Short Fiction ~ Cyril Dabydeen
About the head Mr Romelli’s bent on showing to his class. Yes, a human head. “What for?” Susan asks. “What for?” replies Mr Romelli. And the Rideau River with twigs, bramble, parts of an old chair, a sofa floating with the current. A dead beaver too, somewhere. Indeed, specimens Mr Romelli will bring to his class: he being the best science teacher the school ever had. Who else believes? Susan makes a face.
Mr Romelli’s vigil it will be once again. A human body floating-- with the river casting a strange or magic spell, ah. Susan rubs her eyes; she’s his neighbour, see. Go on, tell him. Not what he really wants to tell her, that she couldn’t be a science teacher--not like him.
So when did he first spot it? A human head!
The current’s moving fast. What...if? Mr Romelli’s with his students, some incorrigible or just pesky. Not inquisitive souls?
“You will all be scientists, so what d’you know?”
“Know?” asks Korbain, a blonde boy at the back of the class who makes no bones being himself, he says. Yah, real bones. The others skitter with laughter.
“Now what d’you really see?” Mr Romelli tries cajoling them.
One girl hoots back at him; sure, fluffy-headed Chloe.
Mr Romelli’s dedicated, and he will bring genuine “things” to his class. Once a racoon, then a mint. A keen eye he has. Really a dead mint, creepy animal. Birds, other specimens. Beautiful, yeah.
Susan indulges Mr Romelli, as she expects him to tell her everything. There must be no secrets between them; she blinks an eye.
Christ! Mr Romelli will really surprise her. Not avoid her?
Now students being students must learn facts, not fiction--by observing real specimens. Morphology, yes. Phenomena, Mr Romelli calls it, about what was once alive, but now dead.
Who else will be a scientist among you?
Susan, in her science-teacher guise, makes a gargoyle’s face; she’s maunders along to the river’s edge. Now will Mr Romelli surprise her with a heron’s bones picked up in his latest vigil? Chiaroscuro, the river’s light changing. “Look good,” Mr Romelli calls out.
“What d’you see?”
“I see nothing,” heckles Korbain, as others desultorily follow along, one or two dogging Mr Romelli. Susan’s more cynical.
Christ...for what? Chloe and the others laugh again.
“It’s what was once alive,” the blonde boy hisses.
Susan looks at each student with menace in her eyes. “Because of what was once... alive?”
“Yes-yes,” comes a response.
Mr Romelli indeed hopes to find a real body floating in the river; he wrinkles his bushy forehead. Now what else is coming down the river? How soon will it be? An Inuit man or woman fallen into the water after a drunken spell...with the police coming to get her? Racist pig!
Susan inhales a strange miasma. Oh, fantasizing about who the students imagine her to be at the drop of a hat. Never be a genuine science teacher, like Mr Romelli? Water rising, the river casting an ancient spell. It’s night-time again, see.
She closes her eyes, traipsing along, with more days and nights ahead; and what she’s planning to do? Murder, d’you call it?
A real human specimen, what the students genuinely want to see.
Korbain heckles again. Will he call Susan a bona fide teacher now?
Mr Romelli, where are you?
The police are called in, and the fire-service people come next. They start pulling a body out of the river with a long fish net close to Mann Avenue. Mr Romelli claims he’s the first to have seen it. Yes, in your dreams. “Did you really?” asks Police Sergeant Bannon.
“Now I want...”
“The head, please, for my students.”
Korbain and the others will examine the skull, just as Mr Romelli wants them to do...a true specimen to satisfy their curiosity; he also wants them to study character traits more than physiognomy. Neurons. Sure, morphology. ~
Susan imagines Mr Romelli in his basement and growls to herself.
Christ, what? What she sees as her first object lesson. But what if no one believes it’s a genuine head—for she must convince them.
Chloe trills with laughter, yah.
“Ask the police,” Mr Romelli cried out in his sleep.
Susan wishes she’s much older than twenty-three going on to thirty. And Mr Romelli’s in his late fifties, yes. A death-wish somewhere. He will really surprise his class...not just the police.
Not ever surprise Susan?
She walks along Cummings Bridge heading down Montreal Road. The river pulls her along, in a delirium.
“You sure?” Mr Romelli asks.
“A new specimen?”
He’s in a narrow passageway, in semi-darkness. Look good.
Who’s looking, if not Susan?
Dragging the river with him; a whole creek too. He shrugs. Susan also shrugs. A tryst...or rendezvous. And she will have her own specimens, as images appear and disappear. Eyes look back at her from crevices and corners. A guttural noise, somewhere. The water’s pulling her in, and she starts going under. Please, Mr Romelli...help! He knocked on her door in the middle of the night once!
“Why are you here?” she called out.
“You wanted me to come...”
“To meet you at the river only, Mr Romelli.”
The students indeed expect Mr Romelli to bring his one amazing specimen, Korbain insisting on it. Chloe makes a face, a hard face.
Susan’s fidgety. “There’s no time to waste,” heckles Korbain.
“What d’you mean?” asks Susan.
Chloe mimics her now from the back of the class. Girls being girls.
“Life’s really like that,” Korbain smirks.
“Are we talking about specimens only?” Susan becomes tense.
“No,” then, “er...yes,” sniffs another.
Mr Romelli’s distraught because he stayed up late last night; and he’d seen creatures with neon eyes. What Susan expects him to say about casting his own spell when he knocked on her door one night not so long ago. “I felt unnerved,” he said, “which is why I came.”
“What if the devil’s after me?”
“It stuck its tongue out...from the river.”
“It really did?” Susan asks.
The boy named Korbain laughs once more. Chloe also laughs.
Susan squirms. And Mr Romelli...she expects him to be, well, morose or melancholy. Imagine him going to the river into marshy ground with the students trouping not far behind. Silhouettes and shadows. Korbain with flashlight in hand, crouching.
Susan rubs her eyes; and she isn’t a biology teacher for nothing.
Not what Mr Romelli thinks, eh? “Why not?”
Yes, why not?
She starts calling out names, obsessively. Not ever what Korbain and the others want to hear. She pulls the latch of Mr Romelli’s door, and it swings open. Chloroform or iodine? She’s not nauseous.
Really...what? Yes, being a biology teacher and doing a dissection with a long, sharp knife. Shadows trouping along. Korbain... Chloe...Mr Romelli. Where are you? What about the latest specimen?
Susan grips the knife, and goes down to the basement.
Is he ever there...alone? She sees a head mounted on the wall.
“Really you...Mr Romelli?”
The students are agape, being almost in a shroud in the classroom.
Susan talks about what she dredged up in the river. Eyes being all, neon or phosphorescent. The water pulls everything under at the Cummings Bridge by Montreal Road.
See, Mr Romelli’s head is the only specimen she’s found.
The students gasp, Chloe loudest. What else will Susan say?
“Come on, Mr Romelli,” Susan demands, “everyone’s waiting to hear from you—now it’s just your talking head.”
Her eyes leaden, strange-looking.
“End of lesson,” Mr Romelli says, words she hears like an echo.
The police siren bleating, and alarm bells ring. Susan indeed stands before her own class. Police sirens become louder, which no-one else hears. Mr Romelli looks hard at everyone, being a head only. The Ottawa River calling out. Tell them about a body once more!
Cyril Dabydeen’s books include My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press, UK), My Multi-Ethnic Friends and Other Stories (Guernica Editions, Toronto), and the anthology Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (Mawenzi House, Toronto). Previous books include: Jogging in Havana (1992), Black Jesus and Other Stories (1996), My Brahmin Days (2000), North of the Equator (2001), and Play a Song Somebody: New/Selected Short Stories (2003). His novel, Drums of My Flesh, had been nominated for the 2007 IMPAC/Dublin Prize, and won the top Guyana Prize for fiction. Cyril’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, e.g. Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, The Critical Quarterly, World Literature Today, The Warwick Review, Prism International, Canadian Literature, the Dalhousie Review, and in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Poetry and Fiction. Former Poet Laureate of Ottawa (1984-87). Taught Creative Writing at the UofOttawa for many years.