We decorated the Great Hall a few days ago, and we helped the Dining Hall staff do the Dining Hall last night. It’s not so much a change as an addition—we added evergreen garlands and candles and bowls of oranges and chocolates and of course the tree with its ivory ribbons and strings of red beads, the orange and gold-colored glass balls like magical fruit and the flock of blown-glass birds, all almost literally on top of the twined vines and dried flowers, the squashes and gourds and corn-stalks of Samhain.
And we did the Great Hall overnight in secret so that in the yearlings woke and found the place readied for Yule in secret, as if by elves.
I love that part.
I’ve also been making other preparations myself, and not just for the holidays.
Almost a week ago, now, Sharon handed me a letter addressed to me that had not come through the mail. She offered not a word of explanation, so I opened it quickly, in her presence, opening that if the contents made no sense she might possibly answer questions then.
It was from Rick,
Hey Daniel, how fast can you walk? I got a job for the summer with a logging company—it starts in June. If you still want to hike the Appalachian Trail with me, we’ll have to leave the week you graduate. If we go fast, we can make it. I talked to your parents and they can outfit you for Christmas/graduation presents. I gave them a list. I’ll take care of everything, I just need to know whether you’re interested. Tell Sharon.
“But he’s in Absence,” I protested.
“Yes, and I have the authority to make an exception—and I made one,” said Sharon, smiling. “The function of Absence is to keep people in the school from supporting or influencing those outside, not the other way around. And it’s certainly not intended to prevent you from making plans for when you graduate. You can tell Rick yes or no. No more.”
“Tell him yes,” I said, on impulse. But I have discovered that my impulses, at least certain kinds of impulses, are good.
I have spent the past week ordering books on the Appalachian Trail and on long-distance hiking and winter backpacking from the library. I’m still not entirely sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but it’s starting to look interesting.
But now I had a new problem, one I needed Charlie’s help to solve. Only Charlie had vanished again after we decorated for Yule. I knew he was still on campus because I found the occasional bare footprint in the snow (his ongoing joke that nobody except me seems to even notice), and anyway, where else would he be? This is his home and more than his home. He’d be here. But he was invisible. I thought about asking Greg to carry a message to him, since Greg still eats breakfast with us and still leads zazen for the yearlings every morning, but that seemed like cheating, somehow. If Charlie had gone invisible, then I had to earn my right to his help by seeing him.
And yesterday I finally did.
He was walking up the Great Hall stairs one evening, just as if that were an ordinary thing for him to do. No one else was in the Great Hall, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on any of the lights. I was sitting by the fire, just thinking about things, in its light alone, when I heard him on the stair.
“Charlie!” I said, quietly, but he turned. The light was on in the second-floor landing and his eyes must have been adjusted to it already, because when he looked towards me he obviously couldn’t find me. I waved. “Do you have a minute? I have cookies.”
He came over and settled on the couch next to me.
“Bribery is unnecessary,” he told me, taking a cookie, “but it does help. What do you need?”
“I’m doing the Appalachian Trail in February with Rick,” I told him. “Is it ok if I train—hike and camp—in the Conservatory woods?” Remember, much of the woods behind our campus is Conservatory land that we’re not allowed on except for educational purposes or to do work there.
“Yeah, of course. But you’re doing the whole Trail in February? You must be extremely fast.”
He was joking, of course.
“No, we’re starting in February.”
“Don’t get too cold. Anything else?”
“I’m not sure. Are you in a hurry?”
“It’s pretty, here," he said. "You’ve got a good spot.”
“Sit and enjoy it for a bit. I won’t tell anyone.”
“You are someone, Daniel,” he told me. “You have already told yourself.”
I had mixed reaction to that. On the one hand, being reminded by Charlie that I am somebody felt good. On the other hand, he seemed to be implying that I count as one of the people he’ trying to avoid right now. Nevertheless, he sat there with me for a while.
“Rick has a summer job,” I said, after a while. “Do you think I can get one, too? I’ll be on the Trail during the hiring season.”
“Yeah, sure. Start looking now.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Pretty much anything, but I’d rather do something that kind of extends what I’ve been doing here somehow. I thought of trying to go work with Rick, in logging, but….”
“You like trees too much for that.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“I wouldn’t think logging would be your thing. How about caretaking?”
“What, like looking after old people?”
“No, no…well, you can if you want to, but I mean looking after a campsite or something. In the backcountry, something you have to hike in to. You’re more than qualified.”
“Yeah? Who hires for that?”
And he named half a dozen different agencies and commented that he had once worked for the last one.
“As a caretaker?”
“No, trail crew. But it’s the same department. Caretakers do trailwork, too. I might know some of the people still there.”
“Yeah? Can you write me a reference?”
“Write yourself a reference. I’ll sign it. Give it to Sharon.”
And he got up and disappeared into the dark.