This post depicts events that began right when the previous post ended, in the final week of January, 2004. -D.
I sat in the dark for a really long time.
At first, I expected the others to come get me any minute. I thought my time in the dark room must be some kind of test before something else, and I didn't see how any such test could last more than a few minutes. After all, they had me sitting in the dark, doing nothing.
After a while, I realized that my time in the dark wasn't going to be brief. Perhaps I was supposed to be meditating, or something. So, I meditated for a while. But with no way to time my meditation, I very quickly found myself plagued by thoughts of weather I meditated long enough yet, and after a while I gave that up.
Then I sat in the dark, being aware of the darkness and open to its reality, which I suppose would be Charlie's version of meditation, but I fell asleep.
When I woke up--and I have no idea how long I was asleep--it occurred to me that I was pretty silly for trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had been told, specifically, to do whatever I liked, for one thing. For another thing, I was in the dark. No one could be watching me, and no one would ever have any idea what I did unless I told them. Why, at 23 years of age, was I still obsessed with what I was supposed to do, instead of what is right to do, or what is simply enjoyable? I'm not a kid anymore. I can make my own decisions.
For a moment I felt giddy with my awareness of my own freedom. I toyed with the idea of reveling in it, testing it, doing something that I could not do if anyone were watching. But making silly faces seemed pointless, getting naked seemed impractical (what if I got cold and then couldn't find my pants?), and the thing you're thinking of would require some clean-up I didn't want to have to deal with.
When you're alone in a small room in the dark, being free to do whatever you like doesn't give you a lot of options.
I got up, took off my hood, and explored the room with my feet and my hands.
The place was about the same size as my bedroom, maybe ten feet square. When I jumped, I could touch the ceiling, which had some weird stucco texture. The carpet felt lush and smelled quite clean. The walls were wood paneling, probably flimsy. It bothered me that I couldn't tell what color any of this was, and I thought of Ebony. There were no light switches, and if light fixtures existed in the room, they must be in the ceiling. The toilet was where Greg said it would be, and seemed to be some kind of collector for the composting system--there was no water in it and no flush mechanism. There was no sink, either, but the box with the toilet in it also contained toilet paper and a squirt bottle of rubbing alcohol. It bothered me not to have a sink, until I realized the masters were trying to minimize the number of things I could possibly trip over.
The provisions in the cabinet turned out to be a full water bottle, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an apple. Odd, we don't grow peanuts on campus, nor do we normally buy any. I guess they made an exception for the dark room because a PB and J sandwich can't spill or fall apart. I ate and drank and enjoyed my meal.
My eyes played tricks on me. I kept thinking I saw light or movement when there must have been done. My eyes would not accept having nothing whatever to do. I thought about Ebony some more. She must have been through this same experience. I imagined Allen popping a black-out bag over her head. It must have been he who did it, the one master whom she most trusted. He would know to use the bag on her, to treat her as sighted. I wondered what it must feel like, at that moment, to frighten a friend in that way, to be Allen--or to be Charlie.
I got hungry again, and I found that, yes, the cabinet had been re-stocked with another apple and another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I thought that perhaps I should not eat, so as not to spoil my dinner, but then I wondered if I'd be kept in the room through dinner, or perhaps taken somewhere and kept up all night...I decided the smart thing to do was to eat and drink and sleep as needed, so that I'd be refreshed for whatever came next.
I was sure something would come next, and that I would not be in the dark room very much longer, since we all had to get in a turn before graduation. I didn't know how many rooms there might be, but I was pretty sure there was nowhere on campus that was big enough to hide thirty rooms I didn't know about.
And yet they kept not coming. The ordeal in the dark kept not being over. I'd wait in anticipation, then get distracted by day-dream, then come back to awareness again and realize where I was and why and I'd wait in anticipation because it couldn't be much longer....
Yes, it could be longer. Gradually, in fits and starts, I began to give up on time. I gave up on anticipation. I stopped thinking about the outside or the future--or the past, except as a day-dream. My periods of timeless drifting grew longer and my periods of impatient anticipation grew shorter and farther between and finally stopped altogether. I had no worries, no goals, no hopes, and no expectations. It was not pleasant. It wasn't unpleasant, either, for the most part.
I ate when I was hungry. I slept when I was tired. The room was warm enough, and the carpet deep enough, that I felt perfectly comfortable wrapped up in my cloak on the floor. I had no idea how much time was passing because I don't know for how long I slept. I lost track of how many times I slept. I'm not even sure how long I was awake for. Time might have dragged or crawled, I had no way of knowing.
When I was awake, I sometimes paced or exercised, or entertained myself by trying to guess where the nearest wall was. Sometimes I heard distant voices or people walking around. Sometimes the noises came from above me but never from below--but I had already guessed I was in a basement. It is very curious not having any idea where you are, especially when you know you must be somewhere within an otherwise intimately familiar place.
When I slept, I had anxious, disjointed dreams about trying not to talk, or forgetting and talking except discovering that I was mute, or confronting one horrible disaster after another and knowing I could not do anything about it because I was not allowed to speak.
I remember one such dream, I stood on one of the balconies on the Mansion and watched Charlie walk across the Flat Field--right towards a gaping, black hole in the earth, a pit fifty feet wide and miles deep that he did not see. I tried to scream, to warn him, but I could make no noise...I woke from that dream into a strange swirling blackness peopled with incomprehensible voices and I knew I had spoken after all and let everybody down, and I wept without sound, trying to make amends by my silence and knowing it wouldn't work, wouldn't be enough....And then I woke from that dream into darkness and silence, entirely unsure what reality was, whether I was awake or not.
Eventually I concluded I was really awake this time and that I had not spoken after all. I was gad.
I was lying down but not quite sleeping when I heard a knock on my door.
"Don't speak," Allen's voice reminded me. "We're coming in, in about a minute, if you want to make yourself decent."
I was already dressed, of course, but I sat up, and presently Allen came in, carrying a candle and several other objects. The yellow, flickering light hurt my eyes.
He set the candle and its holder down on the ground and set beside it a familiar-looking bag and an unfamiliar, large Tupperware-type container with an orange lid. He left the room a moment, and returned bearing a large, ceramic pitcher of water. He smiled at me.
"Your clothes," he said, indicating the bag, then took the lid off the Tupperware, revealing a bar of soap, a wash cloth, a small towel, and a shaving kit. "I'll go let you get dressed," he said. "If you want to wash up or shave, feel free."
I wear a beard, but it's a Van Dyke--that's the official term for a goatee-plus-mustache--and so I keep the thinner hair that grows on my cheeks and jaw shaved clean. I'd shaved that morning, or what I assumed to be that morning, so, why--
I put my hand to my cheek and found three days' worth of growth there. Three days.
I looked at Allen in shock and he grinned at me.
"I'll let you get dressed," he repeated, patting me on the shoulder.
I used the Tupperware as a wash-basin to give myself a kind of sponge-bath, shaved, dressed in my clothes from the bag, put my cloak on over top, and ran my hand through my hair. As I worked, I could hear voices, up and down the hall, not many voices, but the same ones saying the same things over and over, barely audible to me. When Allen came back, I was standing in the middle of the room, fully dressed, feeling dazed.
"Come on," he told me. When I looked uncertainly at my cast-off school uniform and the other things, he told me to leave them. "They're not yours anymore. Blow out the candle and bring that."
The hallway was lit dimly by candles held by some of the other masters. All Six had come to fetch us, and all of us, the whole graduating class, shuffled out into the hall or walked in around a corner from another hall. I'd been wrong--wherever we were was very large.
We shuffled along, not speaking, gently herded through a door and up a stairway, two flights of stairs. There was no exit between the flights, nor did the stair continue above the second flight. We could go so far, no more, no less. At the top, we went through another door, and came out--
In the right-hand wing off the stage in Chapel Hall.
Light streamed in through the windows, watery, winter light, but brighter than my eyes could stand at first. I wandered with my fellows, disoriented and half-blind, not knowing what to think or feel, in the entirely ordinary, even prosaic clutter of a disused storage area.
Kit got up on a box so we could see her over each other's heads.
"Ok, don't speak yet, just raise your hands," she said. "Does anybody not know what day it is?" No hands went up. "Ok, stay here, just wait for the ceremony. Someone will come get you." She got down off her box and she and the others left the room.
Before he left, Allen spoke up.
"Does anybody not know yet when you be allowed to speak?" His eyes twinkled mischief and then he was gone.
We stood or sat around. Some of us slept or exchanged back-rubs or paced. We all looked kind of shell-shocked. We could hear students setting up chairs and fussing with the wood stove and it struck me very strangely to think that all those times I had helped set up the Chapel for Brigid, there had been graduating students waiting silently in the wing. The light gradually leaked out of the sky and we were left in the dark again.
We were not left in the dark very long before someone I did not recognize, a woman wearing the uniform of a mastery candidate, arrived to organize us. The Chapel has electric lights, but she didn't turn any on. Instead, she carried a flashlight and a notebook.
"Don't talk," she began. "Brad? Brad, can you come up here, please?" And Brad, a man who started the same year as I did, though I've never talked about him, shuffled forward. "Ok, stand here, please. Dan?" She placed Dan right behind Brad. "Daniel?" Of course we were being put into alphabetical order.
When we all stood in a long, snaking row, all 37 of us, the mystery woman told us to remember our places, especially who stood right in front of us, and then she left us in the dark again. The Chapel filled with whispering, shuffling people who didn't know where we were.
About twenty minutes later, she was back, but didn't say anything to us. And then I heard the bells of the ceremony starting.
From the wings, we could see the masters sitting on the stage among their candles. We could hear the new yearlings being introduced and sorted, without knowing they were being sorted, into dorms. Briefly, the student body included both them and us.
Then, the mystery woman moved to the stage opening and beckoned Brad over. Kit stood at the lectern, and said the ritual words "Let all who seek recognition come out!" Brad stepped out. A few moments later, we heard his voice.
We graduated in alphabetical order--an unusual orderliness for this school, but they didn't call us out by name, and needed some way to put our diplomas in the same order as us.
I went third.
I walked out and Kit asked me to kneel. I knelt before her, reflecting on how on my first day, my first Brigid, it was her candle that I lit. I stood up on my own initiative, as per the ceremony, and Kit reached up to unfasten my cloak and lift it, and with it my novice-status from my shoulders. I stepped towards the lectern. I had been thinking about what I was going to say at that lectern, on and off, for four years, but I had never come to any definite conclusion. I had not, of course, known that they would be my first words about anything for three days.
Looking out over the audience, though, that sea of faces I knew and did not know, what I had to say suddenly became obvious.
"Thank you," I told them. "Coming here was a good idea."