Well, happy Litha! The summer solstice—there were some things I wanted to touch on first, but, as usual, life has gotten in the way of my plans. I’ll get to the other things later; I want to talk about the solstice on the right day.
I know people who consider the summer solstice to be a relatively minor pagan holiday, but as I’ve said, the school as a whole didn’t belong to any particular religion. For us, Litha was a really big deal, not least because friends and family were invited to the feast—I think most of the food came from off-campus. There was no way we could feed everybody from our campus farm, and I believe guests were supposed to pitch in some money. June is too early in our area for sweet corn, but there was a pig roast, grilled vegetables, greens, vegetarian chili, mountains of strawberries, and what proved to be the last of the season’s rhubarb. In the evening there was a Burning Man ceremony, in which a wicker and brush figure was sent off to the spirit world stuffed with wishes and prayers written on little pieces of paper. And that night we held the Long Dance.
Strictly speaking, the Long Dance is a fictional invention of Ursula K. LeGuine’s, but a lot of people at the school were fans of her novels, and we made it real. The basic idea was to keep a dance going from sundown to dawn. You didn’t have to dance the whole time, or even at all, but somebody was always dancing throughout that short night. I forget if I’ve mentioned that Kit is a musician? That’s actually the core of her job, even though a lot of people go to her for magic or spiritual development. She’s the primary art teacher, and her art is music and dance. Her primary instrument is the cello, but she’s one of those people who can figure out how to play pretty much anything in about fifteen minutes, and as a result there are a lot of musicians on campus. There were more than enough bands and drum circles and whatever else to keep the music going all night, mostly around the bonfire that was left after the Man burnt down. And at the edge of the fire circle, just outside of the dancing, fireflies rose out of the long grass of the school’s pastures like shards of summer sunlight.
My family didn’t come that first year, so I was free to spend the day meeting other people’s families. Since I haven’t told you about any of my fellow students, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to tell you about their families, but a lot of the Masters’ families were there, too. That was interesting; the faculty and staff kept so much to themselves except when they were working, that the newer students knew virtually nothing about them except what they taught and how they taught it. I had not known, for example, that Kit was married, but here was a tall, bearded man she introduced as her husband. Apparently, he lived in town and she joined him on weekends.
There were other surprises. Joe and Joe had a grown son who clearly looked like both of them. Security Joe turned out to be a female to male transsexual who had transitioned some years after his son was born. I wasn’t really surprised by this—not that there was anything feminine about Joe, but he really was such a little guy, physically. His hands, in particular, were tiny, like a child’s or a woman’s. No, the surprise was that the Joes had evidently had this whole life as a family outside of the school, something I’d never thought about before. It turned out they’d once owned a house where they’d raised their son. Why give up a house and a life in the real world to squeeze together into a single eight by eight room?
“There isn’t a lot I wouldn’t give up to live in a community that recognizes I’m still married” explained Coffee Joe when I asked him. I hadn’t thought about that, either. Remember, this was 2000, and unless you were personally involved in the issue, gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar yet. I was such a naïve, self-involved kid.
I had known Alan was married, since I’d bumped into the couple once at a UU church in town. I knew he biked home on Friday, and that his wife was also a psychologist, but I had assumed that either he did not have children or didn’t involve himself much with them. How could he? Well, the magician found a way. It turned out he had three children, a boy and a girl on either side of 11, and an angel-headed little three year old named Alexis whom he now carried about campus with such a look of besotted pride on his face I wished I could have been her, just for a few minutes. Not like my Dad isn’t proud of me, you understand.
Charlie had no children of his own, but he had a brother, a sister, and a whole flock of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. The sister was a somewhat rounded matron of boundless energy and a frazzle of hair like grey yarn. I liked her immediately, though I had a hard time thinking of this wonderful grandmother as anyone’s little sister. I still kind of thought of my parents’ generation as “the grown-ups,” and I knew Charlie was a grown-up, but he was also beginning to be kind of a friend, and it startled me to be reminded how close my friend was to being old.
It startled me, too, to see how the family organized itself around him. If you’ve ever seen Rocket Gibraltar, he was like the grandfather there, the occasion for a whole tribe of young cousins to converge, even though he wasn’t the oldest of his siblings, and he had no children. I asked his sister about this, and she sighed.
“He’s always been the center of us,” she said. ”I used to resent it, but what can you do? When I was little, it was because he’s so smart—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Then for a long time he got the attention because we were all scared to death he was going to kill himself, one way or another. He was…sick for a long time. Now, I guess we’re all just used to focusing on him—and he’s got the best place for the kids to come together and play. He’ll get all of them except Tessa’s baby for the next two weeks.”
It wasn’t just Charlie’s family who dropped their kids off, evidently; all the kids at the feast seemed to know each other already, and they ran about in groups in some world of their own. That the school community was a lot bigger than just us current students, and that it was multigenerational had not occurred to me, either, but as the long afternoon wound on, I saw that the adults gradually stopped caring which kid belonged to which parent. Anybody with a green ring would comfort, help, or holler at whichever kid needed it at the time. They were a single, big family.
As the sun started to go down I found myself watching the golden sunlight slowly retreat up the spires of the spruces and pines. There goes the longest day of the year! I thought. And then suddenly, I had to go chase the light, I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I ran off to the biggest tree on campus, an old white pine and scrambled up. White pines are easy to climb, if they’ve got branches near the ground, which this one did. The branches come out in regular whirls so it’s almost like climbing a ladder. Within a minute or so I was back in the sunlight maybe forty feet above the ground, and I stopped to breathe a bit. The branch I was sitting on swayed, and I looked up to see if the tree was moving in the wind. I didn’t want to get blown out.
“You’ve got excellent instincts,” said a voice in my ear, “but your situational awareness blows chunks.”
“Jesus Christ!” I shrieked, and Charlie laughed. He was squatting behind me, barefoot, like a monkey. I followed him up higher into the tree until the shrinking branches left us exposed to the warm, evening breeze, the main trunk began to sway under our weight, and we could see out over the roof of even the Mansion.
“We can see everything from up here!” I cried.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Charlie offered. “This is half the reason I know so much of what goes on. You people don’t look up.”
“Wow, I’m glad I don’t have a girlfriend on campus.”
“So am I,” Charlie agreed. “Some things, a man shouldn’t see.”
We watched the sunset up there over the valley, all orange and purple with weird shadows cast upwards from one layer of shifting cloud to the next, and I was trying to figure out how to paint something like that when I noticed Charlie’s breathing had gone funny. There wasn’t a lot of room up there, so we were almost touching, and he had a bit of a cold. Suddenly, his breathing went irregular, so I looked at him, concerned. He didn’t appear to notice me. He was staring out at the sun, just dipping down beyond the far range of hills, and moving his lips. He was singing, he just didn’t want me to be able to hear him doing it.
But I’d heard his whistling several times, and I already knew the Charlie always serenaded the close of day in one way or another, though I didn’t think he knew I knew. My awareness isn’t that bad. I pretended I hadn’t noticed him singing, but then when he stopped I, quietly but audibly, began my own.
When the sun in the morning peaks over the hill
And kisses the roses on my window sill,
Charlie stared at me in shock, but I ignored him and kept singing. He joined in on the second verse.
When it’s late in the evening, and I climb the hill
And survey all my kingdom while everything’s still
Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill
Singing songs in the twilight on Mockingbird Hill.
“Where did you learn that song?” he asked me, when we were done.
“My Dad taught me,” I told him. He chuckled.
“I’ve taught my nephews,” he told me. I expected, almost hoped, some new revelation would follow, as Charlie seemed more relaxed and unguarded than I’d ever seen him before, but he remained silent. Below us, the wicker and brush Man caught flame and the first of the bands started up, but it sounded very far away. Together, my teacher and I watched the color gradually drain from the sky leaving glimpses of clear, midnight blue behind grey, ghostly clouds. The stars began coming out, but mostly they were covered by cloud.
Finally, I realized my foot had fallen asleep—and that I could hardly see my feet, let alone anything beneath them.
“Uh, Charlie?” I asked, “will you tell me another secret?”
“Probably, yes,” he answered.
“How do we climb down in the dark?”