Authors: Jetta Carleton
Tags: #Adult, #Historical
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masked provincials go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All singing in a minor key
Of conquering love and fortunate life
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mixes with the moonlight.
The still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Which makes the birds dream in the trees
And makes the fountains sob in ecstasy,
The tall, slender fountains among the marble statues
Translation by Ann Patty
llen Liles is a fictional character. I made her up. Her story is made up too. But not all of it. Part of it's mine, handed on to her, altered to fit.
It's an old story. You've heard it before, any number of times. But I wanted to tell it again, as it happened in a time and a place where something existed that, nowadays, it seems to me, is in short supply: innocence.
Innocence, of course, can lead to error, and error led to the expulsion from Eden. Or so it is generally considered, although as far as we are told it was the end neither of Eden nor of the garden. It was the end only of the sojourn there of its first inhabitants. Evicted for the error of their ways, they were forbidden to return. Angels and a flaming sword were set to guard it at the east.
Nothing is mentioned of the other boundaries. Nor is it written that the garden was destroyed. We are left to assume that it still exists. As of course it does, as a creation of the mind, as it has always been. And it is known for a fact that now and then the garden is rediscoveredâhere or thereâand a way in found. (Perhaps from the west.) None are granted citizenship there. But there are those who enter, on sufferance of the angel, and choose not to know that after a short, blissful time, they too will be driven out.
And so it was with Allen Liles, one spring a long time ago when the world was more innocent than it will be again and she was younger than her years.
Spring came early that year, before winter had officially ended. In the streets of that Ozark town the wind blew catkins along the sidewalk, and maple wings and the dark seed clusters of elm trees half as old as the town. People walked out in the dusk, sniffing the weather, paused to chat under streetlamps, or strolled home slowly from some casual errand, stopping to buy ice cream in paper cartons, reluctantly going inside. Doors were left unlocked.
Their lessons done, children played hide-and-seek in the dark angles of house and yard until they were called in to bed. On Center Street the two motion-picture houses were dark by eleven. By eleven thirty the local buses had returned to the barn and the lights were out in store windows. Only the bus-station cafe, where the lone attendant was dozing at the counter, awaiting the arrival of the last run south from Kansas City, was open. Except for a few passing cars, the streets were deserted. Stillness settled over the town, over the bus barn and the railroad tracks, the schoolyards and the eighteen churches. The great houses rose tall and secret along dark streets. And except for certain nights when the moon was high, the expansive, hospitable park lay silent.
If facts are required, the great houses would be scattered and fewer, not all together on one grand avenue. The park on the west would not be so spacious, the town not arranged in quite this way. But it is remembered this way. A street and a house from another town may have moved in, a different park slid southward to become this park. Memory fits everything into place. And memory is truth enough.
The fact of the matter is southwest Missouri, on the edge of the Ozarks. The fact is 1941. And there is a war in Europe. It hangs like haze in the distance, like the threat of violent storm or heat wave. But it may go around, as they say in those parts; it could miss us. It is far away.
It was an orderly town, bred of the mines, nurtured by agriculture and some manufacture, a blend of Southern gentility and Western enterprise, firmly set in the conservatism of Middle America. Once rich and rowdy, it had fallen into meager times and respectability. It had survived the one, if not the other, and as the worst years of the Depression waned, the town of some forty thousand souls looked forward to new prosperity. Its banks were sturdy, its civic clubs active, and its churches filled on Sundays. Nine tenths of the population listened to the indisputable word of the Lord and asked His blessing on their endeavors.
He had not failed them. While Spaniards destroyed one another, while Britain rearmed and negotiated, Roosevelt, in Fireside Chats, condemned war, and in that hilly corner of Missouri the business of recovery went on, peacefully, if slowly. By the spring of 1941 there was talk of a new chemical plant. Members of the country club had refurbished their clubhouse. In Chisdale Park, which adjoined the country-club grounds, the lake was dredged and the tennis courts resurfaced. The junior college, only three years old, had enrolled almost three hundred students.
Miss Liles taught there. Miss Allen Liles, Master of Arts, who had arrived fresh from the university, with her brand-new diploma,
, and letters of recommendation, her innocence of the outside world still more or less intact, and her virtue only a little less so (slightly flawed one summer night by an educational incident that took place between a fraternity house and a hedge). She was a lively, friendly sortâsmall, eager, and grateful as all get-out that they had given her a job.
She had not won it without first having to endure the inquest of office, an interview with Mrs. DeWitt Medgar, the female member of the school board. Seated at a parlor table, the application, rÃ©sumÃ©, and letters of recommendation before her, the stern-looking lady had studied both letters and candidate with a skeptical eye.
“I see by this that you are twenty-five.” A severe glance across the table. “You look younger.”
There was nothing much to say to that.
The lady eyed her a moment longer. “And you have two years of teaching experience? In a high school?”
“Two years, yes.”
“Merely a scratch on the surface. Most of our people come to us with ten or fifteen. This is a college, you know, not a secondary school. You would find it quite different.”
Another glance at the application. “How were you allowed to teach two years without a degree in education?”
“I was given a special permit.”
“The state board of education. I had a bachelor's degreeâ”
“âin arts and science, major in English.” Mrs. Medgar read from the rÃ©sumÃ© and looked up, waiting.
“They had hired a new teacher for the high school, but she resigned at the last minute, and they needed another one in a hurry. I had been a substitute teacher there one winter when I couldn't go back to schoolâ”
“Why was that?”
“My mother couldn't afford to send me.”
Mrs. Medgar nodded.
“So the superintendent got me a permit and they hired me.”
“I see. Well, I hope you aren't expecting a special permit for this position.”
“Then how would you expect to teach here without a degree or some specialâ”
“I believe they consider my two years of actual experience the equivalent. That and my master's in English.”
“Which you have not yet received.”
“I will at the end of the summer, when I hand in my thesis.”
“I see.” Mrs. Medgar flipped through the letters and returned to the application. “You state here that in your last positionâ” She was interrupted by a sound from somewhere within the house, a windy sigh or a moan, so faint that Allen heard it only in retrospect as the lady rose. “Excuse me,” she said and left the room hurriedly, closing the door behind her.
Allen leaned back, as she had not dared do in Mrs. Medgar's presence, and had a look around the room. It was smaller than it had appeared at first. A writing desk stood against the opposite wallâacross one corner, a black settee with a horsehair seat, its uncompromising back carved to resemble a lyre.
The parlor table stood in the middle of the room on a patterned carpet, above it a ceiling fixture with three bare bulbs. Lace curtains hung at the two windows; on the wall, one picture (still life with roses). Not a book, not a knickknack, not a cushion; except for the painted roses, not a hint of softness. It was not a room sat in often. But there was one thing, overlooked on first inspection, that didn't quite fit with the restâa framed photograph of a young woman, a man, and a child of perhaps three or fourâwhether a boy or a girl it was hard to tell by the clothes and the cut of the hair. All three were smiling. The photograph stood on the desk, but even from across the room she could make out the lace edging on the woman's dress, her piled, heavy hair, and the man's large, dark, intelligent eyes. The rest of the man's face was less appealing; a heavy mustache camouflaged what might be a weak mouth. She was still studying the photograph when Mrs. Medgar returned.