“The Mentor” by Larry Ellis

There were fighting cocks in the yard. Scores of fighting cocks, each huddling against the wind in the small, plywood pup-tent that was its shelter, each roped by the ankle to a stake to keep it from tearing its neighbors to pieces.

Hargrave paused at the front gate. Pulling at the rusted latch, he jumped backward to avoid a dark-gray cottonmouth that slithered from a drainage ditch overgrown with blossoming clumps of water hyacinth. It slipped through a gap in the wire fence, slowly traversing the farmyard before vanishing in an isolated stand of switchgrass. Hargrave forced the gate, but it lay askew on its hinges and would not close. He left it dangling and cautiously negotiated a path through what appeared to be a silent, winged army in winter camp. In the distance, he spied a ramshackle shotgun cottage surrounded by crepe myrtles and live oaks. A single window opening onto the narrow front porch shed slivers of crimson light through dark, shabby curtains. The door looked like it hadn’t been opened in years.

University legend had spoken of the eccentric professor emeritus who lived west of the city, engrossed in his studies and raising gamecocks for the illicit pits that still thrived in the Cajun prairies of South Louisiana. Oddly, no one in the department had ever laid eyes on the man, but disturbing tales involving disappearances, late-night visitations, and other curious phenomena had been circulating longer than anyone could remember.

In spite of earnest warnings from department faculty, Hargrave had contacted the professor by mail, petitioning him to chair his dissertation. The professor agreed, inviting him to visit over the summer break to discuss the matter. The appointed day arrived, and the city lay hot and steaming in the late morning sun as Hargrave stood hitching at the entrance to the highway west. A ride was slow in coming, but in several hours it dropped him off in the strangely silent town on whose outskirts lay the farm of the reclusive scholar. He looked into the sky, troubled by the growing intensity of the greenish swirl of cloud that had blown up from the Gulf shortly after his departure.

As Hargrave approached the farmhouse, he was tracked by more than one pair of yellow eyes from the triangular pens that crisscrossed its grounds. Wisps of Spanish moss, ripped by the wind from the trees that lay in the distance, impeded his progress in what seemed a conscious assault. The front door opened when he mounted the porch, and there stood Professor Redstone, disheveled and grinning, framed by the gloom of the interior. Hargrave started when he saw that Redstone’s teeth were the color of his name.

“They moved out long ago,” the professor mused, gesturing at the deserted homes of his former neighbors. “I’m afraid my birds can be rather noisy.” Arm extended, he led his visitor into his study, inviting him to sit. Arcane bric-a-brac and ragged, mold-speckled volumes filled every nook of a scattered array of heavy wooden bookcases, and the smoky lacquer covering the several oils that hung from the walls obscured bizarre narratives and unthinkable subjects. An engraved teakwood chest stood between a Queen Anne sofa and a leather armchair. Sensing that the latter was for the professor alone, Hargrave chose the sofa. As he sank into its threadbare upholstery, he caught the ammoniac scent of stale cat urine and heard a rustling in other parts of the room that spoke of a malign feline presence.

Redstone offered Hargrave tea redolent of must and loam, taking none for himself. Before settling into his chair, he retrieved an armful of references, studies, and monographs from his bookcases and scattered them on the chest. Informed by their lore, the two discussed literature for hours, gleaning tropes, probing character, and ascertaining theme throughout the canon. Novels and stories, poems and plays—all fell to the resolute assault of their exegesis.

Night had fallen by the time the professor urged his new charge to lay out the thesis and proofs of his dissertation. The storm intoned its fury as Hargrave, sweating in the close night air, argued that William Faulkner, imbedded and lurking in text as gnostic demi-urge, delegates archonic authority to Flem Snopes in the trilogy that bears that family name, and through him engineers and assures the inexorable progression of decay, dissolution, and insanity in the Old South. Redstone leaned forward, nodding in approval.

Suddenly, lightning struck a nearby oak, setting it afire. The sound of the blast rooted a slender Abyssinian from an unseen recess in the professor’s sanctum. He took it to his lap and languidly stroked its serpentine head as he told Hargrave of the time he had liberated a human skull from a crumbling mausoleum in one of the city’s older cemeteries to serve as a prop in his production of Lord Byron’s Manfred. He had chosen for his venue a crumbling riverside warehouse. “Rats are common near the water,” he chuckled. “They gave the performance a certain panache. The audience wasn’t amused.”

The burning tree lit the still atmosphere of the interior, and through its glare Redstone leered at his guest, his teeth reflecting the light in sickly shades of purple, his skin emerging pale and dusty as the eldritch tomes that had claimed his soul. Outside, the cocks crowed in despair. “A suitable tempest for Lord George’s tormented alchemist,” he drawled. The Abyssinian retreated enraged as the professor stood and faced the window and the fiery tableau revealed in its glass, declaiming to the heavens with arms raised and fists clenched, chanting heroic couplets and invoking powers, spells, and protocols that rendered Hargrave at once thrill-bound and terrified as he huddled in the scant shelter of the rank sofa.

The oak flared and sputtered as its flames gave way to wind and rain. Spent and silent, Redstone dropped his arms to his side, panting and casting a trembling, distorted shadow. Recovering, he turned and produced a tarnished silver pen. “And now, my young friend,” he muttered, “there is the matter of our signatures. You did bring the necessary paperwork?”

Hargrave looked into the professor’s gaze and the invitation it proffered. In a shudder of abject epiphany he realized his peril, knowing that if he did not act quickly all would be lost. He leapt to his feet, and the Abyssinian arched its back and moaned as he rushed through the front door into the night. The soft, low resonance of Redstone’s laughter followed him in pursuit and all around, sodden, shrieking roosters, blown aloft by the gale, flew in the air like feathery kites, their tethers taught and thrusting upward as if the storm were reclaiming its own. Spurred claws extended, they pecked and beat their wings as Hargrave ran their horrid gauntlet and pushed his way through the creaking gate. Flagging down a Peterbilt on the rainswept highway, he jumped inside, and told the astonished trucker his tale as they sped toward the border of Texas, and safety.

Lars1Larry Ellis is a senior lecturer on the faculty of the English Department at Arizona State University, where he teaches American literature, American folklore, and Native American literature. He lived in New Orleans, LA for ten years in the late 1970s and 1980s and visits there several times a year to reconnect with family, friends, the Jazzfest, and, of course, some of the best food in the world.