On the Moors of Washington Heights

23Mar08

In which The Gay Recluse celebrates Easter.

It was not until eleventh grade — in Mrs. S____’s English class — that we began to appreciate the obsessive and illogical side of literature, which of course is to say we were reading Wuthering Heights. Do you remember Mrs. S____? How thin and small and severe she was? How nobody in any of her classes — even E.B. the genius and teacher’s pet — ever got more than a B+ (and how he almost had a nervous breakdown as a result)? We hardly need to mention how she kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun; how she wore those awful brown skirts and high-necked blouses (we all wondered: who exactly was her husband?); or how 98 percent of her classes were deadly boring. That was all a given.

What we didn’t expect was that on a cold spring day much like we’ve been having lately, when everything is still barren but the light betrays a certain expectancy, Mrs. S___ would suddenly pivot around from where she had been writing something irrelevant on the chalk board to address us in a harsh, desperate tone that seemed to belong to someone else entirely. We were about to make the transition to the less passionate half of the book — the second generation — and Mrs. S____ wanted to emphasize exactly what we were leaving behind; she began to describe the moors, and how she liked to visit every few years, not because she wanted to see where Emily Brontë had lived and died — that she had already done — but to remember how the landscape was haunted by the spirits of Heathcliff and Catherine; and then she defied any of us to walk through the moors in the fading twilight, as the mist begins to meander above the heather, and tell her that we didn’t believe that these characters were so much more than words on a page, that they weren’t windows into the deepest recesses of the human soul, where love and hate could rip you apart.

It was an episode that always remained with us; we remembered it today, in fact, as we walked through the heather gardens in Washington Heights. We thought of all the thousands of hours we spent in the classroom, both before and after this this strange incident — although in retrospect, it was probably a performance — and how only this stayed with us. This is why we feel so grateful to Mrs. S____. At least for those two or three minutes, she unveiled herself as someone completely — and unapologetically — possessed by her love for something irrational and unobtainable; and really, what else could you ever want (or need) to know?

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

Sylvia Plath, from “Wuthering Heights”

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One Response to “On the Moors of Washington Heights”


  1. 1 wuther

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