Of course, my first morning back I woke early--we all did, in order to make noise and turn on lights and generally make sure the yearlings didn't sleep in and miss meditation. I used to just stay up and go for a walk, and I'd planned to do that again, but I couldn't get out of bed, not even to go hassle yearlings. But I couldn't get out of bed. My room was cold, it was very dark out, and honestly, I hadn't slept well, so I was exhausted. I don't like sleeping without June anymore, and of course she was in her own dorm.
I think I fell asleep again before the yearlings had even left. When I woke again, the dorm was much warmer--close to 70 degrees, thanks to the wood stove--and my room was full of light. The indirect sunshine of morning leaked in through the my tapestry curtain and made the Green Man design glow and that old, familiar scent--wool and incense--greeted me. The dorm was completely silent and, for a moment, I was completely happy.
And then I realized that the reason the dorm was empty was that everyone else had left. I scrabbled for my watch and found that it was 7:45--fifteen minutes until breakfast!
I yelped, jumped out of bed, threw on my uniform over the long underwear I'd slept in, and ran out my room and all the way to the Dining Hall. I made it in time to find my seat before the moment of silence that begins the meal.
I was sitting with a group of yearlings, nobody I knew. I didn't know any of the senior students, either. As I ate, I looked around. I saw a few brown uniforms, a few familiar faces, but I couldn't get a real sense of who was really on campus with me. No one I knew came to seek me out, everyone seemed busy talking to somebody else. I wasn't eating with June--we've agreed to mostly avoid each other, at least for the first few weeks, so she can really find her own way here. We'll have breakfast a couple of times a week, have sleep-overs....I agree with the plan, and I helped plan it, but I felt lonely and disoriented.
After the meal, I went out for the walk I'd intended to take before it. I wandered around in the snow, noting shrubs that had grown, trees that had lost limbs...campus looked about the same as I'd left it. I thought at least the trees know me. I started to feel a little better. It was strange to think, as I walked around, that at that very moment, the masters were busy fare-welling the graduating students and none of the white-uniformed novices knew. They were all in a series of orientation meetings and meet-and-greets for the new yearlings, completely unaware that their attention was being misdirected so as to render an event invisible--but I, not being part of the intended audience for this particular trick, could see perfectly well that something was going on--there were extra vehicles parked around Chapel Hall, and a thin, white smoke issued from the chimneys there.
At last I grew cold, so I went inside and showered. By then, it was almost noon, so I wandered over to the Dining Hall for lunch. I found Greg there, loading up his plate. He greeted me casually, as though we'd seed each other last just days ago, and agreed to eat with me. We sat together at a table in the back corner of the room and talked while a sea of yearlings surged in as a group and ignored us.
"I noticed some people are missing," I told him. "Joe, Security Joe, Chuck, and Malachi?"
"Yes, I believe they've all left while you were away," he confirmed. "You don't get to return to the world exactly as you left it."
"I didn't expect it to, it's just...are they all ok?"
He looked at me as though he were preparing some clever and Zennish reply, but evidently he couldn't think of anything.
"They are all ok, so far as I know," he said simply. "Security Joe has retired. He is still living with his husband on campus--they were at breakfast this morning. The others truly have left, gone to take up more conventional employment."
"Wow, hadn't Malachi been here twenty years?"
"Nearly," he told me. "He had just turned 51. Middle age has a way of forcing you to think about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Malachi decided he didn't want to spend it here."
"Wow," I said, again. It's not like I was close to any of these people, but it felt disorienting to think of someone who had been here for twenty years just up and leaving while I was gone. "At least some things haven't changed," I said. "You're still here."
"Actually, I'm not." And Greg took a sip of coffee and smiled. He seemed pleased to finally be able to say something odd.
"I've retired from teaching. I still lead Zazen and I am still the school's spirit master, but this year I will teach workshops and talks, not full classes."
"I am turning 80 in a few days, Daniel. I think I've earned it."
"Anything else I need to know about?"
"They'll be a meeting for mastery candidates next week, just as soon as we've gotten the new yearlings settled in."
"No, I mean...has anybody died?" I meant the question kind of facetiously, an exaggerated, playful way of defining the kind of changes I was concerned about. But Greg's face fell and I immediately regretted my joking.
"My cat," he said. "Greg's Cat has died. He was hit by a car a few months ago."
"I'm sorry," I told him, and meant it.
"Thank you. I have trained all my life to accept the fact of impermanence, but acceptance does not mean painlessness. I am not sure, honestly, that it should."
Over the past few days, I've caught up with my fellow candidates--Ollie, Rick, Ebony, and Eddie are all here with me, just returned, as I have. Which is pretty incredible. Most of my favorite people, and I have them back again. There are five others in the group--I think the only one I've really talked about much before is Andy. He got back last year and expects to receive his ring a year from now.
There is one other student here I know, and I shouldn't have been surprised to see her, but I was. Kayla, I mean. She looks like a grown-up now--no taller, but a little broader, more filled out, with stronger, more defined features. She's 20, and part of this coming year's graduating group. I doubt any of the yearlings will realize she's anything other than an ordinary college student, unless she tells them.
The meeting for candidates is tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. We've all been wandering around with no clear idea of what to do. And I was wandering and wondering, rather than asking, because I understand that the masters are busy answering the questions of yearlings who, after all, have many more questions than we do.
But, yesterday at lunch, Charlie found me. I simply turned around, and there he was, making his traditional cheese sandwich. I could not tell whether he had sought me out or just happened to be there, but he spoke without hesitation, as though he had planned what do say.
"Have you forgiven me?" he asked.
His voice was rough and guarded and I could not tell whether he was serious or not. I assumed he meant forgiven him for helping to "kidnap" me for the graduation ordeal three years ago, but of course that was his job--the job I'd asked him to do. Or maybe he meant forgiven him for not saying a proper goodbye to me before I left. Which, yes, hurt my feelings a bit, but whatever. We never were chatty, and he has a lot of students. Or maybe he just meant for the entire experience of my novitiate, which he made as difficult--and as rewarding--as he could. But whether he honestly thought he needed my forgiveness or was just joking to break the ice, I could not tell. Before I could formulate a response, he spoke.
"Are you ready to do it again?"