Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Elizabeth of the Epiphany" by Charlotte Ostermann, Part Three

Chapter Three – The Faculty

In odd moments, as Epiphany took shape before her wondering eyes, Elizabeth stumbled deeper into the new universe. Of course, as such things must, it became by turns more fantastic and more real. Just where Maria Ogelthorpe fit in, was difficult to say. On the one hand, Epiphany seemed a product of her own imagination, but on the other hand, she seemed a product of its. In the moments when Epiphany was in focus, she saw that she always had been Elizabeth. She felt the finally-coming-home elation of one who watches as on-shore blurs gradually become the welcoming faces of dearly missed loved ones. The fact that she herself was simultaneously in the waiting throng and on the homecoming ship made perfect sense…in those moments.

Trouble was, the ordinary life through which Epiphany had been born seemed to go on oblivious to it, for the most part. Although Maria could entertain thoughts of it while shopping, cooking, caring for children, paying bills, and the like, the experience of actually being there receded bit by bit until she wondered if it had been a dream. The more she shared the emerging details with key people, however, the more comfortable she became moving back and forth between the campus and her home.
The commute should have been a short one, as her home was the campus, but now and then the journey seemed unbearably long. When, in the second month, her friend Cecilia joined the faculty, the commutes were shortened, as their conversations extended Epiphany‟s reach into both lives. The two of them puzzled long and earnestly over a few burning questions: Whether the university rapidly growing on paper and in their minds was already a reality, or had yet to be actualized. Were the words being written, in fact, the first emergence of some sort of reality outside time into their temporal existence? Would Epiphany exist if they stopped writing its story, or would it push through other people if they failed to realize it? How much was it a pure Ideal, and how much was it just a reflection of their own personalities and wishful thinking? Was this a whim, or a divine calling? Were they mad, or very, very sane?

Luckily, the two months of pondering and quibbling over these issues were passed pleasantly – largely over beer and pizza – and, luckily, they were over before Mara signed on to the faculty. A brash young lady who served the ladies pizzas, beer, and witty repartee on Monday nights at Luigi‟s, Mara won a spot on the faculty without ever knowing she was being interviewed. “That’s a girl you won‟t ever catch being someone she‟s not,” remarked Maria one evening. “There does seem to be a great depth of presence about her,” replied Cecilia, “despite appearances.”

Those appearances were more than a little disconcerting, but from that night dated the keen interest of Epiphany‟s Faculty Search Committee in Maravilla Lopez. Mara‟s blowsily clad cleavage, triply pierced ears and butterfly-tattooed left thigh (all too visible below the scanty skirts she favored) contrasted strikingly with the proud cheek bones and regally condescending eyes and bearing (“Queen of all she surveys, that one is!”) of a high-born Spanish doña. Her frank familiarity and cheerful contentment with what, by her own accounts, had been a difficult life, charmed the ladies.

They brushed away whatever troubling elements she presented to their more mature sensibilities, with indulgence born of growing affection. She was true Dulcinea to these non-quixotic Dons; Sigrid Undset to the Jane Austen Society; flaming blood-orange orchid to Cecilia‟s cottage garden and Maria‟s wildflower meadow. Mara had journeyed far from a childhood of faith, in a close-knit family, and just recently returned, wounded and wiser, to a surprisingly warm welcome. “I can‟t believe they want me back just as I am,” she had said, “but after seeing a world without families, I sure do want them just as they are!”

“Just like Innocent Smith in Manalive!” Cecilia had exclaimed. Which led to Mara‟s reading a copy borrowed from Maria; which led to them all agreeing they sometimes felt most sane when onlookers clearly thought them loopy, or thoroughly dotty; which almost led to Mara getting fired when two customers she forgot to wait on stomped out unamused by the ensuing exchange of hilarious stories of good intentions
gone haywire and generous gestures misunderstood as madness. Mara‟s studies under their tutelage thus commenced (“Now that’s an event that deserves a Commencement Ceremony!”), and she pestered them weekly for loans from Epiphany‟s new Circulating Library. Finally, they agreed to invite her to join the faculty, but not without one qualifying question.

“How would you like to go to college, my dear?” “Well, I‟d love a chance to go crazy learning whatever really interested me, but I don‟t imagine I could ever fit into the box labeled „student‟. I guess the minute I began studying to get a job, or a grade, or a pat on the back, the real Mara would jump up and say, „To heck with this, let‟s go to Europe and live a little‟. I‟m just not the type.” “Perfect!” the ladies cried in unison. “You simply must read the story of Epiphany and tell us what you think.” When she returned the unpublished manuscript the next Monday night, Mara seemed suitably affected.

“Is it real?” she asked, her eager brown eyes shining hopefully. “Do you hope so?” “With all my heart!” “Then, please, do attend next week‟s Faculty Development meeting with us. Can you get off work Monday?” Two weeks later they held an official Welcome Social, and changed meetings to Tuesday nights so Mara could join them at Sisters Pub and Pool Hall. One of the sister-owners of this bistro – the chef, Haley Commett – took particular interest in her regular customers. Camaraderie sprang up quickly with the faculty trio. (“What a mixed bag you three are, if you don‟t mind my saying so!” “Well, you have said it, and once it‟s in the minutes, there‟s no getting around it. I suppose now we‟ll need to schedule Mixed Bag nights at a pub for some reason.”)

Soon, she was introducing them to her sister Clem (Clementine Juster), whose husband Jim called her „oh, my darlin‟” (“Of course!”) with great affection. Clem was mannish looking in a lady-country-vet kind of way: short and stocky, curly graying hair too-closely cropped in a well-meant attempt at saving on salon fees, predictable loafers, corduroy slacks and tailored-shirts-under-vests. She and Jim took right to the faculty meetings, so business took a back seat to the fun of discovering each other for the next few weeks. Clem had great strong opinions whenever she had any opinion at all, but was unconcerned about convincing anyone else. In this company she felt unusually free of the typical social inhibitions that keep anything anyone actually considers important from being said.

Maria, Cecilia and Mara also spoke freely, even of Epiphany itself, which fits into very few typical conversations. When Clem accepted a faculty position, they all agreed Jim should be invited to meetings as an honorary Lecturer in the Faculty Formation program. It was so handy to have him there to fill in the details about science, history and current events – areas of their collective weakness – just enough to get on with an interesting story or metaphor.

Helen St. James, at this point, though not officially a faculty member, was tangentially involved with Epiphany‟s inception. Easily overlooked, bookish, and shy, Helen was one of Maria‟s dearest friends. Maria had discovered, beneath the layers of various ethnic costumes and a perpetual air of puzzlement, a dry wit and a capacity for rather oracular pronouncements. Not at all an academic „type‟, but well and widely read, Helen entered the monologues and conversations of others with confused and confusing insights that seemed to emerge from deep within a mind paying only scant attention to the flow of words.

Like a swatch of velvet whipped crazily onto the top of a patchwork piece, though, her utterances were sometimes the making of the whole. Maria often found that, on reflection, the key to the central meaning of such encounters was Helen‟s contributions. Helen herself, while listening with genuine interest to the unfolding story of Epiphany, did not perceive it as something that pertained to her. Not until her review of the first year (Manifest, Vol. 1, No. 6) did Maria even realize Helen‟s pivotal role in Epiphany‟s formation and rectify the omission by a public invitation to join the faculty. Helen readily accepted, and is credited with authorship of the Faculty Prayer, though her first rendering of it had surprised Helen as much as everyone else.

“Are you quite sure, Maria, that we should be writing so much?” Clem had asked. “After all, though we are called „faculty‟, we really are only students, and it seems a bit uppity to publish, doesn‟t it?” “I can see why she has us writing (Maria had coined the maxim, “It isn‟t a great idea until it‟s well-expressed.”), but I just wonder about the publishing,” said Mara. “After all, aren‟t there too many words in the world as it is, and more blather being foisted on it every day?” “But most of those are empty ones,” suggested Cecilia. “And if they are not just empty, but are really emptying, maybe we‟d better write to staunch the flow of meaning.” “Here, here” intoned Maria, “let it not ever be said that we could have written windows into another world and instead kept them to ourselves.”

“I think I understand,” breathed Helen dreamily. “It‟s like that prayer: Pour forth, O Lord, thy Words into our hearts, that we, to whom the Manifestation of thy Son was made known by the message of an Epiphany, may by that same Presence of Heaven in which we live and move and have our being, be brought to the glory of His coming into the world by creating places of words where the world may meet Him and enter His Kingdom.” She was unaware that „that prayer‟ was an original, but Clem copied the whole utterance into the minutes, and the Faculty have prayed it together ever since at the closing of all their intimate meetings.


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