Anna Cates | Aristotle’s angst

“. . . And now, class, let’s sum up this month’s unit.  Three components comprise a story:  beginning, middle, and end.  Set up, conflict, and resolution.”  Aristotle surveyed the classroom, ensuring himself of their attention, not yet sure he’d gained his pupils’ full respect, not yet convinced they cared for anything other than sports and swords. “Now then,” he clapped his hands together, rubbing his palms to warm and formally grinning, “I’d like to hear your preliminary ideas for the story I’m asking you to write and recite as a rhetorical exercise. Zeth,” he called to a boy in the back row. “What’s your idea? What’ll your story be about?”

Zeth squirmed on his stool, seeming glad to have been called upon. “Professor, I’d like to write a story called My Grandfather’s Wisdom. It’ll be about a young boy learning to share with a sojourning stranger.”

“Splendid! An excellent idea for a plot!” Aristotle’s scanned the other pupils. “Thaddeus,” he called to a shy boy, slouched in the corner. “What do you plan to write about?”

Thaddeus gazed up, swallowing his Adam’s apple. “My story will concern a cat and mouse that make friends, then discover their friendship has saved both their lives—a fable and a moral tale.”

“Marvelous!” Aristotle nodded with deliberate enthusiasm, striving to build rapport. “I can’t wait to hear it.” His gaze fell to the pupil by the window, staring out at the olive trees.  “Alexander, what’ll your story be about?”

Alexander turned, eyes glimmering, a fuzzy little moustache just beginning to sprout over his upper lip. “I’d like to write about somebody getting raped.”

The room buzzed with silence. Then the entire class erupted in laughter.

Aristotle huffed. “Come now, Alexander. You can’t write about ravishment. That’s an improper topic.”

“How come?” Alexander asked, sticking out his chin, his face plaintive.

Once more, all the boys sniggered.

Aristotle was surprised to find himself momentarily voiceless.  He couldn’t recall the exact reason for the ban on the topic.  Then he remembered the age of his pupils. “Well, Alexander, a topic like ravishment might compromise a story’s rhythm and harmony.” An insufficient explanation, and Aristotle could tell by Alexander’s facial expression that he wouldn’t get off that easily. He strummed his fingers on the podium, thinking. “You see, my son, many people can’t address that topic with appropriate discretion and tact. They might pigeonhole the victim or the victimizer. They might inappropriately romanticize the situation. And there could be other reasons too.”

“But if the story is well told?”

Well told is a totally subjective concept, Alexander. You don’t want your audience to find you insensitive, to become unsatisfied with the story or the play, to storm away, stirring up clouds of dust with their sandals. Why would you want to write about such a thing anyway?”

“So, my friend who was raped, whose sister and mother were raped, can’t write about such a theme? None of them can, even though they’ve experienced it themselves?”

Hands folded behind his back, Aristotle paced across the floor, ruminating. He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Not for this assignment. It just wouldn’t do. Performance is the final step in the writing process. If your concept can’t be performed as a play, the story can never be finished. I want you to write stories that can become finished.”

“But I’ve already crafted a detailed outline, professor. Why must I start the whole project over?”

“You must choose another topic, or I’ll have no choice but to fail you on the exercise! A topic like ravishment might incite troublesome notions. I won’t allow myself to be charged with corruption of the youth like Socrates!” Aristotle’s ears burned.  A bead of sweat rolled down one thigh, tickling. Why did Alexander have to challenge him so? If the belligerent boy didn’t accept his answer soon, Aristotle risked succumbing to rage. A dreadful thought! To lose one’s composure like a rampaging elephant.

Aristotle paced, striving for calm. He recalled the horrifying details Plato, his own mentor, had told him of Socrates’ death for corrupting the youth. The jury had forced him to drink poison hemlock, the herb that deforms the offspring of livestock. They’d forced him to accept that bitter cup. First, he’d begun to sweat profusely, then salivate like a rabid dog.  He coughed up phlegm, then more phlegm as his lungs liquefied, hampering his breathing. Seizures racked him, his muscles failed him, paralysis set in, then, finally, death before the long boat ride down the River Styx. Aristotle shuddered. He didn’t intend to suffer such a fate.

“But I have no other ideas, professor!”

“I said no!” came the thunderous response. Aristotle’s hands shook. His heartbeat rushed with the blood through his head. So much for remaining stoic.

Alexander sighed, his shoulders relaxing. “Very well, professor.  I understand your reasoning. We can’t have you executed like Socrates. I’ll find another theme.”

And yet, Aristotle couldn’t help but note the sly grin that spread across Alexander’s ducked head.

“Thank you, Alexander. Class dismissed.”

The following week, when class convened, Aristotle felt apprehensive about his students’ mastery of dramatic structure.  He feared he was a better philosopher than educator, and considered his livelihood at stake. Unlike philosophizing, one could at least make something from teaching. He scanned the class. “Who’ll volunteer to read their story first?”

Alexander’s hand shot up.

“Alexander,” Aristotle said, grinning grimly, “I’m almost afraid to ask, but let’s hear it.”

The class snickered, several heads turning in Alexander’s direction.

“Thank you, professor,” Alexander said, lips curling. He unrolled his parchment then rose from his seat. “My story takes place on the lost continent of Atlantis, as two warring kingdoms clash.”

Aristotle lifted one brow. “Atlantis? Interesting concept. Proceed.” Aristotle pinched his chin, hopeful for his own forbearance, would that sentiment be required.

Dirty fingers forced back the parchment’s curly ends. Alexander gazed down at his ink marks then began the tale:

For nearly a century the kingdom of Utracia and Aztle had warred. King Utra claimed lands south of the midland mountains, while King Az challenged portions to the east along the coast. 

Warhorses and chariots amassed along the plains of Tetran to settle the dispute. Hoofs galloped forward. Swords clashed. Blades slashed off limbs. Arrows sank into hearts. Spears ripped through copper skins. Decapitated heads rolled. Men scrambled every which way, eager to take life. Fire exploded in the sky. Magi chanted hexes, and black magic spells tore men’s souls apart. 

An archer, running along the periphery of the battlefield came to a young maiden, laundering clothes in a secluded stream. Just at that same moment, loss of blood from a deep gash overcame him. He fainted like a woman, and she slipped homeward through the trees. Later in the day, as the fighting waned, a lone swordsman discovered a beautiful woman, retrieving boots from a fallen body. She threw a bootstrap at him, and he ran away. 

As dusk neared, and the sky blushed blood red with the setting sun, Aztle’s army appeared victorious. They burned men at the stake. They sawed bodies in half. They pulled out intestines with burning hooks. They skinned the enemy alive, then made them swim through large vats of lemon juice. Decorated soldiers with shapely beards made love along the turf, but all the women and children escaped into the hills, and not a soul was raped.

The end. 

The class exploded in laughter. Alexander peered up from his parchment, a cocky grin across his face.

Aristotle paced the floor, hands behind his back. What a smart aleck! Alexander had rendered the rules absurd. Still, though sarcastic in his compliance, he’d at least deferred to the instructor, displaying concern for his life. At least Aristotle would be likely to retain his position for another academic year. Teaching was, at least, better than work in the mines.

“Very good, Alexander. Who’ll read next?”

Anna Cates is a graduate of Indiana State University, with an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction/English. She also earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from National University. Her first collections of poetry and fiction, The Meaning of Life and The Frog King, respectively, were published by Cyberwit Press, and her second poetry collection, The Darkroom, by Prolific Press. She lives in Ohio with her two beautiful kitties and teaches education and English online, including graduate courses in creative writing. For more, see her Amazon author’s page:

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