We'd been working, which in our case entailed inspecting trees for fungal and rot issues as well as parasites and other problems. We didn't do the heavy pruning—that was left to the engineers who operated in pairs with machinery. Whatever Jeff and Van came to believe about a land run by women, nobody cultivates a country with delicate shears and nice thoughts. Any tool is technology.
I think only Terry suspected the truth—that Herland was far more industrial, with all the attendant by-products of industry, than the leaders admitted. We had automobiles after all, and they don't run on water.
The three of us foresters paced the men for a mile, then darted ahead to the largest of the trees in that area. From our perch, we would be able to watch the intruders pass and learn which path they might take towards the inhabited towns.
Eventually they roved into view. Van was speaking—we didn't, of course, know their names then—and my eyes went to him first: tallish, brown-haired, thin-faced with eager darting hands that matched his voice. He turned to stocky and compact Jeff, who was gently smiling, as he always does. Jeff responded in a low baritone.
And then big Terry broke in, his amused voice overriding the others'. They paused, responded, then laughed as Terry did.
None of us were so naive—or frankly so isolated (whatever Herland's mentors told the intruders)—that we didn't recognize that these were men. The mustaches, the deep voices, the broad shoulders. We knew women who were as tall, as broadly built, even women with the same firm chins.
A kind of dazzled relief flooded me and then alarm. I was seeing my future in the narrow-hipped figures below me. At fifteen (though Juste passed me off as seventeen), I was already the tallest of my companions though not yet over six feet. My hair was long in comparison to theirs, dark and glossy, which I knew helped the subterfuge. My voice had dipped, luckily without break, into a tenor. I was still a few years from any kind of beard growth. And yet...
If I'd been born a woman, I may have felt odder, more out of sync. At least I understood the origin of my difference. And there it was below me, distilled into three beings chuckling over some witticism by the largest man.
Celis giggled in appreciative mimicry. Ellador followed, and I couldn't help a snort. The men looked up, eyes searching. They approached the tree. And then they were climbing as we moved upwards like pieces of a toy theater—the type where the paper dolls move through an atrium along a pulled string. Except in this case, the dolls had to stop; it was inevitable that their weight would bow and break the higher limbs.
“They're so clumsy,” Celis said.
“They know how to climb,” Ellador pointed out.
I didn't mention my thought: however clumsily, they climbed with little extra effort. They were not so quick as us, as we discovered later, nor as fast nor even as fit. And yet, they exhibited easy physical strength in that first meeting. I wanted to match it, mirror it. I wanted to wrestle and punch and a dozen other things that are not considered entirely nice in Herland, even if never entirely condemned.
The men stopped climbing, hugging the trunk. Terry braced his feet on a slightly swaying branch and introduced them—Jeff Margrave, Vandyck Jennings, and Terry Nicholson (“Jeff,” “Van,” and “Terry”)—and the men removed their hats.
Ellador introduced us: Celis first, then me—“Alima”—then herself.
Terry pulled an ornament, a necklace, from an inner pocket and, held it out. It was a lure, that much was obvious. Didn't those of us from the north hunt with hawks and fish with bait? I couldn't help but slide closer, my eyes on his. I was fairly sure that I would see a flicker when he tried to pounce—he is rather like a hawk, is Terry. I reached out with my right hand, timidly, uncertainly. His eyes narrowed.
I capture the necklace with my left before he could react and swung to the branch below. I knew by then that I could descend faster than these older men, however powerful they were. Ellador and Celis followed, and I couldn't help it: I grinned upwards at Terry's knotted brow and open mouth.
His mouth quirked.
And then Ellador and Celis were racing past me, and I pushed myself to catch up and pass them. Not out of competition, not to win, since that was not acceptable.
I think I was showing off.
We cut across the meadows to the east, racing towards the nearest town, Solis. We crossed the south bridge in a rush of laughter and high spirits. The youngsters called to us, wiggling away from their studies. The teachers let them go. They were similarly interested—everyone had heard the flier, and many of us had seen it passing over the country—and not a few called out questions. We waved in response but continued to trot towards the town center.
Tyra, a mentor, was discussing scrubbing out the town's fountains with a group of less than enthusiastic helpers. Some jobs are never fun, no matter how advanced a society.
She stood when she saw us, her eyes flicking towards the necklace in my hand.
“We met the intruders,” Celis pronounced, and whispers started behind us. Tyra held up a hand, not in rebuke but to keep the conversation on track.
“They're headed here,” Ellador said. “Perhaps twenty minutes away.”
Tyra glanced again at the necklace. She said, very gently, “Do you intend to wear that, Alima?”
“No,” I said, surprised.
“It is a mere bauble,” she said, as if agreeing with me except that I had said no such thing.
“Well-made,” I said, feeling argument bubble up in me, a desire to dispute not so much the words I heard but the underlying assumption behind them.
“I suppose it is,” Tyra said. “Do you intend to keep it?”
“Yes,” I said.
And there it was: the faint sense that I had answered wrong, not given the type of answer she expected or wanted, not answered as a girl would.
Had I given myself away? Had I sounded too male, too . . . something that wasn't female? Or was I overreacting? After all, Tyra challenged her charges all the time. And left them to make their own decisions, as she was leaving me to make mine. Only, it felt much less like a decision and more like a teaching-moment. As if it were only a matter of time before I learned better, learned right.
I turned my back while Tyra instructed everyone but the older women to take the children to the town of Baile to the north-west. I heard Ellador ask to stay, to meet the men, to find out more about where they came from, why they were visiting our land. Tyra told her, “No,” and I felt a little less strange for wanting to keep the necklace.
Except Tyra went on to praise Ellador's desire to learn, to expand her knowledge. Resentment rose in me that intellectual curiosity was prized when my winning, my achievement, was not. I was the one with the “bauble.”
When I was younger and got frustrated, I would yell. Girls yell too; I know that. But the mentors always seemed so much more worried when I did it, so much more controlled in their responses. Perhaps because when I yelled, I also tried to hit and smash things.
I couldn't invite that kind of attention. Juste had warned me to keep a low profile, and I knew she was right.
Get discovered, get secluded, get sent away.
Just as they would send away these men before Ellador had a chance to quiz them. Before I had a chance to befriend them.
If the men would befriend me. It wasn't like I had anything to offer the outside world.
Better not to chance it.
Before I left Solis, herding ten youngsters before me, I dropped the necklace on the Temple altar. I could feel Tyra's pleased smile from across the square. I tried not to scowl.
Next Chapter 3: Terry