Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (4 page)

Cindy Pink was a peripheral friend of Margaret's who also happened to be in my math class. In general she spent a lot of time managing her cuticles, nibbling them until they bled or pushing them back with a small black emery board. You could judge her mood that way: if her nails were ragged, then class work was going poorly, or else she'd gotten into a fight with her mother, angry missives arriving by mail and the phone ringing off the hook in the dorms. There was a lot of gossip about it because sometimes those fights ended with Cindy receiving apologetic fruit baskets that she parceled out to her suitemates. That day, however, her hands were neat, with a thin layer of clear polish giving her naturally pink nail beds an extraterrestrial gleam. She crossed her arms over her chest and nodded to me.

“Hey, you,” she said again. “Are you busy? What are you doing right now?”

“Studying?” I looked at my book, splayed out on the floor. “Why?” No one really talked to me, as a rule, except in class or else to tell me that the loose buttons on the side of my skirt had come undone. And even then, sometimes girls just poked their fingers through the hole to my stockinged leg, looking up at me as if to ask,
Well?

Cindy pursed her lips and glanced down at one hand, inspecting the glossy manicure there. She seemed conflicted. “You're kind of weird, right?”

“I'm not sure I know what you mean.”

“Sure you do.” Her hair was black and straight: she was a true winter, with pale blue eyes she narrowed at me, now. “You're a spooky one. You know,” she gestured around her head, as if chasing off a cloud of gnats. “Woo-woo. So anyway, we need you to help us with a project.”

At this point a touch of affront might've done me good, or at least a bit of skepticism. But I was dazzled by the idea that Cindy, or anyone, had thought about me as any kind of person at all. I didn't know what
woo-woo
meant, but between her nervous stance and her hand-waving, I could guess. And in fact I wasn't opposed to having a reputation for witchiness. It meant there were girls who had looked at me, girls who had whispered and seen something in me that I had no idea was there. Plus, it was a lot less pathetic than I expected.

I leaned down and picked up my Schopenhauer, placing it facedown on the carrel desk so that the dour portrait on the front of the book, which always gave me the creeps, was out of view. Then I crossed my legs and lightly folded my hands on top of my knees.

“What is this … project?”

“Ok, I knew you'd be into it.” Paying no attention at all to what I'd hoped was a very sophisticated posture, Cindy grabbed my elbow and pulled me away into the library, weaving through the stacks and then looking back and forth behind us before slipping into a small stairway in the building's rear. “Shh,” she said unnecessarily as we tiptoed down the stairs.

We emerged into one of the library's sub-basements, a supposed research area so poorly outfitted that half of the shelves were empty, and in some places graffiti had snuck onto the walls, eluding the watchful eyes of the facilities crew. Pencil scribbles mostly, though sometimes a haunting slash of lipstick: CHERYL WAS HERE and I'VE GOT YOU NOW followed by WHO? followed by WOULDN'T YOU LIKE TO KNOW? Sometimes girls snuck down here to hide books they were using for class projects and wanted to keep from
being recalled; at the end of every semester a librarian was dispatched to collect and re-catalogue them. Cindy and I made our way to the back of the room, where a few shelves had been pushed around to create a circle, like a clearing in the woods. Several girls were already there, sitting cross-legged on the worn grey carpet.

“Oh good,” said a girl named Adeline, who lived on the floor below me. “You got her.”

“Why am I here?” I asked. My elbow hurt where Cindy had been holding it, and I tried to rub away the pain while still looking cool, collected.

“Right, right, we'll get to that.” Adeline raised her eyebrows at Cindy and surveyed the room. She asked me: “You know everyone?” Besides us and Cindy, there were three other girls from our year—Bernice, Leslie, and Louise—plus a first-year named Marion who would later transfer out. A senior named Olivia.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Perfect. Well, listen, we've all heard about you”—again, I was flattered and confused to hear it—“and we think you can help us with something we need to do. How is, uh, how are your grades going?”

“What?”

“You know,” Adeline said. “Are you doing ok in your classes?” She seemed uneasy, clocking my reactions, as if she was as scared as I was that I would say the wrong thing.

“Sort of. It's fine.” I didn't want to get into it. Cindy smirked, and I threw her a look from the corner of my eye—math was one of my better subjects, actually. Dispassionate, and a universal language. “Why, is this a study group? I like working …” I paused, considered my phrasing, not wanting to lie. “I
prefer
working on my own,” I said, which I did, because it cut down on the stress of conversation.

“Well, that's really great for
you
and all, but not everyone feels that way.” Olivia, the senior girl, had her back pushed up against a bookcase, and she kept rocking into it, making it shudder. “Some of us aren't doing so great, and some of us need to graduate on time.”

“Oh.” It wasn't clear to me how I could help them. Olivia and Marion, in particular, weren't even in my classes.

“Anyway.” Adeline stared at Olivia until she sat still; until everyone was perfectly still. “Anyway. Studying is fine, but sometimes it's not enough. We want to do everything we possibly can to make sure finals go well this year. It's important. For all of us.”

“Do something, like what?”

“Hmm,” said Adeline. “Have you ever heard of the Gray Governess?”

“No.”

“Well, she's the ghost of the library, and she's going to help us pass. And you're going to help us talk to her.”

 

Excerpt from
The Donne School: History and Legacy,
by R. B. Stinson

Though many consider the metaphysical poet and cleric John Donne (b. 1572, d. 1631) the institution's primary spiritual forebear, the Donne School has long maintained a second connection to the mysterious and much-debated Lady Donne, also called the Gray Governess. A recluse and a scholar from the eighteenth century, the Governess lived in Devonshire, England, as heir to and proprietor of her ancestral castle The Goss, where she acted as ward to a group of orphaned young women from all over the county who called themselves the Gray Goslings. This group was viewed with some apprehension by the community; reported Gosling activity ranged from advanced hermetic scholarship to unsubstantiated, likely slanderous accounts of witchcraft and necromancy, though it is widely believed by serious historians that the girls spent most of their time cultivating the grounds around the castle in order to provide food to the local poor. After The Goss burned down in 1826, all firsthand records of the period were lost.

Although her mark on history is fainter than that of her literary namesake, it can be seen in her limited remaining writing that Lady Donne shared many of the poet's philosophical concerns, including the mercurial essence of nature, flux and momentariness in all existence, and the transmigration of the human spirit into the physical world. Lady Donne, however, also believed in the transmigration of God's spirit into man, and was notable for her insistence that the exercise of human will is a vital method of communication with the divine. In simpler terms, she
believed that what we do is what God is, and that this fact endows humanity with a number of grave obligations, particularly when guiding young people toward productive lives.

At the Donne School, our primary responsibility is to the welfare and education of our students, and we believe Lady Donne provides them with a unique example of modern (if not quite contemporary) femininity. Robust in her challenge to the idea that young ladies must be seen and not heard, Lady Donne was heard, but not seen; she offered shelter and education to the unfortunate without seeking any personal visibility or reward, and was bold enough to insist on a causal link between base corporeal actions and the transcendence of the soul. Her work was, in a word, visionary, despite the limitations placed on her sex during her lifetime. Stonework rescued from the ruins of The Goss can be found throughout the Donne School campus, serving as a reminder of the Gray Governess's commitment to education and as an extratemporal link between today's Goslings and those of yesteryear. A chalice of earth from Devonshire, likewise, evokes the Governess's spirit in the library.

Editor's note: This page, torn out of a Donne School reference book, was found tucked into the Andropov diary. A thorough comb-through of the Donne School library, including the sub-basements, located the exact tome from which the page originated, including the shredded remnants where the page was removed, and a smudged fingerprint in the nearby margins.

 

Zoya

11.

“Here's the basic idea,” Cindy told me, stepping in for Adeline. She seemed nervous again, allowing herself one small nibble at her pretty thumbnail. “There's supposed to be this library ghost? And if you ask her things, she can help you with your schoolwork? Because she believed in education?”

“Ok,” I said. “And?”

“And we want her to help us? According to the legend, you're supposed to find this dirt, see. That's the first thing. And then you get a sensitive person to be the ghost's, um, mouth. Voice. And, um, we thought, you seemed pretty sensitive.”

I looked around the room, waiting for one of the girls to burst into laughter. But they were nodding, attentive. Leslie and Bernice held hands, and despite my fear of being made a fool of, I was intrigued. Back in Moscow I'd been raised by the state to believe in sensible ideas, focusing on practical knowledge and hard work instead of fairytales about life after death. God was forbidden in my childhood, and spook stories, too, those hair-raising articles of the capitalist imagination, designed to lull the overrun masses into a submissive stupor, while the revolution was designed, instead, to wake us up. But the pragmatism required by my Soviet education never quite took, with me. Maybe because my mother had been full of superstitions—sit on a cold stone and lose your childbearing abilities; go to sleep with wet hair and you'll wake up with the
walking flu; whistle below the full moon and you're inviting something malign to tea—or maybe just because I didn't feel that my physical senses were perfect enough to grasp everything the universe had to offer. And then, too, my parents died, which felt like something that might happen to somebody else, suggesting that I wasn't living my own proper life. Anyway, beyond any ghostly concerns, I hadn't been completely honest with Adeline when I said my grades were fine. They could've been better. They could always have been better.

“So how do we get the dirt?” I asked.

Cindy nudged Marion with her toe, and the younger girl reached into a knapsack, pulling out a paper bag. She shook it, and I heard the soft sprinkling of earth.

“Open your hands,” Marion instructed, and I did so, making a little bowl. She shook a bit of the dirt onto my palms.

“And you all just thought I could do this? Because I seem … open?”

“Well, that,” Cindy agreed. “And, honestly, none of us wanted to. We figured if you said no, we'd tell Margaret you follow her around copying her every move.”

“What?” I retracted my hands a bit, losing a light dusting of soil.

“Careful!” Cindy said. “Look, it's no big deal. We just thought, if
we
were Margaret, then
we
wouldn't want our creepy roommate tailing us like a creepy shadow. Not that you're necessarily creepy,” she assured me with a shrug. “And I mean, you said yes, so we don't have to tell Margaret anything anyway.”

My face burned. In a way, it had worked: my plan to get noticed and find my place among the other girls. But this was not the place I had wanted, or the notice I was hoping for. The ghostly dirt felt cool in my hands, and gave off the vaguest scent of grass and stone.

“What do we do now?” I asked, not looking up.

“Now we're going to say a poem,” Marion told me. She was the calmest of them, and her voice was pleasant. Lulling. “You just listen to the poem, and each of us will light a candle. Then the Gray Governess is supposed to speak.”

“Ok,” I said. It didn't sound so bad. Around me, everyone nodded, and Adeline gently pushed me into the center of the circle. I sat down, and they arranged themselves at an even distance, pulling out short tapers and passing a box of matches hand to hand. Louise stood up and turned off the lights. There was just the soft glow of the candles.

Later I would realize the poem was in the Donne School charter, and I would wonder how they came to select it for this particular task. But at the time I barely caught the words—all I took in was the sense they were talking of honesty, clarity, a peculiar girl. I supposed she must be me. I closed my eyes, and the poem rumbled across me like waves. I thought of the whale, which I'd seen from the ship that brought me to America. I thought of my mother, singing gentle lullabies. And my father, frowning at me, beginning to change from the lighthearted man I knew in my early childhood into someone suspicious, hollow-cheeked, and stern.

He had been a true believer in the revolution that killed the centuries-old Tsarist regime with the aim of redistributing all the aristocracy's land and wealth. He was, too, a passionate advocate of the idea that the workers of the world would unite, that we shared a spirit which would help us ascend to a place of equanimity and humble goodness. I loved his faith, as it was all that I knew, and loved it more when he began to rise in the Party, bringing home meat from the most recalcitrant butcher and offering us little presents: a comb or a ribbon, a locket with his picture inside. The modest lift in our household status seemed to confirm that his faith was justified, that the Party was right in all it said.

But as the years went by in Moscow, something changed for him, and then, slowly, it changed for me. Though I was still obedient, my political observance stopped pleasing him, somehow—even simple expressions of enthusiasm for the Party or our brave new world made him look at me with suspicion. When he told me we wouldn't be going back to Lipetsk because the Party thought his skills were needed elsewhere, I was overjoyed at the idea of staying in the city and danced around the room, singing a little song I made up on the spot. (
Kto yez-dit? Ni-k-to. Kto sidit zdes'? Ya, horosho!
Who's going? No one. Who's staying? Me!) But he was ashen.
“Don't you see?” he asked me. “It isn't right. If I'm not there to help with the harvest, who will do my work for me? Someone will have to do it for me.” I didn't understand why this upset him. But he wouldn't stop talking about it, or about the other items on his growing list of qualms. Opulent meetings. Peculiar methods. Privileges withheld from the many for the benefit of the few.

In very little time our social ascension slowed, then stopped. I pestered my father with questions—innocent ones mostly, about when we'd be getting more food rations and why it was that the Party wasn't happy with us. Hadn't we all been happy before? Apparently I pressed this particular issue hard enough that something in my father snapped. One day as we were setting the table for dinner I asked again, and he grabbed my shoulders, stopping me on the way from the stove to the table and upsetting a platter of food in my hands. “It's better to be good,” he told me, “than to be happy. Remember that, Zoya.” His eyes scared me. I threw the platter down and ran away from him, hiding my tears behind my hand. It wasn't long before he was gone.

All these scenes drifted in front of me as I sat in the Donne School library with my eyes pinched shut, carpet scratching against my thighs. At some point the other girls stopped reciting the poem, but I didn't notice. There were images in front of me. People in the shadows. Someone with something urgent to say.

“God, snap out of it.” It took me a moment to realize that Adeline was shaking my shoulder. “It's no good if you don't speak English. What was she saying?”

“What?” I blinked, as bleary-eyed as if I'd just awoken from a deep sleep. “Was I talking?”

“Oh my god, yes, it worked, but you were just saying, like, gobbledygook.” She rubbed her forehead. “How are we supposed to know what she told us?”

“Who?”

“The Gray Governess! The whole
point
of all this?” Cindy piped in now, looking just as cross as Adeline. “Is there something we're supposed to
do? So our grades are good? Did she tell us to eat dandelion leaves or something?” A few other girls turned to Cindy, curious, and she blushed. “I heard that somewhere, that she told people that.”

Ti' budet bolshe,
I suddenly remembered.
Ti' budet luchshe.
There had been a voice of some kind, after all.

“I think she told me we'd get better?” I said. I didn't know how to explain what that meant, or that the grammar of the words spoke only to me.
You'll be more, you'll be greater—you
in the singular, meaning not the rest of them. As the girls around me perked up, I sensed now was not the time to try to make them understand.

“That seems kind of promising,” Olivia said. Then she peered at me. “Are you sure that's actually what she told you though? You seemed kind of—I don't know. Sick. Off.”

“Off of what?”

“It's—Who cares. It's an expression. But you didn't look normal. Your eyes were all weird.”

“Weren't they closed?”

“Oh my god, you didn't know you opened your eyes?” Cindy looked horrified. “Ok, this is getting creepy. Somebody turn on the lights.”

Marion started to cry, softly. “Jesus wouldn't love this,” she said.

“Oh hush,” said Adeline.

The lights came on and the girls blew out their candles. No one seemed to be paying much attention, so I let the dirt fall through my fingers onto the ground, brushing my palms together to get them clean.

“Uh, we'll see you later,” Cindy said as she stood up to leave. “And, um, thanks, I guess.”

“Sure,” I told her. I let the other girls disperse without me, not quite trusting myself to stand while they were watching. My legs were jelly: I had to use the stair rail to keep myself on my feet as I made my way back into the library proper. Back at my desk I was startled to find the Schopenhauer book upright, the philosopher's dyspeptic face staring straight into my own. I knew that someone had probably just come by and turned it out of curiosity, but the sight made my throat tighten up. I returned the
book to the woman at the front desk without finishing it, and simply skipped that assignment—a book report, which, curiously enough, our teacher never collected.

Later, alone in my room while Margaret had dinner in town with friends, I took out the last few possessions I had from home, and held them up to my face, one by one. Looking, I suppose, for secret messages in the tattered threads I had left. My locket. My rotten gloves. A little box with a few seeds in it, which I'd collected from the Moscow lilacs which in springtime grew out of every window box and every crack in the city streets. I wondered if they'd still grow for me, here. I thought I might try to find out.

12.

In the weeks and months following our botched s
é
ance, my school assignments began to take on a more personal quality—the teachers all seeming to draw on some obscure archive of my disquiet that I assumed had been awakened in that basement room. For instance, in art class it was announced that we were going to make busts of our fathers from papier-m
â
ch
é
threaded over balloons on the theory that the round balloons would provide healthy apple cheeks and funny foreheads. And on the theory, too, that this would be fun for us, which everyone but me seemed to agree with. Quality time with dear old dad. Some of my classmates brought in photos to work from, passing them around so we could all laugh at the way that fathers are: so embarrassing, so sweet. A couple of girls asked me if I had any photos of home left, and I thought of the locket, safe in my room, which I almost never wore. “No,” I said, firmly. It seemed easier to tell them that everything was lost, when almost everything was. I claimed to not quite remember what he looked like.

We wore smocks to protect our clothing, and spent an hour diligently pasting newspaper strips into smooth lines, trying to smear together the edges and adding layers for eyebrows, bent strips for the nose. I didn't mind so much when the faces were anonymous, and could've been
anyone—I just didn't like the idea of calling yet another person up from beyond the grave. I figured I would make a brown-haired, frowning no-man, and everyone, acting on misguided pity, would tell me it looked a lot like me. I would get a decent grade. “You're not my father,” I whispered to the blank, beige face in front of me as the other girls laughed and kissed their plaster papas on the cheek. In spite of myself, I thought of the real man, my
papochka
, the day he went missing. His hair messy and uncombed, and his clothing rumpled as he slouched out the door. We never saw him again. Counter-revolutionary ideas, my mother and I guessed. Pulled around a corner by rough hands. Leaving us to survive alone, because he wanted so badly to be good. Despite my efforts the balloon man began to look more and more like him, and I quietly wished it ill.

The next class period we were supposed to pop the balloons beneath the dry papier-m
â
ch
é
and get on with painting them. But instead we found that half the balloons had deflated overnight, caving our fathers in from the top. It was—I was surprisingly shaken to see my secret curse enacted in such a gruesome manner, even if they were just art projects, toys. Worse still was the fact that my balloon was intact, while others around me suffered the stupid indignity I'd wished on myself. I saw one girl run her fingertips over the dent in her father-balloon, as if she could heal it by longing, or make some sort of emotional splint. She couldn't, though, and I felt a wave of guilt.

Can you cause a small tragedy just by wanting to? It seemed that way to me. That cause and effect were intertwined, impossible. And hadn't Cindy and Adeline implied I was a witch? While we were cleaning up, the girls decided to stomp the balloons and get their revenge for being made to feel they'd failed; the semi-deflated ones wouldn't burst, having already lost their tension, but the pristine ones exploded and split the papier-m
â
ch
é
back into scraps.

The whole classroom was uproarious; people were shrieking. We ran around screaming, “Kaboom! Kaboom!” For a second I thought I might belong among these girls, as I had sometimes felt I did with the Young Pioneer scouts back in Moscow, just one in a great blur of bodies, one cell
in a great hive mind. But the affection of the room cooled as they ran out of heads to smash. Of course I could've given them mine and prolonged the mood: one eager classmate even held out her hands. But now that I had the chance, I couldn't seem to let it go.

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