This is a curious piece, a fiction about the old building where when I was a child I went to summer camp and where later I was a counselor and an adult staff member.The description of the building is fairly accurate–it was not in very good shape even in my childhood–but of course the character and her situation are entirely made up. The building burned down a few months before renovations were to have begun, and I often think of it. Clearly it was quite wonderful.
She awakened to the sound of rain falling on the steep slate roof, dripping from the eaves, rustling through the vines clinging to the stone walls. She lay in her bed for awhile, just listening. Rain had not always been welcome to her, in this place. When the children were here, and it rained for days and days, it had been hard to keep them occupied. But now, it didn’t matter. She liked the rain. But it was time to get up, time for prayers. She pulled the woolen blanket smooth over the thin white sheets and straightened her pillow. The small bed and the wooden chest-of-drawers were the only pieces of furniture left in the long, narrow room. All the other third-floor rooms were bare of furniture, but there was an untidy pile of fragile, leather-bound books on the floor in the room at the other end of the hall. The door of that room was closed, and she would not open it again.
She dressed quickly in her tan slacks and soft blue shirt and padded down the hall to the bathroom, a basic room, utilitarian. Her towel and bar of soap and toothbrush were its only furnishings now. Thin, rattly metal showers had replaced the bathtubs years ago. They were rusty now, and each sink had an iron stain beneath the faucet. The toilets were only half-concealed behind cheap plastic doors. The room still smelled of toothpaste and strong soap. She rinsed and wrung out the underwear and socks that had been soaking in one of the sinks, and climbed out the window onto the fire escape where her wooden drying rack stood, sheltered under the deep eaves. It didn’t really matter now, she thought as she hung her things up. They’d dry soon enough.
She walked slowly down the two flights of the wide staircase with its comfortable bannister to the hallway that split the main floor in two. She turned right, toward the kitchen. It had been the busiest room, once. The cook had always been there before anyone, pouring juice into the the small tumblers for the children to drink before they went to prayers. The cook fried donuts on Mondays and Thursdays, and every day she made the breakfasts and lunches and dinners that sustained them, perhaps as much as the prayers did. But the kitchen was quiet. In the big, deep sink where once she’d scrubbed the huge kettles and pans, there was only a teacup.
Nancy opened the refrigerator and took out the pitcher of juice, just enough left for this morning, just enough to fill the one small plastic tumbler that remained. She drank, put the tumbler in the sink beside the teacup, and left the kitchen. Turned right again, into the cavernous dining room with its tall, uncurtained windows and deep windowsills. The trees outside were still dripping with rain, but the clouds were beginning to show firm edges and there was a strip of blue sky in the west. It would be a sunny day. Through the dining room, she passed into the tower room, its gray floor spattered with paint from years of art projects. The easels were gone, the shelf that had held the paints was empty. But the bell rope still hung down through the hole from the sacristy above. They’d always taken turns ringing the bell on the Fourth of July, before they went out to watch the fireworks across the lake. She climbed the creaky winding back staircase as she had every morning.
A tiny landing opened into the chapel. She picked up the package of matches on the windowsill as she entered, and lit the candle in the bowl in the center of the carved wooden altar. She stopped then, as she always did, to gaze at the Eastern window. The light was still too low to illuminate the glass, but she knew the outlines of the figures as well as she knew the outlines of her hands: Mary Magdalene, Mary the Blessed Mother, the Other Mary, and the angel before the empty tomb. Beneath their feet, the blue and white flowers that graced the forest around the Stone Hall bloomed once again, one last time. She breathed in the smell of the chapel: old wood, the ghosts of incense and beeswax and wine.
The little sacristy was empty now except for the bare cupboard and the bell rope with its two knots, spaced to fit her hands. The old rope was rough, the knots greasy with age. She rang three times, and looked out the narrow window to watch the pigeons circle the tower as they did every day, four times a day. The bell never disturbed the bats, though now and then, in the summer, a bat had made its way down from the belfry and swooped through the chapel. She had killed one once, with a broom, because it had frightened the children. Thinking about that always made her sad. Down the road and up the hill, she could just see the cemetery where the dust of so many dear ones lay under their stones.
Back in the chapel, she sat in the old carved chair in front of the prie-dieux. The red cushion was mended. Her prayer book was mended, too, with heavy linen tape. It opened by itself to the morning office. She sang the psalms, her strong voice echoing from the stenciled vaulting and she sensed the change in the light as the sun rose between the layered clouds.
Once, on the wall opposite the altar, there had been a tiny pipe organ with foot-pump bellows. That had been the first thing taken away, then the pews with their carved crosses, then the old brass altar cross and candlesticks. When they had gone and the sounds of workers’ voices and their power tools were silenced, she had placed the blue pottery bowl on the altar, and set a thick candle in its center. When there were flowers in the meadows, she arranged them around the candle. When there were not, she used bits of evergreen. In Lent, the bowl was empty of both candle and greenery. Now, in Ordinary Time, in late Spring, the candle was surrounded with a few sprigs of vetch and a precious branch of wild plum blossom.
Once, when Compline was over and the children had gone to bed and the grown-ups had gone down to the Common Room to drink wine and tell stories, she had sat alone for awhile in the chapel, in the quiet darkness. And suddenly, a sharp wind had filled the room, rattling the windows and slamming the door, and the candlewicks lighted again into pointed flame. But the children in their beds had not been alarmed, and the people in the Common Room had not heard a wind.
When she had finished the morning prayers, she blew the candle out and left the chapel through the main door, which she closed behind her, quietly. The bedrooms on the second floor, like the ones on the third floor, had been emptied long ago. The iron beds had been sold as scrap, the old mattresses taken to the dump, the dressers and little tables had been sold, too, or given away. The paint on the floors was peeling, the holes here and there in the white plaster walls the lath showed through holes in the plaster. But she had kept the windows as clean as she could, and she stepped into one of the rooms and looked out over the ragged green lawn and the trees toward the lake and the mountains.
When she was a girl, the trees had been saplings, and she had been able to see the lake, which was now just a glimmer between the leaves.She would not go down to the lake again. It was all different. The old split-willow on the edge of the smooth stone shore had blown down, and the path to the pebbly beach was eroded by the passage of too many feet. The ashes of too many fires, and memories of too many stories told by too many people long gone: the man who had never seen fireflies, the man whose grandfather had been shot in the village square, the woman who no longer believed in the resurrection. The ghost. This was the room where once she had sung lullabies to a small homesick girl. She’d walked the hallway in the dark, quieting the restless children, comforting the sad, calming those who were afraid of the ghost.
In the mornings, back then, they’d all arisen at the sound of the morning bell and dressed in silence, and third floor and second floor children had filed downstairs together. Juice in the dining room, up the back stairs to the chapel for prayers, back down the main stairs to the dining room for breakfast, completing the circle, all together.
But now, she made the circle alone. When everyone had left the Hall, she had said that she would stay, and no one seemed to mind.
There was one table in the dining room—not one of the long tables where they’d sat and sung together after their meals, but the little serving table, painted green. She took her bowl and spoon from a shelf in the kitchen, and poured out her cereal—the last in the box. She sat in the only chair, eating slowly, gazing out across the little table toward the windows.
Once, between each pair of windows, there had hung a painted shield, symbolic of a saint. The shields were gone. She did not remember what had happened to them. It had been long ago.
Sunlight dazzled the raindrops on the trees in the forest. She would not go there again, down the wide path to the altar in the grove of trees. They had always been silent when they approached that altar, and silent around it: no jabbering or teasing, no sound but prayer, and their singing. A wild, strange wind had blown through there once, too, on a sad day, long ago. And beyond the altar, the sharp stone cliff, the sunset point, the steep drop to the lake below. She had not been there for many years, but the memory was sharp, and in her dreams the place was always shining.
When she had finished eating, she washed her bowl and spoon and the teacup in the big sink, and put them away on the shelf, though she knew it did not matter. She closed the kitchen door behind her and stepped once more into the Common Room. Above the mantlepiece, a single nail showed where another shield had hung—a painting of the rocky cliff and the single rock below it that was the symbol of Stone Hall. Sometimes, in this lovely old room, she thought she could hear voices, echoes of stories and songs tucked between the cracks in the wainscoting. But not this morning. All was empty, hollow, in order. She closed the door of the Common Room.
She opened the heavy front door and stood again on the porch. The sun had risen over the mountains, over the clouds, and the light slanted across the tops of the trees. She knew that the ripples on the lake were glinting in that new light. Everywhere she went this morning, she found a memory of music, and on the porch, too, a memory of moonlight. There were maple seedlings between the stones of the front walk. This last spring, she had not bothered to weed them away.
She left the front door open when she turned back inside. The empty library on the right still smelled like books, but all the shelves were bare. There had been charades here, once, and music lessons, and now and then people in love who wanted to be alone.
But now she must say farewell to the cellar, through the last door on the right, down the steep stairs. She did not turn on the light. No chairs, no tables now, the murals on the walls mildewed away. But in the dark, at the end of a cobwebbed passage, a low door opened to the tiny room at the center, the most secret place, named for the Joseph who had given his tomb. A stone altar, bare. A wooden cross, empty. Earthen floor. Light from a slit high in the wall, a gap in the stone foundation. Everything here was as it had always been. She stood there until the light spread across the surface of the altar, until everything she remembered grew clear and hard. She turned away, closed the door and locked it with the iron key she wore on a cord around her neck.
The hallway was filled with sunlight, coming in through the open door. Nancy opened the back door, too, and left it open, propped with a wooden wedge. In the old days, the children had always come and gone by that door. She walked down the steps quickly, lightly, and turned onto the winding road and up the hill. She did not look back.