With this post, I am returning to weekly (not twice-weekly) posting, and to the perspective of myself in the past--except I am now writing as though it were 2007. As this post begins, it is February, and I am 26 years old. I have a newly-minted master's degree in conservation biology, and I am engaged to be married. I have returned to the school whose name I never give for my green ring. -D.
I can hardly believe I am back here. I can hardly believe I was ever away. There is something more real about this campus and these people than any other place I have ever known. For the three years I've been gone, it has always been before my eyes, somehow, as if everything else were a veil of illusion or a dream. Now the dream has been stripped away and I am here again.
June and I came on campus together mid-day on February first, ready to enroll, me as a candidate for mastery, she as a new student. I still can't quite believe that part, either--that she's enrolling in college all over again for my sake. It's no great sacrifice on her part--I agree she'll probably be a one-hit wonder, she already plans to pay her tuition and fees by donating her car and by working, as I did, and it will be good for her career and for her as a person. Coming to this school was unquestionably one of the two best decisions I've ever made. But she can't know all of that, yet. She can't know how this place will transform her until it actually starts to happen. She's here for me, and the enormity of that trust and commitment...it's just a much bigger thing than I really know how to deal with.
The best decision I ever made was that night, back at grad school, when I turned around coming out of that building and found June there.
Absence does not apply to communications with Sharon in her official capacity. I had told her that I was coming back and I had arranged the details of what passes for application and acceptance here with her back in November, just as soon as I got my degree. In other words, I knew, more or less, what I was doing this time.
June and I drove up, parked the car behind the Mansion with the others, grabbed our bags, walked into the office through the front door, and June rather dramatically handed over the keys to the car. She was donating it, committing herself to she knew not what, and doing it without reservation. We signed some papers, and I handed over a very large check from my parents--the balance of my college fund. It should cover whatever fees might apply to me that I can't work off while I'm here.
"Welcome,"Sharon said, smiling her old inscrutable smile. She hadn't changed at all.
"Are uniforms still in the side office?" I asked.
"Yup. June, you can stash your stuff in there, too, for now. Daniel, you have your old room."
"I can't room with Daniel?" June asked.
"You can do whatever you like," said Sharon, still smiling, "but you won't get everything you can out of this place if you insulate yourself from newness."
"I've heard of you," June said.
"I'd be surprised if you hadn't," Sharon replied.
We went and selected our uniforms, June's in white, with a black cloak, me all in brown, except for the white cloth belt. We changed up in my room (nobody said I can't have visitors!). It felt good to be dressed properly again, though odd to look down and see myself in brown, almost like a master.
We had arrived about two hours later than we'd wanted to (we ran into traffic on the way, plus we'd gotten a late start), and by the time we came downstairs again, dusk had fallen. We went outside to walk around a bit. I know it's been warm here lately, and the snow has gone patchy and kind of lumpy and vague-looking, but it's cold now. The air smelled cold and froze my nostrils a bit, as air in February should. I bet the snow has a crust on top, though I haven't tried walking on it, yet. The patches, I noticed, too, were quite thick. I've been far enough away of late that I don't know what the weather's been like, here, and I spent some time puzzling over how the snow could be of such uneven depth--wind, perhaps?
I could see other people moving to and fro in the dim distance, and there had been a steady trickle of new students coming into the Office while we were there, but I did not see anyone else I knew until we almost literally bumped into Allen and Kit in the snowy dimness. Oddly, they were in almost exactly the same place where I'd bumped into Allen the last time I really spoke to him, a few days before my graduation. But he'd been in a snow suit then, and they both wore uniforms now, layered with two cloaks against the weather.
Both of them hugged me warmly, one after the other, then greeted June, whom they remembered from her visit last year. We all chatted briefly, and they teased me by congratulating June on landing such a fine catch--they knew I'd blush and fidget and I did. The last time I had seen them, they had literally vanished in front of my eyes, like fog evaporating, like a spell breaking. That was three years ago, in another world, another life. And here they were, chatting with my fiancee in a friendly, prosaic way, like ordinary people, on an ordinary day. I wanted to pinch myself, pinch them, to make sure they were real.
Kit caught me staring and smiled. I think I blushed again, embarrassed. Allen noticed our exchange, looked at me searchingly for a moment, and grinned.
"You'd started to think you'd imagined us, didn't you?" he said.
"Welcome back to Avalon," Kit told me.
June and I made our way to the Chapel, and found our seats. It was very strange to sit there in that familiar scene and not know anyone, and strange, too, to think of how much I know about this place that June doesn't. Part of that is by design, for I am in on some of the secrets that will be used to direct her education. I knew, for example, the mechanism by which dorms are assigned and that, for the first time that I knew of, the mechanism had been altered to ensure she would not be in my dorm. Part of my job would be to keep her from "clinging to the familiar," as Sharon put it, and yet to keep her from seeing the mechanism until it had had a chance to work.
A bell struck, high and clear, and struck again and again, dulling reason and brightening the mind. The room was cold and dim and honey-colored in the candle light and smelled of wool and snow and floor soap and beeswax, the sights and scents and sounds of tradition. I turned in my chair to see the masters processing in, fourteen hooded figures in brown, each bearing a single, unlit candle. I picked them out by shape and height; the tall, thin one was Greg, the slightly less tall one must be Joy--or maybe Sarah. Kit and Karen are indistinguishable from a distance, in poor light with their hoods up. Charlie, short and square, is unmistakable, and I was glad to spot him. I'd developed a strange paranoia that he had died while I was away. And some figures were indeed missing--where was Joe, my former boss on the janitorial team? Where was Chuck, the maintenance head? Could I just not make them out, or were they gone?
When they took their seats on stage, surrounded by candles, I saw that, yes, Joe and Chuck were not there. Neither was Malachi or Security Joe. And the non-teaching group had shrunk by two--fourteen masters processed in, but two of them peeled off and took their places by the side of the stage, ready to hand out diplomas. Only two new people, a man and a woman, sat with the non-teaching masters. I didn't recognize either of them.
Things change, of course.
Joy served as master of ceremonies and so she must be head of the masters' group now. The new yearlings, including June, introduced themselves and, without knowing it, sorted themselves into dorms. Then we, the new mastery students, stood up to introduce ourselves. We were scattered throughout the audience, and I hadn't seen any of the others before we sat down. I had known that Ollie and Rick were planning to return this year, but I didn't know for sure, and there were a lot of other people eligible to return whom I hadn't spoken to recently.
When we stood up, I saw Ebony standing a row or two over from me. I wanted to wave, but of course I didn't. When I said my name in introduction, I saw her startle, and tilt her head, as though to hear me better. I grinned.
When I sat back down, June asked me who I had seen.
"My ex-girlfriend," I told her. There was no time for further explanation, though. The ceremony was continuing.
The graduating novices filed across the stage speaking, as I knew but June did not, for the first time in three days. I recognized a few of them, but just barely. The new masters, two of them, received their rings and took their seats with the others. The ceremony concluded, and the masters recessed to the ringing of a small, hypnotic bell.
We adjourned to the first of the various receptions and parties of the night--the one at the back of the Chapel, where we milled around and chatted and ate dilly beans and dried fruit and the new yearlings each received their own cup.
"This place is weird," June said, holding her new cup in her hands as though she didn't know what it was for.
"Yeah, well, so are you," I told her, which isn't true. Or isn't especially true, anyway. I said it to lighten the mood because I was so afraid she wouldn't like the place that made me. But she didn't contradict me.
"Now I understand why we get along," she said, instead.