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Journey Between Cathedrals
I felt small, perched in the loft of what was once the biggest barn in the country, but was now left empty, abandoned and vulnerable to the elements. Battered by years of wind and rain, and having endured more than a hundred Vermont winters, it still stood, like a hollow wooden shell, barely even hastening the course of the breeze as it passed through, continuing on its way.
It was built in the mid nineteenth century, originally part of a 40,000 acre estate owned by the prominent, illusive Monroe family. Mr. Monroe had a halfhearted enthusiasm in horse breeding, as rich folks often do, and hired a well known architect, Robert Henderson, to design a breeding barn for him.
The main shape of the barn, a rectangle, stood 32.6 meters wide and 127.4 meters long, with stalls and tack rooms branching off all around. There was a second story loft wrapping around the inside wall, with doors opening out to the empty central space, where they used to play polo.
Sometimes, when I sat quietly and the wind stopped blowing, I could hear the ghostly hoofbeats of the polo ponies thundering past me in ear-splitting whispers, as if nothing had ever changed. But mostly, it was hard not to notice that many things had changed since 1891, when the barn was completed. Its foundation remained stone, its frame remained wood, and its outside remained covered in wooden shingles. Huge, green framed, multi-paned windows placed in several triangular dormers faced out from the roof, allowing gentle light to spill indulgently in to the center of the barn. A huge tower in the center served as the main dome like in many European cathedrals. This dome, however, was painted with the stains and cavities that embellished the ancient, fading wooden panels.
This was my cathedral. To me, it was many times more glorious. The ceiling stood high above me, and looking up at it I felt renewed by the sounds of the wind blowing through the old wooden structure, creaking and groaning like an old ship set on stormy seas. Birds flitted in and out of the cracked windows, whose glass was smudged and blurred. This site felt more holy to me than the holiest of worshipping sites. Beams of light shone down from the windows of the dormers high above, illuminating pools of hovering dust, stirred up from the ground by the strong gusts of wind coming in through the cracks in the doors, the wooden panels, and the open windows. The smell of hay remained potent, just as it must have been the day it stopped being a real barn.
I sat quietly perched in the hay loft, my feet dangling above the first floor, listening to the unsettling sounds of the building making as if it was about to collapse around me. I hummed the choir tune “I was Glad” softly to myself, trying to fill the silence, but instead the little noise echoed eerily around the empty space. The building rocked to my music, making me feel like I was singing it to sleep. I started to wonder about this place, about what it must have been like in the halcyon days of its novelty. I pictured the mysterious Mr. Monroe walking in the courtyard bellow my dangling feet, and suddenly I knew I was beginning to fall into another one of my dreams, the lines blurring quickly between one reality and another. I sat passively letting it happen as my head whirred, suddenly filling with a bright sunny day…
The Scottish wind ran its breath like fingers through the tall, rippling grasses at the top of the cliff. Below was the North Sea, mighty and fearsome to behold as its frothy waves crashed formidably against the rocks of the shore. Despite the tumult in the water beneath it, the blue of the sky above was pure and light and still, seeming distant and high over the windy field. This blue, in color and character alike, was reflected in the eyes of a young man of about sixteen, sitting, concealed almost entirely by the tall grasses that whipped gently but consistently around him, close to the edge of the cliff with a view of the sea. His hair was a rich brown that curled tamely around his face. His cheeks flushed healthily, and rosiness crept into the edges of his ears, partly from the brisk air. He had a steady jaw, clenched resolutely in perpetual state of determined contemplation.
He held a book open in one hand, a half eaten apple in the other. His eyes were tuned in acutely to the text in front of him, but his other senses remained highly perceptive to the scenery around him, taking it in eagerly and as efficiently as ears, mouth, nose, and skin can possibly do without the aid of their fifth and final companion. His heart, quite an advanced object, not limited to the petty label of “sense”, was tuned in unreservedly and expertly to both the words on the page and the elements surrounding him.
Taking in every line of a book as a special lesson to be learned and remembered, and, most importantly, felt, was a special but subliminal skill of his. And so he was set apart from others by the ease with which he was brought to tears while reading a story. These emotions did nothing to undermine his manliness, but instead only enhanced his humanliness, if such a thing exists, which, he would agree, most certainly does.
In the distance, over the roar of the surf bellow, he heard a woman’s voice calling his name. He stood up briskly and looked out over the water, taking one last sweeping glance at it all laid out before him. Then, with a subtle, reluctant hesitation, he turned, not looking back as he headed towards the voice calling him away.
James Monroe swung the door tight behind him, shutting out the whistling wind beyond. His florid cheeks burned warmly from the heat of the fire crackling in the kitchen. A woman stood at the kitchen counter, packing a neat lunch into a brown paper bag. She looked up at him as he came in, and the bags beneath her eyes seemed to fade a little, her chest rose, her back straightened.
She took a deep breath. “Your ticket is in the front pocket of your suitcase, along with a little extra money to get you through the month, I’ll send more when I can.”
James smiled and came towards his mother, pulling her into a gentle embrace. He was more than a head taller than her now. She leaned into his chest, taking more deep breaths, determinedly holding in her anxiety and grief at losing her only son to the world she had never gotten the chance to know herself. “I’ll be okay, you know that. But so will you. I’ll write as often as I can. And be right back here for you when I’ve made enough money for the return trip,” he assured her, like a true grown up.
To her resentment, her heart sunk low in her chest at the confidence with which he spoke these words. She knew that she would never see her son again. She and her husband had saved their money for fifteen years to get him this ticket and enough for him to get by on his own. Ignorance, at this moment, is bliss, she thought. She might as well give him a few more moments of bliss before the harshness of reality hit him as hard as his feet would hit American soil a few weeks from now. “I know,” she sighed and pulled away. She placed her hands on his shoulders, taking in the young man she had raised. Then, taking another deep breath, she took the brown paper bag and shoved it in his hands. She turned him around and pushed him towards his suitcase. “Your father’s waiting outside.”
James kissed her on the head, grabbed his suitcase, and walked bravely out of the house. The minute the door shut behind him, his mother collapsed into a chair and broke down into quiet sobs; harsh, protesting tears streaming down the worn contours of the old woman’s face.
“Alright, James, you have your ticket, your luggage tag, and the directions for when you arrive in New York?” His father asked with admirable tranquility.
“Yes, got it all right here,” James patted the front pocket of his suitcase.
“Alright my boy,” his father made a face halfway between a smile and a grimace as he moved in to hug his son. “Take care now, write us often, you hear?”
“Of course. I’ll make it there, Dad, I won’t let you and mom’s efforts to send me off go to waste.”
“I know you won’t, son.” He paused. “Listen James, there is something I want you to keep in mind as you step off into your new life.” James looked up into his father’s eyes. His father nodded curtly, taken aback a little by the intensity of his son’s gaze. “There is going to be a lot of people in New York City, more people than you have ever seen in your life. I want you to remember that every single one of those people has a story, just like you. They’ll all be competing for the same thing you want- opportunity. You deserve it, but so do they. Never let success cause you to forget what you have left behind.”
James’ mind took these words of wisdom in hungrily, eager to digest and interpret them. But he just nodded, unknowingly looking wide-eyed and vulnerable as his father patted his shoulder roughly. “Off you go now boy, good luck to you in America then.”
James looked one last time into his father’s eyes, a slice of reality seeming to dawn in his eyes. His situation was coming out into a new light as he came closer to what he was about to brave alone. With the same courage he had taken to turn away from his mother a few hours ago, he now turned from his father and headed towards the long line of people waiting to board the boat that would take them to the Land of Opportunity, which seemed quite formidable on its own.
He tentatively took a spot in line, looking back towards his father, but his father was gone. James took a deep breath, ignoring the pounding of his heart. He squared his shoulders and widened his stance, like he had seen his father do so many times. It really did make him feel more grown up, more able to handle this situation on his own.
A doctor quickly examined him for any virus that might be contagious. He was then sent to a part of the port where they cut his hair, in an act against the spread of lice on the long journey. James watched as his silky curls, which his mother had always taken such pride in, fell limply to the floor of the dock, where they were hastily swept off into the sea. He kept his chin up as he made his way up the ramp and onto the boat, handing his luggage to a crew member, walking as sure footedly as he could manage while fighting the arduous combination of nervousness and lack of sea legs.
Over two months later, at the end of a long, trying journey across the Atlantic, James stood at the stern of the boat. Several notable alterations had occurred about his face- his eyes, while still maintaining a certain wonder within, were unmistakably tired and weary looking, and his face was skinny and sallow, the characteristic flush in his cheeks barely discernable.
As he looked across the water, the four corner towers of the building at Ellis Island suddenly peaked into view above the grey mist of the morning. As the people around him noticed, they exclaimed excitedly and called for the other people out on deck to come and see. People clustered around him, pushing to get a view of their new home, speaking excitedly in at least a dozen different languages, none of which he understood.
His dark curls, already almost restored to the length they had been when he had gotten in line at the Scottish port in September, blew back from his forehead revealing his cavernous blue eyes- squinting wistfully at the emblematic building before him.
As the boat approached the dock of Ellis Island, he saw a huge line of people outside of the building. Stepping off a few minutes later, his ears were again filled with dozens of foreign tongues all speaking excitedly, often touched with a bit of weariness from the long journey and the uncertainty of the future to follow beyond the immigration building. Old women wrapped against the late autumn wind in tattered headscarves, families with young children huddled close to their parents, and boys on their own like him were all lined up to wait for the ultimate determination- whether they were free to stay or if they must make the strenuous return trip home.
As he was granted further passage into America, he saw around him those who had been denied this right. Tired men looked solemnly to the floor, the lines on their faces seeming to deepen at the thought of returning, denied and empty handed, to their desperate families back home. Children cried as they sensed their parents’ tension, and women wailed in desperation, begging for a second chance, willing with every bit of themselves to not make the trials and tribulations of long journey worthless.
Instead of feeling relieved that he was not among them, the sight of these desperate people left in him an undying sympathy for all those whose struggles had been puffed out in vain. He walked on, out into America, feeling very alone and a little morbid after his morning at Ellis Island.
When he arrived in New York City, he walked down the busy streets, taking in everything with his eager eye, though his usual excitement was faltering. The stars were barely visible above the smog of the city. The first thing he did was stop inside the first cathedral he saw, paying little attention to what denomination it belonged. He stepped into the large building, and the breath was knocked from his lungs by soft marvel. The height of the ceiling was unfathomable, and the colors of the stained glass Rosary window were clean and pure and rejuvenating to his sleepy soul. From the front of the space he could hear the choir singing, and he recognized the tune- “I was Glad”. He smiled, that was one of his own favorites from mass at home. He hummed softly along, feeling a little more at home here in this strange new world he had come to so abruptly.
As he crept forward farther into the church, his steps echoed on the cold stone floor. The secure stone of the building served as a fortress against the harsh wind outside, yet something still seemed to whoosh about the large empty space. He sat down at a pew, the old cherry wood creaking under his weight, and he closed his eyes, listening to the music fill the building with the warmth of its melody. He thought about his future here, about the opportunities he may or may not find. He wondered if he would be one of those lucky ones that made it big in America. Soon enough his thoughts were filled of the fortunes to be made. Someday he might have a large plot of land, and his mom and dad would come to stay with him. He would have a large house and a few barns…
I smiled with understanding as I was pulled gently out of my dream. As I opened my eyes, the old building where I sat seemed to appear to me in a different light. As the wind whooshed around and the birds hopped about in the courtyard below, I hummed.