Sincerely, from Some Other Side of the Mountain
Guppies Newsletter #1: We Are What We Cherish
Dear Mama and Papa Guppies,
I’m truly blessed to teach your kids! Thank you for choosing the St. Andrews School.
Kindergarten holds all kinds of wonders this year. I have our curriculum ordered by theme: the first will be family, the places we come from. Next will be holidays, seasons, and nature. And we’ll end the first half of the year on the sea, environments, and ecosystems.
Day one was a show-and-tell. The children were asked to bring meaningful objects to show around our sharing circle. Not just objects they love but objects that define them as their beautiful, post-toddler brains thrive and change!
Luna brought her Fur-Real Friend. Jonah brought his ninja costume. Charlotte brought her doggie’s chew-toy. (Fergus is her pooch’s name!) Theodora brought her claw.
Yes, an actual claw she was happy to show us, from a rather large bird she found dead in her yard. Was it un-taxidermied? It certainly was! Don’t worry, we had sanitizer on hand, though she’d managed to clean that claw off pretty well. She said it was her “feather friend”—which, given our focus on nature, is super. She put the claw up to watch over her cubby. The other kids were just intrigued! Charlotte took it down and sniffed it. “Smells like nothing,” Charlotte said.
For all of you germ-conscious parents out there: we normally wouldn’t encourage such habits. Needless to say, in the coming school year we’ll be looking to foster a strong sense of self so we want to thank Theo for sharing her claw and Charlotte for (tactfully) voicing concern regarding the fact of said claw in our classroom.
I’m sure there may be times this year where my inherent optimism as a person seems silly. Takes everyone some getting used to at first! But I also encourage the class to bear with me. Know that I am on your side.
Each of us is a way to exist in this world. All ways converge upon the future.
A reminder that nap-mats should be taken home to be washed every week to encourage good napping!
Grateful for you,
From: [email protected]
Subject: St. Andrew’s Dress Code
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Coots,
We hope this update finds you well!
Theodora’s truly special. We couldn’t be happier she’s in the Guppies.
She excels in manipulatives, also in art. And she plays well with others for the most part, although sometimes does tend to go off on her own. She has these little games she plays! One involves her “feather friend” in the middle of a circle of nude baby dolls. She cycles the dolls like in musical chairs, doll-sized seat to doll-sized seat for the length of a song on the class music box. Theo chirps and hums along. When one of the dolls doesn’t get to a seat by the time the song stops, it goes into the circle, where it lies beneath “feather friend,” sentenced to something. “What happens when all the dolls go in the circle?” I asked Theo once, as she played in her corner. “Feather gets a snack,” she said. “And then the game begins again.”
Theo’s impressive pretend-play aside, we’re writing you now with a wardrobe concern: Theo has worn the same DIO T-shirt every day without fail for a week now in class. The cover art from The Last in Line? But the St. Andrews School has a dress code in place (available in the parent handbook), and Theo’s shirt, sadly, falls outside its bounds. And the imagery, also, is somewhat distracting: a panther-like Satan emerging from flame reigns over a nuclear waste of the damned, some of whom have grown birds’ heads or no heads at all, tormented in agony and riddled with arrows.
Theodora’s classmates have started to notice; I’ve heard a few whispers of “Dracula girl.” Charlotte doesn’t like this term, she finds “muckity muck in the woods girl” more fitting. Not to say we encourage this type of behavior: Theodora’s classmates should embrace her uniqueness. And so we’ll continue to seek your support in creating a space where that uniqueness thrives.
We urge you to visit our alumni website where you can purchase Theo clothes. We are happy to offer partial discounts to families that need assistance.
In Trust and Good Will,
Caught Being Kind—Spotlight: Theodora
Today marks our third ever “Caught Being Kind,” a Guppies monthly bulletin that lifts up the kindest in our class. Today’s bulletin has an unlikely source—the season of witches and ghosts (oh my). We had a class party on Halloween day that drew all kinds of groovy ghoulies!
Charlotte was the Frozen princess. Andrew was a football zombie. Theodora showed up in an antique black gas mask.
Is Theo’s grandfather a veteran maybe? If so, we thank him for his service!
Plus, it served us all well in a Halloween game of running from the Bug Eye Monster, which seemed to tickle everyone. Or everyone except for Charlotte. She had come to school that day in one of her funks (Elsa is a moody princess!), and she sat to the side in the sort of soufflé that her princess dress made when it bunched at her waist. Theodora looked so happy! She was clawing her hands with the big gas mask jiggling, but Charlotte just sat there with crossed arms and legs. The Bug Eye Monster stopped mid-flight. She took off the gas mask and petted Charlotte’s cheek. That sprang Charlotte into action, tearing after Theo, cackling.
The Bug-Eye Monster never caught us because we didn’t want to stop! Thank you, Theo, for being a scary-great friend.
Grateful for you,
Guppies Newsletter #7: With Thanks To Those Who Came Before
Dear Mama and Papa Guppies,
A Happy Thanksgiving to all Guppies families!
Most of this week saw the kids hard at work prepping our annual Grandparent’s Day!!!
Theodora’s grandpa was particularly nifty. When we called him by Theo’s last name, which is Coots, he said we should just call him Warwick the Wizard. So he isn’t a veteran but a magician! Here are some facts you should know about Warwick: first off, he’s extremely tall, which made some of the children concerned for a moment before realizing he’s what you’d call a “gentle giant.” The children really loved his beard, which he wears dark and bushy, almost past his stomach. They were pushing their hands in it, flicking the end! Jonah got his arm wrapped up. Everybody agreed if you saw him out walking you might not think he was a wizard. He wore these Camo dungarees and these big old mud boots that smelled slightly of fish.
Charlotte said he smelled “disgusting,” but Warwick the Wizard just laughed and laughed.
Charlotte’s mother made Charlotte say sorry three times. She was there pushing Charlotte’s “Maw-Maw” in a wheelchair. Charlotte’s mom has a “can-do” mindset just like Charlotte! For instance, when Charlotte got mad at the class for failing to cap all the glue sticks and markers before putting them back in their bins after snack, Ms. Kristophe told her, “Jesus, Charlotte. Nobody wants to be friends with that kid.”
We couldn’t let Warwick the Wizard zoom off without wowing us first with a taste of his magic! He did “Pop Goes the Vermin” and “Ghost in the Doorway.” “What Lives under My Face” was another big hit. “Grey Gerty on Her Forest Throne” had us all a little stumped, though it did involve a homemade puppet—a sort of sloth, you might say, with a huge rack of horns? It came out of Warwick the Wizard’s shirt collar and “descended the mountain” of his stomach. Theodora was so proud! At the end of this most unexpected performance, Warwick the Wizard revealed his true purpose, which was to invite Theodora’s whole class to her 4th birthday party on December 21st (otherwise known as “Winter Solstice,” as Warwick the Wizard took great pains to mention). He even gave out personalized invitations to everyone in Guppies class—including us teachers. Thanks, Warwick the Wizard!
Grateful for you,
The Manatee Weekly #12: Theodora Coots
Every week one lucky kiddo goes home with our Guppies mascot—Rumble the Manatee, big, fat, and healthy! (Don’t worry, parents, our Rumble is stuffed.) They take pictures with him, documenting their weekends, and narrate those pictures with little short stories.
Entry 1: Rumble in the Car
This first photograph shows our Rumble in transit. He’s propped on a dashboard, we think a large truck’s, his body hunched slightly beneath the truck’s windshield. Behind him is a shelf of cloud (those thunderstorms we caught last weekend!) while a hand with a cigarette juts in the frame. We think maybe the hand of the person who took it who was also, somehow, navigating the car? The windshield is cracked with a spiderweb pattern. Good luck, Rumble! Fare thee well!
Entry 2: Rumble in the Car, Part Two
This one is Rumble, the same car ride home, but now he sits below the dashboard, propped between the gearshift and the AC controls. He’s drinking a soda? We think it’s a soda, propped between those chubby flippers! In the truck’s cracked-out windshield, the cloud bank has darkened. Below the clouds, a metal gate opening onto a yard with pickup trucks at different angles, and fixed to the front of the gate in barbed wire the word “THE” on one side, and “HOMEPLACE” on the other. Towering behind the gates and into the clouds, a big stone mountain lends the scene a forlorn beauty. Maybe later in the weekend Theo and Rumble can go for a hike!
Entry 3: Rumble at Supper
In this one, Rumble sits at dinner. He’s not at the table but slumps underneath it. From the angle of the camera and the lowness of the table, we’re guessing Theo took the picture—things sure are blurry and dark under there!—but you can see dozens and dozens of legs, a lot of them barefoot, lined up behind Rumble. There must’ve been people attached to those legs. We’re thinking, perhaps, a Coots Family Reunion?
Entry 4: Rumble Joins the Party
Taken the same night but probably much later, in this picture Rumble has made some new friends. He sits on a couch with some light wear-and-tear amid quite an expressive and fun-loving crowd! On Rumble’s left side are a man and woman (Mr. and Mrs. Coots, perhaps?), and the woman has fallen asleep on the couch arm with her black hair trailing onto the floor while the man next to her, who has long hair as well, spreads himself across the cushions. Grinning gap-toothed and wild, the man leans in toward Rumble, loosely encircling his neck with an arm that holds another of those sodas, the other crooked upon his leg, its index/pinkie fingers raised. It’s the universal gesture for “Having a Ball!” but Rumble looks a little worried! On the other side of him are two other men with hair so long it blurs their faces. They’re bobbing their heads vigorously to music. The surface of a coffee table takes up the foreground. Most of the table is sodas and ashtrays, with traces of this flour-like substance. The remnants of a baking project? Above it all is Theo’s grandpa (aka Warwick the Wizard), whose long arms wind around the couch and rest behind the sitters’ heads. He’s wearing those same camouflage dungarees but now with the hood pulled up over his head so all you can see of his face is his beard and the set of his mouth which looks, well, kind of scary? We’re guessing Theo’s gone to bed, but if she was up then we bet she was sleepy!
Entry 5: Rumble in His Happy Place
This next one has Theo perched up in a tree. She’s pretty high up there! Say, thirtyish feet from what we can see of the ground underneath her, and the camera must be nestled in the canopy of branches pointing down onto Theo and Rumble, close by her. Theo glances up shyly from under her hair with Rumble held fast in the crook of her arm (Careful, Rumble! Don’t look down!). Yet Theo’s face up there is changed—smooth and peaceful, almost happy. And we’ll admit it’s pretty nice with Theo’s “Home Place” rolling on in the background. Lots of space to run around! Right under the tree is the peeling blue house with its steep gabled roof and its wide columned porch. In back of the house, the remains of the party (mostly soda cans and bottles, and a massive scorched pit where a bonfire burned). In front of the tree is a big parking lot, or what passes for one, with the pickup trucks in it leading back down the road to the barbed wire gate. Beyond the house and its environs is a patchy, brown field that runs up on dense woods at the base of the massive and snow-covered mountain. At first glance this field looks empty, but if you look closer, you’ll notice a pattern: a grey and brown carpet of hundreds of birds lying dead in the field where they fell from the sky. If nothing else, at least we know where Theo got her “feather friend”!
Incident Report to the District Superintendent
Person(s) Involved in the Incident
Theodora Coots; Charlotte Kristophe; Luna Blankenship; Jonah Monson; Andrew Pevey; Elyse Lytle
Calpurnia Kristophe; The Coots Family
Information About the Incident
Date: December 21
Time: 1:00-6:00 p.m.
Police Notified: YES
Medical Treatment Provided: YES
Location: “The Home Place”
Description of Incident
I knew it was going to be one of those days when five children came into Guppies that morning with ad hoc permission slips signed by their parents. Permission to what? was the first thing I thought. We were practically out on Christmas break. After the half-day dismissal today, the permission slips read in a typewriter font, I hereby authorize my child, in care of Ms. Giddes and XY chaperones to travel by the “Birthday Bus” to Theodora Coots’s Solstice Jamboree . . . It didn’t end there (we included a copy), but I mean, when a parent gives written consent, there isn’t a whole lot that you can do really apart from providing a recommendation? When we promptly made ours (to the parents, by phone) to the basic effect that this plan made us anxious—there hadn’t been much prior notice, and we couldn’t afford for the school to be liable—we were met with irateness at having the nerve to try to change the plan at all. The parents of young children don’t like surprises.
We thought the permission slips were weird, but then we saw the party bus. Or I guess it was more of a van than a bus. One of those passenger vans you can rent, unmarked and white with double doors, big enough for sixteen kids, yet only a third of the class came along. It picked us up on Drexel Ave and South Fen Street—you know the corner. I thought that was smart from a legal perspective, because once you step foot on South Fen you’re off-campus, the St. Andrews’ School’s Jurisdiction ends there. The driver was this spaced-out guy in a loose denim shirt with his hair in a bun. Charlotte refused to get into the van. She said it “smelled weird.” Plus, the outside was “dirty,” though perhaps the word battered would better describe it, like it had seen some fender-benders. And I’ll admit, it did smell skunky, but a passenger van is a passenger van.
So what, said Ms. Kristophe, we’re just going to stand here?
Did I mention Ms. Kristophe had shown up that morning, pulling Charlotte along in a blue party dress? And when Charlotte refused to get into the van that Ms. Kristophe went first and demanded she follow? Ms. Kristophe would be our chaperone. I’d been desperately hoping for anyone else, Ms. Lytle, Ms. Blankenship, even Ms. Pevey. Certain parents, like Ms. Kristophe, tend to cause me mental anguish. “Helicopters,” we say in the faculty lounge, though Kristophe was a different kind. She wasn’t so eager to question my judgment as she could be to nitpick Charlotte, and in spite of the fact Charlotte needed nitpicking, I never knew quite what to say. Pretend like I’m not even here, she announced.
Theodora sat next to the driver up front. Grudgingly, Charlotte sat next to her mother. I sat in the middle seat—Luna and Jonah on one side of me, Elyse and Andrew on the other. Even after the engine turned all the way over and the wheels flattened grit, as we rolled toward the highway it was easy to convince myself this was perfectly normal and perfectly safe, a fun and edgy class field trip to celebrate a fall well spent.
I wanted the kids just to have a good time, but all of them seemed to have ants in their pants. I’d see them like this on class birthdays, post-lunch, Jell-O smeared across their cheeks. The driver didn’t help things much by handing out pouches of punch from a cooler, flinging them over the headrests like chum. Charlotte was having none of this! Juice boxes thwacked on her hunched, inert form. Theodora sat in front of me, watching the driver. When she finished her juice box it violently crumpled.
Is this one of your uncles, Theo, sweetie? I poked my head into the front. Maybe, I said, a second cousin?
Theodora didn’t answer.
Something like that, said the driver. His teeth were filmy, streaked with something. He had a tattoo with an intricate pattern on the side of his neck, underneath his right ear, but the van’s shocks were bad, and it wouldn’t stay still.
Theo’s hand was on my wrist. She smiled reassuringly, then she turned back.
The drive was longer than I’d thought. Good thing we had Rumble the Manatee there; I had the children pass him on a front-to-back rotation that reversed every time that the exits rolled over. Winter Solstice was no joke. In just a few minutes, full darkness had fallen.
“THE HOMEPLACE” looked just like it did in the pictures: a metal gate with barbed wire letters, but now with a number of motley balloons floating up from the chain-link or hanging deflated. Tatters of some kind of streamer. The driver drove a half-mile over indistinct property, flashing his brights. Screens of native plants and trees veered up in the path of the van and swept back.
Are we going up to the house? said Ms. Kristophe. We’re definitely getting some runoff back here.
Instantly, instinctively, my eyes flashed to Jonah, his lap showing dark in the glow of my phone. I palmed his head. Oh, it’s okay, sweetie. It’s a long drive, I said. I peered for the pee-pee trail under the seat, smudged the line with my toe in irrational shame.
Got some birthday games going tonight, said the driver. Back in them woods at the base of that mountain.
Pin the tail on the donkey? I said. A piñata?
Two young women and a man stumbled out of the woods and began to move toward us. The way the women walked seemed odd, their forearms extended and floating beside them, and they wore these pale dresses that trailed on the ground, tattered in places and laced in black dirt. Their feet beneath the hems were bare. The man wore holey stonewashed jeans and an oversized shirt with a hideous graphic of someone undergoing a live vivisection, and he smoked something pungent, perhaps marijuana, enormous white clouds drifting up from his face. Hipsters, muttered Ms. Kristophe.
One of the women, the one on the right, came up alongside us and ushered us out with a low, dreamy sweep of the hand. Maybe this was Mrs. Coots? I strove to make a good impression, stepping down from the van with my arms open wide like I was attempting to give her my competence, the excellent mother I’d been in her absence. Hi! I told her. I’m Miss Giddes! We’ve got an epidemic of the pee-pee dance here.
Her eyes struggled over me, stoned and forgetful. Bathrooms all around you, baby. She wandered away like she meant us to follow.
I realize at his point we might’ve called someone, but neither Ms. Kristophe nor I had reception. If we’re stuck here, she said, might as well just enjoy it. She winked at Charlotte, nodded in the woman’s direction, like Charlotte should get out and follow her off.
It was more than just wanting the kids to have fun. I knew there was something not right with the Cootses. I knew that they were an unorthodox unit. I knew there was substance abuse in the home. Moreover, I happened to know early on from Theo’s profile when she came to St. Andrew’s that, actually, she’d been adopted, several years prior, from a nearby girl’s home. But rather than causing me fear or alarm, all of this endeared me to them and their shaggy, screwed-up character compared to all the other families. Excuse my language, but it’s true.
Muckity muck in the woods’s house is creepy, said Charlotte, clutching Rumble to her. Don’t call her that, said Ms. Kristophe. Remember, Charlotte, we’re her guests.
Perhaps a hundred yards ahead a dim light shone among the trees, which at first I decided must be Theo’s house, approached from some hidden or indirect angle, but then I saw it wasn’t that. The trees fell back upon a clearing. The driver, who’d been gone awhile, rejoined our group suddenly from the left, smoking a cigarette, jogging ahead of us. Nice to stretch the legs! he called.
We approached a sort of campsite in the middle of the trees where several other people waited. One of them was Warwick the Wizard. He wore the camo dungarees with the hood hanging back from his mostly bald head. As we neared him, the children cried out: It’s the wizard! He’s going to do more magic to us! He stood above a picnic table that held a red layer cake, six candles in it. Behind the picnic table was a sylvan amphitheater, or that’s the best way I can think to describe it. Rows of benches hewn from trees surmounted by a wooden altar. It reminded me faintly of “Hooting Owl Arbor” at the sleepover camp where I’d gone as a kid, the director assembling us there every evening to soothe our wild kid blood with acoustic guitar songs like “Cats in the Cradle” and “Bringing Home Baby Bumblebee” even though, at the end, when the bee stings the child, I never could squish up that bee.
In the center of the altar, coming up through the floor so that the altar formed around it in a scaffolding, almost, was a massive grey boulder with words etched across it. Even in the floodlights run off clanking generators obscured by the tree line surrounding the campsite, I couldn’t quite make out the words. The boulder itself was the same stormy grey as the skin of the mountain that towered above it.
Warwick the Wizard was flanked by a crowd. Two women and the driver were there, in addition to maybe a half-dozen others, a lot of them young, with the same waifish aspect.
Welcome kiddos. Welcome all.
Thank you for having us! cried Ms. Kristophe. She prodded her daughter who echoed, Yeah, thanks.
And thank you for making the trek out to see us, said Warwick the Wizard, on such a dark night. Let’s give our special girl the song!
Theo wormed beneath the table and popped up on the other side as the gathered began to intone, Happy Birthday. What else could we do at this point but sing with them? Haaaaaapy biiiiiiirthday, dear Theo. Theodora’s smile raged as the six candles raged. Then she stooped and blew them out.
As soon as the flame died, the floodlights died, too, the generators cranking down. The darkness was sudden and very intense. A few of the kids began whining in fear. I heard a violent scuffling sound, and I took out my phone to reveal the source of it. I saw that the crowd of adults had dispersed to make way for the kids who now tore at the cake, not with forks on their plates but in huge, squishing handfuls, shoving it into the dark of their mouths. Wait your turn, Luna! Your pee-pee hands, Jonah! But there was no stopping them, they were relentless. That’s right, said Ms. Kristophe. You get your cake, Charlotte! The effect of the sugar was almost immediate. Andrew started screaming shrilly, racing through the dark in circles. Even Charlotte seemed to vibrate, convulsively mashing her hands at her sides. I looked for Theo; she was off, running into the trees, shouting joyfully, Marco! I tried that clap-chant thing we do to marshal their attention during learning circle sometimes—daduhdadaduhdaduh—but the sound of it reached their ears too late. Jonah skidded off the bench.
When the floodlights came back on, our surroundings looked different. The bulk of the mountain revealed itself to us, shooting up beyond the trees. There were floodlights spaced up it at quarter-mile intervals, eerily lighting the mountain’s north side like a landing strip dwindling into the mists. The kids’ faces were smeared in chocolate. Marco! we heard Theo’s voice in the trees.
Polo! cried Jonah and Luna. Before we could stop them, they ran after Theo.
Where are the other ones—Archie and Lisa? Ms. Kristophe said, skeptically glancing around.
You mean Andrew and Elyse, I said.
Only Charlotte was left, slowly licking her fingers, Rumble lying on the ground.
Polo! another two voices cried out. Grabbing Charlotte by the arm, we went running after them into the trees.
The clanking of the generators grew fainter the farther we followed the voices. There must’ve been speakers rigged up in the boughs because as we walked we began to hear music. Death metal, black metal. These cookie monster vocal strains and lots of buzzing fast guitar but being played almost uncomfortably low, like someone had left the song on by mistake. Remnants of people from Theo’s cake cutting were loitering among the trees. They didn’t appear to be doing that much; a trio shared a joint in silence. Another couple passed a bottle. Which way did they go? I asked.
Which way did who go where? they said.
The little kids! I shouted at them, but they only gazed drunkenly up from a stump.
Polo! I cried.
Marco, cried Theo.
Polo! sounded two more voices from maybe a hundred feet off to the right.
I came into a copse of trees to find Luna and Jonah distressed and alone— Jonah on the forest floor closely inspecting the knee of his pants, the fabric there ripped with a cut showing through, while Luna stood above him chanting soft reassurance. I gathered Luna to me in a hug of relief; Ms. Kristophe knelt to deal with Jonah. Only once we were all calm enough to keep walking did we realize Charlotte had vanished as well.
Just what. Are you planning. To do about this? Ms. Kristophe said calmly, each word an indictment.
Don’t worry. I grabbed at her elbow. We’ll find her.
As we crashed through the forest in search of the kids—in search of Ms. Kristophe’s daughter!—the low heavy metal drained out of the speakers, replaced by a hoarse, indiscernible chanting. It was Warwick the Wizard in some foreign tongue. Yaar-ti, I thought—or maybe: Uu-ur-ti. I studied the trees for the source of the speakers and saw they were rigged up not only behind us, but also many yards ahead, garlands of insulated wire and weatherproofed speakers boxed up in the trees. Miss Giddes? said a darkened thicket with Andrew and Elyse’s eyes. When Theo appeared and streaked past us again, I took it as a cue to run, the floodlights blaring in my face. I came out somewhere on the side of the altar, which meant I had traveled in roughly a circle, so addled with panic in search of the kids that I was lucky I wasn’t more lost than I was.
Warwick the Wizard stood up on the altar, calmly lashing Charlotte to the boulder at its center. Over her head I could now see the words that I hadn’t been able to make out before, etched into the surface with some kind of chisel, coming down at a slant with the letters mismatched. Grey Gerty, the words in the rock read.
Grey Gerty. The name of some ancient and vast forest god I expected to see rising out of the trees and descending the mountain, illumined by floodlights, with the speakers unleashing their chants at the peak, but there was only Charlotte’s whimpers, the calm ministrations of Warwick the Wizard. He circled the boulder to tighten the ropes.
If there had been arrogance flattening Ms. Kriostophe, now she entered our dimension. She advanced on the altar, gesturing with her hands. Cute, she said. Now let her down.
Warwick the Wizard raised his arms. I ran from the woods, pushing past them and through them to the base of the altar where I stopped. I suppose from force of habit when talking to parents, I gathered myself, my lips forcing a smile. Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing to Charlotte? Because let me observe that she doesn’t look happy? Charlotte, I asked, are you happy up there?
Charlotte moaned and whined a little.
Mr. Warwick? I said. Mr. Wizard? I said.
But he only looked down at the knot he was making. I felt so mad—I got so mad! Suddenly, fiercely, like turning a light on. I would make my authority felt as a teacher.
Inappropriate! I yelled at him. Completely inappropriate!
That’s my daughter up there! Ms. Kristophe kept yelling. What are you doing to my daughter?
I heard a few dubious murmurs behind me threaded with some mocking laughter. A few of the followers came up around me, blocking my path to the girl on the altar but Warwick motioned them aside. You think if I untie her now that’s going to change any of this? Warwick said. He didn’t seem mocking so much as just curious. You really think that? Huh, he said.
Charlotte, Ms. Kristophe said.
Mom! Charlotte cried, straining through the nest of ropes with silent tears bright on her face.
I realized something sad but true: I’d never seen Charlotte Kristophe cry. Or, not like the other kids cried, which was often, at every small setback or minor frustration. Not even this year at her class birthday party when Ms. Kristophe brought in two kinds of nut-free bars and Luna ate the last of the chocolate, Charlotte’s favorite, crumbs and all. Not when Charlotte was sent to the “Deep Breathing Corner” for refusing to share her mat with Jonah, who in fairness to Charlotte had continence issues. I had lobbied for more vulnerability in her—trying to get to her to talk about “feelings”—big feelings and small ones, brave feelings and scared ones—having her spell and define the word “empathy” after showing her how the girl feels in the book when she laughs after her best friend spills paint on her smock only to spill the same paint on herself, understanding then how it is to be paint-smeared and wretched. Only now, though, as Charlotte was lashed to an altar in this cultist compound out of range of cell towers, had she really begun to make space in her heart for the way life could hurt her and all those she loved.
Theo was no longer crouched near the altar. She was backing away from it, sleek in the moonlight, Charlotte’s cast-off restraining ropes draped in her hands. And as soon as she saw she was all the way free, Charlotte streaked across the altar, around Warwick the Wizard and all his disciples, down into her mother’s arms.
Theo dropped Charlotte’s ropes and ran off through the trees. We turned around too, trudging back toward the van, but the Coots Cult remained at the altar of blood, strangely uninterested, watching us flee.
So go if you want to, called Warwick the Wizard. You need grace in the arms of the endless, we’re here.
Only when we were safe in the fug of the van did we notice that Theo had circled the altar and was back in the passenger seat. Her mischievous smile had become one of shyness. Her “feather friend” was in her lap. Theo Coots had chosen us.
You’ll be happy to know at this point in the evening we performed a triple headcount. The keys! The keys! cried Ms. Kristophe. The keys are still in the ignition! She started the engine, cold-sluggish and deep. There was only the drive through the country before us and the calls to the parents, once we got reception, waiting fearful and pissed at the gates of the school. But that’s when Charlotte started screaming, again and again, in the back of the van. Rumble Mantee! Rumble Mantee! And the rest of the children now took up the chorus: Save the Mantee! Rumble run! As I slid back the door of the passenger van I heard Ms. Kristophe say, Are you fucking insane?
Maybe I was at that point in the evening! My mind telescoped on a single objective: retrieve and secure the class mascot at once. I strode across the darkened road. The cold separated my hair as I went. Past the cake-smeared picnic table, past the clanking generators, past the front of the altar where Warwick the Wizard and the rest of the Home Place were doing a dance, hammering and orgiastic, past the back of the altar and into the trees to the place I could mark on the back of my hand as the place where we’d noticed that Charlotte was gone, Rumble rolling in the leaves. I felt my hand close on the synthetic plush. The trees juddered up at me, stark and mismatched. The dancers paused to watch me pass with the stuffed manatee waving over my head in a gesture unhinged and triumphant at once, and as I streaked past them, I saw that the driver had been lashed to the altar, his hands bound behind him, a cigarette between his teeth. Grover! It’s Grover, the children were yelling. Grover’s coming down the mountain! They were gesturing wildly behind and above me. To the mountain, I thought, rising out of the dark
Only now, looking back, do I know what they meant.
The final time I turned around I saw something trembling on the horizon where the floodlights met the trees with the bulk of the massive stone mountain behind it, a spidery, unnatural greyness descending, its head wreathed in a crown of bone, when my foot hit a rock and my face hit another. Apparently, I yammered things as Ms. Kristophe and some of the kids hauled me back: My beautiful warrior angels! Sweet darlings! Giddes’s Guppies rule the school!
Guppies Newsletter #12: Ending to Begin Again
Dear Mama and Papa Guppies,
That’s what I call a fall semester.
Thank you for your thoughts and cards, not to mention all the wine! I am doing much better. A little bit groggy!
The official report is available here, courtesy of the Lower School.
As you know by now, the police investigation is ongoing. By the time the state cruisers got out to the “Home Place,” the central house had been abandoned. The inside had been ransacked in a desperate leave-taking, stray possessions and furniture crowding the lawn. The sacrificial altar to “Grey Gerty” was dismantled, the wood hacked to bits and pushed into a scrap heap except for the stone, which had been hauled away. All that remained was a shallow depression.
You might’ve gotten word already in the letter from our Head of School, but we have a community matter to share that requires the discretion of all Guppies families. Theodora, a ward of the foster-care system, has as of last week been removed from her home in accordance with guidelines devised by the state that “mitigate standards of minor well-being.” Now Theo’s in a better place—sleeping on my foldout couch while her case makes its way through the juvenile courts (I’ve been letting her sleep in my bed for two reasons: 1. She wouldn’t agree to sleep anywhere else. 2. It helps Theo weather continuous nightmares of the Home Place, “Grey Gerty,” and “Warwick the Wizard.” Other than that, she loves oatmeal and reading and talking to her “feather friend” and watching Netflix as I make lesson plans—Equestria Girls and PJ Masks. We’ve also been taking long walks in the country to clear Theo’s mind and to get her outside.)
The baby doll musical chairs game continues, but now it has a different outcome: when the last baby doll has gone into the circle where the “feather friend” waits to dispense their fates, the dolls connect hands, form a line of resistance.
The “feather friend” lopes away into the shadows.
At my personal residence (unlisted here), I’ve sure been getting funny mail! Large padded envelopes, no return address, carcasses of birds stuffed in them.
Where the strange denizens of the Home Place are now, no one in the school can say. Unfortunate, yes, from the legal perspective, but still it makes a certain sense. Until they can begin again with a new kindergarten, a new Theodora, and a new birthday party, rescheduled for some other side of the mountain, their whereabouts are hearsay only. In the meantime, the children wake up from naps screaming. Ropy gray monsters appear in the clouds. Rumble the Manatee sits, a survivor, on the reading nook bookshelf. After a lengthy and much-needed break, the spring semester will begin.
Thank you for letting me care for your children. It is something I hope I am still equal to in spite of the many ways I can do better.
Grateful for you,
P.S.: Charlotte Kristophe has a message and wanted me to print it here: “Monsters AREN’T real! They DON’T live in the clouds! They DON’T go crawling down the mountains! No one in the Guppies should EVER forget there will ALWAYS be good people there to protect us.”