To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Part 7: Post 1: Samhain

Candle in bowl
Celtic sabbats, like Jewish holidays, start at sundown the previous day, or at least so says Kit. That's why, even though Samhain is certainly a big enough holiday for us to have the day off, our last day of class was actually the 31st, even though that's also when our big ceremony was. Samhain started the evening of the 31st, and then Samhain Day was the next day, the 1st.

My last class was Lies, Statistics, and Illusions. Of course, for all of us who were in it that was the last class, it was in the afternoon. When it was over, so was the school year. I'm sure Allen, as a therapist, was aware it was kind of a big deal for us, the end of our whole first year of classes. As a showman, I suspect he liked having final billing. He raised his arms in the gesture performers use to raise applause and told us to give ourselves a hand.

Class ended at five and the sun was already starting to set as I walked back to the Mansion. The ceremony was scheduled for seven, but we were supposed to arrive at the chapel around six-thirty. I called my parents and took a shower. I didn't eat--we'd been asked to hold off on dinner until after the ceremony, so I read a book for a while to avoid being hungry, then a group of us gathered together to talk for a while. Someone opened a bottle of wine but I decided not to have any. I imagined all the children, hundreds of children in the towns and hills around us putting on their costumes and heading out to get candy. That made me think--I knew the Sprouts had come on campus earlier today, I'd seen a lot of them at lunch, along with a few friends of theirs.They must have had a half day at school, except I'd never heard of schools taking a half day on Halloween, so the Sprouts and their friends must have gotten their parents' permission to skip class. That must be nice. My watch beeped. It was time to go to Chapel Hall. Night had fallen completely and when I looked out the window of my friend's dorm-room, I saw that the campus had become a sea of stars.

Walking over, I found the little lights lining the roads and pathways and doorways were little candles, hundreds of tea-lights floating in wooden bowls borrowed from the Dining Hall. I'd expected jack-o-lanterns but I didn't see any. Food rationing again, I imagine. Anyway, the affect was beautiful. Campus was full of people, everybody walking over to Chapel Hall at once, plus dozens of people, graduates, I suppose, in for a visit. Oddly, I didn't see any children. I would have thought they'd all gone home so they could go trick-or-treating, but I wasn't sure when they'd left. Allen had biked in with his kids but he couldn't have biked back with them because he got out of class so close to dark. They, at least, must still be on campus, but where? Were they upstairs sitting out the festivities in Allen's little apartment? But why would they do that? I couldn't figure it out. The night was clear and cool and dry and very dark, other than the little candles. That's one of the things I really love about campus--there are no porchlights, so when it's dark it's dark. It's relaxing. Samhain night there was no visible moon.

The ceremony started the same way the one at Brigit did, with the masters filing in to the sound of their small bell, except this time the candles they held were already lit. They climbed onto the stage, which was empty except for the tall candle-holders, deposited their candles, and then all of them except Greg and Allen left the stage and joined us in the audience. Greg held a lit candle, Allen held an unlit one. They faced each other silently for a moment, the tall, thin, older man and the shorter, younger one, and then Greg lit Allen's candle and left the stage. Greg was the Head of the Master's Group for the past two years. Now it's Allen's turn. I'm not entirely sure what the Head does, but I know the position rotates every two years among the Six (not among the non-teaching staff members) and that it's the only position of greater authority they have. There are no administrators, no principles, directors, chairs, or presidents, just the Six and their Head. After they transferred the candle flame we all clapped. Allen gave a short speech calling the ceremony to order, so to speak, and thereafter acted like a kind of MC.

First, Greg read aloud a list of names. I remember there was a sign up sheet in the Dining Hall all the previous week where you could write down the names of people you wanted memorialized. I didn't put any names down, though I'm starting to think I should have. I had a great aunt who died a few years ago. I didn't put her name down because we weren't close--I didn't live near her when I was little and I hardly knew her, but maybe I should have put her name down. Maybe I should call up my Mom and ask her to tell me about Aunt Ida. Maybe I should know. Most of the names were unfamiliar to me, though other people in the audience would sigh when certain names rang out, clap a little, or say "ho," which I've heard is what they say in sweat lodges when someone says something you agree with.  Three of them--their first names were Jim, Shrimp, and Tom--made Greg pause slightly before he read them, as though reading them gave him pain. The response from the audience all came from the front of the room, where the masters sat. These were people they knew.

I know those names; they have trees named after them. I didn't have to label the trees because they were too small, but they were big enough I had to go over and measure them to be sure. Tom's tree is a white oak and Shrimp and Jim have hemlocks growing right next to each other. I asked Charlie about them once, why the Shrimp Tree and the Jim Tree were so close. He said it was because they lived together and died together--in a car crash ten years ago. I didn't ask about Tom, but obviously that tree was a memorial, too. I've seen memorial trees before, wondered about them...and I don't think too many people pay any attention to them. At least this way, they don't just have the trees to remember them. Their names are said at least once every year.

Some of the names Greg read belonged to famous people: Edward Abby, Jacques Cousteau, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, it was an eclectic list. I guess they count as cultural ancestors? And then there was a long list of plant and animal names--the names of recently extinct species, I suppose. After the reading of the list, three people got up, one by one, to eulogize people who had died within the past year.

And then things got a little silly

Kit lead us in a song, but is seemed like most people knew it already and I quickly learned the refrain. A person would stand up, sing a verse, and then we'd all sing the refrain. Then someone else would sing a verse, on and on for maybe five or six verses. The verses were small eulogies, I guess they change every year as they honor different people. The thing is, though, they were kind of light-hearted eulogies, and the refrain--I think it was a rewritten version of some other song. It went like this:

Hats off to dead folks, wherever they may be,
'cause they had the best hopes for you and for me.
I stand up for dead folks, so you'll hear me say my
hat's off to dead folks, and I know I'll be one someday.

I mean, really? Everyone around me was treating it like this rousing sing-along and I shifted around uncomfortably in my chair. Hats off to dead folks? I liked the sentiment, but it was just so irreverent. And weird. Like, aren't memorials supposed to be sad? Not goofy? I don't mean I had any intellectually well-thought-out objections, I mean I just felt weird about it. But after a few verses I kind of got into it and started laughing along with everybody else. Some of those verses made the people they were about sound really cool, like I wanted to know more. And, I mean, if I were dead I think I'd kind of want people laughing and having a good time in my honor.

It made me think, too of Aunt Ida, wishing again I knew enough about her to write a verse for her. My Mom knows all about her--they were kind of close--and I don't know anything. I should really find out, so one more generation will remember her. And I should learn more about my grandparents, while they're still here. sounds stupid, but I was thinking about my kitten. I had this kitten when I was little and it died and I was completely heart-broken, but then I got older and I thought it seemed stupid to be carrying around this grief for an animal I only had for a couple of weeks. And then when Aunt Ida died and my mother was so upset I didn't want to put that kitten on the same level as my mother's aunt...I stopped thinking of that kitten as a loss. That's why, in the talks I've been to in the past couple of weeks, when they asked if I'd ever lost anybody I said only my Aunt Ida, and we weren't close. But I'm thinking...Charlie has a framed photograph of a dog on his desk. He doesn't know I know that, I don't think, and he never talks about having a dog, but he doesn't have any pictures of humans framed like that. The dog's picture is framed in silver. And so I think that if Charlie can remember a dog like that, I can start remembering my kitten again. RIP Sanchez.

So after the song was over, we all stood up (for dead folks) and cheered and then we milled around for a while, all of us, like we were at some kind of reception, like the ceremony was over, even though it felt unfinished to me. I went and found people who had sung eulogy verses and asked them about the people they sang about and I asked some of the masters about Jim, Shrimp, and Tom. I found out that they had been among the Six at one point, were, in fact, three of the six founding members of the master's group--Jim was the healing master, Shrimp was an artist, and Tom was a craftsman. Shrimp and Jim were a male couple whose families refused to bury them together. A portion of their mingled ashes were scattered on campus instead, in secret.

I was talking with Allen about them, and I think everyone around me was sharing stories about this dead person or that dead person,when a bell rang, the high, silver-sounding bell that the masters processed in to. And Allen stopped mid-sentence. He stopped seeing me, it seemed like, and stepped away from me, moving deliberately like he was in a procession. All the masters had suddenly moved into ritual mode. They extinguished all the candles on stage but one, and then they processed out, Allen carrying that one lit candle out of the room to the ding! ding! ding! of the bell. The ceremony was over. The year was over. We left the chapel. There was going to be food and drink and a fire at the fire pit near the greenhouse, we knew.

On my way out I heard something that sounded like a struggle of some sort, but everyone around me ignored it, so I did, too.

When we collected at the fire pit there was indeed plenty of food set out on tables, plus hot chocolate and cider, both hard and sweet, and a couple of people already had out their guitars and drums. I noticed both Allen's wife and Kit's husband were there, plus Joy's grown daughter, Serenity. Of course, Coffee Joe was there, and his and Security Joe's son. It wasn't anywhere near as many people as had shown up at Litha--Charlie's siblings weren't there, for example, and none of the students had family visiting, but there were a lot of people. And then someone said that Allen was missing.

And he was. It was odd, because everyone else was there, even Greg, who rarely went to parties, and Sarah, who was usually uncomfortable with things pagan, though she liked parties in a general way. Everyone was there, but Allen was conspicuously missing.

Just then, a small figure, either a woman or a boy, it was hard to tell which, strode suddenly into the clearing. It wore a homemade costume, vaguely pirate-ish, and carried a plastic sword and a very real lit torch. In the torchlight I could see it had a black patch over one eye and a bandana tied around the head, covering the lower half of the face. I didn't know what was going on. The older students and the faculty pretended like the figure were armed and dangerous. When it spoke, the voice was high and strange, deliberately disguised.

"We have stolen Allen! We have him! He is our prisoner, and you will never see him again if you do not do what we say! We are in charge, now!"

The figure was a child, and in a moment I had figured out who he must be; it was Allen's own son, David. The sprouts were playing a prank--except that he'd called Allen Allen. Of course, normally Allen's kids called him Dad or Daddy, but all the other sprouts always called him Dr. Allen. The sprouts always call the adults on campus Ms., Mr., or Dr. Somebody. I'd never thought about it much, but hearing one of them not do it sounded really weird. It seemed like more of a violation of things that the charade of threat.

Obviously, everybody except the yearlings were in on it somehow--it must be another tradition.The masters and some of the students begged and pleaded. They melodramatically groveled, but they could not make the boy relent. The ransom would have to be paid, and it must be paid in candy. The begging and the pleading was an act, and the child obviously knew it, though he played along, too. But the bargaining was quite real. The kid haggled fiercely with the adults, who clearly didn't want to give him as much candy or as many new privileges as he was demanding. He called several of the others by their first names, rather pointedly, but no one ever acknowledged knowing who he was. In the end, David won his fellow sprouts far more than I had expected them to get: nearly five pounds of candy each ("only the good kinds!"); plus a couple of glow-in-the-dark toy swords; three jars of jam, to share among all of them; and a promise that this year they would all be allowed to have sleepovers on school nights, as long as the guest went to the same school and everyone stayed caught up on homework. Then they returned Allen, bringing him into the circle flanked by costumed guards of ridiculously small size but fearsome mien. He'd been treated fairly roughly, it seemed, bound and gagged and face-painted like a clown. The booty was exchanged for the prisoner, with a few more first-name addresses just because they could, and the miscreants cheered and ran, taking their treasure with them and leaving Allen standing there, still tied up. He could barely walk, since his legs were tied together above the knees. At least the gag turned out to be fake, just a bandana tied across his mouth, but he refused to speak until it was untied.

 Allen could not untie himself, so we helped him, but, predictably, as soon as his gag was off he started laughing.

"You taught them to tie knots this year, didn't you?" he accused Charlie, "I really couldn't get out." Charlie protested his innocence, but he had in fact taught a knot-tying course at the summer camp.

"At least they've learned to paint faces properly," Charlie pointed out. "Last year they used my sister's make-up."

David in his Samhain costume
"What is going on?" I asked Rick, who happened to be standing next to me.

"Trick or treat," he explained. "They do this every year, kidnap one of the Masters, or sometimes a senior student. Last year it was Charlie. Twenty years ago it was the Masters' own idea. The Six set the rules, said how far the kids could go, instigated the whole thing. Since then it's been passed from kid to kid and none of them know the game was invented by grown-ups anymore. They bring their friends. When you see them again, remember to pretend you don't know who did it."

"Do they know we can recognize them?" I asked.

"The older ones do--it's sort of like Santa Claus, I guess. The line between pretending and believing is a little thin. But them being in charge for one night isn't a charade--you saw Allen, he really couldn't get loose on his own. And twenty kids against one man, he probably couldn't have resisted capture without seriously hurting them. He really was at their mercy."

Trick or treat!

[The song, "Hats off to Dead Folks," is a rewritten version of "Hats off to Old Folks," by Steve Romanoff. It was first recorded by Schooner Fare on their "The First Ten Years" album, in 1986)

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