Genre: metaphysical fantasy
Author: Florence Byham Weinberg
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
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Christians believe the spirit survives the body. The philosopher René Descartes equated mind and spirit and tried to prove them totally separable from the body. Are they?
Cocky young Professor Eric Behrens, fired for seducing an undergraduate, curses the world and wishes he were someone, anyone, else. He trips, is knocked out, and wakes in the body of a middle-aged, overweight Benedictine monk with a severe heart defect. He must survive in an alien environment and in a defective body, while trying to “go home again.”
“Anselm: A Metamorphosis by Florence Byham Weinberg plays upon an ancient longing as well as ancient fears. What is it like, it asks, to wake up as another person, unrecognizable even to those closest to one, being in all but one way wholly new to oneself? That one way is an abiding sense of self-identity. In a fascinating tour de force, this novel follows the sudden change in the identity of a carefree young English professor into a middle-aged priest by exploring many layers of his consciousness… A fantasy? Of course. Unreality? No. Instead of removing himself and becoming another, the searching protagonist of Anselm achieves a sense of his true identity that had been closed to him before.”
~ Ralph Freedman, author of Hermann Hesse, Pilgrim of Crisis
I grinned at Sally, the dean’s attractive secretary-receptionist, eyeing her cleavage spilling out of a crisp, white blouse. She stood, leaving her desk to cross the small but neat outer office to the filing cabinet in the corner. She turned to give me a better view of her seductive nylon-sheathed legs and her shapely hips in a tight yellow skirt. She glanced over her shoulder, rolling her eyes with a playful head-toss. I knew she liked what she saw, and I reciprocated. She pulled a file, swiveled those hips and returned to the desk.
“What does the dean need me for, Sally? It’s Saturday.”
“Don’t know, Eric . . . uh, Professor Behrens. You’ve been naughty, it seems. He was grumpy when he called me to come to work and told me to contact you.”
“I hope this won’t last long. I’m on my way to play a round of golf with Jim Stevenson.”
“Oh, yes, Professor Stevenson. He . . .” She was interrupted by the buzzer. She picked up the phone. “Yes . . .? Yes, he’s here. I’ll send him in.” She looked at me, holding her hand over the receiver. “He’ll see you now. Watch out; he sounds angry.”
“Uh . . . thanks, Sally.” I hesitated on the threshold of the wood-paneled and carpeted inner office.
Bernard Graham, Dean of Woodward State University in upstate New York, stood facing the window as I entered. He swiveled, his face in shadow, his stocky outline silhouetted against the bright October day. His greeting was brusque. “Sit down, Professor Behrens.”
I was surprised at his terse greeting and took the chair facing his tidy mahogany desk. “Thank you, Dean Graham. May I know why you called me in? Did the draft board contact the University? Are they drafting professors for Vietnam?”
“No, no, Behrens. Nothing so simple—I almost said nothing so honorable.” The dean took his seat behind the desk, his square face severe. “I hate to say this to any of my faculty. But you’ve violated our university’s moral code. I have to ask you to tender your resignation.”
My hands clutched the arms of the chair and a roar thundered in my ears. I managed a few words. “Wh-what? I’m sorry, but . . . but I don’t understand, sir.”
“Does the name Diana Gregg mean anything to you?”
“I . . . I . . . She was a student in my summer literature survey course.” I began to sweat.
“Did you know that her father, Durwood Gregg, is the chairman of the Board of Trustees?”
“Not at first, sir.”
“He tells me you seduced his daughter. She’s an undergraduate!” Graham shook his head, his expression a blend of anger and reproach. “For God’s sake, man! You know the rules: no fraternizing with undergrads. And you must have gone further . . . a lot further . . . . What do you have to say?”
Scenes from the previous summer flashed through my mind: the poolside party where it all began, the clandestine meetings at the riding stable, rides into the woods, making love in forest meadows, at the lakeside. “It’s true. I can’t deny it. We had an affair, and she wants me— wanted, I guess—to marry her. I said no; said we’d have to wait.”
“Durwood demands that you wait forever. You’re Protestant, aren’t you?”
“Lutheran. But what has that—?”
“The Greggs are Roman Catholic,” he cut in. “Strict. Under no circumstances would he have allowed such a marriage. I have a form here, a resignation form. I need your signature.”
“But, sir, classes have already begun. I’ve passed out my syllabus; the students are already working on their first paper.”
“Hampton Clarke retired just last year. We’ll call on him to finish the semester while we look for your replacement.” The dean turned to his desk, picked up a sheet of paper and thrust it at me. I scanned it: at least it said nothing about moral turpitude. I could deny nothing. I had violated the rules, thinking I could get away with it. I’d used Durwood Gregg’s beautiful daughter, flagrantly, irresponsibly, and then wanted to leave all that behind; close the summer dalliance like a chapter in a book. I still hadn’t told her. It would have been the old story: seduced and abandoned.
I felt cornered, helpless, and most of all guilty. I felt in my shirt pocket for a pen.
“Here.” Dean Graham’s voice was harsh as he held a pen under my nose.
I placed the paper on the edge of the desk, signed and then stood, my legs trembling. “I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”
“No, nothing. Clear out your office before Monday.”
I moved to the door, turning once to see the dean standing again silhouetted against the sun streaming through the window. I passed through the outer office in a daze, only hearing Sally’s goodbye after I had closed the door behind me.
Jim had waited on a bench just outside the administration building, kicking at the leaves piled there. “So, what did he want?”
“Let’s walk. I’ll tell you.” A dry wind rustled more fallen leaves across the path under our feet and intermittently carried the notes of the tower clock to our ears. Chimes followed by two solemn strokes. Two o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, yet I was oblivious of the beauty of the day, the glowing fall colors and the crisp air: my world had crumbled. I told Jim everything as we shuffled through the swirling leaves toward the chemistry building, my voice shaking with self-pity. Jim made surprised and sympathetic noises, wondering if, rather than the golf course, we should go to Kenny’s Pub near campus to talk over the situation.
We rounded the corner of the chemistry building. Jim stopped by the wall to shelter from the wind and tried to light a cigarette while I walked on and began to climb the long stairway to the upper campus.
In a sudden rage against my persecutors—now including Diana—I raised my fists to the sky and snarled, “Damn them all! Damn the whole world! Satan, take them to Hell and take me, too—just make me into someone else! I’d give anything, even my soul, to be somebody else!”
The surrounding air closed in on me like a smothering plastic film. I gasped and tripped on the next step. Had I been pushed? The fall gave me the sensation of traveling through time and space, and yet I had no time to stretch out my hands. I then realized I was lying in extreme discomfort on the stairs, my head and shoulders propped against Jim’s leg. The first thing I saw was his face. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he saw I was conscious.
“That was a nasty fall! Do you think you’re badly hurt, sir?”
Puzzled by his tone, his words, his attitude, I struggled to my feet, using him as a prop. I weaved as I stood, unable to regain my balance, as everything seemed out of perspective. I blinked, then lowered the hand that had been feeling the wound on my forehead. “N-no . . . I don’t think so, not seriously.”
My voice gave me a violent start. It was a deep, metallic bass, utterly unlike my own light tenor. I cleared my throat, watching to see if Jim had noticed anything unusual. His attention seemed divided between concern for me and some other worry. His brow creased and his eyes searched the campus in all directions as if looking for someone.
“Eric?” he called, almost under his breath.
“Yes?” I answered, again unprepared for that unfamiliar bass.
“Oh, is your name Eric?”
I stared at him, not answering. Was Jim crazy, or was I?
He hesitated, then excused himself, “Well, sir, if you’re sure you aren’t seriously hurt, I must be going—my friend seems to have run off and left me.”
He turned and ran up the steps, stopping once to scan the lower campus and glance at me with a half guilty, half frightened expression. Jim’s behavior should have given me a clue, but I was far from suspecting the truth. My right hand again went to my forehead. Dizziness became one enormous, pounding pain that began at my hairline. My fingers found the spongy, sticky area. I stared at them, now red with blood.
Something other than blood froze my attention. I stretched both hands out palm up, then turned them over. They were large with prominent veins; the long, tapering fingers ended in clean, square-cut nails. On the backs, an orderly pattern of black hair grew from wrist to knuckles and in tufts at the base of each finger. They were powerful and brutal, yet elegant hands, but they were not my own.
The sight of them filled me with creeping horror mixed with curiosity. I must find a mirror to see if all this had some easy explanation. I looked down. I wore some sort of black wool robe with a wide leather belt around the waist. I had obviously tripped on the hem—but where had the black robe come from? I staggered, dizzy and close to nausea, as if I had on someone else’s glasses. By reflex, I felt the bridge of my nose. Perhaps something was really wrong with my eyes, something resulting from the fall? I descended the few stairs back to the chemistry building, the wind flapping the robe against shaking legs, gravity dragging at me with every downward step. My balance point seemed to have shifted; I had to lean farther back than usual to maintain my equilibrium, my body thus blocking a clear view of the next step, forcing me to guess where I should set my foot. The fall must have affected my balance, too. I caught a glimpse of my toes and saw sandals. Sandals . . .?
I arrived at the bottom step and pushed against the side door that opened slowly, as if by itself. The hall seemed dark and stank of sulfur. Perhaps a student experiment had gone wrong. While my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I felt my way to the men’s room where I remembered a small mirror. Inside, I groped to find the light switch, then crossed the room in two strides. The face reflected in that mirror was someone I’d never seen before. I gave an inarticulate scream.
Panting, I ran back into the malodorous corridor.
After a few steps I stopped, shaking all over. I stared down at the black robe, the sandaled feet, and those hairy hands that, independent of my will, fingered the ebony rosary at my waist.
“My God, my God, who is this?” That unfamiliar voice boomed into the emptiness. I shrank against the wall, needing but fearing to look again in a mirror. I must fit the pieces of the puzzle together, somehow.
The faculty lounge on this floor had a wide plate-glass mirror on the far wall. It would show a full-length image. I hurried through the dark hall, exhaling the sulfur fumes that seemed to grow ever more pungent, and entered the brightly lit but deserted lounge. The mirror faced me across the room and I froze with my back against the door.
I should have been around five feet ten, slight, with one of those freckled complexions that often goes with red hair. My nose was average, my eyes gray, and I’d been wearing a pair of charcoal gray slacks, a white shirt, and a pale blue sweater-vest.
The figure cowering against the door was perhaps five inches taller than I was . . . or should be . . . and much heavier. His square figure seemed almost menacing in its potential strength, although his deterioration was clear. A paunch strained the leather belt, caught at the last hole, to its limit; deep buckle marks at each of the preceding four holes gave mute testimony to a recent weight gain. Here was the reason for my difficulty on the stairs: the paunch had prevented me from seeing my feet.
The forward shift of the body’s center of gravity was offset by this man’s hypercorrect posture—militarily correct. He held his tonsured head erect on a muscular neck. His remaining hair, a sort of crown, was black, salted with gray, and totally white above the ears. A bloody gash broke the crown at the hairline above the right eyebrow. The wound dwindled into a purplish weal, still swelling, slanting across the forehead to the left eyebrow.
I moved closer to the mirror to examine the man’s features. He was handsome in a dark, forbidding way. The eyebrows were thick, black and peaked in the center, the nose thin and aquiline. The full-lipped, sensual mouth seemed to express scorn even in repose, its disdainful curves underscored by the square chin. He seemed to be in his fifties: not only was his hair graying, his swarthy skin was coarse. The lofty forehead bore horizontal wrinkles as well as deep frown-marks between the brows. The gold-flecked brown eyes seemed to mock me, to censure my very essence.
This man, this dark, almost sinister creature was . . . me?
It could not be true—I must be mad. I moaned and hid my face in my hands; I could no longer bear to see that image as it mimicked and mocked my every move.
Amid the confusion of conflicting impulses and ideas, I remembered my half-serious invocation to the Devil. Had he instantly fulfilled my wish to be somebody, anybody, else? Could I have traded the eventual fate of my soul for this new body? I couldn’t have been serious; I didn’t even believe in the existence of a soul. But if there is no soul, what was left of “me” in this stranger? Does the self then reside in memory alone? I’d willed to become someone else and had no one but myself to blame for the results.
An acute sense of loss filled me, many times more painful than the humiliation I’d suffered at being dismissed from Woodward State. Where was I, who was this; what should I do now? I could have been transformed into anyone at all—a shoe salesman, a fireman, an artist—but instead, I’d been changed into a monk!
The irony struck me like a blow: a tremendous practical joke by the Devil to punish me for having slighted and scorned Diana, in the process betraying my better self. I had asked to give myself to the Devil, but was now in the form of someone who had given himself away utterly. To God! Perhaps I was being punished for my irresponsible sensual appetites. In my present form, it would surely be more difficult to satisfy them. Perhaps the Devil is a reformer?
The essence of that outcry on the stairs had not been my invocation to Satan, but my fervent wish to be someone else. Had I precipitated this disaster by wishing it? I remembered Freud’s remarks on “compelling thoughts” that primitives and neurotics believe actually control reality. Perhaps, after all, under certain circumstances, they do?
The only hope of saving the last shred of sanity lay in action: I must care for this stranger. I made my way among the chairs and low tables to the coffee bar against the wall. After removing the pot half full of stale coffee, I stooped over the sink and bathed the gash with cold water. The cut had stopped bleeding and did not seem deep; the greatest damage was caused by the crushing force of the fall. The bruise throbbed at my pressure.
I dried my face on paper towels and cleaned the sink and then began searching my clothing for identification. In a pocket of the robe, I found a handkerchief and a battered wallet containing a five-dollar bill and a familiar card: a meal ticket for the student cafeteria. The name “Anselmus” was scrawled in a bold, black hand at the bottom. I assumed this was my own name—but I now must try to find out who and what Anselmus was, where he was from, and what monastic order he belonged to.
My only association with that name was Saint Anselm, a brilliant theologian of the eleventh or twelfth century. I clutched at my memory of the saint like a drowning man reaching for a plank. Here was something familiar, something removed from the horror of the present moment that might stave off the panic crowding the edges of my consciousness. I’d learned in college that Saint Anselm had invented a clever argument for the existence of God, a precursor to the one Descartes tried centuries later. That’s the one where he notes that we all have an idea of perfection. Since we get all our ideas from an outside source, and yet there is nothing perfect in this world, there must be a perfect Being who implants the idea: namely, God. Therefore God exists. The theory works only if one believes in the absolute reality of ideas.
Could I concentrate enough to recall Saint Anselm’s argument? If my memory was correct, it went something like this: “The fool says in his heart there is no God. But even he would agree that God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, including all perfections, such as absolute goodness, omniscience, omnipresence, and existence in reality. If one can conceive of God at all, one is forced to concede that He exists, otherwise something greater could be conceived.” Not bad, but after all, merely a slick manipulation of words and ideas. I smiled. At least I could still put two coherent thoughts together. Irrelevant, but coherent. Madmen can do the same, though, can’t they?
Anselm. Anselmus. Yes, maybe I had seen a black-robed figure on campus. Normally, I avoided the school on my off days. Perhaps the monk never came here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when I teach . . . taught. But if I, Eric, now inhabited the monk’s body, where was his essence, his “soul?” Now that my “soul” seemed trapped in a monk’s body, I’d have to behave—temporarily, I hoped—like a monk. And how was that, anyhow? Should I be addressed as “Brother” or “Father”? It would be the latter if Anselm—if I—had been ordained a priest.
By this time, I’d reached the main door of the building and paused. I had begun to identify “me” with “Anselmus”—but what else could I do? Before I tried to claim any of my own—of Eric’s—possessions, I must try to discover what had happened to my realself, my body, while I was forced to “be” Anselmus.
I pushed open the heavy main door with such unaccustomed ease that I almost lost my balance. I turned back to peer into the dark hall and a clanging laugh rang out, buzzing in my brain, terrifying me. I let the door close behind me and before I could take three running steps, I realized that I myself was convulsed with mirthless laughter. Had I heard the echo of my own voice, or was my convulsion a reflection of some unseen, controlling power?
I fled up the long stairway to the upper campus, just enough wit left to hold up the skirts of my robe so as not to trip again. The paunch and heavy flesh around my flanks and hips dragged and bounced, resisting every upward step. I’d often run up those stairs before, but this time, once I’d reached the top, I was soaked in sweat. My legs trembled and my breath came in ragged, painful gasps. My heart pounded irregularly in my throat; my head seemed about to explode with the pressure of the throbbing ache. My hand fumbled for the handkerchief and I blotted my forehead gingerly, sweat in the new wound adding to my misery.
I turned to face the door I’d just left below me, expecting to see a formless somethingappear in pursuit. There was no visible movement about the façade of the chemistry building; everything looked normal in the golden light of the afternoon sun. Thatsomething remained hidden, at least for now. I trembled, not just from my exertion, but in terror: not only of that controlling power but of my own possible madness.
Other preoccupations plagued me as well. I wondered what had caused me to be so short of breath and waited until I could breathe comfortably. Surely, my increased weight wasn’t enough to account for all those symptoms. What was wrong with this body?
I must find people, make human contact, or I would indeed go mad. I turned to the student union. As I entered, two co-eds brushed past me. They stared, then one whispered loudly enough for me to hear, “Now there’s a cool-looking dude!”
“He looks like the devil to me,” replied the other dryly.
Were they seeing Eric or . . . Anselm?
The student health service at the end of the hall offered a temporary refuge. I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob. Would the nurse see me as I’d just seen myself in the mirror? Maybe “Anselm” was merely my hallucination. I opened the door with a jerk. At the moment there were no students in the office.
Miss Cunningham, the nurse, sat alone at her station. A tall, bony woman with a horsy face, I’d pitied her as a perpetual spinster. Now, I sought her for comfort. I leaned toward her, my knuckles on her desk. “Miss Cunningham, I wonder, could you spare a couple of aspirins?”
She faced me with a start. “Why, Father Anselm! That’s a nasty bump on your head.”
I sighed both in disappointment and relief. At least I was not mad, but it was terrifying to think that I might no longer have contact with myself. 3
Miss Cunningham brought me two aspirins and a paper cup of water. “Let me clean that wound and bandage it, Father Anselm,” she said, “How did it happen?”
I gulped down the aspirins and crumpled the paper cup in a nervous fist. “I tripped and fell on the steps out there. Could you bandage it? I’d be most grateful.”
I sat in a straight chair while the nurse got out cotton, alcohol and materials for a bandage. She bustled over to me, an alcohol-soaked swab in her hand. “This is going to sting, now, Father,” she said in a singsong.
I closed my eyes, anticipating the smart of the alcohol with a wince. Miss Cunningham went over my forehead well: then I could hear the snip of her scissors as she fashioned a bandage. Her firm yet gentle fingers on my face filled me with longing for my home, my mother. Could I never go home again?
Tears of self-pity must have escaped my closed eyelids, for Miss Cunningham’s nasal voice, filled with concern, broke in upon my thoughts. “Are you in much pain, Father?”
I looked up at her, startled, and brushed the wetness from my cheeks. “No, not too much. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else.”
“Father Anselm . . . I think you’d better have that X-rayed,” she said as she placed the last adhesive strip, “You might have a concussion and even some bleeding inside there.”
“Perhaps I will, Miss Cunningham.” I stood up, smiling.
“Oh, and Father, don’t forget the sign-up sheet; we keep track of everyone who visits our health services.”
How should I sign? Obviously, I could only write the priest’s name. Taking up the pen, I wrote “Fr. Anselm.” It was as far from my own over-precise Palmer penmanship as possible. The heavy black scrawl was identical with the signature on the card in my pocket.
“Father, are you having trouble focusing?” Miss Cunningham asked in alarm.
“Oh, it’s not that—it’s just my head; I have a terrific headache. I’ll be all right. And thanks so much for fixing me up.” I touched the bandage in a sort of salute, then turned unsteadily and re-entered the hall. I paced up and down the corridor past the student cafeteria that emitted the odors of stale frying fat and onions I usually found nauseating. Today, it smelled good. The obsessive rhythm of one of the Beatles’ recent recordings, “Nowhere Man,” pursued me as I walked. Instinctively, I clasped my hands behind my back in a priestly gesture. What should I do now? I was obviously known on campus—even Miss Cunningham knew me—but how was I to find out who I was without appearing ridiculous?
The door of the cafeteria swung open, and one of the cooks appeared. “Hullo, Father, you here today? And you haven’t come to see us? Hey, what’s wrong with your head?”
“Just a bump, Rudy.”
“Well, hey, you know, it’s late, but we still have plenty of chicken and dumplings on the steam table. Enough for seconds . . . and thirds,” he smirked, glancing sidewise at me.
“Oh, no thanks, Rudy.” My reply was interrupted by a loud growl from my stomach. I closed my arms across my belly to suppress the noise, sheepishly joining in his laughter. “I see I’m receiving contrary orders!”
He winked. “We’ll be open for twenty more minutes; I’ll keep the steam tables hot.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, Rudy, but some other time.”
“Well, it’s there waiting for you, Father, if you want it. Think it over.” He smiled as he moved away down the hall.
Unexpectedly, I felt a light hand upon my arm. I turned and saw that it was Diana Gregg, the source of my misfortunes, looking both sorrowful and more beautiful than I’d ever seen her. She drew me into a small lounge, where we were alone. She raised her face to me. “Father Anselm, you’re hurt!”
“It’s nothing, Diana,” I replied.
Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “I’m sorry I am burdening you with an unwanted confidence at a time like this, but since you’re a teacher as well as a priest, you can understand the problems better than anyone else. It’s Eric—I’ve told you so much about him—and you know I want to marry him. He wants to wait, but I was still sure I could persuade him. But now Mom and Dad won’t let me. They think he’s irresponsible—unstable, they call him—and besides, he’s a Protestant. I love him and I don’t care. I’d elope with him this minute, but Professor Stevenson says Dad just had him fired and he has completely disappeared! Oh, Father Anselm, I’m so worried! He could be desperate! Can you help us find him? Can you bring him back to me?” She burst into sobs and slid slowly to her knees, then to the floor.
Her words echoed in my ears. Find him? Bring him back? Diana, my lovely Diana, he is here in this room, that man you want to marry!
I suddenly knew I loved, needed this girl I’d been ready to abandon. My desire flashed through me with an intensity I’d never felt before. I shook, vibrating from head to foot, forgetting my situation, everything, in a fury of passion that my new body seemed to intensify. I would tell her everything. She, like no one else, would understand my nightmarish situation; she would quiet my fear. I would carry her away to my apartment where we could be alone, where she could care for my bruised body—and soul.
I stooped and picked her up tenderly, with amazing ease, and cradled her like a child. My forehead, my lips, my body burned in fiery anticipation of her cool kisses, kisses that could only increase my sweet agony. Out of the medley of my violent feelings and turbulent thoughts, only one word, “Diana!” escaped aloud.
Diana, whose shock had at first rendered her helpless, braced her fists against my chest. “Father Anselm, let me go at once! Have you gone mad?”
I set her on her feet, lucidity flooding over me like cold water. I looked down upon us both from a great height. Father Anselm, the chaste, holy monk, had intended to betray his sacred vow and had begun an assault on an innocent and trusting girl who’d come to him for help. The scene was pure caricature. I felt my blush. “Diana, my child, forgive me, please, forgive me! I’m only human, you know. Diana, I didn’t mean . . .”
She gave me no chance to explain. With a toss of her lovely head that expressed her contempt for me and her triumph in an unexpected conquest, she turned and walked majestically away down the hall.
I stood aghast, my body’s fire dwindling to the heat of shame still glowing on my face. With my head bowed, I wondered at such passionate, impulsive behavior. I’d never been like this before: slow to action, I normally had held back, cool and calculating, from any decisive step. Now, I’d nearly succumbed to two deadly sins: gluttony and lust. The body must determine a large share of the personality, but the essence, the knowing essence, seemed somehow independent. I must retire to some less exposed position until I could learn how to live with myself, to manage this body and prevent further injuries to others—especially to someone I loved—or to myself.