They told us, yesterday, to get our rooms packed up to move out, because there would be some sort of final retreat for graduates this week and we wouldn't have time. Our rooms, of course, have to be vacant--and freshly cleaned by the janitorial team--by the time the new students come in on Brigid. I remember this from years past, how the graduating students would pack up a few days early and then go somewhere. I've never been clear on whether they all went to the same somewhere, together, or if there were a series of different events that took them in smaller groups. I never saw them going, I only noticed that they were gone.
That request was the last familiar thing that happened this week.
I packed up my stuff last night, leaving my clothes and such accessible so I could live out of my bags for however long I have to before we go somewhere. This morning, I went for a long walk before breakfast in the snow (there's over eight inches on the ground now, so I got to practice with my snow shoes and my pack at last). There are a lot of people on campus again now. I still haven't seen any of the masters, except Greg and Sharon, and of course, Allen last night, and only Greg is eating with us, but well over half the student body is back, and the Great Hall is getting crowded at breakfast. This morning we had oatmeal and dried fruit and golden pineapple-weed jelly on little round biscuits and the whole room smelled of people and food and wet wool and snow.
At the end of the meal, Greg made an announcement, asking graduating students to please stay back. At last, I thought, it's starting, whatever it is.
We stayed in the Great Hall while the others all went on their way, and when they were gone, Greg spoke--but all he said was that today we would all have our final interviews, and to check the schedule in the kitchen--and to stay in and around the Mansion all day because the schedule might change, in which case someone would have to come find us.
The interviews, he said, were not quite a formality--we would have to defend our readiness to graduate before a committee--but no student had ever failed the interview, so we shouldn't worry about it. He also said to bring whatever we wanted to wear at graduation to the interview for approval and also for cleaning. As you may recall, graduating students appear at the ceremony wearing their cloaks, but the cloaks come off, and underneath is an outfit symbolizing the student's net phase of life. Although, since I've seen every kind of getup, including no clothing at all, I don't know why these outfits have to be approved. I can't imagine anything not being approved.
And that was all. Greg dismissed us.
I was confused. Supposedly, some sort of something was supposed to happen, that's what we've been hearing for weeks, and why we all had to be back on campus early, but we seemed to be running out of time for it to happen. Graduation is only three days away.
But I was also excited for graduation, and a little afraid, and I was really too preoccupied by the prospect of having to defend my readiness to graduate to think much about anything else. I think we all were feeling the same way. We didn't talk much to each other that morning.
I checked the schedule and saw my interview was at 10 AM in Chuck's office on the first floor of Chapel Hall. As you may remember, Chuck is our maintenance supervisor. I checked my watch--almost nine. I went up to my room to get my stuff together.
I'd put a lot of thought into what I was going to wear and what I was going to say at graduation, but I hadn't really finalized anything. I had thought, at first, of dressing like a hiker, because that's what I expected to be most immediately. But while I expect that hiking the Appalachian Trail might be transformative, I don't expect it to take very long. I don't expect "hiker" to be my new identity in any ongoing way. I had also thought about wearing the uniform of a mastery student, since I do intend to become one, but that is at least three years in the future and it seems presumptuous to wear it now. I briefly considered being naked, but that's not really my style and I do not like being cold.
I settled on dressing like a graduate student, but how do grad students dress? I guess, living in a school with a uniform has made me want to dress so as to fit in with my fellows.
Finally, I put on a set of long underwear (Chapel Hall is cold in February) and then a pair of cargo pants and a black turtle neck and a blue and green flannel. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw someone who wouldn't stand out much among the people I'd seen when I visited the campus of the grad school I want to attend. Living here for four years has sensitized me to the importance of props, symbolic "tools" one carries to enhance one's identity, the way a judge has a gavel and a doctor or nurse has a stethoscope. So, besides my clothing, I put on my deer knife and slipped my field notebook, a pencil, and my magnifying lens into a cargo pocket. Those are aspects of my identity here that I want to keep.
I changed back into my uniform, put my graduation outfit, including the props, into a paper bag, and realized it was time to head over.
The chapel of Chapel Hall is on the second floor. The first floor is all offices, a long hall with offices off to the sides, and the floor of that hall is all tile, with a mosaic of the solar system worked into it, all the planets and the sun in a line, bright, colored circles, set in white.
I turned off at Chuck's office, which I'd never been in before, except to clean when I was a janitor. Chuck was not there. Greg, Charlie, and Allen were. My committee. Greg sat behind the desk, Charlie and Allen in chairs on the side, to the right. There was an empty chair for me, in front of them all.
I sat down, rather nervously, and surrendered my bag of clothes.
"My knife is in there," I said.
"Good. I'll take care of it," said Charlie. He's never quite said so, but I've always gotten the impression that no one but me and my teacher should handle that knife, if possible. That's the rule for athames and for the swords whose use Karen teaches. I've noticed Charlie is also very choosy about who gets to touch his axe and his saw. It's a streak of mysticism he rarely talks about and I was glad that he volunteered to make sure nobody else had to touch my knife. It's proof we're still on the same wavelength. "Are you going to want your clothes pressed?" he asked.
"No, just washed and dried, thank you," I told him.
Greg took charge and asked me to explain, in detail, how I'd met each of the academic graduation requirements. Of course, they had my credit record before them, and I couldn't remember every single workshop I'd taken off the top of my head, but I think they were looking for me to demonstrate an understanding of how what I'd learned related to the requirements, proof that I was thinking about those requirements, being proactive about my educational career. I supplied such proof.
I also had to explain how I'd met each of the mastery areas, how the work I'd done with and for both Charlie and Joy contributed to this or that requirement. Again, I had to prove I had been thinking about my educational goals.
Then Greg asked how I knew that I'd met the requirements in each area.
"Because my masters said I did," I explained. "I have their votes."
"You do," confirmed Greg. "But how do you know they are qualified to vote for you?"
I felt real fear. I mean, if I can't even trust an institution to stand by its own faculty? It was like the bottom dropped out of something. But then I realized I was being asked not to trust institutions, or individual teachers, blindly, to not assume an authority figure was worth learning from just because he or she said so. I had to think for a moment. The whole thing was awkward, because Charlie was sitting right there and I had to question his competence in order to defend it.
"This community works," I began. "The people who live here are mostly happy and they support each other. They act on the values they espouse. That suggests that your leadership works, and part of your leadership is deciding who gets to be a master and who gets to teach what. And what Charlie and Joy do works. Joy is a veterinarian and the animals she takes care of live well. They are healthy until they die, and they die quickly and painlessly. I have experienced her Reiki and it seems to work--and I have seen it work on animals and young children, so it's not just a placebo effect. So the things I'm less sure about, magic and so on, probably work, too. And what Charlie does works, too, everything he takes care of, this campus...me...everything he says is true actually is, so far as I can tell. It's consistent with my experience and with everything I've read, including books he didn't tell me to read. So I trust him. I trust his professional judgment, and Joy's, and yours."
There was a moment of silence.
"Remember all that, someday, when you start to doubt yourself," said Allen. "We believe in you and we are competent judges."
The three looked at each other, as though engaging in some silent consultation. I saw heads nod, slightly. Charlie got up and walked around behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders.
"There is one more requirement you have to meet," said Greg, somewhat ominously. His voice sounded formal, ritualized. Something was happening, but I was distracted by Charlie's hands on me--it was the first time he had ever touched me for any reason except to treat one of my injuries. It felt affectionate.
"Huh? What?" I asked.
"You have one more requirement to meet," repeated Greg, when he had my attention again. "And it is not an academic requirement. Strictly speaking, it is optional in that if you stop now, you will still receive your college degree. But you will not have completed our program, you will not be a full member of our community, and you will not be eligible to become a master."
"What is it?" I asked. "Obviously, I want to do it, I want to go on."
"If you do this thing," said Greg, "you will not be allowed to talk until we tell you that you can. Any vocal communication for any reason, short of true emergency, will disqualify you forever. If you understand and are ready to begin, so signify by nodding your head."
I was really nervous, now, but I nodded. And Charlie popped a blackout bag over my head.
Fear. Hurt. Confusion. Darkness. The fleeting thought that my uncle was right and this place was a weird cult that had shown its hurtful hand at last. I held tight to the seat of my chair, my whole body rigid, but I did not speak. I did not cry out.
"Trust me," Charlie said, whispering into my ear, so close that I could feel the heat of his breath through the fabric. "Nothing is about to happen to you that did not also happen to me. We are not going to hurt you."
"Trust us," said Greg, speaking formally. "Nothing is about to happen to you that was not done to all other graduates. Our objective is not to hurt, frighten, or humiliate you. If you ever feel endangered for any reason, you may speak, but not otherwise. If you have your flashlight on you, or any food, please surrender it."
I handed over my flashlight. I've carried it on my belt as a matter of course for four years, and so of course I knew how to take it off in the dark.
"Now, stand up and let yourself be guided."
I stood, and Charlie and Allen walked with me, one holding each of my arms, guiding me out of the office. They spun me around several times so that I did not know which direction we walked down the hallway--Chapel Hall has two main exits on opposite sides of the building--and we left the building and then walked around in the snow for a while. I could hear human voices in the distance, and, once, a bird. They turned me around several times again, following an irregular, random-seeming course through the snow. But we did walk straight for long enough that I thought we really must be going somewhere, as opposed to wandering in circles outside of Chapel Hall. For a while they actually carried me--Charlie must know how well I can navigate in the dark by now, that sightlessness alone would not sufficiently disorient me. I think there were times Greg must have held an umbrella over me, to prevent my figuring out which direction we walked or whether we were under trees or not.
Finally we came to a building (I could hear its looming shadow in the white noise of open space) and through a door. Almost immediately, we went down a flight of stairs. As far as I know, the Mansion is the only building that has a basement accessed from an exterior door, so I thought that's where we must be, but it didn't smell quite right for that--less musty, colder, and with a definite whiff of food. I didn't know where I was.
We walked down the steps, with Allen or Charlie telling me "step down...step down" with each stair step so I wouldn't trip or be startled, and then down along a long, carpeted hallway. The hallway felt close and insulated and it got warmer as we walked.
Finally we stopped and I heard a door open.
"Here is your room," explained Greg. "You still cannot talk. You will stay in this room, silently, until we come to get you. When we get you, you will still not be able to talk until we tell you you can. Once we close the door on you, you may take off your hood, but there will be no light. As you explore your room, you will find a cabinet-type door in the far wall. If you open it, you will find food and drink. If you put your plate and water bottle back in the cabinet, they will be re-filled, as many times and as often as you like--the cabinet has a second opening from the back, though the two doors cannot be open at the same time. You will also find a large box affixed to the wall and the floor in the rear corner. Open the lid and you will find a toilet and sanitary supplies. We will not lock the door, but you must stay in your room, unless you believe yourself to be in danger. You may do anything you like while you are here, including sleep, except talk. If you feel yourself to be in danger for any reason, do not hesitate to shout. Someone will hear you and help you and we will not penalize you for that. If you understand all this and agree, Daniel, so signify by nodding your head."
I think he was taking every opportunity to remind me not to talk so that I wouldn't speak from force of habit. I appreciated it, and nodded.
"See you in a bit, then," said Greg, and the three of them patted or squeezed my shoulders in a friendly way.
I heard the door close.