The Scholars’ Club
by Joshua Peña (aka Mr. Winkle)
I was wandering in the woods one night, seeking true north, stumbling through thicket, blocked in by boughs above, when I came upon a monument of impressive build and hew. As I drew near to view it more closely, I found it to be a dome of granite. Its pallid sides towered above the encircling trees, the bark and branches of which were being stripped by the wind and flung at the construction, as if nature itself were waging war against the unnatural mound.
On the side of the dome that lay nearest to me was a portico on which were arrayed eight lines of columns. The columns were spaced apart, so as to afford seven pathways to the blackness inside the dome. Outside the structure with his face to the wind stood a scholarly man in a gray hoodless robe and a gray hanging beard, wearing shaded spectacles. I gazed at him, and, as nearly as I could tell, he was gazing back at me. We stood there, and minutes passed. I was beginning to wonder whether he was nothing but a waxwork figure made to accompany the building, when he opened his mouth and asked, “Are you the inductee?”
Not knowing how to answer, I said nothing. He interpreted my silence as an affirmative, and motioned me to come closer, which I did. Then he said “I will follow you into the dome.”
“Which entrance should I take?” I asked, since seven were available.
“Any entrance works,” he said, so I took the one that was nearest. As I passed by the columns I read by the stars an inscription cut deep in the portico floor: To every god.
“What is this place?” I asked. “This is club headquarters,” he said, “as well as our home. We meet here once a week. When we are not meeting here we are usually living here. When we are not living here we are usually wandering nearby, as many are wont to do, but never for long, for we have already learned all that a sojourn may tell.”
Inside the dome, I was able to distinguish against the blackened ceiling the outline of an oculus, through which a small amount of starlight fell to the center of the rounded floor. The wind was softened by the walls, and the light was scarce enough that it took several moments for my eyes to adjust to their surroundings. When they did, I saw a body of men assembled, about twenty in all, some older, some younger, all with gray cloaks, hanging beards, and shaded eyes.
“Our latest member has arrived!” my escort announced, and the company all cheered. A moment of silence ensued, after which a voice began to speak from the back of the dome. The voice was resonant, and when it spoke you almost thought it was inside your mind, eavesdropping a bit, inspecting your thoughts, and that it sometimes disapproved of the stupidity it found there. The voice was ancient, wise, wizardly.
“Welcome to our circle, young sir,” said the voice. “We hope you have not been long in searching for us, and we are glad you have chosen our cozy little spot for your abode. All who dwell within our dome find themselves, you might say, psychologically healed. They find freedom within the confines of these walls.”
“Quite right, Grand Headmaster,” said the company together.
“Before you are inducted,” the voice continued, “you must be made to know the history of our club, and you must learn the Central Truth which governs all other truths. Before you become anyone, you must know the things that everyone who is anyone knows.”
Here the voice made itself partly visible by drawing near, although not quite entering, the faint pillar of light at the center of the dome. Its hands were outstretched, and its head was erect. The impression formed in my mind was that of an overgrown owl, mantling its prey.
“Be seated, all” the voice said.
The company walked toward a group of tablet arm chairs that lay in well-ordered rows on one side of the dome, while the Grand Headmaster moved with caution to his place behind a lectern. I took my seat with the group, and class began.
“The members of The Scholars’ Club once lived outside this dome for years, during which time we set upon a quest.”
“A quest!” cried the company.
“Each of us chose a remote star for himself,” the Headmaster continued, “which he sought out by night, and when the day came and the star was no longer visible, he continued in its direction nonetheless, charting a course by the Local Star. Some of us made great sacrifices for this quest. We left families, gave up sleep and sustenance itself to journey, each toward his chosen star. But our sacrifices were worthwhile, for it was on this quest that we discovered a truth so great as to be incomprehensible to the blind outside our circle – it is the Central Truth, known only to the members of our erudite group.”
The Grand Headmaster paused and looked knowingly at his pupils. They returned the gaze, just as knowingly, bespectacled faces brimming with scholarly anticipation.
“We discovered,” he continued, in the wisest of tones, “that the stars are not immobile, as we once thought. The truth is that they spin ‘round about us in confusing circles.”
“Yes, yes -- round and round and round,” said the company, illustrating the motion for me with their heads.
I raised my hand to ask a question. “Do all the stars run circles? I would think—”
“Of course you would think that,” snapped the Headmaster. “You haven’t been inducted yet. But everyone knows the stars move – leastwise, everyone who is anyone.”
The company of anyones nodded approval.
“As I was saying,” the Headmaster continued, “when members of our erudite group came upon this grand discovery, we drew up a proclamation that the stars are unreliable as a form of guidance, and worthless for all quests.”
“Quite right, worthless for quests,” said the class.
“Ah, but they are not worthless altogether,” said the Grand Headmaster, with a tone to distinguish subtlety. “We concluded that the stars are for illumination, not navigation. No destination, you see. One may walk by the stars, but not toward any star. Which is very convenient, you know, for it lets each choose his own course. Instead of running circles chasing lights, we may wander in circles however we wish.”
“Wonderfully convenient, you know!”
“The great point here is that each may walk as he pleases. Some walk one way, some another, some walk to nowhere – some don’t walk at all. We don’t stand in their way, and they don’t stand in ours. It’s democratic that way. Don’t you see?”
I didn’t quite. But since my feeble powers of intellect were of no avail against such insightful arguments, I dropped the point and moved onto another matter.
“Why do you live in this dome?” I asked.
The question was obviously very stupid, for the Grand Headmaster’s face showed disbelief. He began patiently to explain. “As I said, each may walk as he pleases. We are those who don’t walk at all – at least not often. You see, each day the Local Star rises from its slumber on the other side of our planet and fires its rays down at us, piercing our eyes with a painful brightness. We hate the light, so we live in the dome. It’s for protection, you see.”
This seemed odd, so I pressed further, “If the rays pain you so, why did you build the oculus?”
At this point, the Headmaster’s demeanor changed. His face turned from disbelief to something like muted rage. “We had nothing to do with it,” he said, seething.
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t! You’re an inductee. You weren’t here when it happened!”
“What happened?” I asked.
The wind outside, which so far the walls had muffled sufficiently for those inside to ignore, rose suddenly as if to make a great and final attempt to topple the dome walls. But as it rose, so did the Headmaster’s voice, and to such a height that it drowned out the wind. He threw up his hands to Heaven as if to lodge a complaint, and cried, “We dwelt here once, contentedly, hid from the light which cuts and burns and shines and pierces, pleasantly entombed, and our hearts reveled in the lightless clime. Yet – cruelty! – our joy was not to last for long, for no sooner was our light-shield built than a storm arose which shook our souls and struck terror in our hearts. Then came the bolt which fell and rent our lovely darkness!”
The figure at the lectern went slack. “What were we to do?” it cried. “We could not dwell contentedly, light seeping in from the hole struck out above. So to shield our eyes once more, we crafted shades.”
The Grand Headmaster regained his posture, and with fisted hands raised one last battle cry, “Light struck out the hole! Light destroyed our circle! Light was the cruel sword, and we had nothing to do with it!”
Suddenly the walls of our tomb heaved in the wind, and the very foundation of the dome lifted upward at an angle. The Headmaster tumbled into the light at the center of the dome. His shades fell off. I saw his face, and horror filled my heart.
The Grand Headmaster turned his head up to look at the stars, but it was too late. His eyes had long since vanished, and all that remained were gaping holes.
Somehow I survived that stormy night. The next morning I left to continue my journey, and came soon upon a meadow. As I walked, easterly beams of light began to skip across the green. I glanced upward at the wakening sky and saw, for a brief moment, hanging in its place among the fading constellations, the object of my quest.
To the north: a fixed star.
“Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.”
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