I got back from my job off-campus this afternoon and went to check the job board in the greenhouse, just in case I'd missed something.
The job board is the the basement of the main greenhouse and it's where Charlie posts everything that he wants the horticulture team to do, plus any information he considers important. Usually, he leaves it up to us to organize ourselves around the work, though sometimes he leaves a note for us to come find him. Since I've been working off campus, I've kind of fallen out of the loop as to what's going on in the campus gardens, so I like to come check the board--so I don't look like too much of an idiot when I show up for my next shift.
Anyway, there wasn't anything unexpected on the board, just watering reminders for the potted plants and ordinary chores, mostly crossed off already. I went back upstairs and was about to leave when I noticed Sarah sitting on the back steps. Which was odd, because those steps don't really lead anywhere--nobody uses them.
The greenhouse is built on the foundation of some earlier building. Behind it, now, is a sort of wet pasture maybe three or four hundred feet across, and then the edge of the forest and beginning of the slope of the mountain. Off to the right is an open area with the brick grille, fire pit, and picnic tables where Philosopher's Stone Soup meets in the summer, but nobody but sheep and deer use the area right behind the greenhouse. Years ago, though, someone must have, because there are foundations back there for other, now vanished, buildings. I've always guessed that those were dormitories back when this was a boys' boarding school, in which case the boys must have sometimes used these steps to come in to whatever building this was--a group of classrooms, maybe.
The greenhouse does have a back door that opens onto those steps. I went through it.
"Mind of I join you?" I asked.
"Go right ahead," Sarah told me. We sat on the steps together for a while, not talking.
"Would it be intrusive to ask what you're thinking?" I asked, and Sarah made an odd face.
"That's a very strange question," she said. "I don't really know what to do with it."
"I don't know what to do with that, either."
"Sarah, I don't know what to do with you not knowing what to do." I was a bit exasperated. Sarah is every bit as analytical as Allen, but it isn't a game to her and she can easily get offended by things I didn't even realize I'd said. "Do you mind if I talk with you? Because if you do, I will be silent."
"I don't mind. What do you want to talk about?"
"What you are thinking." Put that way, it sounded intrusive, but I doubt anything other than honesty would have helped my situation. She gave a kind of a grunt, a single ha! of laughter.
"I was thinking about the children who used to live in those dorms," she said, "and what living here was like for them, and what they're doing with their lives now. I sometimes think of looking some of them up, but it might attract attention to our school. I don't know whether sending children away for school is really a good thing to do."
"Plenty of children survive it and go on to live meaningful lives."
"Yes, but that's not a reasonable standard, is it? I mean, lots of people survive lots of things. Not destroying people can't be the only definition of good, now can it?"
"I suppose not," I told her, really hoping she wasn't going to to pick apart such a bland non-answer. I just didn't feel like sparring with her just then--I always lose.
"And I was listening to the birds," she added.
"There are four of them," I said, just in case Charlie had sent her as a spy to check if I was still paying attention. She waved my words away with her hand.
"The number of them is irrelevant. They are beautiful."
"Can't a beautiful thing have a number?" I asked, before I could stop myself.
"Of course they have a number," she answered. "The number is just irrelevant."
"Do you suppose the birds think their song is beautiful?" I asked.
"They do if they can perceive beauty," she answered, as though such an answer should be obvious.
"You think beauty is objective?" I asked.
"Of course. Beauty is part of what gives life meaning. If it were just imaginary then life would be meaningless."
I could see several different holes in this, could imagine how Allen or Kit might respond philosophically to the statement. I did not attempt to emulate them. Sarah can out-talk me any day of the week, she'd take any challenge of mine apart.
"What does Charlie think about it?" I asked instead. I knew he would say that beauty is a human bias, a projection to be enjoyed but not taken seriously. He says he is after larger game than that which fits within a human world view.
Sarah simply turned away and did not answer.