Tapestry

Excerpt of "All Saints" by KD Miller

An excerpt from All Saints, a collection of short stories by K.D. Miller

OCTOBER SONG


Dear Simon,

Thank you for inviting me to use your given name. (Perhaps it would be more in keeping with your station for me to say, your Christian name?) It shouldn't really have surprised me to learn that no one has addressed you as Reverend for several years. I am permitted books and newspapers and magazines, and I do have occasional access to television, so I am not entirely unaware of how casual the world has become.

But I have grown somewhat rusty when it comes to letterwriting, or indeed almost any form of social intercourse. For decades now, my only meaningful relationships have been with fictional characters. Even the so-called real-life figures in the news can seem to be the stuff of story. After all, I have no influence on them—can't argue with them or make suggestions or attempt to alter their path. So it was something of an event, I must say, to address a living correspondent. And to have him address me in turn, with a small suggestion of his own.

Nevertheless, Simon, would you think it strange or presumptuous of me to ask you to continue to address me on paper as Miss Vipond? It was a shock—albeit a pleasant one— to see those words on the envelope. My first letter in—well, my parents are no longer living, and I have no other family.

Here, to the ones who speak to me, I'm simply Alice. Have been for decades. It took me back, therefore, to see what was once my professional name. To hear it too, for I whispered it to myself. Miss Vipond. All at once I remembered the first time I ever chalked that name onto a blackboard. My hands were shaking. The chalk squeaked. "My name is Miss Vipond," I said. "Every morning  I will  say to you, Good morning, boys and girls. And you will say to me, Good morning, Miss Vipond." And they did. Good MOR-ning Miss VI-pond. Every morning.  Without  exception. Ragged, slightly off-key little sing-song. Good MOR-ning, Miss VI-pond.

Yes, I do think about my former students. Not constantly. But often enough. Does that surprise or offend you, Simon? You did encourage me to write about anything that was on my mind. And  you  assured me that you were trained and practised in accepting whatever you were told without  judgement. But you must understand that I have had that sort of thing said to me many times over the years, with varying degrees of truthfulness. Even those of my minders who have strings of letters after their names can, for all their professional veneer, turn out to have an essentially prurient interest in who and what I am. So forgive me if, in our letters, I seem at times to be testing the waters.

I must say it caused a bit of a stir when I agreed to take part in this correspondence program. Why now, my minders wanted to know—especially the ones who come with their questions and write the answers down  on their clipboards. (Refusal to answer  is not an option. If you do refuse, they simply write the fact of your refusal down on their clipboards, making it, in effect, your answer.) Why now, they kept asking. Why would I finally be taking an interest, after decades of saying no to all their little plans and initiatives and experiments? The ones to which, at least, I was in a position to say no.

Well, it was very simple. They could probably have worked it out for themselves, if they had bothered to try. I needed something to think about. Something new. You can exhaust your own memory, you see. It does have its limits, like a town. Limits you inevitably reach. And if you're never allowed to leave that town, to ​go to different places, to do different things—well, then you have nothing from which to make new memories. Books, newspapers, television—for all they are my constant—indeed, my only—companions, have an unreality about them. They don't serve to push the boundaries back. So the memory-town stays the same size. No. It actually seems to shrink. There are certain corners of it you just get sick and tired of visiting, so you close them o!. And there are others you can actually forget about. Until something jogs.

Which is what happened when I was told that you had not only been approved as a volunteer correspondent, but were actually willing to write to me. Rector of All Saints Church. In the city in which I grew up, no less. Such a coincidence. One of those corners of my memory that I'd neglected, almost to the point of forgetfulness. It was a bit of a shock, truth to tell, but not an unpleasant one. Though I should say that, for anyone  in my circumstance, any new sensation, even a painful one, is welcome by virtue of being new. So you can imagine how gratifying it is for me to know that a letter of mine will be leaving this place and being received by someone not of this place. Someone who in turn will send a letter back, from a place that is not this place.

Oh dear. As you can see, I am coming to the end of my allotted pages. I am only allowed so many at a time, and I am watched as I write. My minders are afraid to leave me alone with these new treats—loose-leaf paper, and a pen I must hand back. It was years before they would allow me to read without  supervision. I could assure them that I would only put the pen and paper to the use for which they were intended. But I learned long ago that trust is a privilege I must earn the hard way, in increments.

Still, I have a week of anticipation  ahead! Whether or not you find the time in your busy day to reply, Simon, I will nevertheless enjoy composing  in my mind what I will, in seven days' time, address to you.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

So kind of you, not only to reply, but to take the trouble to find my name in the old parish records. Yes, I was indeed both baptised and confirmed at All Saints. I also attended the church  school every Sunday until  I was fifteen, at which time I became one of the teachers. I taught church school until I was eighteen and started normal school, as we called teachers' college then. But of course, you must already know that from your parish records. Not to mention the parts of my life that my minders will have shared with you.

If I may be allowed to boast a little, as a church school student, I received more perfect attendance certificates than any of the others in my class. But I really should attribute that to my mother, who had very high standards for such things. Attendance and punctuality—they  added up to courtesy in her eyes, and duty and good citizenship. I was never once late for regular school either, nor my father ever late for work. We could not possibly have been, not with my mother there to feed us our breakfast and get us out the door.

She only came to see me  once, after I was put in this place. She came with my father, who continued to come faithfully every month as long as he was able to make the drive. To this day, I wish she had not even come that one time, that my last sight of her had been other than her staring down at the purse in her lap, expressionless and silent for the entire hour, while my father struggled not to weep.

Oh, but I shouldn't be wasting my precious paper. I must remember that this is not a diary, but a letter that someone  else will be reading. And that my reader is none other than Rector of All Saints Church.

Tell me—for it will soon be Thanksgiving—do you still decorate the church  with  vegetables and  fruits and autumn leaves for the harvest festival service? And are the flowers on the altar an arrangement of yellow and russet chrysanthemums?

I must confess to being a little proud of myself for remembering that it will soon be Thanksgiving. It is very easy, in a place like this, to forget what time of year it is. When I was teaching school, I was constantly  aware of the seasons. But then, there were so many reminders,  everywhere I looked. Not just outside, but in the classroom too. Little sweaters hung  on hooks in a row, then little coats, with boots lined up underneath. Problems with buttoning. Lost mittens. And the way we used to decorate the classroom. I'd have them cut shapes out of coloured paper to put up. This time of year, it would be red and  yellow leaves and turkeys and pumpkins.  Then, later in the month, black cats and witches. Little white ghosts. Oh yes, the seasons ruled the day when  I was Miss Vipond. When I could casually look out through a window  and watch the weather change.

Of course, in this place I'm kept away from  windows. Under  such circumstances, the seasons disappear. Or, more accurately, they meld into one long season without  any specific beginning or end.

But that seems to be changing now, Simon, thanks to your letters. Just yesterday, when they were escorting me to the exercise room for one of my thrice-weekly walkabouts, I saw a brown oak leaf on the carpet. Must have blown in or been tracked in on one of the staff's shoes. I'm convinced I would not even have seen it, much less remembered it, save for the effect on me of our correspondence. It would merely have been an odd shape, soon forgotten. But since we have been writing to each other, since these letters—sent and received— have begun to punctuate my week, I have become so much more aware of what is around  me. I pay attention to the taste of my food, to the different tones of my minders' voices. I notice now if a wall needs repainting. I can't  say I exactly care, nor would I ever point  it out to someone in authority. Nevertheless, I notice.

And now I notice that I am coming to the bottom of my last allowed page. I haven't even begun to address the ques- tions you were so kind  as to pose in your letter. Do forgive me. I will be more attentive next time. Though I am not allowed to keep your letters in my room,  they are kept for me, and I may ask to review them, under supervision, whenever I wish. So that is what I will do. I will memorize the questions you have already asked, as well as any you may ask in any subsequent letters. And I promise you that I will answer them. Until then, I remain,

Yours sincerely, 
(Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

Again, my thanks for your prompt reply, and for that lovely compliment  about my prose style. I must give the credit for that to other authors, however, particularly the authors of the classics, who have been my constant companions for most of my life. I've absorbed their diction, and have had little by way of conversation to dull its edges.

I confess I do envy you your freedom to write as much  as you choose. And  since, as I need not remind you, envy is one of the seven deadly sins, let me attempt  to counter it with gratitude for your having written at such generous length. I feel very lucky to have you as a correspondent,  Simon.  I have no idea what kind  of letters any of the others in this program receive. For my own safety, I have almost no contact with any- one but the staff.

But let me get on with answering your questions. You are curious about what All Saints was like when I attended it as a girl. I'm sorry to hear that your Sunday gatherings seldom exceed fifty in number. I remember  a typical service attracting three times that, or more. But of course, this was decades ago, when so many things were so different. A woman, for example, would not so much as enter a church unless her head was covered. There were even little handkerchief affairs provided for her to put on with hair pins if she had managed to forget her hat. Which, as I am sure you can deduce from some of my comments about her, my mother never did. Any more than did her daughter.

From my reading of magazines and the bits of television I sometimes catch a glimpse of, I gather that one can now attend almost any function—even  a church service—in very casual dress. Blue jeans appear to be the norm, and the only hats to be seen are baseball caps, frequently worn backwards. I would be interested to know your views about that, Simon. Be as frank  as you please, even to the point  of saying what you would prefer your parishioners not hear. After all, it's hardly going to get back to them, is it? My gossip circle here is rather small.

Oh, but there I go, talking about this place again, when I promised to focus on what you had asked me. So. Back to All Saints in the nineteen thirties and forties.

What I remember  is a place of great correctness. Correct dress, correct deportment. Many conclusions, none of them
flattering, would have been drawn about a man who loosened his tie before he was out the door of the church, even on a hot summer day, or a woman who wore white shoes and carried a white purse after Labour Day. And of course, any change in the liturgy, however small—even the choice of an unfamiliar hymn—was subject to great debate and condemnation.  As a result, church was—yes, a bit of a bore. But also, in a way, comforting. There was a reliable sameness to it that one could, if not look forward to, at least count  on.

And  all that correct behaviour, all those rules religiously followed,  the rituals from  which  no deviation  was ever made, added up to—well, you might say anonymity.  A sort of polite mask to put on. Everyone knew the mask was there. Everyone knew the identity and something of the nature of whoever was behind the mask. But that anonymity—both  individual and corporate—was  something  we all agreed to and supported. Without, of course, ever speaking  of it.

How the world seems to have changed. Though I have never and likely will never so much  as put my hands on a computer, I understand from my reading that it is possible to share the most intimate  details of one's existence with the world. I can't imagine wanting to do such a thing.  Privacy, when I was growing up, was more than a right or expectation. It was a necessity, almost like air or water. You simply could not live in the world  as it was then without  keeping yourself to yourself and minding  your own business. There were questions that you did not ask, not even of family. And there were facts of your existence, large and small, that you did not impose  on anyone  else. I remember my mother, for example, insisting that we come and go through the side door of our house, rather than the front door that faced the street. She never had to explain why.

I wish I had been more appreciative of that privacy and conformity, and the anonymity  they granted. I never knew how much I needed that polite mask until  it was ripped away.

You see, I never wanted to be famous. To be recognized. Known and talked about. !at's just the conclusion everyone jumped  to. But they were quite wrong. It all came as a bit of a shock,  as a matter  of fact. The notoriety. People writing letters to newspapers, saying they hoped  I rotted in hell, that this place was too good for me, that hanging would be too good for me, that skinning alive would be too good for me.

It didn't so much  frighten  me as make  me feel embarrassed. By the vehemence. The sheer energy. The level of attention. Almost  as if I'd been given some extravagant compliment, or some huge, inappropriate gift. I felt I should give it back and say, I'm sorry. There must be some mistake. This can't possibly be for me. All of a sudden I had become THAT  Alice Vipond. The one whose name people not only recognized but couldn't say without  claiming to be sick to their stomachs.

It's odd, you know. I still feel like the person I always was. Before, I mean. The one nobody  ever noticed.  Or if they did, it was with a kind of guilty start, as if they realized  they should have noticed  me years ago. And  so they would  come  out with one of those compliments. You know the kind.  Isn't Alice marvellous,  they would  say. Shaking  their heads with a rueful, wondering smile. Isn't Alice marvellous. Always there. Willing to do what needs to be done. Pick the costumes up of  the floor where the little  actresses have flung them. Sew buttons on. Scrub away at make-up stains. Yes. What  would we do without Alice?

Oh no. Look what I've done. Used up my pages, talking about  myself. Please write back, Simon. Please do not give up on me. I promise to be less self-centered  next time.

Yours,
Alice Vipond.

Dear Simon,

Thank you so much for writing back and giving me a chance to redeem myself as a correspondent.

It is indeed, as you so kindly suggest, difficult to reach out to another, after years of being entirely self-referential. Almost like stretching cramped muscles, or trying to walk on bones grown fragile from disuse. Which may explain why it didn't even occur to me that the reference I made at the end of my last letter to picking costumes up off the floor for little actresses would be puzzling to you. Let me start by clearing that up.

But how does one clear something up? And where does one start? Everything is so intricately connected with every- thing else. I'm sure you'll agree with me there, Simon. You've no doubt given some thought to such things. Cause and effect. Crime and punishment. Sin and damnation.

Over the years, the minders who come with their clipboards have tried so hard to find out just exactly what it is about Alice Vipond. The key. The explanation for it all. Frankly, if there were such a thing, if I myself had been able to point to it and say, there—that's why—I'd have done it years ago. If only to stop them asking.

One or two of them seemed to think they had found the answer (and for a time I almost agreed with them) when I told them about a dream I used to have. It was a dream about being lost. Classic child's dream, or so I understand from my reading. I haven't had it for years—not since my mother's death, interestingly enough.

In the dream, I am, again, lost. Or at least, my mother is. I'm desperately looking  for her. Through some fault of my own, we have become separated. I'm walking along a street that is a maddening  combination  of familiar  and strange. My desperation grows, worsened by the knowledge that I am somehow to blame for my own plight. And then, all at once, there she is. My mother. Right in front of me. Not that she has been looking for me. Oh no. In fact, I seem to sense that until that moment, she hadn't noticed that I was missing. She is dressed for church.  (In my memory, my mother is always dressed for church.)  She looks at me—dishevelled  and  distraught  as I am—and says, rather pettishly, "Oh, Alice!" !en she turns and starts walking quickly on her way, and it's up to me to catch up and make sure I don't lose her again.

Now, I assure you that nothing like that ever in fact happened to me. Still, it was all I had to tell the clipboard-wield- ing minders when they asked about unpleasant or frightening experiences I might have had as a child.

The truth is, nothing worthy of note ever happened to me. No uncle ever felt up under my party dress. Neither of my parents ever held my hands flat to the stove burner to teach me to be a lady. And I was never remarkable. In any way. At school, though I usually knew the answer to the teacher's question, I seldom raised my hand. If I excelled, it was in the areas of punctuality and deportment and neatness. When captains were choosing teams, they would pick me neither first nor last. And in the school play, I would be a face in the crowd. Or be given a couple of lines to say, just something to advance the plot. No stirring speeches. Nothing that would draw tears or laughter.

The one bit of applause I ever got—and this will explain my reference to picking up costumes—happened in junior high school. The play that year was The Mikado. Ambitious project. Lots of singing. Interesting characters. Naturally, it did not even occur to me to try out for a part. But the teacher who was directing the play insisted on including  me, giving me a job. So she had me organize the costumes—make sure they were clean and in good repair and hung up on hangers, ready for the next performance. Costume  Mistress, I suppose my title was. Or would have been, if whoever was drawing up the program hadn't forgotten to put me in it. Honestly, it was nothing. I didn't mind. Was hardly surprised, in fact. Kind of thing that happened all the time. And I certainly didn't complain. But on closing night, the director noticed. And I suppose  she meant  well. She was new, you see, and  young.  At any rate, once the applause had died down and people were starting to put on their coats, she stepped out from the wings and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen? There was an omission in the program. Alice Vipond  organized the costumes backstage." Well. There was a silence. And then one of those ghastly little trickles of applause. The kind that happen when people aren't sure whether or not they should clap, but then seem to decide, Oh well. What harm can it do?

So now you know what I was going on about, Simon.  And once again, I have filled up my allotted pages with self-indul- gence. What a bore I must be to you, for all your patience!

The next letter you send (if, that is, you have not entirely given up on me) must be about yourself, and only yourself. I want to hear about your life. What you do all day as Rector of All Saints. Who your friends are. What you think about.
Not—I assure you—that I mean to intrude. But anything you could tell me—the smallest detail—would have the effect of an open window. Fresh, clean air. And would be so very much appreciated.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond.

Dear Simon,

Thank you for that delicious treat of a letter! You kept apologizing for the "boring" details of your life. Not so! For me, it was like a trip  to the theatre  to see the most  intricate  and  fascinating of plays. How I enjoyed the little jokes you exchange in the morning with your secretary, Gail. How I commiserated with you when one of the "old guard" threatened to phone the Bishop and complain  because the candles on the altar weren't lit. And how my heart beat like a girl's when you hinted at your growing affection for Kelly. Thank you for confiding that last detail, Simon. Of course, I understand  that these things are delicate, she being a parishioner. But your decision to wait two years until you are retired to declare yourself to her gives me pause, if I may say so. Forgive my presumption, but I think you should tell her now. After all, anything  can happen  in two years. Even our own actions can surprise us. I assure you that I never envisioned the single act that would shape my life forever.

I never envisioned much of anything, truth to tell. At least, I can't remember a moment such as you describe experiencing as a young man, when it came to you that the central fact of your existence, the most significant thing about you, was your relationship with God. Nor did I ever have to struggle with such knowledge, as you depict yourself struggling with the notion of being a priest.

I don't even remember deciding to teach school. Choices were rather limited then, for young women. If you were nearing the end of high school with no engagement ring on your finger and no prospect of one, it was time to take stock and decide between teaching, nursing or being a secretary. Yes, young women sometimes did go to university. But though I had always been a solid student, I was not scholarship mate- rial, and my father could not afford to send me.

I didn't even actively decide to teach Grade Two. In normal school, I was told that Grade Two was the level on which I would be most effective. It was never spelled out, but I what they meant. I wasn't skilled enough to teach the basics to the Grade Ones, and I wasn't authoritative enough for the Grade threes, who can be a bit of a handful. Grade Two it was, then. Ages six and seven. Edges rubbed off.  Still inclined to obedience. Easy, in other words. Easy enough for such as me. So I'm afraid you're not going to get the kind of answer I assume you may have been expecting or even hoping for, Simon, to your question about what is paramount in my own life. though you will get an answer. As you can imagine, I've had some time to think  about these things.

I would say the most significant thing about me is the fact of my having crossed a certain line. And I think you must know what I'm talking about. You mentioned that you still occasionally hear confessions. Most of them, I suspect, are about either crossing that particular line or wanting to.

The strange thing is, when we do finally cross the line, what we find on the other side of it is not strange at all. Everything that led up to that final step—all those years of doing exactly what everyone expected us to—that is what's strange. And we can't help wondering what took us so long. It's all so ordinary. Like coming home. Others think it must be extraordinary. But those of us who have crossed the line know better.

I have heard the words "unnatural" and "inhuman" and "monstrous" applied to me so often they have become all but meaningless. If I wish to give them meaning, I simply have to apply them to this place. No, we are not mistreated here. Far from it. Still, no torture chamber could possibly be worse. Pain, terror—they at least are events. Something on which to focus the mind. Something to anticipate, then remember. Make the time pass. But when the passage of time IS the event, the only event, and when all the mind has on which to focus is itself— But people don't understand that. No one possibly could, unless they had been in a place like this for as long as I have. And so, in the eyes of the world, I have gone unpunished.

Gotten  off  scot-free, as they say. But  had  I been publicly burned at the stake, which I'm told takes half an hour or so, would that have been better? True, those who wanted me to feel pain would have been satisfied; the monster within us all would have had a chance to howl; and I would be dead. But to what advantage?

Oh dear. I have once more come to the end of my allotted sheets. Simon,  I know you will appreciate the fact that I have confided in you the way my minders have begged me to do for decades. And I know you will respect my confidence.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond.

Dear Simon,

Thank you for assuring me that I am indeed human. A creature of God, no less. "Therefore loved by God. "Therefore loved by you. "My Beloved's beloved,"  as you put it. Your own beloved once-removed, in other words.

I confess, Simon,  that for the first time in our correspondence, I was tempted  to tear your letter in two, hand the pieces to my watching  minder  and request not  to receive anything further you might send. I do have that power—just about the only power I possess in this place—to end our correspondence.

Well. As this letter attests, I did  not  exercise that  power. And I have gotten over the little fit of pique occasioned by your words. After all, what would I expect a clergyman to say?

On reflection, I have decided that it was not your reference to God that irritated me so much. I immunized myself years ago to such references, given that they usually portray me as God's deserving victim, subject to His torments for eternity. Sometimes I've wished I could debate those writers of letters to newspapers, who are so confident of God's attitude toward such as me. Would it not be reasonable, I would  like to suggest to them, to see me more as God's partner than His victim? How do I differ from their God, after all? How do I differ from the One who does nothing while children starve to death in the millions, or are violated  by men who wear the kind of collar you do, Simon, or are recruited as soldiers of war and  forced to kill their own families? Is what I did more or less horrible than any of that?

But I digress. I was about to say that what in fact irritated me about your latest letter was your reference to love. Forgive me if I suggest that it is relatively easy for someone in your position to make casual use of that word. And you are, after all, a man in love, aren't you? And not just with God, either. Which means you may be everything I am not, have never been and never shall be. (I was tempted to add, "World without end. Amen." Yes, I do remember my Book of Common Prayer.)

You see, I was never in love. Nor, to my knowledge, did anyone  ever feel that way about  me. I did get a bit of attention now and then—there were what we used to call tea dances, and I didn't  always have to sit out the whole time. It could even be said that, in my way, I was attractive. To a certain kind of young man. !is would be the young man who—how shall I put this—needed a disguise. He had some slight physical weakness, some deficiency of character, that, if detected by the other young men, would cause him to be torn apart. Figuratively speaking, of course. Sometimes there would be some outward  sign of this insuffciency—fingernails bitten down to bloody rims. Or a slight stammer. Or an unwillingness to meet one's eyes. Usually, it wasn't as blatant as that. He would seek me out—almost as if he had detected me across the dance floor—because he knew I would politely ignore whatever his outward flaw was, and be grateful to him, as he was to me, for the camouflage.

In those days, you see, a single woman had to somehow minimize her unattached  state, as she might a deformity. It was such a two-by-two world. I understand from my newspapers and magazines that things have changed in that regard for young women, that being single has turned into something of a badge of honour. I assure you that it wasn't so, in my day.

The men, at least, could in time get to the point of joking about it and, in spite of baldness or a thickness through the middle, still be regarded as something of a prize. "Confirmed bachelor" had a ring to it, and managed to convey a sense of a choice being made. Not so "old maid." Even now, that sounds like something that has been done to one. Or not done.

Of course, by the time we got to the old maid stage, we didn't much need the confirmed  bachelors any more for camouflage, for all we might sometimes yearn for them. We had found  some way to earn our living, and could lose ourselves, virtually disappear into our work. It was a comfort, of a kind.

Still, sometimes I couldn't help wondering what my life would have been like if I had encouraged one of those camouflage boys. There was a line with them too, you see. A thigh pressing against one during a dance. A sweaty palm sliding from one's shoulder blade down to where a thumb might graze the side of one's breast. And you either crossed that line, by doing nothing and allowing whatever was happening to happen, or you stiffened in his arms and took a small but decisive step back. In extreme cases, you might even remove your hand from his, walk off the floor with an air of injured dignity and sit the rest of the dance out, ankles crossed. I never had to do that. But I did, on more than one occasion, take the small step back.

And now I am coming to the end of my allotted pages and time. My minder is glancing at her watch, no doubt looking forward to her coffee break. So I will write this last bit quickly. Simon, I sense there are things you want to say to me. Questions you want to ask. So I am going to extend to you the permission you granted me in your first letter. Say or ask whatever you wish.  As long  as you are writing  from  the place in you that is most genuine, I will not take offense, and will attempt to respond, in turn, as genuinely as I am able. Nor will I ever again consider putting an end to our correspondence. Though I feel I should warn you that you yourself might wish to do so.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

Well. It would appear that our true correspondence has begun. Thank you for your question—the first of many, I hope.

I will address your question, Simon. But first I'm going to give you a little exercise to do. A bit of seat work, if you will. I want you to write down the names of your public school teachers—Kindergarten through Grade Six. In chronological order, if you wish. Or randomly, as they come to mind.

Done? Good. Now. There was one you hesitated over, wasn't there? One whose face or name emerged slowly, as if out of a fog. Because she was neither the first nor the last. Neither the kind one nor the cruel one. Neither the comedienne nor the crashing bore.

What you've forgotten is that when you were actually in her class, she was your sun. You revolved around her. If she smiled at you, all was warm and bright. When she was cross with you, your whole day darkened. Her knowledge was boundless and her word was law and the classroom you spent your days inside smelled of her cologne. You made offerings to her. Apples you had polished bright. Flowers you had snipped from your backyard and whose stems  your mother had wrapped in waxed paper. But then the school year ended. And when you returned after the summer, you were in the next grade up. Someone else was your sun. Your all in all. And so the years passed. Grade Six. Junior High. High School. Every now and then, in the grocery store or at a bus stop, you would catch sight of—who was she again? Oh yes. Miss Vipond. Look how much older she is. How much smaller. You would say hello and make some excruciatingly polite conversation, all the while praying for the bus to come and take her away. You would mind your P's and Q's. Avoid telling her anything personal, anything remotely interesting, for fear of offending her strange teacher's sensibilities. And above all, you would never ask her anything about herself, her own life. What could you ask, after all? And what could the poor thing possibly have to tell? In time, especially if you caught sight of her when you were with your friends, you would stop even saying hello. You would pretend not to see her. Then tell yourself that she hadn't  seen you. As if she had gone conveniently blind. Or become possessed of some benign stupidity that kept her from knowing you were avoiding  her on purpose.

But what, you are no doubt wondering, Simon, does all this have to do with what you asked me—that  is, do I feel remorse for what I did? A true clergyman's question. And part of the ritual of confession, if I'm not mistaken.

In preparation for writing this letter, I requested to be escorted to the little lending library in the visitors' lounge.  I needed to consult a dictionary. I suspected that remorse was more than just a matter of feeling sorry, or wishing one had not done something because the consequences had proven painful.  And sure enough, according to the rather dog-eared dictionary I found, remorse is defined as a "deep and painful regret for wrongdoing."

Well. It would  be a simple thing  to say, in answer to your question, no. I do not now, nor have I ever felt any such thing. But I suspect the real answer is more  complicated.  Which is why I had  you do that  little  exercise about  your  teachers' names. The word I kept snagging on is "wrongdoing." Is there such a thing  as "rightdoing"? Or is there simply doing?

It's that line again, Simon. It's not so much a matter of crossing the line. Crossing the line is almost an afterthought. A formality. No, it's more a matter of having taken each of the steps leading up to it.

For example. You plan to have the class do a project on spring flowers. So you go to the public library to read up. at's one step. And while you're reading you come across foxglove. Pretty plant. And that clever shape. You've always been rather intrigued by it. So you read a little further and learn that it's not actually "fox" glove in reference to the animal. It comes from "folks'" glove. Folk as in fairy folk. And then you read a little further still. And you learn its Latin name. Digitalis.

That's one time when you could stop. When you are suddenly very aware of the line. But you don't. You take the next step toward it. You ask yourself where you've seen a clump of fox glove growing. Recently. And that's when you could stop again. Because you don't have to try to remember. You could put it completely out of your mind.  But you don't.  You close the book. Put it back on the library cart. Smile at the librarian on your way out. She's known you for years and is always so helpful.

The steps are small. Easy to take. A book from the neighbourhood library. A clump of flowers growing nearby. A pair of kitchen  shears. Some string. And  then just a matter of time. While the bunches hang all summer in your kitchen, withering and greying and swaying in the breeze through  the window.

It's time to stop now, Simon. But I will continue to ponder your question about  remorse. And  please do feel free to pose any additional questions in your next letter, to which I am already looking forward.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

Thank you for attempting  to help me with the remorse question. Yes, phrasing it differently, making it more concrete, does serve to make  it clearer. But I'm  not sure that it will bring us any closer to an answer. However, I will try.

You ask if I ever wish I could have that morning back again. Specifically, the moment before I began to pour the lemonade.

Simon, I really am not being deliberately obtuse here. But again, things are just not that simple. I might  as well wish to have back the moment  before I made the lemonade. Or the moment  before I picked the foxglove. Hard to know exactly where the line is, isn't it? Maybe my birth was the line. My conception.

!e theories put forth by the clipboard-wielders are endless. Did I perhaps hate the children? That's a favourite one of theirs. No. Of course I didn't. Why would I have hated them?

There's nothing to hate at that age. They're all eyes and fingers and questions. "Miss Vipond, may I? Can I, Miss Vipond?" Big heads on little shoulders. And so kind to each other. A half-awake, unseeing kind of kindness. They don't  differentiate, the way older children will. They hardly distinguish between themselves and others. You, the teacher, are the only Other in their eyes. And you are wonderful in their sight.

It's in Grade three that the growth spurt happens. Like an explosion. Some of them become unrecognizable.  And they start to  sort themselves into  groups. Factions. They learn the cruelties of childhood. They see each others' weakness. Ugliness. And they turn back and see yours too. But in Grade Two, all that's still tucked inside. And you are still Miss Vipond. Their all in all.

Simon, it occurs to me that your question might in fact be masking a different question. I do not imply that you are being less that truthful. But I wonder if you yourself are fully aware of the unasked question to which I refer.

No, I'm not going to spell it out for you. The teacher in me knows all too well the value of your working it out for your- self. But here are a few things you might consider, as a help:
  Think back to whatever motivated you to volunteer for this correspondence program. Of course, you are by nature and profession a compassionate person. But was your compassion pure? Or was it mixed with—one might even say tainted by—something else?

Secondly, try to remember first looking at the list of possible correspondents you were given to choose from—their names, and the paragraph or two that no doubt followed each name. You would, naturally, have recognized my name. You might even have remembered the news story breaking all those years ago, and some of the things your parents had to say about me. When you were surveying the list, Simon, you had a choice. To reject Alice Vipond, as all the others did. Or to accept her. Approach her. Engage with her. It might be useful now to review precisely what it was that moved you to make the choice you did.

And once more our time is up. As always, I look forward to your next letter, Simon.

Yours sincerely, (Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

Although I will keep my promise about welcoming and trying to answer your questions, forgive me if I pose one of my own

First. I can't help wondering if you took my bit of friendly advice and  have declared yourself yet to your friend Kelly. Again, though I understand  the need for discretion, surely you can ask her to be discreet too. If she is everything you say she is, then she will want only what is best for you.

Forgive that little intrusion. I just felt that we needed to relax a bit before we tackled what seems to be the rather difficult task we have set ourselves. And since absolute truthfulness is part and parcel of that task, Simon, I must tell you that I am slightly worried about you. Your handwriting has altered somewhat, and there is, for the first time, something like desperation in your tone. I refer, specifically,  to the way you ask whether or not I ever considered stopping,  once I had started handing  round  the lemonade. Your sentence fragment, "So that at least some of the children would  have had a chance" doesn't sound  like you. You've always presented yourself in such a professional manner. this is the first time you've let that professionalism slip just a little. So I am concerned, Simon.

But let me get on with addressing your question. Which, again, is not as simple a matter as it might at first  appear. Perhaps it would help if I were to reconstruct that morning for you, as faithfully as I can.

I always gave them their choice of a song to sing while they were having their little refreshment. I had established a mid-morning juice routine to pep them up. A cup of juice and a song—quite  a treat at that age. And that morning, they were unanimous in what they wanted to sing. "The October Song, Miss Vipond! Oh please, Miss Vipond! The October Song!" Do you know it, by the way, Simon? The October Song? It starts, "This is Oct-o-o-ber, good old October, sing, oh children, sing!" I don't remember the precise lyrics, but it goes on about pumpkins and witches and leaves turning and so on. But back to your question: Did I even once consider putting a stop to what I had started to do?

Oh dear. I keep bumping my nose against the same difficulty. Because once again, it's a question of when, exactly, I crossed the line. Once you've done that, you see, you can look back. But you cannot go back. I remember looking at the closed door of the classroom. I'd told them I was closing the door so our singing wouldn't disturb the other classes. I suppose I could have run and opened it. Screamed for help after the first few sips. Maybe, if I had, some of them could have been saved. But again, by then I had crossed the line.

A few of them, the bigger ones, got as far as the second verse before they began to slur their words. I wonder if they thought it strange that their classmates were going to sleep so early in the day. One by one, they were putting their heads down. One by one, the plastic cups were falling from their hands and bouncing on the floor. The juice was making sticky little pools at their feet. After a while, I was the only one left singing.

Simon, I'm going to beg your indulgence. I didn't sleep well last night—bit  of a digestive upset—and as a result I'm rather tired. So I'm going to sign off a little early this time. Please forgive me, and please rest assured that I look forward, as always, to your next letter. Which I promise to answer at greater length.

Yours sincerely,
Alice.

Dear Simon,

It was most gratifying  to receive your letter, despite its being a week late. When seven days went by with nothing from you, I was more disappointed than I would have imagined myself capable of being. I requested to review all your letters, in order to try to winkle out what may have caused you to give up on me as a correspondent. And though I can fully understand that it may have been, as you say, simply a matter of being overwhelmed with work, I cannot help wondering if the reason is otherwise.

Again, Simon,  your handwriting  is deteriorating. In fact, I'm afraid I would have to apply the word "scrawl" to what I see in your final paragraph. I only mention  this because it worries me on your behalf.  Are you eating  and  sleeping  as well as you should?  Do you  see a doctor on a regular basis?

Not that I expect answers to those last questions. Nor do I take offense at your request that we avoid discussing your personal life, particularly your relationship with Kelly. That is entirely up to you, Simon, and I will respect your wishes. In all fairness to myself, however, I really should remind you that it was you yourself who brought her into the conversation.

But now to your question. Which gave me pause, I must admit. Once again, it didn't sound like you. Indeed, I'm not sure it was even worthy of you. However, I will keep my promise and attempt to answer it.

You want to know why, if I was so desirous of killing someone, I did not drink the lemonade myself. I assume you mean, before I gave it to the children to drink. Afterwards, of course, there was simply none left over. At least, not enough to kill an adult. I had measured very carefully, you see. The only reason there was any at all left was that there was one child absent that day—Peter Aspinall. I remember looking at his name on the list as I took attendance. Peter Aspinall. Not thinking, "He alone will live," or "Why him and not some other," or anything melodramatic like that. No, just looking at it. thinking it, well, curious that by sheer accident—a sniffle or slight fever—he would survive.

Odd little boy, as I remember. Bright enough. But a touch of the fay, as we used to say. I would look at him and wonder if he might  grow up to be like one of those secretly damaged young men who used to ask me to dance.

The Grade Twos had begun to notice him too. His difference. Not in a cruel or teasing way. No, that would come in Grade Three. I might  have looked out my window the next year and seen Peter Aspinall  trapped inside a screeching, taunting  circle of his peers.

But I digress. Let me get back to what I know you are in fact asking. And let me address your question  by turning it around and posing it to you: If you were given a choice between killing someone  else and  killing  yourself,  which  would  you do? I think I know you too well to assume that, even as a man of God, you would automatically reply, "I would kill myself." Because it's not  that easy, is it, Simon?  We love our life, don't we? And though  you might  look at someone like me and ask yourself what I have to live for, let me assure you that I love my life as much  as you do yours.

And in that vein, I am going to confess to you something that I have held back all these years from  the clipboard-wield- ers. I know you will respect my confidence.

Once I was  taken  into  custody, much  weight  was attached, by those who were to judge me, to what I did once I had finished singing the October Song. Once the last child had died, in other words. The official story is that I sat and waited for someone to discover what I had done, and  to summon  the authorities.  is sitting and waiting was cause for much debate, as it seemed to some to indi-cate  a sense of responsibility, hence sanity. To others, my doing nothing,  when I still had every opportunity  to run away and hide, indicated  the opposite. And it was those others who won. As a result, I was sent to this kind of place instead of another kind of place. One  where I very likely would not have survived.

But  what  was I really doing  while I sat there,  apparently waiting to have my crime discovered? For I was not at all concerned  with  others' assessments of my sanity or lack thereof. No, I was too busy revelling. Rejoicing.  In the fact of my being. My sheer existence. You  see, I WAS what I had just done. I still AM what I did,  all these years later. For the first time, I knew myself. I can still feel the sensation of my dry lips moving, saying, This is you, Alice. This is you.

Everything that came later—the publicity, the notoriety— had nothing to do with what I was feeling then. I didn't need for the world to know who Alice Vipond  was. I needed for Alice Vipond to know.

And with that, I'm going to sign off, Simon, since I feel I've left you with more than enough to think about. Looking forward  to your next letter, as always.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond

Dear Simon,

I had an inkling, when I saw type-written  sheets in place of that familiar (forgive me) scrawl, that your latest letter might be your last. And I am grateful to you for giving me permission to make one last reply.

For all my disappointment, I do appreciate your honesty in outlining  your reasons for discontinuing  our correspondence. It would  have been so easy for you to blame  overwork, or make vague references to family  problems  as an excuse. But if, as you say, you feel out of your depth, if the sight of one of my letters—waiting on your desk where your secretary Gail has left it—has  started to make you feel something akin to panic, if your work and your relationships are being adversely affected by your corresponding with me, then it makes perfect sense for you to cease and desist.

Still, for all that, I would be less than  honest  and  less than fair to both of us if I did not point out that, by allowing me this last missive, you are, so to speak, placing the ball in your own court. Another  way of expressing it would be, you are placing yourself in my debt. For you will always owe me a letter, Simon. And I will  never cease to wait for one.  Again, you engaged  with  me. And  as long  as I live, you will not be able to fully disengage from me.

If I can do one thing for you, I would like to recommend that you forgive yourself. I suspect you're feeling  as if you have let me down. Failed me, in some important  way. Well, I think we both know that the only one you have let down is yourself. And  not  by being  less of a clergyman  than  you might like to be—failing to guide me through the acts of confession and repentance. Bring me back into the fold, so to speak. No, that's not how you let yourself down.
Remember  my suggesting that you ask yourself why you chose my name from the list of people to write to? I think you did ask yourself that question. And I think you answered yourself honestly. And I think that's why you want to end our correspondence.

Engaging  with me  meant  crossing the line,  didn't  it, Simon? And we all know where our particular line is, don't we? We can see it. Very clearly. Just a little ahead of wherever our feet happen to be. We can measure the distance between our feet and that line. What  it would  take to cross it. What we would  have to say. Or do. Sometimes we nudge one toe a little closer. But  then  we jerk it back, as if it's been singed.

And in the end, that is what you did. You couldn't cross the line because you were not willing  to do it simply and purely. No, you wanted to carry suitcases with you, full of conditions: I will cross the line only if … I will cross the line in order to … What would it have meant to you to get across with that baggage intact, Simon? To have made of me some kind of confessional trophy? Get me to spend the rest of my days as your penitent, with you as my spiritual advisor? What would success have done for you? More to the point,  what has failure done to you?

The line is not without  its terrors, Simon.  And  it is not for everyone to cross it. And  that, I believe, is what is actually behind most peoples' reactions to my crime. To me. Nor do I blame them. It's a terrible thing, envy. It eats away at one.

So forgive yourself for wanting me dead, Simon.  I know you do. To stop writing to me is to make me "die" in a way. And  rest assured that in the not too distant future, you will see a notice  in the paper of my death. Likely even a full-page article. I will not be allowed to die anonymously.  Oh no. There will be reprints of the headlines that trumpeted my crime. And that photograph, which I'm told has become something of a news photography icon. The one in which, instead of trying to cover my face while I'm being taken into custody, I stare directly into the camera.

Oh yes, the whole story will be told again. The names of my victims listed. Family members interviewed. Perhaps even Peter Aspinall hunted  down and asked what it was like to be the sole survivor.

But until then, Simon, I remain your willing correspondent, should  you ever wish to pick up the threads of our conversation once again.

Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Alice Vipond.

All Saints by K. D. Miller. Copyright © 2014 by K. D. Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Biblioasis. All rights reserved.

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