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Unfinished Desiresby Gail Godwin
Tour of the Grounds
Third Saturday in August 1951
Mount St. Gabriels
Mountain City, North Carolina
“When youve done as much girl-watching as I have, Mother Malloy, you can see even as theyre coming up through the lower grades how each class reveals itself as an organism in its own right. Youre not too tired for a bit of a ramble, I hope.”
“Not at all, Mother Ravenel. Ive only been sitting on trains for two days.”
“Good, in that case”—the headmistress, as quick of step as she was in speech, veered suddenly off the gravel walk and, snatching up her ankle-length skirts, plunged down a woodland path—“well take a turn around the new athletic field and then go up to the grotto and sit with the Red Nun awhile and have a little prayer to Our Lady in front of our Della Robbia.”
“Who is the Red Nun?”
Without slowing her pace, the headmistress turned back to reward the new young teacher with an appreciative smile.
“You know, I often still catch myself thinking of her as a ‘who. After all these years! The shortest way to put it is, shes our mascot. If you can rightly call a six-foot-high ton of red marble a mascot. Shes been unfinished since the middle of the First World War. Its quite a story, and you know what? Im going to save it until were at the grotto. There are so many things I want to point out to you first. Now, where was I?”
“You were saying about—organisms?”
“Oh, yes. A class is never just a collection of individual girls, though it is certainly that, too, when youre considering one girl at a time. But a class as a whole develops a group consciousness. Its an organic unit, with its own special properties. While were having our walk, I will tell you a little about your ninth-grade girls, the upcoming freshman class. They are a challenging group, those girls. They will require control.”
“As a—an organism, you mean? Or—some ones in particular?”
“Both, Mother Malloy.”
In the presence of the headmistress, Mother Malloy, who was by habit cool and exact in speech, found herself stumbling and blurting. From my responses so far, she thought, this voluble, assured woman must be wondering how I am going to take charge of any class, not to mention a “challenging” one that requires “control.” Mother Malloy was vexed by the clumsiness that had come over her even as she had been descending the steps of the train, taking caution with her long skirts, thanking the conductor who steadied her by the elbow, when a nun wearing aviators sunglasses shot forward to claim her. Mother Ravenel was a vigorously handsome woman of medium height, with a high-colored face and fine white teeth. Snappy phrases, bathed in southern drawl, assailed the young nun from Boston. Her hand was clapped firmly between Mother Ravenels immaculately gloved ones and she was mortified that she had not remembered to put on her own gloves.
There was worse to come. Mother Ravenel introduced her uniformed Negro driver and a lighter-skinned young man: “This is Jovan—we call him our Angel of Transportation—and this is his grandson Mark, who will be going off to college next year.”
Mother Malloy extended her hand first to gray-haired Jovan, who took it after the merest hesitation. Though sensing she had done something outside of protocol, she had no choice but to repeat the gesture to young Mark, who, after a quick glance at his grandfather, shook her hand and bolted away to see to her trunk. While the two men loaded it into the back of the wood-paneled station wagon bearing the Mount St. Gabriels crest (the archangel with upturned palms floating protectively above mountain ranges), Mother Ravenel tipped her veiled head close to the new nuns and gently confided, “We do things a little differently down here, Mother, but youll get used to our ways. I think youll find theres a great regard between the races and just as much love—if not actually more.”
I have never seen a nun wearing sunglasses, Mother Malloy thought at the train station, trying to contain her mortification and offer it up.
“Of course, girls in their early teens are always difficult,” Mother Ravenel was saying now. She zigzagged off the woodland path and into a clearing. “Do you have sisters, Mother?”
I have never known a nun to dart about so, thought Mother Malloy, struggling to keep up with her guide. They taught us to glide and keep custody of the limbs in the Boston novitiate. Perhaps religious formation is another thing they “do differently” in the South. The accent is melodious, but somehow it doesnt lend itself to gravity.
“Except for my sisters in the Order, none, Mother.”
“Ah, same as myself. I grew up with two older brothers. I was the baby sister. You had brothers, perhaps?”
“No, no brothers, either.”
“An only child. That has its advantages. For instance, I could never go off by myself and read and daydream, as I imagine you could. My beastly brothers were always dragging me up into their tree houses or out on their boats. We lived on the East Battery, in Charleston.”
“You were saying about these girls—the rising ninth grade?” Kate Malloy had been raised in a Catholic foster home in West Newton, near Boston, but saw no point in tempting Mother Ravenel into further asides. “Their challenging aspects?”
“Yes, well, my point was, all girls are challenging at that age. Theyre sensitive and acute and they have a cruel streak—a different cruelty from boys, has been my experience—and a shocking amount of energy. Their bodies are ready for childbirth, but their cognitive development isnt complete yet. You have only to recall your own feelings at fourteen. You felt you were capable of making your own life decisions. You felt that most adults, besides being over the hill, had compromised themselves and were to be pitied rather than listened to. Am I right?”
No, but youre my superior. “I was lucky to have several adults I truly admired. What I do recall feeling is wishing I could spend more time with them.”
“Ah, mentors, you mean. But a mentor is not in the same category as your average compromised adult, wouldnt you agree? And since you have brought up the subject of mentors, Mother, thats exactly what Im praying these girls will find in you. Their specialty is intimidation. In sixth grade they demoralized a popular lay teacher. Ill supply the gory details later, but right now, I want you to take in Mount St. Gabriels picturesque view. Its at its most sublime from here. Thats why we chose this site for the new athletic field, even though the excavation and tree-topping costs completely wrecked our budget.”
Mother Malloy took in the vista from this place into which her vow of obedience had so abruptly landed her. In three weeks she was to have begun her second year of graduate work at Boston College. But a week ago Reverend Mother had summoned her. “I know its a great disappointment, my dear, but Mother Ravenel down at Mount St. Gabriels is in a bind. The junior college lost their shorthand-and-typing mistress, a young novice who has asked to be released from her vows, and Mother Sharp, who normally takes the ninth grade, is the only one qualified to teach secretarial courses. Offer it up to Our Lord, and well see if we can arrange for you to come back to Boston for summer courses.”
The spot on which Mother Malloy and Mother Ravenel stood commanded a panorama of mountain ranges stacked one behind the other, their hues fading from deep smoky purple into the milk blue of the horizon. Below them was Mountain City, its downtown buildings and curving river twinkling with late-afternoon sun. A solitary hawk dipped and soared, riding the air streams above them. Mother Malloy was in the midst of composing a suitable line of praise for the schools picturesque view when Mother Ravenel, off on another tack, rendered the effort unnecessary.
“And next year we will be taking on the boys.”
“Newman Hall for grades one through eight, and Maturin Hall for the high school. Though theres still some lobbying going on about calling the upper grades ‘forms, like the prep schools and the English public schools. If you look over through those pines, you can see the slate roof of what will be Newman, when the renovations are finished.”
Mother Malloy followed the tanned pointing finger. She took in the gabled roof; she also took in the headmistresss youthful, well-kept hands. The older nuns silver ring flashed in the sunlight.
“What will be Newman and Maturin were lovely adjoining estates. Within a single year they were left to us by two cousins: grateful mothers of satisfied alumnae. I told the bishop, I said, ‘We must be doing something right at Mount St. Gabriels. His nose was a little out of joint because the properties were deeded to us, the Order of St. Scholastica, and not to the diocese. Isnt this a grand athletic field? When the boys come, well put in goalposts for football. Howard, our handyman, is so proud of the turf and of his new tractor mower that we have to restrain him from mowing twice a week. Only yesterday I told him, ‘Howard, this is not a golf course, but I can see and smell perfectly well that it has been mowed again since. What sports did you play, Mother Malloy?”
“I cant say I played anything well, but I liked swimming in the ocean. And badminton as a teenager.”
“I still crave a set of tennis, even with the restraints of the habit. Do you play tennis?”
“Im afraid not.”
“I could coach you. What a treat, to have someone to play with besides Miss Farber, our gym teacher, who never has time for more than a game. Youre still young enough to learn properly, and wed be equally handicapped with our long skirts and veils.”
“What sports do the girls in the academy play?”
“Everyone gets basketball, tennis, volleyball, and modern dance. We also offer gymnastics, ballroom, ballet and tap, and horseback riding, but for those, additional fees are required. Theres a movement afoot by the parents, abetted by Miss Farber, to open up the indoor pool—Mount St. Gabriels was a famous mountain resort in the Victorian era—and have swimming for the upper grades. Reverend Mother, who likes to make people happy, seems to be leaning that way. Being of a more practical nature, I have to consider the wet hair, the monthly period excuses, and the girls uncharitable appraisals of one anothers figures. Your rising ninth grade has made the critique of others into a high form of torture.”
“Is there a ringleader?”
“Thats a good first question. It was my first question, back when they were sixth graders and their, shall we say, effects began taking their toll on others.”
“What happened in sixth grade?”
At Mother Ravenels brisk pace they had already walked half the length of the athletic field, and Mother Malloy found herself slightly out of breath.
“We lost a devoted lay teacher whod been with us for twenty-two years. Mrs. Prince taught arithmetic from grades six through eight and home economics in the academy and junior college. She was much loved, especially by the older girls.”
“After three months with the sixth grade that will be your ninth grade, she resigned. She told Reverend Mother she felt she was getting thin-skinned and could no longer keep discipline. She also said that ‘little girls seemed to be changing into something different. We begged her to stay on, at least for home economics with the older girls, but she said she had begun to shake and feel sick at her stomach as soon as she drove through our entrance gates every morning, so we had to honor her wishes. Shes since become a substitute teacher in the public school system.”
“What did they do, the sixth grade?”
“Well, for a start, Mrs. Prince liked to bring homemade fudge to school. After the girls had done their lessons well, shed pass it around and read to them from Uncle Remus. Until one day when she was passing it around to the sixth graders and girl after girl turned her down. Very politely, of course; they had all manner of excuses. ‘Thank you so much, Mrs. Prince, but Ive just found out Im allergic to chocolate . . . ‘Thank you, Mrs. Prince, but Im on a diet . . . ‘Thank you, but Im not hungry, Mrs. Prince. One girl even said she was fasting!”
“The entire class turned down the fudge?”
“Oh, there were some holdouts. But they got fewer each time. Finally she stopped bringing fudge to school for any of the classes.”
“And the readings that accompanied the fudge? Did they continue?”
“Ah, that was their next target. Do you know the Uncle Remus stories? No? Up there in Yankeeland, I guess not. Joel Chandler Harris was an Atlanta newspaperman who wrote humorous adaptations of the folktales of Negro slaves. Dealing chiefly with animals like Brer Rabbit, who has a cunning instinct for survival and is always outwitting his enemies. Uncle Remus was the old slave who narrated the stories, and Mrs. Prince had the dialect down pat. When she did the different animals voices you were in stitches. ‘Oh, please, Brer Fox, dont throw me into that briar patch!?”
“You heard her read?”
“Why, yes, many a time. I laughed myself out of my chair the first time. Id just come to Mount St. Gabriels as a boarder. She was our seventh-grade math teacher.”
“You were a student here?”
“Indeed I was. I was in the class of 34. In my time, the state didnt have an eighth grade. You went from seventh grade into the academy. Oh, I should also tell you, three of your ninth graders have mothers from our class of 34, and two of the girls share an aunt. At first it was going to be just two mothers and an aunt, but now Chloe Starnes, whose mother died tragically this past spring, will be joining us as a boarder. What she will add to the mix, who can predict? Her mother, Agnes, was a well-thought-of girl—I admired Agnes Vick, though we were not close. Young Chloe seems a more interior sort—though, of course, shes in deep mourning right now. Her uncle, Henry Vick, Agness brother, is a prominent architect in town—right now hes designing the new public library—and hes a staunch supporter of the school. But add to that—well, you see, Chloes uncle Henry was married to the aunt I mentioned—a dreadful thing; Antonia Tilden was killed in a traffic accident on their honeymoon in Rome. Henry has never remarried. Antonia was my best friend at Mount St. Gabriels. And, you see, by her marriage to Henry, she is also Chloes aunt, or late aunt, as well as Tildy Strattons. Cornelia, Tildys mother, and Antonia were identical twins.”
Mother Malloys mind was now a vertiginous whirl of aunts, uncles, mothers, identical twins, friendships, tragedies, and accidents, all of which she must match to individual girls she hadnt even met. Also she was feeling light-headed from the walk.
“What did the girls do—about the Uncle Remus readings?”
“Well, first they stopped laughing. And then they stopped smiling. As a group. They just faced front and stared straight ahead. They stopped looking at Mrs. Prince when she read to them. And then they stopped looking at her when she taught them math.”
“Its hard to imagine little girls being so organized in their cruelty. Surely there must be a leader, or a few main girls.”
“Of course theres always a core of leadership. And every class has its main girls. I could rattle off some names, though youll quickly be able to pick them out for yourself. Id rather you rely on your own instincts, Mother Malloy. Provide us with the fresh view of someone coming in from the outside. Im such a dyed-in-the-wool Mount St. Gabriels girl—I entered the Order as a postulant during my senior year. There may be something here Im not seeing because its been staring me in the face the whole time. After all, I was in the same class with some of the mothers and aunts. And as I said, one of them, poor Tony, was my dearest friend.”
“I hope I—”
“And here are the steps leading up to our grotto. Its lovely and cool up there, an ideal spot for meditation and just turning things over to the Blessed Mother. Youll be meeting all of your girls on registration day, but now its time for you to see our beautiful Della Robbia and meet our Red Nun."
She has the face of an alabaster saint, the headmistress was thinking, sprinting ahead up the winding stone steps to the grotto. The vigorous swish of her habit set the giant ferns on either side bowing and swaying, like obeisant minions.
Yet she seems unaware of her beauty. And shes less commanding than I was given to expect. But the looks alone will carry her—theyll have nothing to criticize there—until they locate her weak spots.
Is she panting? In her early twenties and already short of breath after our little climb? Im her senior by more than a decade and feel as fit as I did as a girl when I foot-raced my brothers on the beach. Probably our academy up in Boston doesnt put enough of a premium on exercise. And of course theres their colder weather, and theyre located right in town.
I will coach her in tennis. It will loosen her up a little. Put some color in her cheeks; shes way too pale. Theres something almost Quakerish about her. Not easy to draw out. In conversation she reminds me of a hound dog, intent on retrieving a single bird at a time.
Now shes gone and turned her ankle or something! “What is it, Mother?”
“A baby rabbit.” The young nun was crouched on the path, raptly squinting through a thicket of old rhododendrons. The fringed sash of her habit trailed in the undergrowth.
“Oh, if its rabbits you want, weve got them by the dozens, the procreative little creatures. Mother Finney, our cellaress, finally had to get Howard to build her a chain-link fence around the vegetable garden.”
“Ive never seen a brown one before.”
“I can tell youre going to enjoy your forest walks. Mount St. Gabriels has thirty acres of woodlands and riding paths just teeming with wildlife. You name it, weve got it: wild turkeys, great horned owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes in both red and gray, and of course raccoons and skunks and possums and an oversupply of rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels. Not so many black bears anymore, though in late spring almost every year, a girl will come flying in to report that she thinks she spotted one.”
“What is a bobcat?”
“Basically just a smaller-sized wildcat that sounds exactly like a house cat when it vocalizes. Theyre tan with black spots. Jovan, who met you at the station, found an abandoned bob-kitten and took it home to raise it. But it gnawed its way out of its box and was so spiteful and snappish to his children he brought it back to the woods.”
Talk about “vocalizing”—I am worn out with my own. People with no small talk are exhausting; youre obliged to carry the whole load yourself. Well, maybe shes just taking it all in, showing respect. I am her immediate superior, after all. Reverend Mother in Boston said she was a first-rate graduate assistant at Boston College. Students work hard to impress her, and she puts up with no foolishness. How odd that Reverend Mother had said nothing about the striking good looks. “I think youll find her effective” was all she volunteered. Well, Lord, You always provide more than I know to ask for. These supercritical girls will be subdued by their teachers beauty—at least until they have time to ferret out her vulnerabilities, of which I suspect there are some.
“Not much farther, now, Mother Malloy. The grotto is just up around the next turn.”
I sound like I sound when Im showing parents of prospective students around the grounds. I dont have to sell her on the school—she already belongs to us!
Mother Malloy continued to call on her filtering powers to stanch the overflow of information and the competing new sights and sensations. First the rambling eighty-bedroom Victorian edifice, the former hotel, complete with its tower and gables and porches, in which she was to live. Her third-story bedroom, in which Mother Ravenel had allowed her a half-hour respite (she lay down as soon as she was alone, putting off unpacking until later), looked down upon a sunny inner courtyard where one black woman peeled vegetables and another hung laundry. And now the rustling presences of this primeval woodland setting, and the discovery of her own breathlessness, new to her at age twenty-four, as she climbed up and up. Her skin was damp beneath her habit, and perspiration trickled down the back of her neck. As the train had pulled into the station, a banner on the depot had announced “Welcome to the Land of the Sky. You are now ONE MILE above sea level!”
The headmistress seemed never to have need to pause for breath, nipping round the edges of Howards too-often-mowed athletic field and dashing up the steep woodland steps, discoursing on everything from extracurricular fees to the unfortunate Mrs. Prince and the coil of all these histories leading to the unpredictable chemical mix of the rising ninth grade.
Help me, PLEASE, to listen and hear without making premature judgments. Later You will help me discern between the significant and the interesting. Or the merely diverting.
In the meantime, please help me not to be overwhelmed.
From the Hardcover edition.
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