The boy at last came upon a wizened man sitting on the oak stump, head resting against his fists in contemplation.
“Who are you, strange traveler?” the man asked.
“Bartholomew of the Glenwood Village,” he replied. “And who are you?”
“Why, I,” said the man as he flourished his hat and bowed deeply, “am the great Professor of Science in these woods.”
The boy stood at a loss for words with his eyes wide in shock.
“The professor?” he asked.
“Yes, m’boy, I’m afraid my scholarly reputation precedes before me.”
The boy nodded. “Every boy my age knows how you helped Badger build his house—”
“—a trifle,” the professor said.
“Or how you helped Beaver sharpen his teeth—”
“—a mere dentist’s appointment.”
“Or how you taught Bee to fight Bear—”
“—a self-esteem issue more than anything,” the professor said. “Look, Bartholomew, science is my job. Don’t let those lurid tales cloud your opinion of me; there is nothing noble in simply doing your job, whereas there is something truly noble in building a house, dental hygiene, and learning self-defense for the first time.”
Bartholomew nodded fervently, hardly hearing anything over the thumpity-thump of his heartbeat.
“Now,” the man said kindly, “what did you seek in these dangerous woods?”
“The hand of a fair maiden, sir,” the boy said. “I am off to slay the dragon of Ragnathorne, to save the the fiefdom, win the gold, and ride back victorious.”
“Does this fair maiden have a name?” the man said, after a long pause.
“Her name is Belle of Glenwood Village.”
“Does Belle know your true feelings?” the man asked, gently.
“N—no,” the boy whispered to his feet.
“Young lad, science possesses not the answers to questions of the heart.” The professor rose from the stump, walked over, squatted, and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“If you love someone, you chase that person down. Nothing’s worth the regret you could have years later. Rejection, a bad relationship, a divorce — those are things you can live down, turn to friends for, commiserate in, and regrow from. There’s nothing for the fermenting weight of regret aging in the casket of your soul.”
The boy nodded and turned to run back home, dinky sword and shield in hand. The boy paused and looked back at the professor, who was already halfway to the stump to sit down once again to listen to the woes of Buck. The boy turned back and ran.
After patiently explaining to Buck that hooves needed just as much maintenance as antlers, even if it doesn’t feel as manly, the professor looked around the opening — his opening — in the forest.
“Slow office hours,” he chuckled.
He reached into his lunch pail, retrieved a sandwich he made — he made enough sandwiches for the work week every Sunday night —, and munched on it. Every now and then, some crumbs would land on his professorship of science diploma, which leaned against the stump and while weathered and worn showed glimpses of a once-beautiful frame.