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The Lake of Dead Languagesby Carol Goodman
I have been told to make the latin curriculum relevant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions, “Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella . . .” like novices counting their rosaries.
When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I dont trust them? If I dont look, will they think I am naive? When they put their upturned hands in mine—so light-boned and delicate—it is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.
In class I see only the tops of their hands—the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand—an intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh—their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into class. “Bona fortuna,” I say. “Good luck on the test.”
When I first came back to Heart Lake I was surprised at the new girls, but I soon realized that since my own time here the school has become a sort of last resort for a certain kind of girl. I have learned that even though the Heart Lake School for Girls still looks like a prestigious boarding school, it is not. It is really a place for girls who have already been kicked out of two or three of the really good schools. A place for girls whose parents have grown sick of drama, sick of blood on the bathroom floor, sick of the policeman at the door.
Athena (her real name is Ellen Craven, but I have come to think of the girls by the classical names theyve chosen for class) is the last to finish washing. She has asked for extra credit, for more declensions and verb conjugations to learn, so she is up to her elbows in blue ink. She holds out her forearms for me to see and there is no way to avoid looking at the scar on her right arm that starts at the base of her palm and snakes up to the crook of her elbow. She sees me wince.
Athena shrugs. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she says. “I was all messed up over this boy last year, you know?”
I try to remember caring that much for a boy—I almost see a face—but its like trying to remember labor pains, you remember the symptoms of pain—the blurred vision, the way your mind moves in an ever-tightening circle around a nucleus so dense gravity itself seems to bend toward it—but not the pain itself.
“Thats why my aunt sent me to an all girls school,” Athena continues. “So I wouldnt get so caught up with boys again. Like my mother goes to this place upstate when she needs to dry out—you know, get away from booze and pills? So, Im here drying out from boys.”
I look up from her hands to her pale face—a paleness accentuated by her hair, which is dyed a blue-black that matches the circles under her eyes. I think I hear tears in her voice, but instead she is laughing. Before I can help myself I laugh, too. Then I turn away from her and yank paper towels from the dispenser so she can dry her arms.
I let the girls out early after the test. They whoop with delight and crowd the doorway. I am not insulted. This is part of the game we play. They like it when Im strict. Up to a point. They like that the class is hard. They like me, I think. At first I flattered myself that it was because I understood them, but then one day I retrieved a note left on the floor.
“What do you think of her?” one girl had written.
“Lets go easy on her,” another, later I identified the handwriting as Athenas, had answered.
I realized then that the girls goodwill did not come from anything I had said or done. It came because they knew, with the uncanny instinct of teenagers, that I must have messed up as badly as they had to end up here.
Today they leave shaking the cramp out of their hands and comparing answers from the test. Vesta—the thin, studious one, the one who tries the hardest—holds the textbook open to read out the declension and conjugation endings. There are moans from some, little cries of triumph from others. Octavia and Flavia, the two Vietnamese sisters who are counting on classics scholarships to college, nod at each answer with the calm assurance of hard studiers. If I listened carefully I wouldnt have to mark the tests at all to know what grades to give, but I let the sounds of sorrow and glee blur together. I can hear them all the way down the hall until Myra Todd opens her door and tells them theyre disturbing her biology lab.
I hear another door open and one of my girls calls out, “Hello, Miss Marshmallow.” Then I hear a high nervous laugh which I recognize as that of Gwendoline Marsh, the English teacher. It wont be Gwen, though, who complains; its Myra Ill catch hell from later for letting them out before the bell. I dont care. Its worth it for the quiet that settles now over my empty classroom, for the minutes Ill have before my next class.
I turn my chair around so that I face the window. On the lawn in front of the mansion I see my girls collapsed in a lopsided circle. From here their dark clothing and dyed hair—Athenas blue-black, Aphrodites bleached blond, and Vestas lavender red, which is the same shade as the nylon hair on my daughters Little Mermaid doll—make them look like hybrid flowers bred into unnatural shades. Black dahlias and tulips. Flowers the bruised color of dead skin.
Past where the girls sit, Heart Lake lies blue-green and still in its glacial cradle of limestone. The water on this side of the lake is so bright it hurts my eyes. I rest them on the dark eastern end of the lake, where the pine tree shadows stain the water black. Then I pick my homework folder up off my desk and add the assignments Ive collected today, sorting each girls new assignment with older work (as usual, Im about a week behind in my grading). Theyre easy to sort because almost all the girls use different kinds of paper that Ive come to recognize as each girls distinctive trademark: lavender stationery for Vesta, the long yellow legal-size sheets for Aphrodite, lined paper with ragged edges which Athena tears from her black-and-white notebooks.
Sometimes the page Athena gives me has something else written on the reverse side. A few lines at the top that look to be the end of a diary entry. I know from the scraps Ive read that she sometimes writes as if addressing a letter to herself and sometimes as if the journal itself were her correspondent. “Dont forget,” I read in one of these coda. “You dont need anyone but yourself.” And another time: “I promise Ill write to you more often, youre all I have.” Sometimes there is a drawing on the back of her assignment. Half a womans face dissolving into a wave. A rainbow sliced in two by a winged razor blade. A heart with a dagger through its middle. Cheap teenage symbolism. They could be pictures from the book I kept when I was her age.
I recognize the paper she uses by its ragged edge where its been pulled out of the thread-stitched notebook. If shes not careful, pages will start to come loose. I know because I used the same sort of book when I was her age, the kind with the black-and-white- marbled covers. When I look down at the page I think Ive got another piece of her journal, but then I turn it over and see the other side is blank. Athenas homework is on a separate page at the bottom of the stack and Ive lost track whether the page Im holding is one that was just handed in or was already in the folder. I look back at the page I thought was her homework. There is a single line of tiny, cramped writing at the top of it. The ink is so pale that I have to move the paper into the light from the window in order to make it out.
Youre the only one I can ever tell.
I stare at the words so hard that a dim halo forms around them and I have to blink to make the darkness go away. Later Ill wonder what I recognized first: the words that I wrote in my journal almost twenty years ago, or my own handwriting.
I make the students in my next class recite declen- sions until the sound of the other words in my head is a faint whisper, but as I walk to the dining hall the words reassert themselves in my brain. Youre the only one I can ever tell. Words any teenager might write in her diary. If I hadnt recognized my own handwriting there would be no cause for alarm. The words could refer to anything, but knowing what they do refer to I cant help but wonder how someone has gotten hold of my old journal and slipped a page of it into my homework folder. At first I had thought it must be Athena, but then I realized that any of the girls could have handed me the page when she handed in her own assignment. For that matter, since I left the homework folder on my desk overnight and the classrooms are unlocked, anyone might have slipped the page into my homework folder.
I know that that particular page is from the last journal I kept senior year, and that I lost it during the spring semester. Could it have been on the property all this time—hidden under the floorboards in my old dorm room perhaps—and Athena or one of her friends has now found it? The thought of what else is in that journal floods through me and I have to actually stop at the foot of the mansion stairs and lean on the railing for a moment before I can start up the steps.
Girls in plaid skirts and white shirts coming untucked from the blue sweaters tied around their waists stream around me as I make my way up the stairs toward the massive oak doors. The doors were designed to intimidate. They are outside the human scale. The Crevecoeur family, who donated the mansion to the school, also owned the paper mill in the nearby town of Corinth. India Crevecoeur ran a tea and “improvement society” for the female mill workers. I picture those mill girls, in a tight gaggle for warmth as much as for moral support, waiting outside these doors. My own grandmother, who worked at the mill before working as a maid for the Crevecoeurs, might have been among them.
When I won the scholarship to come here I wondered what the Crevecoeurs would have thought about the granddaughter of one of their maids attending their school. I dont think they would have been amused. In the family portrait that hangs in the Music Room they look like dour, unhappy people. Their ancestors were Huguenots who fled France in the seventeenth century and eventually made their way here to this remote outpost in upstate New York. It must have been a shock to them—this wilderness, the brutal winters, the isolation. The fanlight above the door is plain glass now, but when I went here it was stained glass: a red heart split in two by a green fleur-de-lis-handled dagger and the family motto in yellow: Cor te reducit—The heart leads you back. Ive always imagined them waiting for some deliverance from this savage place, to France, or God perhaps. But since I have found myself back at Heart Lake—a place I swore Id never return to—Ive begun to think the heart in the motto is the lake itself, exerting its own gravitational pull on those who have once lived on its shores and bathed in its icy green water.
The faculty dining room is in the old Music Room. When I went to Heart Lake the scholarship students worked in the kitchen and served the teachers at meals. Some years ago the practice was discontinued as it was considered demeaning to the scholarship students. I never minded though. Nancy Ames, the cook, always gave us a good meal. Roasts and potatoes, creamed vegetables and poached fish. I never ate so well in all my life. She saved us the rolls she baked fresh for every meal. She gave them to us wrapped in thick linen napkins embroidered with the Heart Lake crest, which we were to remember to return. Walking back through the cold dusk—that last year at Heart Lake resides in my memory as one endless winter dusk—I felt the warmth of them in my pocket, like a small animal burrowed for shelter against my body.
Now the school uses paper napkins and the teachers serve themselves from a buffet. Tuna fish salad and packaged bread. Carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs. What hasnt changed, though, is the mandatory attendance for all faculty. It was a tenet of India Crevecoeur, Heart Lakes founder, that the teaching staff be a community. It is an admirable goal, but on days like today Id give much to be able to take my sandwich out to a rock by the lake with no one but Ovid for company. As I enter the room I give Indias image in the family portrait a resentful look, which she, snug in the bosom of her large family, disdainfully returns.
The only empty seat is next to Myra Todd. I take out a stack of quizzes to grade and hope they will keep her from commenting on third periods early dismissal. Half the teachers at the long table have a similar stack of paper-clipped pages at which they peck with their red pens in between bites of tuna fish. When I take out mine, though, I see I still have the journal page with my handwriting on the top of the stack. I hurriedly fold it and stick it into the pocket of my plaid wool skirt just as Myra leans across me for the salt shaker. I have to remind myself that shed have no reason to think anything of those enigmatic words even if she did see them. Unless shes the one who found my old journal.
I steal a glance at her to see if shes paying undue attention to my stack of papers, but she is placidly chewing her sandwich and staring into the middle distance. Under the smell of tuna fish and stale coffee I catch her distinctive smell—a whiff of mildew as if she were one of her own science experiments left too long in the supply closet over Christmas break. Ive always wondered what peculiar health condition or faulty laundry procedure is the cause of this odor, but its hardly the kind of thing you could ask a person as prim and proper as Myra. I try to imagine what she would do if she came upon my old journal, and I am pretty sure shed take it straight to the dean.
I try to imagine what Dean Buehl would make of my old journal. Celeste Buehl was the science teacher when I went to Heart Lake. She was always kind to me when I was her student—and she was more than kind when she gave me this job—but I dont think that kindness would survive a reading of my senior-year journal.
When she comes in today I notice how much shes changed in the twenty years since she was my teacher. I remember her as slim and athletic, leading nature hikes through the woods and skating on the lake in winter. Now her broad shoulders are rounded and her short, cropped hair, once dark and springy, looks lifeless and dull. Myra Todd picks the moment of the deans entrance to mention third periods early dismissal.
“Jane,” she says loudly, “your third-period class disturbed my senior lab this morning. We were at a very delicate stage of dissection. Mallory Martins hand slipped and she nicked her lab partner with a scalpel.”
I know Mallory Martin by reputation. My girls call her Maleficent. I somehow doubt the incident with the scalpel was an accident.
“Im sorry, Myra, Ill tell them to be quieter. They get so keyed up for these exams.”
“The thing to do is give them extra problems when they finish their tests. That way they wont be so anxious to finish early.” Simon Ross, the math teacher, volunteers this pedagogical advice and resumes scoring a pile of quizzes with a thick red marker. The tips of his fingers are stained red with the marker, and I notice the color has bled onto his sandwich.
“I let the girls write in their journals,” Gwendoline Marsh offers in a small voice. “It helps them to have an outlet and its part of their grade.”
“And just how do you grade these journals?” asks Meryl North, the history teacher who already seemed as ancient as her subject when I was a student here. “Do you read their private thoughts?”
“Oh no, I only read the parts they want me to—they circle the parts Im not supposed to read and mark them private.”
Meryl North makes a sound between a laugh and a choke and Gwendolines pale skin reddens. I try to catch Gwens eye to give her a nod of encouragement—she is the closest thing to a friend I have here at Heart Lake—but she is resolutely staring down at a worn volume of Emily Dickinson.
“They do seem to be under a lot of stress,” I say, more to cover Gwens embarrassment than because I want to open this particular line of conversation. There were two suicide attempts last year. In response, the administration has instituted weekly faculty seminars on adolescent depression and “How to detect the ten warning signs of suicidal behavior.”
“Anyone in particular?” The question comes from Dr. Candace Lockhart. Unlike the rest of us at the table she has no stacks of papers to grade or texts to study for next period. Her fingers are never stained with ink, her exquisitely tailored dove gray suits never tainted with the ugly yellow chalk dust that the rest of us wear like a wasting disease. Shes the school psychologist, an office that did not exist in my day. There is an aura of secrecy surrounding her appointment here. Ive heard some of the faculty complain that Dean Buehl hired her without going through the proper channels. In other words, without giving the resident faculty a chance to gossip about her credentials. Theres a whiff of jealousy about the complaints, to which I am not immune. The rumor is that she is conducting research for a groundbreaking study on the psychology of adolescent girls. We all suspect that once her research is done she will leave us for private practice, a glamorous lecture circuit with appearances on “Oprah,” or perhaps a tenure-track post at an Ivy League college—some existence more appropriate to her wardrobe. In the meantime, she resides among us with her pale, almost white, hair, blue eyes and thin, ascetic figure, like a lilac point Siamese slumming with drab tabbies.
Poor Gwen, in her faded Indian print jumper and fussily old-fashioned high-necked white blouse, looks especially dowdy in comparison. Although Candace Lockhart and Gwen Marsh are both in their early thirties, the effects of teaching five classes a day, not to mention sponsoring half a dozen clubs, have left their mark on Gwen. Her complexion is muddy, her hair limp and going gray at the roots, her blue eyes washed out and bloodshot. Candace, on the other hand, clearly has time to get her hair done (that platinum blond cant be entirely natural) and her blue eyes are as clear and cold as lake water.
I am sufficiently unnerved by those blue eyes to make a mistake. Of course, I should say, “No. No one in particular.” But instead I name a name. “Athena . . . I mean Ellen . . . Craven. I noticed today that she has an awful scar on her arm.”
“Well, yes, I know about that of course. Thats old news and not surprising given Ellens history.”
I should be glad for her dismissal, but something in the way Dr. Lockharts blue eyes glaze over, already looking past me toward whatever illustrious future fate has in store for her, irks me. I am forever thinking I am past such vanities and finding that I am not.
“Some of the pictures she draws on the back of her homework assignments are . . . well . . . somewhat disturbing.”
“You let your girls turn in homework with pictures on the back?” Myra Todd looks up from her stack of papers, appalled, only to meet Dr. Lockharts cool look of disdain. Gratified to have someone else silenced by those eyes, I go on. It has occurred to me that this is exactly what I should be doing. My responsibility as Athenas teacher, as an especially trusted teacher in whom the girl confided, demands that I seek help for her emotional problems. To whom else should I refer those problems than the school psychologist?
“Disembodied eyes with tears turning into razor blades, that kind of thing. I suppose the images arent unusual . . .”
I notice that the rest of the table has grown quiet, and it occurs to me that I shouldnt be talking about my student in front of the entire teaching staff. Dr. Lockhart must think so, too.
“Perhaps you should come see me in my office to talk about Athena. Im in my office by seven. Why dont you come in before your first class?” Dr. Lockhart suggests.
She no doubt sees my reluctance to agree to this early appointment—I am thinking of the lake swim I try to take each morning before class—and so she adds this last piece of admonishment.
“Its crucial we address any preoccupation with death or suicide immediately. These things have a way of turning into trends, as Im sure you know from your own experience here, Miss Hudson. Dont you agree, Dean Buehl?”
Dean Buehl sighs. “God forbid that happen again.”
I feel blood rush to my cheeks as if I had been slapped. Any thoughts I had of protesting the early-morning meeting are gone now, and Dr. Lockhart seems to know that. Without waiting for my answer she rises from her chair and adjusts a pale blue shawl over her suit jacket.
“I especially want to know if that Crevecoeur sisters legend . . .” The rest of her words are drowned out by the bell ringing to signal the end of lunch hour and the scraping of chairs being pushed back from the table.
Dr. Lockhart, unencumbered as she is, glides out of the dining room while the rest of us gather books and shoulder heavy canvas bags. Gwen especially seems to list to one side from the weight of her book bag. I ask if she needs some help and she pulls out a thick manila envelope and hands it to me.
“Oh, thank you, Jane, I was going to ask if someone could type these student poems up for the literary magazine. Id do it but my carpal tunnel syndromes acting up.” She lifts up her arms and I see that both forearms are wrapped in ace bandages. All Id meant to offer was to carry something for her, but what can I say?
I transfer the heavy folder from her bag to mine. Now Im the one listing to one side as we leave the Music Room, and Gwen, lightened of her load, hurries on ahead to class. I trail behind the rest of the teachers thinking about what the psychologist had said about preoccupation with death and suicidal trends. I picture my students with their skull jewelry and kohl-rimmed eyes.
The nose rings and skull jewelry and purple hair may be new, but this preoccupation with suicide is not. Like many girls schools, Heart Lake has its own suicide legend. When I was here the story would be told, usually around the Halloween bonfire at the swimming beach, that the Crevecoeur family lost all three of their daughters in the flu epidemic of 1918. It was said that one night the three girls, all delirious with fever, went down to the lake to quench their fever and drowned there. At this point in the story, someone would point to the three rocks that rose out of the water off the swimming beach and intone solemnly, “Their bodies were never found, but on the next morning three rocks appeared mysteriously in the lake and those rocks have from that day been known as the three sisters.”
One of the seniors would fill in the rest of the details as we younger girls nervously toasted our marshmallows over the bonfire. India Crevecoeur, the girls mother, was so heartbroken she could no longer live at Heart Lake, so she turned her home into a girls school. From the schools first year, however, there have been mysterious suicides at Heart Lake. They say that the sound of the lake lapping against the three rocks (here the speaker would pause so we could all listen to the sound of the water restlessly beating against the rocks) beckons girls to take their lives by throwing themselves into the lake. They say that when the lake freezes over the faces of the girls can be seen peering out from beneath the ice. The ice makes a noise like moaning, and that sound, like the lapping of the water, draws girls out onto the lakes frozen surface, where the sisters wait to drag the unsuspecting skater through the cracks in the ice. And they say that whenever one girl drowns in the lake, two more inevitably follow.
If the legend is still circulating, as Dr. Lockhart fears, there are a few things I could tell my girls. I could tell them that the Crevecoeur family did lose their youngest daughter, Iris, but she didnt drown. She caught a chill from a mishap during a boating party with her two older sisters and died of the flu in her own bed. I could also tell them that nineteenth-century drawings of the lake show the three rocks, which were called, by early settlers, the three graces. But I know that the harder you try to dispel a legend the more power it gains. Its like Oedipus trying to avoid his fate and running headlong into it at the crossroads. And once I begin to talk about the legend they might ask if there were any suicides when I went to school here. Then I would either have to lie or tell them that during my senior year both my roommates drowned in the lake.
I might even find myself telling them that since then I have always felt the lake is waiting for the third girl.
From the Hardcover edition.
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