KENNETH AND ALICE woke me before dawn. I’d been dreaming of cuddly lions and lush gummy fruits, and didn’t want to open my eyes to the old belvederes of the Den. Wood-shadows loomed at the window where I thought I’d seen gargoyles drooling the night before. I looked up and the older children stood over me like sentries in the sighing dark.
“What time is it?” I said.
Kenneth shushed me with a smile, and his sister Alice put a hand over my mouth to keep me from waking my mother. I remember the coolness of Alice’s palm and its soft lather smell of soap. Kenneth stood in the doorway while she helped me into my summer clothes, then pulled a sweatshirt over my head in a single billowy motion, cowling me in bleak gray.
Her eyes gleamed black as the corners of the bedroom. I tried to catch them as she tied my shoelaces. She shook her head, and it struck me that whatever adventure lay ahead was to be a surprise, as secret as our quiet breaths. Secret as the terrible mineral thing venturing out towards her irises.
Outside, the wind tugged at the weathervane on the roof of the Children’s Barn. Past it was Vaughan House, the place where we ate our meals and some of our parents slept when they weren’t making art. The buildings reared up against the summer mist seeping out over the woods of hemlock and beech. This way led to the Rivulet Trail, and past that the swimming hole they called the Creamery, and further on, the Westfield River Valley.
It was halfway between dark and dawn when we passed under the old-growth forest. I’d given up guessing our destination. Kenneth and Alice, brother and sister who were oddly color negatives of each other, he brown-haired and blue-eyed, she yellow-headed and brown-eyed, were still reluctant to give up details when I tried, unavoidably, to ask.
I was sure we were on a dreadfully important mission to some secret island. All the best stories featuring children involved one: Wild Cat Island, for instance, where John and Susan and Titty and Roger faced off against Nancy and Peggy Blackett in Swallows and Amazons. Or Jackson’s Island, where Tom Sawyer went with troublesome Joe Harper (the Terror of the Seas) and hardly domesticated Huck Finn (the Red-Handed) to hunt and fish and darken their faces with dirt like pagans.
Would it be that kind of adventure? We were kids after all, a hunting party of the progeny of divorced artists and writers, and we’d certainly known some nights lonelier than most. Was this to be our big breakaway? Our dawn rampage to the treetops and tradewinds with only desolation driving us? Kenneth and Alice were older, smarter, and I felt honored to be joining their gang. If that’s indeed what was happening.
Though not as impressive on one’s CV as a stay at Yaddo or MacDowell, Cummington Community of the Arts was then the only artists’ residency program that allowed children. It sat like a bright cubbyhole in the subsuming Berkshire woods just outside the town of Cummington with its little general store and the William Cullen Bryant Homestead. Once called the Cummington School of the Arts, it was founded and run by a woman named Katherine Frazier.
A series of cabins with names like Astro, Red, Hexagon, and Dome served as studios where our parents worked all day before meeting us in the evening for a charred vegetarian meal. At night they carryied us off to the cold rooms of the Children’s Barn.
The cook that summer, my mother explained, didn’t understand the meaning of a full protein, something I didn’t understand either. We were always hungry, but also grew quite beautiful, taut, needle-thin and tan. Visiting her studio in the late afternoon, my mother would show me the painting she was working on and offer me a Coca-Cola in a flasky green glass bottle. I remember the bubbles on my tongue like icicles in summer.
It was 1982 and I’d seen E.T. that May. At the end of the reel, during the credits, something went wrong and the film played again, this time running backwards. Somewhere out in the South Atlantic rockets fell on British and Argentine soldiers through the steel night of the Falklands War. Closer to home, Disney had just opened EPCOT Center.
Now it was late July and I’d been with my father and his new family in the Poconos. My stepmother, on an all-bagel diet, was prone to emotional thunderstorms, and the month had been a disconsolate slideshow of golf lessons, Top Forty, and non-alcoholic beer, with moments of poetry here and there, jumping an ATV or seeing my own face reflected briefly against the glass of a Space Invaders console. When my mother called to say she’d come off the wait-list at Cummington, I was jubilant.
The marvelous thing about Cummington, the thing that brought the life peaking back inside me, was the structure of self-governance. The older children would lead the younger ones out on day-trips through the long afternoons or dispatched us to form ranks and pursue activities like grave-rubbings or bug-collecting or even, once, skinny-dipping. Kenneth and Alice Robinson took us to the Creamery, a nearby swimming hole. They let us, six-year olds like me and younger, pass the dripping noon lounging on the gray stones of the – inexplicably – nude beach.
I remember diving through green layers towards the silt at the bottom, spending the afternoon conducting experiments with flippers and goggles. I stayed underwater as long as I could, assimilating to its gradients, so I could watch Alice, naked and marble, swim through the embers of late afternoon.
Sometimes I’d see their mother Nancy patrolling the fraying forest edge near her cabin. She was dark-haired with freckled skin and wrote books for children with names like Wendy and The Bullies and Oh Honestly, Angela! She’d been changing through the long summer promenade of aspirin and sedatives, co-op meals and outings, taking on a kind of camouflage.
Carole Maso, an extravagantly coiffed blond from Paterson New Jersey, was a resident in Frazier House when we showed up that summer, and would later write in a novel The Art Lover about what our parents got up to: “Inseparable ties formed overnight. Vows of love declared in nearly every cabin. Dramas of enormous proportion….Love and loss in a month.”
The Art Lover seems to be the only book that describes communal life at Cummington in the summer of 1982, but it’s nearly impossible to summon my own memories in its pages. Looking at the book now, as an adult, there is a certain dissonance, a shift in perspective perhaps, between her version of events and my own. I can see myself there, inside the story, but the more I read, the deeper I vanish into the brightness of its prose, into the mountainside, the blue-eyed waters of the valley with its quarries and creameries.
Just before my younger self goes off into the shadows for good, I find her description of the Children’s Barn. Her heroine Caroline writes of sleeping over with us, a chore all the adults shared, of “Children in feet pajamas – the nights often chilly even in August. The smell of toothpaste and powder, everywhere, then finally sleep. I loved the dreaming barn. The sounds of children murmuring in their sleep. The still small worries of their nights.”
Here at last word and memory become one and I am there again, as an impudent child, as a passive observer, at noontide, at midnight, that moment my eyelids begin to wrinkle, then close, the inrush of sleep over a bedtime story my mother reads me, Alice reads me, Kenneth reads me… there in the dreaming barn.
The walls were poison gray, but inside it was happy with the smell of tiny bodies jammed together. Sweat socks and nervous laughter. My mother was reading to me about the adventures of a boy named David Balfour who went to live with his uncle at the House of Shaws. Ebenezer lived on porridge, which he called “parritch,” and “small ale,” and eventually sold his nephew to a certain Captain Hoseason at the Firth of Forth.
Carole Maso poked her head into the room and my mother rose from her chair. Footfalls on the wood planks. I could her them whispering. Their whispers were like little scars on the flesh of silence.
“We need to talk about Nancy,” Carole said.
Nancy Robinson had been working all summer on a new book, the first in a series, about a young girl, a show-off named Veronica. Sometimes I would visit her cabin at the windward edge of the forest. All the children went fluttering away in that direction at some point. I have a flickering memory of her workspace, full of rag dolls and other toys and games of varying colors still to be deciphered.
She interviewed us all summer. She wanted our opinions on Veronica. She’d read to us from it and sometimes quiz us, to illuminate for herself those fuzzy, time-protected dimensions adults were always trying to recover with hypnosis or narcosis.
“Veronica is sick of her friends at school. All they ever do is go off and leave her alone. Have you ever felt that way?”
“Everybody does. Once, I stayed up all night and watched my father sleeping.”
“But why on earth would you do that?”
“To make sure he was safe and protected.”
“Sometimes Veronica’s mother goes away and leaves her with a babysitter. The babysitter lets Veronica watch her favorite soap opera, ‘In the Twilight of Darkness.'”
“I like cartoons.”
Over the course of the month, her little ochre cabin turned, in ways barely noticeable at first, into a kid’s clubhouse. Each time I returned, there were more dolls, more toys and games, more inducements to stay and answer questions about cartoons and babysitters and separated parents.
“What about stepfathers?”
“My father is from California.”
There was something normal and motherly about her at the beginning of the month that began to crumble over time. On the surface, with the other adults, at meals and social occasions, she was the same. It was only in her sessions with us in the dim light of her cabin that the change became visible.
Of course, we were too young to know how to talk about what was happening on these visits. We didn’t know words like condition or treatment or etiology. Even sickness was just what happened when you stayed home from school. And though it might have moved too swiftly or been too transparent for any of us really to grasp, we knew it was wrong somehow that Nancy had started talking to us in a little girl’s voice.
At first I thought it was a game, something that involved playacting, like an experiment of being someone else. The higher voice, and later the pigtails, the pouting and blushing, the raised eyebrows and other girlish turbulences all had the feel of a game to me, that would hopefully end with gingerbread or candy.
But after weeks of talking to Nancy and playing with her toys and hearing her responses come back more and more as if someone else was speaking through her, I could only imagine that some other identity or spirit or soul had taken over body, like they’d done to Linda Blair.
Instinctively, I knew this was not the kind of thing to take to an adult. Either I’d get it wrong, flub the words and cause a certain panic, or I’d come on strong, too much light in the eyes, and get called a fibber. So, I simply got used to hearing Nancy speak the open-mouthed, intimate language of six year-olds at her cabin, and the systematic normal-adult inflections of her own age at the dining hall. Sometimes I’d bring it up with other children and they’d agree she was acting “funny.” Somehow calling her “funny” took the harm out of it, made it all a bit of a joke.
There was a family that summer with the last name of Brahms, a father who played Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in the lazy fields, and a mother, Abigail, who made Victorian dolls for the windows at Tiffany’s. Their children Hillel and Daniella had pale-freckled complexions, were kind and rich-witted, and had lived, with their parents, on almost nothing in Paris, going to bakeries for bread pudding to eat.
There was also a man who made life masks of people with a jellied combination of cement and papier-mâché that came out clumped and clogged and crusted, but eerily true to form.
The library held a weekly reading/performance by the writers and artists for dinner-guests. People from town would come and sit in tiers of folding seats and clap politely. Someone might put out a gallon of ice cream and it would disappear in two minutes. One particular week, the program included the Brahms father, the maker of life masks, and Nancy.
The notes from the Brahms father’s flute fell like sparks. The life-mask man gave us all a sense of what vessels might be pasted together from fragments of the broken world. When it was Nancy’s turn, she appeared with her hair done up with flowers and pigtails, wearing a gingham dress. Chairs shifted, people coughed and conversations abruptly stopped.
The room went numb and white as everyone fell to silence. Drinks were spilled, and cigarettes stubbed on the floor as she passed. Anxiety flooded in over the staring faces, sunset participants, until it felt like it could spill out over the horizon and sky. Nancy filled the silence as Veronica might have, taking her place at the front, thickening the air in the room. She pulled out sheets of paper and read in her Veronica voice, scratchy and chant-like, incanting a kind of innocence most of us had only read about.
For those of us who’d been to her cabin, this was the secret we had never told. And if our parents faces, their bodily reactions, were any measure of whether this was okay, the shock wave that went from the back chairs down to the proscenium told us that no her behavior most definitely was not.
The performance ended, with a massive round of applause, as if people thought a bombardment of it might bring her back to normal. My mother turned to Carole Maso and said it was like watching a character in The Three Faces of Eve.
I didn’t know what this meant, but I was busy anyway looking around for Kenneth and Alice. They were in the back, whispering to each other, and Kenneth nodded to acknowledge my gaze. I realized I wasn’t alone. About half the room was staring back at them quite openly with concern.