Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 9

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

September Fires

On Monday, September 10th of 2001 Catherine woke up to the rich fragrance of coffee, and Brittany’s voice calling, “Get up, Cath-, coffee’s on the table. Better hurry, it’s nine o’clock- I let you sleep long as I could.”

“Thanks.” Catherine mumbled. She had been up till three a.m. working on a paper for one of her classes. Mondays were her “easy days”. She had classes from ten until three, and then she left class to work in the college offices until six p.m.

For a minute she kept her eyes closed and imagined what it must be like to be one of those students who attended college- with no other responsibilities other than class work and partying.

Then she yawned and rubbed her eyes, as she reached for the coffee mug on her bedside table.

“When are you leaving?” Catherine called, her mind groggy and her voice still thick with sleep.

“I was just going out the door, but –first- look what came in the mail!” And Brittany, dressed in purple jeans and purple knit top, appeared in the door –way, striking a dramatic pose while holding up an envelope.

Surprised, Catherine flushed, and then forced her voice to stay calm.


 ”What do you mean? What? What do you think it is? Your first letter from Liam.”

“I don’t get your attitude. Geez, he cared about you. It was like those corny love stories in those old magazines we used to read together.”

“No, it was more like that old cassette tape of dreamy voiced love songs that you two listened to together.”

Catherine kept her eyes on her coffee mug, and remained silent hoping that Brit would take the hint and leave.

“You’ve never said anything about the guys I go out with so I should shut up, but I don’t think that you treated Liam right.”

Catherine couldn’t help but smile, as she considered the difference between her own romantic past and Brittany’s.

“Why are you smirking?” Brittany asked. 

Catherine could see her bristling. 

“Sorry, Brit, I was thinking of all of those years that I’ve bitten my tongue about your- multitude of… ‘romances’.  Let’s just forget it.”

“That’s what I don’t get- you seem to have forgotten all about it.”

Catherine sighed, and then she began again, hoping that if she gave Brit some sort of explanation that it would close the subject.

“Brit, it’s September- I met Liam last September. Do you suppose that I haven’t been thinking of him this month?”

“But it all happened so fast, and by January he was going away, for over two years, -probably longer. What could I do, except let him go and say goodbye?” Catherine asked.

“Yes, you had to say goodbye. That parts true. Well, here’s the autumn letter you allowed him,” Brittany said.

Catherine took the letter and placed it on the bedside table. Then she took a sip of coffee.

“It’s good coffee- what did I do to deserve it?”

“Sometimes I like to show you that I can be considerate. Besides, you work with those mean cats at the office - and it’s getting to you- whether you know it or not. I thought the coffee might start this week off better.”

“Have I been hard to live with?” Catherine said. She didn’t  particularly care whether she had been or not.

“Not as easy as you used to be…now you are more like a normal person.”

“I’ve been rotten then,” Catherine said.

“You’ve changed, and now you’re changing the subject. I’m still curious about the rules you gave Liam for writing to you.”

“Oh Brit.” Catherine gave an exasperated sigh.

“Catherine, I heard you talking to him in the hallway-when he came to say goodbye.”

“You said goodbye to him out there- didn’t even ask him in. He said that he would write you every week, and you told him no. Then you laid down the rules, and said that he could write only under those conditions. You sounded like some control freak,” Brit said. She stood, scowling, her hands on her hips.

“As you said, I’ve never said anything about your guys,” Catherine said.

Brit stood her ground, silent-immovable.

“And why should I spend my time rehashing this if you overheard everything?” Catherine said.  Her voice was quiet but there was a  frown gathering like a cloud on her forehead.

“Because I didn’t hear everything-only the gist.”

She looked calm, but Catherine’s eyes flashed. Then she sighed and shrugged. 

Brit remained silent, and finally, Catherine forced herself to continue.

We agreed that he would write me one letter each season of the year, and I would reply to it.”

“We?” Brit jeered, “And the number of pages he is allowed to write?”


“Can he write on both sides of the page?”


“And the subjects he can write about?”

“What he is learning, the people he has met, where he has traveled, general interests.” Catherine ticked them off on her fingers- as if she was quoting from a rule book. 

“Any personal feelings allowed?” Brit queried.

“Yes, as long as they are not personal feelings about me.”

“What about Love…can he write anything romantic?”

“Yes, he can write about poetry, or literature. Anything, he wants…but he will not write about us.”

“That is too strange, Catherine.”

“No it’s not Brit. Those rules make sense.”

She frowned again, trying to justify the rules to herself, as well as to Brittany, ” Why write anything romantic? People change. How many men are steadfast? And love is fickle. Better not write the words- when you will probably regret them.”

“Most women love to hear or read pretty things,” Brittany said.

“Exactly, which makes you wonder which they really love, the man or the words. And men understand how much women long to hear the words, and they use that,” Catherine said. “Overall, women pay too high a price for those pretty, flattering, romantic words.”

“So you think that Liam was like that?”

Catherine grinned, “No. Those were some added remarks. Liam was-is…ethical. But even sincere feelings can change- over time. We are people, like everyone else.”

“For a girl with the last name of Emerson who was raised by such romantic idealistic parents, and practically learned to read, by reading Emerson’s essays- you’ve sure turned into a realist the last few months.”

Catherine flushed, then, paused for thought, “I’ve had to. Liam is in France; he has another life- for heaven’s sake.  And that life is taking place in a country known for its sophistication.” 


“The French are realistic concerning love,” She said.

“And Brit, think of all of the pretty, charming girls he is going to meet. They will speak English with that alluring accent that the French have.”

“I think that the French learn to speak English only because they know they sound wonderful speaking it. French couples probably speak English to each other in the bedroom, because it turns them on.”

“You are right there. I have a French girl in my political science class. She isn’t pretty, but when she speaks every guy in the room turns round to look, and most of them salivate.”

They both gave rueful laughs.

“Is it over then, Catherine?”

“I have to act as if it is over. I can’t sit here waiting and dreaming about him for over two years, and then find out that it is over. I’m grateful that we weren’t more involved. I don’t know how you and your friends can…” Catherine paused, not sure how to word it.

“What, sleep around?”

Catherine shrugged. “Yes.”

“I’m not blaming you. We’ve never felt the same about it. You know that I can’t imagine falling in love, being intimate with a guy, then breaking up, and starting all over, time after time. I don’t think that I could believe in love-or ever take it seriously-again.”

“Ok, so, we are realists. We don’t take the ‘falling in love’ step at all- we keep our sleeping around- casual,” Brittany said. But Catherine could perceive the defensiveness in her voice.

“Then why lecture me because I won’t take my romance with Liam more seriously?”

“I suppose because I don’t want you to change. Something in me wants to say: Stay Catherine Emerson- the idealist. I like her, she’s my best ‘girl friend’”, Brit said. She didn’t say anything more, but she gave Catherine a lop-sided grin as she left.

Catherine glanced at the letter, and at the clock…then resolutely got out of bed and went in to take a shower.

On September 10th, shortly after nine a.m. in, Iowa, the heartland of America, two girls talked about the universal theme of love-its feelings, poetry, songs, and its loss- as they have in America, and the world over, in all the ages past.

The next day, September 11th 2001, at shortly after nine a.m. in New York City, the financial heart of America, the World Trade Center towers were attacked by fanatics whose hearts were filled with hatred. The buildings collapsed, killing thousands, and America changed.

Talking to Melinda on the phone that evening, Catherine said, “I still don’t believe it …watching those buildings come down. Knowing that lives had just ended. Watching the fires burn. How could anybody do such a thing in the name of religion?”

And then.

“Some people say that our way of life has ended. I’m not sure about that, but I guess that we’ve lost the security we felt. And the people at work were more shaken up than I was. They are older than I am- why am I the calm one?”

“And you should have seen Brit. At first she was so panicked that I expected her to pack her clothes, and leave town- except no planes were flying. Finally she has begun to calm down.”

“Now she keeps saying, ‘Excuse me, but we don’t know these people-right?’ or,  ‘What if we took a notion, out of the clear blue sky- to go bomb one of their cities?’

“At my school, most of the kid’s don’t care about anything outside of their own lives. Today some of them were hysterical-lined up at the counselor’s door,” Melinda said.

“Maybe it got their attention because they thought that it might affect their lives,” Catherine said.

“Do you suppose that it didn’t scare us as much because we’ve never had any security to lose?” Melinda said.

“Or maybe since we’ve faced hard times-we are tougher. How are Mother and Father?” Catherine said.

“Ok- I guess. More worried than usual.”

“They are sad about this, but they are so drained by their own troubles…”

“Where are they?”

“They had to go grocery shopping. No time the rest of the week. Even in a national crisis they stay on the same old treadmill.”

After she hung up, Catherine sat quietly in the dark. The sound was muted and the flickering light of the TV was reflected from the windows in the small living room.

Work that morning had been difficult because her usually smug co-workers had been thrown into a state of anxiety and Catherine had been left to deal with anyone who called or came to the office for help.

Later, she met Brittany and her group of friends for lunch. That crowd had been unusually silent.  Usually they were a noisy group, always focused on their own grievances. The attitude was that their wants and needs demanded the attention of the nation.

Catherine wondered if their silence came from the realization that if the nation was destroyed that there would be nothing left, or anyone at leisure to appease them.

Catherine had little rest that night, and rousing to a gray dawn, lay sick at heart, wondering whether she was awake or asleep, while the words from a partially remembered song ran through her mind.

The tune needled her through a hectic day; she couldn’t place it, she couldn’t remember the title or the tune.

The words, “September, December, fire, and hearts remember,” wandered illusively through her mind-connected somehow with her own lost love, selfish people who called themselves Americans, and the fires that were burning in New York City.

Then, as she was heading down the steps from her apartment she said, “Try to Remember”, because, suddenly, she had remembered.

The first week in December, Catherine flew home for a long weekend. She hadn’t been home since early summer. Flights were cheap, and after September, when all of the planes were grounded, she felt shaky. Like Scarlet O’Hara, more than anything, she wanted to go home.

The Victorian house was decorated for Christmas. Garlands and ribbons had been draped over the porch banister and the front door. The Christmas tree lights sparkled through the living room window.

When she was in the warmth of the living room Catherine exclaimed, “Mother, it all looks so beautiful! I’ve been lonesome for you, and for everything,” She said. She waved a vague hand in the direction of her sisters, her father and the Christmas tree.

Her mother went to bed shortly after Catherine arrived, and Gwynie went up with her.

Starting out silently, her little sister’s smile beamed down the stairs after Catherine had called up, “Gwynie, girl- go ahead and sleep in my room if you want to- I’d like to try out another room too.”

Melinda, Catherine and their father settled down to talk about events in the country.

“Business just stopped,” Jordan Emerson said. “There had been a slow-down before, but after New York City-it stopped. Things seem to have picked up a bit now, but I’ve been holding my breath.”

Melinda, yawned, and said, “Even babysitting offers stopped. Now that Christmas is coming up- people are going out again. In fact, I’ve got a morning job over at the Aken’s, you sat for them didn’t you, Cath?”

“Yes, for the oldest boy, once or twice.”

“Well, he’s a monster, and the two little ones aren’t terrific either. I’ve got to get some sleep if I’m going to get over there by nine.”

“We will talk tomorrow afternoon-ok Cath?”

“Popsie, you must be tired too- why don’t you go to bed?” Catherine asked, after Melinda had gone up.

“Thanks Catherine, if I could sleep I’d go to bed, but I can’t so I won’t,” he said.  “I’ve had some insomnia.”

Catherine sat looking about her.

“The Christmas decorations are so pretty. What imagination! Manna does wonders with nothing but a bit of ribbon here and there.”

“Yes, she’s learned to make the most of what she has, as have her daughters.”

“I don’t mean to jump at you Catherine- I know some subjects have to be led up to- but I might get too tired later. Are you ready to tell me what’s on your mind yet?”

“Too much to go in to tonight.”

“Night is the best time-sometimes. The cold light of day frightens away our feelings. So, why not talk about it now?”

Those were the words that she had needed. And so it had come out. Everything muddled together-the sad little romance, and the desolation that had been building in her heart for nearly a year.

She told about the first happiness with Liam, then his leaving, and the sense of loss that followed her around, now that he was gone. Everything that she had been saving up to tell her mother flooded out and, instead, washed over her tired father.

“And then after September 11th, it was as if some glowing light that had shone on the world had been turned off. I saw things, and I saw people as they were and I didn’t like them.”

“The rose colored glasses were lost,” her father said.

“Yes, and now the world seems dark. Everybody seems so grim and tawdry. I see.”

He was quiet, waiting for her to go on.

“The women at the office are no more petty or mean than they had been before, but when I was seeing Liam, and before New York City- I had made allowances for them, as selfish women-who did no harm. Now I can barely endure them.”

“When Liam left for France I vowed that I wouldn’t waste time in regretting or mourning the loss.”

“I wasn’t sure what made me so determined to move forward. Maybe it was something Mother told me, or my intuition. I knew that the only direction I could go was ahead.”

“Before he left, life-even work was fun. Then after he was gone I disciplined myself-no looking back. I’ve been working harder than ever, but the other day I realized that I had stopped laughing, and  I don’t know when.”

Catherine hesitated. “I don’t think I’m putting this together right…”

“Don’t think like a writer. Don’t write. Just talk. I’ll be the editor and pull it together.” Her father instructed.


Catherine took a deep breath, and began again.

“On September 11th the women at work-were nervous, panicked. I listened to them talk, and thought that now they saw how small and greedy they had been. For a few hours I was hopeful. I thought that they would stop being so mean. I thought they would grow. I thought that all of the fire, that the death of innocents,  the great loss-would matter-that good would come out of it.”

“It was the stories of heroes in New York. I kept thinking that there really might be something great  that would grow in the ordinary person’s heart.”

“Oh, Catherine, you are so young. There is seldom much greatness even in the “great” man’s heart,” he said. 

“So you thought your little office full of Scrooges had seen those great towers fall, and like a visit from Marley’s ghost, it would remake them, and drive out the selfishness that it had taken lifetimes to build? You hoped that Christmas morning had come to America.”

“I guess so. Now I don’t believe in anyone except you and Mother. I think that you are the only good people left in the world.”

“But, why on earth, did you raise us with religion, with goodness, and ideals-how do they help us to survive in the real world-where only selfishness, money and power matter?”

Then, surprising them both, Catherine began to cry.

Soon her father’s arms were around her-patting and soothing her as if she were still seven.

“Poor little girl. Cry it out Cathy, you’ve held it in too long- carrying every burden alone. There, there, everything will be alright.”

For awhile she did cry, harder than she had ever cried before. Choking on her tears, and holding onto her father as if he were the only anchor in the storm that was shaking her. When her sobs had finally turned to sniffles, her father handed her some tissues, and held her hand.

“Sorry, Pops,” Catherine said.  She pushed him away. She laughed and cried a bit at the same time. “That’s what you get for asking me, ‘What’s on your mind’.”

“The world can be a pretty dark place even without losing your first love.”

He looked at her thoughtfully.

“Catherine, this idea of going on without a backward glance-it’s your mother’s way, but it has a huge price. You can’t stamp out the past, too quickly, because that is where the pain is.”

“There are powerful feelings in the painful past. If you don’t examine them a bit, then that power becomes pressure that builds into a storm. If you don’t release the pressure the storm flattens you.”

“I know, and now we should go to bed. There aren’t any answers to this,” Catherine said. “You and Mother both look so tired. I was worried about you the minute I saw you.”

“We are discussing your problems for the moment-ma’am. You’ve just done what your mother does- hurries her own problems off into the shadows, and then tries to help other people with theirs.”

“Ok, but there is no solution to mine.”

“But there are bromides to offer,” he said. The twinkle was returning to his eyes, “And, I must offer them.”

“Go ahead-if you must,” she said.  Finally, she was able to smile.

“The first one- is the standard parent’s line, ‘Get a good night’s sleep- things will look brighter in the morning’.”

Catherine groaned. “And number two?”

“I’ve just reread The Road Less Traveled. I think that you have read bits of it?” 

“A little. The book was a psychologist’s religious, philosophy, or something..” Catherine was too exhausted for clarity.

“Yes, someTheology. It was good for the religious, but it was good philosophy for any thinking person.”

“I know you’re worn out tonight, but you are in college now, your supposed to be a clear thinking person. So make the effort-think.”

“The theme of the book is work, constant effort. The author wrote that God wants us to grow to be like him. We are to be a spark, a flame of light in the dark world.”

“The author sees sin as laziness-not being willing to make the effort it takes to grow. That is some of what you see in the people around you. It is the oldest human weakness-feet of clay.”

“We are too tired to go into this tonight, but Catherine those people at work irritate you for that reason.”

“You are able to see things in the world that they don’t. I won’t harp on it, but that is a gift.”

“Don’t try to be like them. You can’t be like them- thank goodness-you don’t have it in you. But understand that they can’t be like you- either.”

“I know I shouldn’t judge them…”

“Well, you shouldn’t be self-righteous, but you should judge that they are not good or generous people. And, you should stop regretting your upbringing-it may not give you survivalists instincts but it will give your life value.”

“You recognize the beautiful things in life. You see beauty that those ladies can’t see. And you know that there is a difference between good and evil. You are able to see the degradation and the destruction that evil can bring. That is what you saw in the fires of New York City.”

“For you, there has always been a light that shines on the world. That light of truth allows you to see what the fanatic, the selfish, and sometimes, even the realist, can’t see. In time you will be grateful for the light.”

“At least I hope so. If you looked at my bank account you would know that what we taught you and what you have become-that is the only gift that we ever had to give.”

“I’m going up to bed now, but if you’re not too tired- sit here for a while- look at the lights of the tree, and listen to some music- try to find a little peace.  The holidays are here, Thank God. And that’s what two great religions celebrate this season, light and peace.”

“If you look at the tree with your imagination, with that insight, the joyous light you’ve been given, -you will see all kinds of things, gifts of all kinds given to a beloved world by a great King.”

” What your mother says is true, ‘All of the gifts of Christmas aren’t found under the tree, Catherine,’ ” he said. Then he  kissed her forehead, and smiling, went up the stairs to bed.

And so, as midnight came, and went, Catherine looked at the Christmas tree. She saw that the decorations were the colors purple for royalty, green for life, and gold to represent that which is most precious.

Finally, she opened one of the bags she had brought with her, and took out Liam’s parting gift to her. She unwrapped it; it was the cd from the musical The Fantasticks.

She put it on, and relived that night, the year before when they had gone-hand in hand to watch that simple love story.

Every memory came as clear and sweet as the music that flowed around her. She thought of Liam’s arm around her in the darkness. She thought of them, turning to smile at each other as “Try to Remember” soared out over the audience.

Now, after this past September, the words of the song meant more than lost love to her.

Now deep in December, as she listened to the words, “the fire of September,” it brought to mind the fire that had started in New York City, and that had burned on for 100 days.

She turned out the lights in the living room, and went to the back of the house- to the sleeping porch. There the tall windows looked to the south – and Catherine stood looking up at the stars.

“It’s almost Christmas, ” she said. And suddenly she was filled with the sense of wonder that she felt as a child.

“Liam, wherever you are, I’m keeping to the rules because I have to go on. But I’ve finally listened to the music you gave me. Tomorrow, I’ll read your letter, and I’ll answer it. Thank you for the Christmas gift,” she said.  And, at long last, gratitude warmed her heart.

She wiped away happy tears and wondered how many stars glowed down upon her.

“Treasure every gift for you don’t know what its cost has been,” she whispered, as a Christmas prayer, one that she sent up to the star filled, and glorious December sky.