There is an assumption among those who have suffered little that the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself. They are greatly mistaken. At 17 years old I should not know this. I knew so little of pain before tonight, but schoolmaster Auditore saw to it that I received a proper education on the subject.
It is rare to possess enough clarity to trace our choices back to the first step of the path we find ourselves traveling. Maybe this is a gift of the pain. Neither my blood stained sheets nor the smile I wear alone in the darkness of my room would exist were it not for the gardener’s gate.
St. Basil Academy is built something like a prison. At times it can feel like one too, for the 34 boys who live here. High stone walls surround the orphanage and school, leaving only two ways in or out. The main entrance is lined with trees that bloom pink flowers in the spring. The long driveway leads up to the main hall like an English estate. On the opposite side of the grounds there is a service entrance behind the kitchen. I found a third exit during a game of whiffle ball.
Sammy crushed a curveball that never curved over my head and all the way to the vines that draped the East wall. As I picked through the tangled mess in search of the ball, my fingers struck something metal. This was not a discovery I could explore under the watchful eyes of Father Walsh. My hands moved on until I found the ball and sent it sailing back toward the infield.
What lay hidden behind the vines plagued my mind through that day as the minutes until curfew slowly ticked by. The moon lit the grounds far more than I would have liked for such a dangerous act, but I could not resist the pull of the mystery long enough to wait for a darker night.
My heart pounded against my ribs before I even reached for the doorknob. I had never before had a reason to sneak out of my room. Each sound echoed in the silence and reminded me of the penalty for my disobedience.
Fear gave life to a thousand shadows, posing as nocturnal guardians ready to sound the alarm, as I wove my way through the living quarters and into the brisk night air. The lack of trees or statues on the grounds did not provide a great amount of cover for stealthy travel so I hugged the grey stone of the dormitory as I made my way toward the East wall. Once I arrived at the corner there was no other option but to sprint to the wall.
The shadow of the wall welcomed me and I immediately turned to look for signs that my absence had been discovered. No windows lit up. No one ran after me. When I was confident that I had been undetected I began my search.
My hands disappeared into the darkness of the vines searching for my hidden treasure. My fingers crept over the rough stones until they grazed a flat cold spot that could only be metal. Clouds slid across the moon, casting darkness over the world just as I pulled apart the vines to reveal what I had found. Wiry stalks resisted being separated as I cleared a larger hole in hopes of seeing what I had found, but the wall swallowed what little light made its way through the clouds. When I traced the outline of the metal I found that it was raised in the middle.
The clouds quickly relented, revealing the only thing I could think it might be. Buried behind the foliage, a hinge lay anchored to the stone. It did not take long to find the rest of the secret door. Time had been good to the old gardener’s gate and I was surprised to find that the handle turned easily in my hand.
The snap of a twig spun me around. Before I could blink my pulse was racing so fast I could feel every beat of my heart in my ears. My eyes scanned the lawn for the source of the sound. The angry hoard of priests that my mind imagined rushing toward me were nowhere to be found. Fear outweighed my curiosity so I replaced the vines and covered the gate as it had been before.
Returning undiscovered to my room, my hands shook as I closed my door. The gate was more than I had hoped for. It was a portal to a world I knew very little about. It was a chance to learn about all the things I would never be taught inside these walls.
The danger of my discovery was not enough to keep me away for long. Sleep did not come easily to me that night as my imagination ran wild with what lay beyond the ivy. I resisted for two days before I could not fight it any longer.
The first night I left St. Basil’s, I only stayed out for about thirty minutes, but each time I left my fear shrank. My secret excursions initially led me through the surrounding neighborhood, but soon took me further and further into the city.
Just as my fear had shrunk, so too did the thrill. After a couple months I decided that I would have one last adventure and then close the gate forever. That was the night I met her.
I can’t say that that I loved Sarah Martin the first moment I saw her, but something inside of me knew that I would never again let her be a stranger to me. It wasn’t her perfect smile. It wasn’t her amazing green eyes or her long brown hair. And as much as I loved the rainbow of freckles that arched over her nose, it wasn’t them either. It was her laugh. There was a freedom in it that freed me every time I heard it.
I lived for the nights when I could see her. She taught me about video games and jazz. I quoted Shakespeare and Wordsworth for her.
It was Sarah that had the courage to say, “I love you” first. I guess most people would know how to respond to that, but I froze. She just laughed and said, “It’s ok. I know you do too.” Her freedom washed over me.
That was three weeks ago. Tonight, when I met her by the payphone, I took her hand and told her that I loved her too. There was no laughter this time. She took a step toward me, leaned in, and kissed me. Before that, there had never been a moment in my life that I wished I could stop time and live in forever.
Time is a slave to no man, though, and passed unaware until it was time for me to return home. Her kiss made me numb to the biting cold as I jogged back to the only other world I knew. With practiced ease I closed the gardener’s gate behind me and began arranging the vines to cover my escape. I felt the cold night air for the first time when I heard a voice behind me.
No amount of prayer would save me from the fate that I had brought upon myself. I turned to face my fear and saw the silhouette of schoolmaster Auditore towering over me.
Being caught was frightening, but being caught by the schoolmaster was a fear unto death. He was cruelest of all our overseers. Only in whispers did we dare call him by his nickname, the devil’s teacher.
No one dared turn on their room lights, but moving curtains gave away the secret eyes that watched us. We began the long march back into the school. I began shaking when we passed by the doors to the dormitory. Thoughts of what punishment I was to receive raced through my head in quick succession even as my tongue stay frozen with fear.
Confusion slowly gave way to understanding as he led me by the arm into the bathrooms. Not a single thing was out of place, save for the shebet that lay near the drain.
Every student at St. Basil’s knew about the shebet. It was a shepherd’s weapon, carved from the root of a tree, to fight off any animal that tried to attack his flock. The schoolmaster used it in his class to “enforce” the lessons that he felt we needed to learn. Misbehavior resulted in a firm knock on the head or the knuckles. Sometimes it led to more.
His voice sounded hollow as we walked closer to his chosen place for my lesson.
“Tonight you will learn the true use of a shebet. When your parent’s died we took you in to care for you and teach you. This school has done our best to guide you and yet, still you choose to stray. Rebellion will not go unpunished here. Sometimes sheep need to be reminded of whom they owe their lives to.”
Schoolmaster Auditore had picked the only place in the academy where the rest of the students could hear my punishment and my blood would leave no stains.
“Take off shirt.”
He instructed me to hold onto the showerhead and assured me that if I let go before given permission to do so, the consequences would be severe.
I had hoped that the shock of the first blow would be great enough to help distract me from the pain it inflicted upon my back. But the first lesson of pain is that it will not be ignored. I did not recognize the sound of my screams echoing off the blue and white tiles.
The second lesson of pain is that it will not release its grip on your body even after the source of it is gone. Every breath I take ignites a fire across back. My jaw is sore from the hours I have spent clinching my teeth, but still I can smile.
As I lay on my stomach in the darkness of my room, I ask myself if I would have had the courage to walk through the gardener’s gate had known the path it would lead me down and the pain I suffered tonight. If it were left to courage, I would not have the will to endure all that I suffered tonight. But I know, if given the chance, I would do it all again because I have something stronger than courage. I have love. And her laugh sets me free.