, but this is Mr. Lessenby, just in need of a little help with an odd . . .”

Lessenby had not taken his eyes from Peter. “Close the door, if you would,” he instructed. Reluctantly, Peter stepped over the threshold into the office and did as requested.

“Mr. Stoller here is one of our best linguists,” Dr. Davidson enthused, and the pride Peter would normally have felt failed to well; he rather wished the professor would not draw attention to him.

The dark eyes made another pass over Peter. “Stoller. Sounds German.”

Peter was not sure whether it was an accusation, but he answered as if it were. “If so, it was long enough ago no one in our family can trace it.”

“I’m sure they could,” Lessenby said, “but my guess would be they wouldn’t want to.”

Dr. Davidson’s head began to swivel between the two men standing in his office. “Well, now, whatever his family, Peter is a solid citizen, I believe,” he said, and Lessenby pegged him with a sharp look. Davidson’s frail hands flapped like a moth that had been pinned while still alive. “It’s not as if I’ve researched him,” the professor went on, “but . . .”

Irritation bubbled up in Peter’s chest. “You can call my father if you like. I’m sure he’d be happy to discuss it.”
            
Lessenby looked again at him. “Do you speak German?”

And for a moment Peter was confused. “At home?” he asked. “No.”

But Davidson was quick to make things clear. “Peter speaks and reads just about everything. Except Sanskrit and Hindi, all those types. But if it’s European, East Asian, or Arabic, he has it covered.”

“If I show you something, could you read it?” Lessenby asked Peter.

Curiosity warred with indignation that this man who had been so rude would now ask for a favor. “I won’t know until I see it,” Peter answered stiffly.

Lessenby turned to Davidson. “And you’re sure you can’t read it?”

“Well, but German isn’t my language,” the professor told him, “and even still, this doesn’t look like any German I’ve ever seen.” His pale hand tapped a paper on his desk. Lessenby slipped it from under Davidson’s fingers and held it out for Peter’s perusal.

Peter didn’t take it; he merely stepped close enough to look. Then after a moment frowned and did take the paper, as if holding it and viewing it more closely would make it make sense. “It isn’t . . .”

And then he saw. “Oh, Jesus. What is it? Like an exam or something?”

“You understand it,” Lessenby said.

“Well, no,” said Peter, “it would take some time to . . . Whoever wrote this used at least fifteen different . . . They took bases from some languages, and—Look, the start of this word is Icelandic, but this bit here is Old Gutnish, and they’ve Frankensteined a whole letter by . . .”

Davidson beamed at Lessenby. “Told you he was bright, didn’t I? He had that sorted in less than two minutes.”

Peter offered the page back to Lessenby. “I feel sorry for whoever has to take this test,” he said. “What kind of teacher does that to his students? What a headache.”

“I think, Mr. Stoller,” Lessenby said without taking back the paper, “you are going to be the one taking this particular test.”

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