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Waking the Moon
By Elizabeth Hand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Elizabeth Hand
All rights reserved.
I MET THEM IN Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. A fitting place, that magician's grove within the enchanted forest that was the Divine, where Balthazar Warnick presided at his podium and wore a hand-painted paisley tie and three-piece Fergus Corméillean worsted suit to every session—even though there were only seven of us students, and the dyspeptic rathators hissed as though black winter gnawed at the stained glass windows, instead of the city's sultry Indian summer.
I had taken a seat at the very back of the room. It was my first day of classes, my first official day at the Divine. I had arrived the previous Friday, meekly following the Strong Suggestion listed in the Introductory Handbook—a slender volume printed by the University on heavy cream-colored paper meant to invoke the physical and intellectual weight of vellum.
It is strongly suggested that underclassmen attending the university for the first time arrive during the week of September 1st, 1975, when Orientation and Introductory Sessions will be held for both students and those parents who wish to attend.
At the top of every page glowered the University's coat of arms, a Gryphon rampant and Pelican gules, the latter tearing at her own breast to feed her young. Beneath them was a motto—
Vita, sine literis, mors est. Life without learning is death.
—and the school's name spelled out in glorious sweeps of gold and blue and crimson.
The University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine.
The Divine, as I learned to call it within a few hours of my arrival. School, my mother called it, as when after the five-hour drive she stood with me in my dormitory room, surrounded by overstuffed boxes, and said, "Well, good luck at School, Katie."
The drive had been long and hot and anxious, my mother and father veering between elation and depression at seeing the last of their six children plummet from the nest. My parents had married for love, high school sweethearts from Astoria, Queens. My mother still had the accent—muted to be sure, but jarring, when you took in that delicate face beneath fiery curls. My mother was an Irish beauty of the old school. Not so my father, who stood six-foot-four in his bare and uncommonly ugly feet and—notwithstanding the degrees from Saint Bonaventure and Fordham and the elevated position at IBM—looked more like Victor McLaglen than Jack Kennedy. My two sisters were the beauties, my three brothers rebels who, as adults, made good.
Me? I was the smart one, the loner, the hapless rebel and youngest by many years. Katherine Sweeney Cassidy, named for my maternal grandmother Katherine Sweeney; with my mother's grey eyes and my father's feet, Katie to the family but Sweeney now to the world. Sweeney to the Divine.
After we carried my things into the dormitory we had a quick and uneasy lunch at the local Holiday Inn, where far jollier family groups yelled boisterously to new arrivals and where our waitress seemed to know every customer by name, except for us. Afterward, my parents departed almost immediately. My mother confessed years later that they had been too heart-stricken to stay, but I didn't know that at the time. They kissed me, my father still smelling slightly of ketchup, and then climbed into the blue Volvo wagon that would bear them north again. I waved as the car shot with nervous speed back into the stream of traffic on North Capitol Street. Then I ran my damp palms across the front of the maroon floral skirt my mother had laid out on my bed the night before (newly purchased from Lord & Taylor for the occasion, it was the first and only time I ever wore it) and slowly walked back to the dorm.
This was the first time it struck me that there might be disadvantages to a happy childhood. Everywhere I looked there were people who belonged here. Longhaired sunburned girls in puckered cotton sundresses, stretched out on the grass and smoking black cigarettes. Long-haired boys who pulled clinking green bottles from a cooler and toasted each other in sure, joyous cadences. In the near distance, beneath the shadows of the immense and baroque Shrine itself, the tiny white-clad figures of nuns in their summer habits walked with heads thrown back, diamond light sparkling on their sunglasses. A heavyset man in a yarmulka stood on a set of curved steps that spiraled down from one of the Shrine's promontories like a stairway in a Dr. Seuss book. As I watched he removed his yarmulka and absently patted his cheeks with it. The heat was intense. The oily scent of car exhaust wafting over from North Capitol Street vied with that of roses, which grew as profusely on the grounds of the Divine as within a public garden. My skirt hung limply about my knees, my long-sleeved cotton blouse felt heavy and moist as wet wool. As I dragged myself up the sidewalk to Rossetti Hall, a boy in a dashiki shirt bumped into me.
"Oops—sorry—" he mumbled, not even glancing aside as he hurried onto the lawn surrounding Rossetti Hall. Beneath one of its elaborate diamond-paned windows he stopped and bellowed "LINNNN—DDDDAA!" Above me windows flew open. Tanned faces stared down, laughing.
"Yo, Stephen," a blond girl called lazily. "Like, shut up."
No one took any notice of me at all. I flushed. My clothes burned against my skin. I looked away and ran up the steps and inside Rossetti Hall.
Somehow I got through that first weekend. My room turned out to be a surprisingly comforting haven, cool and quiet and mine alone. Like all of the buildings at the Divine, Rossetti Hall was a huge and Gothic edifice, vine-hung, sweet with the carnal scent of wisteria blossoms. Beneath its walls wandered a weird profusion of nuns and rabbis and sikhs and friars, and others of even more dubious spiritual provenance: Hare Krishnas, earnest Moonies, witches and druids nouveaux. The effect was superbly and spookily medieval, with color and comic relief thrown in by a small but noisy undergraduate population bearing the last battered standards of 1960s gambado. I was sorely aware of how drab I looked and felt.
My room was in a long corridor, cool and silent as an ice locker, even in these last weeks before autumn cast its phantom gold upon the city. I walked slowly down the hall, staring at my feet and trying to decipher the peculiar mosaic covering the floor. The tiles formed odd geometries in worn nursery colors, ducky yellow, little-boy blue, a nasty medicinal pink. The walls were a pale green that the years had treated more kindly, the plaster faded to a pleasant crème de menthe, with runnels of cream and chocolate where cracks had appeared. I spent a lot of time in that hall those first few days, waiting for someone to say hello, to invite me into another room. But the place remained strangely quiet. I was desperately lonely, my homesickness so intense I felt as though I'd been stabbed. Why hadn't I wanted a roommate? Worse, it seemed that in spite of the Strong Suggestion in the orientation manual, I had arrived several days too early. The hall's only other inhabitants were a trio of girls from Iran, distant relatives of the Shah, who were freshman engineering students. They spent their days brushing and plaiting one another's long black hair, and their evenings on the floor's single pay telephone, weeping and railing at the cruelty of their parents in sending them here.
I wished I could give myself over to such a luxury of grief. But when I called my parents I assured them all was well, school was great, my first class was Tuesday, Thanksgiving was not so far off, no really, everything was fine. Then I handed the phone back to the Iranians and returned to my room.
"Shit," I said, and slouched into a chair.
It was a long and narrow room, with old wooden furniture that smelled of lemons and chalk. I shrugged out of my skirt and blouse, stood shivering while I tried to remember which bag held my clothes. Then I pulled on ripped jeans and black T-shirt, punted the skirt beneath the bed, and turned to survey my kingdom.
At the end of the room a huge arched window glowed whitish blue in the afternoon light. I stepped over a tangle of stereo wires and peered outside. The mullioned panes were of heavy whorled glass. The casements opened by means of an ornate cast-iron crank that shrieked when I tried to turn it, until I found and released the latch holding it closed. The window began to open, very slowly. Air heavy and thick and sweet as cane syrup flowed into the room. I leaned forward, my hands resting on the broad granite sill.
My room faced east and looked out over the Strand, the long sward of grass and trees that ran down the center of the campus. All the campus was spread before me like a huge board game tricked out in gold and green and marble. Archaic grey buildings and great spreading elms formed a gauzy tapestry in the late-summer light. The horizon was bounded by a heavily wooded hill, where the pale dome of another building poked through the greenery like the top of an observatory or the ruin of some ancient temple. Rows of tourist buses were parked beneath the trees. Directly beneath my window the students I had seen earlier still lolled in the grass and passed each other joints, while dogs rolled laughing and barking between them. Above everything loomed the Shrine, that brooding sphinx, wavering in the heat. The whole scene had the unreal aura of a tinted postcard of the World's Fair. It never struck me that I could just have walked outside and been a part of it all.
But I could get a better look. I made certain the window was open as far as it would go. Then I swung out onto the ledge. For a perilous moment I crouched there like a gargoyle, until I caught my balance and scrunched up against one end of the window. My back butted up against something carved into uncomfortable points and angles. I wriggled until I felt more comfortable, then leaned forward to stare through the window and back into my room.
On the far wall hung a mirror. It showed me my reflection, a skinny figure like a goblin trapped in glass. Long legs in torn denim, bare ankles and feet betraying how unfashionably pale I was. Long arms with thin bony wrists, big hands, big feet, ragged fingernails. Limp shoulder-length black hair, straight and fine as a child's. A wide milk white pixie face, distinguished mostly by large pale grey eyes and star-tilted nose, a few freckles, an engaging little gap between my two front teeth. Shanty Irish, my high school English teacher had once described me. I liked the description. At eighteen I fancied myself a spiritual daughter of Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien, an able drinker and quoter of melancholy verse. My nose even had a nearly undetectable list to one side, where my brother Kevin had broken it during a childhood rout over Matchbox cars.
I turned and looked down. Two boys throwing a Frisbee waved up at me. Clutching the edge of the window frame, I waved back.
"Come on down!" one shouted. I shook my head, yelled, "Later!"
Near them a girl reading a magazine flopped onto her side, shading her eyes until she sighted me, then waved languidly and looked away. The boys laughed, skimmed the Frisbee between them, and loped off across the grass.
So they were friendly; so there was hope. I sat there for the rest of the afternoon, my face tipped to the sun, daydreaming about my classes, trying to figure out how many days were left before Columbus Day weekend.
But finally the heat got to me. My shoulders hurt, too, from whatever the hell I was leaning against. I stretched, carefully so as not to fall, and crept back to the window. At the opening I hesitated, and craned my neck to see what made that damn wall so uncomfortable.
There was an angel there. No—two angels. One to each side of my window. They were so lifelike that I started, the glass shuddering behind me. For a sickening moment I thought I'd fall; then I grabbed onto the window frame and caught my balance. After a moment I calmed down.
They're only angels, I thought, stone angels. Given the peculiar spiritual history of the Divine, not unusual at all. I just hadn't noticed them before. I blew down the front of my T- shirt, trying to cool off. Then I took another look.
There were angels everywhere. They seemed to flank each window of Rossetti Hall, and for all I knew they were everywhere across the entire campus. Ten feet high, wings folded in close against their sides, their long legs and flanks straight and smooth as pillars. It was the curling ends of a wing that I had been leaning against, its feathers swept up like the crest of a wave. Their long slender hands were posed in different attitudes—prayerful, admonitory, threatening, placating—their faces serene, eyes closed, mouths set in thin, unsmiling lines.
What was so startling about them was that they were naked, and had no genitals. Their thighs formed an inverted V and cast charcoal shadows against the wall. Stretching my hand, I could just barely touch the outline of sinew in the granite, the curve where a tendon bulged in a knee; the tiny details of muscle and lineament so lovingly rendered they must have been drawn from life. They didn't look desexed, or childlike, or like they were missing anything. They looked like they were supposed to look like that; like they were true androgynes. Real angels, turned to stone.
And staring up at the face of the one guarding my room, I thought that it had been very purposeful of the artist to depict it with eyes closed: because it would have been terrible to have one of those creatures gazing down at me.
Suddenly I felt cold. The blind faces were turned to where the Shrine's shadows had begun to creep across the Strand. I started to shiver uncontrollably, and realized I must have gotten sunstroke. I clambered back inside, kicked among my clothes until I found an old grey cross-country sweatshirt, and pulled it on. It was after five o'clock. I could find dinner in the dining hall, and maybe company.
That same afternoon, the afternoon of Sweeney Cassidy's arrival at the Divine, word of the Sign came to Balthazar Warnick.
He was in his study at the Orphic Lodge, the Benandanti's retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, nursing a brandy and making a halfhearted effort to repair the miniature orrery that stood in one of the many recessed windows that lined the room. Outside, rain lashed against gables and dormers, and sent the limbs of great oak trees rapping threateningly upon the mansion's shingles and ancient panes of leaded glass. A late-summer storm had settled in during the night. While most of its fury was spent, frequent squalls and shrieks of wind still raged about the study's turret.
"Well," Balthazar said softly. The constant noise made it difficult to concentrate, but he wasn't overinvolved in his task. Squinting, he adjusted his eyeglasses and peered at the instrument. "Now then."
Between his long fingers the orrery looked like some giddily elaborate Christmas ornament, with its brass fittings and enameled representations of the planets dangling from orbits of gleaming wire, all of them rotating about the large golden image of the sun. Red, yellow, green, orange, white, blue, violet, black. His thumb and forefinger closed about the tiny whirling bead of emerald, pinched it until he could feel it grow hot beneath his touch.
And where is the world the Benandanti occupy? he thought, and Balthazar's unlined face grew grim. Where was the world Balthazar himself lived, with its eternal rounds of meetings and retreats, its endless days and hours and decades of waiting? Without thinking, he pinched his fingers more tightly together. Threads of smoke rose from the little emerald globe, and glittering tufts of fire. The green planet third from the sun was in flames. Balthazar's clouded expression suddenly grew calm. He leaned over the orrery, extinguishing the tiny blaze with a breath. The minute globe cooled, its smooth green surface uncharred, unchanged. Sighing, Balthazar set the orrery back upon its brass mount and turned to stare out the window.
Far below where the lodge perched atop Helstrom Mountain, the Agastronga River had flooded its banks. But above the line of mountains to the west the storm was finally starting to break up. On the easternmost rim of the horizon Balthazar gleamed a faint rind of gold, marking where the sun still shone. It would be unbearably hot in the capital today, at least until the storm moved in to cool things off. He winced at the thought. As though he had summoned it by this small action, a knock came at the door.
"Yes, Kirsten," Balthazar called. "Come in." For another moment he gazed out the window, then turned. "Yes, my dear?"
The Orphic Lodge's housekeeper strode into the room, a bit of white paper fluttering in her hand. Balthazar's heart sank.
"Excuse me, Professor Warnick. A telephone message."
Kirsten crossed to the window, picking up the silver tray with the remains of Balthazar's lunch, pickled herring and cornichons and a few crusts of pumpernickel bread. She handed him the slip of paper and took his brandy snifter, still half-full, and placed it on the tray. "Francis X. Connelly called. I wrote down the message."
Excerpted from Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 1995 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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