Thornton has taken a vow of silence. She does not talk the first and third Monday
of the month, though no one who has known her a long time, which is mostly anyone
who knows her at all, remembers. No one has interrupted herself, mid-message,
to say "Oh, thats right! Today is one of your silent days!" In
fact, often someone might call again at the end of the day saying, "Im
still trying to reach you. I want to talk."
is true she would have trouble with the vow if she still taught English at Pinewood
Country Day, where she recently retired after 25 years. She still serves on the
Board of Trustees there, and as chair of the Advisory Committee for the Cambridge
Public Library and secretary of the First Unitarian Church. She also still serves
as faculty advisor for the Pinewoods Annual, the student literary magazine, and
this gives her a chance to visit the school twice a month and catch up with old
friends. She is a minor, published poet and she has retired early to work on her
poetry. But lately, all her free time has focused on the latest committee she
has been asked to chair: The Search Committee for the new head of Pinewood Country
Day. Charlie Bickford, who has been the head for over thirty years, is retiring
to Cape Cod at the end of the school year.
this, the first Monday of March, Syl neatens her Cambridge home and receives four
messages about the candidates. She suspects that if she checked her e-mail, which
she has decided not to do on silent days, there would be just as many e-mails.
The Committee wants to make the decision by next week.
sighs to herself and sits down with a cup of tea. The search has yielded two finalists.
The first finalist is Roy Sanders, who is a Harvard grad, which is a popular credential
anywhere, but especially so here in Cambridge. He heads a solid but academically
mediocre boarding school in the middle of Connecticut. He used to teach geometry
and coach football, but has only been in administration the past ten years. The
other candidate, Cordelia Pierson, has a Ph.D. in literature, is dean of students
at a very fine school in Virginia, and has taught English her whole career. Neither
candidate would be a disaster, Syl feels, but, as she sits at her kitchen table,
watching a branch shudder off last nights snow, she wonders which one of
them would not call her on the days she has decided to be quiet. She knows the
answer is Cordelia Pierson.
tell you why they dont remember!" Henny, her partner of thirty years,
would say if she were still alive. "Because you are always talking!"
she would cackle. This had been Hennys parents house and they had
moved in it together and had lived there forever as wife and wife without anyone
batting an eye. There were some things you could like about Cambridge, Syl knows.
Henny, a psychiatrist at MacLeans, had treated several celebrity mad poets
and had a formidable reputation in her field. She wonders what Henny would think
of her vows she probably would find it bemusing. Though Unitarians, or,
perhaps because they were Unitarians, Syl thinks now, Henny and she had rarely
really discussed religion. When they had to discuss Hennys imminent funeral,
Henny suggested it should take place in the hospital chapel. Syl had said stupidly,
"Do mental hospitals have chapels?"
cast her a disapproving smile. "My dear," she said, "the mind and
the soul are two different things."
was 5 years ago and though Syl promised she would, she has not so much looked
at another woman since. Not since she met Cordelia Pierson a month ago.
jolts as the phone rings again. She hears the click of the machine going on. "Oh,
Syl. Its Ted." Ted was the Principal of the Upper School and also on
the Search Committee. "Every single member of the faculty has been down to
tell me what he thinks about the candidates, right down to the poly-pierced part-time
pottery teacher. You know its only your opinion that matters to me. I want
desperately to talk to you."
suspects that if Henny had anything analytical to say about Syls vow of
silence she would say Syl feels the need to take it because she is always asked
her opinion of things. Teds phone call moments ago confirms this line of
reasoning, though, Syl has been in schools long enough to know that when the higher
ups call you about something, they are often looking for support for something
they have already decided.
gets up and moves her tea cup into the sink. A wind rattles the windows. She has
to admit that if you live by yourself, its not so hard to keep a vow of
silence. Its hard to use the time to really think, though that was why she
had started it. To think freely, away from others opinions. To think for
herself. That was, of course, what Henny was always urging her to do, though Syl
thought that Henny got so much amusement from the tangles Syl was forever getting
herself in at the school and with her students, and that Henny would have truly
missed the entertainment if Syl had tried to have her own ideas.
walks through the hall. A floorboard creaks underneath, and she is grateful for
the noise. She goes into the study, which she set up after she retired. She knows
it is the sort of study people dream of it used to be the dining room and
had many windows, a high ceiling and a glass chandelier. She had taken down the
portraits of Hennys family, which she had never much liked and replaced
them with tall bookcases. She had several boy students come over and move the
mahogany desk from upstairs.
window looks out on the small lawn typical of Cambridge houses. A few lawn chairs
she never took in last fall are covered in snow. She should go out and bring them
in, at last, before spring. "Later," she says aloud and then covers
her mouth. It seems taking a vow of silence has only made her realize how much
she talks to herself. She turns on the computer but cant think of writing.
She has an invitation
for the opening of an art gallery, named in Hennys memory, by her colleagues
of the Cambridge Art League. She is distracted by the memory of Hennys memorial
at MacLean and the consequent memorials and dedications at institutions that Henny
attended or gave money to, so many that Syl wonders now when all of this would
stop and Henny would just be dead. "Dead," she says aloud.
talked too much in her interview with Cordelia Pierson. Goodness knows how many
interviews shes given over the years. Rule #1 is to ask the questions and
not to answer them. Syl has several favorites, no matter what the position: Where
do you see yourself in 10 years? used to be one, but since the death of Henny,
she feels that this question is unfair. She could never have imagined that life
without Henny would be like life with it, except that each piece that Henny touched
herself has been removed. Her second favorite question used to be, What
is your favorite book? Yet Syl found that the answer to this was too often
ATLAS SHRUGGED. So, she changed it to, What are you reading? This is interesting
and she found people are honest. A mystery. A book of philosophy, a popular novel,
a bit of WINGS OF THE DOVE.
her third question always was, If you could change the things at the school
you are at, what would they be?
of these questions even occurred to her when she sat in Charlies office
alone with Cordelia Pierson, a tall, lovely woman with snow-white hair and a simple
paste of rouge. She wore a simple blue dress and a discreet string of pearls,
blue pumps. She had tiny ankles and hands no ring.
talked about the students, whom she almost always admires for their candor,
despite the ways in which it is problematic; about the faculty, surprising herself
by saying, for once, that they were sometimes a difficult bunch, all chiefs and
no Indians. "Everyone thinks of himself as the head," she said, which
made Cordelias brow furrow as if she recognized something that she had seen
before. "Not unusual, I suppose," Syl said questioningly.
you dont mind my asking," Cordelia said. "Did you have any internal
candidates for the position?"
no one would dream of it." Syl answered and they both laughed hard enough
that she each had to reach for tissues in the needlepointed case Charlies
wife had made with the Pinewod Crest on it. "Oh dear," Syl started laughing
again and they both caught their breath. Thered been an awkward silence
during which, despite the paneled bookcases of old year books, the faculty portrait
and the black trustee chairs scattered around, Syl quite forgot where she was.
To save herself, or so she thought, she simply recited information about the school
that Cordelia might have just as easily gotten from the web site.
Syl says to herself now, then covers her mouth.
North, one of her former students, had given her the idea of taking the vow. He
had been a solid student, one of the most admired in the school and had entered
easily into a good college, where he took some courses on Eastern religions. He
came to her to talk. It was not too unusual for students to seek out her counsel,
but in formal ways. She had never been the sort to hang out with students, and
she didnt approve of such relationships. Nonetheless, Syl enjoyed when students
sought her advice on particular matters, especially matters concerning their educational
came to discuss leaving school. Frankly, Syl thought it was good for students
to take time off in college. To take their time. How hasty they were to finish
college and then go to law school and work 80 hour weeks. She had nodded in assent.
It would be good for Kyle who had gotten too much approval from jumping through
the right hoops.
like to become a novitiate in a Buddhist monastery," he said.
tried not to look startled. "What are your reasons for this?"
shrugged in his green college polo. "Because it seems like life just passes
it do so if you were a Buddhist monk?"
"I would notice,"
he said, "it passing."
was pleased with this answer. "What would such a choice involve?" shed
have to take a vow of silence for two years. To enter a profound period of meditation."
Here, Syl got a little suspect. That sounded a bit too much like a brochure.
already am silent twice a month. I dont say anything to anyone two days
a month!" his voice got as enthusiastic as when he would describe to her
a goal in a lacrosse game. "I listen, but I dont say. Not even please
or thank you." Syl worried that he might be simply trying to overcome his
own good upbringing.
"It is!" Kyle said. "Youd be surprised
how much you listen to your own voice. But your voice is different than your soul,
when you think about it. Your soul doesnt have a voice. It just is."
had said that he ought to do what he pleased. Most young people knew this instinctively,
but they liked to be told by someone older. Syl felt quite sure that her approval
would be quoted at home to Kyles parents, of whom Syl was quite fond.
other things were preoccupying her that year. Henny was getting sicker. She took
off that spring, and after Henny died, she spent the summer at Hennys parents'
house in New Hampshire, which they had also inherited. She read up on meditation
as a way to work through her grief over the next year. But it took until her retirement
to try it and now today of all days, when she had to make a decision, when she
ought to try to reach a conclusion, she cant feel her soul or think of anything
except how much she liked Cordelia Pierson, how she felt attracted to her, even.
That attraction might interfere with her making a solid decision.
considers going off to see Hennys grave in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. She
sometimes does that. Its squeezed just south of Henry Jamess. She
likes to go talk to her, something shed never understood people doing until
she missed Henny so much. But she cant talk today. She has taken the vow
and now it makes her feel terribly alone.
nice it would be to have Cordelia around. Such a pleasant woman. So smart. She
had been looking for a companion for Symphony. Just someone to go with
couldnt even be sure that Cordelia wasnt straight, though she had
an inkling that she wasnt. She had no children. She knew some of the same
people that Syl did. It just would be nice to have a companion of any sort.
who would be better for the school? Roy Sanders had raised an incredible amount
of money for his mediocre school, enough for a new science center. He claims to
have "diversified" his faculty (my goodness, Ted said to her, he makes
the faculty sound like a stock portfolio). He had raised faculty salaries which
had been abysmal, Roy cheerfully told the faculty committee with whom he had an
open interview, which before that, he claimed had been so abysmal that his very
fine faculty had survived only in "appalling" and "Draconian"
conditions. He had an easy and self-deprecating manner that Syl didnt trust
because she had found that most self-deprecating men were almost always arrogant.
When asked how he perceived the rigor of academics at Pinewood, he said, "A
kid is a kid. We try to equip them the best we can." And though the sharper
faculty saw right through that and wondered how he would support their standards
in this age of grade inflation and parental litigation, a lot of the faculty who
just wanted to keep everyone happy liked his answer. At any rate, Roy Sanders
would certainly be supportive of kids. He would do no harm. The school would stay
competitive because it was one of only a few co-ed private schools. Of the two
candidates, Roy Sanders had been the better received, the old boy in the old boy
come across, another trustee had told her, a little too sharply, though Syl knew
that was the usual sexism about a strong-minded woman. She would, contrary to
Roy, remind others of the kind of intellectual vigor that had made the schools
reputation. She was startling intelligent and had the social ease needed to deal
with the sort of people who send their kids to Pinewood Country Day. But she would
have strong opinions. She was the sort of candidate that would cause certain people
at the school to leave, and she might do one or two things, especially in that
first year, before her reputation was secure, that might upset a parent. Long
term, though, she would improve the schools reputation because she was exactly
what most parents perceived themselves to be smart, savvy, successful and
herself had felt uneasy in this world for some time. She was from a tiny town
in North Carolina and had worked hard at one point to misplace her accent. She
smiled now thinking that sometimes on days like today, during vows of silence,
she could hear, in her head that voice that she had long since dismissed. The
eagerness of it, the childness of it, as if it were always begging for something,
wanting something else. She had understood that people up here thought two things
about the accent that simply wasnt true -- that she had grown up with jonquils
in a genteel white old plantation house or that she lived in the backwoods and
shot her own dinner. She had gone to Wellesley on scholarship; her father was
a pharmacist in the local apothecary. She had left her family after that, in order
to do what she wanted which was to have a mind of her own and a career
and love Henny.
had never told them of Henny and they hadn't asked. There wasnt a word she
could use that she felt would properly explain what Henny meant to her. So she
felt more and more silent around her family, whom she visited rarely. Her parents
were long dead. No one had ever asked her about Henny. She simply called Henny
"the woman with whom I live" and that had been it. She had never once
in her life said, "Im gay," or "Im a lesbian,"
and now, she opens her mouth to say them, but then she remembers again her vow.
She wonders now if this vow of silence is simply the extension of the one she
and Henny made together. She has held on to it, so deep a silence that she and
Henny had truly never talked about whether people knew about them or what their
relationship appeared to be to the world. All thirty of those years, they had
both kept a complicit silence about their relationship even from each other carefully
applying the words friend, even steering clear of companion, for
its particular resonance. Though everyone knew, surely, this silence had a powerful
lack of clarity.
decides she will drive to the cemetery anyway. Even if she cant talk to
Henny. She gets on her ski jacket and hat and trounces out the backdoor, where
she hasnt shoveled, liking the feeling of sinking into the snow, the surrender
how little snow they had in North Carolina and how joyless the long winters were.
She backs out her old Jeep into the street. The day has grayed over. Clouds blow
in and the sky becomes inky and white at once. She turns down Mt. Auburn Street
and the river flashes a milky, silver white. She goes by the hospital, where Henny
died. She could go left and go by the school, which the graveyard happens to abut,
but she keeps going and turns into the cemetery that way, surprised at the light,
grainy snow that has begun to fall, how quickly it sticks to the road. She drives
around and parks a distance from Hennys grave. The graveyard is nationally
famous because of its triumph of landscape architecture and its spectacularly
famous corpses. In the spring, it is an unbelievably beautiful place and its hard
to be here alone. But today, she seems to be the only person in the world here.
She shuffles out towards Henny, all the time sighing to herself. She doesnt
really want to be here. It will make her feel sad for the rest of the day. She
cant talk. Its a vow shes made herself, though now she wonders
is quite simple. What a ridiculous thing to have to pick out a gravestone. It
had never occurred to either of them. They didnt live by that kind of detail.
They lived conversation to conversation, meeting to meeting, vacation to vacation.
They were always going somewhere. They were connected to the whole community in
such vast ways that even as Henny thinned and Syl worried, the idea of such detail
never occurred to them. Like a stone.
stone is covered with snow. Syl brushes it off with her mittened hand. Henrietta
Moore 1924-1991. Syl tries not to look around at the other stones. The snow has
picked up and is blowing sideways into her face. She knows Henny would tell her
that Cordelia sounds like the far better choice for the head of school. Syl already
knows that she will suggest Cordelia. She knows she can do that separate of the
attraction she has felt for her. She isnt sure, though, that she can do
anything about the attraction. She shivers in her coat. "Jesus, Henny,"
she says. Not very good words for a Unitarian.
of course, says nothing back. Despite the mournful comfort of these visits, she
is so struck by how Henny is no longer there. Not in the world. Not in the house.
She can be reminded painfully dozens of times a day of all the places Henny was,
but she isnt there. And though she wants to say she is in her heart, etc.,
the way one does, she isnt sure thats right either. She knows that
the vow of silence is simply a way of shaping that loss. The silence is for everything
they might have said together. And it isn't working. It isn't anything, Syl realizes.
The snow is really
coming down now and she wonders how safe it will be to drive home. The snow puckers
and blows echoing in what is the odd muted silence that makes her feel that things
are happening far away from her. For a moment she doesn't care. She wants to stay
and keep brushing the snow off the white of the stone. But, like a door, something
closes in her throat, and she is disappointed to be overwhelmed by the same old
grief, blinding and useless.
she sits in her study and picks up the phone. Cordelia Pierson has given her home
number. She dials it and listens to it ring. When Cordelia picks up the phone
and says hello, Syl tries to say hello, but her voice is caught from not talking
and it takes two tries to say she is Sylvia Thornton, calling from the Pinewood
Country Day School.
yes, Ms. Thornton," she says.
call me Syl," she says. "Everyone does. I just had a few more questions
for you. Is this a good time?"
no questions prepared. She cant just ask her what she has been reading.
So, she says, very quietly, and after too long a silence, "I just wanted
to say to you what a pleasure it was talking with you the other day. I felt that
we had some ideas in common."
Syl finally hangs up an hour later, her decision is made. She calls Ted right
Charlies going to have to call a snow day for tomorrow," Ted groans.
"Its a veritable blizzard out there."
think you should go with Cordelia," Syl says. "I really do. I am positive
that shes the better candidate. Shes more suited, though, even I have
to admit, Roy is more familiar." She knows that Ted is almost certainly leaning
towards Roy, who is a younger, trimmer and not as finished version of Ted. Though
she adores Ted and has spent more time with him over the years than anyone (Henny
included), she knows that he likes people like himself and he isnt quite
immodest enough to realize that at the root, that Roy is like him, only less smart.
you called," Charlie says. "Isnt this the day you are silent?"
given that up," she says. "It didn't do anything for me."
make it sound like a dress, or something."
something like that."
is persuasive with Charlie, but when she hangs up the phone, she doesn't know
who will get the position. Still, as she heads up the stairs, she feels, for the
first time in a long time, room for someone to be beside her.