academic assembly line

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.1 (Winter 2016)


New Fiction & Poetry


Shovel-Ready Writing
Ivor Davies

This wryly ironic short story derides the academic assembly-line’s cynical technique for grinding out PC “classics” of creative literature.

Arwa had a vague notion of how men penetrated girls. She had seen goats mate many times, and she had observed the grotesque hose hanging limply from the billy’s gut after the event. But the observations raised more questions than they answered. And they frightened her. If a man had such a thing that he ground into a girl’s cavern, then it must reach all the way to her heart. It must be horribly painful. Yet the women she knew who had submitted to the torture for years–her mother, her five aunts, her two older sisters–remained alive. They seemed to recover quickly. Perhaps that was why the holy book recommended that men have more than one wife. In his infinite mercy, God wished for women to have enough time to recover between acts of evisceration.

But why did men have to do this horrible thing? Clearly, a man was made to conquer, and it was God’s will that women submit. Would a man protest because he had not been created a lion? Would a dwarf protest because he had not been created a giant? God’s will be done! Men had no need to justify the cruelty of their pleasure, least of all to women. Women were created to receive their predations as the little lambs conceived after the billy’s rutting were created, some of them, to end up on the table at festival.

“May I ask a question, Professor Tibbs?”

“Not now. I’m on a role. Pour me another drink there, and pour yourself one, too—”

“No thanks, I…”

“—and sit back and learn. And pray that you have not disrupted my divine inspiration.”

It had long been accepted that Salih would have Arwa to wife. In his arms, she scarcely thought the act of evisceration could be intolerably painful, or at any rate that she would begrudge him the inflicting of deep wounds upon her. They had played together around the well as children, before she had been forced to wear the veil. Since then, she had only seen him in the company of his cousins, and then only by stealing peeks as she waited the table. Yet it was clear that he had grown into a brave; lithe, handsome young man. His dark eyes shone like hot coals, and sometimes they would meet hers ever so briefly. In those fractions of a second, she would realize that no sacrifice he could ever ask of her would be too great.

That was before the Americans had killed Salih in the drone attack on Wadi al-Aman. How she had wept that evening! In one blow, she had lost not only a husband-to-be, but also all of her confidence that she would be able to face the wedding night without terror. And even so did her worst nightmare come to pass. It was decided that the ancient Moseh Bin-Fadullah would be an excellent match. He would bring a hundred goats to her father, and immense respect. His third wife having died in childbirth the previous year, his lecherous old eye had wandered far and wide in search of a replacement. When it had fallen on Arwa, it wandered no farther. The swelling of her breasts and hips could no longer be concealed by the huqwa, and merely in setting a table, the cadence of her adolescent gait promised an intricate dance of love in the marriage bed…

“I’m sorry, Professor, but… what the heck is a huqwa? Do you mean ‘burkah’? I’ve never heard that word, even though I’ve studied a little Arabic.”

“Huqwa, burkah… what the fukwa! So I made it up! Poetic license. Maybe my editor will change it. But maybe I’ll tell him not to. Sounds authentic, like some kind of authentic-sounding exotic Arabic dialect. You’re not getting this at all, are you? Kind of slow, aren’t you?”

“And the names, then… the proper nouns…”

“That’s right. All made up. All of them. Haabaathaa bin-Malarqaa al-walaaquaa muhaabi es-Muraabi Shnulaabi. Before you ask anything more, understand this. People don’t give a shit. The people who read my shit don’t give a shit. The arbiters who bestowed upon me the prestigious Pelagian Society Award, and the prestigious Artemis Annual Fiction Award, and runner-up honors in the Boston Sentinel’s stupid-ass short story contest that always goes to a Mick, not to mention my promotion to full professor three years ago…. Understand this much, my dear, my little B.S. in Scribbling from Wellesley whose father is director of the Cancer Unit at Johns Hopkins…”

“You shouldn’t—”

“—they don’t give a flying crap, I tell you. Write that down. If you told them that I made it all up, even including the place names, they’d just come back at you with, ‘Of course he made it up! But it’s true! Fiction takes dozens of little half-truths and weaves them into one great truth!’ That’s what I would say, if they came at me with a pointing finger. But now I don’t even need to put up a defense. They say it all for me. I’ve trained them well.”

“But surely the truth—”

“You want to hear some more?”

“Um… well, first I’d like to ask—”

“Give it a rest. I’m effectively wasted at the moment, and I’m on a roll. You wanted to see the master in action, didn’t you? See me with my creative hose hanging out? Hah-hah-hah! Just shut up and… and pour yourself one, if you like. Clean glasses in the cabinet behind you. I’d offer you a drag on this, but… no, of course not. Afraid you might catch an STD. I know you little twits. All power to the people… but don’t get too close to them. You’re probably right. So just keep your cute young gob shut, and don’t cut in while my recorder’s going. Genius at work. This could get me a Nobel.”


“Nah-ah-ah! Quiet, now!”

A mere month before the marriage day, Narwa saw her chance for escape. She had volunteered to work at the U.N. hospital set up outside of Minwa al-Sadaan to service the many victims and refugees of the neighboring civil war. Her father was assured that she would wear the harqua in all of her activities, and that none of these would ever include being alone with a man, or being in the presence of a naked man even in company. She conserved her purity by distributing rolls of bandages and bottles of alcohol throughout the tent, and by sometimes bathing or diapering very young children. It was not the sort of life she had imagined as a nurse, but it distracted her mind from the impending marriage, and it brought her a step closer to a career in helping others while being able to make certain important decisions.

Inevitably, there were times when the unpredictable occurred. One day she heard a hoarse shout for help coming from the tent’s surgical area. “Nurse! Nurse!”   No scurry of footsteps followed, the shout continued, and… she was a nurse, was she not? In a moment of resolution that would change her life, she answered the call. Bursting through the forbidden canvas flap, she found a fellow nurse lying limp just at her feet (Adela was her name) and a bloody, writihing body on a gurney a step beyond the fallen girl.

“She fainted,” growled the voice that had shouted from behind a surgical mask. “Quick! No time to suit up. Hold this bag straight up in the air, as high as you can. Good. Now lean heavily on his leg, right around the knee. Should have used more sedative, but we didn’t dare. Hold tight. Tight, damn it! Hold the bag up! High, damn it!”

She shut her eyes so that she, too, would not faint. Yet she had got a glimpse of the man’s naked abdomen, and she sneaked another peak as the surgeon worked. She couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Somehow her faqwa had become splattered in blood. The surgeon ordered her to remove it as he stitched up the patient. As she attempted to mount a weak protest, he snarled, “It doesn’t matter what you want. If you want to get infected and die, do it on your own time. I’m worried about the other patients.”

Anwar retreated obediently into the lounge area where the nurses took coffee and equipped themselves for their daily chores. She could not see, after an instant’s thought, why confining her hair in a sanitary net, her pretty face in a surgeon’s mask, and her svelte body in a smock should prove any more revealing than was her usual life in a burkwa.

Under the sheet-like covering was virtually nothing but underwear. She was down to her bra and panties when a burly, handsome face thrust itself through the flap.

“Here, wear this. Stop screaming! What the hell’s the matter with you? I see naked bodies all day. Though I must say, most of them are not nearly so worth a second look as yours. Naturally, you know not to tell your father or your cousin Abdullah or Uncle Fayeed about any of this, or we’re both dead. Maybe me, but you for sure. Put it on and get back out here. I need a nurse who doesn’t faint at the sight of blood.”

“And this is the surgeon?”

“Thought I told you not to interrupt me.”

“I’m not interrupting. You’re drinking—though I’m sure you’d talk and drink at the same time if you could.”

Hah-hah-hah! You’re starting to thaw out a little, you foxy bit of—”

“Yes, and you’re starting to fade out a little. So that was the surgeon who stuck his burly head through the flap?”

“What flap?”

“Arwa/Narwa’s flap. The flap of her tent. The tent where she… the medical tent. Do you mind? I don’t share your sense of humor. I’m just trying to get this story.”

“And a killer of a story it will be, my little Hun. That’s ‘Hun’, with a ‘u’. No need to get riled. Care to share a glass under your tent?”

“So this was the surgeon?”

“Hmm. Dr. Kronstadt. From Germany. Deutschland.”

“I noticed a certain passing resemblance to you. At least in his manner.”

“Not in his handsome, burly appearance?”

“Do they have an affair?”

“Hmm. Who’s writing this, anyway?”

“Professor Tibbs, it’s not my place to pass a verdict on your degree of originality, but if you want my crude approximation of how many pwople have written this story before…”

“Saucy wench!”

“… then I’d have to say that you could find three dozens versions on Netflix right this minute.”

‘That’s why they all read it. The old familiar cud. Why would I give them something new? Why would you give caviar to cows? Yes, of course they have an affair! Dr. Ronstadt notices that Karma… what’s her damn name? Alright, Arwa. Yeah. He notices that she has a keen mind and learns quickly. They save many lives together, and also lose many. He takes an interest. A keen interest. He will catch her sobbing one evening shortly before her marriage to the wizened vulture Arwal al-Snark-haabi. He will tell her that he can smuggle her out as his assistant the next day… oh, yeah, he will also be leaving the next day. That will be part of why she’s sobbing. Sort of mixed up, you know. Part his leaving, part her about to get drilled by granddad. Complex emotional stuff. He was thinking—Dr. Kronmeyer, I mean—of talking to her father about an internship at a German hospital. Great pay, great career advancement, great pay… just the thing to put a father’s heart at rest. But he was unsure how to broach the subject, in case all should go horribly wrong. This way, he can just have her papers forged in half an hour—does it all the time—and off they go. He will see to it that she has a position at the Frankfurt crackhouse, or krankhouse, or whatever the Krauts call it.

“Yes… yes, and she will accept. Everything in her breeding is telling her no, stay away… but everything in her young woman’s heart is telling her yes, fly away. She takes the plunge. They leave the next evening, she temporarily hidden in the back of a supply truck. At the airport, with her forged papers, she breezes past the gates in Dr. Koningren’s company. They naturally share adjoining seats on the jet. Tarwa learns of the doctor’s troubled past: his falling out with the German medical establishment, his volunteer work in Waziristan, his marriage with the beautiful Roxanna—the female doctor running the whole clinic single-handed; and then their forced flight in a rickety Land Rover as the Taliban closed in, the bullets pinging in the dark off the rear bumper, Dr. Stedman’s amazing driving reprised from his youthful days of racing on dirt tracks, their freedom in the Gobi Desert, their passionate love-making under all the stars in the universe… and then, just as they draw near to a friendly settlement, and American drone mistakes them for the rogue rebel leader Narcohaali bin-Stubenmeyer. The jeep overturns in a blaze. The doctor is thrown thrity feet away, unconscious but uninjured. When he awakes in a harsh, cold sunrise, his beautiful Roxanne is lying under the jeep with just enough life in her to press a dying kiss upon his lips. He screams, ‘Noooo!’ After that…”

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

“After that, he spends the next year in a sanitarium in Dusseldorf, trying to piece his life back together. He pauses his tale in sobs. Karwa seizes this moment to tell him that her beloved… Basho Nangooni-Warhaa had also been smoked by a Yankee drone. He looks at her through moist, unblinking eyes. They embrace. It is suddenly obvious to both that they have wanted to hold each other tight since that flap came up and he found her in her Vicki’s Secrets. He slides his hand under her blouse…”

“On an airplane?”


“They’re supposed to be on a passenger jet. He’s telling her all this as they sit together on the plane.”

“Who says?”

“You did.”

“Well… the plane was foreplay. That’s where she hears his life story. But then later, after a long night at the hospital, he offers to take her home. It’s three-thirty in the morning and the streets of Hamburg aren’t safe. She invites him into her apartment… no, she’s a good little Muslim virgin. She walks in and notices that a window has been jimmied open, and she’s terrified, so he comes in and gives the place a walk-through. Nothing has been taken, but… but there is a death threat, signed by Uncle Wazoo bin-Kalaapi. ‘How did they know that I was here?’ she shrieks. ‘They find out everything,’ he says grimly. ‘But he calls me your whore,’ she shrieks. ‘Look. The word shalabi! How can they think such things?’ ‘Well,’ he says dully, ‘it isn’t as though the thought hasn’t entered my mind.’ She looks at him in a new way, shocked at first, then realizing that she too has long entertained such thoughts. They embrace…”

“And his hand slides up her blouse. Yeah, I’m glad we got that extra chapter in. Why don’t you turn off your recorder now and we have a little discussion?”

“Turn off my recorder?”

“The recorder. The recorder that you use to… to capture your inspiration.”

“My God, my God! My recorder! Oh, shit! I didn’t have the recorder on! Noooo!”

“Please, Professor Tibbs. Hey—come on, take it easy. I have it all in my notes.”

“You do? In your notes? Do you have a recorder?”

“You told me not to bring a recorder. You made me check my smartphone at the door, remember—and then you practically searched me.”

“And you let me get away with that? What the hell kind of reporter are you, anyway? Don’t you know about the First Amendment? Don’t you young snots learn anything? Any other time, and you’d have your f—”

“Hey, I’m telling you it’s not a problem. I’ve thoroughly learned your style. It’s been a very valuable morning. I can type up all that… all your unrecorded parts and email them to you this afternoon.”

“Or you could dictate them to me, Narwa. We could do them together. And we could make them much better as we go.”

“I’m sure you can do that on your own. And I’m not Nar–… I am not Arwa. I’m Jessica.”

“Yes, but you could become Arwa. You could be my inspiration. An author gets so dry, so stale, after a while. I need a new inspiration. Be my Arwa, Jessamin.”

“I have your email address. I appreciate your valuable time and the… the great insight you have given me into your… your method.”

“There’s a Nobel in it, Jessie! Everybody who judges these things will find something in The Drone’s Sister. It’s a woman’s coming of age, finding her voice, discovering her sexuality, liberating herself from men. It’s an oppressed people’s cry for freedom from Western oil oligarchies. It’s an impassioned plea for the exploration of alternative genders—I haven’t even told you about that part of it yet.”

“Shoot me an email. And—hey, don’t! Stop!”

Jessie had to slap Tibbs sharply. His magical hand had found a shortcut under her blouse. As he recoiled, she collected her smartphone.

“Creep! I actually did have a recorder going. It’s illegal… but you should know that, just in case.”

“So did I, Jessie. And thank you. That was great.”

She almost didn’t turn back around. But she was safely on the steps of the professorial bungalow’s front porch, where she held the upper hand.

“Exactly what was great, Professor Tibbs?”

“The field work. The data collection for my new novel. I should have told you. I may even be in legal difficulties for not telling you… but I couldn’t, you know. Then the results wouldn’t be valid. And besides, you’re a connoisseur, a lover of literature. It was worth the sacrifice of a slight unpleasantness, wasn’t it?

“Are you trying to make me believe that all this…”

“The last hour was just a ruse. Oh, not a complete ruse. I really am writing the story of Arwa, and I think it will touch hearts and promote the cause of social justice all throughout the civilized world. But my manner…”

“Yes? What about your manner?”

“How is a male supposed to understand the woman’s perspective? Even the most sensitive of us… we’re still male. We can’t help that. We’re blinded by that. And so when I start a new work, I try to put myself in the position of a male pig and then observe how females react. All so that I can tell their side of the story.”

“How very clever of you.”

“Well, yes… maybe not. Sometimes my research is misunderstood.”

“How narrow-minded of your subjects.”

“Yes. Well… goodbye for now!”

Jessie could just see Tibbs holding out a hand to catch himself as he drunkenly tottered. It landed upon the door, which slammed hard. Her mouth opened as if to question reflexively if he were hurt, and her foot almost moved back up one of the steps; but her will trapped both motions. Through the sealed door she heard a muffled, but clearly apologetic, “Sorry! My bad!”

Before climbing in behind the wheel, she stood a fumed for a good minute. Then she whistled her notebook across the passenger seat, where it fluttered up against the far door and disappeared into the floor carpet.

“No story here,” she murmured.

Mr. Davies, a semi-retired academic living in the North Georgia area, has devoted himself to writing the stories that he never dared to publish while on a college payroll.