“Yes, I’m aware.”
“The College was founded in 1833, and four women were admitted to the school in 1838, graduating four years later.” She paused and noted the impatience of his lowered brow and continued more slowly, “Did you know that in 1844, the first Black woman to earn a college degree in America did so here”?
He could have told her that, yes, he did know that and much more about this storied college town with its historical ties. But he merely nodded and said, “Thank you,” with a small, tight smile.
The woman folded her hands on her desk and said, “Then I won’t say another word.” Although her expression was pleasant, he sensed she was judging him in some way and almost blurted, “I’m not the typical tourist, you know,” but he turned and walked through the lobby of the hotel to the door.
He wrote profiles of schools for the annual publication, A Guide to Midwestern Liberal Arts Colleges, and had learned that most of these college towns thought they were the cat’s meow for one reason or another. Perhaps, historically, Oberlin had a greater claim to fame than most, given that it was the first school to admit females and Black students, but he’d decided long ago that most of these colleges were more alike than distinctive. They clung to these little morsels of fame like children cling to lollipops, eager to show off their distinctiveness. But the bottom line was that the curriculums were markedly similar, as were the sizes of the student bodies, the student-faculty ratios, their costly tuitions, and even, for the most part, the layouts of their campuses. Yet he was expected to make each school sound as unique as the Hope Diamond.
He longed to retire after submitting work for the pending 1990 volume. He’d been on the road, visiting these same schools in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana for some thirty years, and he was tired. His editor had dangled Illinois in front of him, hoping to entice him to stay on another year or two with the prospect of spending time in Chicago, but he couldn’t bear adding to the number of admissions departments he was assigned. Their staffs were endlessly pointing out what features had been missed in the Guide the previous year and noting that the entries for their schools were “far too brief” and that acceptance rates didn’t “indicate the depth of consideration given to applicants.” Plus, there were all the vague complaints that the entry in the volume just didn’t “convey the essence of the school.” Hence his visiting Oberlin College for a second time this year because some people felt he hadn’t adequately emphasized the school’s history in the 1989 volume. Specifically, they asked that additional attention be given to women’s history with “a significant section” on the Ladies Grove.
The directions had been easy to follow. He walked a mile southwest of the hotel and found the entrance to the historic section of the arboretum. It was announced with two square, six-foot-high pillars, several yards apart, built of inset stones. The one on the left bore a sandstone plaque with the word, “Ladies,” and the one on the right bore a plaque that read, “Grove.” Well, at long last, I’m here, he thought. This trip had damn well better have been worth the trouble.
He removed a small notepad from the pocket of his suit jacket and jotted descriptions of the pillars. He also began compiling mental notes, considering how he’d add to what had appeared in previous volumes of the Guide: “Beginning in 1838, four women made history by stepping foot onto the campus of a college that had committed the radical act of admitting women as students. More than eighty years would pass before women had the right to vote, but recognizing their right to education was a significant part of that journey. Some in the nation considered the admittance of women a scandal; others, a long-overdue victory.” So, his task was to connect these oft-published sentences with something original about what had transpired in the Ladies Grove a century and a half ago.
As he walked forward, passing between the pillars, he had the odd sense of being watched. He looked over his shoulder, but saw only the gravel path that connected the street to the edge of the arboretum. Facing ahead and moving forward again, he thought, Yes, I can say something about my feet retracing the steps of women now long dead, perhaps joke about the size of my feet in comparison to the no doubt dainty size of theirs.
The dirt path was only inches wide for several yards, but it gradually widened as he walked through a thickly wooded area, oaks and maples standing high, their old trunks so robust. There were also some black walnut trees, and was that a black ash off to his left? The land seemed a bit swampy, the right environment, so perhaps it was.
As he often did in his home study, he began to compose sentences aloud. “The path widened,” he said, and heard a very faint echo of his own voice. Oh, yes, I can do something with that. An easy metaphor. “Those first women were trailblazers, making the path wide enough for many others to follow in the ensuing years.”
Inhaling the slightly humid air, he lifted his gaze toward the branches dense with golden leaves and what he could see of the sky. Oh, of course! Inspiration struck again. “The outdoor classroom. Sure, I can write some drivel about that.” He strode down the path and called out, “The trees bore witness as the women practiced their oratory, sharpened their debating skills so they were cutting edge!” That was good, very good. With a hand on his hip, he shouted, “You might ignore us on campus, not call on us in the classroom, but here, HERE,” he flung his arms to his sides, “we are the equals of men!” He thumped his hand against the trunk of an especially wide oak tree.
He walked on, knowing there was water ahead, a bit of a trickle called Plum Creek. He tried to summon a mental image of young women in the 1830s and 1840s walking this same path, those first dozens so excited to be away from their homes and families, feeling so important to be amongst the first females at college. Casting his eyes onto the dirt path and the floor of the bordering woods, he imagined that their outfits must have gotten frightfully dirty here. Hems of skirts dragging on the ground. The female students were allowed to walk unchaperoned here, he knew, to stride about on their own, and might not have minded their clothes being mussed, since no men were around to see them. He imagined them giddy with delight in their freedom, like girls at their first slumber parties or any child away at camp for the first time.
Lucy Stone, he knew, was the one who had caused all the fuss, refusing to take her husband’s surname after she married. Then, inevitably, other women followed suit and were called “Lucy Stoners.” Mr. Blunnderson shook his head and thought about his younger sister, Margaret. She, no doubt, knew all about Lucy Stone. She was a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment and years earlier had embarrassed the family when her picture was in a local newspaper, holding that sign, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!” Such a spectacle. Margaret, he suspected, just wanted to be a part of the movement because, well, it was like belonging to a club of sorts. That’s probably what went on here, he thought, and said out loud, “The Ladies Grove served as a sorority meeting place.”
He couldn’t write what he really thought, that he strongly doubted that these women actually debated the issues of the day here. Yes, that was a fabulous claim for the school; if you were the first to admit women, you had to have a few legends about those first female students, but surely they’d been embellished. That was always the case at these schools. Hancock College, for instance, snared many students with stories of campus hauntings—in particular, the constant movement of a rocking chair on the porch of the student union, the very chair in which a former president of the school had died at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1900. Charles had seen the chair, and it wasn’t rocking. He told the admissions staff that he could not say it was when it wasn’t, and they were absurdly dismayed. They were satisfied, though, with his writing, “Listen closely; do you hear the whining creak of the chair even when there’s no wind in the air?” He’d even worked a rhyme in.
His best guess was that the Oberlin women had likely held picnics here and picked flowers. Could he say that? “The Ladies Grove proved the perfect spot for picnics during the pleasant spring and autumn months” he said, but then shook his head. The admissions staff would object. He’d have to stick to their script and write that these women were upset that, even though they’d been admitted to college, they were rather neglected in the classrooms. They weren’t allowed to debate publicly but overcame that unfair limitation by banding together in the Grove to sharpen their rhetoric, readying themselves to one day leave campus and fight for women’s suffrage, abolition, and. . . .what else? Temperance? Where did that Carrie Nation go, the one with the hatchet she used to wreak havoc in saloons? Looking about at the dense trees, Charles mused that Oberlin women could have gotten a lot of practice swinging hatchets here.
He stopped. What was that? Did he hear the water? I must be getting closer to the creek, he thought. Maybe on warm days, the women took off their stockings and slipped their feet into the water. And what of the young men on campus? Did they know their female classmates came here? Did they loiter just outside the Grove’s entrance hoping to escort a woman back to her dormitory? It would never be noted in any history book, but he knew, he just knew, that while in the Grove, the women had likely gossiped about who were the handsomest young men on campus. And how many young men pretended to be committed to the cause of women’s suffrage just to impress a female student? Perhaps some of the women might not have objected if male students had been allowed in the Ladies Grove. He shrugged and said to the trees, “Well, ladies, today a man is here and I intend to explore every nook and cranny of your sacred space.”
It wasn’t surprising that as he ambled, Kathryn came to mind. His own wife had considered keeping her maiden name, but he was able to persuade her that there was no need to buy into a fad. She’d been headstrong until he pointed out that Kathryn Blunnderson sounded so much better than Kathryn Snecker. She relented and, though they were now divorced, she was still Kathryn Blundderson, as far as he knew. So much for her diehard principles. The marriage had only lasted a few years, produced no children, and he had no idea where Kathryn even lived these days. It was as if that time in his life had never even happened. He guessed she was working somewhere; she was keen to work, wanted to pursue an engineering degree, a goal he thought silly—although he didn’t say so, at least not in so many words. Perhaps she’d remarried. Maybe to one of those men who called himself a feminist, as if such a thing were possible. His strongest memory of his former wife was her packing a suitcase, tossing in shirts, skirts, underwear, not bothering to fold anything, she was in such a rush to leave. He’d told her she was being rash, that most couples went through rough patches; and she’d retorted, “Everything about you is a rough patch.” If he’d believed her, the words would still sting but, of course, she was just being hysterical. That was the thing about women; they were so emotional. Not that he was opposed to marrying again but, now, well, he was getting on, and it was unlikely he’d meet a woman his own age who’d never been married. The thought of being with a woman who’d had a past with another man was, well, it was unseemly.
Inhaling, he realized that the humid air had turned suddenly crisp, inciting an irritating tickle in his chest. He started to cough and felt the need to swallow to stifle the tickle. The woods were darker now, the sky only visible here and there. Charles stepped off the path and rested his palm on the trunk of an especially large black walnut tree, feeling its raised edges against his fingertips. He heard the twittering of the robins and wondered when they’d be flying south. Shouldn’t they already have left? He trained his ears on the chirping of the birds and perhaps that was why he didn’t hear a walnut in its thick green casing falling overhead through the leaves. He was deeply startled when it hit the very center of his head’s crown. “Ow!” He put his hand on his head and looked up, only to see another nut headed straight for him. He jerked his chin down and stepped quickly back onto the path.
Mischievous squirrel, he thought. Insolent rodents, that’s what squirrels were. He walked on, noticing small clearings amongst the immense trees. Narrow columns of sunlight moved over the ground, which was covered with leaves of all colors. Wait. What was that? He stopped walking and waited until he heard it again, a creaking whine. He stood perfectly still. Why, it sounds like a door being opened and closed, he thought. Then he heard a rustling, as if the leaves on the ground were being trod on by many feet. And . . . there it was, he heard it; there was whispering! Yes, someone was whispering. In fact, he could distinguish several voices. Where were they? Were there children playing here, hiding amongst the trees? Searching, he turned in a full circle. I’m sure I heard whispering, he thought. It could not have just been the wind. There was no wind—yet he felt a chill on the nape of his neck.
He hadn’t yet made it to Plum Creek and peered ahead. I can’t have come all this way and not have seen the creek, he thought. I’ll go that much farther then go back to town and get something to eat. I probably just need something to eat. Maybe I’m a little light-headed.
Then he heard something else. What was it? He stopped walking and tried to be as still as possible. It was laughter. Women’s voices and very faint, but he heard them laughing. Looking up into the trees, he saw the golden leaves shaking in the still air. The sound grew louder. It’s those leaves, he thought; they’re laughing.
Laughing? Leaves? He shook his head. I just need to eat something. I’ve had too much coffee today. That’s it. The doctor’s right, it does give me jitters. He took a deep breath and thought, okay, I’ll go back now. After I eat something, I’ll return, see the creek, jot some notes.
Turning around, he stepped cautiously past the large black walnut, waving a finger upwards to admonish the squirrel on whatever upper branch he was hiding. Once past it, he exhaled and chuckled. I could put that in the profile, he thought. Play up the mysteriousness of the place. Hancock College would be jealous.
He felt a hand on his upper back, shoving him so he stumbled, falling to one knee.
“See, here!” he shouted, standing and turning to face. . .what? No one. Looking down, he wondered if he’d tripped on a fallen tree branch and just imagined the blow to his back. Nothing was there.
He walked faster, placing his feet carefully, one in front of the other. He could see the sandstone pillars ahead. He was just breathing a sigh of relief when he felt a swift kick to his backside. This time he fell onto all fours. “Who did that?” he yelled as he hit the ground. He heard the laughter again, faint at first, but it grew in volume until the entire Grove was ringing with sound. He felt a rumble beneath the ground and saw that leaves were starting to drop from the trees. But they weren’t hitting the ground, they were all falling on him. There were so many, and they were dropping with such speed, that he shrieked, “I’m going to be buried!” He crawled several feet, then pushed himself to his feet. Then he ran, ran with all the speed he could muster, impelled by laughing that had become so loud he thought his ears might bleed.
He fled between the pillars and did not look back. He did not stop running until he arrived at the hotel, breathless, leaves stuck to his hair and clothes. The guests in the lobby gawked at him and gave him a wide berth as if he were a wild creature. The woman at the desk, however, greeted him with a full smile and seemed not to notice his appearance.
Her smile, he thought, was rather sly. But she asked, with great warmth, “Did you enjoy the Ladies Grove?”
Words left him before he was aware he’d uttered them, “It lives up to its history.”
Such merriment in her eyes as she nodded and said, “Doesn’t it, though?”