Stillwater College sat on the fall line south of Petersburg. One half of the campus was elevated over the other half, and the waters above were separated from the waters below by a ledge with stone outcroppings. The waters below lay still, and the waters above flowed down. They seeped into the sandy ground before they had time to form a stream. And that’s why the house had been named Stillwater. It overlooked a lake that lay motionless as if it had been dug with shovels and hand-lined with clay. But the lake had been there as long as anyone could remember. It had no visible outlet, and no docks because a piling might puncture the layer of clay. Nobody swam in the lake because of the leeches in the mud. There was no fishing because girls don’t fish.
The house had been a plantation. After the War Between the States it was turned into a school for girls, and after that a teachers’ college, and in the 1930s a women’s college. In the 1960s it was a mecca for lesbians, with girls in shorts standing in the reeds to smoke, popping little black leeches with their fingers, risking expulsion for cigarettes and going in the lake.
The road from the main highway forked and branched like lightning. You had to know where Stillwater was to find it. Strangers drove to the town of Stillwater, parked their cars, and walked around. They thought a college ought to be impossible to miss in a town that small. But people in Stillwater didn’t think you had any business going to the college if you didn’t know where it was. It was a dry county, and so small anyway that most businesses didn’t have signs. If you wanted even a haircut, or especially a drink, you had to know where to find it. The biggest sign in the county was for the colored snack bar out on the highway, Bunny Burger. The sign for Stillwater College was nailed to the fence by the last turnoff, where you could already see the outbuildings.
The main house faced the lake. The academic buildings and the dorms were behind the main house around a courtyard. All the girls lived on campus. From the loop road, little dirt tracks took off in all directions, leading to the faculty housing where the station wagons sat crooked in potholes under big oak trees.
The reason strangers came looking for Stillwater was a famous poet. He had a job there as an English professor, and was so well respected that other famous poets came all the way to Stillwater to read to his classes. Tommy, the smartass owner of the white snack bar in town, called them “international faggotry” and always asked them if they wanted mayonnaise with their coffee.
Peggy Vaillaincourt was born in 1948 near Port Royal, north of Richmond, an only child. Her parents were well-off but lived modestly, devoting their lives to the community. Her father was an Episcopal priest and the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school. Her mother was his wife—a challenging full-time job. This was before psychologists and counselling, so if a girl lost her appetite or a woman felt guilty after a D&C, she would come to Mrs. Vaillaincourt, who felt important as a result. The Reverend Vaillaincourt felt important all the time, because he was descended from a family that had sheltered John Wilkes Booth.
To see Nell Zink on 22 June, book tickets here.