Fauna by Armaan Kapur

faunaI

“These men,” he says, “were idealists. They were convinced escape would find them, and their consequences would simply evaporate with the passage of time. They waited and wandered for days, until their fingers became wiry and their eyes couldn’t focus, until scents muddled together and hunger possessed them. They began to forget where the forest began and their delusions ended. Eventually, of course, they succumbed and became beasts. But why are they beasts? Anyone?”

I stare at the rows in front of me – single wooden desks pushed together, rows upon rows falling in a sharp decline, directing us bluntly to an imperious wooden desk and behind it, Mr Rogers.

‘Call me Les,’ he says. He likes the indent of his name shaping our lips.

Les Rogers is spectacle manifested, a cavern of a man, the portrait of a true artiste. Every word of every piece he teaches penetrates him, down to his inner being. Tragedies become his own, reducing him to despondence. Similarly, optimistic endings ease his manner, elation bounces beneath the surface of his big mouth.

The towering expanse of the classroom is his conductor, where singsong soliloquys sputter out from within him like electricity, surpassing thought. In the symmetric arrangement of desks and our sceptical faces he finds rhythm, the correct acoustics, the sound of his own voice.

His passion is weakness to some and manipulated by many. Les is soft on us, after all – turning a blind eye to absences, letting us smoke in the classroom, granting us the freedom to select the basis for our annual performance. Naturally, he always directs.

A hand sprouts from one of the front rows, followed by a clean, confident voice.

“They are beasts because they have forgotten morality.” It is familiar sound, convincing. I knew it was Edwin before he even spoke, simply by the outline of his hand. I have seen it rise and fall like clockwork during every class, and I have memorised the geometry of his fingers, thin and cream skinned, jagged twigs reaching for the sky from the tree of his arm. Listening to him raise dispute in every class is ritual.

Perhaps by now I am addicted to Edwin’s voice, I consider sometimes that my day might not be permitted to end without hearing it.

“I was wondering when you would chime in.” Mr Rogers flashes a smile in his direction.

I can’t read the expression from the back of Edwin’s head, but I know he is smiling in return.

II

His eyes flicker up to the row of windows. Uniform and rectangular with imposing black lattices, mounted in neat sequence along the relative mesosphere of the lecture hall. Mr Rogers determines the duration of classes not by time, but by the movement of sunlight, the disappearance of shadows, and the winding down of his own thoughts.

“Before I dismiss you, I have an announcement to make.”

The boys shift in their places impatiently; Edwin arches his neck and entire upper body outward, straining.

“I’ve finalised the cast for Fauna. I pondered quite intensely about my decision, and I think you’ll find I was both appropriate and audacious. You can find the list on my desk on your way out.”

Edwin rises almost imperceptibly, as though on the heel of his heels. His chestnut hair catches fleeting splashes of the evening sun.

“Now you may leave.”

By the time I reach the desk, Edwin has already mustered and subdued his inner-monologue.

“You win,” he informs, flat and joyless.

“We were competing?” I ask him, but his back is turned as he flits towards the exit.

The room empties and I stare at the sheet of paper, seven names typed in bold for the primary characters, the supporting players littered along the bottom half in some inconsequential ant-font.

“Are you happy with this?” Les asks. “Edwin is plenty charming, but he plays everything too desperate and hopeless. You might have floated by on nonchalance alone, but I know you’ve seen worse. That’s what Fauna is about, and that’s why you deserved the lead.”

“Did I? I guess we won’t know that for a fact.” I fold up the paper and pocket it – a deserved memento.

Les gives me a patient gaze, suddenly stripped of any quirk or his usual finesse.

III

I have never been an academic, but I’ve had a comfortable upbringing and my lot of advantages. My sincerest belief says that only privilege utilised is privilege truly possessed, and why should one be ashamed of premium fibre?

Dune was always on the top of my list. Spacious and spare, it has old-fashioned dormitories, spiral staircases and ornate lecture halls. Most professors reside within the university itself, scattered into small suites wherever space and solitude is available. The central courtyard extends the length of a football field, nested upon expansive green undergrowth that peeks up at us in the space between square tiles, like a shock of hair.

Most study buildings fall silent near the end of day. The Sociology building is no different – a grungy red-bricked structure, with sturdy but aged vines stretching around its perimeter, curving away from the protrusion of balconies and window frames. Mr Rogers lives in a room on the ground floor, his entire life private behind a bruised maple door. I knock thrice.

He opens the door and immediately, the pungent brush of cigarette smoke swirls outward, blending uneasily into the languorous summer air. His fingers wield a steel tumbler in one hand, a heady mix of vermouth and gin – his usual tonic.

“I was growing tired,” he breathes, as I step inside.

Today has found Mr Rogers quite anxious for company. Despite the relative theatricality of his work demeanour, Les saves his best epiphanies for the bedroom. He is convinced of a thousand serendipities that have brought us to contact, every moment of shared breath.

‘You are wonderful but so flawed,’ he mused once, ‘your damages meet my damages right in the middle.’

His ideologies render our affair a perfect image, since Les is the sort of broken man who gleans perfection from secrets and instability and deceit.

Before I have settled inside and removed my linen jacket, there is the sharp point of his nose pressing into my neck; his breath is cold along the trim landscape of my nape. I browse the architecture of his sprawled belongings; everything is brown and crumpled, books and woollen throws and liquor bottles, muddling together into a nauseating cocktail as I loosen my gaze and give in to him.

“Do you think the others will suspect anything?” He asks afterward, staring at the ceiling. The wallpaper has decayed with the passage of time, developing an uneven ombre effect. I sit away from him, on the floor in most apparent repose, my legs stretched outward in what might be considered an uncouth manner. At present, little is visible beyond the fogged-up face of the glass. Nonetheless, I always wait until it is entirely dark outside to slink away unnoticed, to re-join my life.

“I think you give your students too much credit Les. Some of them couldn’t care less, they’re sailing through university with blinders on.”

This doesn’t relieve him, and his lips come together in a dissatisfied line.

“Perhaps I was being selfish, Gray. I chose Fauna for the wrong reasons. It’s too late now though, the budget has been allocated. And changing the cast will reflect indecision and weakness.”

“And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?” I ask.

IV

In the late evening, after lectures have ended and dinner has been had, I usually sit in the common room between student residences and the library, and drink wine out of a small bottle. One wall is composed entirely of imposing windows that fold inwards, and the room is flooded perennially with the cacophony of night winds, inert drama and sparse chatter.

It is too livid out to leave the windows ajar tonight; I can hear the sound of my own breath, the travail of thoughts, ascending, descending.

Quick footsteps shuffle behind me and Edwin appears, perching himself on the sofa opposite where I sit.

“Would you like some wine?” I raise the neck towards him, gesturing.

“How did you do it, Gray?”

I sigh. “Edwin, let’s not –”

“How did you keep your relationship with Les Rogers a secret?”

He rises and saunters over, pulling the bottle out of my embrace. Falling into the cushioned rest beside me, he lifts the bottle to his lips, cruelly exsanguinating the thing with a long draught.

“Are you so paranoid, Edwin?”

“Oh, you’re quite right about that. I was convinced I was being paranoid, that I was losing my sense. Was I so infantile that I couldn’t swallow the reality of the situation? I’m better than that. I can accept defeat, fair-and-square.” His eyes flicker weakly, green gaze pointed to the distant reaches of the open space.

“Well, I laud your overactive imagination. Perhaps you should become a playwright.”

He chuckles, a sour and weighty sound. “I went to speak to Mr Rogers after class. Blame my ever-deprecating nature, I just needed to know why you were cast, or what I could do differently in the future.”

“Is that right?”

“I lingered outside his quarters afterwards. Chance intuition or cosmic intervention, you decide. And then you arrived.”

“Do you care so intensely about this, Edwin? Do you understand the things you’re implying?” I am slow with my words, parsing his insinuations for their obvious failings.

“I know you have always had your way, through a stubborn look or opportune compliment. But for once, and finally, the situation will not bend to your convenience.”

“It’s theatre Edwin, not blood sport.” I reach for the bottle, but he has drained its contents whole.

“You cannot undermine my passion. I won’t let you.”

“What do you want, exactly?” I ask.

“Withdraw from the lead.” He rises suddenly, and I see this act of belligerence has raised a tremor within him. His gaze is bright, wild and volatile, it crawls the common room, pleading witness to this – his big moment.

“And if I refuse?”

“I will visit the Dean tomorrow, and you’ll suffer the rest.” In characteristic fashion, he waits for a rebuttal, some reason to stay.

But I return no answer, and eventually Edwin leaves.

V

Les, and now him.

I have a proclivity for inaction, the curse of confidence. It is no surprise I attract such wanting pests. They reap plenty from little, their world in their words.

The campus is isolated. Deformed shadows from fervent bougainvillea bushes fly and skirmish and disappear along the concrete, marking my uncertain footsteps.

I spy the Sociology building, shrouded in darkness. A faint glow brims from behind Mr Rogers’s quarters. My stride interrupts itself.

“There must be a good reason to be out so late,” a voice chimes. I glance sideways and find a girl standing beside me. Her face is familiar but my absent memory has marred the details. For now she is blonde, short and above all – present.

“Laura, we have classes together,” she assists.

“Of course.”

“You’re Gray, aren’t you?” Her voice has lilt. “Congratulations on today.”

“Thank you Laura.”

“I was cast as well,” she adds, but by now I already remember Laura. There is only one role for a woman in the entire production, a presence often critiqued for being an afterthought or simple crowd appeasement.

“I suppose we share a feeling, then. Some might even call you the female lead.” I turn to face her, to watch the compliment illuminate her face.

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Gently, we gravitate into the heart of the square and settle on a marble bench.

“I was one of the first to audition. My performance was convincing enough to set some strange precedent, I suppose.” She is uncertain; her body appears weightless and prone to flight.

“I hope you aren’t implying that you won out simply because you got there first.”

“Sometimes, that’s quite enough. There are emotional dynamics to manoeuvre, of course, but I was never so diplomatic.”

“Don’t understate yourself,” I offer genially, ambassador of empathy. I reach for her hand and take it between my own, surprising her.

Quietly, the marquee of stars begins to collapse around us, and the future bears sudden shape.

VI

I return to my lodgings, close my burning eyes and bid this long summer’s night goodbye.

Walking apace with the break of dawn, counting my inhalations to match the disconsolate choir of morning birds, I arrived at the Dean’s office an hour ago.

The Dean has always been a purveyor of honesty and its composite virtues. Timeliness. Conservatism. Simplicity. ‘Things circle infinitely, but always back to the truth,’ he would tell us. My faith was resting on this principle, and the infinite stubbornness of old people.

Sitting in the anteroom, I crossed a hundred glances with the Dean’s assistant Joy, who informed me he was on his way.

Visibly split with exhaustion, arms crossed in defiance, shoulders frowning with anguish – I was no better than an immigrant awaiting investigation.

He arrived under the threshold of the door – a manifestation of hope, a new beginning, away from the events of the evening before. He was sharply dressed, not an air out of place. Perhaps he was omniscient and simply knew this would happen.

“Mr Mitchell, in my office,” he said, clear and concise.

I rose and followed, pilgrim to the monument. His office was sparsely furnished, noticeably sophisticated. The walls were mounted with endless unblemished windows, seeming to bid only the purest light and absolute transparency. As he settled behind his grand desk, revived sunrays flooded over his shoulders, granting him an aura of transcendence.

“Joy tells me this couldn’t wait. You needed to tell me something?”

How could I not pour my truth into him? It would be the ultimate offering.

And so I confessed.

I confessed Mr Rogers and Edwin’s affair. I declared my fear, of being devoured by their crass indiscretions, of losing my place altogether in the annual production (a role I strived so hard to secure). I revealed my part as distant witness to their intimate games at Mr Rogers’s quarters, and the unearthly sight of their torrid, unnatural affection. I admitted to eventually losing my wits and sharing my dilemma with Laura, a friend from class, only the night before.

“It was Laura who urged me to speak the honest truth, Dean Williams.” At this, I fell further into my chair, visibly discomfited by the conundrum.

The Dean responded immediately, eyes wide and stern.

“I appreciate your sense of urgency about the matter,” he said, and I nodded.

“I know Mr Rogers and Edwin will say whatever they can to mangle the truth,” I ended, just as the Dean led me outside. “After all, morality is hard earned but so easy to forget.”

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