During our non-escape, I discovered a way out of the tower. Not to escape (there was too much country to transverse and too many willing watchers) but to at least get a break from our prison. Without the linen rope, I could still manage an upward climb. I then crossed the roof to a winding downward staircase, not broad enough for a quick descent but enough to cling to one bare foot at a time, my front pressed against the tower face. This route brought me to the edge of a stream that started, I'm sorry to say, in hills too steep to climb without equipment and ended several miles downstream at a plunging waterfall. No escape there. (I later learned I was wrong. Narrow, hard-to-find paths lay all over the hills. But it took an expert like Alim to find them.)
Still, the small gully where I emerged allowed me to paddle about, stroll in the greenery, hop across rocks. I could move without submitting to surveillance, rest without excuse. I could pretend for a few hours that I wasn't a prisoner.
I went alone. Jeff and Van were convinced that another attempt to escape would mean . . . who knows? Our imprisonment hadn't changed substantially after our first attempt except for an increase in guards. Personally, I think Jeff and Van were afraid that another attempt to flee would appear uncouth, like disappearing from a house party before the final dance. I waited until they slept, then took my route to temporary freedom.
Nearly four months into our incarceration, I descended to my little gully. I took a swim, shucking my shirt but keeping on the loose long pants we exercised and slept in. Afterwards, I sat with my back against the tower wall and looked up through tree limbs at the stars.
I discerned the figure before I put a label to it. It coalesced as human out of long shadows created by the full moon. I sighed, reached for my tunic, and readied myself for the non-nagging, non-lecturing, good-humored patience of one of my captors. I found their lack of alarm or anger almost more infuriating than a good hard slap. It's irritating to be treated with such little seriousness.
The figure gained a “look” as it waded across the stream, became more than simply human. I grew aware of loose tangled hair, longer than many of the women's. A slender neck, slim shoulders. Young, was my first assessment, and I grinned since our guards and mentors were not young and were obviously as little prepared for us to meet the younger women as the most eagle-eyed of society mamas.
The figure wasn't coming to fetch me, I decided—its movements were too lazy and unconcerned. I decided not to call out. I didn't want to lose my hideaway, my escape from constant monitoring. Besides, why spoil another's pleasure? For the figure was happy, whistling even as it entered the deepest part of the stream. The water was nearly waist-high and my eyes moved upwards to a smooth chest.
At first I thought, “Child,” but the stride and height and shoulders said older. I let out a noisy breath as he reached my bank, and his eyes found me in the shadows of the cliff.
I said the first thing that came to mind: “I knew it! I knew there were men here!”
The young man dropped to his knees, pulling his shirt halfway up his arms, and I cursed myself. I am admittedly too quick to speak with no stop between my mind and my mouth.
There’s a reason Cousin Harold is the better businessman.
I expected him to bolt. He didn’t. He sat back on his heels, his shirt tangled in his lap and took a steadying breath.
I recognized him then—the dark hair, the slender build, the stubborn chin. I knew it was Alima before he spoke in the recognizable husky tenor.
“There aren’t more men,” he said steadily. “I’m the only man in Herland.”
That you know of, I thought. I didn’t say it. I have some negotiation skills.
“You’re Alima,” I said instead. “One of the, ah, tree girls—boy.”
“Alima—Alim—what’s your proper name?”
My eyes had adjusted not only to the dark but to his space in the dark. It was a moonlit night, and I could see his expression, possibly better than he could see mine since I sat in the shadow of the tower. He was frowning, brows drawn.
“Alima,” he said slowly as if I were a fool.
I was. In my world, Williams and Georges and Franks were men while Marys and Alices and Ruths were all women. But my cousin Harriet has always been called “Harry” and we have Frances and Francis all both sides of the family tree. Not to mention Van and Jeff and I had plenty of exposure now to Herland names, which seemed to follow no logic in terms of language. (It was a good thing we didn’t have a philologist in the party.)
Alima’s name was his name, sounds that people made towards him to indicate his identity.
I admit, I’m old-fashioned. He was “Alim” to me already, and I wanted to call him that. But I remembered the quick grab for the necklace, the smirk at the plane, and I bit my tongue.
Until he said abruptly, “My mother called me Alim sometimes.”
He added a word I didn’t catch—we were speaking Herland’s language.
He switched to English. “A nick-name,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
|Madonna & Child|
He laughed, pure delight at his own cleverness. I laughed too and scooted forward out of the tower’s shadow.
I said, “You mention a mother. You’re not the result of parthenogenesis?”
“A male child born miraculously to a virgin mother?” I said caustically.
Again, that puzzled frown, and I cursed myself. There was little point in mocking Herland’s lies with a religious reference that Alima—Alim—didn’t understand. But it riled me how much the mentors had hookwinked Van and Jeff and me.
Except Alim said, “Most women in Herland have babies without, uh, men. My mother conceived me outside of our borders. She found a male lover beyond the Northern pass.”
Something about his stillness, his careful recitation of his mother’s biography told me to go slow, tread lightly. Not my forte, I know. But—
“Were you born out there?”
“No. She returned when I was still in her womb. She wanted me raised here. She thought I would be safer. She died when I was eleven.”
His postures, his movements were brittle. Restrained. So much for Herland’s insistence that a child didn’t bond with the woman who bore her—or him.
Van would say I was misinterpreting Herland’s philosophy. Herland believed that all women bonded with the country’s babies, who had many mothers.
But it was all philosophy, not reality, not Alim’s careful, clear voice that shook ever so slightly underneath when he said “my mother.”
Call me callous, but I thought he needed a joke rather than sympathy.
“And you hide in this nursery?”
“Shut up,” he snapped, and then gaped at me, aghast. I knew why. Herlanders don’t swear or snap or call names. I am an uncivilized male. I laughed.
Alim grinned. His shoulders dropped and he began untangling his shirt.
“Sure. She wanted to keep me safe from disease, from—” he waved a hand towards the sky, the river, the outside world. “Bad attitudes,” he finished.
I didn’t like his sweeping judgment. I wanted to complain that bad attitudes about men and women were not confined to the outside world, not if Alim had to hide his maleness in this garden of female flowers.
Alim’s mother had likely been unwed, Alim illegitimate. Stupid to blame the child for the parent’s misstep, but in the outside world of 1912, she would be. That’s reality, the way the world operates.
By Herland’s strictures, however, Alim was legitimate. He hadn’t been denied care or employment. He was healthy. Growing. I put him at sixteen, possibly younger. Within a year, even a few months, his androgyny would drop away, leave him undeniably male in an entirely female environment.
He could help me leave. If he had to, why shouldn’t he assist me and Jeff and Van in our escape?
I suggested we meet again another night. I expressed no more than grave satisfaction when he agreed.
I thought, I’m going to get us out of here.
Next Chapter 6: Alim