By The Hand of a Womanbynemo_quill©
"Her beauty took his mind prisoner …"
- Book of Judith, Old Testament
The professor scanned the classroom from the rampart of his enormous oak desk, situated on the heights of a wooden platform two feet off the floor. This was his room. No one else taught in 209. He fought and won this battle with the registrar every semester.
Leo Tyne had been teaching at St. Brigid's College for almost thirty years, yet the thrill of the first day of a new term never lost its edge. From his towering lectern he had watched hordes of students struggle and squirm their way through his classes. There was no place else in the world he'd rather be, for he was a notorious, tenured faculty member at one of the few remaining women's colleges on the East coast - or in the country, for that matter. Year upon year brought a new crop of feminine virtue, intuition and charm. However, Tyne considered himself immune to the last. He had learned right from the start that the classroom was like a sailing ship - it could have but one master. He was that master – and would allow nothing to deflect his ship from its charted course.
He wielded his power like a feather, or a club. It all depended on the ladies. A quick perusal of the upturned faces of this new lot told Tyne that he had inherited a fairly meek crew. That was fine with him. Better not to have a difficult class first thing in the morning. Made the rest of the day an ordeal if he had to constantly thunder at eight in the morning.
Still browsing the room, his ruthless gray eyes paused when he noticed an empty desk. His classes were always full, at least at the start. Especially this one, Harsh Witness: Force & Fury in Biblical Narrative, AKA Tyne's Testament – as it had become known in legends told by survivors. Never an empty chair on first day.
Tyne opened his grade book, removed his class roster, and let loose the first rumbling bolt of the morning, "Ladies, you will now be seated in alphabetical order. As I am the Alpha, I remain where I am. The rest of you will line up around the walls, until you are replanted." He flashed a condescending grin. To the students he resembled a sober, sadistic Cheshire cat, looming above them in his oaken citadel.
His voice had lost none of its timbre over the decades. He could still command them, or scare the hell out of them, whichever was necessary. The beginning of the first class was the time to remind them of their proper place – first in the alphabet, and then in the cosmos of his classroom.
In no time everyone was reseated and copying the notes Tyne had scrawled on the blackboard during the sorting. The professor sat on the edge of his monolithic perch, observing, sizing up his students the way a bird of prey selects appropriate victims. He had found the owner of the empty seat on the roster – one Sarah Pollack. There was an asterisk next to her name on the computerized printout, which was a signal that he should contact the dean or the registrar. Tyne, of course, wouldn't bother with all that. 'Special circumstances' didn't concern him. No excuses in his world, no delays on his ship. He sailed with or without you. The gray eyes paused again, having spied a redhead at the back of the room gazing out the window, daydreaming. Her hair shone in the dusty light that streamed in through the dusty panes.
"Miss," Tyne glanced at his freshly drawn seating chart - ink not yet dry - "Miss Lawford! If you wouldn't mind sharing your free time, why not come to the front of the room and explain to the class why we shall start with the apocryphal works tacked on at the end of the Old Testament?" He spread his arms in a beckoning gesture, but seemed more inclined to swoop down and grab.
"Uhm, I didn't … "
The redhead had started at the sound of her name, her mind eons away. She had been at a dorm party till shortly before the start of class, and felt rather hazy. Worse than being caught doing nothing, however, was the fact that she hadn't even heard Tyne's question.
"You didn't think my meager thoughts on the board were worth noting?" he asked, voice sharp enough to cut glass.
"No, I didn't mea … " she began to stammer in reply, but Tyne's eruption blasted her silent.
"So you did not! You are an expert perhaps? A textual scholar slumming with the nobodies – like me?" he bellowed, hands shaking, face reddening. He could manage this performance in his sleep, but never missed an opportunity to rehearse the part. However, while the theatrics were staged, the flush of excitement was real and all too tangible. He buttoned the front of his blazer, discreetly coverered the evidence. The young girl sat in stunned silence, eyes staring at him now. Tyne eagerly noted the faint line of freckles across the bridge of her nose, as well as those that ran down her blushing white neck and disappeared into the faded blueness of her blouse.
"Perhaps you might share your genius with the unenlightened," he said, adjusting his rigid intentions before stepping off the platform and cruising down the aisle. "Come, tell us, do you agree that Susannah belongs separate from the Book of Daniel?"
He had stopped by her desk and roared the "Daniel" inches from her small, freckled nose. He glared, and wondered how freely that blush and those little brown dots roamed the pearly skin beneath the clothes. Were there freckles and red hair everywhere? A joke about a burning bush flashed through Tyne's mind. Miss Lawford shivered, as if cold, and one tear crept down her right cheek. He wondered how red her other plump cheeks would flush under the slap of his hand. God how I love it when they cry, he thought, and decided to venture a few more shots which would surely go unanswered.
"Can you even name the books of the Apocrypha? Can you explain why they are apocryphal?" He paused before issuing the final thrust, "Can you please tell me why in hell you are wasting my time in this classroom?" He took his time, enunciating each word, relishing each smack of his hot breath across the crimson face of his victim.
Tyne suddenly grew bored with the slaughter. He turned his back on the frozen wreck of the redhead, soared back to the front of the room and returned to his nest. Just one more, he thought.
"Here's an easy one for you, Lawford," he said, lowering his pitch to an almost human level, offering what he considered his most concerned, avuncular smile. "Do you think you have a better chance of passing this class than, say, the citizens of Sodom had of surviving the unbridled wrath of their god?"
The red head dropped to the desk, muffling the girl's short desperate sob.
"Well, at least you have the sense not to look back upon the devastation. End up a pillar of salt, eh?" he asked, deciding for the millionth time that he loved his profession. "Now class, what you have just witnessed – witness, also known when it's at home as 'testament,' is the merest taste of the unchecked rage of the ancient narratives …"
Never look back and full speed ahead he said to himself as he swayed to the rhythm of own voice and preached his infallible doctrine from his pulpit.
The next morning Tyne was in his office by seven. He didn't really need to prep material for class. He used the time alone to prepare himself for the rigors of projecting the force and terror of his favorite testamental tales. Today it was the powerful and beautiful Judith. Time for her to whack poor, stupid Holofernes.
His gaze wandered to the corner of his office and settled on the two laminated prints propped against the wall. Both were reproductions of paintings depicting Judith's beheading of the mighty warrior. To the left was Caravaggio, and on the right Artemisia Gentileschi. They were both grand works, in Tyne's opinion, though Gentileschi's was a more realistic portrayal of the sheer savagery of the act, with Holofernes' blood spurting and staining the sheets, and that fixed grim look on her Judith's face.
Still, he preferred the other piece. After all, Judith was supposed to have been a very attractive woman. No, Artemisia's matronly butcher could never outshine Caravaggio's youthful, thoughtful assassin. That plump avenging angel never failed to arouse him.
He sipped his coffee and imagined the warmth of her naked body as she lay spread beside the besotted Holofernes in bed. She had played the general like a lyre, plucking him string by string. Did she run her hand over his broad chest, or did her fingers linger in the thick bush between his legs, stroking his inflamed flesh? Though quite drunk, the general was surely as hard as his sword.
How far did Judith go, how close to the small death did she bring old horny Holofernes before reaching for the other hard weapon at hand – that cold steel blade? Tyne was busy picturing Judith's blood spattered body, red across both breasts and thighs, when his sanguinary reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Yes, yes, just a minute," he blurted out, fixing his tie and shifting the swelling in his pants as he sat up straight in his chair.
His tone made this a threat and not an invitation. It had better be damned important, he thought, or else …
The door opened wide, revealing a tall young woman carrying an overstuffed black leather knapsack. Before Tyne could say a word she had shut the door, walked the short distance to his desk, banged the bulging bag on the floor, and seated herself in the chair opposite his. Momentarily taken aback by her boldness, he took the opportunity to notice that she was quite attractive. Her skirt wasn't brief – just short enough to draw attention to her long, muscular legs. Her blouse was soft and white, and perfectly accented the ample charms buried within.
A solid creature, he mused, both beautiful and strong - though her decisive blue stare was disquieting. There was something … something unmistakably brutal in the flash of those cold, turquoise eyes. Beauty or no beauty, however, it was time to send this uninvited guest packing. Tyne was very strict about office hours, and he didn't tolerate exceptions to his rules.
"I have no appointments scheduled for this morning. You will have to see Mrs. Walther, the department secretary … "
"I'm Sarah Pollack," she said firmly, cutting him off mid-chastise, "I'm in your 'Harsh Witness' class."
It was rare for Tyne to be staggered at all, but to find himself speechless twice in one meeting was unfathomable. He began to churn inside, gathering the hail for a storm to blow this intruder out the door, but he was still suffering the effects of his rousing fantasies about the nude, bloody Judith. She had walked in before he could quell his excitement, and she certainly was a striking, imposing young woman …
"I've come to pick up my copy of the reading list. I called the dean's office a week ago and had them email a syllabus, but they weren't sure about the readings. Oh, and I brought this," she paused to rifle through the mass of papers in her bag. She pulled out a manuscript in a red, plastic cover and tossed it on the desk in front of the simmering Tyne. "That's the first assignment, professor. I know it's not due until next week, but I had some free time, so …"
Now it was his turn to do the interrupting.
"Miss Pollack, I do not see students without an appointment. I do not accept writing assignments out of class – in the halls, in the bathroom, or in my office. Further, I am the proper contact person when you are planning on missing my class, though I accept no excuse …"
"The dean's office told me they would contact you, and I was here and thought it would be polite to touch base before class met again. I'll take this back and hand it in, right after class. I won't bother waiting till you have to take a piss," she raged back at him, grabbing the paper off the desk. Her eyes were no longer cold - they were icy and wild.
Well, if she wanted to play dueling tirades Tyne wanted to let this one know she would lose. He slammed his fist on the desktop and roared "I am not accustomed to constant interruptions, Miss. If you have any intention of …"
"This is pointless," she exclaimed, her voice brimming with disgust and anger. She grabbed her bag and walked slowly toward the office door.
"You will not leave until I've finish …"
The last words of Tyne's booming admonition were lost in a cracking slam of wood on wood. She was gone. He sat stiffly, fingers whitened by their death grip on the arms of the chair.
"Bitch," he muttered sharply.
Tyne felt warm and flustered. He leaned his head back, stretched his legs. Let it pass, he decided. She would undoubtedly drop the class, and wouldn't be his problem this semester.
Who did she think she was, barging into his office – his sanctum sanctorum, chiding him, and then storming out before he had a chance to cut her down to size? He exhaled deeply and opened a thick folder, to review some notes before class. He snapped it shut again after only a minute. He couldn't concentrate, distracted as he was by the insistent rustling in his lap.
"Arrogant bitch," he mumbled, softly this time.
The students fell church quiet when Tyne walked in the room carrying the two prints. He loved that reverential hush, and smiled to himself as he stepped up on the platform. Few in life were fortunate enough to have a captive audience almost every day of their lives. He banged his Old Testament on the desk, propped the pictures on the chalk ledge of the blackboard, and surveyed the room. Miss Lawford was gone, along with two other simpletons he had crucified near the end of yesterday's class. He hated to lose a real redhead, but she lacked mental stamina and sacrifices had to be be made if he was to eliminate a third of the students by the second week of the semester, when they could drop and still select another class.
His joy came to an abrupt halt, however, when he saw the turquoise glare. The abrupt Miss Pollack. Yes indeed, Tyne reflected, if looks could kill. He had to give her credit for … well, for audacity anyway. Even the new students were usuaully aware of his fierce reputation. Admiration aside, he fully intended to eviscerate this ballsy, foolhardy young woman.
Oddly though, the idea of tangling with her didn't fire his blood with the usual passion. Christ, he thought glumly, she was going to be one royal boil on his ass. He sat, pounded his fat Testament, and began his lecture.
"Today we shall explore the Book of Judith, an apocryphal text that was written in the second century BC, about the time of the writing of I and II Maccabees. As with many ancient narratives, the tale is set in an earlier, mythical age, one of hardship and conquest. The story has no known basis in history. Judith is canonical in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles. Leave it to the Catholics to miss all the marvelous allegorical implications …"
Tyne's mellow drone filled the room. Once he started speaking most of the students engaged themselves in a hopeless struggle to listen and takes notes simultaneously - heads and shoulders hunched forward, hands dancing maniacally across blank pages. But not the indomitable Miss Pollack. No, as he spoke Tyne couldn't fail to notice that her fierce eyes remained locked on the front of the room, locked on him.
"There are two definitive versions of this book, one in Greek and one in Latin. It is the Greek which offers, ah, eighty-five – no," Tyne glanced surreptitiously at his notes, "eighty-four more verses more than the …"
He continued to lecture, but the phrase 'stupid, stupid bastard' echoed in his brain. When he faltered he saw several students look up and grin, while a few others laughed quietly to themselves. Pollack didn't laugh or grin and her stare never wavered.
Tyne felt a line of sweat trickle down his back. Perhaps he should just skim the historical overview and dive right into the bloodshed? It was nothing but a load of linguistic isometrics anyway. But he needed the further allusions to the Maccabean version, to qualify the theme – the effectiveness of prayer.
Tyne felt a bit like praying himself. For the first time in his classroom career he felt a twinge of discomfort, a short whisper of doubt. Meanwhile, those dagger blue eyes cut into him. He was convinced that she was all too aware of his uncertainty, and she was reveling in it. He paused for a moment, desperately wishing he had a glass of water, or, even better, a scotch without the water. He inhaled and then plunged in to the deep end of his homily.
"As you all know from your reading, Judith deceived her way into the enemy camp. Once on the inside, she pretended to seduce the Assyrian military general, Holofernes. Instead, with a little help from her maid Abra, she got him drunk on wine. She teased him, delaying and delaying the lovemaking, pouring him more and more wine, until he finally fell asleep. Then she lopped off Holofernes' head with two powerful strokes of a sword he kept hanging over his bed …"
Tyne paused again, noted Ms. Pollack's unyielding attention, and chose to read from his notes: "Artemisia Gentileschi, the only known female follower of the Baroque master Caravaggio, applied the vivid realism and theatrical lighting associated with the latter's early style to this intense and dramatic rendering of the story. Taking her inspiration from a painting by Caravaggio, she concentrated on the single-most violent moment of the narrative to create a horrifying and unforgettable image of the act of taking human life. Judith grips Holofernes' head by the hair to steady it, slicing away from her body through his neck, while her maid pinions his left arm against his chest. The Assyrian general, his eyes bulging out, is portrayed in his final agony, his blood streaming down the edge of the bed. In May 1611, shortly before she painted the Naples Judith, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who had supposedly been engaged by her father to teach her perspective."
Still the eyes fixed upon him. Tyne cleared his throat and continued.
"Like the account of Judas Maccabees's heroic feats in defense of his people against tyranny, the story of Judith serves as an inspiring example to oppressed people. The name Judith is the female equivalent of Judas, and simply means 'Jewess.' The name implies that she embodies what is good among the Jews."
He was poring forth information like a faulty slot machine, names and bits of information dropping everywhere like errant coins. But his mind was no longer on Judith, or Artemisia, but on one young woman stationed at the back of his class. Yes, Tyne mused, this was going to be a long semester.
After class, back in the safety of his office, Tyne poured himself a few fingers of single malt scotch. Then another. The situation could not persist. Unfortunately, he had to figure out exactly what had happened before he could conjure up a solution.
He enjoyed the burn of the scotch going down, but the memory of her legs – and her perfume – they scorched him more deeply – and in a different terrain. He closed his eyes, but the piercing refrain of Sarah Pollack's cold, blue orbs played short loops in his imagination, played over and over while sucking him in deeper and deeper …
A knock at the office door put an end to Tyne's drift in the void of those turquoise eyes.
Without thinking, he muttered "Enter."
When he looked up from his drink there stood his nemesis – she of the enduring stare.
He sighed inaudibly before asking, "Yes, Miss Pollack?"
"May I sit, or will you be dismissing me …"
"Just sit down Miss Pollack. Care for a drink?" Tyne had no idea why he had asked her to join him. It just came out.
Now it was Sarah's turn to be caught off stride. She had expected, even hoped for, a bit more …