Less swiftly, we stayed on stable ground until it emptied us onto a smooth-paved road. We were all astonished. But not for the same reasons.
Van was pleased at this sign of “civilization.” But then Van is a sociologist; he never paid much attention to how Herland was built. As for Jeff, he was impressed by the aesthetics of the gently graded road, extolling the mind and heart that created such functional beauty.
I wondered about the material. It was manufactured, something like asphalt that would necessitate industrial waste and require flattening with a steamroller. Except—
We'd seen no signs of smoke or dirt in our initial pass over the country. Van and Jeff extolled the absence of such pollution as “progressive.” It worried me. Without a steamroller or other hefty machinery, only a few solutions to such a flat surface presented themselves.
Van argued later that the women must have discovered a better procedure. I never saw such a procedure in action (I learned much later that the manufacturing center of Herland exists on the far western edge of the country). I doubt the idea of hard work occurred to Jeff. He certainly didn't seem troubled by the idea that any group of people, especially women, spent arduous hours keeping the road he was praising smooth. In Jeff's mind, hard labor will never be synonymous with the female form.
So we walked along the road that Van and Jeff saw as functional and beautiful, and I saw as toil. Entering the rose-roofed town, we found it entirely empty of daily activities: no nursing mothers, no youngsters or students, no merchants, no cab or rickshaw drivers (whatever Herland used for transportation), no police. Nearing the town center, we encountered a phalanx of sturdy middle-aged woman between forty to fifty years of age.
|These women have guns: Israeli soldiers.|
Throughout his narrative, Van refers to our imprisonment in a citadel near Herland’s mountains in unrelentingly cheerful and congratulatory term. He found the woman's use of numbers (they surrounded and chloroformed us) as opposed to direct violence impressive, even laudatory. He fails to allow how entirely unsuccessful it would have been if we had used our pistols defensively.
He also fails to allow that we were imprisoned.
I don't hold this last point against the women; we were strangers without “papers” (if such a thing exists in Herland) and no clear intent. They had every right, however recklessly effected, to take us in charge.
Van, however, seems to think that because it was done without external weapons or bloodshed, because it was accomplished through sheer force, because it was done “nicely” that we were not in fact imprisoned the way a criminal is entombed on Rikers Island or men are bound by bandits for ransom.
To be held inside walls without consent is imprisonment, however beautiful the walls or pleasant the food.
I hated it.
I wanted to explore the country. I wanted to form my own opinions. I wanted to see things, to talk—however badly—to the “natives.” I did not want to be schooled or grilled. Still less did I want to be taught the official narrative.
We were sequestered, then tutored by three mentors—Somal, Zava, and Moadine. For Van, who gets his knowledge from books, these “lessons” were a kind of paradise. As if God opened the pearly gates and sent Van straight to heaven's library. Jeff was also at home since in Jeff's mind, life is one long weekend in a country house during which one makes endless small talk with the neighbors.
Every day, for several months, we ate meals, dressed in donated clothes, and discussed ideas with our mentors. We learned their language, which proved helpful later, while asking and answering questions. At least we were allowed to exercise each day on a broad, trimmed lawn bound by a high wall which overlooked a perpendicular cliff. Later we gained access to a gymnasium.
In sum, whatever Herland's claims to pacifism, we were locked up in a fortress. Van later pointed out that the high-walled citadel was a throw-back to Herland's early days, which was obviously true.
“So,” I countered, “why haven't they dismantled it for the stones and built something else?”
All leaders like to keep a defensible position. In case.
The only power we had during our confinement was non-cooperation. I suggested passive resistance to Van and Jeff: “If we don’t talk, they might negotiate.”
Jeff was appalled and Van uneasy. If we’d been captured by men, they would have schemed alongside me how best to outwit our opponents. Because these were all women, Jeff considered lack of conversation a kind of outrageous social faux pas. Dastardly. Ungentlemanly.
“They are like loving mothers,” he argued, “who treat us like the naughty boys we are.”
I rolled my eyes. My mother may have treated my existence with ongoing surprise (“I have a son?!”) but at least she never tried to keep me at home behind bars.
Van’s mindset was pure Van: the more we discussed with our mentors, the more we would learn. He had a point, so I agreed to accompany him and Jeff to the daily meetings though I made no effort to join in the scholarly exchange of cultural knowledge between “us” and “them.” Instead, I made loud and potentially ticklish comments that propelled Van and Jeff into convoluted denials and explanations.
“Women in our country don't work,” I claimed once. “They are loved and idolized.”
I then conceded that yes, there are female wage earners in America, which brought up the issue of poverty. I claimed, correctly, that the United States handled its poverty issues better than many other nations.
And what about your poor? was the next obvious question. Do women in Herland earn a wage? Or do they acquiesce to supplying their services without recompense?
Who is weeding these beautiful gardens? Who is cooking this delicious food? Who is regularly cleaning our clothes?
Perhaps because I'd worked—however reluctantly—in the family business, I was aware that an entire system of work was grinding on behind the scenes in Herland, a system that scholarly Van and Southern gentleman Jeff never seemed to glimpse or grasp.
“This is too philosophical for my tastes,” I exclaimed and tramped off to our prison's gymnasium.
Moadine, my mentor whom I called Maud, followed and did her own stretches. She reminded me of my laundress in New York, an unflappable woman twice her husband's size in height and girth. Moadine was less loud than my laundress but she watched me sometimes with what I'd call a smirk in a less controlled face. I wondered if my comments amused her, if she saw the point of what I was saying.
I didn't engage her in conversation. I was too busy planning our escape.
Next Chapter 4: Alim