Authors: Sandra Scofield
More Than Allies
For Penny Kenyanjui
Woman is woman's natural ally
South of Lupine, the highway ascended rapidly, curving in broad swaths along the rim of the valley. It was early, and the mountains, in shadows, looked a cool blue. At the top, they were ribbed with pink morning light. We pulled off at the turnout. There were several other cars parked, people out for a better look. A couple held an elderly woman between them by her elbows, as if she might beat her arms and fly away. A woman in a long green sweater sat on a rock, smoking, while a man stood beside her, talking without looking at her
We watched the boys, like puppies, taking the air. They pummeled one another, then climbed a flat boulder and waved to us. They made faces and posed, though nobody had a camera
It's going to be a long drive, I told her. I wish we had some of those books on tape. Not that I have a player. I don't even have a radio
She said: We can talk
I did have things I wanted to talk about. I had things to figure out. There would be time. Sure, I said
You can tell me about your friends
But you already know them!
I don't think we know the same things, she said. They never talked to me
I guess they wouldn't, I said, then I glanced over to see if I'd offended her. She didn't seem to notice. I wanted to tell her, my friends didn't listen
We can talk about our children, she said. It did seem odd, that the boys knew each other so much better than we women did
We should have done that sooner
And our husbands, she said
I was surprised; she seemed so private. I thought I would like to know what she thought about love, and if I, in turn, spoke my own feelings
we had no history, she and I
I might hear what I really thought
Really, it's ourselves, I said. We should talk about ourselves
I might not be good at that
I told her: We have lots of time
Be patient, she said. This is new for me. I never belonged to a group, like you. I'm not used to talking
By then we were over the pass into California. On that side, the hills looked like camel-brown suede. I told her: Go ahead. You start
I wanted her to tell me how to be strong like her. She had been alone a long time. I wanted to say, tell me how to be still, how not to cry. I always thought other people knew things I did not. I always wondered how they had learned earlier, and more easily
She said she dreamed, and she wrote her dreams in a notebook. She said: I dreamed about you. Last night. I saw you in a house, on the second floor. I saw you from across a large yard. You were standing at a window. I don't know what you were doing, but I thought you were smiling
What a nice dream. I hardly ever dream
Everybody dreams. You have to tell yourself to remember. You have to tell yourself it's better to know
Mmm, I murmured. I had found that when people didn't speak, it was usually because they knew they could hurt you. Dreams might be like that, or the mind's openness to dreams. I knew I would never invite dreams, or write them down. And even if it is true that everybody has dreams, I might never know what mine were. I thought for me that was best
She was worrying about her report on angels. She had been working on it over a month. She had a lot of notes. What would they be good for now? She might have made an A; her English grade was important to her. At first her teacher had tried to talk her out of the subject; she had a policy not to allow religious topics. I'm not religious, she argued. I don't even know if I believe in God. But angelsâI think I saw one once.
The teacher said, let's separate that from the report. You can write about the angel you saw in your journal, for a free-writing assignment, if you want. For the report, though, think about angels across time, across culturesâan angel survey. See what people have thought about them. See what you can learn about early representations of angels. Did the ancient Greeks have angels? Did the Egyptians? What do Hindus believe? Moslems? Jews?
Of course you can write about angels! the teacher said. They've fascinated people throughout all ages. It was almost as if she were trying to talk her into the topic, when she'd started out trying to talk her out of it.
“I bet we'll come up out of this fog in a minute,” the social worker, Mrs. Lyons, was saying. The sky had been gray and damp and cold for a couple of days now. You couldn't see the hills. “I could use a little sunshine,” she added, as if she had problems made worse by the lack of light.
All the things Maggie had read about angels mentioned light, and sometimes fire. She'd thought of angels as sweet and beautiful, until she began reading about them. They could be majestic, even fierce. Some people believed in demonsâfallen angels, as terrible as they had once been wonderful.
Mrs. Lyons took the first Lupine exit. They drove past some houses, and then, as she predicted, the sky cleared. They stopped at a light by a school. Little kids in fat jackets scurried across the street under the eye of the crosswalk guard. For the next few blocks, they passed big old houses on lots high above the sidewalks, and then they were in town, driving by shops. “You'll see the most wonderful gardens here in spring,” Mrs. Lyons said. “Not just beds, but sometimes whole lots, filled with color. I drive over just to see them.
“The Jarretts live at the other end,” she continued, “but I thought you'd like going through town and seeing what it looks like. You've never been over here, isn't that right?”
Maggie's cheeks burned. She felt stupid. She'd grown up at the other end of the valley, twenty-five miles away, and for the past year she'd been living closer in than that, but she'd never been anywhere. If you were a debater or an athlete, you had a reason to go to Lupineâthere was a college thereâor if you went on one of the school Shakespeare Theatre visitsâbut she had never been in extracurricular activities, and she had never signed up to go to a play.
“You're very lucky with this placement,” Mrs. Lyons went on. “The Jarretts haven't taken a child in years. They're wonderful people. He's the fire chief.”
“Oh,” she said, because she didn't want Mrs. Lyons to think she was pouting, but what difference did it make to her what Mr. Jarrett did for a living? How lucky was she supposed to feel? All she cared was that they did not, like the last family, have horses. There had been terrible quarrels because she did not want to clean out stalls or feed the animals. She was willing to wash dishes, do laundry, sweep and mop. She didn't complain about watching the younger children, though they were dull and bratty. But she didn't think it was up to her to take care of animals. They weren't hers. Finally, she had simply refused to come out of her room. The woman had argued and argued, and then had shaken her. When Mrs. Lyons came, the woman said Maggie provoked her. It wasn't like she struck her. She wasn't a baby, with an unformed brain.
“The daughter is a sophomore, too,” Mrs. Lyons said. “I'm sure you'll be friends.”
Maggie nodded. It took great effort, as if her head were held down by lead weights. She didn't understand why she was being moved to another town. She had talked to a girl in her geometry class who was going to ask her parents if she could stay with them. She'd just needed a little more time. It didn't seem fair that she should change schools now, when she was ready to write her report. She hadn't had any warning, hadn't had time to ask the teacher if she would be credited in her transfer grade with the effort she had made. Maybe the Lupine class would be doing reports, now or later, and she could write up what she'd learned about angels then. Assuming she had a new teacher who could be enthusiastic because she was, who would be willing to allow angels as a topic even if religion had no place in school.
The Jarretts lived on a quiet street with no sidewalks, almost out of town. Their house was the deep shiny red of nail polish, with white trim. It looked out across the tops of houses at hills dusted with snow. Mrs. Jarrett met them in the drive, reaching out for Maggie's things. All she had was a suitcase and a backpack. “Come in, come in!” Mrs. Jarrett said, the way you would think she would greet relatives.
She took her down a short hallway. “This will be your room,” she said. “The bath is right across the hall, you share that with Gretchen. We're in the corner over there.” She patted a cupboard door in the hall. “Towels, help yourself. There's a laundry basket in the bathroom.” Maggie was clutching her backpack against her chest. “Oh goodness,” Mrs. Jarrett said, “I'm telling you a lot more than you need to know. Why don't you set your things down, and then come into the kitchen? I'll get us something to drink.”
Maggie heard their voices, low, concerned, friendly, while she looked around the room. Everything that would have made the room
was gone. She could see where there had been posters on the wall. There were shelves, now empty. The spread on the bed, a pretty pink print, was obviously new. She sat down on the edge and pressed hard into the center of the bed. It seemed okay. It didn't have any big depressions from whoever had been sleeping in it. Butt-rutts, she called them. They made her feel intrusive; they were too intimate.
Suddenly she was so sleepy she wanted nothing so much as to lie face forward on the new pink spread and sleep until morning, when she would go to school, but she looked up and saw Mrs. Lyons in the doorway, smiling at her in a way that said, let's get off on the right foot here.
She followed her back to the kitchen, and sat at the table across from Mrs. Jarrett, who offered her cookies from a plate, and a cup of tea. Maggie declined a cookie; they weren't homemade, so she didn't think it would hurt Mrs. Jarrett's feelings. She stared into her cup. The tea had almost no color, and a funny odor. She took a sip, and gasped. Both women stared.
“It's hot,” she said. The smell made her think of the hay they fed horses.
Mrs. Jarrett's hand went to her mouth. “Oh, I've given you herb tea and you don't like it.”
“It's all right,” she said meekly.
“Of course it's not,” Mrs. Jarrett said, clearing the cup away quickly. “I'm sorry.”
Tears sprang to Maggie's eyes. There was no way she was going to be able to answer questions. She couldn't be interesting and grateful and polite all at once, if ever, and certainly not right now, when she was too sleepy to speak at all.
Mrs. Jarrett handed her a bottle of Coke and a napkin. “You can take this down to your room, if you like, dear,” she said. “I bet you're not the least bit interested in sitting here with us right this minute.” She patted Maggie's hand. “We're going to have a long time to get to know one another. I bet you'd rather be by yourself a little while.”
Both grateful and embarrassed, Maggie fled without telling Mrs. Lyons goodbye. She drank some of the Coke and set it on the table by the bed, then opened her suitcase. Her belongings had been hastily packed; her blouses were wrinkled. Some of the clothes were dirty. She picked up a skirt she liked, a simple flared corduroy she had made in Home Ec in the fall. She rubbed the nap, the way she had rubbed a stuffed pig she'd had as a child. She had no idea what had happened to that pig. She wished she still had it.
She thought Mrs. Jarrett was nice. She thought things would be okay in this red house. She would get used to another school.
There were two pillows on the bed. She smacked them. One was hard, one soft. She kicked off her shoes and crawled onto the spread, covering her arms with her jacket. She lay on the hard pillow, and covered her head with the soft one.