But I felt like I was watching an animal pace and pace in a cage, like the German poem about the panther that treads back and forth behind its bars. Alim was a bundle of energy that nearly exploded even when he was sitting. After our third meeting at the base of the tower, we began to play win-or-lose games, which the boy thrived on.
“Herlanders don't encourage competition,” I pointed out after he insisted, for the fifth time, on challenging me to a race across the swimming hole.
He shrugged and pushed his hair back. Like most boys, he was likely entirely indifferent to the social and political ramifications of his fun. I agreed. But I couldn’t help pressing my point.
I said, “Children create contests all the time. How do your leaders handle that?”
By leaders, I meant the mentors. They had opinions about everything, those women, and asked about everything from Van and my occasional expletives (Jeff never swore) to our mode of dress (I'd taken to altering Herland clothing to meet my personal needs; I prefer a button-down shirt and loose trousers to multi-pocketed tunics) to our philosophical beliefs.
It was all very impressive, as Van pointed out, but sometimes a man wants a rest.
“No,” Alim said slowly. “It's more—the way things are. It isn't logical to compete. It's more logical to cooperate.”
“You tried harder tonight, didn't you?” I said. “Pushing yourself to beat me? You strove to make something of yourself.”
He grinned, toweled off his hair with his shirt, then threw it at me. I tossed it over his face, and he laughed, more freely than he had the first night.
I said, “Jeff and Van compare the women to bees and ants. I'm not sure imaginative humans appreciate being compared to dullard insects.”
His mouth quirked. “No,” he said. “They aren't, ah, machines.”
No. People weren't.
“Queen bees swarm and kill to protect their hives. I'm sure your women would do that if necessary.”
“To protect the babies,” he said quickly, which answer sounded rehearsed to me.
|Lewis & Clark Mural|
“Such as a building,” he said slowly, “or a particular mural or forest patch—something the person worked on, created.”
He nodded, then moved across the flat bank to set up sticks for Pyramids. I sighed. A sixteen-year-old shouldn’t make a twenty-six-year-old feel old.
I said, “Van and Jeff and I are leaving the tower.”
“You’re leaving Herland?”
He stared over his shoulder at me, half-excited, half-uneasy. Perhaps one reason Alim wouldn’t help me escape was that he wasn’t ready to go himself.
I said, “The mentors are moving us to a town, so we can supposedly see more of Herland.”
My tone was caustic. Alim said uneasily, “Isn’t that good?”
“Do you really think the mentors and scouts will let me talk to you out there the way I do here?”
He shook his head and turned away, his hair falling forward over his face.
I wanted to say more but held my tongue. It wasn’t Alim’s fault that we men were kept from any real exploration and knowledge of Herland. I would accomplish nothing unloading on him my frustration at the mentors’ prevarications.
Van claims our mentors were entirely open and fair. They wanted us to know as much about them as they did about us. He never noticed the questions that went unanswered, the assumptions they expected us to accept without skepticism or concern.
Such as, No one leaves or wishes to leave. All mothers give up their children to the social good.
Such as, We have no aristocracy.
What does one call a group of people who teach and discuss “national matters” in a well-tended hotel with good food and constant service while others out in the “nation” are shoveling tar, scrubbing fountains, cleaning up garbage and refuse, maintaining vehicles, cutting down trees, hunting for plant-threatening insects (Alim's job) and larger predators, building walls, weeding gardens.
Merely because people aren't being “paid,” doesn't mean they aren't earning more privileges, more ease than others.
Perhaps, as Alim argued, the women in Herland enjoyed their separate-but-equal work. Alim would rather walk woods and check on sheep (so much for the mentors’ claim that no hoofed animals cluttered up Herland's landscape). He would rather endure rainy weather than tend braziers in religious buildings. I applauded his choice, and I accepted—with some mental effort—that his female companions were the same. Outdoorsy girls.
Still, the outdoorsy girls weren't the ones who “schooled” us men those first six months. We never talked to cooks or road workers or the people who wiped down the toilets. Our mentors were all, let's face it, intellectuals.
Don't tell me Herland doesn't have a class system.
I agreed to play Pyramids on the riverbank and won once, but Alim won the other times and crowed like an ordinary boy who deserves praise for his success. So I wrestled him until he cried pax, then praised him to the skies. Because he deserved it. Because he deserved to win.
“I’ll return to the plains soon,” he told me when we parted that evening. “I’ll see you there.”
“I’ll expect you,” I said.
I didn’t plan to leave Herland without him. If the women deserved space to excel as women, didn’t Alim deserve space to excel as a boy, a man?
Van would say that Herland did that already—it praised the achievements of all people, whether due to physical ability or intellectual prowess.
But I had witnessed nothing quite as male and wild as Alim’s craving to compete, his king-of-the-mountain strutting. Was such innocent pride truly so harmful?
During our indoctrination the next day, I asked the mentors, “What about stimulus to industry?”
They knit their brows as if I were a monkey making a particular fascinating point. The words weren't difficult to understand, and I gritted my teeth.
“No man would work unless he had to,” I explained.
“No man would. Is that one of your sex distinctions?”
“No person. Competition is the motor power of society.”
They shook their heads. How could that be true? After all, didn't mothers work for their children without “stimulus for competition”?
That last was a sticky point, and Van threw me a worried look. He was afraid that “our” world wasn't showing well in comparison to Herland. I thought he was worrying over nothing; Herland could be a paradise of infinite proportions—that didn't mean I wanted to stay there.
But I knew he was anxious that I would mention the mothers who left their babies at churches because they couldn't afford to feed them; the ones who drank; the ones who beat their children. He was afraid I would describe the mothers who competed through their children—My child is better dressed and better educated than yours—or the mothers who saw their children as necessary but ultimately boring appendages; as quickly as possible, they shuffled their offspring into the care of schools and nursemaids and governesses and tutors.
Which didn't sound too different from Herland, to be honest, except schools and nursemaids and governesses and tutors in the outside world rarely reached Herland's level of care and open-handed education. Frankly, I thought the women of Herland could—and would—go toe-to-toe in a my-child-is-better-than-you rivalry, but I wavered and changed tactics.
“I'm speaking of men's work,” I said, which got me into more hot water since in Herland, the women obviously did nearly all the same work as men in the outside world, which Zava and Somaline, Van and Jeff were eager to point out.
And my question about competition was lost.
I thought Moadine looked at me sympathetically as I stomped off to the gym. I'd convinced the workers—the ones who picked up towels and swept and cleaned the equipment (was I truly the only person who saw them?)—to put up a punching bag in one corner.
Once they realized what I used it for, the mentors applauded me for strengthening my muscles and directing my energy. When I tried to explain the final purpose, a boxing match, a few looked interested, but the consensus seemed to be that boxing was too much aggressive competition. After all, in boxing, someone will lose.
How could I explain that losing wasn't a terrible thing to learn? Boys who are coddled by their parents become spoiled and entitled, unable to make strides of their own, unable to find their niche. The wide world knocks the assumption of winning out of you; you learn that not everything is fair, life doesn't always go your way. Better to learn it earlier in life than later.
But then they would say, Do girls become spoiled and entitled?
I would then have to explain nasty girls at debutante balls, the one who tore each other down. Vicious society mamas who spread unkind rumors about another family. Would they blame our society for that distasteful female behavior? Blame men? Patriarchy? I'd seen women attack each other over issues that concerned men not one whit. Would they decide men were at fault for not giving them other things to do? For stealing all the good jobs? Or would they consider those women poor representatives of the race? If they did, would they dismiss the accomplishments of all society women, including the ones who worked hard to marry their daughters well?
What an untenable situation.
Next Chapter 8: Terry