Alim in Herland, Chapter 6

I wasn't searching for Terry when I found him by the tower.

Except I was.

* * *

After the men were recaptured and returned to the citadel, I went home to Har.

I didn’t say, “I’m going home.” Being a citizen of Herland means one should feel at home everywhere: one goes where one is needed, where one can thrive in one's chosen profession.

Har's leader, Juste, calls this “rhetorical flummery.” She is less impressed by the plainswomen than the plainswomen are with themselves. Since Juste's perch in Har oversees the northern passage, she is left to “find her own path.” The plainswomen claim that this allows Juste to fulfill her true calling. Juste claims it lets her stay in the village, the home, she loves.

In any case, no one ever stops me when I claim that Juste needs my assistance and I must return to the mountains. I go when I need something more physically demanding even than my forestry job. Or when I find myself staring too much at the girls around me.

Juste sent me off to check our sheep as I knew she would. I scouted the low hills during the day, assuring myself that predators were at a minimum. At night, I slid down steep paths into the shadows of the tower, swam in the stream, and considered how to contact the men. I did not know what I planned—a breach perhaps? a message thrown through an open window? I griped at my lack of ingenuity.

On the third night, I stripped and swam in the swimming hole. I pulled on my loose trousers but held my shirt and luxuriated in the shiver of wet skin drying in the chill night air. I moved downstream from the swimming hole to where the stream was fordable and waded in. I could feel muscles stretching, feel my strength that I knew I was beginning to restrain around the plainswomen, even those who were bigger and tougher than me. I glanced up at the tower, thinking, Tonight, I'll figure out a way to scale it.

I heard and saw Terry almost simultaneously. My mind was still struggling with his existence—there! there outside the tower!—when he exclaimed:

“I knew it! I knew there were men in Herland!”

There started our friendship. I tried from the beginning to be as objective as Ellado about Terry, who was cocky and inquisitive and shameless. He talked and commented on everything. When he boasted later how diplomatic he’d been with me, I hooted. One of his first comments to me in Herland’s language was, So you hide in this nursery? As if I was a baby, not a boy near adulthood.

Terry seemed to regard Herland as a kind of mistake, and I found myself arguing with him more than once about his assumptions, defending a country I wanted to leave. I didn’t like his smug dismissal of Herland’s safety, its achievements, its ability to survive without men. He seemed to believe, at least in our first few meetings, that more Herland men were hiding somewhere in the thicket; I was their envoy, a man-to-man diplomat. After all, according to Terry, a society couldn’t function without the male sex.

“Herland has education and buildings and inventions,” I told him in exasperation. “Why shouldn’t women do all that?”

“Ah, but in a civilized society, women hold a specific role,” he said, stressing the word “civilized” in a way that made my hackles rise.

“A civilized society manned by idiots,” I countered, and Terry laughed and said, “Oh, well, there’s plenty of them to go around.”

In the end, I didn’t care how irritating I found Terry or his arguments. He was so easy to talk to. And he understood things I can never bring up with Juste.

“Must be difficult,” he said one night. “Being surrounded by pretty girls every day.”

He nudged me with his foot and winked. I shrugged, embarrassed and relieved all at once. I did notice the girls—from shining eyes to curving breasts to curling toes. I'd have to live in a cocoon not to.

Before I left for the plains at age nine, both my mother and Juste warned me about “taking advantage”. I hadn't understood when I was younger, and Celis and Ellador could both easily hold me down if they wanted. I understood now; I could beat Celis at arm-wrestling already. I could outstrip them both at races. It was only a matter of time before I could stay underwater longer than Ellador.

I didn't have Celis's eye or Ellador's memory. But I was getting stronger against girls who could hardly be described as weak.

So I'd been warned. My mother had doubly warned me that plainswomen were not like the mountain women: they were scared of men and of sex. Platonic, she called them, which made Juste, who had a female companion, laugh.

Maybe Terry knew what I was up against: he didn't continue teasing me about girls. He would do that—drop an argument with a shrug and move on to something else.

He said, “You do want to leave?”

“I want to fly in your machine,” I said, and he laughed for nearly a minute, a series of rumbles that elicited a snigger from me.

It isn't that women in Herland never laugh—Celis and I will laugh until we cry when the over-bred cats do dumb things like fall out of trees. But without a productive end, laughter is deemed unnecessary. I'd forgotten how good it felt to not care about being useful.

When I was younger—old enough not to reveal my sex but still too young to know how much I had to hide—I decided to drop eggs from a rooftop. After the third egg, my mentor rushed up the side stairs, several girls at her heels.

It wasn't Tyra. Back then, it was Pollite. She watched me lean over to set an egg rolling towards the edge until it tipped and turned and splatted on the road below. The youngsters giggled.

Pollite sat beside me. She watched another egg tip and turn and splat.

“What are you doing, Alima?” she said finally. “Is this an experiment?”

“No.”

“You're learning a great deal about eggs and air and the way things move.”

Juste would have told me I was wasting eggs. My mother would have told me to clean it all up. And she would have swatted me. She was the kind of mother Herland had decided shouldn't be a mother, which was probably why she had me anyway.

“No,” I said, which was the truth.

I was aiming for the tip and the tilt and the oh-so-satisfying SPLAT at the end. I'd begun to wonder if something bigger might make a more satisfying splat. Two eggs together maybe. Or possibly—

“But you are discovering something,” Pollite prodded. “Learning is about making discoveries, uncovering your potential, your interests—”

I supposed I was learning that I liked to drop things. After all, I was considering what might happen if I filled a container with water and dropped it. I suspected that the sound would be more crash than splat and the water would push outward in the satisfying way it did when I hit the surface of a pool. I could hurl it, not merely drop it, and it would disintegrate faster, make a louder noise—

“How does your discovery help your sisters?” Pollite said. “How does it help our society improve?”

I stared at her then. In her concerned eyes and gentle smile, I saw no comprehension of my own pleasure.

The youngsters would have watched and giggled. Celis, for one, always enjoys watching me chuck things at other things although she's better at finding her mark. But those games are secret, private. Herland in public doesn't encourage entertainment for “mere” fun.

I told Terry this story a week after we met near the stream. I sat beside him against the tower wall and threw pebble after pebble in the water, and he didn't stop me.

“I know,” he said, his voice mock-grim. “I was forced to sit through one of your country's dramatic evenings last night. It was deadly dull.”

Soviet Propaganda
I snorted. I could imagine the kind of appropriate drama the leaders and mentors would have chosen to show our guests. Herland's approved narratives revolve on people improving themselves until they happily come to terms with a profession that coincidentally also services society.

“People tell different stories to their friends and neighbors,” I assured him. I'd heard plenty of old tales growing up in Har and later from girls on the plains: tales of blood and romance and immolation from before Herland was isolated from the world.

“So our evening of drama was pure propaganda, huh?” Terry said.

“Nobody's coerced,” I told him. He'd had to explain 'propaganda' to me; it wasn't a Herland term, not an activity that Herland admitted to doing. “People choose their work.”

“But not their pleasure. When did you stop throwing things off rooftops, Alim?”

He had decided to call me Alim—I gathered that he considered the name more masculine. I liked it. I liked to think that my true identity had been hidden in my name all along.

I said, “About the same time I got in trouble for trying to light things on fire with a piece of glass.”

He snorted. “Boy's antics.”

I stretched at that, practically purred like the silliest cat in Solis. Boy. Boy's antics. Me.

“Were you punished?”

“It turned into a lesson—no, not a lesson—an opportunity to help me find my potential. Since I was so engrossed by fire, Tyra suggested I tend the braziers in the temple. I—”

Panicked, but I didn't want to tell that to Terry; I was already aware that there were as many expectations for male behavior in the outside world as there were expectations for female behavior in Herland.

At least the expectations regarding male behavior made sense to me.

I shrugged. “Like I couldn't breath,” I said. “I had to—”

“Get out,” Terry said sympathetically. “I know the feeling.”

I relaxed, grinning.

I said, “I realized all the things I did for fun would be turned into something else, some job for me to do. When I just wanted to burn things.”

“Lots of rules hemming you in.”

I frowned at his tone—at the implication that we Herlanders were little better than babies doing what we were told.

“The mentors encourage us try new things,” I said.

“Sure. But the outcome is always the same, isn’t it? Progress. Improvement. Advancement. There are conventions to maintain.”

“That isn’t true in your society?”

“Sure. But my society doesn’t pretend not to be conventional.”

“The best mentors let us search, wander, find things out. That’s how I met Celis and Ellador and got involved in forestry. Did your educators do that with you?”

“No,” Terry grudgingly admitted. “I’ll admit, your education was more enjoyable than mine.”

I didn't respond that his description of boarding schools, despite the sports, made my skin crawl. My sex would have been discovered in no time at all in a girls' boarding school. And a boys' boarding school sounded like the old stories of punishing underworlds (Herland's official religion doesn't include anything as scary and exciting as “hell”).

Instead, I swaggered and stuck at my tongue. Terry chuckled and rubbed my head. I swatted his arm—I'd learned I could do that—and he wrestled me into submission with little trouble. At the time, he was a head taller than me and much bulkier.

He said, “You could help me leave. Me and Van and Jeff.”

I knew from our first meeting that he hoped I’d help him escape. It hurt to think he valued my friendship less than my potential use. But I understood. Didn’t I use Har and Juste to escape the plains when life there became too confining?

“No,” I said, keeping my face turned away, eyes ahead. I waited for his anger, his rejection.

Silence. Then he touched my shoulder, clasped it.

“I admire your loyalty,” he said. “You’re a good citizen of your country, Alim.”

I sighed gratefully as I sank back against the wall. He would leave eventually. Maybe when he did, he’d still take me with him.

Next Chapter 7: Terry