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The Search
Elizabeth Crowell

Syl 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, that’s right! Today is one of your silent days!" In fact, often someone might call again at the end of the day saying, "I’m still trying to reach you. I want to talk."

It 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.

On 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.

Syl 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 night’s 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.

"I’ll tell you why they don’t 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 Henny’s 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 MacLean’s, 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 Henny’s imminent funeral, Henny suggested it should take place in the hospital chapel. Syl had said stupidly, "Do mental hospitals have chapels?"

Henny cast her a disapproving smile. "My dear," she said, "the mind and the soul are two different things."

This 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.

Syl jolts as the phone rings again. She hears the click of the machine going on. "Oh, Syl. It’s 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 it’s only your opinion that matters to me. I want desperately to talk to you."

She suspects that if Henny had anything analytical to say about Syl’s vow of silence she would say Syl feels the need to take it because she is always asked her opinion of things. Ted’s 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.

Syl 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, it’s not so hard to keep a vow of silence. It’s 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.

She 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 Henny’s 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.

The 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 can’t think of writing.

She has an invitation for the opening of an art gallery, named in Henny’s memory, by her colleagues of the Cambridge Art League. She is distracted by the memory of Henny’s 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.

She talked too much in her interview with Cordelia Pierson. Goodness knows how many interviews she’s 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.

Then, her third question always was, If you could change the things at the school you are at, what would they be?

None of these questions even occurred to her when she sat in Charlie’s 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.

Syl 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 Cordelia’s brow furrow as if she recognized something that she had seen before. "Not unusual, I suppose," Syl said questioningly.

"If you don’t mind my asking," Cordelia said. "Did you have any internal candidates for the position?"

"No, 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 Charlie’s wife had made with the Pinewod Crest on it. "Oh dear," Syl started laughing again and they both caught their breath. There’d 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.

"Really," Syl says to herself now, then covers her mouth.

Kyle 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 didn’t approve of such relationships. Nonetheless, Syl enjoyed when students sought her advice on particular matters, especially matters concerning their educational development.

Kyle 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.

"I’d like to become a novitiate in a Buddhist monastery," he said.

Sylvia tried not to look startled. "What are your reasons for this?"

Kyle shrugged in his green college polo. "Because it seems like life just passes you by."

"Wouldn’t it do so if you were a Buddhist monk?"
"I would notice," he said, "it passing."

Syl was pleased with this answer. "What would such a choice involve?" she’d asked.

"I’d 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.

"I already am silent twice a month. I don’t 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 don’t say. Not even please or thank you." Syl worried that he might be simply trying to overcome his own good upbringing.

"Is it helpful?"
"It is!" Kyle said. "You’d 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 doesn’t have a voice. It just is."

Syl 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 Kyle’s parents, of whom Syl was quite fond.

Yet, 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 Henny’s 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 can’t 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.

She considers going off to see Henny’s grave in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. She sometimes does that. It’s squeezed just south of Henry James’s. She likes to go talk to her, something she’d never understood people doing until she missed Henny so much. But she can’t talk today. She has taken the vow and now it makes her feel terribly alone.

How 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 —

She couldn’t even be sure that Cordelia wasn’t straight, though she had an inkling that she wasn’t. 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.

Yet, 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 didn’t 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 network.

Cordelia had 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 school’s 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 school’s reputation because she was exactly what most parents perceived themselves to be — smart, savvy, successful and interesting.

Sylvia 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 wasn’t 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.

She had never told them of Henny and they hadn't asked. There wasn’t 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, "I’m gay," or "I’m 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.

Syl decides she will drive to the cemetery anyway. Even if she can’t talk to Henny. She gets on her ski jacket and hat and trounces out the backdoor, where she hasn’t shoveled, liking the feeling of sinking into the snow, the surrender of it.

She remembers 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 Henny’s 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 doesn’t really want to be here. It will make her feel sad for the rest of the day. She can’t talk. It’s a vow she’s made herself, though now she wonders why.

The grave is quite simple. What a ridiculous thing to have to pick out a gravestone. It had never occurred to either of them. They didn’t 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.

The 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 isn’t 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.

Henny, 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 isn’t there. And though she wants to say she is in her heart, etc., the way one does, she isn’t sure that’s 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.

Later, 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.

"Why yes, Ms. Thornton," she says.

"Please call me Syl," she says. "Everyone does. I just had a few more questions for you. Is this a good time?"

"Certainly," she says.

Syl has no questions prepared. She can’t 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."

When Syl finally hangs up an hour later, her decision is made. She calls Ted right away.

"I think Charlie’s going to have to call a snow day for tomorrow," Ted groans. "It’s a veritable blizzard out there."

"I think you should go with Cordelia," Syl says. "I really do. I am positive that she’s the better candidate. She’s 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 isn’t quite immodest enough to realize that at the root, that Roy is like him, only less smart.

"I’m surprised you called," Charlie says. "Isn’t this the day you are silent?"

"I've given that up," she says. "It didn't do anything for me."

"You make it sound like a dress, or something."

"Yes, something like that."

She 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.


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