“We weren't fighting,” he said immediately, but the tone was less statement and more query.
“No,” I assured him.
The evening before Jeff had remonstrated with me about delicate female sensibilities. Personally, I've never seen anyone as blithe and hard-headed as Celis, but I shrugged.
Van was less critical of my so-called argument with “Alima”. He and his Ellador were constantly arguing except they did it calmly and judiciously with few flare-ups. I didn't bother to explain that we hadn't been arguing, that I'd been talking to Alim the way I talk to Jeff and Van: loud, pugnacious, faintly insulting. The way I talk to men. I wasn't prepared to share Alim's secret with Van. Not yet.
I sat beside Alim on the edge of a fountain while mentors strolled a few feet away, the bitchy one—Tyra—within a stone's throw. I glared at her and she moved off. If she were a New York society mama, she would sniff.
I reminded myself that I had a male foreman who didn't act much different from Tyra. Officious. It didn't make me warm to her.
I said quietly, “Have you thought again about leaving, Alim?”
He glowered at nothing and stuck out his chin belligerently. Now he reminded me of a New York City messenger boy.
“What would I do?” he said.
That was a point. I was tempted to give him the Horatio Alger speech about pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. But I'd met too many undernourished New York City messenger boys. My family's company tips them well. But they don't have anything like Alim's health and freedom, his upbringing, his living conditions. Herland at least made me appreciate what Alim would give up if he left.
I said, “Do you think if they knew, they would treat you the same as they’ve treated Van, Jeff, and me?”
Imprison him. Study him.
Or would they eject him?
Another shrug. I sighed. I was the same as a boy, impossible to communicate with.
I said, “Your leader in Har—”
“I'm not her problem,” he said. “I help. I'm helpful. But she's not my mother.”
And his mother was dead.
“I know I have to leave,” he said softly. “I know that.”
“With us,” I said as softly. “You could leave with us.”
“Will they let you leave?”
“Van and Ellador want to get married or something—whatever you people here call it. She wants to see the outside world. Your leaders are considering it.”
“They might be happy to send me away,” he said uncertainly.
And they might not. Despite Alim's cagey answers to my questions, I knew how much information the women in Herland kept back from us men. They would send us away with little more knowledge than we came in with. Alim knew a great deal more, knew everything his quick mind and eyes had gathered in sixteen-years.
Of course, so did Ellador. But Ellador was a woman. They might decide that she would stay loyal to Herland due to her biology (considering the number of women who murdered and stole and cheated and spied, I found this unlikely, but Herland had no criminals that I heard of—except women who would make bad mothers). They might decide that Alim's biology would make him inherently less loyal, more likely to “side” with the patriarchal world outside their borders.
I thought they did Alim little justice. But could we trust them to know that?
I considered taking the problem to Moadine. She seemed the most objective of the mentors. She might decide Alim was a risk, but I trusted she would decide so on the merits, not on her idea of how “good” people behaved.
And then I asked Alim about the necklace.
I was in Solis's town center with my and Alim's “followers.” I liked them, the girls who approached me alongside Alim after lectures. I even found Kal, the young woman who mentioned cars during the first lecture, quite attractive. Under different circumstances—
But I sensed the mentors' unease when Kal and the others congregated around me and Alim. Our watchers braced like ruffled pigeons to swoop in and peck away at our group solidarity.
“I'm not going to hurt anyone,” I snapped at Moadine once on the way back to our sleeping quarters.
“No,” she said serenely. “But you might end up in a bad situation,” which was the first purely honest thing she'd said to me.
I wasn't sure if she meant I would receive harm at the hands of the girls or from the watching mothers. A pretty girl with a vicious tongue can leave a man feeling like scat on a shoe. I rather think, though, that Moadine was referring to my physical safety. Protective debutante mamas have nothing on the ladies of Herland.
I didn't want to get incapacitated for flirting inappropriately. I also didn't think it fair that a flirtatious girl should be eyed so suspiciously. I never liked the New York mamas who treated a slightly flirty girl like she was one step away from a loose woman.
The next time Van and Jeff and I went out to meet “the girls,” I loudly proclaimed, “You lucky dogs! Mine are more like 'boys' than girls. I can't get anywhere with them at all.”
Then I winked at Alim, who glared his consternation.
“Idiot,” Fiona said as I wandered up to her and the others.
|Marcus & Co jewelry piece|
That was the day I gave them some of the jewelry pieces I'd bought at Marcus & Co. before leaving New York. Nieve, the girl I thought Alim fancied (he paid her more attention than he did the others and grinned foolishly at her contributions, no matter how mundane and practical), turned over a brooch of enameled flowers.
“I could make something like this,” she said, and the young women began a murmured discussion of metal and glass work.
“What about the necklace you won off me?” I said to Alim.
He flushed and shrugged.
“Did someone take it from you? You won it fair and square.”
“I donated it.”
He shrugged again and looked away. His feet scuffed the ground.
“The temple, right?” Fiona said, her tone sympathetic.
All the young women were eyeing us now, drawn to Alim's unhappiness and my fierce tone.
I said, “Did you want to give it to the temple?”
Alim's hunched shoulders were becoming a permanent characteristic. I glanced at the girls, and they looked resigned.
I said, “None of you wear jewelry. Is that because you're not allowed?”
Lea said, “It's not that simple. Jewelry is not tasteful.”
“Because women in Herland aren't vain,” I said sardonically.
They laughed at that.
“Oh, they are,” Lea assured me. “There're many things people can do with even the simplest of tunics: frills on the edges, patterns on the sleeves. Any girl who wants can give her clothes an extra flair.”
I laughed. I had a niece in a private girls' school; I knew exactly what Lea was describing.
“You said yourself Herland outfits are attractive,” Alim said desperately.
The mentors’ reaction to our last so-called argument had scared him. He watched the watchers now as much as they watched us. He was sneaking glances at them now.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “But your daily dress is a uniform, is it not?”
“Of course,” Fiona said. “Isn't all dress a kind of uniform?”
I glowered. I considered that a specious argument. What about regional differences? What about varying contexts and occasions? A woman who wears a particular dress to cook and clean will wear a different dress for a party and a different one still for church.
Fiona raised her brows; I didn't scare her.
She said, “The mentors say that women in your country are slaves to trends: I must dress this particular way in order to belong.”
Speechless, I waved my hand at the young women's collectively shortish hair. Alim—with his thick, shoulder-length locks—frankly stood out. If I were looking for trends—!
Lea said, “Jewels make a girl conspicuous, not for her accomplishments—her mind, her service, her work—but because she wants to attract notice.” She glanced at Alim's lowered head. Maybe she mistook his flush of vexation for modest embarrassment, for she grinned and added, “Because she won something.”
“Alima outwitted me,” I said evenly. “She deserved to keep the necklace. Don't you ever find or make things you want for yourselves?”
“Yes,” said Nieve, and Alim threw her a grateful glance.
“We do,” Kal told me, eyes sliding from me to the mentors lurking about the square. “Everyone does. We create little collections of our successes in our rooms, above our beds.”
“But not in the public eye. I understand. Which temple, Alima?”
Surprised, Alim nodded automatically towards Solis's religious building on the east side of the square. I strode across the square. I went up shallow steps and across a stone patio. I entered a quiet interior with a glowing brazier at the floor's center. Past the brazier stood an altar heaped with various items from fruits to linens.
A woman, a priestess or whatever Herland wants to call her, rose from a corner where she was talking softly to a young woman, one I recognized from Van's group.
“May I help you?” said the priestess.
“Not yet,” I said.
I sorted through the various items, reaching out occasionally to prevent those closest to the edge of the altar from tumbling to the floor. I caught a glint and stacked a few baskets of grain to one side to uncover Alim's necklace.
I jerked at the chain and caught the necklace in the palm of my hand. I nodded to the priestess and walked out of the temple. I could see Alim and the others in the middle of the square, mouths wide open. Between them and the temple stood a line of older women.
The Colonels were back, and they were not happy.
Next Chapter 12: Alim