The school year, my last one here, ended with something of a whimper (and a bang, non-academically speaking). My two classes simply ended with no particular ceremony or special observance, and I was done. Of course, they weren't final classes for most of the other students--they were only mine by chance. We finish our time here all in different places and in all different ways.
Finding out that I've been a straight A student has had an odd effect on my perspective on my academics. We're encouraged, here, to think about our classes only in terms of how well we mastered the material, how well we met our learning goals--there's no objective, impersonal standard to compare ourselves to, except success or failure, and no way to compare ourselves to each other. I'd almost gotten used to thinking that way, almost let go of being a high-achieving student. I mean, that was always part of my self-concept, as a kid and a teenager, I got good grades. And I'd just started to let go of that.
And now it's back.
I look around at my fellow students and wonder how many of them got A's? Do any of them know that I did? Is there any socially acceptable way to tell them? I always got good grades, but never this good. 4.0, a perfect score on everything. Surely that has to mean something important.
It means I'll have a somewhat easier time getting into grad school, and I might be able to get some scholarship money. Nothing more. To get bragging rights, you have to be among other people who are likewise bragging.
In any case, Samhain Eve this year was cold and clear and perfect. We gathered, as we do, in the Chapel and we eulogized the Beloved Dead and sang Hats Off to Dead Folks by the warm, flickering glow of beeswax candles, and it was lovely. Perfect. Normal. This is normal for me now. This is home.
During the mingling period, after the masters had come down off the stage, but before they left, Charlie came up to me, apparently eager to tell me something before he went into eclipse for the year--there's no rule against their talking to us outside of the school year, and of course there's the reception afterwards by the fire, which they share with us, but Charlie tends to like to seclude himself pretty deeply and I imagine he didn't want a To-Do item looming over him.
"Daniel," he told me, "you don't have to worry about sex. She doesn't demand monogamy."
It took me a couple of seconds to figure out what he was talking about--he didn't mean Joanna, he meant the land, the physical campus which he had described as his wife and lover.
"You can follow a path like mine, without being physically celibate as I have been."
"Thanks for telling me," I began, but at that moment the bell rang and Charlie went blank, stopped seeing me, and walked away. They all do that, at that moment, even if they're in the middle of a sentence.
I honestly hadn't stopped to think about that--it hadn't occurred to me that loving the land, as Charlie had taught me to do, might preclude my loving a woman. But then, I didn't take the possibility of being married to the land literally. I probably didn't take it as seriously as he did, either. I wanted to talk to Charlie about that, to ask if that was a problem, if I needed to go deeper. I also wanted to ask why he had thought to issue me that particular reassurance now of all times. How much did he know and how did he know it?
We all streamed out of Chapel Hall, towards the fire circle. I fell to the back of the group, distracted by my thoughts. I made myself vulnerable.
A jolt, and I fell and my fall was oddly cushioned. I settled on the ground gently, like a leaf. Tiny bodies swarmed over mine, immobilizing me by sheer weight, and a small hand pressed itself over my mouth.
"Don't fight, Mr. Daniel! You'll hurt the Littles!"
It was Gage Grimm's voice, Sarah's son and the current oldest of the Sprouts, a boy I did not know well. His voice penetrated my reflexive panic. I realized what had happened and, obedient, I stopped struggling and lay still.
As far as I can reconstruct it, two of them had pushed my legs forward, out from under me, while two more grabbed handfulls of my uniform at my hips and sides and yanked me backwards. The four oldest, all nearly adult size, caught me using the zipper lock arm arrangement they learn for elevated trust falls at summer camp. The whole thing was incredibly well coordinated, and while it was happening I was mostly disoriented and confused.
"You don't need to call him 'Mr.,' he's just a student," said one of the Ackerman-Ben twins, great-nieces of Charlie's. They're not identical, but I can't tell their voices apart, and everyone was wearing masks. It was very dark. And then it was very bright.
"Don't shine the flashlight in his face!" said an older girl, Mary
Grimm, I think. The brightness went away, but any night vision I'd had
"He's almost not a student, though," interjected Billie Grimm.
"We don't need to call any of them 'Mr.' or anything tonight," Mary Grimm continued. "It's Samhain."
"Yeah, but I don't want him to be scared," said Gage. "Or angry."
"I like him," said a small voice. Alexis! Allen's daughter. I like her, too, but didn't know whether I should speak. There was still a hand over my mouth, though it felt light and somewhat distracted now. "Mr., um, I mean, Daniel, don't be scared, we practiced all of this. A lot!"
"He knows that!" said Mary. "They're in on it, too, you know. This is all just pretend."
"Get the rope around his feet," said Gage. "Here, hand me that gag. Don't talk with this gag on, ok, Daniel?"
I nodded my assent, and a bandanna was tied loosely across my mouth. It wasn't a gag at all, of course. But the rope around my feet and legs was quite real, and the older children checked the knots to make sure they were secure. Next, they tied my hands together, then sat me up so they could wrap another rope around and around my chest, pinning my arms in front of me. Then another bandanna went across my eyes. Gage had me roll this way and that, so they could get something like a cargo net, or maybe a hammock, under me. I didn't understand that part, at first. I thought they would tie it around me, like a cocoon, but they didn't. They proceeded to do something to my hair and my shirt collar and my ropes, something that sometimes pricked, sometimes tickled, and sometimes felt quite pleasant, like a massage. They took off my shoes and socks and placed them in a pile on my belly.
Gage ran off to negotiate the ransom for me. I lay quietly and thought about life while the children speculated about what kind of loot their performance would earn. The loot would be mostly candy, of course. For the Sprouts, Trick-or-Treat leans heavily towards Trick-and-Treat.
Finally they picked me up by the cargo net (that's what it was for! Of course, the way they'd tied me I could not walk), all of them working together, and carried me over to the fire. There they received the first payment of their candy, cheered, and ran away, leaving me lying there like a caterpillar.
I was quickly unwrapped by friendly adults, who explained that I'd had chicken feathers stuck in my hair, my shirt, and my bindings. I'd looked ridiculous, as intended. My health was ascertained and someone put a mug of mulled cider in my hand. I found my bearings again, gradually.
The party continued, evolving into a ghost-story-telling circle. Charlie told two, marvelously spooky tales, of course, and, to my surprise, Joy told one that was genuinely frightening. I'd never thought of her as into that sort of thing. All the other stories were told my students, one after the other, late into the night.
While all that storytelling occurred, I could have found Charlie and asked my questions. But I didn't. There is a way in which Charlie is scarier than any ghost story, and I was in no mood to challenge him. I sought out Allen instead.
"Hmm?" He turned his head slightly towards me, but kept looking at the fire, kind of mesmerized.
"I have a question."
"Glad to hear it."
"Do you...talk about us?"
He looked at me and the corners of his mouth twitched up in a bit of a smile.
"Define 'you' and 'talk about' and 'us,'" he said, and then looked back at the fire.
I took a deep breath.
"Do you, the masters, share information among yourselves about the private lives of us, students."
A quick chuckle, like he'd been caught, and a quick, sideways grin.
"Congratulations, Daniel," he said, almost smirking.
I snorted and turned away. I'm sure I was blushing furiously.
"We're human," he hastened to explain. Then: "How many of your friends did you tell that I'm bisexual?"
"Three," I admitted, embarrassed. He had me. He totally had me.
What I'd actually told them was that I thought he might be, based on something ambiguous Allen had said about his past. I didn't much care, one way or the other, there are a lot of "out" gay and bi people on campus and it isn't a big deal, but Allen's slipperiness inspires speculation. If he is bi, I doubt he's closeted, it's just private information that doesn't come up much, and he's being mysterious about it with me in order to yank my chain. Notice that his wording, "how many did you tell that I'm bisexual," doesn't actually clarify the matter. I could have told them wrong.
Anyway, I'd always gossiped about teachers, ever since I was little. Everyone I knew did. I never stopped to think about how they might feel about it. I'd never really stopped to think that "teachers" are human. And this was Allen, my friend. I was both embarrassed and ashamed and I could not look at him.
"I'm sorry," I told him, and meant it.
"Thank you," he said, and clearly meant it. "But we know you do it, that's why we don't let you see anything we really don't want you to talk about."
"So, why do you talk about us," I asked. "I'd think...you seem too professional to gossip."
"We're human, like I said...but we don't gossip. We exchange information. On Fridays, at our dinner meetings, we talk about what we know of all of you."
"Why? It's not any of your business."
"Sometimes it is. Knowing more about you helps us with our teaching--Charlie's reassurance to you tonight, for example. And it keeps us from gossiping. You know how information gets distorted as it's passed along? This way, we each get our information directly, and we can see it for what it's worth. We can question and challenge our sources."
"Huh." I felt kind of mollified, but not completely.
"So, how did you know about, about me and Joanna?"
"That I can't tell you. I need to protect my professional secrets, you know?"
"One of the Sprouts said I'm almost not a student. Did he just mean because I'm getting ready to graduate, or...a couple of you have said things like that, over the past few months. As though you expect me to...join you. Do you know something about that I don't?"
I could hear Allen's smile in his voice, this time. When he turned to face me his face lay in shadow, but his voice was clear.
"No, Daniel. We don't know anything. I'm a magician, not a prognosticator. I have every confidence you can earn your green ring if you want to, but I don't know if you'll want to, and I don't know what openings may come up or whether you'll be available when they do." Remember, earning master status mean's you're eligible to get a job with the school, but it's no guarantee you'll be hired.
"We don't know whether you'll join us," he said. "We talk like that because we're hoping you do."